When In Roam

Carl Chu's Food & Travel Blog

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Alex Twyman's Old Tavern Coffee Estate: Blue Mountains

I was awakened in the morning by birds thumping on the roof. It was feeding time for the early birds, so the saying goes. Out in the morning air, the symphony of the birds and bugs from the night before had disappeared entirely, restoring the day to absolute tranquility once again.

Strawberry Hill’s dining room opened at 7:30 for breakfast. I was the first and only person to show up that early because I had arranged to meet Mr. Twyman at his coffee estate at 9:15. Strawberry Hill is known for its creative take on Jamaican cuisine, using local ingredients. From the menu I chose the eggs dish, a clever take on Eggs Benedict: Two poached eggs layered over sautéed calaloo and smoked marlin, and served with “bammies”—fried cassava cakes—instead of two halves of an English muffin. A thin, spicy mango chutney was drizzled on top, taking the place of the traditional hollandaise sauce. I liked it a lot. Tasting innovative dish like this always makes traveling such rewarding experiences.

Fortified with a glass of orange juice and a pot of Blue Mountain coffee, I was ready for the day.

Even though Mr. Twyman’s coffee estate was merely five miles from Strawberry Hill, the trip took 40 minutes through some torturous mountain roads. I was told to look for a gray Land Rover parked on the side of the road, because the farm house was not visible unless you got out of the car. Indeed, I spotted the SUV about a mile past the town of Newcastle and the Jamaica Defence Force training center.

Twyman’s coffee estate is a fully functioning family farm. The modest wooden cottage is located about forty feet down a steep incline, overlooking an impressive valley marked by gentle ridges and dots of coffee bushes. A few groves of bananas are scattered throughout the entire estate.

Much of the coffee roasting is done in the house, as are the sorting and the packaging. Mrs. Dorothy Twyman, a native-born Jamaican, is the house “roast master.” She monitors the roasts by taste, adding a touch of personality to an already superior coffee. The couple's eldest son David and his wife Mary Ann are assuming more of the day-to-day operations these days. In time they will take over the reins completely.

Mr. Alex Twyman himself is the self-described “Eccentric Cockney.” He produces the only “estate grown” coffee in Jamaica. He won the right to do so after a contentious legal battle with the Jamaican Coffee Board. While other Jamaican coffee growers must pool their crop into the “Jablum” brand, Mr. Twyman sells his own coffee under the “Old Tavern Coffee Estate” name. He makes only three different roasts of the same coffee: Mild, Medium, and Dark. A fourth product is a medium roast “Peaberries,” consisting only of malformed, single-valved beans sorted out of the harvest. Twyman’s does not make decaf, and good for him on that.

I bought a pound of Peaberries to take home. What is so special about it? Mrs. Twyman made me a cup to savor with some short bread and marmalade. The aroma was sweet and mellow, and the flavors subtle and light. Yes, Blue Mountain coffee is already light and mellow, but—Mrs. Twyman explained—peaberries have an incomparable touch of sweetness that yield a more complex cup of coffee. I agree.

Some people complain that Blue Mountain isn’t robust and flavorful, but I think that’s because they are drinking it the wrong way. Blue Mountain is vibrant with complex flavors only if you don’t add milk and sugar to it. A medium roast is optimal, not dark, because too dark the coffee contains too much oils and bitterness. And too light, on the other hand, the coffee does not get the full chance to develop its desirable nutty and aromatic qualities.

What I find most delightful about Blue Mountain coffee is that it goes better with savory foods than the conventional thinking of drinking coffee with sweets like desserts. Somehow, having a salty taste in my palate helps me really taste the coffee’s subtle qualities. If I were eating something sweet, I would choose a stronger or darker roast coffee. In this way, Blue Mountain coffee is a lot like an oolong tea. It is light, subtle, and complex—the king of coffees most deserving of its place at the top, without adding sugar, milk, or anything else to bring it down.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Strawberry Hill

­­It was fate that led me up Strawberry Hill, a spa resort in the Blue Mountains outside of Kingston. I was on my way to visit Mr. Twyman’s coffee estate in Irish Town, but because I spent more time than planned hiking in the first half of the day, there was little time left in the afternoon for any meaningful tour. And since the mountain roads (“tracks” to the locals) were very difficult to drive on, I thought it would be best to spend the night in the mountains instead of going back to the city.

It was five in the afternoon when I arrived, more hungry than tired, and in need of a shower. I was immediately seduced by the beauty and serenity of the place. This being summer, the slow season, and a weekday, the place was less than half full. The front desk gave me the “local” rate of $300, a bargain.

Strawberry Hill sits squat on top of a lone hill amidst lush canopies of guavas and papayas. Although it is merely 15 miles by road from wicked Kingston, it felt like a whole world away. At 3,000 feet up, the air was cool and fresh, and tranquility reigned the day. I stood over an outlook and inhaled the sweeping panorama of the sun setting over Kingston. And stopping to catch a breath, I heard only leaves fluttering in the breeze.

Dinner in the dining room did not start until six, so I strolled around the grounds after my shower. For an upscale resort, Strawberry Hill is a casual yet sophisticated place. No ties, no gowns, no attitudes. There are also no rooms. Instead, there are 13 cottages built on the hill, their sizes ranging from studio suites to three-bedroom homes. My cottage was called “59 Steps,” a studio suite, so-named because there were 59 steps down the staircase to reach it. Like the other structures in the resort, it was built in the Georgian style, with high ceilings and shuttered windows that retrace Jamaica’s 18th century colonial roots. Inside, the cottage was tastefully appointed with simple mahogany furniture, a four-post bed, a fully equipped kitchenette, and a balcony that opened out to an amazing view of the city.

After dinner, I went back to my cottage and sat back on the balcony with a cup of hot coffee. The sun had gone down, and the serenity of the day was replaced by a stereophonic symphony of birds and bugs in the night. In the distance, city lights flickered in the hot and humid air below. Further out I saw the airport, its flashing strobe lights lining the runway, and also marking the harbor’s edge. Closer in, fireflies flitted about the bushes, blinking here and there, like the heartbeat of the jungle.

Through the evening I watched a thunderstorm approach the city from the south. At first, lightning appeared far over the horizon, but within half an hour it was ripping over the harbor. I sensed a downpour heading our way soon, but before it arrived I was lulled to sleep by the soft, ticklish breeze.

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