Over the years our coffee drinking habits have evolved. Back when most of America couldn’t spell Frappuccino, people drank coffee as an antidote to whatever damaging compounds they’d ingested the night before. Those fortunate enough to travel to Europe discovered another drink entirely. Coffee in Europe comes swathed in history, its rituals woven into local cultures. The choice of beans, methods of roasting, and skill in preparation make for fierce loyalties to bars and baristas alike. In America no such passions existed 20 years ago. Distinguishing Folger’s from Hills Bros. took more sensitivity than the average diner could muster – even if they cared to.
A decade ago, our morning routine was an entirely drip affair. Obliged by local Oregon hipster regulations we upgraded our ground coffee to one of several local roasters. (Stumptown was a favorite until it sold out to the man and its batch variations smoothed out.) No longer just a head-clearing jolt in the morning, coffee was becoming an indulgence to launch the workday. Filling the reusable gold metal filter and the water reservoir the night before meant that good, hot coffee was ready when the alarm went off. Yet 10 years ago Portland still lacked the rituals that Europe had honed over centuries. That didn’t last long.
An onslaught of enabled and privileged white yuppies accelerated the city’s gentrification and began the neologistical ring-fencing of what distinguishes appreciative coffee drinkers from true zealots. Moving beyond the old world and introducing the Nel Drip and Pour Over from Japan, lattes became biogenic art forms. As this infernal nonsense hit its peak, we boarded Aleta and headed to sea, our electric coffee maker unceremoniously abandoned to the Goodwill donation pile. In its stead we went full French press. Our first, a tempered glass affair, rolled over the fiddles in the galley and detonated. We quickly replaced it with an indestructible stainless-steel edition.
Earning our Stripes
We thought we’d find lots of good coffee in the Caribbean, but almost all the quality beans there are exported. The coffee that remains is indifferent in the way that Red Stripe is bland when compared with Ninkasi Total Domination IPA. Undaunted, we scoured the shelves of Carrefour in the French islands for potable alternatives, occasionally getting lucky.
Fast forward through a double dip pandemic and we now live in that epicenter of caffeinated passion – Italy. Espresso flows in the veins of every brown-blooded Italian. In an effort to blend in, we bought a Moka express coffee maker and later learned it doesn’t make espresso at all. Espresso requires 9 (±2) bar of hot (90 ±5◦C) water pressure applied for 30 (±5) seconds. A Moka pumps out a measly 1-2 bar, and besides there’s no way to get a hearty crema with one. The Moka’s design has one cultural touchstone, however. When ready, you have to pour its contents ceremoniously. Slowly and with intent. Pour too quickly and the narrow spout overflows and drips all over the countertop. A small reminder that life is best enjoyed unhurriedly, while you have time to take it in.
Coffee selection in Italian markets is limited. You choose between Illy, Lavazza, some bargain house brand, and perhaps an aspiring marketing one off. Very different from the dozen or so micro-roasters we had back home. That is until you learn where your local torrefattori (roasters) are. Like all the best foods in Italy, coffee roasting is a cottage industry at heart. Something that serves to further entrench regional biases. Think of victualling as supporting your local football team.
Such are the specifics of good espresso, the pressure, temperature and timing, that purists will refuse coffee in one restaurant and drive miles to another for an after-dinner pick-me-up. The best tazze are made by experienced baristas who know how to adjust the variables and extract the most from their beans.
Making coffee at home should not be compared with enjoying one in a café. It is simply a stopgap for those incapable of leaving the house long enough to plunk down a euro for the perfect shot. I confess, on slow winter mornings we make do with our meagre skills and wretched equipment safe in the knowledge great coffee is a few steps away.