Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nicaragua: Hilton Le Bistro Garden Court

Alirio Lounges

Traveling the world gives one the opportunity to try foods different (and hopefully better) than one eats at home. Over the years, I've tried split roasted calf, ant eggs, worms and even aso. Here in Nicaragua, I'm interested in trying just about anything they're willing to put in front of me.

Of course, one of the difficulties of traveling and eating is that sometimes you just get tired from all the activity and maybe aren't feeling as adventurous as usual. Sometimes, instead of venturing into the dark wilderness seeking culinary adventure, you just want to stay home. And after a long day training judges, that ended up being the consensus amongst our group: let's stay in and eat at the hotel restaurant.

The heat of discussion.

Seafood Bisque

Okay, I won't pretend that I was excited about this. Hotels worldwide are notorious for offering food that's relatively the same and uniformly 'meh'. The sad fact of the matter is that there just isn't a lot of excitement coming out of hotel restaurant kitchens, and I prefer excitement. Especially when on the road and the window of opportunity for trying something different is narrow. I mean really, I can make tuna carpaccio at home.

Shrimp Salad

But I'm not here to bitch about it. I was disappointed, I'll admit. Disappointed that we weren't exploring some culinary underbelly of Managua, or at least those street vendors down by the casino across the street. Like I said previously, part of the enjoyment of travel is spending it with good friends and I could choose to venture off on my own or dine with my friends. Hell, most of my travel is alone, I can spend time with my friends...

Spring Roll

The food was nicely presented and was what you would expect from an international hotel chain: decent, competently prepared and presented but nothing spectacular.

I went with the Shrimp Salad that featured three shrimp set atop a mixed salad of sliced cheddar, papaya and mango. Squeeze that into a ring mold and you've got your salad. It was sweet, tart and not too bad.

Tuna Carpaccio

Cleofas and I ended up sharing an order of Spring Rolls and the Tuna Carpaccio. Again, the spring rolls were as expected: decent but nothing spectacular. The tuna looked good but, even though frozen, was definitely moving past its' prime as it tasted slightly fishy. In fact, it tasted fishy enough that I was worried that I would get ill because of it.

The highlight of our meal was our beverage. A mixed drink of Flor de Cana rum and citrus, kind of like a margarita without the heavy tartness. Whatever it was, it was good. Like drinking fruit juice, and I had more than three.

A toast to Nicaragua.

Hilton Princess Managua
Km 4.5 Carretera a Masaya
Managua, Nicaragua

Nicaragua: Training Judges

Self portrait at the Hilton Princess.

Day Two in Managua starts off with the front desk missing my 7am wake up call. At least I think they missed it. The message light on the phone is flashing when they call at 7:38am. I'm a bit irritated since our meeting time downstairs is 8am.

After a quick shower I'm downstairs by 9:10am and the bus has departed. Crap. Jump into a cab and six bucks later I'm at the Galleria Santo Domingo mall - one of Managua's fancy malls for the rich and famous. It's early. Too early for a mall. The only people in the mall are a handful of baristas arriving to set up for the trade show and their practice times and about twenty mall employees whose task it is to clean and do general maintenance.

Rouki and Brent launch paper attack fighters from their loft.

The mall itself is a pseudo open-air design with vaulted steel pipe ceilings that's open to the environment without actually letting the environment in (too much). Essentially, it's an outdoor mall with a sort of sky dome that's non-retractable.

Our space is a large air conditioned space that may have been a department store once upon a time but for now, it's our home base and tomorrow will be converted into a trade show slash barista competition. Julio and his team have been hard at work getting everything in order and organized.

Judge Candidates taking their written examination.

First up is the continuation of the judges certification workshop. This is Day Two of judges training. Most judges here in Managua have little to no experience, some have no coffee experience at all, which makes developing judges qualified to judge the competitors a challenging proposition.

For them, it will be a day long affair of watching videos, taking a written examination and doing a practical judging test in addition to the sensory test they took yesterday. Many of the candidates have little to no coffee experience and it shows. The written test was difficult (as it should be) and some of them struggled with it. Whatever the case, our crew is optimistic about finding a set of judges ready to meet the challenge of choosing their national champion.

Cloefas Arreola - The One True Cafe Latino.

The La Marzocco Linea 2EE - perhaps the last competition to use this Grande Dame.

Meanwhile, we've been hearing rumors about how protests on the mayoral election are supposed to start at 4pm today. Considering the fact that the opposing sides have been courteous enough to schedule their conflicts, it seems downright civilized.

The Hippo at Hippo's.

Lunch time comes and we're off to Hippo's, an American style pub. It's got the usual selection of pub grub: fries, burgers, nachos, ribs and a whole lot more. I'm not one to complain and I'm certainly grateful to our hosts for their very generous hospitality and accommodations but I'm from the United States. I left there so I would have the opportunity to try something different. I really would prefer not to eat American food while getting away from America.

Our intrepid crew ready to eat.

That said, my rib and pork platter was decent enough. Smoked meat with barbecue sauce. Not too bad. It's hard to really screw it up but it's also hard to make amazing. This pork was neither. It was just okay. Stuck somewhere in the middle.

My BBQ platter - decent barbecue.

The under temperature and overcooked french fries with cheese and jalapenos.

The fries, on the other hand, were absolutely atrocious. Frozen shoestring fries that were overcooked in oil that was under temperature, causing the fries to soak up excess oil and become oil-logged, Then it cooked for a long time (since it wasn't hot enough to properly fry) until they turned golden brown. Of course, when fries in oil that's under temp reach a golden color they're basically obliterated and inedible. Drop a ramekin of processed nacho cheese sauce in the center and garnish with some sliced jalapenos and leave it under the heat lamp for ten minutes while you prep the rest of the order and you can imagine how those fries tasted.

A lonely La Marzocco FB80 2AV.

Back on the farm, it's time to put the candidates through mock presentations. I start off as the "barista" and present a performance riddled with all sorts of mistakes to see how many of them they can catch. From inconsistent dosing to improper use of towels to uneven tamping and distribution to improper use of milk and whatever else I could think of - including odd facts and misleading information, like coffee from Lithuania.

If one must submit to a judge, why not submit to Erika?

The candidates worked it and worked it. Up next is Violeta from El Coche Cafe, a passionate and interested barista who's just a little bit on the shy side. She's never trained for competition but would like to give it a try next year. She goes before the judges without prior prep or experience and even though she makes some mistakes, she does just fine. In many ways, I think it's better for judges to see mistakes that they can spot and correct than just the flawless performances in the 2007 WBC Finals videos.

It's 4pm and the Sandinistas have massed and shuttered the mall.

Outside, the masses are gathering beyond the gates of the mall. The Sandinistas have scheduled a protest/demonstration/riot. At least they had the courtesy of scheduling it and letting people know it would happen at 4pm. That way you could plan for it and avoid the area. Of course, we're on Ground Zero for the protests and should it get violent, we'll be caught in the crossfire.

As a precaution, the mall decides to shut down. All the stores close and the guards "encourage" everyone to leave and by 4:30pm the mall is deserted except for our judges and other personnel setting up the trade show. There's a window in our area and we can see the parking lot, the gates and the protesting beyond. Well-to-do Nicaraguans are fleeing the mall in their Range Rovers, Land Cruisers and Mercedes. Even the security guards look on edge.

It's only 6:30pm and the mall has been shut down.

Edgy armed guards, civilian riots, I'm just hoping that the walls of our building can withstand a hit from an RPG (rocket propelled grenade). In the back of my mind, I think that our perch can take small weapons fire but if the rioters storm the building, we could be in deep trouble.

Happily, the gates are closed and the protesters maintain calm. By 8pm, the whole thing is over and everyone will have gone home.

My barista station with a 2 group La Valentina and Mahlkonig K30 on top of a cupping table.

Judge candidate and 2008 Nicaraguan Barista Champion, Luis "Cappuccino" is chomping at the bit to give it a go and show off his style. I actually didn't get to see his presentation since I was working on something else but then it was my turn to go again and while I had been planning on doing a slow presentation that went way over time, Cleofas asked me to do one that's a bit more serious and a bit more representative of what he remembers of my previous USBC presentations.

There's some Stumptown Hairbender around here, so I grab that and load it into the Mahlkonig K30 we're using for practice. It's a decent enough on-demand doserless grinder that's maddeningly infuriating with its' propensity to throw excess coffee off the portafilter and irritating clumping. After using it all day, I find myself disliking it's propensity to just make a mess of itself.

Judge Candidates Juan Carlos, Enrique and Erika vie for spots in The Show.

I'd like to tell you in detail about the presentation, but I can't . Basically, I can't remember what I did. But I was trying to make it as good as possible. Deliberately paced, calm, smooth, relaxed, fun and with quite a bit of banter, and quite a lot of bullshit. Beautiful and carefully crafted, but still bullshit nonetheless.

Interspersed with a description of the coffees in Hairbender and anecdotes about my visits to those farms were thoughts on the state of the nation and a story on how I ventured into Managua to meet and interview the average coffee-drinking Nicaraguan to find out his and her flavor preferences and that the flavors in my signature drink would compliment their palates. That the lemon citrus in the Yirgacheffe would be augmented by just a kiss of pomegranate.

It was truly beautiful bullshit.

Judge Candidates ready for their sensory evaluation. Some will make it, others won't.

But it was also subversive in nature. The words I delivered weren't necessarily meant to convey my passion and knowledge about craft and coffee, but rather to test their judging skills and to see if my words would guide them into believing they were tasting something they might not be tasting. Could the words used help to subconsciously raise my scores?

In the end, there was some influence but not enough to overcome the experience and guidance of a head judge.

Our day ended with the naming of the 10 candidates who would now go on to judge the Nicaraguan Barista Championship in the morning.

Time for a shower and some dinner.