One More Cup of Coffee…

I  met Khayaal Theatre Company director Luqman Ali, who is currently working on a new play called Coffee or the Abominable Liquor of Infidels, and learns how the hot cup of ‘Joe’ we now take for granted was once the catalyst for heated political debate and was even, arguably, the seed that germinated free speech and democracy in Britain.

Cedar Lewisohn – Can you start by telling me about your research into coffee?
Luqman Ali- The idea came to me when I was reading the books of Nabil Matar. He’s an academic who specialises in looking at the histories of relations between Britain and the Muslim world. In his book, Islam in Britain 1558-1685, he has a section on coffee. It talks about how coffee was first brought to Britain in the 1650’s and the controversy that accompanied the introduction of coffee to this country. The story fascinated me, as a lot of the discourse that took place in discussing coffee and opposing coffee in the Seventieth Century actually mirrors a lot of the discourse we are having today around the place of not just Muslims, but people of minority ethnic communities, weather from Africa or the Middle East. So I was taken by the story and thought this would make a fantastic theatre production.

CL- So you are really focused on how come came to the UK?
LA- Yes, that’s the lens we are looking at it through. But it’s also about conceptions of the other and conceptions of difference. Coffee was originally seen as something that “good” British people did not drink. It was the drink of the infidel Muslims. It was called a ‘satanic brew’ and it was called a ‘devils cup’ and that type of thing.  We are looking at the story of how coffee went from being seen as a suspect and conspiratorial substance to being the social adhesive which positively transformed notions of human rights, notions of  citizenry, notions of solidarity, and community, even education. I mean coffee houses where referred to as penny universities, because for a penny, you could basically sit with all ranks and classes and be educated about the ways of the world.

CL- Can you expand on how coffee affected human rights?
LA- Yeah- coffee came into Britain after the Interregnum and the beheading of Charles I and Charles II came to power. So issues about human rights, issues about what it means to be a citizen, the conflict between the parliament and the crown, all of these things were happening at the time in Britain. So coffee houses provided the first arena for these types of discussions to permeate and pervade society.
Coffee houses were known as being one of the only places, weather you were lower class or upper class,  you were welcome to socialise. It broke down class structures, at least for some time. In that context, coffee had a connection with human rights. Added to that, coffee houses played a part in the French Revolution, and also The American Revolution.  The opposition to authority was really conducted through coffee houses.

CL- I saw that coffee originates from Ethiopia, is that right?
AL- Yes. Originally, coffee as a bean was discovered in Ethiopia. But as a hot beverage similar to what we consume today, this did not happen until later in Yemen, when you had Sufi Orders, a specific Sufi Order, the Shathilya order, one of its spiritual teachers was inspired to crush and boil up the beans to create a beverage. That’s where coffee was born. And it was born primarily for spiritual reasons, because they were trying to find ways of keeping their adepts, the disciples up all night for night visuals and worship. The Arabic sources we are researching go right back to the decade when this all happened.  In Ethiopia, they used to chew the leaves of the coffee plant. But there is no evidence that they actually turned it into a brew in the way the Yemeni’s did.

CL- Can you talk more about some of the cultural connotations of coffee in relation to your research?
AL- Yes. If we talk about the enlightenment in Britain, lots of the great philosophical conversations took place in coffee houses.  The arrival of coffee and the setting up of coffee houses happened within ten or twenty years. We went from having one coffee house in London and one in Oxford, then with ten or twenty years, you end up having hundreds of coffee houses around the country. This enabled a huge cultural shift. Prior to coffee arriving, people where mainly drinking ale, because you could not drink the water. So people were influenced by alcohol a lot of the time; the coffee created a more sober environment for what became intensely philosophical and scientific discussions. Coffee exercised a huge cultural influence in the shifting of society.  The coffee house culture was imported from the Ottoman Empire, because coffee moves up from Yemen through the Arabian Peninsula, up into Syria and up into Turkey.  Then it’s mainly ambassadors and envoys from Europe (Germany, Britain), who are based in the Ottoman empire  who see the phenomenon of coffee houses and then bring the coffee back and set up coffee houses and so forth.

CL—The original Starbucks…
AL- Yes—but when you went into a coffee house back in those days, it was common courtesy, to say “what news have you?”. This was prior to newspapers. In fact- the whole concept of a Newspaper was born in the coffee houses. Because coffee houses used to produce news bulletins, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly. Whatever sector you choose to look at, whether its insurance, finance and commerce, science, academia—all of these institutions that we know so well today are influenced deeply by coffee house culture.

CL- How did the taste of coffee changed from the time you are talking about to the taste of coffee we have today?
AL- There is a guy called Dr. Matthew Green – who runs coffee house tours in London, where he will take you and tell you the story of coffee.  More so from the European angle.  He will also give you a taste of what 17 century coffee tasted like.  They did not have the mills that we have today – so it was a little bit more course. No way near as refined and sophisticated as we have now. Basically they were just boiling up crushed coffee beans and draining off the liquid and drinking what remains. 17th century coffee was very different. You didn’t put milk in it for one thing.

CL- Where the coffee houses mainly  in London?
AL- That’s were the biggest concentration was. But they were all over the country, in Leeds, Exeter… Initially they had broken down various class structures. But eventually that re-instated itself.. and there where coffee houses for upper class people and coffee houses for lower class people.
The amazing thing about this is because the coffee houses were proving such dens of iniquity and even treason, a lot of democratic conversations taking place in coffee houses, Charles II tried to shut them all down.

CL- That leads into my next question. What brought about the demise of coffee houses in the UK?
AL- Well- it certainly was not Charles II because his bid to close them all down failed. He had to rescind his edict that all coffee houses be shut down. The coffee houses started to close purely for economic reasons, to do with the fact that tea came on the scene. Tea displaced coffee as it was a cheaper commodity. The British could bring in tea themselves from their colonies and they could control the price of it much better than with coffee.  So tea played a big part in the demise of coffee houses. But today, we almost have a re-invigoration of the coffee houses.

CL – So my final thought, is that we are lucky today that coffee was not banned, it might have been seen like cocaine or something along those lines.
AL – That’s exactly how it was seen by those who opposed it in Muslim countries. Some hilarious scenes take place in Saudi Arabia, in Mecca, when coffee was actually put on trial. They actually had people drink coffee and observed them – this was around 1511, 1515. Then later people were trying to smuggle the coffee beans out of Yemen when they realised it was a valuable commodity. I think the Dutch were the first ones to do that.

Khayaal’s (www.khayaal.co.uk) medium stage touring production, Coffee or the Abominable Liquor of Infidels, is scheduled for the autumn of 2018.

Fjord for Thought

Wednesday
10.40

Slightly blurry eyed, I’ve made it to Heathrow on time and I’m all checked in and ready to fly. Feeling fly, I decide to check out The Perfectionist, Heston Blumenthal’s new airport gastro-diner. Scrambled eggs on toast. Good start to the day.

17.00

Stavanger time. Arrived at the apartment I’m staying in and there are some basic foodstuffs there waiting for me, which is very sweet. I have some bread, butter and ‘stabbur-makrell’ which is basically mackerel and tomato paste from a funky little yellow tin. I’ve never had it before, but it’s good. Like a slightly tangy, fishy, thick tomato sauce. I’ll have to try and find some back in London.

19:00

Fish & Cow restaurant. I meet with Martyn Reed and James Finucane, organizers of the NU ART project which takes place around Stavanger. It’s fantastic to catch up and delve into some hardcore street art gossip. Fish & Cow is the sibling of Stavanger’s more upscale, Michelin-starred Renaa. The meal and service are both excellent. Jonathan Lundgren, the maître d’, took amazing care of us. He could be the Miles Davis of sommeliers; with his attention to detail and laid back air, he never missed a beat.

We started luxuriously with some Crispt e Michel brut champagne. But, as Martyn pointed out, it is a luxury and quality that is very accessible in high-earning Norway. The appetiser which followed was actually something of a showstopper: Sterling White halibut cream with dried kelp, radishes, cucumber flower and chives – an extremely light and aromatic dish. The radishes provided just enough acidic zing to match the smooth firm texture of the mousse. We all agreed, it was gone far too quickly, washed down with Chablis Laroche.

The next course was equally as good, and also great fun – Sashimi of fjord trout and scallops from Hitra, horseradish, cep mushrooms, soya sauce and edible flowers. Seafood in Norway is a big deal. The cold, clear waters up towards the Arctic produce some of the best fish in the world, and the Norwegians pride themselves on the high quality of their produce – rightly so,  judging by this dish. The simple presentation also showed confidence in allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. The wide fat lines and sheen on the mountain trout matched with the creamy white scallops sat elegantly on the plate, set off by the green leaves and purple-blue flowers, as much an aesthetic experience as a gastronomic one. This dish was washed down with a Riesling Buntandstein, 2015 Pflüger – sharp and dry, with a subtle fizz on the tongue, it was probably my favourite wine of the evening. Next came the lamb, baked breast of, with potato purée, summer vegetables and jus, served with red wine: Brolo Campofiorin Masi 2011, Veneto. The meat was cooked and seasoned perfectly. The portion size was also generous enough to fill us all up, but not so big as to feel overwhelming. We three diners were extremely happy, and if I’m honest, slightly drunk at this point. The lamb’s presentation was both sophisticated and rustic. At one point, Fish & Cow’s head chef, Mads Henrik E. Smedberg, came by the table to say hello and check how we were enjoying our meal – a nice touch.

Desert was organic milk ice cream, muesli, brown cheese caramel and raspberries. Brunost (brown cheese) is a traditional Norwegian goat’s cheese – its sweet, caramel-like flavour added to the slightly sour ice cream. The dish was also very pleasant to look at. The dessert wine, Vendemia Tardia Moscatel Chivite 2009, which was fresh and fruity, also complemented this final course well. We staggered out of Fish & Cow, full up and happy. You can’t ask for much more from a meal.

Thursday
11.30

When it was suggested I visit the Norwegian Canning museum, I have to admit I had some trepidations. An entire museum dedicated to canned fish? Really? To my surprise, however, it was actually fascinating. Between the 1890s and the 1960s, before Stavanger made any money from oil, exporting tinned fish was the city’s major industry. I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the museum by curator Piers Crocker, a man, it’s fair to say, who knows his sardines. The museum still has functioning smoking rooms, where sprats are cooked up and can be eaten by visitors as they tour the collection. Still warm from the medieval-looking ovens, the tiny fish are a perfect snack, a little crunchy and with a distinctive wood-smoked flavour. I was fascinated by the many year’s-worth of labels designed for the tins of fish. These were often made for specific markets around the world, a couple of my favorites being the Haile Selassie I, Crown Prince of Ethiopia sardines and the kosher-friendly sardines packed under the supervision of an Oslo Rabbi. Piers gave me a tin of King Oscar’s sardines, which I had for lunch.

20:00

Dinner at Mondo, in Sandnes, a town around 20 minutes’ drive from Stavenger. Mondo is a fairly new restaurant, and they have obviously paid close attention to the design details of the venue. If you want to experience Nordic chic, this is the place.  Everything from the copper covered tables and leather beer mats to the icy white and natural, earthy-toned stoneware plates and bowls screamed Scandinavian elegance. The food could best be described as modern European with an Asian twist. Overall, the meal and service were very good, with the highlight being dessert: a Madeleine cake, with popcorn, fresh cheese, vanilla, summer berries and poured, salted caramel.

Friday
09:30

I checked out some natural wonders on a cruise tour of the Rødne fjord. I was attempting to channel Caspar David Friedrich but kept coming up Charlie Brown.

13:00

Oysters and fish soup for lunch at Fisktorget, by Stavanger harbour, washed down with a glass of dry white. Life could be worse.

14.00

Had a walk around the food festival. I brought some reindeer meat with blueberry to take home. I really wanted to try some of the local boiled potato and meat dumplings, called coumpa, but I was too full from lunch. Next time.

21:00

I was very excited about going for dinner at Sabi Omakase, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I love sushi, and secondly, I’d heard sushi masterchef Roger Asakil Joya’s restaurant is a must for any foodie visiting Stavanger. The food, approximately 18 dishes, is served to just 9 people, all sitting at a bar watching the sushi being prepared. Even though this is something of a high-end food experience, having the chef right there in front of you means you can ask all those nagging sushi-related questions fairly informally. I learned all sorts; from how to grow fresh wasabi to the secrets of a good sushi knife. The food itself was spectacular. We started off with a palate-cleanser of suimono with cockles. Apart from one prawn dish, the sushi we ate was exclusively nigiri (hand-squeezed rice and fish). The first sushi was cod with shio kombu, fished from the North Sea. This had a very gentle flavour, allowing the texture of the rice to come through and it crumbled pleasingly in the mouth. We were instructed to eat the sushi with our hands, not chopsticks. I’ve never thought about the order sushi is eaten in before, but in retrospect, it does appear that we started with more subtle flavours, which increased in intensity as we went along. That, basically, means graduating from whitefish to pink and then red. Each bite was delectable. I was sitting next to a group of lads fresh in town from Oslo. They were keen to discuss the UK’s recent Brexit vote, Norway of course being a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), but not the EU. The Oslo boys had some fairly strong opinions, and what with the Thomas Morey Chardonnay 2014,  Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs 2004, Meinklang Foam 2014, Schatzel Kabinett Riesling, Kirin Ichiban beer and champagne, the conversation was delivered with ‘passion’. But back to the food – a couple of highlights included the foie gras miso with Japanese white and brown miso, the Chinese eel (eel fishing is banned in Norway), and everyone was very excited by the whale sushi. The taste was meaty but milder than I expected. The Oslo boys told me whale is a very special treat in Norway. The reindeer from the Finnmark plateau also brought sighs of delight from around the room. The flavour, here, was full on gamey. It’s clear that what Chef Roger is doing, by taking ingredients local to Norway and combining them with the highest standards of traditional sushi making, is a unique and positive development. The meal ended with white sesame ice cream with tapioca and silken tofu. After the intense sushi, this provided a perfect light and refreshing end to an amazing meal.

Saturday
09.00

Prawns and a brown bread roll at the airport. Sparkling water.

Links:

mondo.no

www.fishandcow.no

www.omakase.no

www.fjordnorway.com

Hello, I’m your friend, Ed Fornieles

Last week I received the above message on social media from artist Ed Fornieles. The message went on: “I’m here to chat. Operated by a team of conversationalists, I’m here to respond to your needs, as a friend.”

What Fornieles has done is set up a team of ‘chatters’ who message people and talk about whatever they want. He says the conversations will go into the making of a future artwork. I decided, in the spirit of collaboration, that I’d take this opportunity to discuss the future of food. Below is an edited version of our chat. Ed has also asked me to say that the views represented are not necessarily his.

Cedar Lewisohn: What type of food do you like?

Ed Fornieles: We love food; we are vegan, so we like complicated recipes. We think it is calming sometimes to cook

CL- How about art and food? what does that mean to you?

EF- Well, Ed made a film about it.

EF- Nice sweater, we love the ghoul. What inspired you to use the cooking show format?

CL- The whole film is the work of artist Alexis Milne. He’s into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the restaurant at the end of the universe. What do you think food in the future might be like?

EF: Perhaps more pre-prepared, packaged and rationed. We imagine end of world scenarios and food in that context; you?

CL: I guess there are a few ways to think about ‘food in the future’ – the end of the world scenario is one way, with water shortages and super high import taxes imposed on various goods in countries that have closed their borders. In a more positive way, I think the growth of meat-free cooking will continue. Have you seen the ‘impossible burger’ which is being developed? It’s meat free but is meant to taste as good as any regular burger. I think Bill Gates is funding it.

EF: Is the ‘impossible burger’ the one that they grow in a dish? New diets feel also inevitable with falling biodiversity; it’s a very good point that you bring up. It’s like insectivorism, which feels like it’s blowing up right now

CL: It’s a plant-based burger that has many of the same qualities as meat, in particular a compound called ‘heme’. This is apparently what makes blood red and what makes meat burgers taste good. Now they’ve made it from plants. What’s also interesting is that they have done all this in labs and through science, so it’s a kind of computer burger, or maybe even post meat. I’m keen to try it.

As for insectivorism, there is a lot of talk about cooking with insects right now. I’ve even seen a few artists doing cooking projects involving insects. It’s interesting but I’m not sure how new it is.

EF: It’s not new, but it’s definitely being branded as such at the moment. That said, the concept of the insectivore diet – that is one that takes on insect as protein over all other sources, so replacing meat and over-farmed vegetable alternatives like soy – is relatively new and still growing. Would you ever try insectivorism?

CL: Sure, I’d love to try something like that. Actually, I ate Amazonian ants at a high end place in São Paulo, Brazil, once – they tasted of lemongrass.

EF: Were they by themselves or mixed into some kind of unrecognizable patty?

CL: They were served with pineapple, totally recognizable – it’s a famous dish from chef Alex Alta.

EF: Is it exclusive to him, though?

CL: I think Alex Alta takes inspiration from the Amazon, and what people eat there.

EF: Insectivores are aware that this kind of diet is only ‘new’ to its target audiences. It’s important to remember that, we think.

CL: Yes, very true.

 

Babylon Ital

I’ve recently been experimenting with some cooking events in galleries and alternative art spaces. It’s a bit of fun. I’ve mainly been cooking vegetarian or vegan food – not for any particular ethical reason, but simply because I think it’s sometimes harder to find decent veggie food when eating out. I like the challenge. I love Jamaican food and many of the vegetable dishes associated with Jamaican cooking, so that has been an initial inspiration.

I met the artist Joe Walsh at a party and we got chatting about food and our mutual admiration for dub reggae and Scotch bonnets. Joe cooks regularly at the Bonnington Café in Vauxhall. It’s one of London’s oldest socially-run vegetarian restaurants, housed in a former squat. They have a different chef every night, and you can get a three-course meal for around 15 quid, which for central London is pretty good. You never know what food you’ll have or how good it will be, which is always part of the fun of the place. Actually, I hadn’t been to Bonnington for years, but Joe said he had a spot coming up and asked if I’d like to cook with him. Of course, I said yes. Joe and I did a few tasting sessions, and also came up with the concept of Babylon Ital. Ital is basically traditional Rastafarian food “from the earth”. Similar to vegan, but some hardcore Itals don’t use salt, and even more hardcore Itals don’t even allow metal cooking pots. That’s where the ‘Babylon’ part comes in. Babylon is the Rastafarian concept of capitalist corruption, kind of. So we used salt, and blamed it on Babylon. We also used metal pots. Babylon’s fault again.

For the night the menu was:

Start.

Fried plantain with Bo Boys salsa

Sweetcorn, okra, polenta with herbs

Main.

Red pea soup with vegetables and dumplings

Pumpkin and spinach curry

Desert.

Guinness punch

Coconut pie with lime

Mint tea

(We also handed out Jamaican country-style Irish moss drinks to people at the end of the night.)

Now, aside from all this Ital cooking malarky, I’ve also been working on some actual art. I have a solo show coming up at Exeter Phoenix, and as part of my research for that I’ve been looking at the ethnographic collection of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. I’m interested in the history of collections and what they say about the people and cultures that put them together. I’ve made sketches from some of the objects in the collection that caught my eye, with the idea that I’ll somehow use them in the show. One of the works I found interesting was a hand-spun cotton cloth from Côte d’Ivoire, from the 1960s. The cloth features images of some ritualistic tribal figures. What I liked about the figures is that they looked like they would be very easy to re-draw and then turn into some type of print. I showed the drawings to Joe, and he suggested we use one of them for the flyer for the Bonnington Café gig, which we did.

Another night at the Bonnington came up a couple of months later, and we decided to stage a performance as well as cooking. After more brainstorming with Joe, we hooked up with costume maker Clare Farrell, who took the drawing and turned it into a wearable costume. We told maverick performance artist Tex Royale [pictured above] that we would pay him his weight in yam if he’d wear the costume for us, and he was more than happy to take up the offer. Tex did a great job, inhabiting the spirit of a West African tribal shaman, with a sprinkling of 1970s Ronald McDonald thrown in for good measure. No one knew what was going on, but the food went down well.

Dohalicious

I was recently in Doha, the capital of Qatar, for a project. I thought I would splurge and go for dinner at the Alain Ducasse restaurant at the Museum of Islamic Art – but before I went inside, I wandered through a market in front of the museum and tried a couple of drinks. The first thing I had was a cup of hot ginger milk. The woman selling it didn’t speak English, and my Arabic is slim, so I couldn’t get much information. It tasted great – hot milk and ginger with something a little sweeter; so simple and lovely. Why have I never had this before?

Next, I spoke to a guy selling cold drinks. He told me he was Palestinian-Jordanian, but born in Qatar. He had a liquorice juice made to a recipe of his mother’s that he said I just had to try and also roselle juice, which is actually something I’ve been experimenting with in London. While I have been having it hot, like a flowery tea, my new friend served it ice cold. It has a mild, fragrant flavour and is very refreshing. Lastly, I had a little sip of tamarind juice. It was thick and spicy with a serious kick.

After the drinks, I headed to the restaurant. If you’ve never seen it, The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is one of the most spectacular museums on the planet; a stunning yet refined mixture of minimal sacred geometry and exquisite craftsmanship, all on a monumental scale. For those that don’t know, Alain Ducasse is one of the most respected Michelin starred chefs in the world, so his restaurant fits right into this context of immaculate perfection.

The restaurant’s food is a precise in every detail. The menu is classic modern French cuisine, mixed with locally sourced ingredients and flavours. The service is faultless and the meal was magical, a feast of multiple sensations, every dish a kind of theatre, exactly as haute cuisine should be. Alain Ducasse is alleged to have once said that “Desserts are like mistresses, if you’re going to have one, you might as well have three”, and they certainly love their dessert trolley in this place – as well as their tea trolley and their bread trolley. Indeed, the trolleys, like everything in the restaurant, are fantastically designed objects in their own right. By the time the meal ends there is a slight feeling of hanging out on a different planet, or perhaps a restaurant on The Starship Enterprise.

I came back down to earth on the last night of my trip when I took a taxi to the souk. I wanted to pick up some funky spices I’d heard about – massive black rock salt crystals and another weird rock-like thing called Sumak Arabi, which I’m told you dissolve in water, along with some regular sumac powder. After the spice store I stumbled upon a fairly awesome kebab house. The menu had some pretty wild options, everything from an entire boiled sheep’s head to a traditional Iraqi breakfast of fava beans, eggs and naan bread with onion and lemon. I opted for hummus and meat – two things I love. The bread came straight from the oven and I tucked right in. I washed it down with a very delicious glass of mint and lemon juice. As far as kebab experiences go, this was pretty perfect. I was in Doha, in the heart of the Middle East. It was a warm evening, and I was hanging out at an ancient souk, eating hummus. There was even a live soundtrack of quirky Arabic pop in the background. A perfect Arabian night.