Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Espresso yourself

Travel, so they say, broadens the mind. It can certainly be an education in more ways than one – and one of the subjects on which we finally got ourselves rather more educated this year was that of coffee.

It’s not that we didn’t like coffee, you understand. More that we have been suckered into over-complicating the subject.

I’d drunk black coffee on and off over the years – usually as a diet thing – it was only six years ago, when we visited France and Spain for the first time that I really appreciated it.

Well, to be accurate, it wasn’t so much a ‘black coffee’ – or a mug of coffee without any sugar or milk added – as it was an introduction to proper espresso.

I remember sitting in central Perpignan, outside a café and alongside the canal, drinking a cup that came with a small square of dark, dark chocolate – a superb double kick.

We returned from that trip with cups and saucers in a Gaudíesque design, determined to continue our new-found delight in espresso.

The old filter machine at home was leaking, which gave us a great opportunity to replace it. Thinking that serious coffee required serious investment, we bought a vast contraption that had deposited the fresh coffee into a large vacuum jug.

The advantage of this was that no further heat was applied, thus avoiding the coffee being stewed if you couldn’t get through four mugs in five minutes.

This, we thought, was being intelligent in the coffee stakes. Now admittedly neither of us have any knowledge about the correct temperature at which you brew coffee or any of the other technicalities that apparently exist.

I do know that you don’t pour boiling water on coffee and that rinsing the dregs down the sink is a good cleaner for the drain – but that’s the limit.

However, on top of that, we picked up an espresso maker. Apparently the smallest on the market, it was a heavy thing that looked like a miniature Imperial walker from Star Wars.

We used it a few times, but regardless of whether we ground our own beans or bought ready-ground ones, the results were never quite what we’d hoped for – from either machine.

Two years ago, on our first self-catering stay in Collioure, we encountered a cafetiere or French press for the first time.

We used the same one last year, when we returned to the same house.

This year, our different accommodation revealed that it seems to be a popular method of brewing coffee domestically in France. The owner had two – large and small. The small, we soon discovered, did us a nice two espresso cups each in a morning.

When we arrived, a previous guest had left the remains of a packet of Lavazza in the fridge – so we didn’t spot it until we’d already bought a packet.

But opting to use that up first, we quickly realised that the small French press required three heaped teaspoons of powder to get a good, strong brew.

Thus was coffee lesson number one learned: we’ve not been using enough beans/powder to made anything that doesn’t (to me at least) taste rather insipid and unimpressive. No wonder I’d rather gone off coffee.

Second lesson – you don’t need to grind your own beans to get decent coffee.

Third – you don’t need some overblown piece of kit to make decent coffee.

As it happens, the filter machine at home has been playing up – which may have had something to do with limescale.

And when we went to try the espresso machine, it refused to even open.

There seemed only one sensible move – and it wasn’t investing close to £2,000 in the most expensive piece of kit that John Lewis sells for making coffee, but going back to basics.

A French press will do just fine – and it even saves me a vast amount of valuable work surface in the kitchen!

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