Have you ever heard about the term ‘coffee pairing’?
Well, let’s extend it to ‘coffee & food pairing’. Are you familiar with that? As a coffee enthusiast you might have come across some pairings with chocolate or even cheese, have you?
Some specialty coffee shops out there are very keen about finding the perfect match when it comes to coffee and food; many do the usual pairing of sweet treats with coffee. Nothing beats that, right?
There’s one specialty coffee shop, though, that is taking this whole coffee pairing game to the next level. And that is the Scandinavian Embassy in Amsterdam.
When I learned about the Embassy and what they’re doing, I knew I had to not only visit their shop, but I also had to attend one of their exclusive pairing events.
This article is about their approach, when it comes to pairing coffee & food at their café in Amsterdam and why coffee is actually the new wine.
Cake & Coffee or how it all started
When thinking back to my early days in specialty coffee I remember a lot of try-tasting different coffees, training my sensory skills and experimenting with coffee pairings. The tattoo on the inside of my upper arm is actually referring to exactly that, combining certain coffees with certain flavors in food and vice versa. It shows a coffee flower surrounded by swirls that represent all these possible flavor combinations.
Since the very beginning of digging deeper into all those aromas and flavors in coffee, I was trying to find the perfect match, especially the ones of cake & coffee. I can’t help it, I’m this typical German having been grown up with a cake & coffee culture. Once I learned about the broad variety of flavor notes in coffee, I started to experiment with certain cake and cookie recipes and how they can be paired with certain coffees that I bought during my travels and brought back home as a souvenir for myself.
I shared some of my experiences and experiments on a tumblr blog melscakeandcoffee that is still up and running. Thinking back to all that try-tasting and posting about it on that very blog, actually shows that my first love in specialty coffee was and still is pairing coffee with food.
Next level coffee pairings: Scandinavian Embassy
THE trailblazers in Europe when it comes to coffee pairings are the guys & girls of Scandinavian Embassy in Amsterdam. Sociologist, master in sustainable enterprising and ex Drop Coffee Barista as well as Brewers Cup Champion of Sweden in 2013, Nicolas Castagno, the owner behind the Embassy, opened the café in 2013 with another passion of his – pairing coffee and food – in Amsterdam neighborhood De Pijp:
Nicolas: The coffee pairings idea is a main component of Scandinavian Embassy’s concept. After working in the coffee scene in Stockholm for some years and following what had been going on in the coffee industry worldwide since 2007 it was clear that we as an industry questioned restaurants for their poor coffee service but little was being done from our side to bring good food into the Café…
I’ve made similar experiences actually: Often times, when entering an expensive restaurant, I’d get great food and the best wines, but the coffee was just ‘meh’. On the other side, only a few years back specialty coffee shops and third wave cafés would serve great coffees, but either no food at all or just mediocre quality cakes, pastries or savory food that hadn’t been prepared in the shop / wasn’t homemade.
No offense, I’m not blaming shops for their approach of not having an own kitchen to do homemade stuff or not having the staff to do so. It was just my observation back then.
When visiting the US for my coffee related trip in summer 2016 I’ve had some very interesting conversations with shop owners over there telling me in order to being competitive on a mature local coffee market like in NYC for example, you gotta bring your own shop to the next level: By stepping up your food game in a way that can compete with the quality of a good restaurant. We all know coffee tastes great on its own already. But it’s even better when accompanied by the right food, homemade, locally grown, organic even.
Specialty Coffee & Food
The specialty coffee scene has learned a lot in recent years. There are many amazing shops serving delicious sweet and savory dishes now, not only in the US, but also in Europe. Some of them, like the cafe of Nicolas, are very much into all the flavors and aromas within coffee and can, when asked, give suggestions on what kind of food goes well with certain coffees.
I asked Nicolas about their very own approach, when it comes to food & coffee pairings:
Nicolas: We want to bring tasty and unique combinations together and add another dimension to a coffee that in itself might already be very interesting. The result of combining determined coffee with a specific food can be very wide and it is very fun to explore the results. Our goal is to raise the culinary status of pairing our coffees with foods or delicious pastries and also using coffee as an ingredient in our kitchen. Our food is inspired by the healthy Scandinavian cuisine using local, seasonal & traditional techniques.
The first time I’ve tried one of their outstanding combinations was by attending a seafood & coffee pairing 3-course meal during Amsterdam Coffee Festival in spring 2016. I still remember having been super excited to actually being part of that happening. For me it was their unique approach, this ‘never been done before’ experience that sparked my interest and that got me excited the whole time spent at the pairing event.
They not only served certain filter coffees and espresso with each course, they also used coffee or other parts of the coffee plant, like dried coffee cherries – cascara – or the coffee flower as an ingredient as well. What a tremendous culinary experience for my palate.
Oh, have I mentioned that they actually used fish and seafood for every single dish? Remember my question in the beginning? We can familiarize ourselves with coffee and chocolate or coffee and cheese, not to mention the – almost – boring combo of cake & coffee… But coffee and seafood?!? The Scandinavian Embassy folks are trailblazers for sure.
Scandinavian Embassy: The Café
For my first culinary experience with the Embassy I actually haven’t visited their shop in De Pijp, but a location right at the Amsterdam Coffee Festival site. For my recent trip to Amsterdam, World of Coffee in June 2018, visiting Scandinavian Embassy café was on top of my to go and to see bucket list. Of course, I had to try their coffee AND their food. And, of course, I had to ask for a suggestion on pairing both.
Nicolas: We usually let the customer choose a dish/pastry and we then recommend what we believe is the best pairing…
My visit at the café was a culinary success. The shop was packed with coffee people (from World of Coffee event taking place in the city), but my barista took the time to suggest a coffee, a juicy Bolivian Geisha Natural (Mel loves Naturals!), to go with my choice of breakfast that very morning, a homemade porridge with an elderberry & rose hip sauce.
But the Embassy has even topped that very experience on the exact same day at their pop-up shop close by with a coffee flower ice cream Affogato, where the coffee flowers had been infused in milk and cream over 12 hours.
When you’re passionate about coffee and food like Nicolas, you don’t just stop by simply pairing the two; you experiment with all the coffee plant has to offer and using it as an ingredient, like I already have experienced it for the private event with the 3-course menu during Amsterdam Coffee Festival.
Nicolas: For private events when the menu is set we might discuss with the customer what she/he expects and from there develop a proposal.
Wow! This is next-level dining and coffee culture.
For me as a specialty coffee fan and an open-minded Foodie pairing coffee with food, or even seafood, is a highlight that I love to experience! Attending a 3-course meal that isn’t served with wine, but with coffee, is my way of broadening my own horizon.
But what about all those coffee drinkers out there, that might have never actually heard about the term specialty coffee. Or that never actually learned about coffee being a fruit with tons of aromas and flavors – more than wine to be precise. Would they be open for this experimental approach?
Would they be open to have not wine recommended for their dinner, but coffee?
Nicolas: Coffee, as any other commodity – even if it is “specialty coffee” it is a commodity – has its own social rituals in place. In this sense, it has historically not been treated as wine has been treated. Coffee has a different story, it is a product coming from so-called “developing countries” and its role in society has been away from the “fine dining” spheres. These rituals are strong and to come in pretending that coffee has to be recognized as wine, or the barista as a sommelier is not an easy task. It will require years of development and depend on what happens with the coffee as a commodity in the global market… There are many variables that will determine the development of coffee. I believe that a focus on coffee as part of a more wide food scene is essential to rise the status of coffee and in general of the quality of coffee that is being drunk everywhere.
Attention, Foodies in Amsterdam!
Nicolas told me, they want to offer even more opportunities for their guests to experience coffee & food pairings at the café on a daily basis. Maybe my choice of porridge with the Bolivian filter is going to be part of a coffee & food-pairing menu real soon, then. It’s definitely a culinary experience worth trying!
Are you planning a coffee and / or foodie trip to Amsterdam? There’s no excuse of not stopping by Scandinavian Embassy and let yourself recommend one of their great coffee & food pairing options! So, make sure you’ll go there!