Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

by Steven Brenner

Thanks to the invasion of Starbucks, the worldwide thirst for coffee is higher than it’s ever been, despite the fact that their coffee sucks and is totally overpriced.  Coffee consumption and cafe culture has been around Europe for centuries, around North America for decades, and is now spreading into Asia.  It’s an enormous industry, over 2 billion cups of the stuff consumed PER DAY worldwide,  yet the division of these billions of dollars is completely screwed, with huge wealth being created at the sale and immense poverty forced on those at the origin.

I’m not an expert on economics or world history or agriculture, but what I’ve seen with my own eyes makes me question why these growers, who control this powerful commodity, are so poor?  And when you start to really examine the politics behind it, and just how artificial the whole thing seems, I have to wonder why poverty exists at all and how is it all connected.

I know, heavy stuff, but that’s the way we roll in the MB house!  We travel, we try to see things and form opinions about them from direct experience.  We take tours with people who are passionate and informative about their life’s work, and try to make the world a classroom for us and for our kids.

We were in Boquete, Panama, the mountainous interior part of the country, home to some of the world’s most valuable and prestigious coffee – the Geisha.  When grown at the right elevation, a few growers get such high rankings for this coffee that it is only sold at auction to the highest bidder.  We’d signed up for a tour at the Finca Dos Jefes coffee plantation, an organic coffee farm owned and run by an American expat named Richard Lipner and were amazed at what we saw and heard – eye opening, heart breaking injustices – hard not to think about every morning when you sit down, open your computer, and take a sip of a cappuccino.

Some basics:  coffee is an ancient drink with almost magical properties.  It’s made from little cherries that only grow between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 70 countries.   There’s an organization that was set up in the last century to protect the prices, probably helping to stabilize some countries by putting a floor on what other, more desperate countries can charge.  That was when there was a possibility of a coffee abundance.  Now, if anything, there’s a shortage.  And yet, despite the high demand, the farmers are barely able to stay afloat.

The cherries are grown, picked when ripe, usually by hand, then they are either dried outside on mesh beds, or a load of water is wasted and contaminated to remove the sticky “mucilage” around the bean.  There’s a fermentation process and a roasting process – which can be an art form itself, and a variety of ways to brew it (in my opinion, the moka is the best).

If you want to learn all about how coffee is grown and roasted, you can take a tour with Rich in Boquete.  But I don’t want to dwell on the details of coffee itself.  I want to dwell on poverty – because coffee and poverty, at least in Panama, seem to go together.

Around Boquete, cherry pickers make about 5-7 USD a day when it’s cherry picking season.  This is the lowest of lowly work, and almost entirely delegated to the indigenous people who were displaced in the early 1900′s when the French came to build the canal. Eventually, after having their land taken and getting pushed up almost into Costa Rica, they were then given a batch of wild land as an Indian reservation where they currently live.  They have no infrastructure, and thus, no way to get an education (unless you walk 10-20 miles to school in the rain) and lift themselves out of poverty.  Between the poor Panamanian (which by North American standards is quite poor already), and this lower caste of Indian who picks coffee cherries, you go so far down the ladder of “wealth” that there’s about zero chance of any of these people making it on to the ladder, let along climbing up it.

Here’s an example of living quarters for a family of 10.

Note the absence of windows and no ventilation.

Cooking on a concrete slab and dealing with the smoke.   These people actually aren’t the worse off.

Here’s a make-shift home where about 30 people live.  When it rains (which is often) their home is continually destroyed.

Like I said, I’m no expert and I don’t claim to know why the world is the way it is, but I do have to try to string some basics together, to understand what I’m seeing, and to respond to my kids who ask innocently why these people can’t build a bigger house; why they can’t get better jobs; why they can’t just leave.

As I travel more, and especially as I travel with my kids, I find that the more I learn about the world and our interconnectedness, the more I can’t untangle it all.

I don’t know if capitalism can work without cheap labor, or whether an alternative to capitalism could be an improvement.  I don’t know why rich countries can’t coordinate with impoverished ones more fairly, nor am I naive enough to think that simply paying people more will truly solve their problems – it can help, at times, but money, after all, isn’t the same as wealth.  The problem is political, economical, and the power play between them.

What I do know is that it’s 3:45 pm and I’ve just had an espresso, a fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua.  I know that, like it or not, I’m connected to those farmers, even as I leave to go get my youngest daughter from school.

 

Off the Beaten Path in Rome’s Monti Neighborhood

by Amy Knauff

Monti is the historic area located between Termini Station and the Colosseum/Roman Forum.  It’s where Woody Allen shot a good deal of “To Rome with Love” – so it’s your picture postcard version of Rome: ivy covered buildings, narrow cobblestone streets – but it’s less touristy, more authentic and hip than the area around Piazza Navona/Pantheon.  On a rainy autumn day, here’s what we’d consider an ideal visit:

9:30am: Start at the Cavour metro stop. Walk straight up the street in front of you, via Leonina. Here you’ll find two great cafés to choose from for breakfast. Ciuri Ciuri, at nr. 18, is a classic Italian bar with yummy Sicilian pastries (cassate, cannoli, marzipan, Modica chocolate, sweets made with Avola almonds and Bronte pistacchios). 2 Periodico Café, at nr. 77, is a cozy spot where you can enjoy a more leisurely breakfast while listening to chill-out music, snuggled up in an armchair as you read the morning paper.  For a typical Roman bar, with amazing coffee and good pastries, head right up Via del Boschetto to Er Baretto on your left at nr. 132 (has a few outside tables too).

10am: Head back down via Leonina to nr. 46/48, where you’ll find a big, blocky industrial-looking building that stands out like a sore thumb from the more quaint buildings in Monti. It’s a parking garage, and on Saturdays and Sundays, the ground floor is home to Mercato Monti, a small but interesting vintage-styled market. Purists, take note: most stuff in here is not actually vintage. But it’s the style that counts, and it’s a fun spot to pick up some interesting, offbeat finds and hang out with creative types.

11am: Leave the market and head out for a wander around the narrow cobblestone streets of Monti. This neighborhood is charming, picturesque and packed to the brim with interesting, eclectic shops for clothing, jewelry, and home goods. Stop by the uninspiringly named Candle’s Store (via Urbana, 21), which has gorgeous homemade candles. Aromaticus (via Urbana, 134) is like being in an adorable greenhouse; they sell garden and home decorations (and you can enjoy lunch or an organic smoothie or snack surrounded by greenery). On via dei Serpenti (nr. 141) check out Pifebo Vintage Shop, which has authentic vintage finds.

Of course, Monti isn’t just about shopping: the architecture is fascinating, as the mix of individual homes with street entrances, ivy-draped streets, and planters exploding with red and pink flowers make you feel like you’re not in otherwise chaotic Rome. Being something of a bohemian/artsy area, there is also plenty of interesting street art and graffiti to see as you walk around. (See if you can spot the space invader mosaics!) And of course, it’s de rigueur to pay a visit to the neighborhood church – the Church of Santa Maria ai Monti right in the main piazza was designed by none other than Giacomo della Porta.

1pm: You’ve earned a long lunch. Monti is loaded with good restaurants (for all budgets). Urbana 47 (at via Urbana 47, of course) is one of the most popular ones in Monti, and it’s “zero-kilometer” (locally sourced). But in general, it’s hard to go wrong in this area – it has mostly authentic, non-tourist-menu restaurants. Even La Bottega del Caffè located smack dab in Piazza della Madonna dei Monti is good, packed with tourists and locals alike. It has covered outdoor seating (so it’s great for people-watching) and I like their pasta with salmon in cream sauce. If you’re in the mood for something non-Italian, you can also get sushi at Daruma (via dei Serpenti 1) or Indian at Maharajah (via dei Serpenti 124) or Sitar (via Cavour 256) to name two of the four different Indian restaurants in the area.  Down Via dei Madonna ai Monti, almost at the end on the right, is Taverna ai Fori Imperiali (via della Madonna dei Monti 9), a well known Roman trattoria with great food – but you’ll definitely need to make a reservation.

2:30pm: Stretch your legs after lunch – climb the stairs next to the Irish pub on via Leonina and cross the busy street (via Cavour). On the other side there is a big tunnel with stairs. Walk up the stairs and keep going straight until you get to Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli. Follow the hordes of tourists into the church and visit the stunning marble statue of Moses, sculpted by Michelangelo.

3pm: Leave the church and keep going straight, away from via Cavour. You’ll soon get to the back end of the Colle Oppio park, which overlooks the Colosseum. On Sundays the dirt soccer field (called “la polverera” for its dustiness in the summer) in this part of the park is used all day by Latin American soccer teams. They play rain or shine. Huddle under your umbrella for a while and watch the back-to-back soccer games with the Colosseum as a backdrop. The smell of South American food and the sound of Latin rhythms add to the atmosphere.

4pm: It’s time for an afternoon coffee (or hot chocolate). Get out of the rain and into the closest coffee bar. Caffe dello Studente, just across from the soccer field, is Rick Steves-recommended and has a nice view of the Colosseum.

And no visit to Monti is complete without a stop at Fata Morgana on Piazza degli Zingari (up at the end of Via degli Zingari, and not on the lower part near the Cavour metro).  This is one of the top 3 gelaterias in the entire city and not to be missed.

Want to stay in the neighborhood? Here’s some of our top suggestions:

Appartamento Baccina starting at €100/night

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B&B Suburbe from €120/night

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Apparatmento Urbana from €110/night

 

A peaceful escape from Rome

by Amy Knauff

Visiting Italy can be exhausting -  trying to fit in as much beauty, culture, and food as you can into a week or two (Rome! Florence! Venice!) doesn’t leave much room for downtime.

The country holds more than 60% of the world’s entire artistic patrimony, so even with more time, there are plenty of other must-see towns on the tourist circuit, museums to visit, piazzas to admire – and does one ever really finish seeing everything there is to see in a place like Rome?

When you get “museumed out”, your feet hurt from all the walking, and the crowds and traffic get to be too much, where can you retreat to for a few days that’s easy to get to and affordable?

Our friend Giulia’s yoga retreat in the countryside near Rome offers accommodation to individuals and couples looking for an escape on a budget.  For those of you who don’t practice yoga, don’t click away just yet – you are definitely not required to do yoga while you are there. It’s also a great place for people who want a quiet, calm place to stay for a few days and be allowed to just do nothing.

Agriturismi (farm stays) abound in Italy.  Many rent by the week only, or require that you have a car.  They range from the rustic to the luxurious. Giulia’s is an agriturismo – she produces her own oil on the grounds – and offers meals included, if desired.

Giulia’s place – called In Sabina – is a little different from your typical agriturismo. Rather than the usual “rustic” country look, Giulia’s place is stylish and artistic, while still retaining some of the quaint country charm. It’s simple – nothing fancy – but well-kept, clean, pleasant, and oh-so-relaxing.

Giulia, originally a Londoner, speaks perfect English (and also Italian and French) so you’ll have the relief of being able to easily communicate.

Food is available on-site which means you don’t have to grocery shop in advance, nor would you need a car to go find food. A certified “Veggie Hotel”, the food is all vegetarian, mostly organic (much of the produce grown on the property itself), and Giulia can provide food that takes into consideration special dietary needs (vegan, lactose-free, gluten-free).

In Sabina is accessible by train from Rome to Poggio Mirteto (just over an hour) and if needed, they can arrange pickup from the station to the house for €25 each way for up to 3 people.

Once at the property, you’re surrounded by olive groves and relaxing views of the surrounding hills.  The closest town is a nearby medieval hilltop village called Casperia.

So what can you do there?

If you’re a yogi/yogini, participate in a mini-retreat with a group and have your meals together. There’s a wonderful outdoor yoga platform overlooking the gorgeous landscape, as well as an indoor yoga room that also has a lovely view.

If yoga’s not really your thing, the surrounding countryside provides some great easy hikes. Walks and excursions to nearby hot sulphur springs, medieval sites, or local festivals can be organized. The on-site swimming pool is great for relaxing or cooling off in hot weather. Since it’s such a tranquil setting, writers and artists will find a haven here as they look onto the olive and fruit trees and the lily pad-studded stream.  There’s not much around but as Giulia says, “that’s the beauty of it”.

And for those of you simply looking to recharge the batteries during an intensive activity-packed trip to Italy, In Sabina is a great spot to meditate, read, nap, or just take in a bit of nature – which, we think, will make you appreciate the rest of your busy trip all the more.

In Sabina
Via Pizuuti 53
02049 Torri in Sabina, Italy
Phone: +39 340 3876028
Website: http://insabina.com/

Vegetarian Florence

by Linda Martinez

Recently, Steve and I had the rare opportunity to spend a couple of kid-less days in Florence.  Besides some train stopovers, I hadn’t truly visited Florence since 1995 and Steve needed to get some cross-pollinate work done – visit with some owners and inspect some new properties.  With the help of our good friend, Toni, who offered to stay with our three young daughters, we were able to have a couple of precious days away on our own.

We stayed at a cross-pollinate property, Ponte Vecchio Suite apartment.  It’s a cute and well-maintained property just a 5 minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in the Oltrarno neighborhood.  I immediately took a liking to this area which is the artisan neighborhood of Florence.  Just around the corner from Ponte Vecchio Suite we found Caffe degli Artigiani, a bar on a small, quiet piazza that I immediately dubbed “our bar” and knew we would be going there every day for our morning cappuccino.

While the apartment has a kitchenette,  Steve was on holiday from cooking and I was on holiday from washing dishes, so we knew we would be eating out for the two days we were in Florence.  Our family is vegetarian, so traveling offers an opportunity to check out the veggie offerings in the place we are visiting.  One of the on-line sources I check when going to a new city is Happy Cow, an on-line guide (they also have an app) that lets you find vegetarian, vegan, vegetarian friendly restaurants and natural food shops in that town.

Our first food break was lunch and we headed to Steve’s favorite which he discovered on a past trip to Florence,  5 e Cinque, Piazza della Passera, 1 – coincidentally in the same piazza as my new favorite coffee bar.  5 e Cinque is an organic restaurant, mostly vegetarian, but they do have meat options.  Their food is inspired by traditional dishes and ingredients from the region of Liguria.  Steve and I usually try to get two different dishes so we can share.  I got the curried chickpea polpette (polpette usually, meat, but means anything ground and then formed into balls) served on basmati rice and Steve got a farro (spelt) dish made with radicchio and a walnut pesto.  As you can see from the photo, it was so delicious that we had nearly cleaned our plates before I considered taking a photo of them!  I highly recommend – definitely a restaurant to include on any vegetarian (or even non-vegetarian) tour of Florence.

After lunch, Steve had a cross-pollinate appointment and so I decided to take a walk around the city.  I ended up heading toward the synagogue of Florence which is a beautiful building with a gorgeous green copper dome.  On my way, I had an urge for a little something sweet and a hot drink and ended up at Caffelatte also known as La Latteria which uses organic milk and offers fair trade coffees and teas.  Nothing fancy here and the place seems a bit run down, but I was excited by the cakes and treats in the cabinet and so I ordered a slice of a type of pound cake and a caffe latte.  Unfortunately, I left unimpressed.  The cake fell in that realm of many Italian pastries – looks great to the eyes, but a different story when you actually put it in your mouth.  The cake was stale and hard, but at least the caffe latte was good.

Dinner that night was at BVeg which I found out about through Georgette Jupe’s great blog, Girl in Florence.   I had a dish with polenta with layers of pureed broccoli and Steve had a soup with chickpeas and algae.  Both were delicious.

The next day, our last day in Florence, we tried to have lunch at Cuculia, via dei Serragli, 18r, but after sitting down and ordering some water, were told that there was a problem and a delay in the kitchen with the stoves lighting and since Steve had an appointment and didn’t have loads of time for lunch – we decided to pay for the water and find another place to eat.  Lucky for us, just around the corner was Vivanda, via Santa Monaca, 7r.  We both had the lunch special which was a soup and pasta dish.  We started off with a mushroom, cannellini  and cabbage soup followed by a spaghetti alla chitarra pasta with a kale pesto.  We had some great organic wine to go with it.

Our final night we went to a non-vegetarian specific restaurant, il Santo Bevitore, via di Santo Spirito, 66 for dinner.  About a year ago, Steve had been on an excellent Context Travel tour which features the artisans in this area and the docent who led that tour had told him about il Santo Bevitore and had highly recommended it.  It was a Friday night and we hadn’t made a reservation, but we arrived around 7:30pm and with our assurances to the staff that we would not be occupying the table all night and could be out by 9pm, we managed to get a table.  We started with some vegetables preserved in oil – sundried tomatoes, onions, eggplant, etc.  We had a great meal – my ribollita was not really that soupy, but tasted great.  The wait staff were all very accommodating and pleasant – we got into a great conversation with a waiter who is originally from Togo who has lived in Florence for 20+ years.  The meal was our priciest in Florence though – we paid double what we had at the other restaurants, but it was a nice little splurge our last evening there.

The next day, our train back home didn’t leave until 3pm, so we decided to try one last veggie place for lunch.  We had been visiting with Moraq – originally from Chicago who has been living in Italy for the past 18 years.  She’s the owner of the homey Casa di Barbano property on cross-pollinate and having two children, she was able to make some great suggestions of where I could get colored wigs for carnevale for our daughters.

With that errand under our belt, we headed to Libreria Brac, via dei Vagellai, 18r for lunch.  There is no signage for this bookstore/artistic space/cafe so keep an eye out for the number and the books out front.  The cafe is in the back.  Because of the size and popularity of this space, reservations are a definite must.  We didn’t have them and had to assure once again that we would be out quickly as we had a train to catch.  We decided to go with a couple of the specials they had off the menu.  Steve had soy polpette with cannellini beans in a tomato sauce and I had a buckwheat pasta with cream of peas and kale sauce.  Both were absolutely excellent and very filling.  Steve went to the kitchen afterward for a chat with the chef to see how his dish was made.  The great thing about Italy is that for the most part there isn’t this sense of secrecy in the kitchen.  You won’t get a written down recipe, but if you ask the right questions, the chefs will generally tell you what they used and how it was made.  It’s up to you to deal with portions and how to put it together

We were pleasantly surprised by how well put together both in terms of interior design and menus the vegetarian restaurants were that we visited in Florence.  Each restaurant that we went to was always packed with people and had great atmospheres.  All in all we had some wonderful meals and no complaints.  While every Italian restaurant has vegetables available (contorni) or pasta dishes that are meat-less – eating at a specifically Italian vegetarian restaurant will provide an excellent opportunity for anyone  – vegetarians and non-veggies alike – to try interesting and creative dishes using the excellent produce that is available here in Italy.

For many more recommendations on where to eat and drink in Florence I highly recommend Elizabeth Minchilli‘s smartphone app Eat Florence.

Linda maintains her own blog for our hotel, The Beehive, at http://www.the-beehive.com/blog with practical and irreverent information, observations and musings on Rome.  

Cecina – where have you been all my life?

by Steven Brenner

I just discovered cecina, a Tuscan flatbread/pancake made from chickpea flour and water.  I can’t stop thinking, “how is it possible that I’ve lived in Italy most of my adult life and never had this before?”

Two of my daughters and I were in Florence and since I refuse to eat a mediocre meal anywhere, I dragged them around looking for just the right place and decided on Cinque e 5 in the Oltrarno.  It was small, cute, organic, vegetarian/vegan friendly, and the right mix of traditional and creative.  On the menu were a number of things I didn’t recognize, like cecina, both plain or with artichokes (as pictured above) as well as an unleavened focaccia called covaccino and the Florentine ravioli, pansoti, which are stuffed with greens and tossed in a walnut sauce.

Perhaps this is yet one more example of Italy’s awesomeness – that one can discover new foods that exist only a few hours away from one’s home; that entire culinary traditions in a neighboring region are totally foreign to you.

With my interested piqued, I looked it up to get the full story and to make it myself:  it’s called farinata in general, cecina in Tuscany, and socca in southern France.  There’s even a version of it in Sardegna, Uruguay and Argentina.  Originally from Genova – hence having spread to Sardegna (which was originally populated by the French Genovesi) and now typical of all of Liguria, and the stretch from Nice all the way to Pisa.  It is a simple flatbread made of chickpea flour, olive oil and salt.  It’s gluten-free – something that ought to really appeal to celiacs, suffering in Italy without something bread-like to dip into.  It’s similar to a tortilla and holds together well – can be stuffed or used like a sandwich, or rolled up like a crêpe.  You can bake stuff into it, like the artichokes; spread a soft cheese on it, such as stracchino; or top with onions, as I did for my first trial:

It’s pretty easy to make, but also easy to burn.  I mixed about 250g of chickpea flour with 750ml of water, added about 2 tbs of salt and let it sit overnight.  The next morning I stirred in 3 tbs of olive oil and a bit more flour until it was batter-like, then poured it into a well-oiled round dish, and baked it at 250°C until it was nice and brown.  Since I made a few different ones of various thicknesses, to experiment, the time ranged from 10 minutes to 30 minutes (and 1/2 of one was totally burnt to a crisp).

If you’re in Florence, be sure to try the cecina at Cinque e 5 in piazza della Passera in the Oltrarno.


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