October 12, 2011

Black Pepper...worth its weight in gold!

So common is black pepper today that generally, we take it for granted. Not so in ancient times and history will show that, at one time, with its value in weight rivaling that of gold, many pepper barons made their fortunes from this unique little berry. Looking back, pepper was considered one of the five essential luxuries upon which foreign trade with the Roman empire was based, the others being African ivory, Chinese silk, German amber, and Arabian incense.

Black pepper is native to South India and is extensively cultivated there and elsewhere in tropical regions. J. Innes Miller notes that while pepper was grown in southern Thailand and in Malaysia, its most important source was India, particularly the Malabar Coast, in what is now the state of Kerala The Coast, also known as the Malabarian Coast, is a long and narrow south-western shore line of the mainland Indian subcontinent. Geographically, the Malabar Coast, especially on its westward-facing mountain slopes, comprises the wettest region of southern India, as the Western Ghats intercept the moisture-laden monsoon rains, especially on their westward-facing mountain slopes. The term "Malabar Coast" is also sometimes used in reference to the entire Indian coast from the western coast of Konkan to the tip of the subcontinent at Cape Comorin. It is flanked by the Arabian Sea on the west and the Western Ghats on the east. The Southern part of this narrow coast is the South Western Ghats moist deciduous forests.

The term "peppercorn rent" is often used to denote a pittance, but in medieval times, a pound of pepper was the equivalent of a pound of gold or up to three weeks' labor for trade purposes. Peppercorns are not only the oldest used spice, but also the most widely-used. Said to be found more than 4,000 years ago, peppercorns have possibly been cultivated as far back as 2000 B.C.

The pepper plant itself is a perennial vine that has dark green leaves and small white flowers. These flowers become clusters of green berries, which is the product known as green peppercorns. Black peppercorns are the unripe berries that have been sun-dried, while white peppercorns are just black peppercorns with their outer skins rubbed off.

Today, pepper, known as the King of Spices and the Master Spice, still accounts for one-fourth of the world's spice trade. Tunisians lead in pepper consumption with half a pound per person per year, whereas Americans consume about one-quarter pound per year.

Although always prized as a flavor-enhancing spice, the peppercorn first gained fame for medicinal purposes as a digestive stimulant and expectorant. Its hot and pungent flavor causes the membranes inside the nose and throat to exude a lubricating secretion, helpful to those in respiratory distress as an aid to cough up offending phlegm and mucus. Pepper was also used in an external ointment to relieve skin afflictions and hives.

Believe it or not, it is also an effective deterrent to insects. A solution of one-half teaspoon freshly ground pepper to one quart of warm water sprayed on plants can be toxic to ants, potato bugs, silverfish, and even roaches and moths. A sprinkling of ground pepper will also deter insect paths in non-garden areas.

Pepper gets its spicy heat mostly from the piperine compound, which is found both in the outer fruit and in the seed. Refined piperine, milligram-for-milligram, is about one percent as hot as the capsaicin in chilli peppers. The outer fruit layer, left on black pepper, also contains important odor-contributing terpenes which give citrusy, woody, and floral notes. These scents are mostly missing in white pepper, which is stripped of the fruit layer. White pepper can gain some different odors (including musty notes) from its longer fermentation stage.

Pepper loses flavor and aroma through evaporation, so airtight storage helps preserve pepper's original spiciness longer. Pepper can also lose flavor when exposed to light, which can transform piperine into nearly tasteless isochavicine. Once ground, pepper's aromatics can evaporate extremely quickly and we are of the mind that you are best served if you grind whole peppercorns immediately before use for this reason. Spice mills such as pepper mills were found in European kitchens as early as the 14th century, but in some quarters, the mortar and pestle is still the preferred method for grinding and crushing pepper.
 
Pepper has been used as a spice in India since prehistoric times. It is native to India and has been known to Indian cooking since at least 2000 BC. Peppercorns were a much prized trade good, often referred to as "black gold" and used as a form of commodity money. The term "peppercorn rent" is often used to denote a pittance, but in medieval times, a pound of pepper was the equivalent of a pound of gold or up to three weeks' labor for trade purposes.


History

Until well after the Middle Ages, virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa traveled there from India's Malabar region via the Silk Road routes. By the 16th century, pepper was also being grown in Java, Sunda, Sumatra, Madagascar, Malaysia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but these areas traded mainly with China, or used the pepper locally. Ports in the Malabar area also served as a stop-off point for much of the trade in other spices from farther east in the Indian Ocean.
Black pepper, along with other spices from India and lands farther east, changed the course of world history. It was in some part the preciousness of these spices that led to the European efforts to find a sea route to India and consequently to the European colonial occupation of that country, as well as the European discovery and colonization of the Americas.

Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification rituals shortly after his death in 1213 BC. Little else is known about the use of pepper in ancient Egypt, nor how it reached the Nile from India. Pepper (both long and black) was known in Greece at least as early as the 4th century BC, though it was probably an uncommon and expensive item that only the very rich could afford.

By the time of the early Roman Empire, especially after Rome's conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. Details of this trading across the Indian Ocean have been passed down in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. According to the Roman geographer Strabo, the early Empire sent a fleet of around 120 ships on an annual one-year trip to India and back. The fleet timed its travel across the Arabian Sea to take advantage of the predictable monsoon winds. Returning from India, the ships traveled up the Red Sea, from where the cargo was carried overland or via the Nile Canal to the Nile River, barged to Alexandria, and shipped from there to Italy and Rome. The rough geographical outlines of this same trade route would dominate the pepper trade into Europe for a millennium and a half to come.

With ships sailing directly to the Malabar coast, black pepper was now traveling a shorter trade route than long pepper, and the prices reflected it. Pliny the Elder's (<-I love this guy) Natural History tells us the prices in Rome around 77 AD: "Long pepper ... is fifteen denarii per pound, while that of white pepper is seven, and of black, four."

Black pepper was a well-known and widespread, if expensive, seasoning in the Roman Empire. Apicius' De re coquinaria, a 3rd-century cookbook probably based at least partly on one from the 1st century AD , includes pepper in a majority of its recipes. Edward Gibbon wrote, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that pepper was "a favorite ingredient of the most expensive Roman cookery".

Pepper was so valuable that it was often used as collateral or even currency. In the Dutch language, "pepper expensive" (peperduur) is an expression for something very expensive. The taste for pepper (or the appreciation of its monetary value) was passed on to those who would see Rome fall. It is said that Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun each demanded from Rome a ransom of more than a ton of pepper when they besieged the city in 5th century. After the fall of Rome, others took over the middle legs of the spice trade, first the Persians and then the Arabs; Innes Miller cites the account of Cosmas Indicopleustes, who traveled east to India, as proof that "pepper was still being exported from India in the sixth century". By the end of the Dark Ages, the central portions of the spice trade were firmly under Islamic control. Once into the Mediterranean, the trade was largely monopolized by Italian powers, especially Venice and Genoa. The rise of these city-states was funded in large part by the spice trade.

Its exorbitant price during the Middle Ages—and the monopoly on the trade held by Italy—was one of the inducements which led the Portuguese to seek a sea route to India. In 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first person to reach India by sailing around Africa; Though this first trip to India by way of the southern tip of Africa was only a modest success, the Portuguese quickly returned in greater numbers and used their superior naval firepower to eventually gain complete control of trade on the Arabian sea. It was given additional legitimacy (at least from a European perspective) by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which granted Portugal exclusive rights to the half of the world where black pepper originated.

The Portuguese proved unable to maintain their stranglehold on the spice trade for long. The old Arab and Venetian trade networks successfully smuggled enormous quantities of spices through the patchy Portuguese blockade, and pepper once again flowed through Alexandria and Italy, as well as around Africa. In the 17th century, the Portuguese lost almost all of their valuable Indian Ocean possessions to the Dutch and the English. The pepper ports of Malabar fell to the Dutch in the period 1661–1663.

As pepper supplies into Europe increased, the price of pepper declined (though the total value of the import trade generally did not). Pepper, which in the early Middle Ages had been an item exclusively for the rich, started to become more of an everyday seasoning among those of more average means. Today, pepper accounts for one-fifth of the world's spice trade.
 
Cultivation & Harvesting
 
The pepper plant is a perennial woody vine growing to four meters in height on supporting trees, poles, or trellises. It is a spreading vine, rooting readily where trailing stems touch the ground. Peppercorns are the seed berries of the Piper nigrum (piper being Latin for plant, and nigrum meaning black) vine, originating on the Malabar coast of India.

Black pepper is grown in soil that is neither too dry nor too moist and do not do well over an altitude of 3000ft above sea level. The plants are propagated by cuttings about 40 to 50 centimeters long, tied up to neighboring trees or climbing frames at distances of about two meters apart; trees with rough bark are favored over those with smooth bark, as the pepper plants climb rough bark more readily. Competing plants are cleared away, leaving only sufficient trees to provide shade and permit free ventilation. The roots are covered in leaf mulch and manure, and the shoots are trimmed twice a year. On dry soils the young plants require watering every other day during the dry season for the first three years. The plants bear fruit from the fourth or fifth year, and typically continue to bear fruit for seven years.

The harvest begins as soon as one or two berries at the base of the spikes begin to turn red, and before the fruit is mature, but when full grown and still hard; if allowed to ripen, the berries lose pungency, and ultimately fall off and are lost. The spikes are collected and spread out to dry in the sun, then the peppercorns are stripped off the spikes.
They are left on mats to dry and ferment in the sun and this must be done quickly to prevent mold. Because the pungency of black peppercorns comes mostly from the outer, black cover, they are stronger than the white peppercorns.

In ancient days, the typical pepper orchard in India consisted of a small plot of land where moisture and shade were abundant. The pepper vines would be planted next to tall trees in order to be able to train the vine's growth pattern. The idea was to get the plant to grow upwards, allowing full berry production.

Pepper plants are planted every June at the beginning of the monsoon season in India. The plants then shoot up and start to climb the taller surrounding trees. They flower the following May, and in December the berries began to change color, and are ready for harvesting. Since the berries are fragile, picking the fruit is done with great care. After picking, the pepper berries are spread out onto the ground and allowed to dry until they turn black and shrivel up. After about a month's storage, they were ready to be sold as black peppercorns.

As of 2008, Vietnam is the world's largest producer and exporter of pepper, producing 34% of the world's crop.. Other major producers include Indonesia (9%), India (19%), Brazil (13%), Malaysia (8%), Sri Lanka (6%), Thailand (4%), and China (6%).

Varieties

First and foremost, you should know that the title here is a bit misleading, as there is only one variety (well two, taking into consideration the pink variety but we are talking specifically about the Piper nigrum) and the differences are gained in how and when the 'berry' is harvested.

Black pepper

Black pepper is produced from the still-green unripe berries of the pepper plant. The berries are cooked briefly in hot water, both to clean them and to prepare them for drying. The heat ruptures cell walls in the pepper, speeding the work of browning enzymes during drying. The berries are then dried in the sun or by machine for several days, during which the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layerthat we are all accustomed to. Once dried, the spice is called black peppercorn.

White pepper

White pepper consists of the interior seed of the peppercorn, with the darker colored skin of the pepper fruit removed. A process known as retting is used, where fully ripe peppers are soaked in water for about a week, during which the flesh of the pepper softens and decomposes. Rubbing then removes what remains of the fruit, and the naked seed is dried. Alternative processes are used for removing the outer pepper from the seed, including decortication, the removal of the outer layer from black pepper from small peppers through mechanical, chemical or biological methods.

White pepper is sometimes used in dishes like light-colored sauces or mashed potatoes, where ground black pepper would visibly stand out. There is disagreement regarding which is generally spicier. They have differing flavor due to the presence of certain compounds in the outer fruit layer of the berry that are not found in the seed.

Green pepper

Green pepper, like black, is made from the unripe berries. Dried green peppercorns are treated in a way that retains the green color, sand is then treated with sulfur dioxide or freeze-drying. Pickled peppercorns, also green, are unripe berries preserved in brine or vinegar. Fresh, unpreserved green pepper berries are used in some Asian cuisines, particularly Thai cuisine, but is relatively unused in the 'West.' Their flavor has been described as piquant and fresh, with a bright aroma, but they decay quickly if not dried or preserved.

Orange pepper and Red pepper

Orange pepper or red pepper consists of ripe red pepper berries preserved in brine and vinegar. Ripe red peppercorns can also be dried using the same color-preserving techniques used to produce green pepper, mentioned above.

Pink pepper

Pink pepper from Piper nigrum is distinct from the more-common dried "pink peppercorns", which are the fruits of a plant from a different family, the Peruvian pepper tree, Schinus molle, and its relative the Brazilian pepper tree, Schinus terebinthifolius.

So fellow foodies...now you know! Time to go out and amaze your friends with your depth of foodie commitment and knowledge...especially when it comes to pepper. Glad I could help!!

Bon Appetit!

 sources: ezinearticles.com, wikipedia.org,  www.plantcultures.org, www.whfoods.com , answers.encyclopedia.com , www.druera.com, www.jrmushroomsandspecialties.com,  media-2.web.britannica.com

October 10, 2011

The Silk Road: Caravans, Lawrence of Arabia, Exotic Locales & Cuisines....

The name 'Silk Road' conjures up images of caravans, Lawrence of Arabia and exotic locales. This is the famed route that Marco Polo took when he brought back, the 'wonders' of the Orient. The term Silk Road was coined in 1870 by German geographer Ferdinand van Richthofen, the uncle of the famed Red Baron.

Most have a common misconception that The Silk Road was one long route, but as you can see by the map above, it was actually a series of many routes, which changed constantly between the land and sea between China, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe. All routes started from the capital in Changan, headed up the Gansu corridor and reached Dunhuang on the edge of the Taklimakan. It connected the Yellow River Valley to the Mediterranean Sea and passed through places such as Chinese cities Kansu and Sinkiang and the present-day countries of Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Silk Road routes were often disrupted due the presence of bandits, political alliances, passes closed by snow, droughts, storms, seasonal changes, wars, plagues, horsemen raids, and natural disasters. Many Silk Road towns and caravanserais were located within fortresses for protection from bandits and marauding horsemen. Many also had security forces.

The term Silk Road can be a bit misleading though, as commodities were also traded, from gold and ivory to exotic animals and plants. Of all the precious goods crossing this area, silk was perhaps the most remarkable for the people of the West, and is likely why the name was given, but many caravans heading towards China carried many commodities including, porcelain from China; pepper, batik, spices, perfumes, glass beads, gems and muslin from India; incense, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg from the East Indies, diamonds from Colcond; nuts, sesame seeds, glass and carpets from Persia; as well as coral and ivory from Siam. Other goods that made their way west included furs, ceramics, medicinal rhubarb, peaches, pomegranates, and gunpowder. In cold areas, flint and steel were among the most sought after products.

In the opposite direction, coming east, traders brought fine tableware, wool, horses, jade, wine, cucumbers, and walnuts. Ivory, gold, tortoise shells, dugs and slaves and animals such as ostriches and giraffes came from Africa. Frankincense and myrrh were brought from Arabia. Mediterranean colored glass was treasured almost as much in some parts of the East as silk was in the West. The main reason for the voyages of Christopher Columbus was in search of a new 'Silk Road' to the Orient, so some might argue that the discovery of America is directly related to it.

Spices
Spices were among the most valuable commodities carried on the Silk Road. Without refrigeration food spoiled easily and spices were important for masking the flavor of rancid or spoiled meat. Basil, mint, sage, rosemary and thyme could be grown in family herb gardens in Europe along with medicinal plants. Among the the spices and seasonings that came from the East--affordable to merchants and burghers but not ordinary people--were pepper, cloves, mace and cumin. Ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and saffron--the most valuable of spices from the East--were worth more than their weight in gold.

During the Middle Ages, one medieval town sold 288 kinds of spices, many of whom had an unknown origin. Cinnamon, people were told, came from an exotic bird and cloves were netted in the Nile by Egyptians. Caravans that carried pepper were heavily armed.

Transportation
Bactrian camels were commonly used on the Silk Road to carry goods. They could be employed in high mountains, cold steppes and inhospitable deserts.

Bactrian camels are camels with two humps and two coats of hair. Widely domesticated and capable of carrying 600 pounds, they are native to Central Asia, where a few wild ones still live, and stand six feet at the hump, can weigh half a ton and seem no worse for wear when temperatures drop to -20 degrees F. The fact they can endure extreme hot and cold and travel long periods of time without water has made them ideal caravan animals.
Bactrian camels can go a week without water and a month without food. A thirsty camel can drink 25 to 30 gallons of water at one go. For protection against sandstorms, Bactrian camels have two sets of eyelids and eyelashes. The extra eyelids can wipe sand like windshield wipers. Their nostrils can shrink to a narrow slit to keep out blowing sand. Male Bactrian camels slobber a lot when they get horny.

The humps store energy in the form of fat and can reach a height of 18 inches and individually hold as much as 100 pounds. A camel can survive for weeks without food by drawing on the fat from the humps for energy. The humps shrink, go flaccid and droop when a camel doesn't get enough to eat as it loses the fat that keep the humps erect.

In the larger towns, the larger caravans stayed for a while, resting and fattening up their animals, purchasing new animals, relaxing and selling or trading goods. To meet their needs were banks, exchange houses, trading firms, markets, brothels and places where one could smoke hashish and opium. Some of these caravan stops became rich cities such as Samark and Bukhara. Caravanserai had rooms for caravan members, fodder and resting places for animals and warehouses for storing goods. They were often in small fortresses with guards to protect the caravans from bandits.

A typical caravanserai was a set of buildings surrounding an open courtyard, where the animals were kept. The animals were tied to wooden stakes. The rates for a stopover and fodder depended on the animal. Caravanserai owners often supplemented their incomes by gathering manure and selling it for fuel and fertilizer. The price for manure was set according to the animal that produced it and how much straw and grass was mixed in. Cow and donkey manure was regarded as high quality because it burned the hottest and kept mosquitos away.

Traders and travelers had problems with local food and foreign languages like modern travelers. They also had to deal with rules prohibiting certain native costumes and get permits to enter city gates, which explained their wants and needs and showed they presented no threat.

Sources: www.wikipedia.org, en:Image:Silk Route extant.JPG, www.ess.uci.edu/~oliver/silk.html, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia , www.siemerhand.com, ,www.sfusd.k12.ca.us, singlemindedwomen.com  www.sandomenico.org ,www.veeriku.tartu.ee, www.ruby-sapphire.com,

July 07, 2011

A Nod to the Originals...The TV Chefs Who Started It All

I recently posted a story on twitter, about the evolution of what is now referred to as the genre; Food TV. Obviously, when you read that phrase, if you are a foodie, you immediately think: Food Network, Top Chef, and the 1000's of 'clone' reality cooking competition shows that we are now being inundated with. Ok,  I exaggerate but, it sure seems that way, even to me, a so called 'foodie.' Now don't get me wrong, I and the James Beard Foundation agree that there are still actual quality 'cooking' shows out there such as this years award winning Eric Ripert's, Avec Eric. And that comes to the basis of my thoughts today.

Before the Food Network changed the palate of America, and frankly, the world, (...it's for you decide for yourself if that change is for the good, or for the bad. As for me, while I do believe that the influence Food TV now brings is more negative than positive, it did not start out that way. Though in my opinion, the positives are fewer, they have, however, been such influential positives that they probably outweigh the impact of the negatives...) most of our food information came from the food companies themselves.

A few decades ago, the culinary landscape (at least on TV here in America) changed forever with these 11 simple words, spoken in a voice full of culinary wonder and passion many have imitated......but few have mastered......"Hello everyone, I'm Julia Child and welcome to 'The French Kitchen."

With the broadcast of that show, Julia, truly started "Food TV. Then joined with another Original, Jacques Pepin, she brought us the award-winning 1999 PBS series Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, which  was honored with a Daytime Emmy in 2001. Others were spawned, some just as notable, such as: The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr, The Frugal Gourmet with Jeff Smith. Wok with Yan with Martin Yan  and don't forget Justin E. Wilson who taught us Cajun with "I gar-on-tee!" long before we were 'bammed' about the head and shoulders with essence untill we bled to death...

And friends...THEY spawned the culinary passion of the aspiring chefs who are today's 'culinary icons.' Not just the ones we see on TV today, who rarely cook anymore, but the countless unsung line chefs and sous chefs and pastry chefs and on and on and on, who anonymously, gladly and sometimes, thanklessly (ask a chef his first thought when he sees a plate return to the kitchen..) tire in a kitchen unseen, to bring you art on a plate.

Now, let's back up...while I say most TV chefs do not cook anymore, I further contend, they have succumbed to a celebrity life that is no longer driven by the food, but by 'network's' needs and goals. Worries include things like drives for ratings, advertising and competing for air time with other stations and chefs for market share. The food? That's now just the vehicle on which this new industry rides. I do not begrudge these former chefs anything. But, some have lost site that for foodies, and for them once, food wasn't a vehicle to celebrity, it was the celebrity...and they were passionate showcasing about IT. Now it seems, they spend most of their time showcasing themselves.

I challenge them to question what their passion is now. That's not to say I'm a hypocrite as I completely understand. If you threw $150,000 at me to show up at an event for two hours, cook something flashy in a pan...make it flame so the crown goes 'oo, ahh,' then sign a few autographs...I'd probably take the gig too. For them, (not all)) to be where they are is a credit to them...and to the passion for the FOOD that drove them to the excellence that garnered the attention they initially received from the food community. I would argue though, that some, not all, have actually changed careers.

While they were once in the kitchen 80 hours a week, earning their stripes as 'chef', doing Friday night covers, or the early Theater Push...on the line of their own, sometimes 'self named' restaurants, they are now "TV Personalities who used to chef." Folks, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. Good for them. I enjoy their food and lots of their greatest hits from the PAST where I actually got to witness their passion for food while watching them, just them and just the food. They taught me about kale...or making bread, or'grillin'..or fenugreek, or Mother Sauces...Like the Originals...

Ask chefs on the line why they chef?.. (and don't forget that cheffing is a 'service'...in the 'hospitality' industry... where others happiness is the key ingredient..) they'll tell you it's about that look on a persons' face when they take that first bite...the pleasure of knowing that this thing, this dish you just created, is making people happy...The Originals knew that.....they weren't about ratings...or "who's the best cook on a given day with these ingredients...Ready Go!!! , now buy our cookbooks, aprons, pots,  pans...yada yada yada" ...

Look, I actually like some Food TV. I had alot of 'cooking heros' on the tube..(in some cases that ended immediately when actually I met them and reality did not match the completely BS TV persona.....) and Food TV is directly responsible for my current culinary predilection. But, The Originals..... and some who are still doing 'a cooking show' for the right reasons, are the staying, last connection to my type of  'foodie' point of view. The same point of view The Originals had:  a simple love and passion for the food........and sharing that love with others. Period.

The numbing of Food TV........by the glut of so called 'culinary shows' that are no more than staged cooking competitions cloned over and over again, with pretty food, and the newest 'panel ' of celebrity judges of folks who used to cook but are now professional tasters, along with the contrived drama........is starting to become an insult to actual, passionate foodies. For these shows and for some of these chefs, passion for ratings, celebrity and the latest way to hook the viewer, has surpassed passion for the actual food, the Original reason we all tuned in. It is that same mis-guided passion that explains....
~Why we are starting to tune out;
~Why most Michelin acclaimed chefs are rarely seen on TV;
~Why Michelin Stars are rare;
 ~Why James Beard Foundation awards are so coveted and go to the 'traditional shows,' like Avec Eric

So in conclusion dear readers..let us try something tried true and oh wait, I know..

"Back in the Box....it's the new 'outside the box"...:

'As opposed to shows being about the network...or the chef....or dare I say, one chef dissing the other in those little intimate,  just you, me, the chef, the camera only shots they let us in on... sigh.............I say it's time for Food TV to get back to being about..... wait for it.........THE FOOD!!!

Long Live The Originals...

Bon Appetit!

L

May 27, 2011

The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

If you are a coffee lover, this is one of the most enjoyable events you can attend, be it at someones home, or in an Ethiopian Restaurant. I was fortunate enough to participate in the ceremony in one of my favorite restaurants, Mesob, in Montclair, NJ. The coffee is taken through its full life cycle of preparation in front of you in a ceremonial manner. Coffee is called 'Bunna' (boo-na) by the Ethiopians.

The ceremony starts with the woman, first bringing out the washed coffee beans and roasting them in a coffee roasting pan on small open fire/coal furnace. The pan is similar to an old fashioned popcorn roasting pan and it has a very long handle to keep the hand away from the heat. At this time most of your senses are being involved in the ceremony, the woman shakes the roasting pan back and forth so the beans won't burn (this sounds like shaking coins in a tin can and reminded me of making jiffy pop popcorn as a child), the coffee beans start to pop (also just like popcorn.) When finished roasting,  the preparer takes the roasted coffee and walks it around the room so the smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the air.

The roasted coffee is placed in a small household tool called 'Mukecha' (moo-ke-ch-a) for the grinding. Most restaurants at this time incorporate modern coffee grinders into the process, but some still use the traditional method. That method is to use a mukecha, a heavy wooden bowl into which the beans are placed. A wooden/metal stick called 'zenezena' is then used to crush the beans in a rhythmic up & down manner. (Think pestle and mortar.)

The crushed powder is then put into a traditional pot made out of clay called 'jebena' (J-be-na) with water and is boiled in the small open fire/coal furnace. Again the boiling coffee aroma fills the room,and the coffee is served in small cups called 'cini' (si-ni). Most usually these are the small Chinese tea cups found in most Chinese tea sets.

As you sip your first cup of coffee, you've gone through the full ceremonial process of the washing, the roasting, the grinding, and the brewing culminating with service and consumption. By now, the process is finished, but traditionally, Ethiopians will partake of at least a second serving and sometimes a third.

The second and third serving are important enough that each serving has a name, first serving is called "Abol;" second serving is "Huletegna"and third serving is "Bereka." The coffee is not ground for the second and third serving, a portion of coffee powder is left on purpose for these two ceremonies.

Ethiopian Coffee

Beans from Sumatra have always been highly prized not only because of their full flavor, but also because of their distinct appearance. Sumatran coffee beans, when green, are often asymmetrical in shape and have a deep aquamarine tint. Beginning in the 18th Century when the popularity of Sumatran coffee rose significantly, the unique shape and hue helped European merchants recognize authentic Sumatran coffee beans.

However, Sumatran coffee's distinct appearance isn't the only factor contributing to the coffee's uniqueness. The unusual drying techniques employed by Sumatran coffee farmers also contribute to the coffee's distinctiveness. These techniques involve an extended period of the coffee bean's exposure to the pulp of the berry after the berry has been harvested—a process which is believed to produce deeper tones in the brewed coffee.

Ethiopia produces some of the most unique and fascinating coffees in the world. The three main regions where Ethiopia coffee beans originate are Harrar, Ghimbi, and Sidamo (Yirgacheffe). Ethiopian Harrar coffee beans are grown on small farms in the eastern part of the country. They are dry-processed and are labeled as longberry (large), shortberry (smaller), or Mocha (peaberry). Ethiopian Harrar coffee can have a strong dry edge, winy to fruit like acidity, rich aroma, and a heavy body. In the best Harrar coffees, one can observe an intense aroma of blueberries or blackberries. Ethiopian Harrar coffee is often used in espresso blends to capture the fine aromatics in the crema.

If you are a coffee drinker, seek out an Ethiopian restaurant near you. Not only is dinner spectacular, (be ready to eat with your hands. Forks are optional!) and an experience, the coffee is a must!

Bon Apetit!

April 17, 2011

Priceless gems found in Key West, Florida: "The Southernmost Hotel Collection"

I have had the good fortune to have traveled my entire life. I've visited exquisite locations, stayed at fine resorts & hotels, enjoyed many fabulous gourmet meals, and well, to put it bluntly, have become intolerant to mediocre and insistent on quality, stellar accommodations and service. I will easily admit being a food and travel snob.

Now don't misunderstand me. I'm not talking about a "Can't wait to visit with Biff and Buffy in the Hamptons... dahling" type of snob. I mean that when I travel, spending hard earned money, I'm looking for those hotels and restaurants that "do it right," taking the time to provide the best of accommodations, service and experience. There is nothing worse than booking a vacation, traveling 1000's of miles, only to find that the hype of the brochures and resorts website that determined your decision, must have been describing some "other" resort or locale. I'm sure at least once in your life you have had that experience. I know I have. So, as I have been wont to do with Kitchen Rap, when I find a resort that hits all the marks, consistently, at the top of it's game, I write about it.

The Southernmost Hotel Collection, located in Historic Old Town, at the end of famed Duval Street, at the very tip of Key West, Florida, (yup, the same place you've taken all those pics if you've ever visited Key West) is one of those resorts.

When most think of Key West, they think of all crazy and wonderful things available, from the eclectic to the bizarre. From the Hemmingway House, to the restaurants like Jimmy Buffet's Margharitaville, or the famed  bars such as Sloppy Joes, to the dozens of fine art galleries along Duval Street, it's beaches, or it's fishing and boating activities in crystalline tropical waters, Key West has it all.

Smack dab in the middle of all this is The Southernmost Collection. My recent stay was everything I could have hoped for and more from a trip to this tropical paradise. The collection, consisting of The Southernmost HotelSouthernmost on the Beach and Key West's only award winning, luxury oceanfront bed and breakfasts, The La Mer Hotel & Dewey House, meets the expectations of any and all travelers, whatever their budget. The B&B's are quaint, luxurious and quiet, just like you would expect. The Hotel, right smack dab in the heart of Old Town is a great home base while you explore all Key West has to offer, and Southernmost on the Beach rivals any Caribbean resort I have ever been to.

I stayed at Southernmost on the Beach, on the edge of the Atlantic. My accommodations were immaculate, the service made me feel like a VIP, and in a location that, well, once ensconced in my room with it's huge veranda and views overlooking the water, made it hard to fathom I was still in the States. This resort has it all and does it right my friends. I had a wonderful time in what the resort describes as 'oceanfront elegance meets Old Key West charm'. I would have to agree.
Waking each day to a Key West Sunrise, having coffee on the veranda, while listening to the gentle caresses of the waves, set the tone each and every morning for a true tropical vacation. This particular resort was voted one of Trip Advisor's Best of the 2010 and was voted one of its 10 Best Romantic Hotel destinations. With its own beach, ocean side pool, this my friends was fantastic place to stay and I highly recommend it.

One of the great things about the resort, is the Southernmost Beach Cafe' Restaurant, located on South Beach, surrounded by the Southernmost Hotel Collection properties, offering oceanfront dining. While keeping the casual atmosphere of a 'beach restaurant,' there is nothing casual about the quality fare coming out of the kitchen. Led by Executive Chef Ben, from breakfast to dinner, this eatery is putting out gourmet food at it's best.

For me, once I find a place I can count on for all the things I look for in a vacation and stay, they are rewarded with my loyalty. To that end, if you find yourself in Key West, you cannot go wrong with any of the Southernmost Collection's properties. And when you get to this little spot of paradise, stop by the Beach Cafe Bar located mere yards from the water You never know...you just might see me there...

Southernmost Hotel Collection
1319 Duval Street • Key West, FL 33040
Reservations 800.354.4455 or 305.296.6577