C is for Coffee Culture?

Sometimes the coffee at work is really this bad!

Sometimes the coffee at work is really this bad!

Before we came to Jamaica, I had heard of their world famous Blue Mountain coffee and was excited to try it.  My first cup was at a small coffee chain called Cafe Blue in a shopping mall close to the Embassy.  It was very popular spot and it was hard to find a table, but I managed to find a seat in the Starbucks-like cafe and I tried my first cup.  I was surprised at first how mild it was and a little weak too, I thought.  I’ve always drunk strong Ethiopian-style coffee and the Blue Mountain Java was pleasant but it sort of underwhelmed me.  I bought a 1lb of beans to take home anyway, so I could try it in my own kitchen and it grew on me.  I think I brewed it a little stronger than the cafe (sorry Blue Mountain connoisseurs if this is sacrilegious.)  This helped and I developed a taste for the smooth flavour and mild non-acidic finish.  But it is expensive at about $30/pound.  We switched to Jamaican high mountain coffee, which is good –if not as exceptional as Blue Mountain — but a much more reasonable price, and it makes me happy that at least I’m drinking a local product that supports the local economy…but I did ask myself why I didn’t see a real coffee culture in Jamaica?

After all, before international products were easily available as we see now,  local food and drink traditions became popular because they were affordable and that’s what you could find.  Jamaican has a long history of coffee farms, but where are the coffee drinkers?  I don’t mean to say that no one drinks coffee or there aren’t any coffee shops, but there’s a distinct lack of coffee as part of local tradition and I wondered why?

There’s few basic reasons for this that I can see:  Here at $2.50+ a cup its expensive and not an every day treat for most people.  At work, unlike all other countries we’ve lived, there’s no decent coffee available – despite the fact that coffee is one of Jamaica’s most well-known exports.  Therein lies the problem, as its famous coffee is exported for a very high price,  Very little Blue Mountain coffee is available locally, and what remains is just crazy expensive for most people.  Add to that the threats from rust disease, hurricanes and the abandonment of coffee farms in recent years, which have further limited the availability and affordability of the drink.

Why can Blue Mountain coffee demand such a high price?    Because its unique flavour comes from the rare, ideal conditions produced on the high slopes of the Blue mountains,  Its expensive because harvesting in that difficult terrain can’t be automated and coffee cherries on the same tree ripen at different times, so harvesting doesn’t happen in one visit. It an ongoing, labour-intensive process, but the result is a higher quality product.  (In some coffee-growing countries, particularly on large farms on flat ground, the farmers compromise and harvest the cherries all at once, but the mix of ripe and unripe beans affects the overall quality. ) Unique conditions, limited terrain, and high processing costs results in high quality, high demand coffee and farms export about 70% of it to get the best price – most of it goes to Japan.

So, here in Jamaica, I don’t really experience a coffee culture.  (Making coffee in my kitchen doesn’t count.)  I miss having a coffee spot at work where you can easily grab a good cappuccino and a few minutes with a colleague.  The black stuff they serve in the cafeteria doesn’t count either!  But I’m sure they’ll be cafes a-plenty in Serbia – probably serving a strong Turkish-style cup.  Hope brews eternal!


B is for Breadfruit

I’ve always associated this strange knobbly fruit with Captain Bly and the Bounty but I had never actually handled one, eaten it or seen one growing on a tree, but I knew it was popular here and I looked forward to trying it.
In Jamaica they are probably second only to rice as the important carbohydrate content of a meal, although from a little reading I learnt that West African slaves in Jamaica didn’t take to them at first. But the trees grow well here, producing an abundant amount of fruit year round and they eventually became an important part of the local cuisine.

Breadfruit dishes can be roasted, mashed or fried,  but they all start out being cooked on a flame until they are blackened all over.  I really wondered what these guys were doing with their drum barbecues and piles of blackened footballs along the side of the road.


Whatever were those blackened balls? Now I know…

I have to admit I was really disappointed the first time I tried roasted breadfruit. I didn’t think about “roasted” meaning anything other than crispy, and was disappointed to get a pallid slab of white vegetable that looked (and tasted) a lot like a sponge. I suppose a lot of carbohydrates eaten worldwide — rice, bread, tapicoa — are pretty bland. Its how we use them to eat other parts of our meal. Its how they sop up the gravy, how the remind us of a homemade dinner or give us that feeling of comfort food and a full belly that really make them a favourite. Of course, my experience lacked that connection. I didn’t eat more than a couple of bites.

I tried them again fried and like them much better. (I’m afraid that its true that most things taste better fried.) The same pre-roasted slices of breadfruit had been dropped into hot oil and browned, giving me something which was much more like the “roasted” I had expected the first time. An improvement, but not enough to make me seek it out on a menu again.


Fried breadfruit…better than the roasted!

In modern kitchens like ours with no gas, the barbecue is the only way to cook them and the production involved means that I haven’t had the drive to experiment with the fruit. A little tour of the internet shows me other have been quite creative with breadfruit used in a wide variety of recipes other than just the ubiquitous, basic roasting and frying.

For me, however, all-in-all not a great new culinary experience, but I do enjoy seeing them around and they grow on some very pretty trees.