“High on a hill lived a lonely goatherd. Lay-ee odelay-ee odelay hee- hoo’ 

 

Clearly it wasn’t just a hill he was high on.  And the goatherd didn’t live in the Swiss Alps.  He lived in the mountains of Ethiopia and what he was high on was not the sound of music, but coffee. 

 

His name was Calvi.  He was sitting around one day, rather bored, wittling a stick, when he noticed that his goats were acting strangely.  They had been feeding for some hours on the clusters of red cherries that grew on some small evergreen shrubs, but instead of lying down and resting in the heat of the day, they were leaping up and down, butting each other and chasing about.  Gradually he became aware that whenever the goats ate the cherries, they became hyperactive.  What’s more, they failed to put on much weight and their milk yield dipped alarmingly. Calvi was intrigued; so he ate some of the fruits.  Soon he noticed that he felt more full of energy,  he could think more clearly, through some of thoughts that came into his mind were a little strange.

 

Lay-ee odelay-ee odelayee odeloo.  

 

He plucked some cherries and rushed home to tell his father, who concluded that the seeds were a poison and threw them on the fire, where they smouldered to yielded a delicious aroma.  ‘Truly’, the old man declared  ‘they must be the fruit of the Gods.’  

 

But the Ethiopians didn’t use the fruits to make the drink we know as coffee.  It was the Arabs in nearby Yemen who did that.  The Ethiopians incorporated the fruits into their food balls that they carried with them whenever they went hunting.  So Calvi’s observation not only led to the discovery of the world’s most popular beverage, it was also the origin of the first energy bar.

 

Mike Riley, chief coffee sourcer and taster at Taylor’s of Harrogate, is an expert in coffee.  He gave us a demonstration.  Small, shaven headed with tidily trimmed facial hair and wearing a coffee coloured tasters apron, he didn’t so much drink from the cups arraigned in front of him, he breathed the coffee in.  Taking a spoon, he scooped up some coffee from the nearest cup and transferred it to another spoon.  Then he sucked the dark liquid in noisily through a semi-closed mouth so that a spray passed over his tongue and palate.  I tried it and was amazed at the difference in tastes, the rich cocoa tones from Brazil, the much lighter woody taste from Galapagos, the acidity from Kenya and hints of tangerine from Sumatra.  Coffee tasting is clearly as much of an art as wine tasting. 

 

I wondered why there was so much difference in taste.  Coffee is only harvested from two species of coffee tree; Coffea robusta,  grown mainly in Africa, yielding an inferior type of coffee that has a high caffeine content but is used mainly for instant coffee and Coffea Arabica,  which yields the better, more flavoursome coffee, a connoisseur’s coffee.  They are members of the Rubiacae, a large family which includes the gardenias and the cinchona, from which quinine, another bitter chemical, is extracted.  The wide difference in flavours relies partly on the conditions of growth – soil, sunlight, rain, altitude – what wine growers call the terroir, but mainly on the conditions of drying, roasting and of course, blending.

 

The fruits of the Coffea grow in an elongated cluster, first little green spheres like peas and then as they ripen, red cherries, which contain twin seeds wrapped in  parchment.  The cherries are picked by hand using a small rake to strip the stems.  Then they are sieved and washed to remove any leaves, twigs or small fruits.  Only the ripe cherries are selected.  These are then dried.  Traditionally, they are laid out in the sun on a concrete floor or on low tables and raked regularly so that they dry evenly and do not ferment.  Less labour intensive industrial processes use rotating drums.  As the fruit dries, the outer covering is removed and the parchment around the seeds is also taken off.  It takes several weeks to dry the seeds completely.  They can then be packed in sacks and, as long as they are kept dry, will last for a long time.

 

Coffee grows in the tropics.  It arrives in Europe in sacks of green beans and is roasted in the coffee factories.  Roasting is carefully controlled. The beans must dry and caramelise to release the aromatic compounds, the so called coffee oil, but must not catch fire.  A slight charring alters the taste and is sometimes favoured for some types of coffee.  After roasting, the beans, now a dark brown colour, must be cooled rapidly to prevent autocombustion.  This is often done by washing them in cold water.  They are then dried and vacuum packed in airtight containers. 

 

The roasted coffee is very fragile.  It quickly stales in air, though freezing the beans retains their flavour. Ground coffee should always be resealed and kept in the fridge. 

 

The manufacture of coffee from tree to cup is a delightful blend of art and science. You can infuse your ground coffee with steam or boiling water in a state-of-the-art coffee maker, a percolater, a cafetiere or simply in a cup or jug, but you have to take care to produce a rich, satisfying taste. So when you are percolating coffee, never let it boil.  The flavour disappears immediately.  Coffee made in some domestic coffee makers and kept hot on a heater also goes off very quickly and tastes very unpleasant.  Freeze dried instant coffee is, to my taste, hardly worth mentioning.  It is an abomination; a travesty of culinary art.  

 

But there are other ways to appreciate coffee.  Last year I enjoyed a meal in The Queen of Sheba Ethiopian restaurant in Kentish Town and opportunity of trying a postprandial jug of sweetened coffee infused with cardamom and kept warm on a bed of charcoal.  Cardamom is frequently used to flavour coffee in Turkey and Greece.  It is quite delicious.   . 

 

And if you want something really exotic, why not try Kopi Lewak.  Kopi is the Indonesian name for coffee.  Lewak is the Palm Civet cat, a marsupial that selects the ripest coffee cherries, digests the flesh and excretes the coffee beans in its faeces.  People living on the island of Sumatra collect the faeces, separate out the beans and dry and roast them. The passage through the gut of the cat gives the coffee a sweetish, slightly corrupt flavour, which is actually quite appealing.   Kopi Lewak is the most expensive coffee on the world market, retailing at 600 US dollars a pound. 

 

Isn’t it strange that we can like something as bitter as coffee?  Bitter chemicals are recognised as toxic and avoided by many animals.  But nevertheless human societies have acquired a taste for bitter foods and drinks.  As well as coffee, there is dark chocolate, campari, gin, angostura bitters, raddicio, chicory, spinach and broccoli.  Bitter foods have medicinal properties; they are rich in glycosinolates, which help to fight infections, break down toxins and prevent cancer.  Coffee is also known to  improve the motility of sperm.  No wonder Calvi’s goats were frisky!       

 

 

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