Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2011-09-29
Saved from oblivion by a brilliant agricultural engineer, the coffee once served to the kings of France is considered to be the world’s best arabica. A rare ambrosia that takes time to prepare and transcends that standard cuppa made from a (shudder) commonplace pod.
‘My farm was never very prosperous, but one can not give up coffee farming; it is endlessly captivating.’ ~ Karen Blixen in Out of Africa.
France, whatever happened to your coffee?
In France, the self-styled gourmet bastion of the planet, there are wine connoisseurs and sake connoisseurs. There are connoisseurs of whisky, cognac, Armagnac, calvados and poire williams. There are also connoisseurs of tea, of chocolate and of cigars who gather in clubs, organise tastings and competitions, publish magazines and oversee hedonistic secret societies that one may only enter through cooptation. But French coffee aficionados? Where are they hiding?
Of course in Italy, coffee is an art de vivre. The UK’s café culture has been evolving for some time now, and in Japan, Scandinavia and the US, exceptional coffees have their fans, specialists, shops, reviews, television shows and tasting parlours. But in France, zip. ‘Coffee is coffee, full stop,’ says a top chef whom we shan’t name. If you stop in at a chic café on Paris’s Boulevard Saint-Germain, for instance, the ‘petit noir’ (’little black’ - the basic French espresso-like coffee) has an acrid aroma of soot and leaves an aftertaste of cold cigarettes on the palate before moving down to the stomach. As for gourmet restaurants that pride themselves on serving the world’s finest food, most of them serve the same coffee as that found in retail - but here it runs 6 or 7 euros a cup, whereas it only costs the restaurant 10 or 20 centimes.
In the land of Voltaire, Balzac and Proust (who loved a good cup), why is coffee so undervalued?
The great historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874) maintained that the introduction of cafés in 18th century France was one of the turning points of French civilization. Taking the place of the ‘horrid cabaret where youths rolled about betwixt barrels and girls, the reign of the café was one of temperance and conversation,’ he wrote. Bringing energy and sensuality into the realm of spirituality, it ‘increased precision and lucidity and produced the spark and flash of truth. France had never spoken so much nor so well.’ (Histoire de France)
Christophe Pelé’s opinion on the matter
To take the measure of the gulf that separates a great coffee from those uniform pods lauded by Hollywood’s top hunk, we visited the restaurant La Bigarrade in Paris’s 17th arrondissement. Chef Christophe Pelé creates one of the capital’s most spontaneous, personal cuisines, justly rewarded by two stars in the Michelin Guide. Long disappointed by the quality of the coffees found on the market, this year Christophe fell in love with a coffee in a class of its own: the Bourbon pointu of Reunion Island, which Hippolyte Courty who founded l’Arbre à Café (the Coffee Tree: a connoisseur’s coffee blog and eCommerce) introduced him to. ‘It is the most well-balanced coffee I know. Particularly accessible, it lingers on the palate for a long time and leaves a crisp impression, as would a coffee bean. It’s a fruity, very straightforward coffee with subtle acidity; it fits right in with my style of cuisine and ends a meal on a fresh note. I like to serve it with a tarte au chocolat with a few grappa-soaked cherries on the side.’
Renaissance of the world’s oldest arabica
Bourbon pointu? Pointy Bourbon? This unusual coffee’s history is too long to tell here. Michelet spoke of a coffee ‘from volcanic land’ that arrived in Paris as early as 1710. Connected with the royal Bourbon family which began growing it on Reunion Island, it had ‘an unheard-of glee’, and aroused the ‘sudden hilarity’ of Voltaire, Rameau and Fragonard. Alas, the yield of this coffee grown on the lava of the Piton des Neiges was inadequate, and it was soon replaced by the stronger, more prolific coffee of the Antilles - a coffee which was drunk by the French revolutionaries of 1789, among others.
Lost and forgotten in the 20th century, until recently only a few wild bushes growing here and there on the island remained. But these past ten years, Bourbon pointu has been the object of a well-orchestrated replanting campaign piloted by agricultural engineer Frédéric Descroix. After discovering and becoming enamoured of the variety, Descroix set up an extremely rigorous production system on 12 hectares of plantations in collaboration with around thirty small-scale farmers, selecting the finest plants and best-adapted volcanic soils for the operation. The coffee drupes or berries are harvested when fully ripe, requiring 7 or 8 rounds of picking for each coffee tree over a harvesting period of 3 months. Their pulp is then removed and the coffee beans extracted and sorted for quality: only absolutely flawless beans are used in the ‘grand cru’ pick-of-the-crop vintage - a mere 830 kilos per year! At the end of the process, each batch of coffee is labelled with the date of harvest, the altitude and the GPS coordinates of the terrain - a traceability system that is unique in the world.
A low-yielding variety, Bourbon pointu coffee from Reunion Island is also naturally low in caffeine, making it easy to drink several cups in a row. To preserve their delicacy and natural acidity, the small oblong beans must be slow-roasted. The ideal preparation method is to fine-grind the beans, place grounds in a French press, add water at 95°C/200°F and steep for five minutes.
Enjoy a cup of Bourbon Pointu in Paris
Restaurant La Bigarrade
106, rue Nollet
€ 7 a cup
Restaurant Lasserre (since September)
17 avenue F.D.-Roosevelt
L’Arbre à Café
Tel: (33) 06 25 13 18 46
Given its rarity and demanding cultivation methods, Bourbon pointu is one of the world’s most expensive coffees. In Japan, where it is cherished, a kilo can cost up to € 600/£ 523!