Joseph Simcox Finds Seeds and Tradition in The Hills Of Italy

April 8, 2014 | 12:34 pm


Italy evokes a swell of emotions. The country is an endless immersion in passion. Wherever one goes, the bustle of life echoes the traditions of the past. Recently I had the good fortune to find myself back in the land of the “vita dolcé” (the good life). My first visit was to an alpine village in the Tyrol region. There a good friend of mine, Otto Werth, and his family, live in a house that Otto’s ancestors founded in 1638, it has been continuously inhabited for more than 350 years. Otto’s stone and timber chalet stands magnificently above a slope that winds its way several miles down until it arrives to the flat valley below. Planted on the slopes all around his home, Otto’s gardens are full of living traditions—old varieties that have been replanted for decades if not hundreds of years. One of these old heirlooms is what the family affectionately calls: Altrei Coffee. Altrei Coffee is also called Lupine café, it is made from the roasted seeds of a variety of lupine that is apparently only known to be grown in Altrei.

I myself was introduced to the unique story of Altrei Coffee by my friend Klaus Pistrick of the famous Gatersleben Seedbank in Germany. Many years ago on a cold winter day, I sat in Klaus’s office, the shelves stuffed with every imaginable botanical book. Klaus reached into a little jar and pulled out three seeds and told me to open my hand. As he placed the seeds in my hand, he winked and said these are more exciting than the beans that Jack-in-the-Beanstalk had. After hearing the story from him about this mysterious little known tradition of Altrei—that of making a coffee from lupines, I decided to track down someone who knew of the tradition and grew these seeds.

That was years ago, and I can still remember driving up to the village on that first visit. The Commune (the equivalent of the local mayor’s office) was my first stop. I showed them the three lupine seeds in my hand and asked them in Italian: “Che la possibilita che tu puo mi spiegare dove posso incontrare il signore che produce questi?” (Is there the possibility that you can tell me where I can find the person that produces these?) The office clerk, seemingly proud that some odd American had made it all the way to this little obscure remote village searching for “their” coffee, explained to me that a few hundred feet down the street, on the same side of the road, there is the house of a certain Mr. Otto. There you will find your coffee beans.

I dashed out the door and jumped into my car—excited that I had almost arrived. I eagerly ran up to the door and knocked, it was not long before a friendly looking woman came to the door. She must have been taken aback… In those days I had bleached white hair and looked like a rock star of some sort, I explained my mission, which was too precise to her circumstances to be contrived, and with that she invited me in. She said that her husband Otto was in the barn milking cows, “We produce most of our own food here, everything from milk, meat, eggs, chickens and fruit and vegetables and we even harvest wild mushrooms and berries in the woods.” she was proud of that.

When I asked about the café, she chuckled, “Yes, yes, we have that tradition too. It goes back before anyone remembers.” Finally Otto came in. He was obviously proud that a long family tradition was finally getting the attention that it deserved. “Now everyone wants to know about our coffee.” He said, “In the last two months, six people have come to my door. We are happy that people are interested because if they were not, this tradition could have died out. Now, because of all the publicity, we have six families once again growing the lupine. And I trust now that it will grow, as more people discover how good our coffee is!”

Altrei Coffee actually has nothing to do with the coffee bean we know. Altrei Coffee is a lupine that is found growing throughout the Mediterranean region. As far as I know, Altrei Coffee is the unique use of this seed for coffee. It may be that someone long ago discovered that it could be roasted and used for a drink. Whatever the case, Altrei Coffee is amazing. In the years since I first met Otto, I have returned several times. Each time I am rewarded by the family’s incredible hospitality and generosity. This time, Otto gives me a large bag of the seeds, and he asks me to share them with other gardeners so that the tradition will not be lost. Italy is made of traditions that are made by people, and as I think about that I ask, “Should the whole world not be that way?”

Joseph SimcoxComment