Wednesday, April 3, 2013

C is for coffee - images of America

A slightly tongue in cheek reflection on coffee, vegemite and two countries.

Americans and Aussies might speak a similar language, but when it comes to these two basics of life, we seem to be poles apart.

Aussies are often partial to Vegemite, the thick brown goo I've heard referred to as "disgusting" by Americans. It's wonderful stuff! A magical reviver when life is stressful, a useful condiment for scrambled eggs, (recipe here), a handy addition to stews and a flavourful enhancer in assorted exotic dishes. A mere scraping, nay a waft of the knife across a piece of buttered toast simply doesn't do the trick. Thick and tasty is the way to go! If you don't believe me, try it sometime. Wonderful stuff!

The same applies to coffee. Insipid, virtually tasteless brownish dishwater is a pale imitation of the real thing. Whether made in a motel room in desperation, or purchased by the gallon from a prominent chain and presented with a flourish in a paper cups as if it was manna from heaven, this dilute, namby-pamby liquid barely raises the heartbeat. To call it coffee is an insult to the beans, so carefully grown and transported, then roasted by the container-load in what seems to be a forgotten warehouse in the backblocks of the never never. Then (sacrilege) ground into a dusty powder and marketed as if it was the real thing.

Goodness gracious me, what are they thinking to then add insult to injury and present multi packaged sachets of a substance that looks, for all intents and purposes, like powdered melamine. Was this a joke?

No, no, no, no and NO! Coffee, real coffee, is made with tender loving care. Each cup nurtured attentively, encouraged to give the best from the freshly ground beans - ground for each customer as they wait. Individual attention is the key. Fresh water must come only from the purest of sources. 

Some like it unadulterated and intense - just one shot with no additions for those weaned on it from childhood. 

Others prefer a milky brew, a cappuccino - fresh milk, not that long life or low fat stuff - whipped into a frenzy by hissing steam until it swirls and foams into a dense, almost solid mass. The froth to be enjoyed by the spoonful ideally topped with a delicate sprinkling of freshly grated dark chocolate flakes. Swoon!

The joy of walking past one, two, three or more closely spaced coffee shops, slowing, pausing, inhaling delicately. Are the beans fresh? are they well roasted? what brand are they using? (The generic no-name brands aren't even registered by the nose), then checking -  are they using full cream milk? Or horror of horrors, some (gasp) shameful substitute? 

Oh, the pleasure of watching a professional barrista at work! They take their job seriously, after all this is business, and keeping your finicky customers happy is as important as the banter and quality of the crockery and cutlery. No paper cups and plastic spoons to be seen. That would be the kiss of death in this coffee shop 'dog eat dog' world.

Can you see that croissant back there? Delightfully flaky pastry! Individually, the flakes would waft into the ether if you had the temerity to blow on the wonderful structure. Yet, in its entirety, dense, heavy and coated with a generous layer of icing sugar, lovingly dusted just prior to being served. Full of almonds and almond meal - half is a succulent feast!

Is it possible for our cultures to meet and agree over these essentials of life, or are we doomed to be forever speaking a different language? The old song goes something like "you say tomayto, I say tomahto" but the object being discussed is the same. But the product named coffee and purchased in the US as such, is, sadly, worlds apart, and an Aussie craving a cappuccino is bound to be disappointed and left longing for the real thing and not a sad, pale, insipid imitation...

BTW, for any Aussies visiting the west coast of the US and wanting to find accessible, drinkable coffee, Peet's isn't bad. They have outlets at Raley's supermarkets and the quality of the coffee, especially cappuccino, is closer to what we're used to than the more prominent chain. Don't get caught by assuming Maccas McCafe's are the same as here, they're not! Ours have adapted to local tastes and offer a wider variety of coffee and foods and generally have pretty good barristas. (I never thought I'd say something so supportive of Maccas - but give credit where it's due, they're good!)



Rosalind Adam said...

Well here in the UK we call it Marmite and a popular TV ad for it uses the strap line 'You either love it or hate it!' As for coffee, I'm sorry to say this but I've tried lots of the real stuff but I prefer that powder rubbish that you refer to, instant coffee. Sorry. Incidentally, I love Marmite on toast!

Rosalind Adam is Writing in the Rain

Sue Travers said...

Rosalind, I love the ad for Marmite (which I'll happily use when Vegemite isn't available!).

Instant coffee is different again - what they have in motels are sachets a bit like tea bags without the string and the hot water drips through the bag. The "endless cup of coffee" that you get in cafes is something like drip coffee that has been left on the heat pad and diluted, so that it's possible to drink large quantities without getting much caffein at all (if you can drink it at all that is!)

Keep warm!

Jan Morrison said...

This completely fits into a thesis I've been developing - no one likes the coffee of other countries. When a friend (formerly from England) and I traveled there some years back we could NOT find what we would call a decent cup of coffee until we got to Scotland. Man oh man - they seemed to have the technology but it just sucked. My guy and I just went to Cuba - the first day we asked for coffee the way we liked it - black. It tasted like old instant. The next day and for the rest of our time there we drank cafe con leche - it tasted good. Huh? At home we buy from a roaster we know and love - we buy organic, fair trade dark roasts and we grind it ourselves and use a plunge system. The only thing to do if we go somewhere for longer than a week is to take our own beans (ground) and a small plunger. Even then ... maybe it's the water? I worked with a group of Swedes who came over here (Nova Scotia) and they groused the whole time about our weak coffee. What is it????

Eve said...

Hey Sue! I usually can't stand any restaurant coffee..they tend to make it way too weak because they assume that the public doesn't like it strong. They don't want to offend anyone. The same goes for 'spicy' food in restaurants. It's got no bite at all and I hate it. Over here (Canada), we get the North Americanized version of every thing that is actually spicy and good in its country of origin. We don't have vegemite here, but I've heard of it. It's always described in the most nasty of terms!

Sue Travers said...

Hi Jan. You have a good thesis there! Although I have found excellent coffee in London and Shanghai. Although, on the whole one has to wonder what they do to make a lovely product undrinkable. I haven't acquired the taste for plunger coffee, so that doesn't work for me. I've never heard of cafe con leche - I must google that one.

Hi Eve. If you ever visit here, particularly in Melbourne, and the other capital cities, be wary of assuming restaurant coffee will be weak. Some places do double shots as standard and it can be strong enough to dissolve a spoon!
Vegemite nasty! No! You must have misunderstood ;-)

Liza said...

Well, I'll admit I had my first cappuccino in Australia and fell in love with it...I didn't even know what I was drinking. I ordered a white coffee, I think. That said, I think we've improved in our coffee consumption choices in the last ten years. I grind my own beans each morning and think I'm tasting a pretty flavorful brew. As for Vegemite, I haven't tried it. I've certainly had the chance...but one look and I back away. I'll have to muster up some courage one of these days. Pretty sure though, that most Aussies are horrified with the idea of peanut butter and jelly (jam). So, let's call it even? :)

Sue Travers said...

Liza, ordering a coffee in another country is a perplexing business isn't it! There's that awkward moment when you look at what is served and wonder what on earth it is.
I had to laugh, I've been eating peanut butter and jam since I was a child. I love it. But then I also add peanut butter to salad sandwiches which makes my children feel ill ;-)