Monday, July 7, 2014

FEZ, MOROCCOTRAVEL DIARY: FINDING A RUG, IF NOT A DEAL, IN FEZ.

Fez, Morocco is a city unlike any other. It’s a place of immense spirit; the sights and sounds, from the melodic echoes of the call to prayer, to the constant dodging of donkeys down narrow alleys – is almost too sensationally vivid to conjure up in words. But alas, I will try.

It was a disordered spring in April when I traveled to Morocco; one week we baked ourselves in 90-degree Fahrenheit weather, the other we huddled underneath blankets to keep warm. I was there working with a volunteer organization in the capital city of Rabat. I heard vague tales from other travelers, near folklore, about the magical city of Fez — “If you think the medina of Rabat is great, just wait until you see Fez,” they would tell me. What about it? No one would say, other than, “it’s wild,” “what a place!” and so on.

I had the weekend free, so I and two other volunteers took a Saturday morning train through the countryside to Fez. I didn’t read much about the city beforehand, I wanted an element of surprise; I had enough information about its elusive greatness, so I decided to be old-fashioned and not consult a guidebook or travel site.

The train ride was pleasant. We arrived at a clean station, hopped a taxi and headed towards our riad — old homes surrounding a courtyard, many which have been converted to hotels. Old Moroccan cities are comprised of an ancient city center– the medina — surrounded by a more developed, modern city. Our riad  (Riad la Calife; €100 for a double) was located in the trenches of the old city, where no cars could enter. A bellman dressed in red met us outside of the medina to guide us to our accommodations. It was a lovely and peaceful property, run by a charming French Moroccan woman and her husband, tucked behind damp stone walls and a thick wooden door.

The medinas, dating back to medieval times, are contained by enormous walls which one enters through large, often elaborate gates. The medina is filled with souks: marketplaces selling produce, meats, trinkets, housewares, and really, objects of every kind. Though some of it may seem like junk, much of it is handmade by the sellers themselves, and most Moroccans buy their daily essentials here.

Inside the medina, Fez is buzzing with chaos and energy. Men atop donkeys navigate throngs of people moving in every direction. The dirt alleyways intertwine, up and down hills and every which way. Without street signs, landmarks are the only way to know where one is going. A guide is essential, and your riad will help arrange a good one. Be wary, though, as most guides get kickbacks from every vendor they take you to.

Before we set off through the dizzying maze, our guide asked us if there was anything in particular we wished to do. I went to Morocco with a mission to bring home one souvenir: a rug. I have a fascination with floor rugs. To me, they are the most important design elements in a home. I love to cover my floors with a varying array of colors and designs. Morocco is known throughout history for their tribal rugs, made by the Berber people – descendants of the indigenous settlers of North Africa. I had been told that buying a rug in Morocco is more cost-effective (and more fun) than buying one in the states, where prices usually double.

We set off down narrow streets, some of which we had to turn sideways to pass through. We paused to drink glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice, impossibly sweet and poured from coke bottles; we ate soft cheeses still fermenting in vats; we watched as two men wove elaborate garments with their hands, standing across the room from each other, their fingers entwined with thread. Everything seemed to be frozen in time — a forgotten era when people made things solely by hand, and people came to buy those things

Our guide led us into an old palace.  As we headed up winding, tiled stairways, we noticed vibrant rugs adorning walls and in dusty piles all around. Men in white coats began to prepare a selection of rugs in some kind of choreographed dance, as if they were expecting us.

We were led up to the rooftop to look upon all of Fez.  After snapping a few photographs, we were ushered into a gorgeous room framed by an intricately hand-carved wooden ceiling. The palace was a medieval gem, stunning in its own right, but even more beautiful when filled with brilliant, hand-woven rugs of every kind.

A flamboyant mustached man appeared: the owner and our salesman. He spoke a mix of heavily accented English tinged with French. Of course, we began the elaborate process the real Moroccan way – “Tea, mesdammes?” he asked, before uttering much else. In Morocco, sweet mint tea is drunk on every occasion, multiple times a day, and it is considered rude to turn down an offering. Luckily, the tea is delicious, so I always acquiesce.

Marocain, ou Americain?” he asked of the tea; Moroccans drink their tea with an immense amount of sugar. Americans often find this too sweet, he told us. “Marocain,” we say in unison, much to his delight. An assistant scurried off to make our tea, as we took a seat on patterned cushions.

The owner was incredibly proud of this rug empire. We sipped tea with him as two assistants presented us with rug after rug. He took us through history with each design, from the more modern, mass produced rugs to traditional handmade Berber rugs. “I, of course, am Berber,” he stated proudly. He showed us thick wool rugs of every color woven with geometric designs; “one-of-a-kind,” he said, shaking his head in admiration.

Excusez-moi, madame! Excusez-moi,” he interjected as I admired a rug with motifs of good luck and wild fringe sporadically decorating the sides. “This. This is Picasso for floor,” he told me. “It tells a story.” What a salesman, I thought, but I couldn’t resist his charm.  He was right: I needed this Picasso-for-floor, as part of my story.

After hundreds of rugs and a second round of tea, each of us made a selection; I picked the colorful hand-made Berber. We had yet to discuss price, which I was more nervous about as time ticked on. I went into the process with a self-imposed limit on what I could spend, but I had a feeling these would exceed those preconceived numbers. In Morocco, there is an art to bartering, though I usually failed miserably at it – a delicate game I’ve yet to master. This man made it easy: he offered a twenty percent discount, and refused more.

When I returned to New York, I made sure to peruse carpet stores, asking to view rugs of Moroccan origin. Most Berber rugs ran much higher, some upwards of $1,500; online, I could find rugs for much less than what I paid, though their authenticity was questionable. I soon realized that perhaps, it was all a ruse.  Yet I remain ecstatic with my purchase — because it tells a story. Every time my feet cross the living room floor and hit the furry wool, I’m reminded of Morocco, and then I usually go make a pot of sweet mint tea.




Tuesday, April 8, 2014

RABATCOFFEE 101: KHADIJA’S MOROCCAN MINT TEA

While here in Rabat, Morocco with Cross Cultural Solutions, I must confess: coffee hasn’t been part of my daily life. It’s hard to find much coffee drinking happening anywhere, though there are a few cafes that serve it.  Instead, Moroccans get their energy from very strong, sweet mint tea. This tea is a part of the country’s social fabric.  No matter what their day is like, every Moroccan pauses for tea many times a day. They live very slow and steady, full of ritual and peace. They are a positive people, without worry; “Inshallah,” they say — God willing. In other words, why worry?  It is out of one’s control.  Their tea drinking reflects this; there is always time for a pause, a time to rest and be with others.

Mint tea is served in the morning when one wakes, and at night before sleep — and every hour in between. It is presented to guests to welcome them, consumed after meals and in celebration. It is ingrained in every Moroccan’s consciousness — one cannot separate Moroccan culture from mint tea. In fact, it is offensive to reject an offering of tea, and one is expected to drink, at the very least, two cups when offered.

Our house manager, Khadija, is a warm spirit and a mean cook. She taught us how to make tea, the Moroccan way. Though I’ve found that no two people make it the exact same way, the components always consist of three things: green tea, lots of mint, and large amounts of sugar. They typically make the tea in an engraved silver pot, called a berrad.  This can be placed directly on the stove, and the entire process takes place in this pot.

First, boil water in a separate kettle. Green tea leaves are added to the berrad (or any pot in which one plans to serve the tea in), and a small amount of boiling water is added. The tea is steeped for 2 to 3 minutes, and then poured into a glass; more boiling water is poured into the pot, the tea is swished around, and poured into a second glass.  The second glass of tea is the “dirty” tea, the dust and dirt that they believe is left on the leaves after the initial steep.  Therefore, discard the second glass of tea.

Fill the pot with water once again, this time filling the pot completely.  Put the berrad on the stove and bring to a boil, then add a handful of fresh mint. True Moroccan tea is incredibly sweet; all around Morocco, we were often asked if we wanted the tea Morocain or Américain – apparently American tourists find the tea too sweet (which doesn’t seem very American to me!)  For the true Morocain taste, add two large sugar sticks. Moroccans never stir their tea, it is simply poured many times to dissolve the sugar.  The tea is poured into accompanying glasses from a high distance, then poured back into the pot.  This is repeated three or four times.  The pouring must be done from a high distance to get the proper layer of foam that Moroccans strive for; “your tea must have a good turban,” Khadija told us.

Finally, the tea is ready to be served in small, traditional etched glasses, allowing many cups to be had (Moroccans always drink 3 or more cups in one sitting). It is sweet, strong, and minty, and is always accompanied by good company. It’s the Moroccan way.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

COFFEE 101: ESPRESSO ON THE RANCILIO SILVIA

This Christmas I received something I have coveted for the past (almost) decade: an at-home espresso machine.

The Rancilio Silvia is an Italian-made stunner, producing high quality results in a compact, rather easy-to-use machine.  Clive Coffee named it one of the best single-boiler espresso machines under $1,000 (as many of you may or may not know, espresso machines are generally, très cher).  Though I’ve never owned a more expensive machine in comparison, I can say that this machine has been my at-home savior.  I’m simply, in love.

After a couple of months, and perhaps 400 cappuccinos later (not all imbibed, don’t worry), I’ve learned a thing or two.  And I wanted to share my amateur findings.  There is, as always, much room for improvement — any advice you may have, feel free to pass on.  I’m only two months into being top barista of my household, so I remain humble.

Details:

The Rancilio Silvia is a single-boiler espresso machine — meaning there is only one water-heating source for both brewing and steaming.  Therefore, it will take a bit more time to prepare a milk drink; after an espresso shot is pulled, one must wait for the machine to heat up to optimal temperature once again before steaming milk.  Since I’m usually only making one or two drinks at a time, this isn’t a concern for me.

Important Variables:

First of all, as always, fresh and properly roasted coffee is required for a good result.  I’m currently brewing a single-origin Kenyan from Columbus, Ohio-based roaster One Line Coffee.  I think it’s really great as an espresso.

When pulling espresso at home, one of the most important elements is your grind.  Grind is an important aspect of any coffee-making, but one honestly can’t pull a good espresso shot unless a proper grind is used.  I received the Baratza Maestro (since discontinued) the Christmas before last, from my husband (do you sense a Chrismas pattern?), and it has really made all the difference.  There are even more efficient grinders for espresso use, but I have found that this one is doing the job for now.

The espresso should be fine and powdery, which allows a uniform and compact tamp (that little silver hammer which baristas use to pressurize the grinds in the group-head).  While tamping, one should apply even, forceful pressure for about 30 seconds. There should be no holes or cracks in the espresso once one tamps.  A proper grind and tamp are really the most essential components of pulling a shot of espresso, since after that, the Rancilio does most of the work.

The extraction time is the final variable one must watch carefully.  It is, quite simply, the time it takes to brew an espresso shot.  Optimal time varies between machines, but generally lies between 20-25 seconds from the time you flip the switch to the end result.  I am currently extracting espresso for about 20 seconds — perhaps too short –but my espresso has been rich and thick, with a nice crema (that white frothy layer that sits on the top of an espresso shot, an effect of the gases being released during extraction.)  The grind is probably the culprit, and I plan on experimenting with slightly finer and coarser grinds.

Next up, I’ll tackle the highly difficult art of steaming milk. Stay tuned!

I produced a short film on my iPad — grainy and pixelated since I’m currently sans camera! — to give you some visuals.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

WEEKEND INSPIRATIONMALALA YOUSAFZAI

As we bicker and complain and judge and gossip and wallow, this young woman has endured more than most of us ever will, and remains full of hope and happiness.  I’m often in awe of Malala; how can one girl be so strong, so full of love after living through such a horrific act?  Her patience and kindness are inspiring. It requires a deep strength to maintain such kindness, forgiveness, and compassion in the face of such evil.

“If you hit a Talib, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib.  You must not treat others with cruelty…You must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education.” – Malala



Friday, October 11, 2013

NEWSTHE KINFOLK TABLE

Kinfolk is an aesthetics-driven quarterly magazine created by Nathan and Katie Williams.  Without pretense (or advertisements!), the magazine strives to encourage people to come together and connect over art, food, and living in its purest forms.  They have put together a gorgeous cookbook, The Kinfolk Table, full of inspiring people and their personal recipes.  I am so honored that Kinfolk asked me to be a part of this timeless book, and that I could use this platform to pay homage to my amazing grandmother; I myself will be referencing these recipes in my kitchen for years to come.

You can purchase it at your local bookstore Monday, October 15th.  You can order it online here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

PARISLA CAFÉOTHÈQUE

Ah, Paris. The city’s visuals are like one big mise-en-scène. The way the bateaux mouches wind down the Seine, the Eiffel Tower standing majestically on the river’s edge, the chic Parisians with baguettes in hand. Though it’s also a city of fashion and trends and hipsters and Haussmanization and such, the city will always evoke a certain nostalgia of times past –the old life of le cafe and le pain and old men in chapeaux (or is that just my peculiar romanticism?) The neighborhood of Le Marais is the perfect example; an old Jewish ghetto, on the surface, is now quite gentrified with commercial boutiques and shops. But one must explore deeper. Inside Le Marais‘ narrow medieval streets, the old vintage shops and patisseries still retain the magic of yore. The 3rd arrondissement harkens back to its heritage as a Jewish enclave, and synagogues and Jewish delis are still lining the small windy rues.

La Caféothèque is the oldest of the specialty Parisian cafes, located at the edge Le Marais on Hotel de Ville — a street parallel to the Seine.  Opened in 2005 by Gloria Montenegro de Chirouze, former Guatemalan ambassador to France, it was the first cafe in Paris to offer coffee brewed to order. Cafeotheque features an extensive single origin menu where one may choose a country and a brew method: french press, cafe filtre (pour-over), or even, Aeropress.  The front of the shop serves as the shop’s roastery, and one can purchase house-roasted beans by the kilogram; an espresso bar is situated in the back. La Caféothèque also serves as a training center for baristas, Gloria’s “L’École de Cafés.”  (Nicolas Clerc from Télescope trained here).

The space itself is a series of salons, each unique in their design: one room’s walls are bursting with plants — a greenhouse of sorts — with windows overlooking the street; another room is full of comfy couches, oriental rugs, burlap coffee sacs, and shelves of books.

Gloria is such a warm and enthusiastic owner. She is like the maman of specialty coffee; seemingly every barista in Paris trained with her before moving on to their own ventures . And her entrepreneurial spirit is fresh, too. She most recently told me her dream was to expand into other countries, including (gasp!) the states. Gloria, we await you.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

WEEKEND INSPIRATIONJERRY SEINFELD: “COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE”

The diner is where I learned to drink coffee. When I was quite young, maybe four or five, my mother met a quirky group of friends each week at a legendary establishment called Southern Kitchen, in my native Charleston, West Virginia (may you rest in peace, Southern Kitchen). She would bring me along, so I could be one of the ladies for the afternoon. The women would meet for brunch, but linger for hours over the coffee. Their cups would be refilled again and again, and they’d spruce it up with yet another creamer, a few more packets of Sweet’n Low. I loved the way they all told stories while nursing the warm mugs in their hands; they’d sit in those booths for hours, their raucous laughter emanating through the air. Even as a child I thought, “This is really special.”  It was something I wanted to be a part of — the connection they shared, the fun they seemed to have.  And it all centered around coffee.

The iconic ’90s sitcom Seinfeld took this familiar ritual and used it as a platform. The diner was the meeting ground for Jerry and company. Watching the show as a youngster, I dreamed of meeting my friends over coffee, in a diner on the corner, having something interesting to say. Still to this day, when I’m sitting in a corner booth at a diner in the city, I feel a strange feeling: I feel like I’ve made it. (Yes, my aspirations are different than yours).

Jerry Seinfeld recently called into NPR’s Morning Edition during Coffee Week, reflecting on coffee’s social and ritualistic role in his life. It happens to be the basis of his new online show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It’s exactly that: Comedians driving around the city in really cool cars, getting coffee. The coffee is the catalyst to authentic, brilliantly comedic conversation.  Enjoy!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda.A CONVERSATION WITH RABBI JEFFREY SUMMIT

COFFEE CONVERSATIONS is a new section of the blog, profiling inspiring and interesting people.  Essentially, they are conversations with extraordinary human beings about art, design, music, and world events, usually over a cup of coffee.  This particular conversation was had over the phone, but no doubt with coffee in hand.

A growing group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Mbale, Uganda have sought to create change in their own community, by taking on a lofty goal: interfaith peace through coffee and music.  Led by Jewish musician J.J Keki, the cooperative calls themselves Peace Kawomera, or “Delicious Peace.”  They grow, pick and process organic coffee, side-by-side, in a country that remains divided by religious and ethnic barriers.  Music is a strong part of Ugandan culture, used for communicative and joyous purposes; the farmers of Peace Kawomera follow in this tradition, writing and performing songs which promote their peaceful worldview, educate those around them, and celebrate the crop that brings them economic prosperity.

In 2001, J.J. Keki was invited to visit the states on a lecture tour.  While in line at the World Trade Center to view New York City’s skyline from above, he found himself in the midst of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, running for survival after witnessing the first plane strike the towers.  After Keki’s experience in New York, he returned to Uganda on a mission: to use his gifts and the resources around him to promote religious peace.  Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, a research ethnomusicologist and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University in Boston, met Keki while recording his Grammy nominated album, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2005).  After being introduced by a friend to a recording of Peace Kawomera’s songs, Summit felt compelled to visit Mbale to hear the music himself.

Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2013) was recorded and produced by Summit.  Speaking to the rabbi by phone, the day after two bombs tore through crowded streets during the Boston Marathon, I remarked on the timeliness of the album’s release. “What better thing to put into the world right now, a project about peace,” I said. “You know, I wish it wasn’t so relevant,” he replied, clearly shaken by the events of the previous day.

In a short documentary filmed by Rabbi Summit in Uganda, Keki explains his driving philosophy: “Whatever you have, use it for peace.  If you have music, use music,” he says.  “We have coffee,” he explains.  And coffee may just be the perfect crop for peace.  He holds a ripe coffee cherry in his hand, peeling the skin to expose two beans inside.  “We should copy the example of coffee to bring peace” Keki says.  “You see this one?” he asks. “Two beans in each coffee. Which means it is friendly, it doesn’t want to live alone.”

Rabbi Summit traveled to Uganda three separate times, recording 400 farmers.  “Recording in East Africa is its’ own special challenge,” Summit told me.  Originally they set up recording sessions right in the middle of the vibrant, chaotic goings-on of the village, which, though beautiful and authentic, proved to be “very distracting” while recording.  “We [along with recording engineer John Servies] were out in the bush,” Rabbi Summit recalls, recording in rural landscapes, as well as finding acoustic solace in synagogues, mosques, and churches.  The music itself is a layering of women’s choral voices, African guitar music, and indigenous instruments — including the tube fiddle, shaker, and wooden xylophone — and even a Casio keyboard.

The songs are performed at community events, in an effort to attract others to join the cooperative.  Sung in various languages — including English, Swahili, Arabic, and Hebrew — the impact is far reaching.  These songs are used as engaging ways to transmit information.  Many are educational or instructional, such as “In Uganda, everyone grows coffee,” and “Construct a processing factory;” others celebrate peace, such as “Let all religions come together.”

An integral part of the success of Peace Kowomera is Fair Trade.  “It’s not just about paying people more,” Summit explained.  It helps fund important practices, including providing credit for famers to expand their coffee farms, preventing harmful child labor, and protecting the environment.  The benefits of Fair Trade are less obvious when the volatile coffee market is high, Summit told me.  “Coffee prices dip precipitously,” he explains. During these market lows is when large companies, taking advantage of desperate circumstances, offer attractively higher prices to farmers.  This short-sighted relief does not maintain stability; if during the the following year, the market jumps again, the farmer will sustain large cuts to prices.  Fair Trade provides a stable income, helping farmers weather the highs and lows of the market.  Most importantly, “For many farmers, the Fair Trade price is literally the difference between abject poverty and being able to afford malaria medication, basic health care, and school fees for their children,” Summit writes in the liner notes of the album.

The results of Keki’s efforts are nothing short of astounding.  In the liner notes of “Delicious Peace,” Rabbi Summit tells the story of two farmers of Peace Kawomera –Patrick, a Christian, and Mohamud, a Muslim — sitting down to lunch.  They told Rabbi Summit about their childhood, under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, when they were not permitted to socialize with people of other faiths.  “When I asked if it was usual for a Christian and Muslim to eat together, they both laughed and said that even four years ago, before they joined the cooperative, it would have been inconceivable to them,” Rabbi Summit writes; he notes that outside of the cooperative, tensions and divisions are still present, an acknowledgement that interfaith cooperation remains an issue in Uganda.

How can we work to overcome religious and ethnic divisions in our own communities?  The answer is shockingly simple, according to these farmers.  “These communities have made peace a priority,” Summit explained.   They often speak of the importance of “being one” with others.  Summit recalls a time he was lectured about America’s fighting in Afghanistan.  “They didn’t understand,” he says, why we couldn’t “be one person” with all people.

Indeed, perhaps all citizens of the world should see the world as such.

Purchase Delicious Peace through Smithsonian Folkways, here.  All proceeds go towards supporting the children of Peace Kawomera members. Buy a bag of Delicious Peace coffee through Thanksgiving Coffee Company, here.

All photographs below taken by photojournalist Richard Sobol.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

PERUEQUAL EXCHANGE EXPEDITION DOCUMENTARY

Coffee co-op and roaster Equal Exchange has embarked on a journey to source coffee from deep within the world’s protected biospheres. Recently, a group of three Equal Exchange worker-owners traveled to Peru’s Bahuaja-Sonene Biosphere, and explored farms that are part of the CECOVASA co-op. Their journey was captured on film, a glimpse into what it’s like to grow and pick coffee in these rugged and untouched regions.

It’s a beautiful and exciting journey, providing these farmer’s a fair opportunity to share their beans with the rest of the world. Enjoy the two-part documentary below. (To read more about their journey, click here.)

Monday, March 18, 2013

MIAMI, FLCOFFEE 101: CAFE CUBANO

At Abuela’s Kitchen, a newly opened Cuban restaurant on Lincoln Road — Miami’s crowded and eclectic outdoor shopping mall — the women at the counter greet sólo en español. Since I don’t know much Spanish, I stick to what I do know: coffee. “Cortadito, please,” I ordered on a breezy Friday morning. “Non!” the robust waitress countered, shaking her head. “Too small. You want a cafe con leche — very strong and good.” It was early, and Cubans, like Italians, drink their heavy milk drinks in the early hours of the day. I nodded my head; really, I’d drink whatever she told me to — I didn’t want any trouble.

Cubans are one of the many cultures that make up the vibrant and multifaceted community of Miami, and the influence of their culture is unmistakable. Walking around Miami Beach, it can often feel like one is wandering through foreign streets; as one Colombian immigrant told me, “everyone in Miami is from somewhere else.” While I’m sure Miami natives exist, the city’s strong Latin presence is evident in Miami’s coffee scene. In nearly every cafe, one will see a café cubano on the menu.

A café cubano is a shot of espresso, often made with Bustelo beans, pulled with sugar, or sometimes, poured over sugar. The sugar caramelizes and turns into a kind of syrup, creating the notable sweetness Cuban coffee is adored for. Bustelo beans are darkly roasted (I know, I know, wrong on so many levels), so the sugar is never overpowering because the undercurrent of the coffee is so strong.

A café con leche is one part café cubano, two parts steamed milk. Often, condensed milk is used, creating an extra sweet treat.

Finally, a cortadito is the perfect blend of the two. It is a Cuban version of the macchiato: a potent shot of Bustelo, laced with sugar, cut with a drop of steamed milk.

Cuban coffee is engrained in Miami culture. Gazing at the crowd huddled around the the outdoor window at Abuela’s, one notices tourists, locals, Latinos, Haitians, and Europeans alike: a snapshot of Miami, all drinking a café cubano.

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