The Best Cup Of Coffee In Uganda

David Farley, AOL

Knowledge, as they saying goes, is power. True. It also leads people to become annoying know-it-alls, Nobel Prize winners, dictators and/or plumbers. For me, though, it just made me a coffee snob.

Let me explain. I’ve always appreciated good coffee but I didn’t really know what made coffee good and not good. But in December 2011, a magazine sent me to Ethiopia to discover why the coffee of this East African nation was so great. I traveled there with Intelligentsia Coffee’s Geoff Watts. Mr. Watts, introduced to me by the owner of a coffee house in my neighborhood, is possibly the most important coffee buyer on the planet. Geoff was on a mission too: to buy superlative coffee for the hip coffee roasting company (which just opened its first outlet in New York City, by the way).

A while later, I was in Uganda, an East African country not particularly known for its java. I was staying at Kyambura Lodge near Queen Elizabeth National Park. When I commented on the coffee, one of the employees said they grow and roast the coffee themselves. A few hours later, I was standing in front of Nicole Simmons, the director of the program. Simmons originally came to Uganda to study the troop of 20 chimps that live down in the gorge near the resort. She liked it here and when the opportunity came to run the program, she jumped at it.The rub, though, was that she didn’t know much about making coffee. So she went to work, reading as much as she could about it. She recruited 11 women and one man, all residents of nearby villages, to bring in their plucked coffee cherry (which is always written about in the singular), where they would de-pulp it, shade dry it and then roast it.

“The problem with Uganda,” Simmons said, “is that there’s no quality control here. Even when a coffee maker or roaster stays there, you taste the coffee and it’s not good.” Simmons shrugs, adding. “This is Uganda.”

Another thing about Uganda, or at least this part, is that it’s below 1,300 meters sea level. That means it’s technically not highlands and it means quality Arabica beans can’t grow. It also means she’s stuck with robusta beans, which are far inferior. “It’s perfectly okay,” says Simmons. “Robusta is indigenous to this area. We do a lot of quality control and so this means we can either do a very good robusta or a mediocre Arabica.”

She walked me over to a bucket of water and a bag of cherry. “The kind of quality control we practice is this: we only put cherry in a bucket of water. Whatever floats, is probably a bad one. And then we only put fully ripe cherry through the machine – if it’s too green it makes the coffee taste bitter.” It’s a temptation among coffee farmers to turn in all the cherry they’ve plucked, even the green ones, since they’ll get paid based on the amount they turn in. The rub, though, as Simmons pointed out, it leads to poor quality coffee.

The only way to get Omwani Coffee (as they’ve named it) has been through Tank Coffee in the UK – though it doesn’t seem to be available on their site at the moment.

About a third of the women in the collective are HIV positive, and earning the extra money from this side business means they can now afford medicine when they couldn’t previously.

So, it turns out, a little knowledge of coffee saves lives too – and that’s a good thing.

What’s the Best Country In Asia For Eating?

From the 17th to 19th century, Grand Tourists (usually from England) would set out on a journey of discovery. This excursion had a near-cemented itinerary, a list of places a young man (it was almost always a man) would have to visit to have a well-rounded education. Paris, Geneva, Venice, Bologna Rome, Vienna were all must-sees. The travelers weren’t really traveling to eat or try new foods but we could guess they probably ate well.

If there was a grand tour of eating in the 21st century and we had to corner it to one continent only, it probably wouldn’t be Europe. It would most likely be Asia, which has a tremendous diversity of flavors and ingredients and seems more and more clear that 21st-century eating habits are adopting Asian cuisine as its own.

There was no better place to explore this idea than at the annual Lucky Rice Festival. At the Grand Feast, housed in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City, I asked a slew of well-known chefs what the best country in Asia is for eating.

Here’s what they had to say:DANIELLE CHANG
Founder and organizer of the Lucky Rice Festival
Taipei. There are so many great places to go. I’ve actually had better Japanese food in Taipei than in Japan. Just as I’ve had better Szechuan food there than in China.

Chef at Cherrywood Kitchen, New York City
Taishan, China. It’s where the first wave of immigrants in New York came from. There’s a fish and pork sausage there that is really great. My grandma made it especially well.

Chef at Public, New York City
Singapore or Vietnam. I’ve been to both places and they’re both the highlights of any trip to Asia, in terms of eating. Singapore does all Asian cuisine very well. Vietnam is especially great for freshness and seaside deliciousness.

Chef at Catch and The General, New York City
Vietnam. Specifically, Saigon. We have the finest and freshest flavors there. It’s not too sour, not too sweet. Just right.

Chef at Lee, Toronto
Chengdu. I ate so well there. The food is robust. The people are robust. The best thing I ate there was this hot and sour glass noodle dish. The balance of sweet and sour was so good. I just couldn’t stop eating it. I also ate an entire rack of lamb. It was six years ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Chef at Mehtaphor, New York City
Bombay. I know it well because I grew up there. But also have to say Tokyo is great, too. My sister worked there for a long time and I would often visit and eat everything I saw.

Chef at Morimoto, New York City and Philadelphia
I don’t know.

Chef at Ngam, New York City
Chiang Mai. It’s my heart and soul. I often crave kanom jeen from the Warorot Market at night. It’s a fermented rice noodle with gravy on top. The sauces are variations on curry.

Chef at Toy, New York City
Singapore. It’s so diverse. You’ve got Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian. Plus, the local cuisine. And the weather is so great there, too.

Chef at Perry St., New York City
Tokyo. I was there four years ago and was blown away by the high quality of everything I ate. The flavor combinations of the food are amazing there. If I get the chance, I really want to go to Singapore, as well.

Chef at Rhong-Tiam, New York City
Hong Kong. I really love the Asian flavors blended with a French and English influence. There are such exotic ingredients there. I’d specifically eat a lot of street food there.

Searching For Stories (And Vacation) In Cartagena, Colombia

David Farley

I had come to Colombia to write – or at least I had hoped. But on my third day, I was sitting in the bar of the Santa Clara Sofitel hotel sipping mojitos spiked with lulo juice, one of the many exotic fruits found here, and all I could write about in my notebook was that I had nothing to write about. A friend of a friend who works at this hotel found me a guy here who takes care of a toucan. But that wasn’t the story I was hoping to write.

It was nearly a whim that brought me here, booking a ticket on the new JFK-to-Cartagena route on JetBlue. It was almost a personal anomaly for me but I had no itinerary and I did little research. What did I know about this part of the world? I knew that singer Shakira and actress Sofia Vergara were from near here. Perhaps on some level I pathetically half expected (or hoped?) all the women to look like Ms. Vergara, whose physical appearance reminds me of a woman I still wish I was dating. I was wrong. I also thought I could maybe kickstart a book idea I had after visiting Bolivia a few years ago – a book about the coca leaf. But like Sofia Vergara lookalikes, there’s no coca leaf culture in Cartagena like there is in Bolivia or the southern parts of Colombia. Two stereotypes down, several more to go.I thought I’d be an old-school journalist (or just a journalist) and come here and sniff out a story, come upon something unique and interesting that would lead me to smoky clubs, inside the cars of strangers going god knows where, or to parts of town I would have never stumbled upon. So I strolled the streets of this handsome seaside colonial town. I was unprepared for the bold sun and, as a result, my face turned a severe red by the second day, prompting locals to call out “Rojo!” as I walked by. I was a different kind of gringo here – the dumb kind – opting to wear jeans instead of shorts and a black button-down shirt instead a light T-shirt, because where I come from only the tourists wear shorts.

I went to the Convent Santa Cruz de la Popa, to the fortress, and I walked the walls around the old town. I talked to restaurant owners and chefs, all of whom reminded me how much safer it is here now, which was great but reminded me that I needed to find a fresher angle, one that didn’t involve the travel publication clichés in the headline, “The New Cartagena” or, my favorite, “Cartagena Reborn,” as if somehow an entire city was reborn and we barely knew about it.

One day I took a boat out to one of the Rosario Islands. As I was traipsing off the boat, I was immediately accosted by options: scuba diving, mountain biking, a trip to an aquarium – all potential stories. But as I scanned the tourists relaxing on the beach next to the teal-colored sea, I had a realization: maybe I just need a vacation. Travel writers need a vacation, too, and, when I thought about it, I’d pretty much been doing tourist stuff all along. I haven’t traveled anywhere without an assignment in maybe a decade and perhaps the subconscious voices in my head were telling me to relax a bit.

Instead of the options that were presented to me on the island, I put my notebook away and I planted myself under a palapa. I ordered a mojito and pulled out the Joan Didion book in my bag and began reading.

And The Best Restaurant City In The World Is …

If you’re an avid restaurant observer, a voracious diner, a food aficionado, someone whose travel itinerary is determined by what food is being served out of street carts or what ingredient may be in season in a certain part of the planet, then read on.

I recently attended the James Beard Foundation Awards, the Oscars or Grammys of the restaurant world, where every top toque in the United States congresses to (hopefully) receive awards, shake hands, talk food, have a good time and, of course, eat.

As per usual, the awards were held at New York City’s Lincoln Center. And as chefs and food personalities were walking in on the red carpet, I accosted them and asked one simple question:

What is the best restaurant city in the world right now?RICK BAYLESS
Chef at Frontera Grill, XOCO, among others, Chicago
Chicago. But really, when I think about it, you could go to a place like Des Moines and find something great to eat. There are amazing restaurants everywhere these days.

Chef at Daniel and many other restaurants, New York
London. There’s a lot happening there right now. Many great chefs are cooking there and you can see a lot of diversity, one that’s different from New York or Tokyo.

Sommelier and director of food and beverage, Blackberry Farms, Walland, Tenn.
New Yorkers and other eaters of big cities forget about the great food cities of the world. I was in Budapest last year and I ate really well. Paris is still great, too. I think the great food cities remain the great food cities.

Former chef and owner of Mandarin, San Francisco
Los Angeles. Specifically for Chinese food. Why? Because there are a lot of wealthy Chinese who live there and who visit there and they demand really great food. You find a rich variety of Chinese food in Los Angeles now.

Chef at Incanto, San Francisco
I was recently in Japan and it was one of the most eye-opening game-changers I’ve ever had. The intensity of the technique was amazing and the fact that some people there have been doing the same thing for generations.

Chef at Olives, and a gazillion other restaurants, Boston and New York
I used to think it was San Sebastian. But New York really takes the cake. It moves so fast. There’s always an edge here that don’t see anywhere else in the world.

Chef at Girl and the Goat, Chicago
I think in the U.S. some of the smaller cities like Portland. They have such great ingredients and produce. Of course, I have to say Chicago, too.

Chef at Primo, Rockland, Maine
New York. It has such a broad range of types of food and cuisines. And not just the top-end sort of restaurants. Casual too.

Celebrity Chef, New Orleans
New York, for sure. Paris has got it going on but New York – Jeez – if you can’t eat well here than you can’t eat well anywhere. Sinatra should have sung that one.

Actress, host of “Under the Tuscan Gun” and “Extra Virgin,” Brooklyn and Tuscany
New York. You have everything here. You can go to any place between Hunter’s Point and Battery Park and always find a great place to eat.

Food God
New York. Because there are 20,000 restaurants here and the open mindedness of the people who live here. In France or Italy, for example, you have a lot of people just eating their own national cuisines. But here the people are eating Albanian one night, Thai another night, Mexican the next night.

Beast, Portland, Ore.
I’ve had the chance to travel a lot lately and I’m going to go with Yangon. The street food was great and the cool thing about it was that it’s really authentic. They’re making street food for themselves; not for tourists or anyone else.

Chef at Underbelly, Houston
Houston. It has such a diversity of cuisines. You can pretty much get whatever you want. And all in one little area.

Chef at Barbuto, New York
London. It’s a complete surprise. It’s totally amazing and it has really hit its stride. It reminds me a lot of New York in the ’80s.

Chef at Nostrana, Portland, Ore.
Portland. We have the most amazing accessibility to ingredients there. We also have the support of great, generous people who keep the dining scene fresh and vibrant.

Host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods and Bizarre Worlds.”
Chengdu. There’s such a great amount of flavors there. Everyone associates it with only things like hot pot but people forget it’s the breadbasket of China. Just as here where we’re finally appreciating where our food comes from, in Chengdu they’ve been doing that for a long time.

[Photo of Andrew Zimmern by David Farley]

Odd Travel Jobs: The Toucan Caretaker Of Cartagena

Meet Wilson Garcia. He’s like the Clark Kent/Superman of his workplace in Cartagena, Colombia. He looks, by first appearances, like an ordinary security guard, the ubiquitous sort one sees all over this handsome Colombian city. But look closer and you might get a clue as to his other job: he doubles as the official caretaker of Mateo, the on-property pet of the Santa Clara Sofitel hotel. Mateo is a toucan and hangs out in the courtyard of the 17th-century former convent that houses the hotel. I sat down with Garcia to ask him what it’s like to be the official caretaker of an exotic bird.David Farley: What’s your official job title?
Wilson Garcia: I’m a security guard but I’m also the caretaker of Mateo.

DF: Does it say that on your business card?
WG: No.

DF: How did you become the caretaker of the bird?
WG: Every security guard has a second line of duty here at the hotel. When I started, they told me I’d be taking care of the bird.

DF: What’s his favorite Fruit Loops flavor?
WG: [Laughs] He doesn’t eat Fruit Loops. He does love fruit, though – especially apples.

DF: Do you have to bathe him?
WG: He can clean himself, except for the parts that he can’t reach, mainly his beak. So I clean that for him.

DF: Aw-awwww-aw! Toucans are known as the “chupacabras of the sky.” Isn’t it dangerous to have such a ferocious winged beast just freely hanging around the hotel?
WG: [Laughs] I don’t think they’re called that. There has been some internal discussion about this since Mateo is technically a wild animal. But so far he has been good. He’s only attacked a couple people?

DF: He’s attacked people?
WG: Yes, but nothing serious. He just pinched a couple people with his beak when they were trying to pet him. It didn’t break the skin.

DF: How long did it take to gain Mateo’s trust when you first arrived here?
WG: About a week. Every day I’d try to pet him so that he’d know I was a good person.

DF: What kind of training did you previously have?
WG: I’ve trained dogs. Dogs and birds, and all animals, have the same instincts, especially when it comes to food. You use food as an enticement and it’s really easy to train them.

DF: So have you taught Mateo any tricks?
WG: I don’t have time. But some day I’d like to teach him to catch food in the air.

DF: So when Mateo is bad how do you punish him?
WG: I give him a time out in a place he doesn’t want to be. In this case, it’s the old chapel. He hates it. It’s amazing, though. After 20 minutes of being in there, he’s a totally different bird when he comes out.

DF: So Mateo is not a religious bird?
WG: No.

DF: When you see another toucan in the wild now, do you feel this impulse to teach it tricks or connect with it.
WG: Yes, sure. I do, actually.

DF: So really no Fruit Loops?
WG: Really, no.

[Photo by David Farley]