Van Houtte coffee expert Marie-Claude Dessureault and Splendido chef-co-owner Victor Barry
The idea for a meal matching dishes to coffees instead of wines began over breakfast in a famous Canadian hotel – a hotel renowned for its restaurant and its wine list and, quite rightly, for the fulsome breakfast buffet it offered its guests. There was everything from fruit salad to kielbasa, mushrooms on toast to chocolate croissants, smoked salmon to bacon and eggs – a huge variety of foods – and only one kind of coffee. Imagine only serving one kind of wine with a menu so disparate! A sommelier would despair. So why only one kind of coffee?
Coffee is like wine in many ways. Every coffee expresses its own terroir, reflecting the place where it is grown. We love the bright citrus notes in Kenyan beans, the sweeter flavour of Costa Rican coffee, the earthy, woodsy notes of coffee from Indonesia. Like wine, coffees have different acidity, intensity and body. We experience each coffee differently on our palate – salt, sweet, sour, bitter – while our noses revel in the complexities of aroma, the illusions of cherry and citrus, cinnamon and chocolate, caramel, nuts, smoke, mushroom, earth, etcetera. And just as a winemaker changes grape juice so dramatically through fermentation, so a coffee expert creates a unique product by roasting to different levels.
In short, coffee can be just as complex an accompaniment to food as wine.
In my disgruntled state, that distant breakfast time, the invitation from Van Houtte coffee to work with the company as Ontario brand ambassador seemed decidedly opportune. Van Houtte offers scores of different arabica coffees from 15 different countries: that’s plenty to be playing with if you want to start thinking about pairing specific coffees with specific foods. If I had had them all beside me during that hungry morning I might have chosen a Costa Rica Light Roast, with its subtle honey notes and vibrant acidity, to drink with my fruit salad. With mushrooms on toast, perhaps a Honduras San Luis Planes Medium Roast with its strong woodsy notes but delicate aroma and its hints of toasted bread. And to match that spicy, meaty kielbasa how about Napoletano, with its rich bitterness and dark, smoky depths?
Well, one thing has led to another. Yesterday morning some of us gathered at Splendido for a lesson in professional coffee cupping from Van Houtte’s expert, Marie-Claude Dessureault followed by a magnificent six-course lunch created by chef and co-owner Victor Barry. I had presented him with six very different coffees and challenged him to create a matched dish for each one, talking it through one afternoon with him and co-owner-sommelier Carlo Catallo. We were looking for balance, contrast or compliment, connection, harmony, perhaps even an epiphany… When Victor came back with his dishes for a preliminary tasting, we were not disappointed. In fact we were thrilled!
It began with a Costa Rica Light Roast, mellow and fruity with zero bitterness but bright acidity, seved (as all the coffees were) in a stemmed wine glass. This was the match that looked the least promising on paper (coffee and fish not that well known as an ideal marriage) but it was a revelation. Victor began with fresh Ontario rainbow trout from Jim Giggy up on Georgian Bay (he brings them to town alive and knocks them on the head at the kitchen door), curing the fillets very lightly in lemon juice, Dijon mustard and chives then chopping them into a rough tartare. Close by were some drums of compressed cucumber that had been very briefly grilled on the plancha, the light charring finding all sorts of resonances in the flavour of the coffee. Dill fronds and dill oil brought out a herbal note while tiny spikes of lemon zest caught the coffee’s citrus acidity. Victor finished the dish with a cucumber relish, tiny dime-sized toasts of pumpernickel, fried capers and a miniature loop of sweetly pickled red onion. A buttermilk crème fraîche was simultaneously rich and refreshing but the overall textures were as delicate as the Costa Rican brew. It was a brilliant overture.
breakfast of champignons
Our second course featured Mocha Java Light Roast, a much earthier, woodsier coffee but still with a bright acidity undiminished by much of a roast. This time, Victor decided to play up the silvan character of the coffee with mushrooms – a dazzlingly eclectic fungal salad starring
maitaki mushrooms, raw sliced king oyster mushrooms, honey mushrooms pickled in lemon juice, shallot, garlic, olive oil and thyme and a mound of morel duxelles. The sweet earthiness of it all was amplified by whole roasted jerusalem artichoke and jerusalem artichoke chips. Tangy ramps came three ways – charred, pickled and as a soft white snow. There was a roasted spring onion and a dfark green pool of stinging nettle purée, crushed walnuts and a truffle crumble that looked like fine soil, dabs of tangy, house-made Guinness triple crunch mustard and to crown everything, fine shavings of the season’s very last Perigord truffles. It was another extraordinary dish and I loved how the coffee’s gentle, pervasive sweetness lifted the many mushroomy-truffly flavours.
Boudin noir and deconstructed Black Forest cake
Our third course starred Van Houtte’s Africana blend, medium roast – a fruity, slightly spicy coffee with audacious acidity. What I hadn’t really tasted in it was clove, until I sipped it alongside Victor’s soft, almost moussy boudin noir. There was clove in the sausage and it reached right into the darkness of the brew and found a clove-shaped bell hanging there which it immediately struck with a hammer. Amazing. Alongside this superior boudin Victor offered a sort of deconstructed Black Forest cake, components that were somehow fruity and chocolately without being sweet – a cherry purée, little shards of very bitter dark chocolate tuile, dehydrated cocoa cake like hard foam and moments of cherry compote. Hazelnut crumble and hazelnut snow added their own rich nuttiness. The clove epiphany attracted most attention but the cherry and the dark chocolate also found echoes in the coffee – another fine match.
Smoked venison and beets
On to medium-roasted Honduras coffee – toasty, and woodsy, with a hint of caramel. This time Victor found smokiness in the brew so he took some incredible red deer tenderloin, smoked it lightly with maple wood, cooked it sous vide then in the oven, and finished it by wrapping the meat in a scarf of brioche and bronzing it in a pan. The subtle smokiness mingled with the sweet juices of the meat in a perfect equilibrium of flavour and our guests from the media moaned with pleasure. Sharing the plate was a medley of sweet earthy beets – yellow and candy cane; roasted purple beets; slices of beet cooked in gastrique of sherry vinegar, honey and five-spice; raw beet shavings… There was a cranberry-port-caramel compote, a celery leaf for greens and a last moistening of pan juices flavoured with thyme, peppercorn and sherry vinegar.
For a fifth course we poured dark, bold, fruity Colombian coffee, brewed a little stronger to stand up to the intensity of the 85% chocolate ganache on shortbread crust that was our nod to dessert. Between the ganache and the cookie, Victor insinuated a layer of apricot-fig-nectarine-blood orange marmalade that picked up some fruitiness in the coffee. It was his take on a Sacher tort but the cake was almost eclipsed by the ice cream beside it – smoked burnt maple syrup ice cream with crushed candied pecans. The bold idea of cold ice cream and hot coffee worked brilliantly.
a savoury finale - stilton, pork belly and Sumatran extra bold
I wanted us to finish in left field not home base, to challenge our palates not appease them. The last course succeeded in that. We made Sumatran dark roast extra bold coffee and served it with Stilton. The wierdness of the mix forced concentration. The coffee didn’t really affect the flavour of the cheese; it was more that they sidled around each other, like prize fighters looking for an opening. It was weird and I loved it. The second component of the dish was an easier match. Victor roasted some pork belly in the restaurant’s Green Egg then bathed it in a gastrique of maple syrup, soy and sherry vinegar and tossed it with peanuts.
Thanks to Victor, the whole event was a triumph. Why not drink different coffees instead of different wines with a savoury meal? I think the idea will catch on.