It’s hilarious that the only things remotely “botanical” that warrant recent coverage in the media concern an incorrectly-dubbed “cat-poo coffee” and a freaky red celery hybrid created by a team in Florida, while much more important stuff like the Tomato and Potato Late Blight Disease that was wreaking havoc with any crops of the family Solanaceae in western Canada late last summer only got about two lines in our local rag. It’s all about the art of attracting interest – and what could possibly be more fascinating than a twenty-five dollar cup of coffee that has its origins in an exotic furry creature’s fecal matter? Fresh, locally-grown tomatoes? Bah – who needs ’em?
Yes, well, let’s have on about the coffee, shall we? I can’t help myself. Coffea is a genus in the family Rubiaceae comprised of about ninety species of trees and shrubs, of which Coffea arabica is likely the best-known (and best tasting!). Obsessively coffee-addicted North Americans owe our current “coffee culture” mainstay to the Arabs, who originally cultivated coffee plants (which are native to parts of Africa and Arabia) and discovered how to make the perfect roast way back in the 11th or 12th centuries. Europeans began to partake of the luxury beverage about three hundred years later and now, it seems, you can’t walk a single block in a major city in Canada without passing a Starbucks or a Timmies. The plants are extremely gorgeous, with large, shiny, dark green foliage, fragrant white blossoms, and beautiful red or purple “cherries” (botanically called “drupes”) that house the ever-so-precious beans. Most of the time, coffee cherries are harvested when ripened right off the tree (some types by mechanical means, some, such as the famed C. arabica, by hand), washed and dried, then shipped off to various international markets.
But for cat-poo coffee, enter the civet. Civets are small, really prettily-striped and spotted long-tailed creatures of the families Viverridae and Nandiniidae. They are not cats, and they are not weasels or foxes, or any other similar-looking critter that people seem to want to associate them with. They are native to regions of Asia, and most North Americans have only a vague idea of what they are. Up until a few years ago, the scent glands of these animals were “harvested” for the musk used in some high-end perfumes (this is now considered inhumane and not in wide practice any longer). And, oh yes, there is also the controversial idea that a particularly good-eatin’ type of civet, the Masked Palm Civet, hunted in Asia for its meat, might have been partly to blame for the SARS outbreak in 2003. At any rate, a type of civet called the Asian Palm Civet is primarily responsible for the coffee that bears its name (“Luwak”). It seems this civet really, really likes to eat the mesocarps (pulpy innards) of coffee cherries, which apparently taste really sweet and kind of grapey. (If anyone has eaten a ripe coffee cherry, please enlighten me on the taste and consistency. I’m curious!). Of course, the civet also ingests the whole coffee beans inside the cherries, and there is some kind of interesting chemical protein-enhancement process that goes on inside the creature’s stomach that…well…yields a superior bean once they are unceremoniously returned to the earth.
And then workers go around and manually collect the beans from the civet excrement. (And you think YOUR job is bad!). The beans then go through much the same process as for regular coffee beans (I sincerely hope they are really, really well-washed), except now they’re worth about sixty dollars (Cndn) per 50 grams, or even more than that in some markets. Apparently the coffee tastes “sweet” and “earthy” (YUP!), lacking any bitterness that other types of coffee may have. It is said to make a mean iced capp. Hmmmm…would you give it a go (if someone else were paying, that is)?
For information about Coffea, consult the book Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees, edited by Steve Cafferty (2005 Firefly Books Ltd., New York) as well as recipes.howstuffworks.com/coffee1.htm.
More facts about Kopi Luwak can be found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak. Or, if you’re a big spender with a taste for the exotic, you can order some through many online retailers, including the hilariously-monikered catsasscoffee.com. (THIS IS NOT AN ENDORSEMENT; I haven’t been to any of these retail sites. As usual, use at your own risk).
If you’re interested in civets, consult en.wikipedia.org/wiki/civet.
The results of a University of Guelph, Ontario study that documents the process that coffee beans undergo while inside a civet’s digestive tract can be found at uoguelph.ca/news/archives/005780.html.
The Edmonton Horticultural Society has a very good write-up about the Tomato and Potato Late Blight Disease at edmontonhort.com/gardeningalert/index.php.
And, last, but certainly not least, if you want to find out about the red celery, check out the story at firstcoastnews.com/news/florida/news-article.aspx?storyid+172059.