The monuments, embassies and ministries, revealed that Vientiane was the capital of a country; yet, it looked like a small town, with a center built in French colonial style. The wide streets and spacious, empty sidewalks with lots of tall green trees were a rarity in Southeast Asia. Close to the Mekong riverside, with its romantic sunsets, were excellent French and Italian restaurants.
The amazing local coffee and the baguettes were an additional bonus, a very welcome French legacy, especially after the forced semi-abstinence from those products in Thailand. Much before my visit, at the end of the 19th century, French settlers planted coffee in the volcanic ground of the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos – a place inhabited by the Laven people – and created a new industry in the country. Despite the high quality of the local product, both Arabica and Robusta varieties, the world ignored it, maybe as a result of low yields. For example, in the year two thousand the yield was just 13900 metric tons, and the local market consumed most of it. The small quantities exported always produced record prices independent of the international coffee market, a modest recognition of its high quality. In blind taste tests, the Laotian coffee usually earned first place, a result of optimal geographical conditions with a slow-paced organic growth, a subtle reminder of a charming local culture that still placed quality before quantity.
The morning market in Vientiane, one of the most impressive markets in Southeast Asia, was the best place to experience a cup of this coffee. South of Vientiane, the coffee quality was also high, but to its north or east, the quality deteriorated rapidly. Coffee beans in Laos were roasted to a very dark grade, which experts call "Italian Grade," however, without creating the bitterness that sometimes accompanies this long roasting process, another testimony of their quality.
A coal oven made of a conical bucket filled with concrete and containing an aeration hole in its bottom placed over a few layers of bricks was the basis for an evaporation vessel. The vessel was cylindrical, the diameter of the bucket, and two circular openings on its upper sides were partially obstructed by two kettles. Inside the kettles were filters made from a circular metallic frame, to which a conical cloth filter was attached. The diameter of the filter was about thirteen centimeters and the length of the cotton cone was fifteen centimeters when new, and about twice this size after some use. Around fifty grams of very coarsely ground coffee were added to the cloth filter. Hot, butthat was heated by the vapors from the vessel. Because the filter was immersed inside the coffee, the liquid experienced a prolonged cooking time. The length of this stage was inconsistent and it depended on the number of customers, the hour and other variables. Moreover, from time to time ground coffee was added to the filter, so any practical evaluation of the cooking time was impossible.
A long cooking time could result in mild acidity. Therefore, to enjoy the best coffee, it was preferable to approach the stalls early in the morning. The result of this complicated process was a very condensed coffee, which was the base for the preparation of several coffee drinks. The most popular was coffee with milk. To prepare it, around fifteen percent of the volume of a small glass was filled with condensed milk, then the cloth filter was placed over the glass and the condensed coffee was poured again over the filter and flowed down to the glass. Coffee filled around half of the volume and the cup was then filled with hot water from the vessel. The black-and-white drink was served, which was then mixed into an opaque dark brown liquid. The coffee was very dense and heavy-bodied. It reminded me very much of a chocolate drink. First time drinkers often remarked: "This is coffee-flavored chocolate." A colorful characteristic of the drink was the temporary blackening of the drinker’s teeth and tongue.
In those days, beyond the culinary delight, a favorable combination of a shortage of books in Vientiane bookstores together with a fierce competition for them between the two main ones provided a perfect opportunity for me. The two bookstores bought all my used books at excellent prices. Thus, I established a commercial line between the two capitals. An owner of a bookstore became a friend of mine. His English name was Sam and over a lunch at his large home, seven kilometers away from the town, he told about his past.
"Before the communist revolution, I served in the military police of the king’s army," he told me while holding a ball of sticky rice and contemplating the different dips in front of us. "I won an English competition and was sent for further studies in the US. After I returned, the communists took over and I was left without a job."
"I became a tuk-tuk driver when a bookstore owner gave him a daily task," he said between sips of his papaya juice. "I delivered English newspapers, especially the Bangkok Post, to the embassies and up-scale coffee shops around town. After a few years, I began working full time at the bookstore and much later, when the English owner hurriedly returned home, he offered me the shop."
I wondered how he could afford to buy the bookstore…
(Excerpt from Chapter 42. Losing Paradise)
The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.