Saturday, 28 November 2009

Civet Coffee (kopi luwak)

A civet yesterday
Civet coffee is made from coffee beans that have been shat out by a little furry animal. Civets live all over Asia eating the raw coffee fruit which they only partially digest; by the time it
comes out the other end just the inner bean is left intact to be enthusiastically gathered by the locals. Although falling into the category of "who the hell first tried that?" (along with fermented shark, 1000 year old eggs and roquefort) you can understand the local's enthusiasm once they discovered the nose-bleedingly high prices they could charge for it.

Coffee fiends claim that the effect on the beans from the little creature's digestive juices during transit are what make it so special, the more pragmatic observer would point out that they are also fussy little buggers who will only eat the ripest, choicest fruit. No-one (except possibly a tea drinker) would claim that it's because there are still little bits of poo hanging in/on/around the beans, after collection they're thoroughly washed and dried before a roasting at temperatures high enough to kill any remaining bacteria.

I've not seen the beans on sale in London before, Selfridges sell little foil packets of it pre-ground which kind of defeats the purpose if you ask me, and I remember reading a couple of years ago about a cafe in one of the big department stores selling it for £50 a cup, so I was quite excited at the chance to buy some actual proper beans. Once I got them home (and after lying down for an hour with some cotton wool up my nose) I opened up the packaging, took a look, and struggled to take a decent photo with the camera in my phone:

My first thought was surprise at how dark they were, roasted till some of the beans were practically black. Looking more closely at them they're glossy with a nice sheen but not a drop of oil (or turd) to be seen on them, this is a dark roasting they've had, I was expecting something a lot lighter. They smelt fantastic, rich, dark and chocolatey with a freshness and a layer of herbs and citrus over the top giving them an unexpectedly exotic quality, I pulled my nose out and into the grinder they went. My second thought as they were grinding was how unexpectedly small the beans were - although with hindsight, considering their origins it's pretty daft to have expected anything else. I suppose any civets keener on munching the bigger beans would pretty quickly prove to be an evolutionary cul-de-sac and pick up the civet equivalent of a Darwin Award on their way out.

So, the big question: did it taste like a little furry interloper had just dropped his kids off at the pool in my cup? No, of course not but also, unexpectedly, it was really rather good: lots of treacle and chocolate flavours, feeling very dark and rich in the mouth but with a real freshness and life to it and a very surprising lack of bitter kick, just a gentle bitterness that quietly makes its way up to the back of your tongue leaving a long, balanced and most pleasing finish. I was grinding these for a filter cup, a bit ruefully since after looking at them I guessed they were more suited to an espresso, but I'm thinking not now after tasting it.

I must admit to being surprised that this was actually as good as it was. The chance of trying something that's regularly seen as an urban myth, such is its wacky provenance, along with the comedy value of sharing it with friends and colleagues was too good to pass up but you'd need a much more refined palate than mine to find it any better than what's available from some of London's excellent coffee merchants at a tenth of the price. There's also the issue of how much confidence you can have in the quality, consistency and origin of what you're shelling out for - in the wild the variety of beans available to the civet varies vastly across Asia and with the opportunity to induce nosebleeds from thousands of miles away, civet farming is more and more common with the animals only eating whatever they're given, which really could lead to crap coffee.

You can try civet coffee for yourself at the Ca Phe Vn/BahnMi11 stall on Saturdays at Broadway Market for £5 a cup (they call it "weasel coffee", the Vietnamese name)

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