July 2, 2013

Contemplating coffee, change, and culinary concoctions..

Contemplating coffee, change, and culinary concoctions..

Today I met a man whose life revolved around coffee. He had set up a little stall in Handpicked Hall, a sort-of indoor flea market located in Leeds’ Grand Arcade. Overhead, a sign read “Casa Colombiana, for pure 100% Colombian coffee”. To his left was a big complicated machine with knobs and dials and a funnel on top, and next to the funnel was a silver pipe which led straight into the wall behind it.

“That’s our coffee roaster. We roast the coffee ourselves in small batches, up to 1kg at a time, checking the quality of the beans and picking out the bad ones,” he explained. His name is David, and he had come from Colombia. He had grown up working alongside his father in a coffee plantation since the age of six, from harvesting coffee cherries to processing them till they reached the ‘green coffee’ stage. “I’ve seen my father work so hard for so little, yet all these big [coffee] companies, they make so much money out of selling coffee; some of these people have never even seen a green coffee bean! Skinny lattes, Macchiatos… People have made coffee out to be an elitist thing. It shouldn’t be. Coffee was never meant to be complicated. It’s a regular drink, to be enjoyed by regular people.” He continued, “the best way to enjoy coffee — you grind the beans, brew a cup, put on some music, and enjoy it with other people. Sometimes you have a slice of cake with it too.”

Besides being a polyglot (who counts English, Spanish and French among the languages spoken), David is also knowledgeable about politics and passionate about eradicating poverty and bringing about change in the world for the better. We spoke about big issues and little issues, from employment to parenting (“every week I get disowned at least 5 times, by my son and my wife, but we still stick together anyway,” he says in jest); and before long, half the afternoon was gone.

David, his machines, and Fanny sampling the coffee

In the time we spent chatting, a number of people had stopped by to buy coffee, most of whom were repeat-customers. His friendly nature and excellent coffee has evidently gained a popular following.  “The feedback we get has been phenomenal. People just love our coffee,” he says, with a hint of pride in his voice, and then goes on to talk about how his quiet confidence in the quality of the coffee has won over many, coffee-drinkers and non-coffee-drinkers alike. He has every reason to be proud of his craft – he roasts the green coffee beans to perfection, looks through the batch and picks out the bad beans individually, then grinds the rest of the beans to make coffee from them. He is passionate about his craft, and rightly so. The coffee is full-bodied yet not too bitter, subtle, yet rich at the same time. “I don’t give a flying fish about how much I earn. I’m reaching the twilight of my years, I’m doing what I love doing. That’s what matters, to be able to look back and say that you lived a life without regrets.”

David used to play music too. He played the saxophone, “a long time ago, long before you were born,” he remarked, telling of his last gig and how good it felt to be able to share music with others. I could relate to that too, having just played my last concert in Leeds (will write about it in another post soon!). The link between music and coffee was first established by J.S. Bach in his humorous and secular Kaffeekantate, BWV 211. The libretto tells of a father who tries to discourage his daughter from drinking coffee, and his daughter who would give up everything to have her coffee:

“Wenn ich des Tages nicht dreimal
Mein Schläfen Coffee trinken darf,
So wird ich ja zu meiner Qual
Wie ein verdortes Ziegenbrätchen.” 

Not many other composers dealt with the subject of food and music since then, and a young Singaporean musician has decided to take matters into his own hands. “Project Laksa”, the brainchild of pianist Ziliang Song, features a concert of western classical music connected with the local cuisine in Singapore. One of the highlights is a specially commissioned work by award-winning Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi. Entitled Laksa Cantata, the work finds its idea in Bach’s Coffee Cantata. Translated into Singaporean context, Laksa becomes the subject of a squabble between a couple in the build up to their wedding. For those wondering what Laksa might be, click the link above.

This concert of gastromusical delights happens at The Arts House on the 12th and the 13th of July. For more information, visit their Facebook page here, and buy your tickets here! Stay tuned for an interview with Ziliang and more food-bytes to come 🙂

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