Thursday, November 8, 2012

"Dangerous Grounds" Premier on Travel Channel

The main component of reality TV is drama, and Dangerous Grounds is loaded with edge of the seat excitement (although, in the back of your head, common sense dictates that they wouldn’t have the star of their new series killed off in the first episode). That said, we open with Todd Carmichael, with an obviously anxious newbie cameraman in tow, talking about “black gold”, the 60 billion dollar a year industry that is coffee, and how some of the world’s very best beans grow in some of the world’s worst and most dangerous places. He’s one of the coffee zealots that seeks out these rarefied, sustainable beans.

Carmichael and cameraman, with herd of Haitian kid

We are in Haiti, in search of high altitude Typica beans, the ancestors of the beans imported to Haiti from Africa in the 1700’s (see note below). Carmichael describes Haiti as being a place of category 5 (the worst on his scale) anarchy, with graft, lawlessness, police repression and bribery, corruption on a massive scale, murder, and just general cultural chaos. Add to that mix abject poverty, especially after the earthquake, which the country still reels from, and you have a potent mix.

After buying some crap beans in the market to try to figure out where he should be heading for the best beans, the purchase of which starts a near riot, he meets with the Haitian “Pope of Coffee”, who tells him: “You try to break the middlemen (those who profit obscenely from the poor coffee farmer’s efforts), you going to war.”

Carmichael buying crap beans in the market in Port au Prince

He stops on his journey up in the mountains, picking beans along the way, showing us why they are inferior. We hear about the vicious middlemen “coyote” buyers that sneak in from the Dominican Republic to buy beans, and about the President’s monopoly on claiming all of the best beans; neither of these groups want Todd buying beans, and the first few sellers he encounters are afraid to sell to him, for fear of reprisal, or because the crop is already promised.

As he heads out of the town run by the President’s men, the truck’s driveshaft breaks, and they are forced to hike back into the dangerous town to try to find a garage. He stumbles across the company of an old acquaintance coffee buyer from Port au Prince, who allows them to sleep in their office that night, and provides them a working truck the next morning.

As they climb higher darkness falls, and they are forced to sleep on the road (a dirt track really). He temporarily disables the truck’s engine so that it can’t be hotwired, and they sleep underneath so that they can roll out the side into the jungle in the middle of the night, should robbers happen upon them. Don’t forget that Carmichael is carrying bundles of currency to make a large cash purchase, and only an idiot thief would not recognize that fact.

From a mountain ridge he spots bananas growing across the steep valley, on the side of a tall peak. Bananas at this altitude mean only one thing: coffee beans. Bananas are grown as a companion crop: they provide shade and protection, and the banana’s root system helps break up the soil and keep it evenly moist for the coffee trees.

They work their way around the valley ridge and finally make contact with a farmer willing to sell directly to him, 23 bags of plump, ripe, high altitude, beyond-organic, hand-processed, sun-dried, sustainable typica beans from an ancient Yemeni strain, grown at 8500 feet. He breaks out his portable camp stove bean roaster (the size of a large potato), roasts the beans for 15 minutes, grinds them up, and brews a test batch of the beans, describing the taste as orgasmically good. He has to hide his glee at the discovery; to show his excitement jacks the price up accordingly.

Testing the beans

We go back to his processing facility in Philadelphia, where he roasts 3 million pounds of beans a year, and we follow the beans through the roasting process.

Sure I like coffee, but I’m nowhere near this obsessed about it. I’ll drink Folger’s if that’s all that’s there. I sure wouldn’t risk life and limb for a prime bean, no matter how fantastic it was. But I must say that after the first episode, I’m definitely hooked, adding Dangerous Grounds into my TV watching rotation. And I’m looking forward to the slew of foodie obsession shows that are surely soon to follow.

Travel Channel’s Dangerous Grounds regular time slot is Tuesdays at 8pm CST

 La Comombe Torrefaction website:            

Note: Typica beans originated in Yemen, and were transported by the Dutch to Malabar, India, and later on, to Indonesia. The bean was later taken to the French colony in Martinique, and from there to French outposts in Haiti. Typica beans are considered the genetic parents of new varietals such as South America’s Criollo, Central America’s Arabigo, Hawaii’s Kona, Mexico’s Pluma Hidalgo, Sumatra’s Garundang, Jamaica’s Blue Mountain, Brazil’s San Bernado and San Ramon, and Kents & Chickumalgu from India; heady company indeed.

Mick Vann ©

1 comment:

  1. Does anyone know the manufacturer of the portable coffee roaster the host used in Haiti? Thanks!