After a 20-hour flight from Melbourne I’d finally reached the dazzling city of San Paolo. With my friend and fellow chef Tet [Tetsuya Wakuda] we were there to have lots of food adventures late at night and visit the source of some of my favourite coffees. I had never been to San Paolo before and as an art lover I instantly fell for the exquisite Portugese architecture that you could see scattered around the city. For a couple of days we were based in Jardins, which some call the Beverly Hills of San Paolo. We went armed with a list of restaurants that we wanted to try while we were there and a few more than we’d found in the guide book, which included Alex Atala’s DOM, Daniel Redondo’s Mani and a bistro called Mocoto, where we sampled an array of Brazilian hotpots and grilled fish. Each menu was as delicious as the last and more than worth the trip.
But we weren’t here for the food or the architecture, we were here for the coffee. Two days after we arrived we climbed into a jet, and flew out to one of the coffee plantations in the middle of Brazil. We left the sparkling skyscrapers behind and flew south into the Brazilian rainforest. It wasn’t long before the plane’s wheels were touching down on a landing strip in the middle of the jungle. When we stepped off the plane it was like we’d walked into paradise. The Serra da Mantiqueira region is incredibly picturesque. Set at 1,300 metres above sea level, the region is made up of rolling hills, lush mountains and natural springs…
We met the farmers who were working the same land that their great-grandfathers had grown crops on. They showed us how they picked these sought-after coffee berries and then set us to work.
Donning our cowboy hats we set out into the plantation. But picking the berries for Brazil’s Grand Cru proved to be harder than it looked. With the sun beating down upon us, we had to search between the leaves of the bushes to find the perfect berry. It wasn’t a case of shaking the tree and picking up whatever fell on the floor, we were looking for the ultimate coffee bean. We were looking for the Yellow Bourbon – a pale olive green berry that needed to be a certain shape and size. The farmers told us what to look for – you had to choose a bean that hasn’t yet fermented. And you needed to find it through colour, shape and texture… I could see that it would be exhausting, relentless work, but waiting to find this perfect bean was important. For if the farmers chose to sell this Grand Cru instead of a regular coffee they could boost their profits dramatically.
A few competitions with the pickers proved that we needed to keep our day jobs – particularly Tet. I told him that he definitely couldn’t think about turning to picking beans if he ever wanted to leave his kitchen. Finding these pale green berries at speed was a lot trickier than it looked.
However, the farmers had more than Tet and me to help them. They had coffee guru Jacques Carneiro. This third generation farmer from speciality coffee exporter Carmo Coffees works with the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Programme and has spent 13 years helping the farmers achieve the perfect crop. Without access to the internet and magazines the farmers weren’t able to educate themselves on the latest developments, so Jacques worked with the local co-ops to show the farmers how they should work without chemicals, protect water sources and prevent soil erosion from their land. He also introduced cupping – inviting farmers to produce the highest quality coffee by looking for defects.
Sniffing then slurping the coffee so that it hit the back of his tongue, Jacques showed us the skills of a master taster. By doing this he would be looking for oiliness, sweetness, acidity, flavour and after taste. His cupping session was as precise as any vintner doing a wine tasting.
But that’s the way they think of their produce. Earlier in the day, I had met an old farmer who talked about his coffee plantation, with the same pride as the wine growers talk about producing wine. And deservedly so, because he there were creating the Grand Cru of coffee. The small co-operative has already won Brazil’s Cup of Excellence for its speciality coffee, which is coffee’s version of the World Cup. In fact I recognised a guy from the Co-op who said that he ate in my restaurant in Melbourne each year. His coffee was so prestigious he was flown to the city every year by the Australian speciality roaster Five Senses Coffee.
However, I was amazed to find out that until 20 years ago the farmers weren’t tasting their own coffee as they didn’t have the expensive roasting facilities. The coffee that they drank would come from the local store. However, they are now given the opportunity to roast their own beans at the co-op, and taste and compare their produce.
We were then invited to try the Brazilian coffee ourselves. With the first sip of the steaming hot liquid, I noticed that it had very little bitterness. And as the coffee ran over my tongue the fruit characteristics came through. Then before the liquid slide down my throat, I tasted a touch of caramel.
In my restaurant I order a lot of single origin coffees, but this was divine. It was just the way I like my coffee. I hate coffee that’s been over roasted.
We finished the day with a hot air balloon ride over the plantations. Spending the day with the farmers and looking around their plantation was an honour. As a guy who loves his coffee – like everyone from Melbourne does – this was a fantastic experience. But while I couldn’t take the beans home – Australian border protection wouldn’t let me – I could let everyone know was that you need to learn where your coffee comes from. Those stamps are not just something that people pay for. The Rainforest Compliances are real. And the stamps have a lot of meaning.
When Shannon is not travelling the world in search of the perfect ingredients you’ll find him at his restaurant Vue De Monde