This post was inspired by a remark in a post by the esteemed Dr. SPO who many know for his Reflections at https://sporeflections.wordpress.com
I am trying to remember my first encounter with the terrible brown water stuff which passed for coffee in most government offices in Ottawa, the Capital of this fair Dominion. Back then coffee came from a machine or a communal pot which was never washed and the coffee was provided by a company serving chemically enhanced so called flavoured coffee. Most Civil Servants back then, this was pre-Tim Hortons Days or Starbucks in Canada, would drink about 25 cups on average per day. It was pretty vile but hey this is Ottawa what did you expect. There was also an honour system, you were suppose to pay the equivalent of $1.00 per week for the coffee you drank to help the fund to purchase more of that swill from the Coffee Company. Of course people forgot to pay or did not pay and eventually all these coffee service were discontinued. Then people had to go to the cafeteria in the mall attached to most government buildings in our fair Capital to get there 10 o’clock fix of buttered toast or grill cheese with a pepsi, but that is another story.
At the Foreign Ministry then known as External Affairs, because Canada as a Dominion of the Empire could not have foreign relations with Britain, we called our Foreign Ministry, External Affairs and we had an Under-Secretary not a Deputy Minister like other government departments, it was all very genteel, a bit like the Old South with people with names like Beauregard Pickett Burnside, I kid you not External Affairs was, no longer is, that sort of a place. In the Cafeteria at External you could get Salada Tea or American style coffee, but since a lot of the staff had been to countries where they knew what coffee was there was a better understanding of coffee culture, especially amongst the Central Asia, African and Arabist specialists.
So my posting to Cairo in 1989 brought me in contact with the making of good coffee. Prior to that my father who was an espresso drinker had a small Bialetti coffee maker at home and he bought small quantities of freshly ground coffee at the time I believe it was Medaglia d’Oro the one imported brand.
In Cairo, Coffee shops are common and good coffee everywhere, it is an art which I learned. In most Coffee shops one employee was responsible all day long to tending the oven where the red hot coals heated a bed of sand on which the little copper containers would quickly bring to a boil a perfect cup of coffee this is a matter of 60 seconds, the attendant really had to keep an eye on it, otherwise the coffee would boil over and be ruined. A demitasse of sweet coffee cost about a nickel. I also had to learn how to order the coffee, did you want it heavy on the sugar, or medium (Masboot) or no sugar. Also you had to indicate if you wanted the coffee black or with a face (foam) in Arabic that would be bellweesch. The fact that I could order a coffee in Arabic, asking for it to be Masboot, bellweesch put me ahead of the foreign crowd. This is how I got my title of Pasha.
Coffee in the Arab world has mud (coffee sediment) at the bottom of your demitasse. So you must be careful when drinking it in two sips to go slowly. A small glass of water is always brought just in case on a silver tray.
In Jordan when I would be sent to the Royal Palace or to the Protocol Office on some business, the tradition of the Bedouins is to serve coffee as you arrive, it is the very first thing given to you, even before a conversation can take place. A small white porcelain cup is given to you by an attendant whose job is to pour the hot fresh coffee all day to visitors. He will pour the first cup, he will stand there, nothing said, your host will address you but not the attendant, it is all very formal, the minute you finish the first small cup, a second and a third and a fourth and so on will be automatically poured for you. You must absolutely drink it, however if, after the first cup you want no more, you simply shake your cup gently sideways and the attendant will thank you and disappear. The coffee is not sugared and very strong, flavoured with a Cardamon seed. You must drink the first cup offered, with the Bedouins everything is Honour and it would be highly insulting to refuse to drink at least the first cup offered. Sorry saying you don’t feel like it or don’t want it or are allergic to it, will simply not do, it would be the height of stupidity.
Not my picture, here we see a soldier of the Arab Army at the Royal Palace in Amman serving coffee to the Personal Guard of the King, the Circassians. They are from a region near of the Caucasus, North of the Georgian Republic and Chechnia in Russia. They migrated to the Levant after being persecuted as Muslims by Orthodox Christians. Coffee making and serving is a man’s job in the Arab world.
It is made in the same fashion as the coffee in Cairo but served from a big bronze coffee urn so you do not get the mud. Coffee in Arabic Culture has almost magical qualities and is identified with the most ancient traditions of the Arab World, certainly pre-Islamic. The coffee beans come from Ethiopia and the connection with the Arab peninsula is thousands of years old. Tea on the other hand is not so ancient a tradition and is usually served in a small glass cup half filled with sugar.
Here a Jordanian Bedouin making coffee on hot sand.
On the other hand, coffee in Poland was atrocious, a joke, unbelievably bad. Coffee is mentioned in Polish literature, think of the great poem Pan Tadeusz by the fame author Adam Mickiewicz, it is mentioned in a such a way as to attract laughter. In fact you could drink Vodka at any time for any occasions, so potato vodka was the drink.
In China, coffee was Starbucks, there is no coffee culture and it is virtually unknown, except as an American product. I could see Chinese Hipsters, mostly children of the high Communist Officials going in and ordering a ”grande” Espresso, makes for jumpy Chinese.
In Greece, coffee is in fact Turkish and served in the same fashion as in Turkey or in any Arabic country, but do not tell the Greeks that. Coffee was quite good.
Now as for coffee in Italy, this is where the taste for a good cup of coffee comes into North American culture with the immigration of poor Italians since 1870. They brought with them their traditions. However commercialism and food chains developed a cheap American style coffee which is poured in every dinner as dirty brown water. That anyone drinks this stuff is beyond me, it is tasteless and often burnt.
In Italy we were spoiled, an Espresso which is a coffee or the way coffee was meant to be drunk is served in a porcelain demitasse. Prepared by a barista in 30 seconds flat and no they do not need your name. Usually if you go to the same Coffee shop every day, they will know who you are, were you work, what is your station in life and address you with the title Doctore or Professore if you are an academic. There is none of the contempt in the voice of the staff as he struggles to make one coffee at any outlet you see here.
At home you can make good coffee, it is very simple, I would advise not to buy large quantities of beans in a bag even if it is resealable. Coffee beans loose their flavour and taste quickly usually within 10 days. So if you buy a lot of coffee beans you have to grind and drink up quickly before it goes stale.
I usually buy a small quantity of ground coffee, caffeinated and decaffeinated, in a vacuumed packet of 8.8 oz or 250 gr. I usually use it up within 6 days. I like Lavazza brand imported from Torino, Italy. I get the Qualità Rossa which is rich and full bodied, medium roasting.
You can also get the light or dark. This makes Espresso coffee or you can use the French Press method. I keep the open package in a sealed can. I would not buy coffee beans because keeping them is more complicated. Some people keep their coffee beans in the freezer which only destroys the taste of the bean. Keeping coffee you need a dry cool place in your kitchen. Supermarkets will sell coffee beans and will also have a machine to grind your coffee and then put it into a paper bag. But you do not know how long the Supermarket has had those beans, given the quantity they sell per week or month, they could easily be stocking coffee beans for weeks in all manner of conditions, meaning when you buy it your beans are probably already stale.
To make the coffee I have been using for years the Moka Machine invented by Alfonso Bialetti.
Who would have thought that this classic piece of Italian design was inspired by a washing machine?
The story of the stove-top espresso maker begins in 1918 when Alfonso Bialetti, returned home to Italy from France, where he had been working in the aluminium industry for 10 years, and set up a workshop making metal household goods.
Near his factory in Piedmont, Bialetti watched women washing their clothes in a sealed boiler with a small central pipe. The pipe drew the soapy water from the bottom of the boiler and spread it over the wet laundry. Bialetti decided to try and adapt this idea to make a coffee machine that would allow Italians to have real espresso in their homes.
The old domestic coffee machines allowed the hot water to drip gently over the coffee grounds to produce a weaker version of the real thing. But during this period various inventors had begun to experiment with steam in an attempt to emulate the strong and intense flavours of the espresso found in the public coffee houses.
Bialetti set to work using aluminium. Mussolini had imposed an embargo on stainless steel and as Italy had a rich supply of the aluminium ore bauxite and it became the national metal.
Signor Bialetti finally invented the Moka Express in 1933. Its distinctive shape was based on a silver coffee service that was popular in wealthy Italian homes at the time and hasn’t changed since. He said that without requiring any ability whatsoever, one could enjoy an espresso in casa come al bar – in other words coffee as good as you could buy in the caffè.”
At first, the Moka Express was sold at local markets and it was not until after 1945, when Bialetti’s son Renato joined, that sales took off after an advertising campaign using l’omino con i baffi (“the little man with the moustache”), a caricature loosely based on Alfonso Bialetti.
The design has hardly changed since and aluminium is still used.
The residue of coffee from previous brews taints the side of the Moka pot and adds flavour and depth. That’s why it is also recommended that you don’t clean it too thoroughly.