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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

Why the Coffee Sucks in One of the World’s Best Coffee-Growing Nations

Feb.17.16

Why the Coffee Sucks in One of the World’s Best Coffee-Growing Nations

by Mark Wetzler

Coffee in Marsella

I’m sitting outside a cafe in Marsella, Colombia—a small town located in the middle of Colombia’s “eje cafetero,” or “coffee axis”—trying to figure out why Colombian coffee is so bad.

It shouldn’t be. If I were to get out of my chair and sprint in any direction for two minutes I’d soon find myself wading through rows and rows of leafy, verdant coffee plants, some of the most renowned arabica plants in the world. And yet order a coffee in 99 percent of establishments in Colombia, like the one I’m at right now, and the result is the same: a product that vaguely resembles what you know to be coffee but tastes more like battery acid.

Further north, in the town of Fredonia, an hour and a half south of Medellin, I get a little insight as to why this is. I talk to Richard, a twenty-something Fredonita whose family owns Cafe Don Chucho and has 30,000 plants in the neighboring hills. Richard is fighting a difficult fight; he’s trying to bring coffee culture to Fredonia, a tiny town built on a mountainside whose main modes of transportation include horseback and heavy-duty Toyota Land Cruisers.

“The old people, they’re not going to change,” explains Richard. “They’re happy with the way tinto tastes. It’s what they know. But the younger generation is starting to get more interested in the way coffee could be.”

The tinto Richard is talking about is essentially what Colombian coffee culture has always been. It’s made in a colossal silver cylinder drip machine, filtered several times and heated and reheated throughout the day. What’s more, often times it’s not even Colombian; it’s imported pre-ground from Vietnam. When I ask Richard if it wouldn’t be cheaper to use local coffee, he looks sheepish. “Actually, probably yes,” he says. “But again, this is the way they’ve always done things. It’s the system they’re used to.”

In the capital of Bogotá, just 143 miles away as the crow flies but nine hours by bus, this system is starting to change. The following week I check out cafe and bakery Arbol del Pan, a perfect example of the advancing coffee culture in Colombia. The americano I order tastes fresh-roasted, fresh-ground, and properly prepared.

Arbol del Pan gets their coffee from Vereda Central, a local roaster whose employee, Santiago, sheds valuable light on the Colombian coffee situation.

“In the 70s and 80s, the norm became exporting the best beans and using the pasilla“—beans damaged by bugs and other elements—”for local coffee. Then came Oma and Juan Valdez (Colombian coffee chains) who started using healthy beans, but still not the best. And now you have places like Arbol del Pan that only use premium-quality, single-origin beans.”

Why would a farmer sell them in his home country when he can get a much higher price abroad? And, of course, there’s also the matter of tradition. “People are used to their tinto and and they’re used to paying 800-1000 pesos”—about 30 cents USD—”for it,” Santiago says, echoing Richard’s statements. “Why would they pay more?”

In Bogotá, however, people are starting to pay more. People are willing to shell out a few extra pesos for a locally-sourced, high-quality product. This isn’t surprising, being in the capital, but I wonder what will become of Richard and his coffee shop back in Fredonia. Due to the longstanding tinto tradition, Richard is fighting an uphill battle. And in Fredonia, as well as in most of Colombia, the hills are steep.

The Famed Parisian Café Culture, Now Available in Kabul

Jun.22.17

The Famed Parisian Café Culture, Now Available in Kabul

by Ali M Latifi

Coconut cookies in Kabul

The Slice Bakery opened while I was briefly living in Istanbul, but even in Turkey, I heard that it had become a gathering point for young people in Kabul.

Visitors to Istanbul from Kabul would talk about meetings and debates over coffee and pastries—Turkish milk tea, brownies, coconut cookies or a take on our traditional Afghan salty biscuits—at Slice.

When I moved back to Kabul in March, Slice was one of the first places I visited. I had to see if it lived up to its reputation.

The first time I went in, seeing the wood and glass tables full of young people—some in traditional Afghan piran tomban, others in suits and ties or distressed jeans and crisp leather jackets—it seemed that it was indeed the Afghan capital’s new hotspot.

More importantly, this wasn’t a high-priced establishment, tucked away in an unmarked building in a side street of a residential area catering to foreigners and rich Afghans. The bright yellow sign was visible from across the busy street in Shahr-e Naw, Kabul’s commercial hub.

I’ve been to the café countless times, but one evening in early May proved to me why this place stood out among the glut of restaurants and cafes that pop up each day in Kabul.

At the time, people all over Kabul were talking about the imminent return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former anti-Soviet commander and now leader of the nation’s second-largest armed opposition movement, who had just made peace with the central government after more than two decades in hiding.

Of course, people were talking about it at Slice, too. As soon as I ordered my latte and coconut cookies, my friends called me over to their table to discuss the return of a man who—along with rival commanders—had been responsible for the destruction of Kabul and thousands of deaths in the 1990s.

These young men, many of whom were too young to have any direct memory of the thousands of rockets Hekmatyar and his rivals rained over the city, were discussing his return over their cups of “Afghano” coffee, saffron-infused lattes, espressos, and green teas.

These debates were a sign of how far Kabul had come since the time Hekmatyar and his rivals were destroying the city. From the rise of communism in the late 1970s and until the U.S.-led intervention of 2001, Afghanistan was ruled by a series of communists, warlords, and the Taliban, whose policies made the expression of dissent extremely difficult, if not illegal. The free discussion among Afghans with different viewpoints—some who welcomed Hekmatyar’s return, others resigned to the fact that warlords always win, and those who refused to accept a man known as the “butcher of Kabul”—could almost, I thought, resemble the famous café debate culture of Paris or Beirut.

“Slice is what Kabul could become if everyone just left us alone,” said an Afghan-American documentary filmmaker, who had been visiting from her home in Brooklyn. One of the waiters put it more simply to a European journalist: “Slice is a symbol of what young Afghans want their country to be.”

Photo by: Qais Alamdar

Come for the Obscure Canadian Sport, Stay for the Buffet

Jun.21.17

Come for the Obscure Canadian Sport, Stay for the Buffet

by Julie Stauffer

Pork sausage and marshmallow salad in Tavistock, Ontario

Defeat makes you hungry. Or maybe it’s the fact that we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6:00 a.m. to make it to the World Crokinole Championship on time. Either way, two intense hours of disk-flicking have failed to get us beyond the preliminary round of the recreational doubles event, and our stomachs are speaking up.

Crokinole is a tabletop hybrid of curling and shuffleboard. Players use a thumb and finger to shoot their wooden disks across the board, knocking off their opponent’s pieces and—if they’ve judged the angles just right—coming to rest in the high-scoring center.

Most folks reserve it for rainy afternoons at the cottage, or for Christmas gatherings after the remains of turkey and mincemeat pie have been cleared away. But once a year, several hundred players descend on Tavistock, Ontario (population 6,836) to prove their prowess at a game invented just a few miles up the road.

There are grandparents and grandkids here for a little fun, and a smattering of Mennonite women in their white net caps. (While the Church has traditionally prohibited alcohol, cards, and dancing, it sees no harm in crokinole.) There are clubs from as far away as Texas and Prince Edward Island, and champions from past years here to defend their titles.

We have all convened in the town’s hockey arena, where row after row of crokinole boards have replaced the customary ice. Officials in reflective vests stand ready to settle disputes and enforce regulations. (Woe betide anyone who fails to keep a portion of their posterior firmly on their chair while making a shot.)

My colleague, Josh, and I came here with ambitious goals: to avoid defeat at the hands of children. And we have succeeded. In our first match, we triumphed over a nine-year-old and his grandfather. Even better, we soundly defeated Josh’s adult brother and cousin in our second match, with plenty of trash-talking on both sides.

By the end of eight matches, we’ve accumulated a respectable 37 points, placing us in the top half of the division. It’s not enough to move on, but that’s just fine. By now it’s 10:30, and we’re ready for some serious sustenance.

As tradition dictates, we join a group of other less-than-stellar players and head to Quehl’s. You won’t find prosciutto, pea shoots, or baby kale at this Tavistock institution. Instead, Quehl’s serves country cuisine with a Pennsylvania Dutch flavor. At the buffet, diners pile their plates with pork sausages, roast beef, mashed potatoes, pickled beets, sauerkraut, and four kinds of pie.

After demolishing his meat course, Josh’s brother announces his intention to load up on salad. He returns with a plate noticeably lacking anything green. “There’s fruit in here,” he argues, pointing to a mound of marshmallow “salad.” “Yeah,” says Jared, his doubles partner. “Maraschino cherries.”

But the best is yet to come. Everyone who participates in the World Crokinole Championship earns a commemorative disk, courtesy of Quehl’s. Those who choose to partake in the buffet can shoot it on the restaurant’s crokinole board to determine the discount on their bill: 10 percent off if it lands in the center hole; 5 percent off for anywhere else on the board.

Jared’s shot slides purposefully across the board and past the posts that ring the inner zone. The disk hesitates for the briefest moment on the lip of the hole and then slips smoothly inside. Doogie!

2018 Championship, here we come.

Hangover-Curing Fish Soup, Ecuador Edition

Jun.20.17

Hangover-Curing Fish Soup, Ecuador Edition

by Carolina Loza León

Encebollado in Esmeraldas

It’s noon, and the whole flat is waking up, hungry, with thumping headaches. Trying to piece the together the night before is a daunting task. The best way to do it is over some encebollado, Ecuador’s famous fish soup. We head out, tired and sweating on a hot, cloudy day in Esmeraldas, a city on Ecuador’s northern Pacific coast.

Lucien, a cocky French aid worker, hops on a bus, and I follow. “I won’t eat encebollado just anywhere,” he says. All Ecuadorians have their own ‘secret’ spot they believe serves the best version of this thick tuna, cassava, and onion-based soup. They usually take great pride in ‘their’ place, so you’d better like it, too.

Lucien leads us to a small, no-frills corner restaurant in the chaotic downtown district. Most of the patrons are families with young children. Most Ecuadorians eat encebollado—which originated on Ecuador’s coast—for breakfast, with plantain chips or bread, depending on which part of the country it is. It’s a favorite both for hard-partying revelers and for families doing brunch, Ecua-style.

Looking the worse for wear and surrounded by five-year-olds excitedly ordering soup for their families, we pay our USD$2.50 each. Lucien starts piecing the previous night together. The bar had closed at Ecuador’s mandatory time—2 a.m.—but then there was a lock-in, where they had too much to drink. For once, I’m glad I left the bar before they did. I pretend to listen, and look at the street outside: empty, like the rest of the city on a Sunday morning. The only activity for blocks is this restaurant, its white plastic chairs spread on the sidewalk.

We finally get our bowls of soup. The encebollado is thick, orange-hued, with bits of chopped parsley and cilantro on top. I squeeze all the juice of a lemon wedge into the steaming liquid. The first taste is soothing; it’s comfort food, but it’s also nutritious. It makes this grey Sunday morning bearable. I have to give Lucien credit: he’s chosen his encebollado joint well.

Meat, Cheese, Wine, the President: Just a Monday Morning in Vienna

Jun.15.17

Meat, Cheese, Wine, the President: Just a Monday Morning in Vienna

by Cynthia Sularz

Breakfast in Vienna

I had just flown in from Kiev to Bratislava, in Slovakia, then took a bus to Vienna, another hour-and-a-half’s journey. My body was tired, but I was very hungry.

Crisp air clung to the streets as I approached Vienna’s Naschmarkt—a vast food market with over 100 stalls and several storied restaurants and bars. The scent of braised and smoked meats filled the air as my body, defeated from travel, yearned for a special meal.

The choices were overwhelming. Meats, vegetables, and cheeses were only the beginning; we also passed stands showcasing varieties of vinegar, oils, olives, and spices. To know where to even begin required some expertise. So, following in Anthony Bourdain’s Vienna footsteps, we entered a small butcher shop called Urbanek. The man asked us what we were looking for; we told him to surprise us.

The resulting spread was rich and perfectly paired: each slice of cheese, meat, and sip of wine served to us in the order they were meant to be sampled. Our morning snack—with plenty of Grüner Veltliner—stretched into lunch. The highlight of the meal, for me, was boar; it’s something I rarely eat, and its lean texture surprised me.

One of Urbanek’s regulars stood with us. He was well into his 50s, with warm eyes and a hardened but welcoming smile. He spoke to us in broken sentences, telling us about favorite beaches and cheeses, and why he didn’t care for Chris Christie, my home state’s governor. I have studied German for years and attempted to respond, but he insisted on practicing his English.

He was just about to tell us more about his time in America when another man touched his shoulder. He spoke into our friend’s ear and then the two of them motioned for us to lean forward. “The president of Austria,” the man said in a rough whisper, “is in the market.”

It was 11 a.m. on a Monday and the president of Austria was simply walking through the Naschmarkt? The man repeated this claim, and motioned his head towards a man, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with what seemed to be his wife. I was doubtful.

I tried to recall the Austrian president’s face. Rough images of the man sprang to my head from headlines. “Alexander Van der Bellen,” our new friend assured us. I stared at the man; others did too. Soon, small groups of people approached him gingerly, asking for photographs.

I thought about how, a few minutes earlier, this man was telling me his opinions about my own state’s governor.

“Do you like your president?” I asked.

He smirked and shrugged. “He’s OK.”

All Fruit Salads Should Come with Cheese, Salt, and Hot Sauce

Jun.14.17

All Fruit Salads Should Come with Cheese, Salt, and Hot Sauce

by Allegra Ben-Amotz

Fruit gaspacho in Morelia

I was on my own for the day in Morelia, the Spanish-style colonial capital of the Mexican state of Michoacan. I’d tagged along with my husband on a business trip, and spent the one full day we’d had together sick in the hotel, with that feeling of a cat clawing its way around my stomach.

Traveling, for me, is about experiencing flavors you can’t get at home, so few feelings are worse than not being able to eat. I’d experienced it before while backpacking through Southeast Asia, when a salad I’d had on Thanksgiving in Ho Chi Minh caught up to me, and I spent two days unable to stomach even a sip of the pho I’d dreamed about.

I woke up in Morelia with the kind of powerful hunger that only comes after such nights. I knew the right move would be to ease my way back into real food with something plain and simple, but I only had half a day to make up for what I’d missed. On my way to check out the city’s candy museum housed in a 19th-century mansion, I passed a stand proffering fruit gaspachos—more fruit salad than savory soup—that I’d heard were a signature Morelian street food.

I watched as one man prepared his mise en place: deftly diced jicama, mango, and pineapple piled onto a reassuringly clean stainless steel slab. His partner readied his station, lining up plastic cups and shakers full of salt and chili. A line began to form to my right, and other fruits appeared from below the counter at the request of the customer. For an older woman, a heaping cupful of diced cucumber with lime and salt. A little boy wanted watermelon and papaya with nothing added. And then, an older man ordered his gazpacho “tradicional, con todo”—the fruit trinity carefully layered with salt, chili powder, and cotija cheese. Three layers of fruit and toppings, and then a generous glug of fresh orange juice went in, followed by more fruit, a squeeze of lime, and a final sprinkling of cheese, salt, chili, and drizzle of hot sauce.

I moved into the line, mouth now watering, and ordered a small—tradicional, con todo. I paid 30 pesos for a huge cup piled high with fruit, served with a plastic bag to catch the extra juices, and ate it next to the stand on a cobblestone street in the bright sun. Each bite hit the four major tenets of Mexican street food—sweet, salty, sour, and spicy—without heaviness or grease. The bag was an insufficient barrier for the pieces of perfectly ripe, evenly diced fruit that escaped my spoon. Faster and faster, I filled the hole in my stomach as spice gave way to sweet, then to salty, sour and back to sweet again.

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