With mistakes made over the breakfast buffet, terrible haunting mistakes that no amount of showers could erase, day two began in earnest with our first outing on St Petersburg’s incredibly well run and well maintained underground rail (think well preserved Art-Deco), followed by a 10 minute walk through a bleak and treacherous frozen park to reach our venue, a striking Soviet era Ice-Hockey stadium, the Peterburgskiy Sportivno-Koncertniy Kompleks (PSKK). Inside we found a grim, almost desolate HORECA trade show in which we would spend nearly all of the daylight hours of the next three days. The highlight of the show floor, apart from candy apples available to purchase from a little cart, was a stand devoted to the Big Green Egg – a combination charcoal grill/smoker. Most stands, of which there were scant few anyway, were either occupied by a solitary person in a chair, accompanied by some leaflets, or not occupied at all.
When the proceedings eventually kicked off we got a nicely presented talk from Andrew Hetzel on current C price trends, and a double header on coffee processing and defects from Alexander Tsibaev, though not unfortunately the “planned” (and for me eagerly anticipated) defect cupping. After lunch we tasted and rated six different coffees (make note – 6 coffees / 7 teams), in order to ascertain which green to choose for roasting and presenting with our allotted brewing method (Aeropress). The pretend auction for the coffee was somewhat interrupted by the realisation that 7 teams and 18 bags of coffee (3 bags of each of the 6) did not permit an equal distribution of 3 bags per team. With another 3 bags of something hastily thrown into the mix, we could proceed. That was in essence day two, content-wise pretty good, though in truth, it could have easily been fit in before lunch, instead of enduring long periods of waiting amidst the depressed exhibitors, and earning the chagrin of the security staff as we went over time. Along with the abandoned defect cupping, an introduction to the roaster we were to use the following day was also lost without so much as a whimper.
As it was we had short time to make the journey back to our hotel, before having to turn around to go out for dinner, a “banquet” across town. We proceeded on a long train journey followed by a couple of miles walking around the dark, frozen St Petersburg streets (this was the night of Mr Sherwood’s undoing as I recall). The banquet turned out to be a buffet, with the few seats available long since taken by the time we arrived. Reluctant to make the snowy trek and train negotiation on the return, we instead ordered a taxi. Interestingly on the taxi ride home we passed by some of the beautiful St Petersburg buildings that we had heard of, this was our first glimpse.
Happily we did not immediately have to make our way to the PSKK as day three kicked off. Instead with the aid of our terrific guide Nick, we made our way to a St Petersburg cafe – Cafe Ideal Cup, part of a chain of coffee shops. We spent two hours making coffee there, trying to earn tips for charity. This was the highlight of the trip, the staff were friendly and enthusiastic, the customers admittedly took to our presence somewhere between curious bemusement and gruff annoyance, though more often the former. For instance instead of the 100ml 40/50s double espresso they were used to (and is apparently normal in Russia) we served a 60ml – 30s version – as a compromise with some water on the side to replace the missing volume. Karl gave the staff an impromptu latte art lesson, myself and Nick sat down for a Brewmaster “lite” in the second hour when Julie and Vicky replaced us behind bar.
Our experience on this task was entirely satisfactory, and left us all in high spirits. The task perhaps achieved in a small way a portion of all the promise the ETCC once held. In another part of town, however, the Finnish team met with a less enthusiastic reception, got a mere 45 minutes in the “Coffee Museum” in which time a total of one customer passed through the door. This alone, essentially their inability to score points on this round (completely outside of their own control) could have been enough to prevent a team from winning the competition. It felt a little like rolling the dice…
We returned to the PSKK for the afternoon roasting session, which seemed to progress relatively smoothly. Due to our tardiness returning from Cafe Ideal Cup to the venue, our slot was moved to the end, and we had just 20 minutes (instead of an hour) on an unfamiliar roaster, none of us possessing much knowledge on roasting. While we waited for the other teams to finish, I pulled out a bag of Square Mile Colonia San Juan 8 Estrellas that I had brought with me. The immediate crowd of eager tasters that emerged spoke to both the enthusiasm and desire within the community to learn, progress, taste, become part of the global coffee community, but also to the difficulties in getting stuff into Russia, in how isolated it seems they still remain. With the security guards gathering around us for eviction, and lights being shut off to speed our exit we somewhat fortuitously happened upon a reasonably ok roast of our “washed Nicaraguan”, certainly drinkable in the end, a touch darker than perhaps we would have ideally chosen. We exited the PSKK still cooling the coffee as we went.
In the hurry we all forgot there was supposed to be an appointment with a graphic designer to create a nifty package design for our coffee. This, like so much else, vanished without so much as a mention.
That evening we were scheduled to cook a dish of our own invention to a panel of judges. One that had something to do with our national cuisine, to tie in with our coffee, and possibly using crab (apparently there was a crabfest in St Petersburg – not that we saw any crab). The venue for this was once more significantly geographically isolated from either the event hall or our hotel. Between train journeys and walking it took about 90 minutes to reach.
Once there, a small kitchen / canteen located inside a Cash & Carry in the middle of nowhere, we quickly discovered firstly that our ingredients (a list of which we were asked to provide before leaving for Russia) were nowhere to be seen (apart from a huge slab of smoked salmon we purchased in Dublin airport and carried with us). Instead we assumed, eyeing the random assortment of ingredients laid out, there would be some kind of invention test, alá Ready-Steady-Cook. As it turned out we were not permitted to deviate significantly from what the “chef” of the kitchen had in mind for us to cook. We were essentially tasked with cooking our own dinner, each team getting a different course. That there were only 6 dishes and 7 teams didn’t seem to matter. The Finns sat this one out. Which was no great loss to them as we would learn the next day looking at the scoreboard, this “event” was nowhere to be seen.
We needed another taxi back to the hotel at the earliest possible opportunity, finding one and reluctant to wait in that hinterland for a second vehicle, we bribed the driver to take the five of us. The prospect of possible death or dismemberment in an overcrowded Lada seemed like a risk worth taking at that moment. Face pressed up against the window I once again got to gaze in awe at some of St Petersburg’s beautiful landmarks en route to our hotel. I wagered with myself that they would look even better during the day and from a stationary vantage point.
To be continued…