Nearly two years ago, after a serendipitous e-mail connection through the inimitable Peter Giuliano, I sat down for brunch with a phenomenal woman by the name of Simran Sethi. Little did I know prior to this first meeting, but she would quickly open my eyes to the importance of agricultural biodiversity, and the slow but significant loss of it throughout the world. It became clear that the loss of agricultural biodiversity is a devastating concept not only in theory, but also on a sensory level. Do you remember the burst of flavor when you bit into an heirloom tomato for the first time, the unique floral tones of your first cup of Geisha coffee, or the wonder you felt when you first drank wine made from Vermentino grapes? For Sethi, these moments are what led her to pen (and pour her heart and soul into) her new book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.
Sethi is no stranger to such concerns, having been crowned an “environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair in 2007, as well as hosting a forum on global warming alongside Al Gore (among many other accomplishments). Bread, Wine, Chocolate is the culmination of years of travel, research, and connections. When we met in Melbourne, Sethi was in the middle of an epic research adventure around the world, one that would take her to Ecuador to delve into cocoa, California to investigate wine and grape growing, and Ethiopia to discover the origins of coffee.
With the release of the book looming, I was able to get a peek at the pages within, and boy, let me tell you, the content meets—and thoroughly surpasses—expectations. While each chapter, whether on wine, chocolate, beer, bread or octopus, deserves to be discussed in depth, the focus here is obviously coffee. On this topic, Sethi waxes lyrical, starting from the very beginning: the significance of that ritualistic first cup of coffee in the morning.
“Coffee and a smoke—one of each, only in the morning—allowed me to simultaneously rev up and calm down, exactly what was required in that bitter Kansas winter when nothing seemed to go as planned,” she writes in Bread, Wine, Chocolate. “My job was punishing. The relationship I hoped would buoy me up dragged me down. My heart was an anchor. So, each morning, I wrapped myself up in a blanket, stepped outside and drew smoke deep into my lungs as I drank in the sweet warmth of coffee.”
In her journey, she travels to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia, talking to farmers, researchers, and coffee professionals. It’s here that the loss of agricultural biodiversity is omnipresent, where the limited range of coffee varieties grown for the market has created a monoculture and put farmers and industries at risk of having their crops wiped out by diseases like coffee leaf rust.
“Coffee is from the Rubiaceae family of flowering plants,” Sethi writes, “which includes ornamental Gardenia, Rubia plants used for dyes, and Cinchona, the bark of which contains quinine, used to treat fevers and malaria. Although there are about 125 species in the Coffea genus, we basically drink only two: Coffea canephora and Coffea arabica. There are hundreds of varieties of arabica, but we mainly consume Typica (the oldest variety), Bourbon (a natural mutation of Typica that occurred on the island of Bourbon), and hybrids of the two.”
In the struggle to create more diversity, Sethi describes how the onus falls back to herself and other consumers:
“I have the power to choose when and what to drink (and eat). I open up my cupboard and, on any given morning, select from a small array of coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda—and that’s just from Africa. My choice to reach for one over the other has real, significant consequences. Some would argue caring for farmers isn’t the responsibility of the market and that it’s unfair to blame retailers and traders for the decisions farmers make to increase productivity or sustain themselves. But then, what is our responsibility to take care of one another? These farmers’ efforts help me enter every new day. Their work boosts my productivity. For pennies on the dollar, they preserve the genetic diversity required to ensure I will be able to drink coffee for the rest of my life.”
Along this train of thought, one of the only ways to continue to have access to delicious agricultural products—and an increasingly diverse variety of them—is to consume and enjoy a wider range of delicious things, and, in turn, actively support the people who grow them.
Bread, Wine, Chocolate is unique. It’s a tome that’s part scientific essay, part historic record, and part memoir. Each phrase in the book is full of energy: a combination of information, historical significance, emotion, and near-tangible sensory experience. With her words, Sethi allows the reader to luxuriate in beautiful senses and emotions, while also reminding us that if we as consumers aren’t more conscious in seeking out the many diverse varieties of grains, grapes, and coffee beans, then we risk losing them altogether.
Simran Sethi's quotes taken from Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love on HarperCollins Publishers, released in the US on Nov. 10, in Australia on Dec. 1, in England on Dec. 17, and in India in February.