Monday, 11 November 2013

Lavazza Coffee Calendar Launch & The Romanian Beggar Lady

I will eat hot food tonight she tells me.
It’s raining.  I am walking back to perhaps one of the most luxurious hotels I can remember staying in.  It’s the Palazzo Parigi in Milan.  Everyone is beautiful.  The waiters’ are beautiful.  The other journalists are beautiful. Everything is beautiful.

There is a Lamborghini in the shop window. I can smell coffee in the damp air.  I am going through the list of questions I want to ask Francesca Lavazza.  I want to find out if Lavazza treat the farmers who grow the beans that they use in their coffee fairly.  I am worried that they might not, partially because I have been drinking Lavazza coffee for years, and partially because I am a guest of Lavazza.  How will my journalistic integrity stand up if I find out that they are less than fair?  The PR team has assured me that they take the sustainability of their coffee and the welfare of the growers seriously.

My parents have been buying Lavazza coffee for years.  Of course we’d rarely buy it here in the UK.  The French supermarkets do a four pack and it was always cheaper to buy in bulk when the exchange rates was good.  We’d travel back home with a boot full of wine, coffee and stinking cheese.

I don’t feel as though I belong here despite bing half Italian. I am simply not beautiful enough. I haven’t had time to sort my roots out and I can see grey. My nails are embarrassing. I hold my hands in such a way so my nails don’t show at supper. I feel huge in comparison to all these tiny dark haired impeccably dressed women who look stunning.  I have to remind myself I am here to tell a story.

I approach the hotel and spot the concierge.  I must hurry, as I am late for the grand unveiling of the 2014 Lavazza calendar, with Ferran Adrià, a Spanish Catalan chef who was the head chef of the elBulli and is considered one of the best chefs in the world. The photographs  of Ferran Adria
Albert Adrià, Massimo Bottura, Michel Bras, Antonino Cannavacciuolo, Davide Oldani
and Carlo Cracco have been shot by renowned photographer, Martin Schoeller, and looking forward to seeing the calendar.  (It is a work of art and you can see the photos in Xanthe Clay's report here in The Telegraph. )

I’m about to walk up the steps when I spot a woman trying to shelter from the rain.  It’s more like a fine drizzle. I look into the marble foyer of the hotel and then back to the woman.  It’s a surreal moment because I am in that instant overwhelmed with a feeling of shame.

Who am I? Who am I to be the one to enjoy privilege? Who am I to worry about my grey roots showing? Who am I to be embarrassed by my hardworking gardening hands? I am absolutely ashamed that my concerns are so trivial.

I turn around and go over to the woman.  She is Romanian. Maria explains to me that her husband is dead, and her children are a long way from here.  I can’t understand much more, but I want to ask her if she’d like a coffee with me?  I ask her in my broken mix of French, Italian and smattering of Spanish.  The concierge isn’t smiling now.  He is almost scowling. 

I don’t blame him. It is his job to keep beggars away from the from of the hotel and if I ask this lady to come in I will most likely get him in trouble. Instead I ask Maria if she will allow me to take her photo. She stands with a sign and a smile.  I give her 20 Euros.  It’s all I have and she is delighted.  I will eat hot food tonight she tells me.

 I look into the marble foyer of the hotel and then back to the woman.  
I go back into the hotel feeling like a coward.

All though the presentation I think that I should have asked her in for a coffee.

The presentation is over.  It is beyond glamorous and I am given a generous slot to interview Francesca Lavazza. Lavazza was founded in 1895 in Turin by Luigi Lavazza and is still owned by the Lavazza family – it is now in its fourth generation and so I am to have the chance to ask Francesca Lavazza directly about their initiatives. I am amazed to find out the company employs over 4,000 people around the world. As we sit in a conference room with the translator see in Francesca pride in her Italian heritage, its premium quality and its mission is the authentic Italian coffee experience – but I want to know is that at the expense of the famers?

What does sustainability mean to Lavazza? I ask. Francesca is clearly used to answering this question. “For Lavazza, contributing to the sustainable development of coffee producing countries is a key commitment,” She tells me. “We have always been a responsible company and we really pay close attention to the human, environmental and cultural resources of the countries from which we source our coffee.  We are very proud to be associated with and working alongside the Rainforest Alliance to protect the future of our environment and industry.” It sounds rehearsed but it is good to hear that the company takes their ethical responsibility seriously.

 I have read about the collaboration with The Rainforest Alliance that Francesca tells me about the ¡Tierra! Project  launched in 2002 aimed at helping improve living conditions of coffee-growers in Peru, Colombia, India, Brazil, Honduras, and Tanzania. Lavazza have been improving things through the development of environmental, economic and social initiatives. Francesca goes on to explain that the aim of their initiatives is to improve the living conditions, social development and economic growth with in the farming communities.  It has been successful. The second phase, was launched in 2010 and involves India, Brazil and Tanzania. 

  Left  - Ferran Adrià, a Spanish Catalan chef who was the head chef of the elBulli 
Reading between the lines it seems that if the famers do well then Lavazza also does well.  It is, it seems, in their interest to look after the farmers.  The main drive is economically beneficial to all and by developing high-quality productions that are increasingly ecological and profitable, alongside new agricultural techniques and production tools the overall aim is greater competitiveness and independence, whilst looking after the environment. It does sound like corporate spiel, and although I want to believe every word I have some doubts about The Rain Forest Alliance.

The biggest difference between the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade seems to be the price paid for the coffee. The Fairtrade Foundation guarantees farmers a minimum price per pound of green coffee beans. This is generally quite a bit higher than the market price. The Fairtrade Foundation also pays an extra premium.  This social premium is to invest in community projects and yet the The Rainforest Alliance offers no minimum or guaranteed price.  When I was in Uganda I saw clearly that the policies of the Fairtrade foundation take into account all of the issues that the Rainforest Allience do.. so for me Fairtrade is simply fairer. Perhaps I am missing something?

 Bottom left Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana and right Martin Schoeller
Fancesca tells me that more schemes are being put into place and so far it seems that they have improved, simplified and made coffee production more efficient with all the initiatives.  They have built new homes, and infirmaries, schools, and micro projects for other crops have been established. Perhaps Lavazza provides this extra money and this is in place of the Fairtrade premium?   I ask but the answer is wooly, however Francesca is keen to convey that their corporate responsibility projects meet the needs of everyone involved. Lavazza excellence and sustainability go hand in hand.  I’d rather see it first had though than be sitting in a five star hotel talking about it.

I also am keen to find out more about Lavazza’s decaffeination process, having read so much about some of the processes and some somewhat dubious chemical practices used in the decaffeination process. Francesca explains that they use a water decaffeination process.  They own one of only two plants in Europe that use this method and I am delighted when I am invited to come and look at the factory in the spring.

Perhaps I will get the opportunity to meet some of the coffee farmers one day.

In the end the only thing I can do …  is try to resolve my feelings when I am faced with such inequality.  The world is simple not fair and the only way I can deal with this is through being more determined then ever to use my privilege to help others.  Its good to chat to Farncesca about the corporate responsibility program, but I’d like to see it for myself. 

The 2014 Lavazza Calendar can be viewed online here. 


  1. Lavazza is a very familiar brand here for coffee, both in the cafes and supermarket, I will be very interested to know how your future research of coffee farmers and Rainforest Alliance measures up.

  2. Hi Vanessa - just wanted to say thank you for your thought provoking posts. Your photos of Maria are very moving and I am glad that you were able to help ease her day. I have recently learnt that my great grandmother lived a similar life. Widowed very young she had to go out every day & look for work. If someone allowed her to scrub their floor my grandmother and her siblings ate dinner. If not the 5 children went hungry. In our lives today we cannot imagine such hardship and yet it is still all around us. Thank you for reminding us of this and for bringing the fight against inequality into our everyday shopping world.


If you are reading my blog I must warn you that I am not impartial. I want to influence you. I want to make you stop for just a moment and consider the effect of a lifetime of seemingly insignificant decisions and how making small delicious choices can change the world.

I believe that we can change the world one bite at a time.

It's a delicious revolution.