The cat's whiskers of coffee and other culinary
This is no ordinary caffeine. It’s a cup for connoisseurs, made from beans that have passed through the gut of an Indonesian civet cat. But is it an epicurean delight—or just another marketing gimmick to lure the foodies? Pete Clark reports
This is no time for trembling hands. Sitting in front of me on a table in the brasserie on the second floor of Peter Jones department store in London’s Sloane Square is a shot of espresso in a dainty glass cup. If it were any old espresso, the procedure would be simple: tip it into the mouth with an Italianate flick of the wrist and wait for the feisty fluid to start the heart and the day. But this mouthful of coffee costs £50. The patience and taste buds of the oenophile are required, plus the steady nerves of a gunslinger.
What can explain this hefty price tag, in a store that prides itself on never knowingly being undersold? Could it be a marketing gimmick intended to brew up publicity? The reason is apparently that Caffe Raro was created by De’Longhi from two of the rarest coffee beans in the world. The first is the much sought after Jamaican Blue Mountain. But it is the second that gives this drink its special piquancy. Kupi Luwak beans come from Indonesia and are harvested by civets, the indigenous wild cat. These clever felines sniff out the choicest berries, digest the flesh and pass out the bean in the way that nature intended.
To call this the cat’s whiskers of coffee would be a profound understatement.
The human element arrives in what must be the most highly specialised job on the planet—the tracking down of civet droppings and their careful rinsing to reveal the pristine and flavour-enhanced bean. One can only wonder at the astonishing instincts of the person who first discovered the processing skills of the civet. Presumably, he or she is a hero in Indonesia.
Having ingested all this information, it is time to try the coffee. At £50 a go it seems only fair to begin with a deep inhalation. The Caffe Raro smells good: there is a richness and pungency here with not a trace of cat litter. A small sip reveals an earthy profundity, an uncanny blend of Jamaican mountain and Indonesian jungle. As an exotic holiday for your tongue, the price tag is almost reasonable.
In the United Kingdom people have become used to the availability of ludicrously priced comestibles in recent years. As early as 2003 Raymond Blanc was offering a £600 salad containing tiny lashings of caviar and exquisite bits of shellfish. By 2005 the Fence Gate Inn boasted an £8 000 pie of wagyu beef and truffles.
More remarkable still was the fact that the establishment was located in Burnley, in the northern English county of Lancashire, where they must have been beating down the doors to get hold of a slice (a snip at £1 000). Those with a taste for something more intoxicating were cheered immensely by the appearance last year of Movida’s Flawless cocktail at a mouth-watering £35 000. Just in case anyone should think this an obscenity, there was a diamond ring in the bottom of the glass. What is not recorded is whether anyone emulated the civet.
Further afield fresh ways were being found to splurge large quantities of cash on perishable foodstuffs. Presumably seeking to distance itself from Dominos, last year Nino’s Bellisimo in New York trumpeted the availability of a $1 000 pizza topped with caviar and thinly sliced lobster tail. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, the man in charge of puddings at the Fortress Hotel unveiled the Fortress Stilt Fisherman Indulgence, which at $14 500 was billed as the world’s most expensive dessert. In February Arnaud’s Restaurant in New Orleans snatched that crown by presenting to an astonished world the $1,4-million Strawberries Arnaud which, in addition to the strawberries—which may well have been out of season—boasted a 4,7-carat pink diamond ring.
The rapidly cooling espresso in front of me was starting to take on the appearance of a bargain, until the thought occurred that it was only the product of ground beans and water with not a trace of hand-massaged cows or jewellery in sight. Marco Zacharia, head of the John Lewis catering department, was on hand to insist that this was no marketing gimmick. “We are not trying to sell expensive coffee,” he assured me with a straight face. “For those who truly love coffee, this is the opportunity to undergo a remarkable experience. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.” The supply is strictly limited. And all profits go to the British charity Macmillan Cancer Support, thus allowing for a happy marriage between conspicuous consumption and conscience. “There’s a lot of interest,” said Zacharia. “We’ve already sold two or three this morning.”
Nevertheless, such a novel drink cannot be doing the profile of John Lewis any harm. The doyenne of restaurant PRs, Maureen Mills, has spent a working lifetime in a world where standing out from the crowd is an oft-repeated mantra. “It’s the core product that counts and not stunts,” she states.
“Sometimes the ingredients are expensive and justify the price, other times an expensive gimmick serves only to highlight a fault in the core product.
“What is certain is that getting one’s name in the press has what is known as a halo effect.”
In the brasserie I am experiencing something of this halo effect, although it could just be the effect of the caffeine. A second cup of Caffe Raro arrives. By the time this mouthful has been consumed, I will have coffee swilling around in my system to the tune of £100. This is more expensive than a cocaine habit, but far more unobtrusive.
I am attracting no unwanted attention from the other patrons, even though the most expensive espresso in the UK is sitting within easy reach.
No one knows that what is passing through me has previously passed through an Indonesian civet—and that is a matter for quiet satisfaction. Even more satisfying is the thought that in a matter of minutes I am going to excuse myself and go for the world’s most expensive pee.—