December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Happy Christmas to everyone, christian or not. Remember that the celebrated birthday of Jesus "happened" to coincide with many other festivals. I am atheist, but still enjoy the holiday!

Iberian lynx composition by X O'Reilly, 2010. Original lynx photo © Lynx Ex-Situ.

December 24, 2012

I know no birds

Admittedly, I am very bad at birds. Their beauty and diversity fascinates me, though I am far more interested in their respiratory physiology and the fact their dinosaurian ancestors.

However, I now think we know most of these guys, thanks to the help of fellow zoologist Terry Garner, who pointed me in the right direction for most of them, and University of Glasgow MSc student Carly Aulicky for confirming their identity – cheers guys!

Image 1 - Nocturnal curassow, Nothocrax urumutum. © X O'Reilly

December 15, 2012

Homegrown Coffee

Many South American countries are famous for their coffee; Ecuador is not one of them. While neighbouring Colombia and nearby Brazil are renowned exporters of the bean (Image 1) and brew, it's not often you hear of Ecuadorian coffee. Nor does it seem to be all that important culturally.

Image 1 - Coffee bean. © X O'Reilly

I'm not picky about coffee – instant or filtered, I'll drink it as long as it's not Nescafé's instant atrocity. However, here in Ecuador, unless I am in "New Town" Quito, I often have trouble finding somewhere that will serve coffee. When places do offer it, it is more often then not instant, something most European establishments would not dream of serving (and Nescafé, for some unfortunate reason unbeknownst to me, seems to be a popular pick).

Coffee does actually account for a slice of the economy here, be it a sliver in comparison to the country's banana, shrimp, oil, and flower exports. Nonetheless, it's an important crop and both Arabica and Robusta grow well. So why no Ecuadorian speciality coffee? (Other than a recent push for Galápagos Islands speciality brew) And why is the beverage so absent from the culture?

It seems to be the processing that commonly goes wrong. Preparing the beans is a delicate process which can easily be squandered. In fact I'm starting to think maybe Nescafé uses the Ecuadorian crops!

Image 2 - Gabe peeling coffee beans. © X O'Reilly
I can now appreciate how delicate a process it is, since Gabe – our station ethnobotanist – pointed out the amount of coffee trees at the back of the research station and decided it should be harvested.

After much Google-aided research, we picked the ripe beans and placed them in the "solar oven" (a thick plastic sheet propped up by short poles) to dry under the tropical sun.

Image 3 - Beans and husks. © X O'Reilly
After a few days drying, we picked the beans out of their husks (Image 2-5). Gabe then roasted them in a large pan, as close as we can get to a proper oven at camp (Image 6). After this process, the slightly burned beans tasted okay.

There were too few beans and too important an equipment shortage to contemplate preparing them to be later brewed, so chocolate-coated coffee beans became the aim. In hindsight, this was a bad idea. Only after individually coating the beans in chocolate did we remember we have no fridge in which they could solidify. So, the chocolate never really hardened completely and the beans went rather soggy.

Image 4 - Husks. © X O'Reilly

Image 5 - Skinned coffee beans. © X O'Reilly

Image 6 - Gabe roasting the beans. © X O'Reilly

There are more beans in the solar oven now. I haven't been told what fate awaits them, but perhaps we'll try to make the drink, despite the reputation of the Ecuadorian export combined with our complete lack of practice or expertise!