Our Current Orbit

If you have ordered coffee from us in the last 5 years or so, at least during the cooler months, you would have found a sweet surprise included in the package: really fine single-origin chocolate from Santander, a top-shelf Colombian chocolate maker. We don’t advertise this bonus, we don’t promise it, we just include it in the order as a high-grade token of our appreciation for your business. After initially trying other brands – Hershey’s, Ghirardelli, etc. – I wanted to find something unique, something of very high quality that you wouldn’t expect to find in every market’s chocolate section. After considerable searching high and low, I discovered, through a tiny window in the turbulent diffusion of the troposphere over a fixed area of the Pacific Northwest, a little known layer of the earth’s atmosphere: the Chocosphere.

santander

It was in this new orbit that I discovered the Santander mini chocolates, as well as many hundreds of other chocolate raptures. Speaking of which, you know those multicolored sprinkles you’ve seen on cupcakes and birthday cakes all your life? The ones that visually promise something to celebrate, but really just taste like bad wax? The taste is so unsatisfying that I distrust anything in that shape. Well, one day, Jerry and Joanne, the kind owners of Chocosphere.com, included a different chocolate sample in our order, and there it was – that shape. They were all brown, not multicolored, but I felt that instinctive mistrust: nothing that looked like that could possibly taste like food. But I noticed the label said Guittard. That’s the company started by Etienne Guittard, a Frenchman who first came to California looking for gold, like everyone else who showed up there in the mid-nineteenth century. He happened to bring chocolate from his family’s factory with him, and when people tasted it, he struck his own kind of gold. He returned to France, honed his skills, and returned to San Francisco in 1868 to open Guittard Chocolate. Today the company is still a family craft, run by the 5th generation of Guittards. And those brown sprinkles? They taste like chocolate. Really, really fine chocolate. Whenever I get the chance, I hand them out to my friends’ children, so they can know early in their lives the potential that exists for their future celebrations. And even if you’re not baking, the chocolate sprinkles are excellent over ice cream, mixed with milk when making a latte, or just eaten by the spoonful from the bag. Not that I ever do that, of course…well, maybe once in a while. But I can stop any time I want!

sprinkles

My favorite Guittard product is the chocolate blossom curls. Something about that unique shape makes them especially fun to bake and decorate with. They’re the best thing to adorn the top of a milky espresso drink, a chocolate cream pie, huckleberry ice cream, or your bare palm right before it moves to your mouth.

Since the sprinkles showed up, we’ve received many other samples with our regular orders that have expanded our chocolate horizons. I love anything from Michel Cluizel, especially their “minigrammes” which are like chocolate chips without the points. There’s nothing better for chocolate chip cookies. Cafe Tasse is another standout company we enjoy.

Another strong favorite is Valrhona, one of the biggest French chocolatiers. In addition to all their wonderful consumer chocolates, they have a line of chef’s chocolates, which usually come in bulk packaging. One day when I was ordering from Chocosphere, Joanne told me about the Valrhona Noisette Noir Gianduja blocks. Each block is 1 kg, consisting of 29% dark chocolate and 32% powdered hazelnut.

valrhona noisette noir

This is 400 grams – only 1/5 of a block.

Each morning I shave 8 or 10 curls into the milk before I steam it for my morning cappuccino. If you’ve ever had a hazelnut flavored drink at a coffee shop – it’s not like that at all. It doesn’t taste like hazelnut flavor; it tastes like you’re drinking a mocha cappuccino and eating fresh hazelnuts. It’s the best espresso milk drink ever. I also make this for my mid-morning cappa, my after-lunch cappa, and again just before bedtime.

My other favorite Valrhona products are the dark chocolate-covered toasted Spanish almonds, the dark chocolate-covered hazelnuts, and the dark chocolate-covered candied orange peel. Oh, and let’s not forget the Manjari Orange bars…my, oh, my.

These amazing treats are just a fraction of the thousands of products the site has available from more than 50 chocolate makers around the globe. Even among the few brands I’ve mentioned, there are hundreds of options. And just in case you’re wondering, this is not a paid blog post. In fact, Jerry and Joanne don’t even know (yet) that I’ve written this. I’m just enthusiastic about great chocolate because it is often so hard to find, and I feel like you should know about this place. Especially if you drink coffee, since chocolate and coffee go so well together. I’m tempted to say that this gold mine of chocolate is like heaven on earth, but I don’t think that’s quite right; heaven isn’t on earth, but it’s close…it’s just right up there in the Chocosphere.

Night Visitors 2

Our newest commercial customer is the historic Stage Stop in Nevada City, Montana, just up the road from Virginia City. The Alder Gulch, in which both these small towns are nestled, was the site of the biggest gold strike in Montana, and from the original discovery in 1863 to 1889, almost a hundred million dollars in gold was extracted from the gulch. In today’s money that would be approximately $40 billion. At the beginning of the gold rush the little valley swelled to a cramped population of almost ten thousand souls, and the resulting lawlessness – over 100 people killed by road agents – gave rise to the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch, who meted out justice to 21 road agents with a tree and a noose.

Today Virginia city is considered an active ghost town. Interspersed between preserved original buildings and businesses on the main street are various tourist businesses including western shops, a creamery (homemade ice cream!) and the opera house/theater, where you can catch performances of the Virginia City Players. Authentic boardwalks stretch down both sides of main street and will give your boots a satisfying reverberation.

Nevada City, in contrast, is a largely contrived town. Many of the original buildings were destroyed when mechanized dredging for gold began in the gulch, and more were lost when the highway came through town. But in the 1950’s Charlie Bovie began remaking the town with historic buildings gathered mostly from around the state. Today 108 historic buildings stand on the town’s original layout (only 14 of them original) as an outdoor museum..

nevada city

The Nevada City Hotel was originally the staff housing at Canyon Village in Yellowstone National Park, and the Stage Stop, accessed through the hotel lobby or outside through authentic swinging saloon doors, was a real stage stop taken from up the road near Twin Bridges.The current espresso bar at the south end of the building was the actual bar where many a stage traveler tossed back a local brew. Speaking of which, the vines that currently entangle many of the buildings there are the rhizomatous offspring of the original hops that were brought over from Germany and used in the Virginia City Brewery in the 1860’s. The hops still make outstanding beer.

 

 

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One of the most interesting features of the hotel is out in back, looking over the museum-town. Connected to the second floor balcony of the hotel by a short walkway is a two story outhouse. Two holes side by side on the second floor, and two holes on the first floor. Fortunately for the (former) users of the lower level, the ceiling is solid and intact…some sort of magic, no doubt.

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Of all the accounts we have around the state, the Stage Stop is the one I prefer to deliver to in person. Though I no longer have a horse, I still have saddle bags and when they’re loaded up I get to ride for miles along the lower Madison River, through the incredibly beautiful Madison Valley, over the Virginia City Hill and down into the Alder Gulch, a pleasant hour and a quarter from Bozeman. After a nice meal at the Star Bakery I ride home…away from the sunset, because the light is better.

Coffee Delivery Vehicle

Coffee Delivery Vehicle – 97 horses, no hitching post needed.

One day this summer when I opted to stay overnight in one of the cabins, I was talking with the desk clerk at the hotel after the espresso bar closed. I noticed on the counter there was and advertisement for a local “ghost walk” in which participants are treated to locations and stories of local paranormal events. Then Vicki, the desk clerk, told me about the activity in the hotel itself, specifically in rooms 6 and 9. The ghost in room 9 is known only to walk – with audible footsteps – between the bed and the bathroom. Nothing spectacular or frightening, just the sound of footsteps. The one in room 6, however, is known as a girl who does not like to have the door closed. Guests have frequently awakened in the morning (or night) to find the door has been unlocked and opened a few inches, usually to the length of the little chain on the inside. But Vicki said one night, while she was on duty, she heard a guest coming down the wooden stairs adjacent to the desk. She looked over and saw the boards moving slightly, but there was no one visible. When whatever it was got to the bottom of the stairs, the screen door opened and the footsteps went out. “And one second later I was out of there too!” she said. The most interesting story I heard was of a couple who booked a room at the hotel for two nights and while checking in the wife asked specifically for one of the two ‘active’ rooms, hoping for an adventure. The husband, in contrast, thought it was complete hogwash and that his wife was wasting her time. The next morning, however, it was the husband who showed up at the front desk, visibly shaken, and said something like, “We’re checking out. I don’t care if we have to pay for the second night. I’m not staying here again.” They shared no details of their stay with the staff.

Me, I stayed in one of the ‘rustic’ cabins, and enjoyed a peaceful and uninterrupted night. And rustic they are, especially the grasses and prickly pear cactus that grow on the roof. In the summer the cactus are abloom with delicate yellow flowers. And, of course, the hops are everywhere, growing up the walls of the cabin.

cactusroof

What I enjoy most about Nevada City, though, are the summer evenings. The town is peaceful and quiet, the air is often still, and as I sit on the balcony with my friends at the hotel we watch nighthawks and violet-green swallows flying up and down main street, hawking bugs and calling in their individually unique voices. In the brush by the water, Swainson’s thrushes, known for evening song, accent the town with their wispy flute-like calls, and yellow warblers sing from the hidden branches of ancient cottonwood trees. Below us we occasionally hear the saloon doors swing back and forth, followed by bootsteps on the boardwalk, and it occurs to me that there is hardly a better place on earth to enjoy a freshly brewed espresso.

The Only Twitter I Follow

Yesterday morning dawned clear and calm, the air slightly humid and scented with thawing earth. After several late winter snowfalls, it had been warm and sunny for days, and for the first time this year the robins were singing, even before sunup. By late afternoon the temperature had reached 60 and the general mood throughout the neighborhood was one of great optimism: winter was finally behind us and soon what snow was left would finish melting and reveal  moist green shoots of new grass and  tender stalks of early wildflowers. It was nice. Even the snowshoe hares were thinking spring and had begun molting from their snow white winter plumage to the gray and brown coat they wear for the rest of the year.

But then something happened. The jet stream headed south, a cold front snuck in overnight, and by breakfast today great white gobs of snow were falling, as was the temperature. It continued all day, obscuring the mountains, slushing up the roads, and sucking the good humor out of everyone. Really, we have had enough. I left work realizing the next chance for a day like yesterday was probably more than a week away, and in the mean time it was going to be cold and gray. I made my afternoon deliveries and headed home.

As I pulled into the driveway I noticed a small flock of birds way at the top of the old aspen tree. In the waning afternoon light they looked at first like finches. But when I got out of the car I heard the unmistakeable twitter of Bohemian Waxwings. It’s not a song, really, and it’s more than a call, a soft, humble, high pitched trill that makes you think like a poet. If the bluebird carries the sky on its back, then the waxwing carries the hope of every warming spring day on its tongue.

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You can hear a pretty good recording of their twittering here. The only thing missing is the soft reverberations in the air on a snowy Montana afternoon.

Waxwings are oddities in the bird world. The name comes from the red tips of several of the wing feathers. The waxy pigmented substance is actually enclosed in a transparent tube at the end of a feather shaft. No one knows its purpose, aside from the fact that older males with more red-tipped feathers are preferred by females when choosing a mate. Why specially enclosed wax instead of just red feathers? No one knows.

Bohemian_WaxWing

Where Bohemian Waxwings got their name is also a matter of some discussion, but is likely from their habit of wandering great distances from year to year, sometimes wintering several thousand miles away from their location during the previous winter. Whether in North America or Eurasia, they breed close to the arctic circle, and their idea of a southern migration in the fall is only flying south to our latitude, which is still frozen and often bitterly cold.

After the waxwings left the aspen tree and went off to roost, I chopped some kindling and fired up the wood stove. Just before dark I went out to the porch for an armload of firewood, and there in the middle of the yard was our resident snowshoe hare, perfectly exposed in mid-molt, and while a few weeks ago it would have been content to stay put in its white camouflage, knowing I would likely not notice it, at my appearance this evening it appeared quite self-conscious and bolted across my yard, and the neighbor’s, and took cover in a hedge. And I realized I was looking at a creature who was looking forward to spring far more eagerly than I was.

Night Visitors

During the very long spell of hot weather which started last month I’ve been roasting in two short shifts – one in the morning before the heat of the day makes it too uncomfortable to stand in front of a hot roaster (and too warm to cool the beans in a reasonable time), and another shift after it starts to cool down in the late evening. It’s always dark when I finish, and I’m always fascinated by the variety of flying insects that are attracted to the security lights on the outside of the building, settling in on the siding as the air cools: mayflies, crane flies, lacewings, moths of all sizes and shapes, beetles, and millions of tiny things too small to identify.

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White-lined sphinx and columbine

Lately two interesting and related species have shown up: sphinx moths, or hawk moths. They are often called hummingbird moths, named for their unique behavior (in the moth world, anyway) of hovering in front of flowers like hummingbirds while they take nectar through a disproportionately long proboscis. Usually they will show up around petunias, columbine, and honeysuckle right at dusk, and in the fading light they do look like hummingbirds.

The most common species around here is a native one, the white-lined sphinx (Hyles lineata). In addition to showing up at the shop, this species also found the fireweed in my garden to be a suitable host plant and I discovered huge green larvae there one day. Especially fascinated by these moths-to-be were the neighbor kids, who had never seen such a creature, twice as long as their small fingers. (There are some great photos of this species here.)

wlslarvae

White-lined sphinx larvae stripping my fireweed

White-lined sphinx moth on my finger

White-lined sphinx moth on my finger

The other species of sphinx moth is an introduced one. It wasn’t introduced accidentally, though; it was brought over from Europe with a specific purpose in mind: biological control. It is the leafy spurge hawk moth (hyles euphorbiae), and was one of several insect controls intended to reduce the infestation of invasive and toxic leafy spurge, a tenacious plant that appeared in North America almost 200 years ago and spread quickly across the north. The hills I look at from the roasting shop window have the dubious distinction of being the first place that leafy spurge took hold in our county.

The moth was introduced here because its larvae feed on the plant and are immune to the toxins that affect almost everything else that eats it. When they are small, the larvae are green like those of the white-lined sphinx, but as they grow, the toxins in the spurge cause the caterpillar’s green parts to turn red. It’s amazing to see a fully mature one up close.

Leafy Spurge Hawk Moth

Leafy Spurge Hawk Moth

Leafy Spurge Hawk Moth larva

Leafy Spurge Hawk Moth larva

The hot summer weather is about over now…in a few days a cold front will come through and soon the mature larvae of both these species will drop to the ground, burrow into the soil, and simply morph into pupae to overwinter. No cocoon, no special place to hang or tether themselves, just a bed of rocks and dirt. Me, I’ll go back to normal day shifts, locking up before the security lights come on. There is still plenty to see through the window, though – the sandhill cranes are gathering in preparation for their fall flight south, and the Swainson’s and red-tailed hawks are already on the move. Following them will be eagles, both golden and bald, then winter, and thaw, and then those amazing little insects will complete their transformation and claw their way out of the soil again, to an abundance of columbine and spurge and fireweed.

Bitter Surprise

When I was in high school I had the good fortune of having a challenging and engaging biology teacher, a fatherly man who had a perpetual enthusiasm and wonder with which he approached both science and life. One thing we students appreciated was his practice of giving us interesting hands-on exercises to make the textbook teaching memorable: growing bacterial colonies from swabs off the drinking fountain or lavatory sinks, analyzing our own blood (from a finger prick) on a microscope slide, or using the microscopes to watch our saliva digesting simple carbohydrates. He also showed us the coolest movies: open heart surgeries, tumorectomies, and a 1960-s medical film of a woman who was hypnotized before a C-section, and was awake and talking during the entire procedure, which we also saw. No anesthetic. We were spellbound.
One day during our study of Mendelian genetics, the teacher handed out small pieces of paper that looked like litmus paper. But instead of having us test pH, he asked us to taste the paper. Most of us tasted nothing but wet paper. The rest of the students said, “EEEWWW!”, “Blech!” and similar comments, clearly a stronger reaction than the others who tasted nothing.
It turns out the paper was tainted with phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC. Back in 1931 a DuPont chemist, Arthur Fox, was working with some PTC and some of it was dispersed into the air, enough for him and his nearby colleague to taste. His benchmate mentioned how bitter it was, while Fox could taste nothing. Intrigued, Fox passed out PTC crystals to friends and family and asked them to describe the taste; some tasted bitterness, and others didn’t. Later studies revealed that your genetic makeup determines how bitter PTC tastes, or whether you can taste it at all. But it wasn’t until 2003, 72 years after Fox’s discovery, that the culprit was identified: TAS2R38, a gene that codes for a taste receptor on the tongue. PTC does not occur naturally, but the PTC gene correlates with a person’s ability to taste other bitter substances to varying degrees…like coffee.

Photo by Evan Swigart

As I high school student I assumed the gene had an “on or off” effect, but recent research shows otherwise, and answers the nagging questions I have had for the last several years about why some people, like me, drink black coffee and taste no bitterness, while others taste a little and add a bit of sugar, and still others either can’t drink it or have to load it up with cream and sugar until the bitterness is completely masked. There are several variants of the gene, with several combinations possible, which explains why some people have a strong taste reaction, while others have a milder experience in varying degrees. Some people are genetically predisposed to find all coffee bitter, no matter how good it is in other ways. I, on the other hand, appear to be TAS2R38-free, and for that I am truly grateful.

Incidentally, back in the olden days, before DNA testing, PTC sensitivity was used as a paternity test, on the assumption that you and your father would have the same ability to taste it. I believe the margin of error in current DNA tests is something like one in several billion. The odds of tasting PTC are something like one in two. Yikes!

Three Dumb Finches

One of the first things I did last year when we moved into the new shop was set up bird feeders outside the window of the roasting room. Immediately beyond the small patch of mowed grass is an acre of tall grass and scattered cottonwood trees. At the far end of the building there runs a hidden creek through dense willows, aspen, hawthorn and tangled wild raspberry. It’s nice varied habitat for many species of birds, and since the first days they were set up the feeders have attracted black-capped and mountain chickadees, three kinds of sparrows, woodpeckers, four species of hummingbirds, and five species of finches (so far), among others. It’s a nice little community to look out on when the roaster is not demanding my attention.

Once the weather turned cold last fall a small flock of house finches took up residence in the cottonwoods and have been exploiting the sunflower feeders daily for all their high-calorie goodness. Then they were joined by four goldfinches who are now daily visitors as well. In December, two species moved south across the Canadian border into Montana: common redpoll (a small finch) and  northern shrike. The redpolls are interesting because they travel in large flocks, are rather tame (a few always insisting on feeding while I fill the feeders around them), and they only show up in this neighborhood about every fifth winter or so. The shrike is an especially interesting and unique bird; it’s actually a songbird species, yet it behaves like a raptor, preying on small animals and other birds. Its hooked beak is indeed raptor-like and is used for dispatching its prey efficiently. It also has the odd habit of caching prey, usually rodents, on thorns or the spikes of barbed-wire fencing. More than one rancher in Montana has come across a vole or field mouse impaled on a fence spike and wondered what drove the poor thing to commit suicide. Really, I’m not making this up.

Northern Shrike bu Marek Szczepanek

Northern Shrike by Marek Szczepanek

I don’t see shrikes up close very often, so I was excited to look out a few weeks ago to see one perched on the top of the feeder pole. Of course there was not another bird in sight, all of them having booked out of there as fast as possible to avoid becoming lunch. It knows the potential, though, of a well-stocked feeding station, with sometimes 50-60 redpolls on the ground at once, so the little songbird-raptor shows up outside the window at least every couple days, and is probably in one of the trees around the area on the days I don’t see it. Sometimes I’ll go outside for something and notice it is eerily quiet – not a peep from anywhere. I’ll look around and see nothing, but I know there’s a hawk or shrike somewhere close by.

A week or so ago I looked out to see the shrike on the feeder pole, so I opened the door an inch or so to watch it. It noticed me but didn’t seem to mind, and soon I discovered why. At the top of the tallest cottonwoods were three house finches. In addition to the error of simply being in the presence of a predator, they were chattering. Then, they all dropped out of the tree and were actually  heading toward the feeding station, apparently oblivious to the butcher bird perched there in plain sight. When the finches were less than ten feet away, their trajectory unchanged, the shrike, clearly not believing its luck, suddenly flew at the lead finch, talons open. At this point I discovered two things about house finches:

1) When they’re really, really surprised, their eyes actually pop out of their heads and multiply in size, just like in the cartoons, and

b) When faced with certain death, they can look forward but fly backward, just like hummingbirds, the sudden change of direction causing feathers to pop out and float in midair…also just like in the cartoons.

The shrike missed. I’m sure it wasn’t used to prey flying straight at it, and probably its rhythm was thrown off by the shock of it. A couple days later, though, I looked out just in time to see it take a redpoll off the ground and head off toward the far end of the building, I’m guessing with one of two destinations in mind: either the old aspen where it would enjoy a leisurely meal, or one of the hawthorns by the creek.

Perspective

Recently we were awaiting shipment of one of the components of our espresso blend, and getting a little nervous when our stock began to run low. We knew it was on a container ship heading to our broker in New Jersey, and then we learned that the ship was stuck behind Hurricane Sandy as it barreled northward. My first thought, when I realized we would likely run out before the new shipment arrived, was how to keep our customers supplied and happy, and I tried to plan for the shortest possible down time. Of course, once the storm came ashore, the power went out and there was little contact with the broker, until they called and said our coffee was on one of a hundred ships backed up and waiting to get into port. They had to wait for the Army Corp of Engineers to sound the port to make sure it was safe for ships to dock. I worried about our coffee supply, but I also understood the difficulties of a large operation like that recovering after a storm.

Or so I thought. While initially I thought they were simply waiting for ships to arrive and power to be restored, later I found out the warehouse was flooded and many, many tons of coffee were lost. And the container that held our coffee was missing. Again I worried about our customers, our business, but thinking in the back of my mind that things at the warehouse would slowly be getting back to normal.

A few days ago I called the broker to see if there was any progress in locating the missing container, and mentioned I might call the warehouse manager about arranging a shipment of other coffee. That’s when I was told that he had not been to work since the storm. Nor had his wife, who also worked there. Their house was destroyed. Their cars were destroyed. Very little was covered for flood loss, so they really were in bad shape.

Suddenly getting my coffee didn’t seem so important. I had seen the spectacle the media made out of the storm and its aftermath, but from two thousand miles away that’s all it’s reduced to: spectacle. Something to draw viewers and make advertising revenue, a kind of perverse entertainment.

But now I knew two people who lost everything in the blink of an eye. While I was worrying about my little business, they were wading through devastation. I can’t imagine the scope of their struggle, the physical work, the bureaucracy they have to fight, the emotional landscape they have to navigate. But I try. It doesn’t matter much when the coffee arrives; a couple weeks’ wait is nothing, and there are more important things to worry about.

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