Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2010-11-08
Historian and adventurer Hippolyte Courty has a quest to find the planet’s rarest and most delicious coffees and his aim is to open a window on a largely unknown world.
Coffee, the poor relation of French gastronomy
France is the land of a thousand cheeses, of Pétrus and Romanée-Conti. Its cuisine and art of dining continue to lead by example and Its bread and baking traditions are unique. Yet, French coffee can hardly be said to be among the best! So what’s the reason for this mystery?
“France doesn’t have a real coffee culture” asserts Hippolyte Courty. “In Italy, whether you’re in Naples, Venice or Rome, coffee is taken very seriously. In Scandinavia, the Anglo-Saxon countries and in Japan there are numerous coffee shops where you can enjoy quality coffee. Here we have a long way to go.”
In Paris, without any difficulty, you can find salons de thé where you can sample some of the finest Yunnans, Sichuans and Oolongs. But where do you go to taste real coffee? A few coffee blending experts here and there (Verlet on rue Saint-Honoré or Lapeyronie on rue Brantôme) can offer you this pleasure, and some of the best starred restaurants will serve an honourable, if not excellent after dinner coffee. Caféothèque on Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville is perhaps the best place. So few establishments for such a universal drink!*
“Most of the time, the coffee used in France is over-roasted and of very mediocre quality. The beans are toasted to mask the defects of the coffee! As for the machines, well they don’t tend to work well and are rarely cleaned.”
Organic Coffees with a regional accent
A medievalist historian by training, Hippolyte Courty was seized by a passion for coffee. Courty discovered a history closely interwoven with that of the Western world: Bach, Voltaire, Louis XV, Goldoni, Napoleon, Beethoven, Balzac, Verdi, Proust - none of them could live without their coffee! During the 16th century Pope Clement VIII even blessed the beverage that certain cardinals considered to be “the dark Islamic drink which comes to us from the devil”!
With his erudition slung over his shoulder, Courty set off in search of the rarest and most unusual plantations, from South America to Vietnam and from Ethiopia to Réunion Island. Last year he launched his own coffee business - L’Arbre à Café.
“Just like wine, coffee manifests its excellence through notions such as varieties, local soils and vintage years. An Arabica isn’t cultivated in the same way as a Robusta. A coffee from the plains doesn’t express the same characteristics as coffee grown in the mountains. Factors such as yield control, respect for the environment, the avoidance of using fertilisers, pesticides and additives are important. In short, everything that has proven essential in wine production is also true for coffee!”
Two Great Cups
Among the exceptional coffees brought to light by Courty, we’ll begin by mentioning Bourbon Pointu Grand Cru, one of the oldest known varieties of Arabica. This largely forgotten coffee used to be served at the tables of the Kings of France and comes from the highlands of the Piton des Neiges on Réunion Island. Annual production is a miniscule 800kg. The beans are oblong in shape and low in caffeine. When tasted, the coffee impresses with its smoothness, purity and long finish. Take your time to appreciate its aromas of flowers, musk, pineapple and spices. This is truly a rare coffee!
The other nectar that earned Courty his reputation (he roasts the coffees himself in a workshop in the Paris suburbs) is the “Jacu Bird” from Brazil. This is a unique coffee that comes from a wonderful plantation near Rio, cultivated by Henrique Sloper de Araújo using biodynamic techniques at an altitude of 800 metres.
This coffee has the distinction of being first eaten by a forest bird called the Jacu, whose talent is its ability to select the very best beans. Once gathered, washed and roasted the coffee has balanced sweet and savoury notes that is quite unique to its genre and it exudes aromas of unheard of complexity: forest fruits, rose, spices, leather...**
More common and less financially prohibitive is the “Red Iapar” from the same producer that suits French tastes due to its delicacy, roundness, and its aromas of chocolate, truffles and honey.
The preparation of all these coffees should be something of a ceremony. You need to take your time and use a cafetière that is worthy of the task! If you don’t have the means to buy yourself a nice Italian espresso, just remember that the very economical piston cafetière called “Bodum” or “French press” is the professionals’ choice for tasting sessions. This type of preparation, by which the bean particles are infused, serves to liberate the nuances of the coffee, whilst the espresso is more aggressive (creating the equivalent of the pressure found 70 metres below sea level.)
Another tip: a coffee mill is an important acquisition because freshly ground coffee is infinitely more flavoursome and fragrant than pre-ground coffee (which oxidises after several days). For storage don’t be afraid to store your coffee packets in the freezer.
** Hippolyte Courty also has two other pre-digested wild coffees from East Timor and Karnataka in India, grown in biodynamic plantations for which he is the exclusive vendor.
What’s the difference between Robusta and Arabica?
These are two different families of coffee. One hails from Ethiopia and was marketed by the Yemenites before being distributed throughout the world by the Dutch and French via their Empires. The other comes from Equatorial Africa and is the daughter of African colonisation.
Each family comes in many varieties, such as the Conilon for Robusta and the Bourbon, or Catuai tipica for Arabica.
Robusta are very productive, grown in lowlands, and have a low sensitivity to diseases. Inexpensive and with a very high caffeine content, they produce a creamy, bitter and powerful cup and make the perfect espresso.
By contrast, Arabica varieties prefer the shade and altitude (800m - 2,200m). Sensitive to disease and less productive, they are therefore more costly and contribute an aromatic complexity to blends.
Hippolyte Courty’s website provides information on where to find and sample his coffees.