A holiday in Bali has taught me that too much of a good thing can easily turn one’s mind.
A surfeit of sunshine, soporific cocktails, spicy cuisine, strident music, welcoming smiles, and hedonism in Balinese tourist hotspots leaves me in a hyperactive frame of mind.
This is precisely when an excursion into the cool, leafy hills of Ubud is called for. This is the cultural heart of Bali where one can relax into a state of Zen-like bliss. The area is mind-numbingly beautiful, especially the unbelievably green Tegallalang rice terraces that adorn tropical rainforest slopes.
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Ubud is a sleepy artisan town with magical hidden places where you find friendly peace-seekers, yogis, artists, writers, sacred monkeys, cool cats, and funky cafes in superb settings. But the weirdest of all are the caged civet cats that eat ripe coffee beans.
The town’s escapist appeal is partly driven by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love, which chronicles the author’s emotional search for self-fulfilment in captivating places such as Ubud.
The local zeitgeist spirit of creativity, and presence of an expat community, are noticeable on the main street. I see signs heralding the Ubud Readers & Writers Festival, which attracts up to 30,000 people.
I could stand and admire the scenery for hours but feel the need of a lunch and coffee break. The nearby Bali Pulina coffee plantation has just the right combination of leafy lanes of Arabica and Robusta trees, lovely spice gardens, and amiable staff to entice me.
Guide Burna leads me down winding paths to an eye-watering display of ingredients, which add flavour to their extensive range of beverages. There’s ginseng, vanilla, barley, lemongrass, turmeric, cumin, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and peppercorn.
I sit in a picturesque al fresco dining area looking out on rice terraces curving sensuously around an impossibly steep hillside.
The buffet meal starts with a whole coconut to slake the thirst. Banana fritters steeped in palm sugar and honey follow, and appeal instantly to my sweet tooth. There’s no sign of the toddy cat coffee, which is said to be sublime.
The main course is satay chicken and fish, garnished with grated coconut, fried beans, tomato, and other ingredients. Then the long awaited coffee time arrives. There is no fanfare of trumpets, just a polite request for payment of 50,000 rupiah a cup (NZ$6).
What makes this coffee so special is that it’s defecated, not decaffeinated. The caged Asia Palm civet cats on the plantation have a visceral part to play in producing this unusual product.
The civets eat the fleshy pulp of the bright red coffee berries. The beans remain inside their stomach for a while – fermenting, before being passed – undigested.
Then they are collected, washed, sun-dried, lightly roasted, and crushed into fine coffee grounds that sell for around US$200 (NZ$282)a kilo. The market for this Kopi Bali coffee is so exclusive that only 500 kilos make it to market each year.
The biological theory is that proteolytic enzymes seep into the beans while they are fermenting, making shorter peptides and free amino acids. The emerging beans yield an aromatic coffee with much less bitterness for drinking pleasure.
It takes me more than a fleeting moment to absorb the conceptual reality of this intimate form of coffee making. I have already handed over the cash payment. Either I’ve been roasted as a naive tourist, or perhaps my choice of “cat-poo-chino” over the more civilised cappuccino is the smart decision for a worldly-wise traveller.
I take a closer look at the civet cats with their mottled grey coats and black, piercing eyes that plead with me to feed them another juicy batch of beans. They are efficient mass-production machines judging by the constant stream of beans falling onto the cage floor.
My guide leads me to a dark shed where I roast a crucible of beans over an open fireplace on the earthen floor. He diligently monitors the process as the beans turn black and after six minutes tells me my work is done.
After participating in the coffee making, it would be churlish of me to turn down this singular opportunity to experience another wonder of the modern world. I stare longingly into my steaming cup of dark brown “coffee mud” – a description that aptly sums up the colour and consistency of the beverage.
To my palate, it has a bitter taste, rather like strong espresso coffee. The consensus around the table is that luwak coffee is not as flavoursome as espresso and needs a little sugar to counteract the bitterness.
Opinions are always divided on these matters, and some thought it was an intriguingly different and enjoyable drink. But even those connoisseurs doubted that the taste sensation justified the incarceration of civet cats.
However, there’s no accounting for individual tastes and the toddy cat coffee retains the prestige associated with its position in the market as the world’s most expensive coffee. Its pedigree goes back to the early 18th century when the Dutch opened plantations in Sumatra and Java.
Bali coffee extraordinaire was not something high on my bucket list, but it was an interesting experience to sample the unusual beverage. This is what travel is all about – dipping your taste buds into unfamiliar exotic fare and gauging the response.
Air New Zealand, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, and Garuda Indonesia fly from Auckland and Wellington to Denpasar via Australia.
A full range of accommodation is available in Bali, from five-star luxury to backpackers. The Hotel Mercure Harvestland is conveniently placed and offers comfortable rooms.
When to go
April to October is the best time to visit, when the weather is dry and warm. Try to avoid the tourist peak in July.
What to take
Light cotton clothing, sun hat, sun block, insect repellent, and comfortable walking shoes or sandals are advised.