In the early 1900s, Costa Ricans sweetened their meals with tapa de dulce. There was no interest in granulated white sugar; instead, people would cut a brown, sticky block of unrefined whole cane sugar and sprinkle where needed.
Back then, the trapiches, or mills, were a highly profitable business. Hundreds of these specialized mills would turn the sugar cane into tapa de dulce that then would be sold in the markets as a staple in basic food baskets.
Today, only a few trapiches survive, producing the raw sugar block for those that still enjoy drinking agua dulce (sweet water in English, which is basically melted tapa de dulce) or as a novelty for the nostalgic.
To produce sugary goodness in the trapiche, the cane must come from the field ripe so the mill can extract the sugar water. Originally the mill was powered by oxen or horses pushing the gear in a circle, but the watermill helped optimize the process.
The sugar juice goes through stages being cooked in large dishes as it is reduced into a more concentrated product. First it is boiled, and the juice is strained. As the sugar water becomes more concentrated, it is moved to the next dish where the sweet syrup readies to become tapa de dulce. The molds for the tapa are made out of heavy hardwood on which cone shaped holds have been carved. The molds must be wet before pouring the caramel-colored sticky syrup. Once the syrup hardens, the tapas are taken out of the mold and packed in pairs in plastic bags.
Making Tapa de Dulce and the Trapiche work is a dying art. Today ticos prefer white granulated sugar over the Tapa, and as the popularity of the Trapiche’s products vanish, the sugar cane plantations are replaced by other plantations and sprawling urban developments forcing the artistans of the sugary delights to leave their craft behind.
Next time you are at a Costa Rican restaurant, ask for an agua dulce or a tapa de dulce, so you can enjoy this sweet delicacy of the past.