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Chapter 8: Harvest Time! Curing the Leaves & Chewing

There comes a time when man can reap what he has sown. The reward for proper care of your cocal has come. It is time to pick and dry the leaves. You are about to become one of the paladores, or coca gatherers. Aside from actually chewing, or other ingestion, this will be the most rewarding. The first harvest, as well as the first harvest every year from your bush is called Quita Calzon. The second yearly harvest is called Mitta de Marzo. It is generally the largest. The third is called Mitta de San Juan, the Festival of St.John, and the last harvest is called Mitta de Todos Santos, or Harvest of All Saints. In any case, the first harvest is really more a trimming than a real harvest, and will commence when your plant is about eighteen months to two years old. Care must be taken that the first harvest of the bush not takes place before it is mature. Although picking generally has a beneficial effect on the bush, growing tips and shoots should not be injured. It must be remembered that coca cultivation requires care and patience. Greedily taking the leaves too early will only injure the bush.

The leaves will be ready for plucking when they have begun to get a slight yellow tint to them, making them more an olive green. The soft pliable quality they had previously will give way to a tendency to break or crack on being bent. A good harvest will take place about eight days before the leaves would have fallen on their own accord. To pluck the leaves simply take between the thumb and forefinger and pull lightly with a twisting motion. They can be cut with a sharp scissors at their base, but this is unnecessary if they are picked at the correct time, because they will then detached fairly easily. Never take more of the leaves than are ready according to the above criteria. The final sprout, if it is injured, will cause the plant to wither.

Drying the Leaves

Once picked, care must also be taken to give them a proper drying. The entire harvest could be ruined if it is not dried properly. If the leaves can not be dried immediately after harvest, they can be preserved for a few days if care is taken that they are not kept in heaps. This would induce sweating and decomposition. The first rule to follow is that the leaves do not get damp. Wet will spoil them and they will decompose and turn black in color, which the Indians term Coca Gonupa, or Yana Coca.

One method for drying is to simply spread them thinly in the sun. When dried in this manner, the first drying can be done in six hours, if the weather is good. It may take longer if the humidity is high. After the first drying, the leaves will have become crisp. They should then be placed gently in a pile to induce sweating process that will cause them to be somewhat pliable again. After a short sweating (not more than three days ) the leaves can be placed in the sun again for a second and final drying. The second drying will be shorter than the first. Sometimes it will take as little as an hour.

A well-cured coca leaf is olive green on the upper surface, gray green on the lower. They are pliable, uncurled, clean, smooth and slightly glossy. They will have dried out to less than half of their original weight, and will have an odor slightly suggestive of vanilla or a fine china tea. Depending on the variety, they will be more or less bitter to the taste. Peruvian or Truxillo coca will have a pleasant pungent taste. If the leaves are properly cured they can even be stored in a hot humid place for a year. In a cooler place, they may be kept for a much longer time. This is for informational purposes only, for we have found that there are generally no storage problems. At least we have never had a problem with old, stale leaves.

An alternative method of drying, one that seems to give a perceptably higher yield of alkaloid, is as follows: spread the leaves thin upon a cloth and dry them in the shade for 24 hours, or slightly longer. When they have become slightly crisp, roll each leaf by hand from end to end. Cure the rolled leaves for a few hours in the same shaded place, then place them, still rolled, high over a charcoal fire for their final drying. Take care that they are not too close to the fire or they will browned and will not be of a good quality. When you have properly dried leaves, you will have coca del dia, or coca of the day. If at any time during the process the leaves are sweated too much or become too damp, they will have a musty odor, called coca ccaspada.

Chewing the Leaves

After the leaves have been properly dried the truly fun part begins. Chewing them. You are about to become a coquero. Or coca chewer. The Indians first take a quid of leaves from their chuspa, or coca pouch, and place it in their mouths. They then take some Ilipta or mambi (alkalai) from the iscupuru (literally "lime gourd") and wipe it across the quid. They spit out the first saliva, but afterwards swallow it. It is chewed and moved from side to side until it loses flavor. It is then thrown away, but immediately replaced by fresh leaves and fresh Ilipta. You may follow much the same method as the Peruvians, replacing the lime with bicarbonate of soda for your own Ilipta.

The first sensation you will receive while chewing will be dryness in the throat, which will leave and not be experienced again. There will follow an aromatic taste in the mouth and an increased flow of saliva. There will be a comfort in the stomach as though a meal had been eaten, and all physical weariness will disappear. The pulse will increase and perspiration will be executed. These sensations will last for about three hours, at which time you will no doubt have a new chew in your mouth.

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