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Food and Drink

Food & Drink: Eat up your coffee

The other day I went to an improbable lunch. The Italian coffee merchant Lavazza - a coffee I can remember being told about by my Piedmontese grandfather and which I have used for much of my adult life - was offering a whole meal in which coffee would be used as a flavouring ingredient. Improbable, unlikely, but most successful.

Here I must confess to a prejudice: I have a hang-up over the flavour of mocha, which I find 'cooked', sweet and sickly. I do not like cakes, pastries or ice-creams that have the flavour of this coffee-bean. It hit me again at this meal when it came to dessert: I abandoned my pastry after a bite.

There are two kinds of 'coffee' flavouring, one sweet, one bitter; and though I take my espresso sweetened, I do so because an espresso delivers so pungent, strong and bitter a flavour that I feel the need to sweeten it. Combining coffee with food is a different matter: the more bitter the flavour of the coffee, the more subtly it blends with other flavours.

The meal began with a salad of thinly-sliced smoked venison (a smoked carpaccio of venison, if you will) in a slightly sweetened vinaigrette with a sparse drizzle of thickened coffee. Result: apart from the venison being far too salty, excellent. The acridness of the coffee accompaniment undercut the sweetness and sharpened the vinegar of the vinaigrette.

I had tried various forms of pasta with coffee before; it can be excellent. The easy way to prepare it is to begin as you would with any meat-and-tomato sauce for pasta: by chopping up onions and a clove of garlic and browning them in olive oil, by browning 1lb of good lean minced beef in the mixture, then adding two or three tomatoes chopped and peeled, two tbs of tomato puree, about 1/2 lb of minced mushrooms and a half-pint of strongly brewed coffee. Allow the mixture to simmer for about 30 mins, adding water if needed. Add a pinch of oregano, cook another 4-5 mins, then pour over your cooked pasta. You will note an underlying dark taste, something faintly woody, in this excellent winter pasta dish.

The lunch's piece de resistance was some fine lamb, perfectly cooked, with a 'mole' of coffee. A 'mole' (the word is Spanish, or more properly Mexican) is a corn-starch-thickened, glazed sauce much used in Central America with fowl, especially with the indigenous semi-wild turkey, a much gamier bird than we raise. The famous mole poblano (i e, from Puebla) is chicken in a luxuriant sauce made with chocolate, peppers and garlic.

Because coffee is naturally bitter, and becomes more bitter as it cooks, it is wise in creating a coffee-based sauce to start with one that is fairly sweet. Such sauces are extremely simple to make, and well worth experimenting with; but remember that, with lamb, you should not be reckless. The coffee should enhance the lamb's flavour, not kill it.

Our dish consisted of fillet or medallions of lamb, which are not so easy to handle in the cooking, so I suggest that you start out with just lamb fillet (1lb for four) cut up into 3/4 in cubes. In a bowl, mix 3tbs paprika (mild), 1tbs chilli powder, some fresh chopped parsley, 1tbs fresh coriander and 2 1/2 oz creme frache. (Note the Middle-Eastern combinations]) Pour this over your lamb. In a deep pan, first saute one onion, chopped fine, and 2 cloves garlic, then add 4oz mushrooms, thinly sliced, and allow them to sweat (about 3 mins). Now add lamb to the mixture and cook gently for about 10 mins. Separately, cook a large tin of sliced pineapple and a pint of strong coffee, allowing it to boil uncovered for 10-15 mins. Stir corn starch into cold water, add to pan and mix into coffee/pineapple sauce until it thickens. Add to lamb. Sprinkle with fresh coriander and serve on rice.

Again, the addition of the coffee works wonders. The pineapple virtually disappears as a separate flavour and becomes no more than sweetness; the underlying flavour of the lamb is enhanced by its standard Middle-Eastern accompaniments, sour and spicy, and the coffee in the mixture simply gives the whole dish a dark undertow which I find most appetising.

This is not a natural wonder of the world: having the idea doesn't mean you have to pursue it maniacally, tossing coffee into this and that. But I suspect that a refined cook will find occasions (even if it's only to correct a sauce that has lost some of its pungency) to add a bit of coffee here and there. The rule is: you shouldn't taste it as coffee; it should be the one flavour you can't exactly place.