Coffee – An Essay

Vietnam, Vung Tau, coffee-making equipment.

Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water

—The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, London (1674)


The women, happily, have left coffee alone and moved on: to alcohol at one point, and then to men in the late 20th century, when I invested in state-of-the-art earplugs.


Coffee. We can’t get enough of it. An estimated 400 billion cups of coffee fly down the global hatch every year. We’ll take it any way we can get it: three years ago, Vancouver’s Urban Fare offered Kopi Luwak, at $600 a pound the most expensive coffee in the world. It sold out in hours. Its charm was that the beans had passed through the digestive tract of paradoxurus hermaphrodites, an Indonesian civet cat.


The idea was, the journey through the animal’s guts somehow brings out a certain je ne sais quoi in its flavour.


Travelling in Vietnam a few years ago, my wife and I tried to find chang, which out-poos its Indonesian cousin by passing through the intestines of a Vietnamese weasel. We weren’t successful but were recently surprised to find an industrially processed facsimile available in Victoria’s Chinatown: the Weasel, it’s called, from Trung Nguyen, the largest coffee company in Vietnam, which now ranks as the second-largest coffee producer in the world.


The Weasel boasts the customary Vietnamese chocolate underpinnings and like all Vietnamese coffees, goes best with milk. It costs about $10 per pound, a bargain considering. It’s always nice to invite close friends over for a cuppa the Weasel.


Coffee originated in Ethiopia, although Yemen across the Red Sea also claims coffee parenthood and has a city named Mocha to boot. Yeminis were, however, the first to roast the beans and brew the beverage, and for that we thank them forever.


Coffee launched its conquest of the world in the 15th century, The governor of Mecca banned it in 1511 as a distraction to the devout. The merchant class raised such a stink, the all-powerful Sultan of Cairo had the governor whacked.


Europe fell head-over-heels for “the wine of Arabia.” The Roman clergy tried to ban it as a Muslim decadence. Women were prohibited in coffee houses in the Arab world, Europe and England. Later the Brits came to think of it as medicine: “Excellent Berry!” wrote a scribe, “which can cleanse the English-man’s Stomak of Flegm and expel Giddinesse out of his Head.”


The bean danced through history. Both the American and French Revolutions were hatched in coffee houses. Lloyds of London started out as a coffee house. Seeds smuggled out of Paris in 1727 were the beginning of Brazil’s coffee industry, today the largest in the world.


Some years ago, covering the World Food Media Awards in Adelaide, Australia, I fell into conversation with a courtly octogenarian operating the press room machine. Making me an exquisite brew, he introduced himself as Dr. Ernesto Illy. In 1933, the now-deceased Dr. Illy invented the first automatic espresso machine and started his life as the world’s premier coffee evangelist. I should have kissed his feet.


My wife and I drink coffee twice a day, but we also like to cook with it. It brings to cuisine a powerful roasted flavour, occasional bitterness and acidity. Its versatility shows in a range of savoury dishes from coffee-rubbed cheeseburgers to barbecued chicken and roast lamb. My favourite recipe plays espresso three ways—as a marinade, dry rub and sauce—all at once.


Marinate a whole pork tenderloin (preferably one from the Comox Valley’s Tannadice Farm) in a double shot of espresso, half a dozen garlic cloves, a couple of shallots and a quarter cup of sweet soy. Two hours on the counter should do it.


Afterwards, pat it dry. Combine a tablespoon of cracked pepper and a tablespoon of espresso coffee grains and rub the mixture vigorously into the pork. Sear the pork on all sides in hot peanut oil, then finish it with five or six minutes in a 325°F oven.


Add the marinade to two cups of rich-tasting homemade stock. Reduce the sauce by half and whisk in two tablespoons of cold butter to thicken. Slice the pork into juicy pink rounds. Serve the sauce on the side. The sweetness of the pork plays off the smokiness and slight bitter quality of the coffee. The mouth shudders with pleasure. There are those among us who might even add a shot of whisky to the leftover sauce, sip it slowly and saunter into the night grinning like leprechauns.




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