Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Beware the wings of Summer!

Christmas is coming
Bruxas in the flat
please put the aircon on
and squash the mossies flat

Summer is coming to the Mata Atlantica, which means hot days and nights, and rain - perfect conditions for insects. This, not Halloween, is the time for witches, "bruxas", huge (up to 16cm) moths the size of bats who invade your house at night. As I mentioned in a previous blog, bruxas, (Ascalapha odorata) are of course completely harmless, if occasionally annoying, and they feed on rotten fruit. They'll probably be around until January.

Bruxas might be harmless, but other summer visitors not so much. Termites ("cupims") swarm at this time of year, males and females abandoning their nests and flying out into the sky. They are weak fliers, and blown hither and thither by the wind. When they land they shed their wings and, if they are lucky, start to make a nest from the wet trees and timber they have landed on, so if you see discarded insect wings on your furniature, watch out! Mated queens produce huge quantities of workers that build the nest where they will all live, either underground, in mounds in the pampas or fields, or as nests on the side of trees and fence posts.

As many house holders have found to their cost, termites are very good at digesting wood, which is beyond most creatures. Although some can actually do this by themselves, most have colonies of microbes in their gut who do the work for them. Humans though are having their revenge. Firstly, termites are edible and easily caught when swarming. Apparently they are best lightly grilled on a hot plate, their natural oils supplying the cooking fat. Secondly, they are potentially a source of fuel - producing hydrogen from waste wood, although nobody has quite made a termite power station yet.

And worst of all are the mosquitoes, their life cycles speeded up by the heat, and with plenty of puddles to lay their eggs. Development time for Aedes aegypti, from egg to adult, goes from 33 days at 16C to 9 days at 32, although if it's any consolation they do die younger. With more mosquitoes comes more disease, the incidence of Dengue fever for example starts to rise steeply in December before peaking in March to May.

So beware, the time of the insects is coming!

Friday, 19 November 2010

A really good cup of coffee

A fresh cup of Jacu coffee

First pick your coffee berries, and this is where your problems start as berries on a plant ripen at different rates. It is possible to use green, unripe, berries, but the resulting coffee is more bitter and lacks the mellow taste and aromatic aroma of ripe, red berries. The problem of course is that selecting only ripe berries is very labour intensive and cannot be mechanised, but for the best quality coffee that's what you have to do. Well..., normally. In Malaysia, "kopi luwak" or civet coffee, is produced from berries that have passed through the local palm civet, a type of cat, producing an aromatic coffee which is one of the most expensive in the world. One grower in Espirito santo has improved on this idea.

Native to the forests of the area are two type of"Jacu", seed eating birds about the size of chickens - the Rusty-margined Guan (Penelope superciliaris) and Dusky-legged Guan (P. obscura). Jacu are very selective in their feeding, only picking ripe berries, which in due course pass through the bird. Thus if you collect the droppings from a Jacu, you should have only ripe berries. It sounds bizarre, but Jacu coffee has regularly won prizes and is one of the most highly prized coffees in the world. I can testify that it makes a very mild, delicious brew.

Most coffee however is made without the aid of Jacus. After picking there are more or less two options, the wet and dry methods. Most of Brazil uses the dry method. Harvested berries are cleaned and debris and damaged berries removed, sometimes by passing through a flotation channel where the ripe berries will sink and the damaged ones float away. Ripe fruit are then spread out to dry, turning regularly to give even drying and avoid mildew. In many old manor farms in Brazil you can still see the large brick area where this took place.

Fazenda Santa Maria, Sao Carlos

This stage is very important in the final taste of the coffee and traditionally drying took about 4 weeks to reach the right stage - too dry and the beans become brittle and don't handle well later, too wet and they are prone to rot. Nowadays, many plantations use machine drying to give a more controlled result.

Quero quero (Vanellus chilensis) on drying coffee berries

Dried fruit are then send to a mill to remove all the remaining fruit residue, leaving just the coffee bean. Sometimes the beans are then aged, potentially for up to 8 years, but most experts seem to agree that flavour peaks at about a year after harvest. The last important stage is roasting, which normally takes place in a rotating drum heated from below to between 180 and 280 C. Coffee with delicate flavours are only roasted for a few minutes, but roasting itself endows a strong flavour which is also popular. Beans are then cooled (air cooling is much better than water) and then the last stage is grinding, which for optimum flavour should take place just before use.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


One of my favourite things.
Amongst the commonest plants in the Mata Atlantica region nowadays is the coffee bush. It has been like this for centuries, in the old days local magnates ruled over huge plantations in the states of Sao Paulo, Minas and Espirito santo. A characteristically colourful description of one such estate by Rudyard Kipling can be found here.....


Coffee appears to be native to the Ethiopian highlands, but it was soon spread through the arabic world, where it was used to make "kahveh". A taste for coffee developed fairly late in the west, but when it did demand exploded, with Coffee houses such Lloyds in London becoming very popular. Lloyds incidentally was near the Thames and so a popular haunt of sailors and shipping investors, from this grew the famous shipping insurers, Lloyds of London. Anyway, increasing demand led to plantations in various colonies, for the British, India and Sri Lanka, for the Dutch Java, and for the Portuguese, Brazil.

Coffee plants are evergreen shrubs, with dark glossy leaves. There are two main types, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora var robusta, which give arabica and robusta coffee respectively. By far the better quality comes from Coffea arabica, but it requires conditions similar to those of it's Ethiopian ancestors, high slopes above 600m, as well as being vulnerable to disease. In contrast, robusta is, well, robust, being very disease resistant as well as able to grow even down to sea level and having 40-50% more caffeine. The tradeoff is that the quality is not so good, very bitter, and it is mainly used for instant coffee which doesn't command such a high premium.

Coffee plants grow for about 5 years before producing any berries, from which coffee is made, although they will fruit for another 15 years after that. Because of this they are often intercropped with short lived species in the early years, such as banana. There are varieties of coffee like any other crop, but it seems that the soil and growing conditions are more important. Not surprising when you realise that over 800 different compounds contribute to the taste and flavour of coffee and the proportions of these vary with how and where the plant is grown. And with how the berries are prepared, but I will talk about that another day.