On coffee

I made an awful discovery this summer. My husband, the father of my children, the light of my life, the man I’ve been with for 24 years, Richard likes sock juice. Sock juice is my literal translation of the derogatory French term for what others – not culturally sensitive people like me, obviously – might call American coffee.
So here’s the story. I went on a fabulous three-week holiday with my family, composed of said husband and two daughters in the US. We had a wonderful time, I discovered many beautiful places on the East Coast and in New York State,  indulged in nostalgia on Amtrak, which was our preferred mode of transport when Richard and I crisscrossed the US as part of our honeymoon backpacking trip, fell in love again with Chicago, discovered more beautiful places along the road between Denver and Las Vegas and got a fresh dose of exhilarating New York. And I came away full of admiration for the great nation that offers as a matter of course fabulous launderettes with free wi-fi and, mark this, spotless toilets. Yes, in not one but two launderettes in Moab. Oh and amazing national parks and genuinely lovely friendliness and hospitality.Anyway, I’m not going to do my American Top Five Loves and Hates, because I’m not going to succumb to the current trend of boiling every thing down to highly subjective lists formatted to fit the ever shrinking attention span of the reading and surfing public. I’ve hinted at things I loved and I’m now going to focus on something I hated. Yes, I’m back on coffee.

Coffee – huh! Brownish water is what you get, gallons of it, and boiling hot. Plastic beakers, polystyrene ones, they were all too fragile to handle, being too full of the too hot beverage. I did call it coffee at first, because you see, I wasn’t prepared. My previous trip to the States had been 18 years ago and we were on a tight budget. And I was still drinking coffee with either milk or sugar in those days. And things can change in 18 years. And I’d forgotten, OK? I’d forgotten the unfulfilled promise of something that smells nearly right but is so drastically wrong when you finally risk burning your lips. I’d forgotten the marketing talent of people who try to convince you the stuff you are hoping to enjoy is extra-caff, robust or kick-ass (lies, lies, all lies). I’d forgotten there’s only so much you can expect from a machine that only pretends to be a coffee machine and that instead mixes a steady stream of boiling water with weedy squirts of something meant to contain caffeine.

I got grumpier and grumpier as a) I contemplated the awful possibility that there was no decent coffee to be had in the US at all, anywhere b) I realised that Richard got along just fine with the stuff available. He hotly denies that this frankly worrying trait is incompatible with normally drinking a famous brand of capsule coffee at home. This is also what I do, on the basis that it’s very nearly as good as an expresso of the served at-the-counter variety. The rest of the time, I deploy extreme cunning in making sure I make the office coffee (my boss shares my tastes, so she doesn’t get tactfully shooed away from coffee making tasks), but if I say to you the coffee is markedly better from the vending machine in the building I’m NOT in (huh, typical), you can tell the dire state of our ground coffee budget. Anyway, you’ll never get an expresso from a filter machine.…
Needless to say, I have discussed this problem with various people. Whereas the most common reaction is sympathy, I discover to my astonishment that a few other people, undeniably French ones included, are OK with jus de chaussettes. And I also heard a couple of times that coffee is better torrefied in Italy than France and therefore smother and generally nicer there. I have been to Italy several times and can’t say I noticed particularly, but that might be normal, because everything’s smoother and generally nicer in Italy. I will pay more attention to the coffee on my next trip, and not just sigh with contentment on Piazzo San Marco, taking in the lapping water, the glories of the winged lions and the dazzling mosaic clad basilica, the smartness of the waiters (then faint on seeing the bill for my cappuccino).

Wait, there is a happy ending to my coffee horror story set in the US (blast, I should have written this as a Halloween piece, I’m thinking evil witches brewing tasteless hot liquid stuff and jack-o-lanterns weeping light brown tears). I got to New York. And hit on a place that sold Decent Coffee. Ta  da! (Frantic googling proved this to be an Australian chain. When they say that Ozzies and Kiwis punch above the weight of their geostrategically challenged countries, they’re not kidding. Fancy opening a breakfast chain in the US! This one sold pies, an Australian speciality I’m afraid I’m not that fond of – the pastry’s not to my liking, generally – but this place is forgiven EVERYthing for having saved my life with caffeine-aided resuscitation techniques). The joy, the relief, the revelation! There is a God after all!  I had, led by my nose, completely abandoned my family who were wandering down Broadway in search of breakfast, to satisfy my own craving. When we caught up, Richard had thoughtfully bought me a bagel (“Wonderful, thanks.”) and a cup of – thing. A homeless person seemed pleased to take it off my hands. That very evening, a New Yorker who had every sympathy with my need pointed me to more caffeine heaven. Thanks Ann, the macchiato in Chelsea market was wonderful too.

Let me pre-emptively protect myself from potentially irate comments by saying that I’m fully aware I must have missed plenty of great coffee opportunities in X, Y and Z (I mean, c’mon, the whole of Chicago can’t be caffeine-challenged, can it?) All I can say is that I missed them, badly.


2 thoughts on “On coffee”

  1. Italy definitely does good coffee – and are quite disparaging (not unjustly) of French coffee. Also the coffee tends to be much cheaper than Paris, especially if you're prepared to drink it at the bar. The key trick in Italy (if you are speaking English) is to convince them you aren't American, or they will try to bring you the sock water. – Cafe Lungo is not an Americano mr. waiter!


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