Samui Wining & Dining
That Beans Buzz

Coffee’s not just a drink – it’s a whole lifestyle in it self !

 

22What’s the most popular drink in the world? Hands up all of you who are expecting the answer ‘coffee’? Well it’s not. The answer is … nobody actually knows! To be perfectly honest there’s no reliable consensus or database so people just have to make an intelligent guess. And, along with the expected ‘water’ or ‘beer’, coffee is certainly up there at the top of the tree.

    Or should that be ‘bush’? Coffee is made from the red berries of a tropical evergreen shrub, which, if left to its own devices, will eventually grow to about 40 feet in height after around 10 years. Not surprisingly, commercial coffee plantations keep these pruned-down to a manageable six feet or so.

      There are all sorts of odd legends about how and where coffee originated and the only thing that’s known for certain is that it spread out of Africa, most probably from Ethiopia, in about 800 AD. And there may even be a grain of truth in the fable of the goatherd who wondered why his flock that was nibbling on the bushes became so hyperactive; who knows. But in any event it didn’t take long for the same berries that the goats were reputedly munching on to migrate across the Red Sea into Arabia, where things really got cooking. By about 1000 AD the popular ‘red bean broth’

was driving dervishes into orbit, keeping worshippers awake and had splashed its way firmly into secular life. And wherever Islam went, coffee went too: firstly to North Africa and then into the eastern Mediterranean and eventually to India. Coffee finally made it into Europe quite a long time later, via Italy and Holland, in the early 1600s.

      It’s safe to say that there are, perhaps, only two drinks than can evoke a semi-religious fervour in some of their devotees. One most certainly is wine. The other is coffee. In this respect the two beverages are similar, with an entire genre of specialised language and techno-speak having evolved to extol and describe the qualities of each. If you happen to eavesdrop on a conversation which includes the words, ‘body’, ‘flavour’, ‘undertones’, ‘aftertaste’, ‘liveliness’, ‘mellow’, ‘grassy’ or ‘earthy’ then it would be wise to sneak a peek to see whether the table in question is bearing mugs or glasses. But, having said that, curiously, the most popular form of coffee throughout the world isn’t a connoisseur item at all. It’s instant; just add water and stir.

       Another curiosity: this instant coffee was first created by George Washington. No, not the American president but George C Washington, an English chemist working in Guatemala. It was in 1906 that he noticed a powdery build-up on the spout of his coffee pot. This twanged his curiosity and he eventually produced a dried coffee-crystal much like we have today. Instant coffee is just ordinary fresh-brewed coffee but with all the water taken out. There are no additives or chemicals involved, even though most people will agree that it doesn’t taste much like freshly-ground coffee. But then some of the different ways that it’s brewed around the world would give rise to the same comment.

       In Mongolia, the beans are crushed with a hammer and placed in a pot to boil for an age and then consumed ‘neat’ – no milk, no sugar. And in some places in Northern America, the descendants of the cowboys and High Plains drifters drink it in much the same way, even today. In Thailand, it’s made with three or four spoons of instant powder, half a bowl of sugar and condensed milk. But, as any sensible coffee drinker will tell you, the aroma, flavour and colour all vary according to the type of bean, where it comes from and how you grind and brew it, including how long the grounds soak in the water. And then there’re drip filters, plunger glasses, Cona machines and high-pressure Espressos.

       But this is dangerously close to straying into the heady and specialised territory of the coffee aficionado. A realm where the overall flavour is appreciated holistically and with, one suspects, somewhat more than the regular five senses.

       Suffice it to say that, yes, geography, climate and altitude do affect the overall taste. And the most ‘flavourful’ beans come from the harder-to-cultivate (and thus more expensive) type known as ‘Arabica’. More widely-grown and more robust is the … err … ‘Robusta’. Each has different qualities and quite often the two are blended to provide subtle combinations of flavour and aroma. But there’s also a third kind of bean. It’s virtually unknown and grows only in Indonesia, Malaysia and a couple of far-flung parts of Africa. And it’s simply horrible – so much so that they don’t even bother trying to export it

      It’s known as the ‘Liberica’ variety. But, being aware of how bitter and harsh and utterly nasty it is, the Malaysians, with cheerful aptitude, have found a way to make a meal of it. Well, almost. They roast the beans together with margarine, sugar and sesame seeds. When cooled the sticky mess resembles peanut brittle. Then they crush it into granules and strain it through a sock. Really! They place a kind of giant nylon condom into a pot, fill it with the crushed mix and add boiling water. They call it ‘kopi’, which is the Indonesian word for ‘coffee’ (there’s nothing like keeping it simple). And, do you know what, it tastes rather good!

      Which brings us to the highlight of the Coffee Cosmos; the most exclusive and sought-after (and most expensive, at around $50 a cup) coffee in the world,. It, too, bears the word ‘kopi’ but with ‘luak’ added; Kopi Luak. ‘Luak’ is the Indonesian word for ‘civet cat’. And, without having the space left to be too graphic, what happens is this. Civet cat sees coffee beans. Civet cat eats coffee beans but can’t digest them properly. Civet cat therefore excretes said beans. Whereupon they are promptly pounced upon (it’s only tasty when really fresh) by the following mêlée of Indonesian coffee-entrepreneurs and sold for huge amounts of money. There is, after all, only a limited number of civet cats in Indonesia.

      It takes all sorts to make a world. Especially when it comes to something as simple as a cup of coffee. But, whether you grind it with a Gaggia or smack it with a hammer, it’s still coffee, and whichever way you look at it it’s still the most popular drink in the world. Well … probably.

 

Rob De Wet


 


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