Friday, 25 January 2013

Time for Coffee

This week, I've been looking at the devil's brew, that is coffee -where did it come from and is it really bad for you? I have also selflessly tested some coffee based cocktails and brought to you, my top 5. It would have been a top 10, but I was losing my ability to see straight, so we'll save the rest for another day. 

 Did you know that, according to the British Coffee Association, we drink around 70 million cups of coffee every day in the UK?  So how did we, as a nation, become so hopelessly hooked on caffeine and where did the black stuff come from, before there was a coffee franchise on every corner?

The origins of coffee are more myth than actual history, but it's a good story so let's go with it for now.
Around A.D 800 in Ethiopa, lived a goatherd named Kaldi. According to legend, he noticed that his livestock were extra frisky, frolicking between the coffee shrubs, munching on the red fruit (coffee beans aren't beans at all - they are actually the seeds of this red fruit). Not wanting to miss out on anything that might relieve the tedium of goat herding, Kaldi scoffed a load as well and was soon bouncing off the hillside. A passing monk spotted Kaldi off his trolley on caffeine and picked some to take back to the monastery where no doubt they then stayed up all night praying  and brewing moonshine as monks were wont to do.

There are historical accounts detailing various uses of the coffee plant fruit, by Africans around this time -they made a kind of wine from the coffee fruit pulp and energy balls using coffee and animal fat - yum! From Africa, coffee traveled across the Red Sea to Arabia where it was drunk as an infusion like tea, by soaking the leaves and dried fruit of the coffee plant in hot water. By the 13th century, Muslims were drinking coffee in its more recognisable form, crushing and grinding the dried seeds of the coffee plant and brewing them up as we do today.

 As Islam spread across to India and the Mediterranean, coffee went too, although being such a precious commodity, Arabia tried to keep coffee growing, in house, by exporting only infertile beans. Legend has it that no coffee seed took root outside of Arabia until the 1600s, when Indian pilgrim Baba Buban, smuggled them out of the country and initiated a global coffee agriculture.

From then, the race was on to obtain coffee plants as it was clear that this brew meant big business and everyone wanted a piece of the action. The Dutch were the first to bring a coffee plant into Europe and set up a plantation in Indonesia, which was then, colonial Java. The Dutch in a bid to curry favour in Europe, gifted coffee plants to the European aristocracy and thus, Louis XIV came to install one in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Some years later, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, an ambitious naval officer serving in the french colony of Martinique, stole a cutting from  this plant, with the intention of creating a Java style plantation on Martinique.

De Clieu's dreams were realised and the progeny of his seedling went on to provide coffee to Latin America until another opportunist in the form of Lt. Col Fransisco de Melo Palheta was able to obtain seedlings by wooing the governor of Martinique's wife, who presented them to him covertly, in a bouquet, as a token of thanks for services rendered. These fruits of love were taken to Brazil which went on to become the world's biggest producer of coffee and today holds 30% of the entire world market.

Coffee began it's journey to our grey shores by way of the British East India Company and the first coffee house was opened in Cornhill  by Pasqua Rosee, the servant of Daniel Edwards, a trader in Turkish goods. By 1675 there were more than 3000 coffee houses, which became a hotbed for political discussion among the enlightened, middle classes, to the extent that Charles II tried to remove them. The king was not the only one to object - women were banned from entering these establishments and in 1674, published a charter, outlining their distaste for coffee. It is so hilariously ridiculous that I almost think it must be a Wikipedia joke, but it is definitely worth a read. Here is a little snippet to amuse you.

.The disgruntled women of 1647 were of the belief that coffee was to blame for the menfolk's lack of vavavoom in the bedroom, but there certainly is no medical evidence to bear out this theory. So is coffee bad for you? Opinions seem to sway on a daily basis, but the general consensus seems to be that it is fine to drink coffee in reasonable amounts. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that there was no increased risk of death of any sort from drinking coffee and that it was fine to consume up to 600mg of caffeine a day, which amounts to six normal size cups of coffee. Basically, if you are drinking so much coffee that you've got the shakes and can't sleep, then it's probably too much. The advice to pregnant woman is still to reduce intake due to a slight risk of early miscarriage and for people with high blood pressure, excessive amounts of coffee could exacerbate the condition, but otherwise, it's all good.

A recent study showed that coffee's ability to dilate blood vessels could possibly help relieve a tension headache and it even has some antioxidant content, (though admittedly, tea has more), so don't feel guilty - enjoy your coffee with a clear conscience. However, you might want to hold back on mega whopping frappalappadingdong ccinos with extra whipped cream - coffee on it's own has only 2 calories in an 8oz cup, but a caramael frappuccino has 390 - eek.

 That said, I have spent an interesting afternoon, 'testing' cocktails containing coffee, which probably do not have any health benefits whatsoever, but it was a lot of fun....calorie count not included. x

Here are my top 5

Espresso Martini

2 oz Vodka
3/4 oz simple syrup
1 oz. espresso

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass.

Taster's verdict - Grown up, but sweet enough to be quaffable.

The Truffle

1 oz. Frangelico
1 oz Vodka
¾ oz. cold espresso

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into an espresso cup

Taster's verdict - Yummy - a bit like drinking praline without the creaminess.

1 oz. Espresso
1½ oz. gin
½ oz. simple syrup
½ oz. orange juice
Garnish: orange wheel and blackberry

To make simple syrup, mix equal parts hot water and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Add remaining ingredients and ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into a glass filled with ice and garnish with an orange wheel.

Taster's verdict - Thish onesh really nice too - I imagine it's lovely on a summer's day, but it's not bad in the middle of winter either.

1oz Coffee liqueur
1oz Baileys
Double shot of espresso
Steamed milk
Garnish:sprig of mint

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a glass. Garnish with a mint sprig.

Taster's verdict - mmmmmmmm......hic...

Double shot espresso
1/8 oz. absinthe
1½ oz. gin

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a glass.

Aye caramba ! That'll certainly put some lead in your pencil.

Monday, 21 January 2013



This week, my inspiration has been the beautiful peacock; sexier and more exotic cousin to our very own pheasant. Like a vibrant sari silk to classic British tweed, this flashy bird puts most in the shade and has inspired art, fashion, myth and religion.

Ever wondered how the peacock came to have those incredible eye-like markings on its tail? Well, according to Ancient Greek mythology, the Goddess Hera had a priestess named Io who had attracted the attentions of Hera's philandering husband Zeus, which, as he was a serial sex pest, basically meant that she was possessed of a pulse. Anyway, Io fell for his charms and although they tried to keep it a secret, the wife, knowing Zeus was more dog than god, soon got suspicious. Zeus, in his ultimate wisdom, transformed Io into a cow so that Hera would not suspect, although frankly, I think I would probably be doubly concerned if my husband spent an inordinate amount of time in bovine company. 

To stop any untoward god on cow action taking place, Hera placed Io under the many watchful eyes of Argus. Apparently he had 100 eyes and could sleep without having to close them all which made him a pretty efficient guard, but Zeus was a devious old dog and hatched a plan to enable him full godly rights with poor Io. He enlisted the help of Hermes to lull Argus into a sleep so deep, all his eyes closed and then to ensure that he couldn't hunt him down when he awoke, had Argus killed as he slept. Hera was pretty miffed when she discovered her prize guard dead and took his 100 eyes and placed them on the tail feathers of her favourite bird, a peacock, as a rather gruesome tribute to him.

Now that may sound an unlikely tail (excuse the terrible pun), but having read the scientific explanation, it's a lot more comprehensible. I would try to explain, but my brain exploded somewhere between periodic nano structures and Fabry-Perot interference?! My duffer's interpretation, which may not be entirely accurate, is that, the peacock's feathers are actually pigmented brown, but the tiny structures of each feather reflect the light, causing the amazing colourful pattern that we associate with the bird.

The peacock holds great cultural significance to the people of India and in 1963, the blue peacock was designated as the country's national bird - incidentally, we don't officially have one in the UK, although in typically understated, British style, a poll by the Times in the 1960s declared the European robin as our national avian symbol. In Hindu culture, the peacock carries the god of war Karthikeya on its back, having been generously allowed this honour by the magnanimous deity. Magnanimous because, the peacock had previously been a demon called Surapadman that the god had smote - (gods loved to smite) by cleaving him in two, but had allowed those two parts to live in the form of a peacock and a rooster. 

Perhaps this explains why the peacock is such a cantankerous bird...or perhaps it's because, despite being the national bird of India, they are mercilessly hunted across the country for their flesh, their feathers and even their fat which is erroneously thought to help treat arthritis. And, if they're not being hunted down, they're falling out the trees after eating pesticide covered seeds, so it's just as well they are fairly prolific breeders.

Not so fortunate, the green peacock; equally beautiful, indigenous species of South East Asia, also known as the Java peacock. Relentless hunting and a reduction of the quality and extent of their habitat, has left these gorgeous creatures on the endangered species list. Where once, they roamed wild throughout Burma and were seen as a symbol of national identity, their main strongholds now, are limited to a few conservation areas in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Unlike the Indian blue peacock, the female of the green peacock species is as brightly coloured as her male counterpart and it can be hard to distinguish between the two. The name 'peacock' refers solely to the male of the species and the female peahens of the blue peafowl  are quite drab by comparison, having fairly plain, brown plumage. One male will generally have two to five females in his personal harem, although green peacocks are thought to be monogamous in the wild. It is also widely believed that  peahens  of the Indian peafowl, choose their mates on the basis of their tail plumage, favouring those with more 'eye' spots and a larger fan which could imply that sexual selection has determined the development of the peacock's tail, rather than the 100 eyes of Argus. 

There is also one other type of peacock, known as the Congo peacock, which is not nearly so glamorous as its Asiatic cousins and therefore often overlooked. It is still a rather stunning bird but lacks the show stopping tail plumage that we associate with peafowl. 

Visitors to the Jardin de Plantes in Paris may have been lucky enough to see a white peacock. These birds are quite stunning, although they are essentially an unpigmented or ‘leusistic’ version of the Indian peacock. This mutation hardly ever occurs in the wild, but selective breeding has enlarged their numbers. Although the colours and ‘eye’ circle pattern are the very things that distinguish a peacock, I find this white peacock incredibly beautiful and think a future project will definitely include them, perhaps as a wedding theme… 

Now, if I hadn't already loved peacocks, this final snippet would have convinced me - the collective noun for a group of peacocks is a party and family of peacocks is a bevy, so it seems appropriate to depict them on champagne flutes don't you think?