This is a guest article by Peter van Diest, a Dutch tea drinker who recently discovered espresso
All my life, well, as long as I can remember anyhow, I have been a tea person. And a "tea with a generous splash of milk" person at that. Oh, and sugar please. Two lumps minimum.
Although I vaguely remember a period when I loathed the stuff that was put before me (this was when I was in hospital with a broken leg as a three year old (hence ‘vaguely’) and it has ever since been my opinion that serving hospital tea should be acknowledged internationally as a criminal offence), I cannot picture a day in my life without a cup of tea. Especially so since I discovered Darjeeling tea. Yeah, yeah, go ahead and be pedantic and point out it wasn't me who discovered Darjeeling tea. I'm a pedant myself so I guess I had that one coming.
Anyway, where is this story going, you ask? Well, I'll tell you. It's going to Italy. Because that's where I went myself a few years ago and that's where I finally did it for the first time. With my girl friend, on a sunny terrace on the waterfront. What do you mean, 'Gosh, weren't people shocked?' What's so appalling about drinking a cappuccino in public that people have to be shocked about it? Oh, I see, you thought... well, let's not go into that, shall we?
Where were we? Oh yes, on the waterfront, with a frothy beverage. Let me tell you, if anything was an eye opener that day, that first cappuccino experience was. I mean, everyone knows coffee wakes you up, don't they? But to wake up for the first time after some thirty-five years ... really! What planet had I been on all my life? And I hadn't even tried espresso yet! Talk about an eye opener. A skull-splitter more like. And coming from a person who has taken good care all his life to avoid cranial separation, that is quite a statement to make.
Needless to say there's an espresso machine in my kitchen now and, stomach problems notwithstanding, I've drunk espresso that would have put industrial strength oil tanker hull cleaning fluid to shame vis-à-vis its invigorating effects. 'Industrial strength?' I hear you ask. 'Is there any other variety?' Well, to be perfectly honest, I'm not aware of the existence of household oil tanker hull cleaning fluid, but you'll have to agree that, existing or otherwise, it makes for a nice joke.
Anyway, regardless of strength, all that coffee has made me none the worse for it, I think it is safe to say, although my girl friend might not entirely agree, because my already widely renowned nocturnal wakefulness has now assumed mythical proportions. Which doesn't help in any way to increase my productivity, by the way. Unless of course you count being able to read ever more books and dabbling with my computer until very late at night as productive. (I am a geek in more ways than one, you see.)
Anyway, the coffee machine was a birthday present from my girl friend so she can partly blame herself for my nightly absences, I guess. (Now, I know that’s not entirely fair. Sorry dear.)
This machine of mine is half-automatic, meaning it doesn't grind any beans but takes spoonfuls of ground coffee powder as raw material. Which is fine by me, because most fully automatic coffee machines, at least those that can be labeled 'affordable' in any meaningful sense of the word, have a reservoir for beans and sometimes one for ground coffee, which means that you only have the choice between at most two kinds of coffee, unless you are willing to scoop out the beans each time you want coffee of a different kind.
Of course, you could also put in just enough beans for one cup of coffee, but that would be a case of seriously missing the point of having a fully automatic coffee machine in the first place, wouldn't it? Besides, there comes a moment when the usefulness of the word 'geek' wears out and other more accurately descriptive words become necessary. This would be that moment. No, give me my half-automatic machine any day, just so that with each new cup, I can try out new flavours, different strengths, diverse grindings and every other knob you can tweak in the making of coffee. Just ladle in your coffee powder, close your lid and flip your switch. The machine then builds up a hefty 15 bars of pressure, converts it to roughly 220 pounds per square inch at no extra cost, combines it with water of a temperature I haven't yet been able to ascertain and subjects the coffee to a treatment so cruel that it would have the Spanish Inquisition turn green with envy, kicking themselves in the head for not thinking of it. The coffee, after a brave but short struggle, gives in and admits the crime of not being a Catholic invention, spilling all the secrets of its black magic in one long dark liquid confession, right down to the last sobbing drop of crema.
When I mentioned those 15 bars of pressure just now, I also qualified them as 'hefty', didn't I? Well, the reason I did that will become apparent when I tell you that not only coffee gives in under those circumstances, but so do coffee machines once in a while. Mine did, anyway. And I'd only had it for a month or so. One moment I had a coffee machine; the next moment I had a coffee machine and two tiny but essential bits of metal. Well, actually, in themselves these bits of metal weren't essential at all.
What was essential was that they should have stayed part of the larger structure rather than embark on an existence of their own. But now that they had, the next essential thing was to have the machine restored to its original state which involved returning it to the shop whence it came. Fortunately, the people there, being geeks extraordinaire themselves, knew that there was an even more pressing (oh crikey, I see a pun lurking in there somewhere) matter to be attended to. Namely, the fact that it would take at least two and more probably four weeks, allowing for Christmas and New Year and all, before I'd have it back, and that in the mean time I would not be able to make espresso.
To prevent the suffering this would undoubtedly cause, they proposed I'd take with me their Emergency Replacement Espresso Machine. Not having seen the damn thing I happily agreed, because the prospect of an espressoless month was altogether unappealing. In retrospect however, there are a few reasons why I might possibly have declined the offer to have this particular machine on loan and why I would certainly never pay actual money for the right of owning it.
For one, it makes a terrifying racket at the push of a button. All kinds of intricate movements go on inside that you never get to see but which nevertheless cause every impossible-to-reach nook and cranny to be filled with coffee grind, making it a virtual impossibility for it ever to reach a state of acceptable cleanliness. Secondly, from the outside, it is absolutely hideous to look at, as it has a cheap plastic finish speckled with tiny glimmering particles you normally only see in the hairdo of especially trashy tarts on their way to a dance party. One of the reasons for choosing my own coffee machine was its stylish design, after all. Admittedly, design is probably not a very geeky argument, but hey, this is a newbie hangout, isn’t it?
So, although the replacement machine produces a very acceptable espresso, I'm still in anxious anticipation of the return of my own machine. In the mean time I comfort myself with the thought that Italy exists and that, if all else fails, there's always Darjeeling.
Peter van Diest is a tall, balding Dutchman who was once heard to have said he never drank coffee, except when threatening to fall asleep in seemingly everlasting meetings. No longer able to keep his eyelids from drooping or hide stifled yawns in a socially acceptable way, he would sip at a cup of strong coffee, whereupon the meeting was over in no time at all and he'd bounce through the corridors for the remainder of the day. Later in life he discovered there's more to coffee than meets the (now wide open) eye.