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The Places in a Cup

The Places in a Cup Image

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anna Canning, Special Correspondent

by Anna Canning, Special Correspondent 

Since moving to Portland, I've been thinking a lot about place and the concept that, for lack of a better English word springing to mind, I'm calling "placedness." Even when lost in a new neighborhood, there’s a sense of familiarity: a sense of how the light slants, the scents of the place (musty ivy, boxwood hedges, tree blossoms), the way it rains--not just downpours, but moisture seeping up, down, and drifting in from the sides, dissolving the line between raining and not raining. When I arrived, I knew the city only through a few well-traveled paths (to the legendary Powells Bookstore or the airport), but despite the strangeness, it was clear that this place I'd landed in was home.        

At Peace Coffee, we often talk about the fact that coffee comes from a place. It's a simple statement on the surface, but for far too long, coffee's been distinguished by the question "decaf or regular?", an anonymous commodity, not the fruit of a parcel of land.

This month over at our Wonderland Park location, Head Barista Andrea has chosen to feature our Sumatran Full City. It's a coffee whose origins I know well, having traveled to Indonesia for coffee twice.

The first time I was there, we pulled over on one of the turning mountain roads of Aceh province; I reached out my hand and collected up a handful of the crumbly orange dirt from the steep hillside. Sniffing that dirt, the descriptor "earthy" was no longer in the least bit esoteric or metaphorical when applied, as it so often is, to Sumatran coffee. Orangey, slightly spicy, piney, I held in my palm a down-to-earth (forgive the pun) example of the French concept of terroir, that notion that the products of agriculture, be they wine, cheese, or coffee embody the essence of the season and the soil that they came from.

Even as I think of these travels and the sense I have of where these beans come from, one of my memories reminds me of how very little I know the place. When driving through the winding village roads of Takengon, it seems that everyone is a coffee farmer. Stripes of bright orange tarps line the way as every bit of available ground gets used to dry coffee. We'd pass through a village and minutes before the ever-present mist coalesced into rain, people would appear to fold up the sides of the tarps and neatly roll them into so many giant orange snails of coffee to wait out the storm. Strangers in the place, we wondered at the magic of their timing--we didn't feel the clammy air thicken, didn't notice any change in the verdant mist-scape that surrounded us. The clues were more subtle than we could take in, nuances that are lost on adventurers who can only see the foreign things in a place.

Those subtle perceptions of a change in the mist aren't very different from the way that right now, all across Minnesota, there's a sense that fall's here. Farmers are preparing for the first frost and trying to draw just a few more days out of the harvest, relying on that familiarity with their own place. They'll check the weather forecast against the cloud cover, the thermometer against knowledge of their own fields--maybe low-lying, the chill of the river valley means frost for this side of the field. As if by a miracle, the ones across the road will survive without being covered. It's that sense of the soil, the terroir, of a place that goes into each bit of agriculture, each thing that we eat. With each sip, each bite, we're savoring someone's home.

If summer's the season for adventures, a water bottle of cold press slung alongside, fall's the season to come home and sit down to savor the familiar with a cup of coffee. Even as we settle down from summer vacations, the traveling doesn't have to come to an end. Each harvest recalls its origins and hints at the place that it came from.

In that cup, the Sumatran Full City is remembering the orangey, spicy, earth it grew in. Perhaps those hints of black pepper are a reminder that it hails from the Spice Islands. Head Barista Andrea recommends brewing a pourover if you want to highlight some of those spicy notes that a co-worker found yesterday in a bowl of Thai veggie soup: lemongrass, galangal*, a hint of savoriness, and of peppers--very good, incidentally, for nursing the first of the season's colds. A press pot highlights that orange earth that's still somewhere under my fingernails (or maybe that's just the coffee grounds): rustic, orange-y, autumnal, those flavors coat the palate in the full, heavy-bodied brew. However you brew it, take a moment to appreciate the taste of these beans and their place as well as the place that you and your mug find yourselves this morning.

*Galangal's a rhizome frequently used in Southeast Asian cooking. I've described it as smelling much like a good-looking man who just returned from a long hike in a piney forest: musky, spicy, piney.

Anna Canning is back in Oregon, tasting and smelling the place she says she's from.


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