I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was in my middle forties. Oh, an occasional cup now and then, but I usually started my day with a cup of strong tea. My mom was a tea drinker. My dad drank coffee. All the time. At breakfast he made it in a small, dented and well-used single-cup aluminum drip thing to start off his day. Of course we kids weren’t allowed to drink either coffee OR tea but in the wintertime we would have a cup of hot cocoa. A big deal for us was that on our annual trip up to Boston we’d stop at a Chinese restaurant somewhere and we’d get to have a cup of tea then.
I think what turned me off on coffee was working at the family restaurant in the summers. We had the concession stand at Nauset Beach in Orleans out on the elbow of Cape Cod. It was a small place, counter service only but we pumped out an amazing volume of food there and were literally world-famous for our fried clams and onion rings. There was no Mc Doo Doo type of cooking…everything was cooked to order at the Snack Shack and during the lunch-hour rush when people were crowded eight and ten deep at the three counters nobody waited very long to receive their food. When my brother, Jeff, took over the business he was putting out a TON to a ton-and-a-half of onion rings across the counters every WEEK! Not fat greasy things, either but thin, with an almost tempura-like breading.
My dad would always have a styrofoam cup of coffee somewhere close at hand all day long. He took his coffee with cream and sugar and the most disgusting thing was he’d abandon it after taking a few sips and it had cooled down. You’d stumble across these half-filled, gag-inducing bombs of coffee with curdled cream all over the place. While I rarely drank coffee through my youth and early adult years I always believed that if it tasted half as good as the dry, roasted grounds smelled it might not be too bad.
My whole perspective regarding coffee changed when I landed the job as captain of Jolie Aire, an 85′ custom-made motor-sailer based in Antibes, France. The boat was located about where the small red X is:
When you left the harbor, which was surrounded by an ancient, huge stone wall, and entered the old town as you ascended the small hill, and shortly before you got to the fruit and veggie market, you came to Chez Charlie’s Pub, one of the three places, along with Le Rouf and the Blue Lady, that catered to the large expatriate community that crewed on the yachts in the harbor.
Charlie’s Pub, owned by an Austrian couple despite the name, was a long, narrow place and on the back wall behind the bar was an enormous espresso maker. One afternoon after the lunch crowd had scattered to continue their work day (and someday I’ll explain why I didn’t have to leave) I asked Jane, the barmaid who hailed from New Orleans and had lived only a few blocks away from where I did when I lived there) to make me a cup of espresso. It arrived in a small demitasse steaming and with a beautiful foamy crema topping. I added a tiny spoonful of sugar and with my first sip my whole life changed. THIS was what coffee was supposed to taste like! Not that insipid, watery brew that Americans call coffee. This was strong, robust, vivid, full of life. I was hooked.
For the next year my morning routine, unless it was raining or unusually cold, went as follows. I’d leave the boat and head into town. Immediately after passing through the wall and entering le vielle ville I’d hang a right onto the Boulevard d’Aquillon which paralleled the wall and stop in at the patisserie a few doors down. There I’d buy one or two pan chocolat, small chunks flaky croissant-dough heaven with two sticks of dark, tasty chocolate, warm, fragrant and melty inside. I’d reverse course upon leaving the shop and cross Rue Aubernon to the Tabac where I’d pick up either the International Herald Tribune or USA Today (it had the best recaps of the NFL games of the week). Then I’d go next door to the Bar du Port where I’d order a double espresso and then sit at one of the tables on the sidewalk to enjoy my coffee, pan chocolat and read my newspaper while watching the rest of the world scurry off to their daily grind.
I loved that, but the ritual changed when I started living with Florence, a tiny scrap of a girl who hailed from Dunkerque. Then my morning routine changed to breakfast on board and the coffee was made with a French Press.
These are about the simplest coffee makers ever devised, and if you’re not familiar with them there’s something seriously lacking in your social development. All you do is put coffee grounds into the pitcher, fill it with boiling water, wait five minutes or so and press on the plunger forcing the grounds to the bottom of the unit and pour. Many coffee aficionados swear that the French press is absolutely the best method for making the perfect cup of coffee, and I used one for years.
Of course a good cup of coffee is only as good as the grounds you use to make it. In my travels I have to say that while the coffee in France and Italy was excellent Spain had the most consistently delicious coffee anywhere. At the opposite end of the spectrum Guatemala has the worst. You wouldn’t think so since it is a major exporter of coffee beans, but because it’s a very poor country all the good stuff is sold elsewhere and only the dregs are left for local consumption.
Here in the States I’ve used several different methods to brew my morning cup of coffee. The French press, of course, but also those three-part Italian espresso machines you put on the stove. The ones where you put the water in the bottom, the grounds in a small funnel and then screw on the top. As the water comes to a boil the pressure builds up forcing the water through the grounds and into the top of the machine. For some reason the flavor is entirely different than the coffee you get from the press even though you might be using grounds from the same can of coffee. I’ve tried lots of different coffees. Starbucks beans freshly ground each morning, Illy, Bustelo and many, many others but I like Medaglia d’Oro best of all.
But the one thing lacking when using either the press or the Italian pot is that rich crema that only comes from a good pressure espresso maker that deposits the steaming brew directly into the cup. Crema to a cup of espresso is like the foamy head of a freshly drawn mug of beer. It is the essence of the brew. And one way of telling you’ve got good crema is when you add sugar to the cup. The sugar floats serenely on top for a few moments before settling into liquid below. Ahhhhh! Superb. A couple of years ago, when I actually had spare change rattling around in my bank account I bought a Krups espresso machine and I’d almost give up my internet connection before I’d give up my Krups. Almost but not quite. I’d go back to the press.
I’ll soon be living full-time in Panama and I have to say what I’ve had there is pretty damned good coffee for an American-style cup but I’ve been disappointed with the espressos I’ve ordered in restaurants. I won’t be dragging a lot of stuff with me when I make the move. A few clothes, my notebook computers (I have two), a couple of books (The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, the Panama Cruising Guide and my Moon’s Guide to Panama are about it), my Cirque de Soliel DVDs. One thing that I will definitely have, though, will be my trusty Krups espresso machine so I can, like this morning, sit at my desk with a fragrant and steaming cup of espresso to sip while browsing through the internet.