Coffee is finally getting its due with experts giving it the gourmet treatment, writes Mitya Underwood
Coffee is undoubtedly one of the most popular beverages everywhere in the world, but it rarely gets much attention. It's the drink that follows a meal, to which one generally pays very little notice and consumes almost without thinking. Or it's the go-to drink for someone rushing out of the house in the morning, hurrying to get to work.
But recently, the caffeine-loaded beverage has manoeuvred its way into the limelight in an attempt to shed its image as simply the ultimate pick-me-up drink.
To demonstrate, last month, 20 of the region's top chefs and sommeliers - including the executive chef from Six Senses Zighy Bay in Oman - gathered in Dubai for a two-day coffee academy hosted by Nespresso. As the title suggests, the experts were invited to learn everything there is to know about coffee and how they should be experimenting much more with the different flavours.
Under the watchful eye of the Italian sommelier, Giuseppe Vaccarini, and Edouard Thomas, a coffee sensory expert at Nespresso, the chefs learnt about coffee pairing (even down to the best water to accompany it), and how to taste coffees in a way similar to sampling wine.
Vaccarini, who is now retired and lives in Milan, is the founder of an association of professional Italian sommeliers and one of the world's most respected and renowned wine sommeliers, winning the title of Best Sommelier of the World in 1978.
During the past two years, he has been working with Nespresso to deliver its coffee chef academies and study more of the science of the drink.
"We are at the beginning," he says, "but we are now discovering coffee. At the moment, people still under appreciate it. But coffee will follow what happened with wine 200 years ago, with all the different classifications of the best wines - it happened with olive oil in the Mediterranean and it is now happening with coffee. It will take a bit of time, it won't happen from just one day."
One of Vaccarini's main tasks has been experimenting with the art of coffee pairing, working out which foods and drinks go best with different coffee tastes, be it some of the richer, darker flavours, or the milder, sweeter ones. The pairings, he says, can bring great value to a meal.
"Just think about when you have breakfast, what do you have? You have fruits or eggs and you have a cup of coffee.
"Why don't we do it properly with the right cup of coffee and the right food? Some of them aren't what we need for pairing, but it's possible to do it with many others."
Vaccarini's taste buds are so well trained he has even identified the best waters to accompany coffee. Acqua Panna and San Pellegrino - both Italian - are his standout favourites. Tap water, he insists, is a no-no.
"In some countries in Europe, it's tradition to serve a glass of water with coffee, not tap water, mineral water that is bottled at the spring. They improve all sensations of the other products."
Dates, he says, should be paired with light coffee, which is mild in flavour, as it helps enhance the flavours of the fruit. Mangos and other very sweet fruits like berries can handle a stronger taste.
Cheese, wine, citrus fruits and salty foods should never be paired with coffee, says Vaccarini, because the individual flavours are too strong to be mixed in the mouth and would leave a very unpleasant aftertaste. The flavour of the coffee itself is influenced by the area from where the beans are grown, the ripeness of the bean and the roasting process.
Different categories designated by the tasters include floral, fruity, vegetal, aromatic herbs, spicy, toasted, chemical or false (which is essentially defective). Some Ethiopian coffee are famous for being floral, while Kenyan beans are often citrus. According to the tasters, Colombian beans have a wine character and Brazilian coffee is sweet and nutty.
Thomas and his fellow sensory experts can produce detailed descriptions of colour, consistency, intensity, finesse, aroma, body and balance, among others.
But despite their extensive knowledge, Thomas and Vaccarini refuse to say whether adding milk and sugar to anything other than a latte or cappuccino ruins the coffee.
"Eighty per cent [of people] in Italy put sugar in," says Thomas. "I would like to tell people that, OK, put sugar, that's fine, but maybe try a different coffee and realise you don't necessarily need to put sugar in."
Vaccarini agrees. People who put sugar in their coffee, he says, are usually doing it to disguise the taste of a bad bean.
So what is the perfect way to enjoy a cup of coffee? "As it is," he smiles. "If you have a good wine or coffee, any substance will change it."
The water, however, is key. It should be heated to 80°C and then left to cool down to between 65 and 67°C before drinking.
These basics, and a lot more of the complex science of tasting and pairing, were covered as part of the two-day chef academy, which has so far trained more than 150 sommeliers and 65 chefs around the world.
Nespresso, which produces small capsules using beans from just one to two per cent of the world's coffee crops, has its regional headquarters in Dubai and hence chose the city to host the latest batch of experts. It also sells millions of capsules across the UAE each year - both from its shops, which it calls boutiques, and also an online direct-to-your-home delivery portal.
"We are picky with our coffee and we decided to be very picky with our chefs," says Pierre Debayle, the managing director for the Middle East and North Africa region. "The criteria to enter the chef academy is very strict.
"Coffee is not only the beverage you drink at the end of the meal or at breakfast, it's a fantastic product with a strong energy that can be used, of course, in desserts but in other cuisines."
One of the chefs who flew in for the course, Steve Wilson, the executive chef at the Zighy Bay Six Senses in Oman, admits to once being something of a coffee addict.
"When I worked with Marco Pierre White, I was drinking between 20 and 30 cups a day; it was 17 hours a day and you didn't stop. It was never very good coffee though," says the Edinburgh-born chef, laughing.
Wilson was invited to the course and says the mention of gastronomy coffee recipes was enough to grab his attention.
"Everyone knows about coffee in desserts but using coffee in savoury dishes made me really curious.
"It's easy to match it with sweet things but with savoury, it's a lot more difficult, but these guys are amazing. No one else is attempting to do this with coffee, and there's a lot of interest with chefs everywhere. I think we'll see it in a lot more restaurants in the future."
As the executive chef of the Zighy Bay hotel, Wilson oversees 48 chefs in four restaurants. It's his role to sign off on all the dishes on each of the menus.
"We can easily incorporate it into the meals," he says. "We are very fortunate, in our kitchen there is no corporate workbook, we can do whatever we want and try anything new. This is exciting for us."
Other academy chefs included staff from the Music Hall at Jumeirah's Zabeel Saray on The Palm, Jeddah's five-star Park Hyatt and the Four Seasons Hotel in Riyadh.
Panicos Hadjitofi, of the Four Seasons Hotel in Cyprus, travelled much farther than most for the two-day academy.
"It was very interesting. I'm a coffee drinker myself, mostly good coffee, but this is the first time I've used coffee in the kitchen.
"It was interesting to learn about the coffee itself and how to make it work with different things. As chefs, we always want to learn new things and improve and this is something that a lot of us are excited about."
Colour of the crema the emulsion of small bubbles in a surrounding liquid. Bring the cup up to your chest, about 30cm from your eyes, before moving it closer, about 15 to 20cm away, to analyse the surface and the crema.
Very light it will have few aromas and be light in body.
Dark to very dark the fruity, floral and chocolate aromas prevail and can acquire a bitter taste.
Grey aromatic defects (usually caused by poor raw material).
Solid rich and intense, taste is persistent.
Loose body texture with big bubbles taste has low persistence, less than a minute, and few typical
Scarce body texture with a white button totally or partially lack fruity or floral aromas and provide over-extracted aromatic perceptions.
Stir the coffee and bring the cup to your nose without rotating it. Breathe in for a few seconds. Then bring the cup up to the nose and breathe deeply for a second time.
Intensity classified as weak, slightly intense, intense enough, intense and very intense. It is not always synonymous with quality.
Finesse classified as common, slightly fine, fine enough, fine or excellent. Helps evaluate the integrity (absence of defective smells) and typicality (presence of distinctive and constant characters)
Aromas primary aromas determined by coffee varieties, place of cultivation and harvest. Secondary aromas determined by post-harvest method of green coffee bean preparation; and tertiary aromas linked to the method of roasting and coffee extraction. Smell must be described using all three typologies.
Take a sip from the cup by breathing the liquid mixed with some air. Must be about 66°C. Distribute it over your whole tongue and palate for about 10 seconds. With your mouth open, breathe through your nose. Then swallow the coffee in two to three movements. A complete sensory analysis takes about two minutes.
Smoothness assessed by the volume, consistency, contours, weight and temperature of a substance. It must encounter the palate and slide gently on the tongue in extreme lightness and taste pleasurable regardless of the body texture.
Body texture a spherical, tactile sensation felt when the coffee is taken in the mouth and stirred with the tongue. Gives an impression of the liquids structure; its density, viscosity, consistency and compactness.
An accurate sensory analysis can produce the following information:
Aspect and colour
Harmony and quality
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