The Horse Meat of the Coffee World

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An article in today's New York Times gives interesting information on kopi luwak, the ridiculously overpriced coffee made of beans that have been through a civet's digestive tract, which supposedly ferments them to a sweet smoothness that drives connosseurs wild, and makes them willing to pay the incredible prices. Here's how the writer, Norimitsu Onishi, describes it:

Costing hundreds of dollars a pound, these beans are found in the droppings of the civet, a nocturnal, furry, long-tailed catlike animal that prowls Southeast Asia's coffee-growing lands for the tastiest, ripest coffee cherries. The civet eventually excretes the hard, indigestible innards of the fruit -- essentially, incipient coffee beans -- though only after they have been fermented in the animal's stomach acids and enzymes to produce a brew described as smooth, chocolaty and devoid of any bitter aftertaste. As connoisseurs in the United States, Europe and East Asia have discovered civet coffee in recent years, growing demand is fueling a gold rush in the Philippines and Indonesia, the countries with the largest civet populations.

Seven or so years ago, kopi luwak began appearing in the news as it began being offered by specialty coffee roasters and a very few coffee houses, with a reputation as the caviar of the coffee world, with prices to match. A lot of people called to ask me what it tasted like. So I procured a few samples and ground and brewed them.

The answer: a bland, neutral coffee that tasted as though it had been treated to remove acid, with a distinctly sweet aftertaste. I found it distinctly unpleasant. It reminded me of horse meat, which I've had on numerous occasions in Italy, and which is very much like lean beef or bison but with an almost candied overtone that is somehow disturbing, probably because you know you're eating something your friends and cousins (or you) likes to ride and pet--the shibboleth against eating animals with names.

Horse meat continues to be popular in France and Italy--the very small but elegant town near Parma, Colorno, where I was teaching last week (here's a Wikipedia picture of the ducal summer palace where Slow Food's master's program occupies a number of rooms; here's a picture of the piazza right outside it on a market day, showing how intimately it's connected to the small town that grew up to serve it) has just a few food shops, but there's a macelleria equina, a horse meat butcher's shop, among them. Horse meat is particularly associated with Emilia-Romagna, the region around Parma, though many Italians still associate it with wartime substitutes for unobtainable meats.

I wasn't surprised that in Indonesia, too, it has wartime associations: I can only imagine it as a surrogate when you'd rather have the real thing.

Mr. Widjaja, the Jakarta store owner, said that the Dutch, who ruled Indonesia for more than three centuries, and Japanese soldiers, who occupied the country during World War II, were the most die-hard drinkers of civet coffee. But the coffee all but disappeared after the late 1950s, he said, and resurfaced on the market only after its reputation began spreading overseas.

I certainly never wanted to taste it again: it was weird. So categorize me with the Filipino Onishi quotes--ignorant, and intending to remain so.

Alberto Pat-og, 60, a retired school principal, said he did not understand why foreigners were willing to pay so much for a cup of the stuff.

"We are a bit surprised," he said. "A bit perplexed."

His son, Lambert, 20, added, with a big grin, "We are ignorant."

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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