This coffee segment on the Today show is incredibly difficult for me to watch. It’s an attempt by a serious barista to explain way too much in too little time to an unreceptive audience. I’m crying foul at both (all three, if you count the producers) sides on this one. I’m frustrated with the hosts for seemingly repeating every mindless societal trope about coffee, I’m cringing because I recognize Dan Humphries’ agitation at the hosts’ laziness, and I really wish producers would stop shoehorning segments into certain constructs without serious consideration.
If you want to know why I’m talking about producers, read this over at coffeed, where the consensus seems to be that this went well and Humphries gives his account of the goings on. I think it went poorly.
I should probably be happy that a chance for exposure exists like this, and that the practices I agree with were put forward, but I don’t think they ended up being shown is a positive light. The vibe I get is: “Hey, here’s this funny coffee obsessed man who wants to make your life more complicated!” Humphries is much too apologetic as well. When pressed about the use of automatic drip makers, instead of reluctantly admitting that they can be used, he should have said: “Yes, you can use them, but most don’t make the water hot enough. And this won’t break unless you drop it.” Even then there’s cognitive dissonance, as most people will think, “He must be wrong, I have one and my coffee is perfectly fine.”
I wish the camera hadn’t cut away from the hosts’ faces when they tasted the coffee, because the best stretch of conversation was just prior to that and it could have continued about the coffee instead of transitioning to the charred coffee on the table.
I was touring the Dalla Corte factory and Jens Thomsen, my guide for the morning, told me two things that suprised me: they cup espresso both with and without sugar, and THREE World Barista Championships have been won with Illy coffee. In retrospect they both make sense, and my surprise had to do with the narrowness of my experience in coffee. I’ll deal with the second thing in a subsequent post.
I have not seen any Italians drink their espresso straight here, and when I finally gave up and started putting a half spoonful of sugar in my coffees the flavors started to make a bit more sense. I am sure I couldn’t bear to dump a whole packet of sugar in my demitasse (which I frequently see happen), but with the added sugar the harshness disappears and the “coffee” flavor comes through. It tastes like slightly stale generic Brazil, and it’s pleasant.
So it makes sense that any decent espresso machine factory would cup the espresso that their machines make with sugar. Even if the coffee is intended to be consumed straight, perhaps a certain part of the coffee industry in the United States should stop clinging to the irrational assumption that people will suddenly stop adding sugar to their coffee.
Update: Here in Bologna (the first part of the post was written in Milan), the coffee is roasted much lighter, and is of a much higher quality. There’s less need to add sugar, but I still see it frequently added to all the coffee drinks. All coffees are served with water, and there’s cream on the side of the bar as well.
I finally made it to the Caffé degli Orefici here in Bologna, supposedly the home of the finest Bolognese espresso. I ordered a cappuccino, and from what I could tell about the base it was definitely the best I’ve had in Italy so far. The milk was at a nice temperature, too, which meant that I was able to polish it off quite rapidly.
The barista etched what I initially thought to be a face with giant eyes and a funny nose. I looked more closely, and it was actually a woman’s body from the bust down. And, I don’t know if this was intentional, but the pelvic area was, uh, realistically shaded.
The coffee is much better here in Bologna than it was in Milan. Two thoughts:
1) Milan had a massive influx of workers from the poor, southern areas of Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century. If they brought coffee tradition with them, it would account for the roasts being darker there.
2) The water here in Bologna is hard, which makes it difficult to over-extract coffee. I had an espresso today that should have been quite bitter, but was not. It ran blond for a looong time and was quite thin, but it lacked the harshness I was expecting.
A waiter at the restaurant I ate at when I arrived claimed that it’s the machines, but I had a good espresso off of a VBM here, and VBM is a Milanese company. The coffee is significantly lighter and the water has a higher mineral content.
I arrived in Bologna a few hours ago and have had two incredibly pleasing espressos since then.
*This goes for Madrid, Bergamo, and Milan, and might change when I get to Bologna.
The notion that Italian coffee is better has to be one of the biggest myths to ever reach my ears, and depressingly so. I made sure to come here with an open mind, to acknowledge that espresso here is not a specialty item but an everyday drink. I was ready to never be amazed but always to be pleased. I’m also aware of the fact that I often refuse to allow myself to be impressed. Alas, every time I go into a bar here I do so with the earnestness of a kid in an amusement park, and every time I take the first sip it’s like hearing that Kiddieland is being torn down.
The complete opposite was Madrid, where I found myself watching shots run blonde for eons while I restrained myself from jumping over the counter to stop them, and then being immensely pleased when I got around to the business of drinking those shots. [Aside: I am absolutely certain that Spaniards run their machines cooler in order to do this, as I can drink Spanish espresso much sooner than I can Italian espresso.] THAT was what I expected to find in Italy: drinkable, pleasant espresso.
I will not, however, be going back to order any cafe con leche or cortados. Would I like some scalded UHT milk dispensed from a giant vat with my coffee? Uh, no thanks.
I do not need coffee. I can function well without it, and I usually go for days at a time without drinking any. But when I want a cup for when I need to be awake or I just have a taste for coffee, it is not advisable to get in my way.
This is where we run into difficulties, dear Chambana, you and I. It’s Sunday. Nothing is open. Art Mart doesn’t fire up their
Linea La Spaziale until noon, and Paradiso is closed for “spring cleaning”. (Seriously, Paradiso, you didn’t think to do that during Spring Break?) No wi-fi at Dunkin Donuts. Forget Starbucks. I walked hopefully into the new Caribou but was assaulted by abrasively inoffensive County Market music (they share a space). So here I am at Pekara, eating a delicious Danish, and drinking something that tastes more like dirty airpot than coffee. I even had to dispense it myself. Listen, Chambana: you have Mahomet Aquifer Water. All you need to do is mix coffee and almost boiling water in a CLEAN vessel and let it sit for a few minutes and you get good coffee. But you apparently cannot even do that. We’re so over. At least until August. Then I try to fix this mess while scribbling about Pasolini and Agamben.