Jazz, blues and gumbo in the Deep South

The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music
The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music   GETTY IMAGES

‘So can we go upstairs?” An overworked guide gives me a weary look. “Nobody goes upstairs, nobody but family.” My grown-up daughter and I are on the porch of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, at the end of a road trip through the Deep South that has brought us to the second most visited house in America.

I know from the books that above us is the “death bathroom” where a heart attack felled Elvis Presley, supposedly as he read A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus on the loo. With no chance of inappropriate selfies, we settled into our basic $43.75 tour.

The first striking fact is that, unlike everything else in America, Graceland is smaller than you expect: a solid suburban home gussied up by a portico with four Corinthian columns. The second surprise is that for all the green shag carpeting on ceilings, the white settees, the faux fur upholstery and the indoor waterfall, the interior is really rather intimate and homely. You can see why Elvis loved the place.

Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died
Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died   MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Long before reaching Presley’s doorstep, music and food had become the twin Corinthian pillars of our trip from Louisiana up Highway 61, the old “blues highway” through Mississippi. The adventure had begun, as many do, in New Orleans, specifically on that garish slash of neon, Bourbon Street, which cuts through the picturesque and otherwise charming French Quarter. Just off the plane, we went to the Desire Oyster Bar for our Welcome to Louisiana meal. Its no-nonsense menu was not for the weak-stomached: firecracker oysters, fried alligator (like chicken but saltier) and gumbo (southern stew). When a towering plate of shrimp and grits (similar to polenta) and a case of over-ambitious ordering defeated me, Kentrell, the oyster man, told me about the diner who downed nine orders of a dozen oysters. Yes, but that probably wasn’t at 3am UK time.

The next day we ventured farther into the French Quarter. In the balmy sun, surrounded by colourful, flower-bedecked antique buildings, you would have to try hard not to have a good time. Music was, of course, everywhere — a funky brass band, country blues buskers. Yes, this is tourist land but the standard was high, save for a lone trumpeter in Woldenberg Park by the Mississippi who seemed to slip into Baa, Baa, Black Sheep every time inspiration flagged. Even the living statues were a cut above, though the one we admired most, an eccentric figure in Canal Street, turned out, in fact, to be just a statue.

The restaurants too have their surprises. At ancient Napoleon House they showed us the upstairs chambers supposedly prepared for Bonaparte’s exile (never used after he died in St Helena). Above Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro there is a museum showing the costumes worn by the founder’s daughter at Mardi Gras balls. We inspected rows of ghostly mannequins clad as a mix of Disney princesses and Marie Antoinette.

John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61
John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61

By now, however, the road was calling — Highway 61, the legendary road as revisited by Bob Dylan. At first, however, the journey was dull unless you are a fan of swamp and low-budget ribbon development. However, excitement grew as it began to rain — and rain. By the time we reached picturesque Natchez, tornado warnings were gusting all over cable TV. Our hotel, the Grand, sat on a bluff high over the Mississippi, which was not, as in the Paul Simon song, “shining like a National guitar”. Instead Ol’ Man River brooded grey and ominous.

Natchez is known for the glories of its plantation houses — not so glorious if you were one of the four million slaves in the South labouring amid the cotton and sugar cane. The most spectacular residence we saw was Longwood, a six-storey mansion designed in Moorish style that comes with a poignant backstory. Only the basement was fitted out internally when the Civil War broke out and the northern builders fled. Its owner then died and his wife, reduced to penury, lived on with the children in the basement — as did their descendants for 100 years — never having the money to complete the interiors. The grand and ghostly upper floors are now a favourite for vampire movie-makers.

On we drove, the road taking us past more swamp and shacks and what looked in places like picturesque poverty, but real poverty nonetheless. We stopped at little Greenwood where the Alluvian was a fine boutique hotel, much-loved by weekending Americans. However, the rest of this little cotton city was a puzzle. For all its period buildings, the centre has been “hollowed out” by suburban growth. Trying to walk to a shop where you could buy, say, a banana or even (mad idea) a newspaper proved impossible. Instead we took the car to the Museum of the Mississippi Delta where they had the skeleton of a local mastodon, a re-creation of a swamp, and made a game attempt at explaining the convulsions of the Civil War and the bitter civil rights struggle in these parts.

Next came blues day. We drove out of town to the rustic little Zion Missionary Church to pay our respects at what may be the grave of the commercially insignificant but hugely influential bluesman Robert Johnson. There are two other alleged burial sites to choose from. Our route then took us past the crossroads where Johnson is said to have met the Devil to sell his soul in return for supernatural musical powers. Today Beelzebub would be crushed by the 18-wheelers trundling past before he could make the deal.

Halfway to Memphis we stopped at Clarksdale, touted as the birthplace of blues music. At the Delta Museum they were handing out fairy cakes to mark the birthday of Muddy Waters. The Ground Zero club is one part tourist trap, one part blues cliché and one part a very good time. We sipped root beer and listened to some righteous guitaring.

In Memphis we arrived at the new Napoleon Hotel, which pulls off the trick of being homely and hip. We told the valet we wanted to visit Sun Studio, cradle of early rock’n’roll. He pointed down the street. But it was one of those American urban forays via crumbling or non-existent sidewalks and past wandering lost souls that proved impossible for us. So we retreated and caught a bus. Sun Studio is small and airless, bedecked with pictures of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and sundry lost legends. At one end is a drum kit left behind when U2 rattled and hummed here in 1987; at the other end our guide, Nina, unveiled an ancient Shure 55 mike that Elvis may or may not have sung into. “Do not kiss it or lick it,” she implored, as the holy relic was passed round.

Downtown Memphis was smart and shiny, the rest was not. We ate a decent plate of gumbo in Beale Street, the music quarter, which is heavily touristy. But the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, is hugely moving. King’s bedroom is preserved as on the day of his death. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, celebrating the mighty local label, was also $13 well spent.

After our Graceland foray, it was a six-hour straight drive down the Interstate 55 for another brief taste of New Orleans. At a final brunch at Commander’s Palace, I drank a potent local Sazerac cocktail, then another, and not surprisingly fell asleep on the plane home. I had a dream that I was back in Graceland and the reincarnated Elvis himself was showing me round upstairs. Yet as we reached his inner sanctum he morphed into an air stewardess who was telling me to buckle up for landing. Some things in the Deep South will for ever remain a deep mystery.

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Tintin, the subject of 200 million comics sold, was likely based on a real 15-year-old …

 

In the overcrowded world of fictional characters, there are few faces as adorable as Tintin’s. Unlike Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, Tintin, the young investigative reporter, is not a household name in America, but he is definitely one of the most beloved figures in Europe.

With no specific magic powers, he is the antithesis of a superhero, but that didn’t prevent him from being widely admired by both children and adults. Charles de Gaulle once declared that Tintin is his only international rival, saying that “nobody notices, because of my height. We are both little fellows who won’t be got at by big fellows.”

Tintin and his fox terrier, Snowy, appeared for the first time on January 10, 1929, in the children’s supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siecle. What started as the subject of a supplement went on to become a symbol of the 20th century, appearing in an inde­pen­dent comic book, on television, and even on the big screen in Steven Spiel­berg’s animated movie The Adven­tures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

Tintin is one of the most beloved figures in the comic book world.Author: Joi/Flickr-CC By 2.0

Georges Prosper Remi, known by the pen name Hergé, is the man behind the creation of Tintin. With almost no formal training, Hergé began drawing the legendary comic-book character in 1929, but little did he know that by doing so he would give birth to an entire European comics publishing industry.

Tintin and his fox terrier Snowy appeared for the first time in 1929. Author: karrikas/Flickr CC By 2.0

Since 1929, Tintin comics have sold more than 200 million copies, and over the years, this beloved character served as an inspiration for many people and influenced the ways comic book readers perceive the world around them. But what actually inspired Hergé to create the iconic character?

Debate still exists on what exactly inspired Hergé to come up with the snub-nosed teenage reporter, but most people agree that it was a real life person known by the name Palle Huld. It is one of the most original of origin stories in the comic book world.

Less than a year before Tintin made his first appearance, in the children’s supplement of  Le Vingtième Siecle, a 15-year-old Danish Boy Scout named Palle Huld won a competition organized by a Danish newspaper to mark the centennial of Jules Verne.

 

Palle Huld, during his trip around the world in 1928, almost certainly influenced Hergé to create Tintin.

The winner of the competition would re-enact Phileas Fogg’s voyage from Verne’s famous novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Strangely enough, only teenage boys were allowed to take part in the competition, and the 15-year-old was the perfect match. There was another twist: The winner had to complete the journey within 46 days, without any company and without using planes.

Hundreds of Danish teenagers applied to participate in the competition, and Palle was lucky enough to be chosen. He started his journey on March 1, 1928, from Copenhagen and traveled by rail and steamship through England, Scotland, Canada, Japan, the Soviet Union, Poland, and Germany.

His journey made the headlines at the time and when he arrived in Denmark, he was already a celebrity. Over 20,000 admirers greeted their hero when he came back home.

The next thing he did was write a book about his journey, which was quite popular among his admirers, and published in several languages. That book also came into the hands of a Belgian cartoonist known by the name of Hergé and that same year, when Huld’s book was published, Tintin made his debut.

Huld himself suggested on several occasions that he was the inspiration for Tintin. However, others believe that the inspiration behind the character was actually the French travel photojournalist Robert Sexe, whose journeys were exactly in the same order as Tintin’s first three books.

With no specific superpowers, Tintin is the antithesis of a superhero. Author: Hicham Souilmi CC By 2.0

Nonetheless, true Tintin fans couldn’t care less. For them it is all about the character, a hero they all know and love, representing something that others don’t have: uncompromising vigilance and the need to succeed no matter what the cost.

Tintin proves that a hero doesn’t need to be big or strong, he or she just needs to be tenacious and stubborn enough to do what needs to be done.

By Goran Blazeski

The Neo-Gothic Santa Justa lift in Lisbon, inaugurated by royalty in 1901, elevates its visitors to a gorgeous vista

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In the last decade, Lisbon has become one of the most popular cities in Europe. It takes only one visit to this European gem to understand why: pleasant climate, delicious food and wine, enjoyable music evenings, and a myriad of sights.

Moreover, this so-called City of Seven Hills offers spectacular panoramic views over its picturesque architectural structures. Lisbon’s seven hills have had a crucial influence on the urbanization and intra-city transportation systems.

The viewpoints, or miradouros in Portuguese, can be found in lots of places around Lisbon, however, there is one popular tourist hotspot which takes visitors to a unique belvedere–the ornate elevator Santa Justa or Elevador de Santa Justa (Port.)

Light post in Lisbon, beside the “Elevador de Santa Justa”.

In Lisbon, there are four historic elevators that are national monuments-the Lift of Glory (1885), the Ascensor de Bica (1892), and Ascensor de Lavra (1884), although the Santa Justa, a 45-meter construction in Neo-Gothic style, is the most attractive. This lift was built in the 19th century and opened in 1902 when wrought iron was considered both a construction material and art form. The work began two years prior to the opening in order to replace the initial animal-powered inclined rail lift with a vertical elevator. In 1901, King Carlos inaugurated the lift, which became fully operational the following year.

Lisbon, Portugal – May 14: The Santa Justa Lift in Lisbon on May 14, 2014. Elevador di Santa Justa – an elevator lift in Lisbon,

The construction of the Santa Justa was funded by the royal house, and on the opening day over 3,000 tickets were sold. By the end of the first year after its opening, over half a million passengers were estimated to have been in the lift, so its popularity flourished and kept on rising.

Santa Justa elevator in Lisbon Portugal during day of autumn

The elevator Santa Justa’s structure is embellished with appealing Neo-Gothic arches and geometrical patterns, while its inside includes two wooden carriages that transport passengers up the steep hill in the Baixa district to the ruins of the Carmo convent and church through the exit at the upper level. In the past, this lift was a very useful service, which eased the difficulty in climbing up the steep Carmo Hill. However, nowadays it’s one of the most valuable landmarks in Lisbon.

Close up on Santa Justa elevator in Lisbon Portugal during day of autumn

Elevador de Santa Justa was designed by the architect Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard, the former apprentice and civil engineer of the now celebrity architect Gustav Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. When Ponsard finished his studies, he returned to his hometown and decided to put his knowledge into practice.

Famous Santa Justa elevator in the Baixa District in Lisbon, Portugal, 19th century project by Raul Mesnier de Ponsard

This fact explains the similarities concluded between the Elevador de Santa Justa and the Eiffel Tower and the epithet “the Eiffel Tower of Portugal.” The lift includes two cabins which can carry 25 people at once, both decorated with wood panels and brass fittings that take off every morning early at around 7 AM and finish work at 11 PM.

Famous Iron Santa Justa Lift (or Carmo Elevator) in Lisbon, Portugal

Initially, the elevator was powered by steam, but since 1907 it has been using electricity with a safer and cleaner motor which still powers the lift. When visitors reach the top, they step on the platform which can be reached by a spiral case, and relax with a coffee in the cafe while drifting away into the magnificent view of the Baixa neighborhood, the Rossio square or the castle on the opposite hill. At night, the Santa Justa belvedere becomes a real romantic oasis in the crowded urban Portuguese jungle.

Lisbon, Santa Justa Elevator at night

In 1973, the Elevador de Santa Justa came under public ownership and was taken over by the Carris Corporation, the executive manager of Lisbon’s tram network. This act has integrated the elevator in the public network of the city, thus, today, a ride on the lift can be obtained with the 24-hour public transport ticket purchased at any metro station. The Santa Justa is open seven days a week and works around 16 hours a day. In 2002, Elevador de Santa Justa, along with the Gloria, Bica, and Lavra cable railways, were all recognized as national monuments.

The authentic ambiance of Santa Justa continues even after its closing hours in the summer with street music bands that perform in front of the lift’s entrance, entertaining the late night audience who enthusiastically enjoys the colorful vibes and sensations of Lisbon.

By Magda Origjanska

The loneliest house in Iceland and all the wild stories attached to it

A man surfing the Internet sees a peculiar picture of a tiny house stationed alone on an equally tiny island. With nothing but the house amid a broad green field encircled by the steep shoreline of the island, the picture is captioned “Isolation.”

After a bit of research, he finds out that the island’s name is Elliðaey and is actually the third largest island of Vestmannaeyjar, an amazing volcanic archipelago scattered off the southern coast of Iceland. Along with this info, he happens to find one not so credible story attached to this island, claiming that the house, tucked away from the rest of the world, is actually a secret hideaway for a mysterious billionaire.

Intrigued, the man delves deeper in order to find out more about this Ian Fleming-type character who might be living here… alone, gazing into the vast endless ocean. And it turns out, the story is about the iconic singer Björk, and not the Bond villain Francisco Scaramanga.

Elliðaey

The story tells that at the very beginning of the new millennium, Davíð Oddsson, the Prime Minister of Iceland, announced that he was willing to grant Björk permission to build a house on Elliðaey after she declared an interest in living on the island in complete isolation and absolute harmony. Not only that, but according to an article from February 7 the same year, as a recognition for her tremendous contribution to Iceland and its culture, she could do it for free.

Bjork. Author: deep_schismic CC BY-SA 2.0

A few blog posts and a short while after, and a whole lot of pictures depicting a small island with a petite house at its heart flooded the Internet, claiming the house is Björk’s residence, while the whole island supposedly was presented to her as a gift by the Icelandic government. No matter how charming this story might sound, it is simply untrue.

Elliðaey seen from Heimaey . CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s all primarily due to a forgivable misconception, for there are two islands in Iceland that go by the same name. The second, a rather larger one shaped like a horse shoe and located in the Breiðafjörður low bay area near the western town of Stykkishólmur, is where the singer aspired to build herself a home.

Elliðaey   Author: Diego Delso CC BY-SA 4.0

But this didn’t happen, for she was never actually given the island. Björk was, however, allowed to enter a public auction, after which she changed her mind due to a lot of controversy and political dispute, and abandoned the idea of making Elliðaey her retreat.

Various photos of the secluded house situated on an island with nothing but 110 acres of vivid green field around have been circulating on the Internet for years now, generating a cobweb of wildly imaginative but untrue stories, ranging from mysterious and romantic to some silly conspiracy theories and even post-apocalyptic scenarios.

For instance, it was suggested that the picture itself is a hoax and the house is actually photoshopped. An obscure cabin isolated from the rest of the world on an island with no trees or visible safe passageway to it fits this trend almost perfectly. But, no, that’s not true either.

Elliðaey (left) and Bjarnarey islands from the top of Eldfell . In the background is Eyjafjallajökull

It’s also not the silly assumption that the house is built by a secret someone as a shelter for an upcoming zombie apocalypse, which sadly also goes in the “untrue stories” bucket. And the list of various imaginative scenarios about who just might be living here and why all alone, goes on forever, while the truth is much simpler, yet no less unusual.

Elliðaey is part of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off of Iceland’s southern coast. It is the island located furthest to the north-east among the group.  Author: Diego Delso CC BY-SA 4.0

Three centuries ago, the island was a home to five families who decided to raise huts and live here as a community in relative peace, surviving by fishing, raising cattle, and hunting puffins. Over the next two centuries all was well, but eventually the place became increasingly impractical to maintain a sustainable community. By the 1930s, the last residents left the island. It was due to the simple fact that there were more opportunities for fishing and raising cattle on the mainland. But there was not a single place as good as Elliðaey for hunting puffins, so in the early 1950s the Elliðaey Hunting Association built a cabin called Ból (“Lair”) on the island for its members to use during the puffin hunting season in the summer, and gathering eggs in spring.

Elliðaey (left) and Bjarnarey (right) Author: Diego Delso CC BY-SA 4.0

The island itself is easily reachable by a boat from the mainland, but it’s not so simple to get up, for the cabin is only accessible from the island’s lower east side by a zip line and strictly for members of the Ellidaey hunting group.

Elliðaeys location. Author: P. S. Burton after Pinpin CC BY-SA 3.0

Today the place is still a preferable hunting location during the summer. The house, accompanied by few lonesome cattle that just can’t get enough of the rich green field, is utilized as a shelter and a resting lodge for the hunters. There is no running water or electricity, but at least they’re are able to enjoy the splendid sauna within the cabin.

So, the secluded “photoshopped” house that the government gave to Bjork and she sold to a mysterious billionaire who used it as a shelter for a zombie apocalypse? It’s not even a house but a lodge with a rainwater-fed sauna and an outside fence raised for some reason. Maybe to keep the cows from escaping–because who knows, they might swim away.

 Martin Chalakoski

Experts accidentally discover 40 shipwrecks – massive insight into the history of the Black Sea

Shipwreck of the SS American Star on the shore of Fuerteventura. Credit: Wollex
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The Expedition and Education Foundation (EEF) recently gave out a charitable donation that brought to life the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project, also known as Black Sea MAP.

Historians couldn’t be more thankful. The researchers, including a group from the Maritime Archaeology Center at the University of Southampton, have been making splashes in the news while surveying Bulgarian waters in the Black Sea.

This area was actually land during the Ice Age, but when the ice around the world began to melt, the land was flooded and ultimately became a part of the sea.

The principle investigator of the Black Sea MAP, Jon Adams, stated that the goal of the team was to put to rest the heavily debated theories about when the land was submerged. The team is also looking at how quickly the water levels rose and how it affected the ancient population of the land.

EEF supplied funding so the team could survey and map the seabed. They investigated the characteristics of the floor and took core samples for dating and analysis.

The final results of the research will develop a palaeo-environmental reconstruction of the history of the Black Sea that has eluded historians to date.

To accomplish the mission, the experts used a ship named the Stril Explorer. The ship is equipped with some of the best surveying technology in the world. The vessel comes with two Remotely Operated Vehicles or ROVs. The first ROV is loaded with high-resolution 3D technology and supports video.

The second groundbreaking remote vehicle was designed by the survey companies Reach Subsea and MMT and can move at speeds that are four times faster than common ROVs and holds an incredible suite of geophysical instrumentation, flashlights, advanced cameras, and even a laser scanner.

During its missions for the project, the vehicle has broken records for the depth of an ROV (1,800 meters) and for sustained speed (an astounding six knots). The vehicle has also covered well over 1,000 kilometers during its mission.

ROVs provide the perfect tool to capture pictures of the ships without disturbing the precious finds or the seabed that the ships lie on. The best part about the technology the team had access to is that it marked the first time that a team has been able to successfully and completely remodel shipwrecks at these depths.

And while marine archaeology is extremely competitive, the partnership of academics and business has proven to be a perfect combination in the mission to uncover the history of the Black Sea.

However, during the time the team has been mapping out the ancient land that now forms part of the sea floor, they found some unexpected artifacts resting in the waters.

They discovered an incredible collection of more than 40 never-before-seen shipwrecks. Many of these ship models have been documented in historical records, but the ships of these types have never actually been seen by archaeologists.

Experts hope that these shipwrecks can provide an unprecedented insight into the elusive Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, as well as shed even more light on the structure of the economy of the Black Sea.

Thanks to the research efforts of the Black Sea MAP project, historians can fill in gaps in the maritime history of the area.  Due to the oxygen levels that exist in the Black Sea at levels deeper than 150 meters, the ships have been preserved astonishingly well, Quartz reported.

The team has managed to capture and recreate powerful images of the ships because of the use of the groundbreaking 3D cameras.

By Scott Antony

The disease that could change how we drink coffee

coffee farm beans

If you landed in Bogota in the 1960s, one of the first things you would have probably seen outside the airport was a giant billboard. In a slightly menacing tone, it said: “Coffee rust is the enemy. Don’t bring plant materials from abroad”.

It was one of the first warnings about a foe that has been threatening Colombia’s coffee trade ever since.

Coffee rust is a disease with the power to cripple, or even wipe out, the country’s national product, the base of one of its biggest industries, and one of its most important sources of foreign currency. Last year alone, its coffee exports were worth $2.4bn (£1.8bn), and was 7.7% of all goods the country sold overseas. That makes Colombia the third largest producer of coffee in the world. In other words, if rust takes hold there and global supply dwindles, it will affect the price of the coffee we drink everywhere.

That’s why for the past few decades, Colombia’s scientists have been engaged in a little-known battle with the disease, staged from a small laboratory deep inside the mountains of Colombia’s coffee axis.

The question is, can Colombian coffee’s distinct flavours survive intact?

Coffee rust looks like a brown powder on the leaves (Credit: Getty Images)

Coffee rust looks like a brown powder on the leaves (Credit: Getty Images)

Coffee rust has plagued farmers for more than a century. When a tree gets infected by it, its leaves produce a brown, thin powder when scratched, pretty much like iron rust. The disease, caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix, also de-colours the bush’s leaves from a bright green to a brownish yellow. In the end, the tree loses all its leaves, as well as its ability to produce beans.

If left unattended, the disease can have dramatic consequences. In the late 19th Century, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other countries in Southeast Asia were the major exporters of coffee in the world. In a matter of decades, the disease meant they practically stopped growing it.

Historians suggest that this is part of the reason why Britons prefer tea nowadays. “Sri Lanka moved over to tea production” since coffee was no longer profitable, explains Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Luckily for Asian producers, Britain was eager to switch its taste when their coffee supply vanished.

Beauty vs beast

What makes coffee rust a particular worry for Colombia is that it attacks the type of coffee that the country relies on – and that coffee lovers have got used to drinking.

Coffee comes in two varieties. We could call them ‘the beauty’ and ‘the beast’.

‘The beauty’ is Coffea arabica. Its seed gives a delicious and delicate brew, that sells at good prices in international markets. This is the variety that made Colombian coffee so famous.

Colombia is the third largest producer of coffee in the world (Credit: Getty Images)

Colombia is the third largest producer of coffee in the world (Credit: Getty Images)

‘The beast’ is Coffea canephora, also known as robusta. It is a tougher tree, with more resistant leaves, that is cheaper to grow and crop. It has a more rough and bitter taste; not very appealing for coffee connoisseurs and not as appreciated by the market as its gentler brother. As a result, it accounts only for a 37% of the world coffee production, according to the International Coffee Organisation.

Unfortunately, coffee rust attacks the ‘beauty’, but not the ‘beast’. Colombia only exports ‘beauties’, so switching has never been an option.

In the 1960s, a team of scientists at a research laboratory called Cenicafe set out to find a solution that drew on the best features of the two varieties – but it wouldn’t be straightforward.

The laboratory

To get to Cenicafe, you have to drive all the way to the top of a mountain; the twisting roads can make you sick if you are not used to them. The lab is nested there to keep its 89-year-worth body of research away from the force of nature: the prior building flooded after a volcano eruption in 1985.

It was set up by the Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers (also known as Fedecafe), the coffee industry association in the country, and is considered a global flagship centre for the science of coffee.

“Cenicafe is what have allowed us to remain competitive and lower our risk”, explains Hernando Duque, technical director of Fedecafe. Its research helped domesticate and make viable many of the high-quality varieties that the country grows and the world enjoys.

Today, the laboratory’s work is regarded as the gold standard in the fight against “the most acute threat against coffee in the Americas”, says Michael Sheridan, director of sourcing and shared value at Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee importer in the US.

Beans

To get rated as a premium quality grade, farmers must focus on small details (Credit: Getty Images)

To save Colombia’s coffee, Cenicafe scientists in the 1960s realised that they needed to breed new varieties that could inherit both the distinctive taste and aroma of Colombian ‘beauty’, and the resistance genes of the ‘beast’.

To do so, they had to get those genes somewhere: ‘the beauty’ and ‘the beast’ don’t usually interbreed.

The solution, they found, would come from the other side of the world.

From Timor with love

At some point in recent history, something weird happened in Timor. Somewhere in this small island on the Indian Ocean, halfway between Indonesia and Australia, the ‘beauty’ and the ‘beast’ had an affair of sorts. As a result, the Timor hybrid was born.

The ‘beauty’ and the ‘beast’ had an affair of sorts. As a result, the Timor hybrid was born

This naturally occurring hybrid of arabica and robusta was found in 1927, and started to be harvested in 1940. It is not really a great tasting berry, but it had a crucial feature: unlike normal robusta, it can be bred again with arabica varieties, which means that it can transmit its rust resistance to them.

Coffee research centres around the world started to do just that, but there was a problem. The result did not taste very good, what meant that it was going to fail. If cultivators were not going to be paid at least as much money for the new varieties, they simply were not going to change their bushes.

coffee farm

Colombia’s coffee industry employs around 730,000 people, most of them on the deprived rural areas of the country (Credit: Getty Images)

Cenicafe begun its efforts to combat rust begun in 1968, knowing that rust from overseas would arrive in Colombia soon. It started a project to created cultivars of the bush that resist it. It was not just a matter of putting two varieties in a genetic blender. The real work was to interbreed five generations of trees, and select those that provided a better taste and more delicate aroma, as well as a shorter tree, good productivity for growers and resistant to different races of the Hemileia fungus.

In 1980, the centre released its first hybrid of Caturra – the dominant variety grown in the country – and the Timor hybrid. It was called Colombia, and it was good enough for it to be well accepted by growers and buyers, to the point that it still is around in many of the country’s coffee farms.

It was just in time. Three years later, coffee rust was first identified in Colombia.

A moving target

Achieving the Colombia variety was not going to be the end of the war against rust. Hemileia vastatrix has since evolved, and found a way to infest some of the formerly immune coffee bushes. While it maintains partial resistance, the fungus will inevitably break it.

There’s also the menace of climate change. Temperatures in the coldest part of the year are rising, which some scientists believe reduces the time the rust fungus takes to attack the leaves once it gets to the tree. As a result, future epidemics might be longer and more destructive.

With that in mind, Cenicafe has developed other varieties. In 2005, they released a new seed, called Castillo after Jaime Castillo Zapata, the lead scientist behind the development of Colombia. And in 2016, a third variety, named Cenicafe 1, also increased its resistance to other diseases.

The main idea is to make it more difficult for the fungus to fully break the tree’s resistance. This is achieved by including many different genes that offer invulnerability against the pathogen. If one of them is defeated by a new mutation of Hemielia, there are many others left.

coffee flavour tasting

In coffee flavour tasting, a score of more than 80 out of 100 is considered ‘specialty’ grade (Credit: Getty Images)

By increasing the gene pool, coffee scientists also aim at protecting the crops from other risks. “If you reduced genetic diversity, you have less resistance to climate, pests and diseases,” explains Davis.

Lack of diversity has proven disastrous to other commercial crops. Almost all bananas you can buy today in most parts of the world are clones from a single parent plant called Cavendish, initially bred in Britain in the 19th Century.

It was not the tastiest fruit, but it was resistant to the fungus that wiped out the world’s most popular variety in the mid-20th Century, the Gros Michel. The fungus mutated and now it can kill Cavendish, which means that the extinction of the banana as most of the world knows it is on the cards.

Coffee scientists have heard the cautionary tale. In the distant future when rust finally defeats Castillo and Colombia, hopefully other varieties will keep up the fight.

Beyond the seeds

If rust takes hold, there will also be human costs. Colombia’s coffee industry employs around 730,000 people, most of them on the deprived rural areas of the country.

Intelligentsia’s Sheridan spent many years deep inside Colombia as a development worker. He saw how small coffee farmers gamble everything for getting a good yield. They take very high risks, and if something goes wrong, their families pay a hefty toll.

Castillo is not a matter of luxury. It is a matter of necessity

That is why he believes varieties like Castillo made coffee viable for many small farmers, who now have a reasonably priced and less risky option. “It is not a matter of luxury. It is a matter of necessity,” he says.

The seed is only part of this story though. Getting growers to change to resistant varieties can be difficult. A single coffee bush can bear fruit at peak productivity for up to eight years, what means that most new seeds are not immediately adopted by cultivators once they are released.

Also, many growers have an emotional attachment to the varieties they already grow. They know the quirks of their trees, their ebbs and flows, and the precise ways they behave in the particular environments of their farms. Even when Castillo is grown in very similar way to Caturra, for some farmers planting a new seed can feel like hosting a stranger in your house.

coffee farm beans

If rust takes hold, can Colombian coffee’s distinct flavours survive intact? (Credit: Getty Images)

The change also has a monetary cost. As a team of Latin American coffee researchers wrote in a recent paper about the rust epidemic, variety replacement requires a large initial investment, and returns “no or very low yields for at least the first two years, and thus a greatly reduced income”.

Colombia has put forward a strategy for overcoming these hurdles. Fedecafe offers subsidies and loans to farmers for helping them buy resistant seeds, and technical advice on growing.

Still, the disease can wreak havoc on the industry. A 2008 outbreak still managed to wipe out up a quarter of the year’s crop in Colombia. Since then, the country has accelerated its efforts to make farmers grow Castillo.

Today, per Fedecafe’s figures, 76% of all coffee trees in Colombia are at least partially resistant to coffee rust, an increase achieved mostly by pushing Castillo among growers. And while other countries have seen their crops halved in recent outbreaks, Colombia maintains a single-digit prevalence of the disease.

This is why most people in the coffee world, from growers to scientists to buyers, regard Colombian efforts as the best in the world in the fight against rust. But not all of them – the taste of the new varieties has not been universally embraced.

Key numbers

Once a year, in front of a panel of cuppers (the expert tasters of this industry), coffee farmers put all their hard work on the line. Their goal is to reach a magic number: 80.

Tasters rate a coffee’s flavour with a score out of 100 – assessing fragrance, body, sweetness and more. A rating of 80 is the minimum to be considered “specialty”, and therefore sold at higher prices than the market average. Some buyers are even pickier: they demand an 83, or even an 87. Of course, they pay due premiums for the extra quality.

The coffee farmers’ goal is to reach a score of 80 for flavour

Beyond that, it’s the confirmation of the growers’ mastery in their craft, the score that puts them among the elite of coffee producers.

“It is very difficult to get there,” says Mauricio Castaneda, the eldest son of a family of coffee farmers. “You have to take care of a lot of small details.” In 2016, only 17% of the coffee exported by Colombia reached that mark.

Some people in the coffee market think that Castillo just doesn’t get that high. For years, some coffee cuppers have complained about the slightly lower quality and cup profile of Castillo over Caturra – a claim that could sink the viability of the resistant variety.

It has been a contentious issue inside the coffee community. For instance, for Alejandro Cadena, CEO of Caravela, a coffee trade company, “Castillo is not the most suitable variety for specialised, high quality markets.” He says that sometimes it can have some rubber notes in it, particularly when something was not done right in its process.

This keeps it away from the more high-priced, high-quality market, Cadena contends. “But for more commercial, high-volume, Castillo is an outstanding variety.”

A blind coffee tasting session (Credit: Jose Penarredonda)

A blind coffee tasting session (Credit: Jose Penarredonda)

Some others, like Sheridan, say that this is not really the case. He backs up his claims on a study he performed in the 2014 crop in Nariño, one of Colombia’s coffee growing states, where expert cuppers blind tested both varieties and did not find any significant difference.

While he is cautious to assert that this research cannot be extrapolated to other regions of Colombia and to other years’ crops, he claims that the market is giving many signs of appreciation for Castillo. Top baristas choose it in competitions, and it has a lot of prestige among international buyers. “It’s increasingly difficult in Colombia, when sourcing small holders’ coffee, to find batches that does not have some Castillo in them,” he says.

Top baristas choose Castillo in competitions

Castillo is also near Eduardo Florez’s heart. He is a Colombian entrepreneur who has a stall in the Borough Market in London, where he sells the coffee he roasts in his garage in Brighton. He sources small batches for his business, and has found some very special Castillos. “Once I saw one that had peach notes”, he points out, excited. “Imagine how delicate is that!”

At Florez’s garage, I decided to do my own (non-expert and non-representative) blind cupping. I tasted four samples at Florez’s garage without knowing the variety of each one.

One of them was complex and worth sipping many times: its fruit-like acidity and sweetness were in a dance of sorts, where each flavour did not cancel but complement and enhance each other. Another one, well, tasted like the office ‘joe’: the sort of brew you drink just to keep going. The other two were somewhere between the good one and the plain one.

But the one I liked the most? The one with the fruity flavours and sweetness? It was a Castillo.

By Jose Luis Penarredonda