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East London Food Heroes – Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, E16

It is fabulous to be able to get so much good food from small, local producers these days. It wasn’t such a long time ago that in London, apart from basic foodstuffs from greengrocers, butchers, bakers, you were only able to buy goods packaged by major manufacturers. At luxury West End grocers such as Fortnum and Masons, you might find elegant imported delicacies, but to find locally produced and packaged goods in the capital city was like searching for a needle in a haystack.

What is apparent now, and has been for the last 10 years or so I suppose, is that there is an upsurge of fantastically dedicated people throughout the country who are producing, importing and marketing foods that are of the highest quality. These are not always people who come from a family background of food production, sometimes you simply find people who are fired with enthusiasm for a subject, and so bring – dare I say it – true passion to their craft.

And so I found in Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. Passion is a word that is bandied around far too fatuously for my liking these days. Everyone is “passionate” about food, but often what we mean is that we are just greedy for good things. But the passion that you find in people Like Jeremy and Steven is indescribably more intense. Reading the blog on the Union website is extraordinary – so much attention to the people who are growing the coffee that we drink with such disregard. This is not just a delicious drink, to be knocked back alongside a fat cupcake, this is a livelihood for people who have nothing else. Do read the blog, it will change the way you look at your daily caffeine shot for ever.

I was extremely lucky recently, and was invited by Gail Haslam (One Million Gold Stars) to join a group of coffee aficionados at Union Roasted’s East London Roastery, which is based in a neat, clean, modern building. In an extraordinarily EastEnders’ position on an industrial estate under a flyover in E16.

The day was split into two sections, looking at how coffee is prepared and tasted in the roastery was part of the day, and then we were to be let loose on the professional espresso coffee machines in the Barista Training rooms. Well, not let loose exactly, we would be carefully guided and helped by our gorgeous trainers.

Our Baristas

Which, to be honest, was probably just as well.

The Roastery itself is in two sections, the amazingly high tech speedy cutting edge packaging line (which we didn’t worry about…I don’t think it is geeky enough for Jeremy and Steven) and the roasters themselves. Sleek Victorian looking pieces of solid enamelled iron, looking like something from George Stephenson’s shed.

Union Roaster

Roasting starts with green beans and the roasting is carefully judged by eye and nose as to when it is right. There is an amazing middle stage when the beans just start to tinge with beige, when they smell just like Ovaltine or Horlicks.

Roasting coffee beans

From there we head into the tasting rooms. We will be “cupping” ground beans from four different estates in Costa Rica and trying to describe what we are smelling and tasting. This isn’t something I’ve ever done before, and to be honest, I find it really hard to identify what exactly I am tasting.

The cupping of the coffee

Steven sniffing the coffee. Sniffffff

Steven talks my group through the intricacies of acidity, tannin, sweetness, smoothness and mouth feel, of sniffing the dry grounds, then filling the cups, breaking the crust of grounds to release the fragrance in one great big hit. And on to sniff and slurp.

It is exciting, mindboggling and bewildering, and I need a lot more practice – I can taste differences between the different blends, but I don’t have the experience to translate that into the right words to describe what I am tasting. Never mind. The coffee is darned good.

After lunch, deliciously provided by Gails Bakery, our group heads into the Barista Training Suite.

The Espresso Machine - a thing of great beauty

espresso as it should be..look at that crema

We each get to pull some espresso coffee, tasting it at different extractions, from ptah! bitter through to mmm yummy smooth yes I’ll have one like that please. And to play with the milk spout, spinning and stretching the icy cold milk to produce a delicate microfoam. I can make the milk spin and create a rich smooth foam, but actually making it land on top of the espresso in the pretty leaf pattern demonstrated by our Barista is quite beyond me. Eye to hand coordination is somewhat lacking in me it would seem. But again, never mind, the coffee tasted darned good.

pretty latte art

A couple of competitions finished the day – A Barista Smackdown and a fab competition to find the best coffee/food pairing.

I had got totally above myself and entered the Barista Smackdown, but we won’t say any more about that. It was won in exemplary style by Naomi (The Ginger Gourmand) who won Jeremy’s special coffee hat, brought lovingly back from his last coffee expedition, and generously donated as a very special prize.

Naomi in her hat

I was really disappointed that I had only come back from holiday in Norfolk the day before, and had no time to make my amazing Oliver Hardy cheesecake that would have knocked everyone’s socks off. But, I will generously concede that the stunningly good biscotti by Chloe (The Faerietale Foodie) were worthy winners. I shall be making these very soon

So a week has come and gone since I played barista. One thing about the sessions I was curious to find out was if it would actually affect the way I enjoyed coffee at home. Although I have an espresso machine at home, it is rather different to the big professional one I played with. But I tried to put some of the things that I learnt into practice.

Always use fresh coffee. I keep mine in an airtight Illy tin (though we usually drink the rather less expensive Lavazza) but I have kept the fabulous coffee from Union Roasted in the freezer, taking it out only as I need it. Purists will grind just before using and I know it is better before anyone says anything. But let’s be honest. I will be using ready ground. Get used to it.

Portafilter hot and dry. I had been heating it, but not necessarily drying it. I do now. And hot dry cups.

Tamp properly. Straight and even. No air chambers for the water to bypass the coffee.

my coffee

And it works. It really does. I can make a cracking cup of coffee now. Do you fancy a cup?

With thanks to Union Roasted for a splendid day out