Year of Grace, Day 136. Wu wei or just-in-time gardening

My rather laid-back style of gardening —  which I call “wild or naturalistic gardening,” as I prefer to help, rather than master, nature and try to intervene as little as possible in nature’s way of doing things  —  is apparently just the very thing for finches. And I’m so glad that NABU – the German nature conservancy – states in its website that the “do-nothing” gardening style – I fancifully call it “wu wei gardening” – ensures that bullfinches and other predominantly vegetarian birds are well nourished throughout the year. If you want these birds to visit your garden and make it their home, NABU recommends not cutting flowers as soon as they wilt and not pruning stems hard back just before winter. They like nothing better than to nibble on tender young leaf buds and other nutritious spring greens and much later on the seeds that develop from the flowers.  Even insect lovers will often find feasts lurking inside dried flowers that have remained over winter. I leave my hydrangea flowers (not all of course, as I do snip a few for the house) to dry naturally on the bushes to protect them from freezing, and only after all risk of frost is over (after the Ice Saints’ Days, Eisheiligen, or mid-May) do I trim their natural cold insulation.

Speaking of love (yet again!) in the garden, I spied a brilliantly feathered bullfinch yesterday. Ruddy chest – at first I mistook it for a robin – but unlike robins, it had a black cap and striking blue underfeathers. A tawny brown bird came to perch on a nearby branch, and interestingly, our fashionista dandy immediately flew close – exceedingly close – to the modestly dressed newcomer. And he must have whispered sweet nothings in her ear (I realized then that it was a she-finch, though she was nowhere as brilliantly clothed as he), as for a while they were engaged in a melodious tête-a-tête. However, she might not have appreciated his suit (sartorial and otherwise) and brushed him off, because he flew off after a few minutes, not too far though, still gazing back at her longingly from time to time, chirping piteously from a nearby branch. Ah, spurned love!

Bullfinch. Photo: NABU

Bullfinch. Photo: NABU

Strong gusty winds this morning – spring gales – and if this were in the Philippines, I would’ve said there’s a typhoon brewing. Although I keep the back garden rather on the wild side for the wildlife, I am rather glad I tidied up the long stems of the Westerland rose yesterday and tied them firmly to a supporting pole. I’m trying to train it to climb up against the wall. In this morning’s gales, the stems would have been whipped about mercilessly. We had a brief spell of hail – the size of maize kernels – around noon yesterday and again, I was fortunate to have moved the blooming blue crocuses closer to the back door, under shelter of the roof (the better to be appreciated as one passes through, I thought). Had I not done so in the nick of time, the young silky petals might have been shredded. So, yes, occasionally, I do manage my wild-ish garden the Japanese industrial way – that is, JIT (just in time). However, I wasn’t just in time for a planter that was knocked off from upstairs by the stormy gales. Luckily, there was nobody below. These spring gales are quite something!

Year of Grace, Day 135. Romance in the garden: Lad’s Love

Continuing my musings on plant nomenclature and the overwhelming presence of the word “love”: today it is Lad’s Love, Artemisia abrotanum.  Ancient English gardeners must have been such a romantic lot, and associated this grey-green aromatic herb with a young man’s love.  Apparently no nosegay (what a charming name for a delightfully scented bouquet!) for a sweetheart would be complete without a sprig or two of it.

Curiously this is called Colastrauch (Strauch = shrub) in German, which demonstrates just how much culture and tradition divide gardeners’ fancy. While the scent of this herb once turned an English country lad’s (or maiden’s) fancy into thoughts of love, to modern German gardeners it recalls the aroma of that quintessential American drink. I am not as fond of this drink now as I was in my youth, and the only occasion that I will drink it or order it willingly these days is when the hygienic conditions of the kitchen or the quality of the water are suspect. (On a month-long taxonomic survey across Morocco, our leader habitually drank it after every meal; this has been his strategy for immunizing his digestive system in all the years he’s been leading botanical expeditions worldwide.) And does it indeed smell of Coke? Just faintly, I have to admit. But perhaps Germans who customarily drink it will have a different view.

Lad’s Love is also called Maiden’s Ruin or Maid’s Passion, as its aphrodisiac qualities were considered highly potent. A sprig left under a pillow was believed in medieval times, according to Anthony Lewis, to lead to wanton venery. Besides Nicholas Culpeper, who mentioned that no more than a drachm should be taken in powder form, there is no precise recipe for an aphrodisiac using this herb. Jennifer Evans, poring over quantities of historical material, gives a fascinating account of this herb, also known as Southernwood or Southern wormwood, and other aphrodisiacs.

Artemisia abrotanum, Lad's Love

Artemisia abrotanum, Lad’s Love, in my Bonn garden.

Old Man is another of this herb’s names: derived no doubt from its leaves’ characteristic hoary gray and as well from its alleged potency for aging men’s concerns. The leaves’ ashes, rubbed onto a balding scalp, were thought to promote regrowth (as well as encourage a young lad’s beard). A decoction was supposed to revive waning generative powers. (Hmm… no clinical evidence of this; however, Artemisenin derived from a related  species is used in the rapid treatment of malaria.) There is, btw, a herb called Old Woman, but that is for another day.

But back to Lad’s Love’s romantic connotations: as common wisdom has it, anyone can love when all is sweet and easy. But when the going is rough and bitter, as this herb most definitely is, to continue to love is the mark of true loyalty and everlasting affection: thus the sprig or two of Lad’s Love in a posy for a beloved.

I love Lad’s Love not only for its charming names and associated folklore, but because it has done so unexpectedly well in the heavy clay of my front garden. I have it side by side with lavender and rosemary, as was customary in ancient cottage herb gardens, and Lad’s Love has outperformed them both. It has spread vigorously and puts forth roots wherever its branches touch the ground. It is such an easy-going herb. And not the least of its engaging characteristics are its lovely feathery leaves in soft grey-green that shimmer like silver whenever the wind passes through.

I leave you with some lines by Edward Thomas on this herb, old age, and bitter-sweet memories.

“Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember;
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate…”

Year of Grace, Day 134. Love-in-a-Mist – a gardener’s whimsy

One of the first plants I ever grew from seed as a novice gardener was Nigella damascena. This is a Mediterranean native and when I first saw it in someone’s garden – blooming in a hazy cloud in the very palest of blues – it was love at first sight. And how could I not help being enamoured of this plant, whose English name is Love-in-a-mist? Its name in German is Jungfer in Brunnen, Maiden-at-a-fountain.

Love-in-a-mist with sage and wooly mint  in the”Mediterranean” (southern exposure) portion of my English garden

Such a fanciful name — in both languages — and rather descriptive too, as the plant and its flowers indeed possess a misty, aqueous quality. Finely cut leaves surround the powdery blue flowers, and from afar it is like gazing at blue mist hovering low on the ground. Another of Love-in-a-mist’s endearing habits is that its seed pods puff out like balloons with propellers – very decorative as they start to form, often streaked with purple, turning to beige as they dry. There is more to love about Love-in-a-mist— it is rather magnanimous (some would say “to a fault,” but I prefer a plant that self-seeds). When its seed pods burst, scattering seeds all around, the following spring you will have baby Loves-in-a-mist that can be transplanted everywhere. Although one catalog says they do not tolerate transplanting, I found that when they’re quite tiny, they don’t really mind. Most of all, it’s its whimsical name that I adore: Love-in-a-mist. Who was the fairy godmother-gardener that blessed it with such a loveable name?

There’s another Nigella (no, not the Divine Goddess of the Kitchen) whose seeds are often sprinkled on Turkish savoury pastries. They look rather like black sesame seeds with an intriguing faint oniony-spicey flavour, and they are sometimes erroneously labelled “onion seeds.” This spicey Nigella has beigey-white flowers, and I shall be growing it again; this time on a better drained site. They didn’t like being grown with flax on clayey ground. (I had envisioned a cloud of pale blue flax flowers interspersed with the white Nigella.)

Another spring bloomer whose name again evokes love, though at the opposite end of the spectrum from Love-in-a-mist — is Love-lies-bleeding, also known as Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis. Its German name is a direct equivalent: Tränendes Herz (Tränen = tears).  I had this planted at the foot of a lilac in my English garden, and perhaps they did not like each other, because the Bleeding Heart kept creeping farther and farther away.

The pink and white "lockets" of Love-lies-bleeding, Dicentra spectabilis.

The pink and white “lockets” of Love-lies-bleeding, Dicentra spectabilis, with white Woodruff, blue Forget-me-nots, pink Columbines, and in the back, pink Honesty and Honeysuckle

I adore and miss these two lovely plants that once graced my English garden. Love-in-a-mist and Love-lies-bleeding – who can resist having such garden drama queens? In name only, as they are really care-free, low-maintenance plants.

Year of Grace, Day 133. See-saw spring

Just when I thought spring was getting going, we’re back to single-digit temperatures. Today it’s positively wintry at 5ºC! The early spring flowers don’t seem to mind this see-sawing between winter and spring.

Primrose

Primrose

If you notice, there are two heart-shaped bites (made by a love-struck slug, perhaps?) on one of the bottom leaves of the primrose.

Skimmia

Skimmia

The skimmia is almost ready to burst into perfumed bloom — one or two buds are just on the verge.

I may moan about the return to chilly weather, but the lower temperatures make the flowers last just that bit longer, so I cannot really complain.

Year of Grace, Day 132. Spring’s succession of colours

I find it interesting that the earliest of spring flowers to bloom are white and blue, then yellow, followed by pink. I’ve often wondered why that is so. I would venture that it is co-evolution at work here — the pollinators of these precocious spring bloomers dictate the succession of colours, and vice versa. Which came first is difficult to say. I say “venture” because at this hour of the morning, I am not up to doing any research, online or otherwise. But please feel free to write in and share any relevant scientific explanation — this (momentarily) lazy but always curious gardener would be very much in your debt.

At Bonn’s Botanical Garden, following on from the white snowdrops and blue crocuses, tiny blue stars are blooming at the foot of shrubby peonies, mingling with white and pale pink wind anemones. Although these are not as spectacular as English bluebells, nevertheless they are equally lovely, and from afar, look like slices of sky flung randomly about.

When I lived in Dottendorf, there was a flower bed lovingly tended by my neighbour under a huge Kanzan cherry tree, and I looked forward eagerly to it every spring. Her design began as strictly blue and white, and I admired it very much. Over the years, she added yellow accents. I miss the joy of seeing this enchanting spring flower bed. I could never be as rigorous in limiting the colours in my own garden.  But I do love and admire how other gardeners can be so disciplined.

Year of Grace, Day 131. Bonn forest treasures

Yesterday’s walk through the forest and valley nearby — Venusberg and Melbtal — took my friend H and I and Yoshi the dog through unfamiliar territory: steeply sloped ravines at the sides and bottom of which lay enormous naturally felled trunks, casualties of past winters’ furious gales most likely. The springs have been amply fed by this winter’s generous rains and the flow in the gullies was steady and clear.

I am always on the lookout for flowers and fungi on these forest forays. By the roadside leading to the forest, a clump of tête-a-tête narcissus had fully opened. The snowdrops have already gone to seed, but the next wave of spring’s ephemerals are waking up: pale pink wind anemones at bud stage and a few periwinkles – such a gorgeous blue — have opened, enjoying their access to sunlight in a clearing.

On the way to the forest and back, we took a side road into a neighbourhood I’d never walked through before. A redbud tree (Cercis) was in its full glory, and an early rhododendron with magenta flowers in a front garden complemented blooming heather.

It was quite an adventure, and took us close to two hours, scrambling up and down the ravines, taking care not to slip down the steep slopes. Once, a massive felled tree trunk blocked the path —  it did not faze Yoshi the dog. It did me but I managed eventually. A thoroughly satisfying walk, quite challenging in parts, and I’m glad that my knees and thighs had been up to it. And of course, a walk through the forest with a best friend (not to forget Yoshi the dog), seeing the new crop of wild flowers coming up, is always pure pleasure. And such a rare treasure, for no two walks, even in the same forest, are ever the same.

Year of Grace, Day 130. By train to Bad Münstereifel

I love train journeys. There is something enchanting to me about travelling by train. Perhaps because as a child, I often travelled with my mother by night train, from Manila’s Tutuban Station to Damortis, La Union, the end station, and then onwards by bus to Santiago, Ilocos Sur, arriving at dawn, just in time for breakfast at the house of her mother, my grandmother Lela Pacia.

I also love landscapes mysteriously shrouded in fog and mist. And yesterday’s journey from Bonn to Bad Münstereifel was through Rhineland countryside alternately hidden and revealed: the fields nearest the tracks an eye-smarting emerald green and in the far, far distance, dimly glimpsed amidst the white-blanketed horizon, faint skeletons of trees, still bereft of leaves. It always amazes me how each type of tree possesses its own distinct silhouette: branches and twigs angled just so — the layout of trunk and branch and twig characteristic of that particular species, and none other. The weeping willows have just begun to leaf out. And the very palest chartreuse of its fragile pendent branches — like giant maiden’s greenish-blond tresses let down to be washed by waters of streams or rivers where such trees flourish — rivals the brilliance of yellow cornelian blossoms peering through the mist.

Bad Münstereifel is not that far from Bonn, though the journey takes a full hour and a half, as the train stops for some time at the major junction of Euskirchen to shift tracks. I don’t know why we don’t go oftener, as from our very first visit some years ago, we were very much taken with it. Being in Bad Münstereifel, from the moment one beholds the walled town’s imposing entry gate, is like being in a fairy tale. Or inside a picture book of medieval European townscapes, titled Topsy-Turvies, by Anno Mitsumasa, my favourite Japanese book illustrator.

We just strolled around, soaking in the bewitching ambience. And it is wonderful that the town centre is entirely pedestrianized so that the air is free of pollutants, adding to Bad Münstereifels’ reputation for healing and recuperation – it is renowned as a Kurort (Kur = cure; ort = place). The curative baths (Bad) are just outside the town centre. (I must have some sort of affinity to healing places: Leamington Spa, where I lived in England, had been one such as well. )

The day’s joys included lovely Baisertorte, eaten to the accompaniment of the sounds of the river as it winds its way down, burbling merrily as it flows through the town. Baiser is German for meringue, though amusingly pronounced the French way, “behzey.” This part of Germany has incorporated a lot of French, from the Napoleonic army’s thirty-odd years’ stay. Military uniforms reminiscent of that era are much in evidence during Karneval. Though why native Bonners pronounce “Ich” as “Ish,” akin to the French pronunciation of “ch,” may not be due to ancient French colonization. I am told that Bonnsch pronunciation is regarded as uncouth by those who speak proper hoch Deutsch.

Baisertorte

Much later, we had lunch of locally brewed beer and crisp roast Spannferkel (suckling pig, the local version of Philippine lechon), partaken at the brewery itself, overlooking the roofs and charming higgledy-piggledy muddle of half-timbred walls. A lovely and memorable day, and I was glad that we had come and left early, as it had begun to rain in earnest as we left for home. Interestingly, by the time we arrived in Bonn, the sun had come out, picking out the pink peach blossoms near Bonn’s Old City Hall, the Rathaus, also pink. It used to be much more startlingly pink and looked like a wedding cake, but… the political regime changed, and with it, the town’s aesthetic taste as well. I rather liked the old shocking pink — properly Baroque.

Ah, the delights of early spring – ever its mercurial self – one minute rain and the next, brilliant sun.

View from the brewery

View from the brewery

Path from brewery

Path from brewery

Johannistor, one of the town’s gated towers.


Year of Grace, Day 129. Eton meets Manila, or improvisational baking

Have you ever dithered over which of two desserts to make, and then ended up creating an amalgam of them both? This is what happened to me the other day. I had been wanting to make Sans Rival for some time. Since over Christmas actually, when favourite (and only) daughter came to visit. She had been hankering for it, but between one thing and another, we ended up not having time to bake it together.

Sans Rival (pronounced by many Manilans with the “s”, btw, though those familiar with the French language don’t) is a Philippine version of the delectable French confections Succes and Dacquoise. They are, essentially, layers of nut-filled meringue sandwiched together with butter cream. In the Manila version, the nuts are cashews, while Dacquoise and Succes are made with almonds. (A renowned Manila bakery tops the whole confection with a layer of caramel syrup, that solidifies to a mirror of amber glass. Lovely to look at, exceedingly difficult to slice.) Since cashews are prohibitively priced here in Bonn, my intended Sans Rival would have to be a Dacquoise.

Now I am not averse to baking – to the contrary, it is one of my favourite pastimes. But on such a lovely sunny day, it seemed to me that spending time outdoors was way better than faffing about in the kitchen. And, it is almost spring, and I remembered the luscious strawberries we had in Spain just a few weeks ago. Dreamily I thought, why not an Eton Mess? That is an English confection based on strawberries — some crushed, some left in slices, a generous lot of them – with whipped cream and crumbled meringues, all left to mingle together and chill and firm up. It looks a frightful mess, but it is oh so definitely heavenly.

So, off to the local shops: meringues from the French patisserie, then cream and strawberries. Simple. What I hadn’t accounted for was that local strawberries do not come into season till much later. Oops! The only ones I could find were Dutch ones, and they were priced like gold. Okay, rapid rethink, and of course I was back to Dacquoise. A punnet of strawberries and some kiwis for décor – a bright and colourful foretaste of spring.

The Dacquoise recipe I used, from the internet, called for 6 eggs, but the resulting batter did not seem enough for three layers, so I only made two. I scattered lightly toasted almond slices over the meringue batter before baking, to give additional texture. I also wanted the nut meringue layers to be crisp, and baked them much longer than the 20 minutes the recipe called for, and at a lower temperature. I know this seems highly irregular, and my improvising, rather off-hand. After all, success in baking depends largely on controlling the chemical reactions of your ingredients with the appropriate temperature and duration of baking. However, I had made Sans Rival before, and from experience know that meringues take longer to bake than expected. (Yes, ovens can be idiosyncratic.) So I was fairly confident (not 100%, but over 75%, say) that all would be well with my meringue layers.

My butter cream turned out rather watery or, more precisely, boozy, because my hand slipped (accidentally on purpose) when I added rum to it. Assembling the layers with the boozily liquid butter cream was a bit, erm, fiddly. French-patisserie meringues to the rescue. I made a “third” layer of the meringues in between the two home-made nut meringue layers. Essentially forming a hedge to hold the boozy butter cream in. Scattered toasted almond slivers all over, and then the whipped cream swirled in with the butter cream in hopes of stabilizing it. And whipped cream around the sides and a bit on the topmost layer of nut meringue. Sliced strawberries and kiwis on top, and then off to the freezer to further firm up the butter cream.

It looked a frightful mess, but once frozen and cut up, it had managed to behave itself and looked eminently presentable. Once served, it was judged truly delectable and divine. Even by those who professed to be non-cake eaters. Ah, blessed relief! I have to thank the gods and goddesses of the kitchen and the hearth and the oven that my rather off-hand improvisations turn out way better than expected.

I shall be tweaking my Eton Mess-cum-Dacquoise or Sans Rival, but I have yet to come up with a name. Any suggestions? I hadn’t managed to take a photo, alas. It was all scoffed up before it occurred to me to take a piccie. I do promise to take a photo of future messy Dacquoise though, and share the recipe as well.

I leave you with a pink Hellebore in the rain from the garden. Good day, all!

Hellebore

Hellebore

Year of Grace, Day 128. A spring concert

One of the advantages of triple glazing besides keeping out extremes of outdoor temperature is that it also keeps out sound. But that noteworthy advantage is also its failing, as not all sounds are good to keep out — like birdsong. It is only the most strident  — the magpies’ — that make it through three layers of glass. A downright pity when the windows are closed, as one misses out on some of the loveliest and most endearing of birdsong —  such as the song thrush’s with its enchanting tonal range. I was unprepared for a virtuoso performance when I opened the windows to air the rooms yesterday morning.

I got out the binoculars to find out which bird was on stage for the impromptu morning concert, and there, perched high on the still leafless poplar in Frau Grau’s little spinney, was a thrush, warbling its heart out ever so cheerily and magnificently. Now I know why a thrush is so renowned and loved — I have simply never before heard its song sung with such fire and gusto.

I suspect my singer thrush is on the lookout for a mate. It’s spring after all, just the time for wooing and romance among our feathered friends. I see the tiniest of birds — the tits — flying in close formation most days, a perfect wingspan apart, mirroring each other’s moves as they flit and swoop through the branches of the yew, chirping all the while. In contrast to the commonly-heard songs of the tits, the thrush’s songs are so unusually thrilling with such heart-stopping improvisations — avian jazz, as it were. Who can resist such a spring serenade? Were I a thrush, I would surely be tempted to check out the purveyor of such spirited singing.

The daily concert in my back garden begins at first light. As soon as the dark of night turns just the merest of a whisper paler, the earliest of vocalizations start. At first it is only one voice, joined soon thereafter by another, and then another. These are not full-throated songs. Not yet. They’re more like throat clearings, practice — getting the musical gear supple and up to snuff for the grand performance later — also known as The Dawn Chorus. That’s accompanied by the panoply of a full orchestra, when every bird is awake and up and about, confirming its place in the grand order of things and the world and life in my garden by singing its unique song to everyone who can hear.

The birds that I see almost year-round in my garden are blackbirds, tits (blue, black, great),  finches, robins, wrens, crows, and magpies. Jays are rare guests, and it is only because they had discovered the feeders we had put out for the smaller birds that they have outgrown their wariness and been seen oftener all this winter. Thrushes — my garden’s Meistersingers — are rarer still, and perhaps they are just back from their winter quarters elsewhere nice and warm, and now that it is also getting slightly warmer in Bonn, are looking to settle down, perhaps to make a new nest, here in the shelter of my garden.

I feel blessed to have heard such ravishing birdsong  yesterday, and on such a perfectly sunny spring day, it was truly divine. I was unable to take a photo of my Meistersinger yesterday, as I no longer have a telephoto lens. (Blast those bandits!) These photos were taken sometime over the past two years. It is highly likely that one of them is my garden’s jazz star. 

Year of Grace, Day 127. My morning cuppa

I wasn’t allowed to drink coffee as a child, but occasionally my mother would favour me with a sip from her cup at breakfast. She drank it with a touch of milk and just the merest hint of sugar. My sister, seven years older than me (today is her birthday, btw ), never touched a drop of the stuff and attributes her admirable height (173 cm or 5 ft 8 in) in contrast to mine (153 cm or just above 5 ft) to having abstained from coffee throughout childhood. This always seemed reasonable to me, until this morning when it occurred to me that my two brothers –180 cm or 5 ft 11 in, and 178 cm or 5 ft 10 in – both taller than my sister, most likely never even considered eschewing their breakfast coffee. I realize now of course that it is not the occasional indulgence in morning coffee as a child that has led to my being deprived of my rightful share of the family height. Just pure genetics, and I got the short end of the stick (pardon the pun).

My favourite mug_0847

I have just finished my morning cup of Elan Amaro Gayo. Drank black. This superlative Ethiopian coffee has made me stop drinking coffee as my mother did, that is laced with milk and sugar.  (Isn’t it amazing how we take on some of our parents’ eating and drinking habits?) I used to say, when asked how much milk I wanted in my coffee, that the end result should match the colour of my skin – piel canela, or in Tagalog, kayumangging kaligatan. Even with such a minuscule amount of milk (no sugar), it seems a sacrilege to mask the rare combination of blueberry, raspberry, and chocolate notes in this distinguished coffee. Lest I appear to be totally sugar-free (alas, pastries are my downfall), I do have a slice of a little sweet something to go with my morning cuppa.

Today it was a bit of Margarethenkuchen (marguerite cake) from one of Bonn’s oldest café-patisseries, Muller-Langhardt, on the Marktplatz. As you can see, the shape of the cake mirrors its floral namesake.

I’ve mentioned Elan Amaro Gayo before as being exported by the only woman coffee exporter in Ethiopia, whose pickers are 80% women, and no doubt this accounts for a major part of the superb flavour of this Arabica coffee. According to Joel Lumagbas of the Philippine Coffee Board, whose expertise on all matters pertaining to coffee growing I tapped for a coffee production project in the Ikalahan community of Imugan, Nueva Vizcaya in 2012, women make the best coffee farmers. Why so? Because, he said, they are meticulous in selecting only the fully red, and thus ripest, berries when harvesting by hand. (And in Imugan, as in other traditional Philippine montane farming communities, women have always been the farming experts. In the ancient division of montane agricultural labour, men were responsible for clearing and stabilizing the slopes and preparing them for planting by their womenfolk. I anticipate an especially distinctive Imugan Arabica coffee — I wish to call it Kalahan coffee or Kape Kalahan – arising out of this sustainable development project in 5 – 6 years’ time.)

But the full range and diversity of flavours of Elan Amaro Gayo (EAG), or any other Arabica, coffee is not attained until after harvest. EAG develops its incomparable flavour spectrum as it dries — the seeds (the coffee “beans”), normally two, remain inside the fruits (the coffee “cherries” or “berries”) as they are laid in the sun to dry. It is the natural action of the Ethiopian highland sun gradually working its magic on the coffee fruits — the length of time from about 3 to 5 weeks — that leads to EAG’s enhanced fruitiness, lower acidity, and creaminess or increased “body.”

I promised a high school friend, also a coffee aficionado, quite a while ago a summary of the coffee seminar I attended at Kaffee Kontor, in Bonn’s Altstadt (Old Town). I cannot hope to cover everything, but I shall give a précis of what gives EAG its distinctive character. Whatever method of drying coffee is used (natural, semi-washed, washed), the beans end up with about 12 – 15% moisture. The longer the drying process, the better the taste.

Christiane Hattingen — roaster and Kaffee Kontor’s affable proprietor and a certified coffee sommeliere, who led the seminar and to my knowledge, the sole source of EAG in Bonn — attributes the chocolate and berry notes further developed in EAG to particular attention during the roasting process. It is the Maillard reaction — the same chemical process that occurs as bread bakes and browns — that proceeds throughout roasting that enables complex flavours to further develop. Coffee possesses around 1000 aromatic components, of which only 850 have been analyzed and named. During roasting, the carbohydrates and amino acids in the beans undergo multiple and complex chemical recombinations that bestow upon EAG its unique aromas and flavours. Again, as with drying time, the longer the roasting, the more complex the aroma structures that form.

Finally, the brewing process itself is another contributor to the ultimate taste of our morning cuppa. The quality (freshness) of the beans, the mineral content and character of the water we use, the fineness of the grind, the amount of coffee grounds, the brewing temperature, and length of contact time between water and the ground coffee – all of these affect how our cup of coffee tastes. Additionally, the type of cup we drink it from has an effect as well. A paper or plastic cup in which to serve gourmet or specialty coffee is sheer travesty. I am partial to my favourite mug – a handmade one from a nearby pottery, with a turquoise and freckled cream glaze.

To begin with, I find Bonn water to be excellent – it has neither chemical smells nor tastes. This difference was notable when I drank tap water in Mora d’Ebre, Spain: not a pleasant experience; it was not at all palatable. In Bonn, I find that I can drink water straight from the tap, and it is fresh, pure, and clean, with no detectable taste or smell whatsoever, as water ought to be. And, dare I say it, Bonn water tastes rather “sweet” to me. I have also marked a silkiness and lack of any bitter or harsh notes in my brewed Elan Amaro Gayo once I put two EM (effective microorganism) ceramic beads inside my water boiler.

To the women who grow and harvest Elan Amaro Gayo with care, and the woman who exports it to Germany (half of the world’s coffee harvest goes to the EU), and the woman who roasts it with loving attention here in Bonn — thank you, thank you, thank you most deeply for my lovely morning cuppa!