One of my husband’s many siblings had a birthday party at the beach, where almost all my in-laws live, this week. I usually snap photos on the down low with a pocket camera but this time I brought one of my two Nikons and shot a full round of pictures.
Geoffrey got his brother a new chipper and I got him a coffee maker and coffee. We had a small difference of opinion as to what was the right gift this time, so we got both.
The last time the whole group got together, we discussed K-cups and how everyone who had become obsessed with those machines and plasticized coffee was now moving back to drinking the real thing, made in a more traditional way.
At our house, we never invested in one of those. For one thing, we like Peet’s coffee best of all the chain coffees available. I don’t think the others come even close. I know there are people who swear by Starbucks, but to me it is cut with Robusta beans, making the product harsh and usually bitter or acid. Even going to a Peet’s is for the courageous because all these coffee houses brew to super high temperatures. I once had to wait a full 45 minutes for a Starbucks Tall to cool off. After I ventured a timid sip, it was so intense that I tossed it. I wouldn’t have even tried it normally but I was stuck at a freeway rest area back East and that was the only stuff they had. That was my last Starbucks, over five years ago.
During our discussion, I reflected on my long off-again, on-again love affair with coffee and caffeine. Growing up, my parents drank instant coffee at home, I am sorry to report. They both worked and could get a brewed cup at their respective offices, and they didn’t drink coffee late at night, so that was all they kept in the house. I certainly didn’t care, as I was not allowed to drink it. Amelia, the woman who took care of me when I was young, drank Medaglia D’Oro, which is still an excellent choice if you can only get to a supermarket. But she made it in a percolator and it looked pretty frightening. The only way I got a chance to taste it was when Malo would spill some out onto a saucer from his cup, which was laced with grappa. My parents had no idea. Now that I reflect on it, I always thought it was a treat, but maybe he was trying to make me sleepy so I would take a nap, LOL!
As time went on, I had some additional positive experiences with non-American coffee. One was with my Puerto Rican boyfriend in high school. His family drank Bustelo, which I think you could get ground or instant at that time. It was far better than the dishwater instant my parents had, but it was dark and strong and I was not accustomed to having coffee anyway. When I started traveling (which, of course we did a lot as a family and with friends), I got a chance to drink Turkish coffee, French café filtre, Italian espresso, and Brazilian cafezinho.
Brazil is a major coffee exporter and they are all addicted to the stuff, which they serve at regular intervals, all day long, in little demitasse cups. The coffee itself is something akin to espresso, but thicker, like Turkish coffee and much smoother. They drink it black with gobs of sugar. To put a dairy product into a cup of coffee in Brazil would be akin to putting whipped cream on filet mignon here. It was the best coffee I had ever had and they make it everywhere in a really low-tech way:
the Brazilian coador or colador in Spanish, what my Puerto Rican boyfriend’s mother called, rather unappealingly, ‘the sock’. The first time she made coffee, I marveled at how great it was (compared to the swill at home, naturally) and asked her how it was done. I almost passed out when she said she poured it through a sock, picturing the not-too-fastidious kitchen and her casual approach to housekeeping in general. I was relieved when I saw what it was, even though it was probably not washed, let alone replaced for over a decade (or more).
When we lived in New York, we got into one of those obsessive phases — OK, truth be told, I got into it — where we bought the green beans in one place, took them to a roaster, had them custom cooked, then raced the beans home, froze the bulk of it and ground each morning’s batch, fresh. That got old real quick, just like our once nauseating experience with having fresh wheat grass juice delivered to our co-op every morning, after having failed to properly juice the stuff we tried growing ourselves out on our balcony. That was about the same time that I was buying fresh wheat berries and grinding my own whole wheat flour. Manhattan being what it is, all this was easily doable, for a price. I know for a fact that one can do this in Berkeley too — but why would we want to? It was a thing, at the time.
There is another reason that I never went in for modularized coffee. I hate flavoring added to coffee or tea, for that matter, with the exception of the bergamot put in Earl Grey and Lady Grey teas. It is just a personal fetish, but the addition of vanilla or hazelnut or maple or whatever, literally screams cheap coffee to me. If you know otherwise, I would love to hear it. To me it is the equivalent of masking low quality beer by adding salt.
The in-laws maintain that the only way to make a single cup of coffee is with one of those K-contraptions. No! We have a Cuisinart 12-cup machine that makes one or twelve cups with equal ease and consistency. But if we really want to get into it, honestly, the best way to make a single or dual cup of coffee is with that sock. Nothing could be easier and we keep a few on hand. I don’t like washing mine, and technically they should just be rinsed and reused. When we use them though, we just cut them up and put them in the compost and use a fresh one for the next occasion. When I open up a new one, I rinse it out with cold water to remove lint, then position the wet coador on the rim of the cup, spoon in the right amount of freshly ground coffee and pour the hot water (180F) through the material, letting it drip through naturally, slowly on its own. By wetting the flannel first, you eliminate a lot of the coffee liquid being absorbed and thus lost in the fabric. All of the coffee ends up in your cup. By the way, I always pour plain hot water into the cups first, and let them sit while I prepare the coffee, discarding it before I pour in the brewed liquid. By the time the water has dripped through the coador, the coffee has cooled to a slightly lower temperature so you never burn your mouth and throat.
My favorite coffee is Major Dickason, which has Sumatra beans in it, which are smooth but spicy — again, my preference.
But, most of the time we simply pre-program the Cuisinart the night before, put in the ground coffee, which we make ourselves once a week from the beans we get from Peet’s. We are up so early that stumbling around making coffee is not high on my list, even though it would be the purist thing to do.
By the way, burr grinders are the best. We got Geoff’s brother a Cuisinart grinder, but we have a Capresso and love it. The one thing you absolutely must do with a burr grinder is clean it between uses. If you grind all your beans once a week, cleaning it is not too much of a chore. If you don’t, the whole thing bogs down and makes an unspeakable mess. Once a month or so, we clean the coffee maker with hot water and vinegar. We have had our coffee maker and grinder for about ten years and they are still going strong.
There is a part of me that questions the need for a stimulant like coffee. I really don’t care for decaff. If you need a low caffeine product, try the ones they carry at Whole Foods. I used to drink naturally low-caffeine Allegro back in the day but I am not sure it is made the same way it once was, as Whole Foods has somewhat mainstreamed a lot of its now proprietary products.
While I may not have appreciated the mental boost that coffee imparts at one time in my life, I sure do now. And when I am feeling a bit down (which is almost never, thankfully), coffee is virtually medicinal. First of all, I really love it. Not so with any alcohol product and those of you who have followed this blog for some time also know that I am averse to most pharmaceuticals except in dire cases. So, having reviewed and researched coffee somewhat extensively in my typical Plutonian way, I have concluded that, net-net, it is safe and rather therapeutic. It is for me, anyway. I have a delicate princess-and-the-pea sort of constitution, so I have to be judicious about the strength and amount of coffee I drink. It definitely varies from day to day. Geoffrey could drink a whole pot with no adverse reactions but he really isn’t that much of a fan. He has one cup, I have two, typically and only in the morning.
In Brazil, they put an unrefined block sugar called rapadura in their coffee. It really isn’t easy to get in its original form (hard blocks) here, so brown sugar can be used instead, but it isn’t quite the same. Rapadura has a distinct density and clinginess that somehow thickens coffee. It is hard and dark, like a rock, but friable. If you can get it, or better yet, find a genuine Brazilian restaurant (honestly, there are very few around — most are just glorified barbecue joints serving schwarma , which they borrowed from the substantial Lebanese population there, called rodizio in Portuguese) and ask for a cafezinho (cah-feh-zeen-yo) with rapadura (if there are actual Brazilians running the place, believe me, they have it to drink themselves, even if it isn’t on the menu). They will probably fall over with surprise, but it will be worth it. And, for heaven sake, don’t go to a place that serves guava paste with cream cheese or worse, flan, and pretends those are Brazilian deserts. They aren’t!
I will tell you my take on tea in an upcoming post, but I think I have given you enough to swallow and will let you digest this first. 😀
Images: Beth Byrnes