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The Maillard Reaction

L’histoire du Café – The History of Coffee

As legend has it, coffee has its origins in the province of Kaffa, Ethiopia, where a young boy noticed his herd of goats frolicking about while eating red berries. The boy ate some of the berries, too, and became just as jolly as his goats. A monk came upon them and picked some of the berries to take to the brothers – apparently, that evening the monks became especially aware of ‘divine inspiration’! From there on, the beans travelled far and wide, as a foodstuff and as a drink… It is called “une boisson énergisante psychotrope stimulante” – a stimulating psychotropic energy drink! Stories aside, exactly where does this elixir the French call le café come from?

The Place

Coffea, a shrub genus of the Rubiaceae family, is indigenous to tropical areas in Africa and Asia. Today, it is grown right across the world in the Equatorial region, known as the “Bean Belt”. Coffee flourishes in rich, porous soil in steady temperatures with moderate sunshine and rain, so moderate tropical areas are ideal. The country that produces (and consumes) most of the coffee in the world, is Brazil – they grow and supply a third of the world’s coffee, and consume a third of their own harvest! It shouldn’t be too surprising that, of the natural commodities in the world, coffee ranks second to oil.

The Process

Where does café get its distinct flavours from? The answer is the Maillard reaction – the same reaction that produces the excellent flavours in breads, biscuits, roasted nuts, chocolate, seared steak, whiskey, condensed milk and frites

The Maillard reaction is named after a Frenchman, Louis-Camille Maillard, the chemist who first described what happens when amino acids react with sugars at elevated temperatures in 1912 while attempting to reproduce biological protein synthesis.

Basically, it’s all in the roasting. French coffee roasters Cafés Richard call this the “delicate alchemy” of coffee… First, the green seeds called ‘beans’ are harvested from the red fruit called ‘cherries’ (usually two ‘beans’ per cherry). These green coffee beans are then tipped by spindles into a drum and tossed constantly while heated by a current of hot air, which gradually increases the burning temperature. The sugars in the beans caramelise, causing the Maillard chemical reaction, which in turn leads hundreds of flavours to burst forth! The beans start to change in appearance – darkening, losing mass, increasing in size – and lovely aromas arise…

The Song

After the water in the beans have evaporated and the sugars and tannins have been ‘burned up’, the beans start to sing – a distinctive cracking noise, as the carbonic anhydride gases are released. The roaster knows their song, and to this day the coffee roasting process is still finished by ear. Herein lies the ultimate skill and art of café, as stopping a moment too soon or too late could ruin the flavours and aromas. C’est beau! It’s beautiful!

So, next time you relax and enjoy a cup of coffee at CASSIS Pâtisserie et Boulangerie, listen carefully if you can still hear the song of the beans…



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