When you’re old, they say it doesn’t matter. Well, maybe it does. I mean, I have only so much time left, and events, such as the one I am about to describe, take a lot out of the time left. And what for? What did I learn? Nothing. Well, maybe yes; maybe I did learn something. But it’s a negative; a sombre lesson at a time when that is the last thing I need.
I love coffee. I am perhaps a coffee addict, although I have never studied the subject. I am certainly not a ‘coffee connoisseur’. I could never be the one in Brazil who’s rolling the beans in his hands, waving them gently in front of his nose, nodding knowingly to the bean farmer whose livelihood depends on that nod. I could let my full silver hair grow longer, get a barber qualified in trimming rich Brazilian beards to perform his bit. But I just don’t have the nose for it.
I need coffee, but I would never recognise the difference between Arabica, Robusta and Liberica. (Those Arabs get everywhere: horses, glass, nights, veils).
I enjoy coffee wherever I am. I cannot imagine a connoisseur in the same position. Consider some of these scenarios….
I grew up in England, but in a ‘Continental’ home. That meant that, in most public places, I’d drink warm/hot brown pee (and let me add at this time that I’m only focusing on the stuff that’s designed to be served warm/hot – none of the disguised stuff that has ‘iced’ in the title). To drink the pee black was a sign of masculinity. To add milk (usually after, unlike with tea) was a sign of capitulation, that you wanted the pee to have an acceptable taste.
If milk was available, you could even request seconds. (The British had a strange habit of, unlike with milk, sometimes serving the pee with warm milk. I have no explanation).
But at home, mostly only when Mum was home and available, we’d have ‘Häferl-kaffee’. That would be real ground coffee (as in ‘coffee beans ground in a machine, whether at the deli or, even fresher, at home with a coffee grinder’) prepared in an enamel pot. 1 spoonful for every cup and one for the pot. Cold water. Cook until boiling starts. Switch off immediately and wait a minute until the agitated grounds have settled, and the beautiful smooth steaming black liquid can be poured directly into the cup. No filter required. (See Turkish coffee for similarities).
Taste is a big factor. I get annoyed at the snobs who insist that something edible/drinkable can only be enjoyed the way they advise. Such as the French cook who said ‘My food does not need salt!’, turned on his heels and walked angrily back to his kitchen. So my Mum would enjoy the happy faces, sharing the coffee with, perhaps, Zwetchken-Kuchen, while adding milk and/or sugar to her wonderful coffee.
We travelled a lot in Europe. Suffice to say that Italian coffee is only good when served in tiny quantities, or beautifully machine-mixed with frothing hot milk. Any larger quantity of Italian coffee is called ‘Americano’, which says it all.
Austrians have coffee houses, where ultra-snobby waiters ‘patiently’ take your orders (e.g. ‘small black, large brown, ‘lengthened’, cream-coffee’ etc.) and then shout their order to the poor coffee machinist: ‘4 coffees’). I once invited an Italian couple to a Viennese coffee house where they naïvely ordered 2 espressos, actually hoping to receive 2 ‘ristrettos’. (I have to insert here what that is. Ristretto is an espresso, but with perhaps half the quantity of water. Result: 1. Half the quantity = a sip, perhaps similar to a sip of wine. 2. Stronger, perhaps smoother taste. 3. Difficult to believe, but slightly less caffeine, as it’s had less ‘extraction’ time). Nowhere outside Italy can you get an espresso with as little liquid as is served in Italy.
And you can certainly forget about a ristretto serving. Well….my friends smiled condescendingly at this. When there was a spare moment, I politely asked the waiter about this, pointing out that my friends were Italian. He haughtily huffed that “Here, you are in Austria”. He bowed arrogantly and went away.
For a decent coffee, however served, I’d be most relaxed in, of all countries, Germany. The Spanish coffee was like espresso, but usually more bitter. The French would be OK. A ‘single’ was slightly more than an espresso, but a little weaker. I’d enjoy it with a (fantastic French) croissant, but then I’d want the coffee to last a little longer, so I’d order ‘double-coffee’. A little weaker, but the beauty of the croissant would take care of that.
Let’s shift to the USA, a country which, like UK, had no idea of serving the real thing, but tried so hard to please. That meant reading a newspaper article about how they drink coffee in far-off places such as Italy, and then ‘doing it better’. And as we all know, better meant bigger. As far as I know, Starbucks banned the use of the word ‘small’ in their establishments. They had ‘Tall, Grande and Venti, and, I believe, now serve ‘Multi-straw’ by the bucket. (I could go on about Starbucks, but maybe it’s best to watch Jackie Mason’s rendition, if you can handle the Jewish humour – ‘Schmuck’ is the least offensive word he uses).
Coffee shop – in Holland it means a place where they actually do serve coffee, but it’s officially a place where pot can be bought and smoked legally. But in USA, it’s a place one step down from being a diner. When I lived in New York, that would be where I had breakfast every morning, and often lunch. The coffee? It would be ‘over there’, a glass jug keeping what was once coffee, hot. At busy times, it would be empty within minutes, which gave the liquid more chance to taste like coffee. But ‘over-boiled’ was OK, if you considered the other factors. Just like in Vienna, it was called a coffee place. Just like in Vienna, you’d automatically receive a glass of water. In Austria, that meant, traditionally, from a running tap of fresh water, served in a small glass with the coffee spoon atop.
In USA, it would be a larger glass, full of ice, topped up with water. In both countries, that water would be free. In both countries, it would be refilled. In Austria, only upon request, and not always willingly. In USA, the glass would be constantly topped up (from a jug of ice, topped up with water).
But back to the coffee. In Austria, a choice of many. In USA, it was ‘black’ or ‘white’ if served to ‘take away’, or just black, with the little milk jug provided for you to add to your heart’s content.
Re-order? In Austria, you’d first have to patiently wait to for even the waiter’s attention, and then go through the whole ordering and waiting procedure again. And for this you’d pay again. No quantity discount.
In USA, the server/waiter/waitress would top up your cup, even when you weren’t watching. And the charge? It was on the house. Free. Part of the service. (A little like the ‘home fries’ served with your eggs. Try getting ‘Ein Portion Kartoffel’ at no charge in Austria….).
Now watch Jackie Mason; the successful chutzpah of Starbucks and the like is more blatantly obvious.
Some of you already know my favourite espresso story. My brother and our 2 lovely wives were driving in a quieter part of Washington State. We stopped at a gas station and there, all on its own, was an ‘Espresso Kiosk’.
(Since the advent of Starbuck et al, the Americans have quaintly imagined that they now get it, that they now are a coffee nation, that they now understand coffee. And, for the wonderfully naïve Americans, a great majority of whom have never been overseas, that’s fine. That’s good enough for them). At that moment, a coffee was just what I wanted. And remember, I’m an addict, not a connoisseur. I went up to the kiosk and asked the pretty young lady for an espresso. (Can’t recall if I was ordering 1, 2, 3 or 4 – that’s not important to this story). She smiled and asked what flavour. I blurted, coffee-flavoured. She continued smiling. Oh, you mean original.
I looked up at the writing above the kiosk window, where there were other flavours listed: hazelnut, vanilla, almond etc. Well, why not, I asked myself. There are hundreds of teas, so why nor coffees? No skin off my nose.
I watched here preparing the coffee. There it was, an original Italian espresso machine. What was initially different was that she took a polystyrene cup. OK, I thought to myself. Disposable. American, Why not? No, it was the quantity that got me. Only in Italy was there a chance to get an espresso-serving. I was expecting the cup to be at east half full. (And not being the coffee connoisseur, was quite prepared to enjoy that). But not only did she serve ‘Italian’, it was a ristretto quantity!
There it was, way down at the bottom of this plastic cup. I opened a packet of brown sugar and carefully sprinkled a few granules into the steaming liquid. I took a plastic stirrer and made sure it was properly mixed. I then drank. It may not have been the quantity that I had excepted or even desired, but this was the best ristretto I’d ever had! And I told her so. Even added a quarter to the ‘Tip’ cup. I told her in my best ‘English/European/ Actor’s son’ voice, and I think I made her day…
Don’t worry. Not far to go – and my next geographical visit is the last stop: Israel.
3 basic categories here.
First is the straightforward one: the Arab coffee. This is basically the traditional Turkish coffee (referred to as ‘Greek’ in Greece). It’s prepared in the single-handled coffee pot, which we refer to as a fenjan. It’s almost boiled, then left to settle for a minute before serving (just like mother’s Häferl-kaffee), so that you pour mostly just liquid. Some say it should be brought almost to the boil 7 times, but no one really knows why that should improve anything. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just time-wasting. The Arabs usually like it to be served sweet. Watch out for that.
In Israel, thanks to the very large immigrant population from Central Europe, there are many excellent coffee houses. The first known name was Kapulsky in Tel Aviv’s Herzl street. The coffee was good, the choice was good, the atmosphere was…coffee-like. The culture of sitting, reading, chatting, meeting became strong and popular, so that when Starbucks tried to get in, in 2001. It took just 2 years for them to realise that it was not a viable business decision. There were claims about Arab pressure (as in the famous case of Pizzaland and Pepsi), but there was just no real need for US-style coffee.
Nothing dramatic about coffee houses here, except that, although they will understand the order for cappuccino, it is commonly called ‘afuch’ which means ‘upside -down’.
At home, you are offered 2 types of coffee: ‘Nes’ (short for Nescafé) or ‘Shachor’ (black). Nes is instant, which of course can be served with or without milk. Schachor is actually Turkish coffee. It is ground so fine that it is served in the same way as instant. And again, with or without milk. You might be asked if you want ‘Botz’ (mud), and that usually means Schachor with milk, which then has the colour of mud. ‘The ‘botz’ may also refer to the stuff that’s left at the bottom of the cup, but I don’t think so.
Me? If you ask me for my favourite, it’ll usually refer to the atmosphere rather than a taste. In the morning, I’ll usually have 2 cups. The first is ‘botz’. The 2nd is….don’t wash the mug, just add instant, and it’ll pick up a few dregs of the botz’s taste. I call it misch-café.
And why am I writing all this garbage? I have a big mug. Even when it’s half-full, it’s still a lot. Don’t ask me why, but this morning, I knocked my mug over, spilling the ‘mud’ everywhere: table, table mat, lap (jeans needed to be washed), white wall (needed strong detergent), tiled floor (mopping up, wiping, cleaning along the grouts), and feeling downright stupid.
It’s hot water, with one sweetener, from now on…