A Pilgrim’s Refuge

Caelum
Location: Carrer de la Palla, 8
Beans on the menu:
Café Mochy Mezcla
Caffeine delivery method:
Cortado
Crutch compatibility: 2/5 stars. Negotiating the steep stairs to the basement could prove fatal for the crutch-enabled crusader (there are street-level vestibules available for the less inclined)
Hit to the wallet:
€4,55
Music playing: Stevie Wonder (and friends)
Website: www.caelumbarcelona.com

Architecture aside, one of the most striking features of Barcelona is the prodigious amount of tapas bars and cafes. So finding good, distinctive coffee bars in a caffeinated city of this magnitude is a bit like trying to find a needle in a pile of proverbial needles. There are so many, they are in danger of starting to all look the same. But on recommendation from a friend and long-standing resident of BCN, I had the good fortune to be guided to a place that can only be described as ‘heavenly’. Except it isn’t really a coffee house in the truest sense of the word; it’s a little more tempting than that.

Just a beans’ throw from the Church of Santa María del Pi (St. Mary of the Pine Tree), Caelum enjoys a commanding corner spot in the centre of El Barri Gòtic. The high windows that advertise an alluring display of cakes, baked goodies and sweets that wait within are an irresistible enticement for the coffee enthusiast in need of some earthly salvation.

Since 1998, Caelum (named after a constellation in the southern hemisphere) has been sourcing much of its celestial culinary creations from the vast network of convents and monasteries that span the Iberian Peninsula. Thanks to the dedication of monks and nuns across the land, there is more than enough wholesome refreshment to satisfy the taste buds of the most demanding pilgrim. Seeking purely to find sanctuary in the bean however, I opt to indulge my uninitiated senses in the bowels of the building rather than at street level.

Once you have laid siege to the short, steep flight of stairs down to the basement, Gothic arches and friendly staff invite you to find welcome rest in Caelum’s very own crypt. Soft candlelight gently illuminates the exposed brick surroundings whilst the soothing tones of Stevie Wonder and friends (Curtis Mayfield, Otis Reading etc) are a comforting psalm for the ears. Paradoxically, it feels like descending into a higher place where coffee, tea, sweet monastic delights, funk and soul play their part in perfect harmony. This has to be a first.

Before leafing through the menu, the cover reads:

El olor de la santidad es una mezcla de membrillo y rosa, muy delicada…” Paraselso

(The smell of holiness is a mix of quince and rose, very delicate…)

It’s an interesting quote to contemplate whilst Stevie Wonder simultaneously funks out ‘Superstition’ over the stereo. Deciding to take my cue from Señor Wonder, I reject the holier virtues of quince and rose and soon find solace in a righteously smooth Cortado and sinful Bonbó de figa con rom y brandi (Bonbon of fig with brandy and rum). Dare I say it? The combination was pretty heavenly.

Although the well-healed clientele are testament to the fact that this establishment isn’t necessarily kind to the wallet or purse, you could easily be forgiven for throwing caution to the wind by indulging in temptations such as: Puff Pastry filled with Angel Hair; Carolina’s Brownies from the Monastery; Saint’s Bone; Cheese from the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña; Toast with lashings of Strawberry Jam of Sor Elena, Herbal teas infused with an Elixir of Roses; Trappistes Rochefort beer, Reservas from the Monasterio de la Olivia; and Santiago’s Tart amongst other gastronomic delights. The coffee is also good. Nor does it have that familiar bitter or burnt aftertaste to it that all too many cafes serve up.

Having paid my dues I ascend ungracefully back upstairs aided by my faithful crutch and guiltily eye up the delicious selection of monastic pickles, honey, jam, wine, liquor, vinegar, oil, chocolate and biscuits on my way out.

I have to confess that Caelum is unashamedly a refuge for hungry, saintly and sinning pilgrims alike. If you have indeed given into temptation (and who could possibly blame you if you have?), prepare yourself for a long wait if you’re looking for a miracle to be performed on the bill.

But it’s well worth taking to the road for.

Bean on a Crutch rating: 4/5 stars

Brewing up the Perfect Storm

The price of coffee is soaring.

Price Index (US cents/lb) from 4th Jan'10 - 7th Feb'11 Source: International Coffee Organization (ICO)

When you consider that coffee is second in value only to oil as a source of foreign exchange in terms of world trade and provides employment for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, the ramifications on a domestic and global scale are huge.

In the past eight months alone, the cost of high-quality washed Arabica beans has increased by more than 80 percent on the London and New York exchanges, representing a 13-year high.

Unpredictable weather patterns and a fragile supply/demand balance are largely cited as being responsible for this surge.

Colombia, the world’s second largest producer of hand-picked Arabica beans after Brazil, has been hit particularly hard. Extreme shifts in climatic conditions have devastated once reliable harvests. Successive years of drought and heavy rainfall have resulted in a steep drop in production from its peak production of 17m bags in 1992 to 8.9m last year.

Rising humidity is also having an impact with crop diseases such as Coffee Leaf Rust and insect infestations like the Broca Beetle reaching epidemic levels. As a result, family growers who have been in the business for generations are now diversifying into farming plantain, avocados and oranges from the rich volcanic soils of their plantations to soften the blow, and ensure their future sustainability.

It is of course true that growers will always welcome a high price for their lucrative cash crop. In India, where unseasonably heavy monsoons have reduced coffee yields in recent years, a BBC report highlights that smaller harvests do not necessarily have to translate into less profit when coffee fetches a premium. However, pressure to produce high quality Arabica beans in the face of climatic change and hyper-volatility of the markets continues to be a concern for growers.

The Fairtrade Foundation are already introducing measures to help mitigate the impact of climate change affecting small scale co-operatives like those in the Mbale region of Uganda. It is feared that the increase in average temperature could cease Arabica bean production entirely within the next decade. When more than half of the country’s GDP is derived from coffee production, the devastation to the economy and livelihoods of millions of Ugandans’ would be nothing short of a catastrophe.

Elsewhere, production is on the up. In Nepal, a relative newcomer as an emerging exporter of Arabica beans, the quantity of  coffee parchments has jumped four-fold in the last five years; partly due to the increase of farmers establishing plantations in the high altitude pastures of the Himalaya. The vast majority of Nepali coffee is also organically grown which is increasingly in demand. Realising this economic potential, the government has introduced measures to further double production in the next three years. Whether this will be fairly traded or not remains to be seen.

As global demand for coffee consumption increases at a steady one to two percent every year without any sign of abating, there is no reason to see why prices will fall anytime soon. The latest forecast in last month’s International Coffee Organization’s (ICO) report estimates a 9.5 percent increase in global production this year (2010/11). Strong exports from countries like Brazil and emerging markets have helped to reverse the 1.2 percent drop in production from the year previously, which means that global stocks will remain low for the foreseeable future. Ominously, the report goes on to conclude that ‘unfavourable weather conditions in major coffee producing regions continue to increase uncertainties.

So what does all this mean for the retailer and customer at the other end of the supply chain?

For specialist independent coffee retailers who are dedicated to selling honestly priced freshly roasted coffee, this could spell difficult times ahead as they struggle to absorb the rising cost of the bean.

'Anyone for a litre of coffee?'

For global coffee chain giants such as the Seattle-based Starbucks – who recently announced a 44 percent increase in profits in the last quarter from a year-ago – the upward trend in the cost of coffee is, relatively speaking, small beer.

Just don’t be surprised when the price of their super-sized 31oz Trenta portion of skinny-latte soon goes up to inflict further damage to the wallet, and the bladder.

The price of coffee may be at a thirteen year high but right from the soil to the sip, it appears that a ‘perfect storm’ is brewing.

A Shining Light for Generations of Coffee Lovers

Cafés El Magnífico
Location:
Carrer de l’Argenteria
Beans on the Menu: More than forty different varieties and blends worldwide to suit the most discerning of palettes plus a wide variety of speciality tea
Crutch Compatibility:
Sins muletas, con cojera (without crutches, with limp)
Caffeine delivery method:
Freshly roasted Tunki filter coffee. Also purchased: 250g Espresso Virtuoso Mezcla (Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia, India), 250g Ethiopian Harrar Boldgrain
Hit to the wallet:
€10,50
Music Playing: No jukebox required
Website: www.cafeselmagnifico.com

Señor Salvador Sans is a fast-talking Catalan who is serious about coffee. You could say that it runs through the veins. Well it certainly has been running in the bloodline for generations since his grandfather first started to roast coffee on the streets of the Barrio El Born district back in 1919. But during the three decades of Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), coffee was sadly a luxury only enjoyed by the extremely wealthy and the business of roasting and selling coffee was banned under the regime. Yet, the time-honoured skills and knowledge were defiantly – and bravely – passed down from one generation to the next. Now the third and current owner, Salvador, who inherited the business from his father in the early nineties, is faithfully keeping this family tradition alive.

From these humble beginnings that began on the corner of the narrow Carrer d’en Rosic almost a century ago, the family business has grown beyond recognition. Cafés El Magnífico now trades behind the warm glow of its stained glass window which delicately frames the shop front on the bustling L’Agenteria. Located near the magnificent lofty columns of the medieval Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, this welcoming boutique-like coffee shop serves and sells some of the – if not the – best beans in town.

“You want to see some coffee being roasted?” Salvador asks without giving a moment’s pause for a response. “Let me show you where it all first started,” he says before leading the way at a brisk enough pace for my, now crutch-unaided ankle, to just about keep up with. Within a few moments we arrive at the worn wooden doors of the old premises and he leads me down into the basement to introduce me to the Vittoria roasting machine which still bares the scars of a fire just three years-ago. Operated by roastmaster Iván from Cuba, it was just finishing off a morning batch of Arabica coffee beans from Timor. “They’re not ready yet,” said Salvador as he inspected the bag of newly roasted beans, “they need at least another 48 hours for the aroma to fully come through.”

Within a matter of minutes, we were on the street again and back on the pace towards the distribution ‘nerve-centre’ of the business. It is a spacious half-cum warehouse, half-cum art gallery with framed coffee sacks from all over the world hanging on the walls; each printed with the distinct ‘coffee art’ of the grower. Sacks from Papua New Guinea, India, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama are just some of the artworks on display. The aroma inside the high-ceiling storehouse is infused with a heavenly mix of coffee and speciality teas that are carefully being hand packed and sealed, ready for delivery to the 200 plus – and growing – book of clients.

Without any diversion, Salvador heads straight to his favourite roasting machine; the 30 kilo Roure, dating back to 1960. As a testament to the unique character of any roaster, this gleaming behemoth with a cast-iron chamber at its heart is at its best when roasting Brazilian beans, he proudly maintains. The controls that can be programmed with multiple ‘profiles’ to exact the roaster’s requirements looked more befitting of a British Nuclear Fuels reactor instrument panel (circa-1989) than a coffee roasting machine; but that’s the science of roasting.

Yet beneath the evident pride in running a successful family coffee business that supplies a ton-and-a-half of freshly roasted coffee to cafes and restaurants in and around Barcelona each week, there is an underlying frustration. The reason, he laments, is that despite the prodigious amount of bars in the city (a staggering 15,000), that serve coffee, very few have the “loyalty, faithfulness, and professionalism” that is essential if coffee-across-the-counter is to achieve its full flavoursome potential. His startling but insightful analogy of an espresso machine being likened to a fruit gambler where the “owner doesn’t care what comes out the other end as long as it makes him money” immediately shatters my over-romanticised vision of the deft and meticulously trained Spanish (or Catalan) Barista in a single retort. “It is nothing short of a crime,” he sighs.

But Salvador and his dedicated team of 24 employees continue to keep this history-steeped family flame alive to ensure that excellent coffee remains a reality in Barcelona for years to come. For him, the essence underpinning the success of Cafés El Magnífico is the refrain of coffee-enthusiasts everywhere. Simply put: ‘Adoro Café’ (I love Coffee). Once the bills are paid, profit comes only after good coffee, he insists. And I believe him.

“I want coffee to shine, as a product and as a drink” he says passionately, as we enjoy a cup of the silky award-winning and organically certified Tunki (Peru) coffee with two customers in the back of the shop. Asked if he expects either of his two children to take over the business when he retires, he pauses for the first time since we met earlier that morning. Thoughtfully, he explains that his ten year-old son currently has only a passion for FC Barcelona. His sixteen-year old daughter however seems to be following assuredly in her father’s footsteps and already works in the shop at the weekend and during holidays.

“We’ll see, who knows what the future will hold,” he responds with a philosophical, paternal beam. If the past – and present – is anything to go by, I don’t think Salvador has much to worry about.

Bean on a Limp rating: 5/5 stars

A Small Corner of Coffee Heaven

Mesón del Café
Location: Carrer de Libretería
Crutch compatibility: 4/5 stars (the liberal sprinkling of sawdust on the ceramic floor provides ample traction for the crutch-enabled coffee enthusiast)
Beans on the Menu:
To quote: “‘Top Secret’ South American Mezcla”
Caffeine delivery method: Cortado, (glass of Catalan Mescaro, no ice), cafe con leche
Hit to the wallet:
€9 (and worth every eurozone bean)
Music playing: Radio Catalunya

Steadfastly resisting the contagion of brash souvenir shops that appear to be advancing from both sides, the Mesón del Café (Coffee Inn) evidently has its roots planted firmly in Catalan soil; and isn’t budging. Walk a few yards from the grandiose Plaça Sant Jaume down Libretería and it’s easy to miss this little gem. Patience and a keen eye do however pay off and you will find, nestled amongst the plethora of cheap ‘I ♥ BCN’ trinkets imported from China, a coffee house of the highest order.

Established in 1909, this unpretentious – almost rustic – establishment has been quietly picking up awards throughout the years. Correction. Decades. And for good reason. Aside from the tasty selection of pastries and churros on display, coffee is the real star attraction here.

It’s a lively little place. The chain smoking owners take turns between feeding their nicotine addiction and serving the brisk turnover of caffeine depleted customers. The clientele is as diverse as the conversations are animated. From starry-eyed lovers to fatigued day trippers; families spanning the generations to old friends confiding with each other in hushed tones; punctuated only by solo ‘sixty-seconders’ in search of instant fortification (because it takes that time to order, polish off a cortado, pay and leave). There are some real characters too. One eccentric regular, whom I presume lives above the Coffee Inn, occasionally pops in to converse with the customers and to introduce his petite two year-old mongrel dog affectionately called ‘Mimi the Terrorist’ to anyone who takes an interest.

Perched at the end of the narrow wooden bar that runs the three-quarter length of this cosy establishment, I decide to divert my body’s innate need to take a mid-afternoon siesta and order a cortado (from the Spanish ‘cortar’ or ‘tallat’ in Catalan). A popular pick-me-up in Spain, Portugal, Cuba and Latin America, a cortado is essentially an espresso ‘cut’ with a ratio of 1:1 steamed milk and a dash of foam to gently round off the edges of its intense, flavourful kick. It judiciously arrives served in a glass accompanied by not one, but two bowls of sugar.

The mid-height wall panels made from old hessian coffee sacks from the Merconta plantation in Brazil are just an understated nod to the provenance of the beans and their long journey to reach this exceptional cafeteria. Above, are faded black and white photographs of fresh-faced baristas of years gone by. A fascinating array of framed artefacts also adorn the wood-panelled walls and speak of the many magical moments that can only begin to describe this coffee house’s prestigious history.

On recommendation from the unflappable, but attentive owner, the next course was a superbly balanced 28 year-old Catalan brandy to soften the arresting volcanic blow of the cortado. Wishing to savour the moment a while longer, I finish up with an unhurried cafe con leche.

Rumour has it that the ‘house’ Picardía (a mix of espresso, condensed milk and whiskey) is also without parallel. But I had had my fill, content in the knowledge that I had found a small corner of coffee heaven right in the heart of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella.

And if anyone is still in need of convincing of the Mesón del Café’s grounded charm, look no further than the corner window above the entrance. There you will find pictured a coffee jar overflowing with a steaming fresh brew of coffee. Look a little closer, and carefully painted on the vessel is the faint outline of one of Kaldi’s very own legendary Ethiopian ‘dancing goats’. Need I say any more?

Bean on a Crutch rating: 5/5 stars

A Field Guide to Coffee Bars in Barcelona

Nursing a chronically sprained ankle whilst periodically pounding the streets of Barcelona on a pair of standard-issue crutches does have has its own advantages.

Although not an exhaustive list, here are just some of the reasons why:

  • The polite (but not forgotten) tradition of having doors opened for you at the threshold of establishments is revived with gusto
  • You get your own personal ‘shopping assistant’ who will offer to carry your basket for you in supermarkets (most of the time)
  • Your faith in the spirit of human solidarity is restored… between other people on crutches
  • Motorists slow down – or even stop – as you cross the street
  • You have a perfect excuse to temporarily slow the tempo of life down, elevate the feet with a strategically-placed bag of frozen peas, and rest up with a good book

All well and good you might think? Here is the downside:

  • Stairs become your enemy.
    (In a city where the sheer density of living means the only direction is to build up – or down – there are battalions of them. Ninety-three from flat to street level to be exact)
  • Uneven or wet surfaces become a minefield of potentially backside-numbing proportions
  • Repeated obstruction caused to more able-bodied pedestrians merely compounds the urge to hobble around with a large sign that reads ‘El inválido que acerca: Ceda por favor’ (Invalid approaching: Please give way) emblazoned across my chest
  • Refer back to point one

In all seriousness, my respect and admiration for disabled people who face the challenge of negotiating an urban world designed for the able-bodied on a daily basis has shot up beyond recognition over the last few weeks. I dread to think what living in Barcelona confined to a wheelchair is like and have no intention of finding out.

Now, balancing up this veritable smorgasbord of pros and cons, I have – with the encouragement of former resident of Barcelona and fellow coffee enthusiast Anita Westmoorland – decided to emerge from this enforced period of convalescence and fight the good fight of the crutch-assisted quadruped.

And whilst the torn tendons in my ankle perform their miraculous physiological feat of repairing themselves back to full pedaling capacity, I have resolved to take on some of the the best (and quirkiest) Tapas bars that BCN has to offer; and drink coffee.

So for your delectation, here is the first installment of:

A Field Guide to Coffee Bars in Barcelona (on crutches)

Bar El Paraigua
Location: Plaça de San Miguel
Crutch compatibility:
2/5 stars (put aesthetics to one side and the immaculately polished chequered marble floor makes the crutch-enabled dash to the baño a sure-footed feat for the brave)
Beans on the Menu:
Saimaza Colombian High Roast
Caf
feine delivery method: Cortado
Hit to the wallet: €1,65
Music playing: Motown
Website: www.elparaigua.com

Put the steep ‘tourist tax’ to one side and this charming Cafeteria-Tapas-Cockteleria-Whisqueria bar is, as the description suggests, more than your average coffee house. Standing on the site of one of the oldest convents in El Barrio Gótico, it opened its doors in 1968 to the good people of Barcelona after a hugely ambitious renovation. In every respect, its beautifully carved wooden interior is a truly authentic homage to the spirit of the early twentieth-century Art Nouveau movement. Every light fitting, marble tile, wall fixture, including the splendid antiquated cash register (dating back to 1898) which sits in pride of place on the mahogany bar, was pretty much cannibalised from a turn of the century umbrella and fan shop down the road, relocated and lovingly refitted, with stunning effect. Setting the walls with floor to ceiling smoke-tinted mirrors is a stroke of pure genius, elegantly achieving the desired optical illusion of space and openness to mask the bar’s diminutive size.

For me, the evocation of this era would have been almost complete if were not for the newly introduced nationwide smoking ban. Call me nostalgic bit some places just have to be fully appreciated through the atmospheric filter of a soft, Gauloise-infused haze; and this certainly has to be one of them. The pricey Cortado was good too, if a little on the milky side.

Yet it comes as no surprise that in an establishment like this, it’s not the coffee that you pay for.

Now, please pass the Gauloises…

Bean on a Crutch rating: 3/5 stars

Caffeine on the Brain

It is estimated that more than two billion cups of coffee worldwide are drank everyday. Add the delightfully restorative drink ‘tea’ into the equation and no other mood-altering stimulant is consumed on such a potentially global jitter-inducing scale.

So, what exactly is caffeine?

Firstly, caffeine comes from an organic family of nitrogenous compounds called xanthine alkaloids that, when consumed, give rise to marked physiological – and psychoactive – effects on the human body. Other sources known to contain this powerful compound include the Gurana berry, Cocao bean, Kola nut, Yaupon Holly tree, and South American Yerba mate, amongst many others (so far, up to 60 plants are known to contain the compound caffeine).

But for the purposes of this post, I trust that you will forgive me if we stick to coffee.

The 'Father' of Caffeine? Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge

In 1820, caffeine was first isolated from coffee by the German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, apparently at the behest of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. The following year, the French chemist Pierre Joseph Pelletier, coined the word ‘cafeine’ after the French derivation for the word coffee; café. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that its complete chemical structure was discovered by Hermann Ermil Fischer, who was the first person to achieve its total synthesis. Fishcher was later awarded the Nobel Prize in 1902 for his work in this field of organic chemistry.

Pure Caffeine Powder

Caffeine, or to use its laboratory name – 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine – manifests itself in its purist from as a white crystalline solid. Yet to the human brain, it is one of the most effective ‘cuckoo’ compounds in the chemical world.

Here’s why…

Throughout the day, the neurotransmitter adenosine is naturally created in the brain and builds up to a level that eventually helps to bring about the onset of that deep, regenerative state we know as sleep. It binds to the receptors resulting in a feeling of drowsiness by slowing down nerve cell activity whilst the blood cells dilate to allow more oxygen to the brain.

Caffeine: The primary antagonist of adenosine receptors in the brain

Now, as far as your average nerve cell is concerned, caffeine, with its chemical structure – C8H10N4O2 – looks suspiciously like adenosine – C10H13N5O4 – thereby allowing this chemical ‘master of disguise’ to bind to the adenosine receptors. But the psychoactive result is the exact opposite. Instead of inducing a feeling of drowsiness, the chemical composition of caffeine encourages the nerve impulses to speed up.

This build up of chemical mimicry prevents the real adenosine from binding to its own receptors. Consequently, the brain is kick-started into a state of arousal and becomes more alert. The stimulating effects of caffeine on the central nervous system also dramatically increases the amount of the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter dopamine to be produced. These heightened levels are coupled with feelings of well-being and improved mood. It is in fact the psychoactive effect of dopamine that makes caffeine so addictive.

Now things start to get really interesting.

As the brain experiences a speeding up of nerve cell activity caused by the neuro-pathways firing on all cylinders, the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It is at this juncture that the pituitary gland steps into the proceedings, and sensing an emergency, sends a signal to the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline.

We all know what happens next.

With the body now in a state of heightened alert, the all-too-familiar symptoms of increased heart rate; raised blood pressure; sweaty palms; a ‘spike’ in levels of blood sugar produced by the liver to provide extra energy; dilated pupils; suppressed appetite; and a tensing of the muscles; are just some of the side-effects of this biological ‘code red’. Once the perceived ’emergency’ is over, the body’s adrenaline and dopamine levels start to return back to normal, coupled with a slowing of nerve cell activity as the adenosine begins to bind to the receptors once again. It takes approximately ten hours for caffeine to fully leave the system.

Caffeinated Spiderweb

Like anything consumed in excess, too much caffeine can prove fatal. Just 10g is considered a lethal dose. Fortunately, an average espresso contains a mere 100-150mg so seriously herculean quantities of the stuff would have to be consumed in a single sitting to bring on death.

This cannot be said of spiders…

In the final analysis, we all have to make our own personal judgement about the pros and cons of caffeine consumption, once in full possession of the facts.

But before you reach for the decaf (which still contains caffeine – just a reduced amount), stop and spare a moment to consider this mysterious but potent ‘cuckoo’ of the chemical world, and its powerful effects.

For good or for bad, it is without equivocation that caffeine on the brain changes the body’s chemistry.

In more ways than one.

The Science (and Art) of Roasting Coffee

It is said that coffee roasting is ‘part science, part art, and part magic.’ This indeed is true. In fact, the science involved in the process of roasting coffee beans is nothing short of astonishing.

Witnessing the process for the very first time, this is my personal account of what happens. Now, I do have a confession to make. In no way do I claim to be knowledgeable or experienced in this fascinating field (far from it) but the following description is a humble attempt to record my observations and what I have learned so far. So here goes…

“It takes 400 man hours for every pound of unroasted beans to reach this point. Now is not the time to get it wrong”, said artisan roaster, Ian, as he excitedly fires up the trusty 14lb (in old money) capacity Uno. With a ‘pop’ and a ‘whoosh’, the blue flame from its DNA-like helical gas burner breathes into life. Allowing time for the post-war roasting machine to warm up, he methodically inspects the six kilo batch of hard, tasteless Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (produced in the lush, deep soils of the high-rolling mountains of the Sidamo region, southern Ethiopia) for any ‘offenders’ that do not make the grade and could potentially spoil the entire process.

To the nose, the beans give off a delicate profusion of freshly mown hay or the smell of the earth just when the first raindrops fall on the dry, sun-kissed ground in summer. Only when the roaster is completely satisfied with the overall consistency in quality and size, does the Uno’s vintage belt-driven motor hum into action. The beans are then carefully poured into its horizontal-axis chamber. To a soft percussive rhythm, the lightly green and blue-hued beans become a blur as they brush the insides of the rotating drum.

As each second passes, the unhurried alchemy of extracting the delightful flavour from the coffee gradually reveals itself.

In a seeming state of perpetual free fall, the – as yet – unroasted beans begin to absorb the heat from the Uno’s centrifugal fire. Five-or-so expectant minutes pass. Nothing much of note happens to the untrained eye during this preliminary ‘drying off’ phase. And then, the first wisp of a feint smoky aroma, like the smell of toast, begins to emanate; a sensory prologue to the action that is to follow.

At this point the core temperature inside the coffee bean has broken through the threshold of 150-160 degrees centigrade, and is steadily climbing. At the molecular level, this magical moment is coupled with an explosion of cellular activity as the bean’s very chemical composition starts to dramatically change in a series of volatile runaway reactions. In physical terms, this metamorphosis is the transition from an endothermic (to take in heat energy) state to becoming exothermic (to give out heat energy).

It is shortly after this stage when the first ‘crack’ – not dissimilar to the sound of the popping or splitting of popcorn – of the coffee bean occurs and the effects of the increased energy inside the bean becomes visible. By now, they are starting to release their hidden aromatic oils that have been conspicuously concealed so well since their early days of infancy as an unripened green berry on the bush. In the following minutes, the temperature rises further to approximately 220 degrees. The pressure increases too; creating the optimum conditions for the necessary exogenous chemical reactions to take place.

Cascading inside the Uno’s spinning drum, the beans take on a yellow-orange colour as they start to give up their locked-in moisture. Water vapour and carbon dioxide is released in extraordinary quantities through the ‘fissure’ which  runs through the centre line of the bean. This leads to a rapid expansion in volume (up to twice the bean’s original size), accompanied by a marked loss in weight and density. In the parlance of the chemistry class, it is known as the Maillard Reaction. From a personal perspective, it is as though the beans are bursting back into life after a suspended period of deep hibernation.

The temperature still rising, further complex chemical reactions occur between the amino acids, carbohydrate and sucrose compounds (more than 800 hundred have been identified so far). By now, the beans have turned to a light brown colour signaling the ‘carimalisation’ of the natural oils and sugars that give the coffee bean its distinctive colour and rich flavour.

The skill – or ‘art’ to be more exact – of the speciality roaster is the intuitive use of his or her senses. Without a temperature gauge or timer in sight, the roaster falls into a spell of intense concentration as the final critical moments approach. Like a Michelin-starred chef or master wine blender, he is using all his senses to bring out and enhance the best characteristics that the Yirgacheffe has to offer. Meanwhile, the beans take on a dark chestnut colour as the premises of J. Atkinson & Co. fill with their delicious, almost floral, nutty aroma.

Asked if he is ever afraid of the beans catching fire, Ian enigmatically responds, “every roaster is christened with his first fire at some stage, I decided to get mine in early”.

It only takes a mesmerising 12 minutes from start to finish. With a final flourish of the roaster’s hand to bring the Uno’s rhythmic mechanical overture to a close; the drum comes to a stop, the helix flame is extinguished and the roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans spill out into the perforated cooling tray below. Lightly coated with their natural coffee-flavoured oils, they glisten in the low mid-afternoon sun, as they are patiently stirred to bring their temperature back down to an ambient level.

Stages of Roast

Depending on the specific roast desired (low, medium, high; full roast, double roast), the bean can go through a further two or three ‘cracks’ until the roaster decides to terminate the process. Done with expert split-second timing, this is to ensure that the balance of flavour, complexity of taste and acidity levels all add up to the holy grail of the experienced Roastmaster: Perfection.

Coffee roasting is a centuries-old craft. In today’s age of impressive scientific discovery, we still do not fully understand the massive thermodynamic changes that roasting brings about inside the bean. One thing is for sure however, I now understand why its is affectionately referred to as an ‘art’.

And what about the ‘magic’ I hear you ask?

Well, all I can say is that you only have to taste the sublime Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee for yourself to discover the answer.

A Cup Above the Rest

In many respects, this journey did not start in London. It began in Lancaster. And where better than to embark on a coffee-inspired bike ride to Ethiopia other than the historic premises of master tea blenders and coffee roasters, J. Atkinson & Co.?

Established in 1837 as the Grasshopper Tea Warehouse, J. Atkinson & Co. has traded from its China Street premises since 1901 and is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the city’s illustrious heritage. Walk into the welcoming premises of this family-run business and the first thing that greets you is the warm, enticing aroma of the artisan roasted coffee bean.

Pause for a moment, and the delicate fragrance of expertly blended tea complements the sensory experience.

Inside, every aspect has been lovingly restored back to its former glory. In one corner stands the ‘Uno’, the stalwart coffee roasting machine which dates back to 1945 and continues to fill the street outside with its delicious aroma – as it has done for generations. The mouth-watering menu of more 80 different varieties of coffee and blends spanning the globe, each with a unique provinence of their own, are all carefully ground to your own requirements; if that is what you prefer. Similarly, bell jars of blended tea from the subtle to the exotic adorn the shelves; just waiting to release their heavenly infusion. It is clear to see that trade is brisk but the pace behind the old vintage counter is measured, almost reverential, in respect of a special kind of alchemy that takes place on these premises daily.

Prior to being waved off by artisan roaster, Ian, on a bitingly cold December afternoon with my gift of unroasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans concealed in the bike frame, I was privileged to be given the opportunity to familiarise myself with the time-honoured art of the Roaster and Barista. A debt of gratitude is owed to proprietors Ian and Sue Steel for their generosity of knowledge and who effortlessly accommodated my endless questions on that busy, but special day.

A further highlight was the chance to spend some time with Barista-par-excellence, Caspar, who has taken out a Gap Year to run the contemporary Music Room Cafe. Like an expert craftsman or artist who’s smooth and precise movements belie years’ of training, creativity and dedication, he introduced me to the sublime profession of Latte Art. Respect.

A truly inspiring, humbling and unforgettable experience.

In an age of rampant globalisation, outstanding establishments like J.Atkinson & Co. – who play their play their part in the wider global community by ethically sourcing the very highest quality of tea and coffee – are hard to come by.

In a word? Passion.

The Dark Side of Barcelona (parte dos)

I wonder what Don Quixote would have made of Barcelona in 21st century Catalunya. Would he have tilted at wind turbines? Or jousted with Gaudi’s larger-than-life lizards? Maybe, the Man from La Mancha, and his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, would have shored up the city’s defenses with a two-man bulwark in an effort to repel the chaotic crowds that surge up Las Ramblas, believing them to be the advancing enemy?

And, as for a ‘plague’ of thieves and villains, what would have the knight errant resorted to in his chivalrous bid to rid the world of evil-doers and scoundrels? All said and done, only the late – and great – Miguel de Cervantes would know the definitive literary answer to this purely hypothetical question.

Now back to the real world.

Once the traders have closed their graffiti-art front shutters and the lively bars and nightclubs open up for another night of revelry in El Gótica, there lurks an unsavory element which, as sure as night follows day, soon emerges from the shadows.

It was the eve of departure before taking the ferry to Genoa, Italy. Our panniers packed and ready for the off, my friend and I decided to go for a quiet drink to celebrate our last night in Barcelona and toast our impending adventure on two-wheels. We excitedly talked about our anticipation of new horizons; the unadulterated freedom of being self sufficient with only the wind in your hair and the open road ahead. You could say that were were in high spirits. Until we met the ‘shadows’ in a certain jazz bar that dare not speak its name.

A whiskey for the road was the last lucid memory that either of us share. The ensuing 24 hours followed like a bad dream that you want to wake up from but can’t because the dream is real – only too real. I won’t go into details here as there isn’t much to report, only a handful of vivid flashbacks that replay like a looped Super-8mm cine film. You guessed it dear reader, we had our drinks spiked.

Struggling to piece together the fragmented memories of the previous night, I spent the next day in hospital with a severely swollen and bruised ankle.

X-Ray courtesy of Hospital del Mar

Sporting a foot that looked more like a specimen out of a medical encyclopedia under the chapter ‘Elephantiasis’ is one thing, summing up the financial cost of a mugging just adds insult to injury. Fortunately, no broken bones or fractures were sustained and the reality of an enforced stay in Barcelona nursing a sprained ankle soon began to dawn.

That said, this rich tapestry of life has a funny way of throwing cold water in your face just when you drop your guard. A wake up call if you will. So for now, I’m making virtue out of necessity in that it’s life in the slow lane until I can ditch the crutches and get back onto the saddle for the next leg (excuse the pun) of the journey.

It is often said that there is ‘honour among thieves.’ I disagree. Even the most professional criminal would sell his/her sidekick without hesitation if the price were right.

Disclaimer: There is no suggestion that the events described in this post are in any way exclusive to this great city. It could happen anywhere, in any place, at any time. It’s just that I happened to become another statistic, and it happened to be in BCN.

Speaking of statistics, Barcelona does however enjoy the dubious honour of being top of the list of petty crime capitals worldwide. Whilst muggings are sadly on the rise, it has even been said that if pickpocketing was an Olympic sport, Barcelona would take the gold medal. Hands down.

The Sunny Side of Barcelona (parte uno)

Flag of Catalunya

A Catalan new year was heralded in with a noisy fiesta of fireworks, lighting up the clear starlit night sky over Barcelona. Five floors up in the heart of El Gótico, the panoramic views from the bijou ‘atico’ flat of good friend (and Warmshowers host), Richie Thomas, conjure up a world-gone-by-vista punctuated with richly decorated mosaic church spires and rambling apartment terraces stretching as far as the eye can see. In the distance is the table-top hill of Montjuic overlooking the harbor. This unassuming terrace affords one of the best views of the Neo-Classical spires of the Correos (Post Office) in one direction and the venerated 18th century baroque Basilica de Mercè in the other. Inside, its interior houses a Gothic carving dedicated to the patron saint of the city, the Virgin of ‘La Mercè’. Legend has it that ‘Our Lady of Mercy’ freed the city from a plague of locusts in 1637. Well, I can tell you for a fact that I haven’t seen any locusts but the area is unfortunately plagued by a certain nocturnal swarm of ‘species’ of a different kind which I will come to later in part two.

Cycling the streets of Barcelona in the fresh sun-kissed early-January air on the unladen Sherpa has been an interesting, if slightly nostalgic experience; not too dissimilar to jostling with the cars and pedestrians on the streets of London. Except at a slower pace and, of course, on the right. There is however, a difference. Thousands of Barcelonians conduct their short-trips across the city on what suspiciously look like Royal Mail bikes; sadly now becoming more of rarity in the UK. These pillar box red, three-speed, ‘Bicing’ machines that zip along the well-marked cycle lanes are Barcelona’s answer to the recent introduction of ‘Boris Bikes’ in London and have been a feature of this bustling metropolis years before the current Mayor had even set his sights on City Hall.

A picturesque street in BCN during the hours of Siesta

Go off the streets however and into the pedestrian maze of narrow alleyways of the city’s Barrios such as El Born or El Gótico and Barcelona reveals its true inner charm. Getting lost is half the fun; only to find that there is a high probability you will arrive at the place where you started hours previously. Stopping off for a  strong Café con Leche or an even more intense Cortado for refreshment along the way, the mind-boggling selection of tapas bars, cafes, craft shops, galleries, museums, ornate Basilica’s, pleasant open squares and colourfull street life make it hard not to fall in love with this intoxicating, yet beguiling city.