Coffee – from the berries to the cup down on the farm

My house is located in rural São Paulo. In fact, it is so rural that from my windows I can see a mountain range and lots of coffee growing up the side of the hills. This photo is from one of the nearby hills looking back at the town in the valley.

Serra Negra hoje #serranegra #cafe #coffee #altodaserra

Although I am surrounded by coffee and I can buy the local coffee in the shops nearby, I had never seen a coffee farm up close – until yesterday.

An agronomist, Jonas Ferraresso, working at the Boa Esperança coffee farm in Serra Negra noticed me tweeting about the area and he said hello. We have talked on and off on Twitter for a few months now and he eventually asked if I would like to have some coffee at the farm. So I went over and he gave me a tour.

This farm is very close to the town centre. There is no need to go on dirt roads to get there so it only took me 5 minutes to find him. Jonas showed me around the farm by car, because with over 350,000 coffee trees it would take a long time to walk it!

There are about 20 people always working on the farm because the coffee trees need to be looked after all year round – pruning and fighting bugs. Then there is the harvest from about July, which can take around three months and needs around another 60 people.

In many Brazilian farms like this the harvest can only be done by humans because the trees are planted on steep hills. This also means that the trees need to be limited to about 2m tall. Where a farm can use mechanised harvesting tools they can manage without the extra employees, work about a hundred times faster, and do the harvest in several waves – only ever picking the ripest berries rather than just picking everything.

I was really interested to learn about some of the different coffee varieties and the difference between a premium coffee and the cheap instant stuff you might find in a jar of Nescafé. I don’t buy instant coffee anyway, but after visiting a farm and seeing the real stuff I don’t think I ever would again.

The best thing was when he said that I could take some coffee home – straight from the farm. But the coffee he had for me was still berries covered in their skin. First Jonas put the beans in a roaster – we roasted them at 200c right there in the farm.

Torrando café #cafe #coffee #torrando #serranegra #saopaulo

A photo posted by Mark Hillary (@markhillary) on

 

After roasting Jonas ground the beans for me. He said that it’s preferable to wait about a day after roasting before grinding, but as I don’t have a grinder at home he just did it immediately.

Grinding coffee #coffee #cafe #serranegra #saopaulo

A video posted by Mark Hillary (@markhillary) on

 

I’m grateful to Jonas for showing me around. Something many of us miss when living in cities is the connection between products in the supermarket and the farm they came from. I loved it that I saw the berries being roasted, then ground, and I went home with a bag of coffee that was ready to use and smelled fantastic!

Só café #cafe #coffee #serranegra #saopaulo

A photo posted by Mark Hillary (@markhillary) on

 

Coincidences – in a city of 20m people!

Carnaval is the enormous party the marks the beginning of Lent. It’s still another week until the festival officially begins, but this is Brazil so the weekend before Carnaval is full of street parties – “blocos” – celebrating that it is just another week until Carnaval!

I went out to a few different blocos yesterday and there were some incredible coincidences all in the same day. My wife knew that her dentist and his family were going to be at one particular party, but the party was so big that we could not even see the stage where a band was playing Beatles songs. Yet even though we were surrounded by thousands of people, we found them almost immediately.

Later we were walking down the street, in-between parties, and we met the girlfriend of our friend’s son (who had just recently visited us in he countryside) – and she said that she was walking near our apartment hoping that we might be about! So we all went to another party together…

Then, as we were walking home later in the evening, my wife saw her cousin. In fact she said to me “that guy over there looks just like my cousin”, so we walked closer and it was him! We didn’t even realise that he was in São Paulo!

Even in a city of 20 million people we still managed to bump into friends and family in unexpected ways – all in one single day and with no arrangement using mobile phones!

Bloco Soviético #bloco #carnaval #sovietico #soviet #saopaulo

Welcome to 2015!

Welcome to 2015 – happy new year! I’m quite keen to get on with 2015.

I have a book that is about to be launched imminently. I have a second edition of my Brazil book almost ready to launch, so that will probably also come out in January, and I have a sketched out plan for another book that I want to be ready by around Easter.

I also have some plans to get back into my daily running routine again and to improve my Portuguese – possibly with some intensive immersion lessons. These are not really like resolutions – I’m not going to drop these plans next week.

I need to improve my Portuguese to integrate further in Brazil. I need to stay healthy and fit and I was always running before, but over the past few months the combination of a lot of travel and the holiday season meant I just let it slide for a while.

I’m fortunate that I like my work and I’m always excited about creating something new. I see many people on my FourSquare app checking into their workplace and counting down the days to Friday – literally wishing their life away and happy to tell the world how bored they are with their life. But I love where I am right now and I have a lot of exciting plans for 2015, so let’s go :-)

Nascer do sol #serranegra #nascerdosol #sol #sunrise #saopaulo

São Paulo marathon 2014 – better luck next time!

After months of training, being careful with my diet, and resting completely in the final week, I participated in the São Paulo marathon yesterday.

However, I didn’t manage to finish the race this time.

A maratona #maratona #marathon #saopaulo

A photo posted by Mark Hillary (@markhillary) on

I have completed the London marathon a couple of times before and I’m used to 10km and half-marathon distance runs so the marathon is longer than usual, but it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime challenge. I had trained really well and was looking forward to it. In fact, based on my training runs I was expecting to do it this time in about 3.5 hours.

But once I started running I knew something was wrong. Within 3-4km I didn’t feel at all as if I was warming up. By that point I should have been hitting a regular pace and enjoying the early part of the run, but I was feeling really odd, a little out of breath and way too hot. That wasn’t helped by the water stops only appearing every 5km – so I knew I wanted some water and had to keep running to find some right at the start of the race.

It was hot yesterday, that’s true, but we started at 8am when it was about 27c. It did go up about another 10c, but in the early stages I don’t think the heat was my problem. I just felt like I couldn’t warm up or get going – as if there was no energy in the tank.

I rested for six days immediately before the marathon to ensure any little injuries were fixed – I had a niggling foot pain and a cut on my leg that was healing up – and all this was fixed. In the week before the rest I had run two half-marathons and several 10kms in training.

During the marathon, I kept going until 12km, but it was hopeless. I still didn’t feel at all like I had warmed up and I couldn’t get a regular pace going, it was like a constant struggle. I quit the race, took off my number, walked away from the track and found a taxi to take me home.

I then went to bed and slept. I’d had a really good sleep the night before, in bed by about 9pm, but I just felt shattered. Clearly something was wrong – whether I had a bit of a cold or something I don’t know, but the moment I got back from the race I just crashed out for a couple of hours.

It’s a shame as I was looking forward to the race. I’m feeling OK now so I don’t have any illness I can actually detect. I’ll head out for a 10km around town this evening just to see how I feel and to get the trainers back on.

I knew that I probably could have run and walked the race, just to get the medal regardless of how long it took, but I was keen to do this marathon in quite a good time given how much I’ve trained for it. I’m also aware that if I had forced myself to carry on for another 30km when I wasn’t feeling well then I might have ended up injured – because I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I just didn’t have any speed.

The Rio marathon is in July next year and I’ve got my eye on a few half-marathons before then so I’ll try again, but this time all I can say is that despite being well prepared I just didn’t feel right on the day. Better luck next time eh..?

A maratona #maratona #marathon #saopaulo

A photo posted by Mark Hillary (@markhillary) on

A birthday surprise in São Paulo!

It’s been a week now since a group of friends surprised me in São Paulo with an Elvis-themed birthday celebration party. I thought I was on my way to the theatre to see a play when my wife said that we needed to call in at a bar to collect a friend.

Only once we got inside, the pub was packed full of friends and family all waiting to celebrate my birthday!

It was a really special moment. I know that Angelica visited São Paulo several times arranging this now and she must have been emailing and chasing people for weeks. When I saw everyone there and realised that we were not going to the theatre I was a bit stunned – I think I probably just looked shocked when everyone was singing ‘Happy Birthday’.

It’s at times like this – when you can see a big crowd of friend who all got involved to set this up – that the importance of friends and family really hits home.

I’m really looking forward to my brother, sister-in-law, and nephews all coming over to Brazil next Easter. I have lived in Brazil for over three years now and nobody from my family has visited. It’s really expensive – I’m well aware of that – but this is also why it felt nice to just see an entire pub full of people all singing happy birthday.

The pub we went to doesn’t even open on Saturdays usually – Angelica convinced the owner to open up because a big crowd would be ordering food and drinks at the party.

I’m really grateful to Angie for arranging this. It’s one of those crazy moments in life that I will never forget. And it was also really fantastic to see everyone who came – some had travelled hundreds of miles to be there.

Thank you everyone for making my birthday weekend a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it and I appreciate all the effort that went into arranging the party and just being there!

Lake Villas in Amparo – my birthday 2014

I visited a new hotel this week. It was my birthday on Wednesday and I usually try to get away for a few days around my birthday, but with it falling in the middle of the week it seemed a better idea to just take a single day off and to check in someplace relaxing.

Because I didn’t want to spend a long time travelling, my wife found a place quite close to our home. It might be close, but it’s still nice to getaway and to let someone else do the cooking and cleaning for a day.

Fortunately our house is in the countryside anyway, so there are a lot of nice places nearby. We chose the Lake Villas Charm hotel at Amparo. It’s actually about halfway between two towns called Amparo and Morungaba in rural São Paulo.

I had vaguely heard of this hotel because I see signs for it on the main road near Amparo. It’s about 25km from our house so I see the signs fairly often, but I had never seen the hotel.

It was quite remote so that’s no surprise. To access it, you need to leave the main road and enter a dirt track that runs for about 10km into the countryside. The hotel is not really as you might imagine a normal hotel to be – a big building containing hundreds of rooms.

Arriving there, it was more like entering a golf course. The reception building was close to the entrance, but it was a separate small building just for the purpose of greeting visitors. The hotel itself is laid out in enormous grounds featuring lawns, woods, waterfalls, and forest – as far as the eye can see is basically all the grounds of the hotel.

Various buildings are dotted around the grounds. A spa and gym, a café, a restaurant… they are just scattered around and are usually placed next to features such as a lake or waterfall.

The rooms are not rooms at all. Each guest basically gets a house – an entire house that is so well equipped they look like something out of a home decoration magazine. Each house has a terrace with hammocks and beautiful furniture.

Lake Villas Charm Hotel

The place is so big that you need bicycles or golf carts to get around – we opted for a golf cart. After arriving and checking in we headed off to an enormous lake and swam in the water with a black swan. We drove around the grounds and explored a waterfall and some islands, then went to the spa to swim in the pool and relax on the terrace watching the waterfall.

But aside from this being probably the largest and most enjoyable hotel I have stayed anywhere in the world – and I’ve been to a lot of hotels – what I really noticed at this place was the dedication to customer service. It’s funny that the best customer service I have ever experienced turns out to be at a place that is just a half-hour drive down the road from home.

Here are a few examples:

  • When we arrived at the room, there was a letter from the manager of the hotel with his personal mobile phone number saying we could call or text him directly at any time if there was anything he could help with.
  • When the booking was made, my wife had mentioned that I’m vegetarian. When we arrived at the hotel restaurant the evening for dinner, the waiter greeted me by name and explained how the chef had prepared five off-menu options especially for me in case I wanted more choice of vegetarian dishes. This was not just an extra risotto – they had some really special options.
  • When my wife told the waiter that the mint in her pre-dinner Mojito tasted incredible, he arranged for the hotel gardener to show her where it was grown – and he pulled out a few entire plants for her to take home.
  • My wife had mentioned my birthday when booking the hotel, but had not made any specific plans for a cake, yet after our dinner the waiter arrived with a delicious chocolate cake and a card offering birthday wishes from the team.

Of course, any hotel could copy these actions. For example, a policy could be created to always bring a cake to a guest when the restaurant team is aware of a birthday, but what struck me at this hotel was that nothing appeared to be forced – it was an attitude rather than a policy.

I have never seen a general manager offering to accept messages via Whatsapp and the gardener did not have to go around pulling out plants, but if these people work within an environment where the culture is to try helping guests however possible then why wouldn’t they do that?

Great hospitality depends on the level of service to customers and hotels are in the frontline. Travelling guests are often tired on arrival and require service 24/7, which can often lead to situations where the old adage that the customer is always right just plainly wrong. The customer is not always right when he is jet-lagged, exhausted, and light-headed after some chilled Chablis.

The motto of the Ritz Carlton group is: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” This strikes me as the perfect attitude for the hotel business. The guest is not more powerful than the waiter because he is paying the bill. The hotel team can make your stay memorable for the right or wrong reasons and I’m pleased to say that for my recent birthday the team at the Lake Villas in Amparo made it a fantastic stay.

Check their website here.

2014-09-24 15.57.29

The Picture of John Gray: for Wilde fans in London

One of my favourite books has always been ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde. It’s the only novel Wilde ever wrote and has such a preposterous idea at its centre that it could almost be science fiction.

For those who don’t know anything of Dorian Gray, it is about a beautiful man who never ages in person, yet his portrait – hidden away in an attic – gets older in place of the man changing. All Dorian’s sin and hedonism is absorbed by the portrait – he can live the most extreme life and yet remain young and attractive.

Oscar Wilde was actually infatuated by a man called John Gray – they had a brief relationship in 1889. Wilde used Gray’s name for the main character in the novel, but the actual relationship ended and nothing more was heard of the real Gray.

A new play is set to open next month at the Red Lion Theatre in Islington, London, titled ‘The Picture of John Gray’. Written by CJ Wilmann the play aims to explore the real relationship between Wilde and Gray and what happened to the real John Gray.

I really loved this book and even the modern update by Will Self ‘Dorian’  is a great read. In that version, the work of art is a web installation rather than a portrait. When I read that book, I registered the URL for the art installation as featured in the novel. I was surprised the publisher had not reserved it and I left it pointing at my personal home page.

Eventually I tired of annoyed Will Self fans emailing me asking why I had any right to own the URL featured in the novel. I let my ownership of the URL expire. I don’t know who bought it after me, but perhaps I should have offered it to the publisher directly.

It’s a shame that I’m almost certainly going to miss this new play as I live in Brazil and have no plans to be in London during August. In fact, I’m actually planning to be touring the Pantanal in August. However, I’m sure the script will be available online soon.

If you are in London, do go and let me know what the play is like! :-) And don’t forget to check out this song about Dorian written by my friend Enda Mulloy and his band, The BibleCode Sundays…

Details of the play, including the venue and tickets, can be found here.

Grave of Oscar Wilde