A perfect cup of coffee?
During the long days of pandemic lockdown small pleasures have become increasinglyimportant and the morning cup of coffee (normally taken after a walk in a favourite café in town; either Bakers and Co. on Gloucester road or Full Court Press on Broad street) takes on greater significance: It has to be right or an opportunity for pleasure and the coffee has been wasted.
I’ve always loved coffee: during the 60’s the summer visits to my grandparents in Berlin always resulted in the weekly ritual of coffee, cake and schlag (Berlinish for schlagsahne (which is so unlike English whipped cream primarily because it was professionally whipped and bought by the litre from the local bakerei ))
Aunts, uncles, cousins and distant relatives would descend on the wohnhaus (or mietskaserne / tenement ) of those whose turn it was to host the ritual and while the old ones talked in the sitting room, smoking cigars, drinking schnaps and catching up, or, as I later discovered discussing the impact of the installation of the berlin wall, we kinder (children) would have free rein of the rest of the house, running up and down the common stairs, playing in the still rubble-laden tenement courtyard, being shown how to halve an apple with just your finger nails by Regine (who only later I discovered was my half-sister) or avoiding the attention of Onkle Richardt with his one arm( apparently lost in the war but we didn’t believe him although we should have) and his stinky cigar butts and rough face stubble until it was time for Kaffee und Kuchen!
The coffee was made with freshly ground beans through a melilta filter into a 60’s coffee kännchen; the cake nearly always included a tart using a premade sponge tart base, topped with plums from Opa and Oma’s allotment topped with a set gel, all with schlag and even though we, kinder, didn’t actually drink coffee, the aroma of freshly ground beans mixed with cigar smoke (so strong that tears would stream down my face) would make the awkwardness of meeting my German speaking family disappear within an atmosphere of calmness and contentment; at least until the schlag ran out when one of us would be dispatched to the backerie around the corner on Falkenhagener Straße to get more.
Since then I’ve studied in, worked in and explored Europe and had coffee in all guises and varieties from delights of a green enamelled stove top coffee pot favoured by my polish flat mate to the ubiquitous office percolator (vile after an hour of stewing). At a time when there were virtually no cafés other than greasy spoons or at the back of Museums in England, European city holidays enabled me to progress from cappuccino (unsatisfactory, no matter what time of day it’s taken, even with cake) and hoping to replicate a Café solo (espresso) that we had for breakfast in Barcelona (lovely with toast) by buying an Aldo Rossi espresso maker, visiting famous cafes such as the Café Americain in Amsterdam and trying an Einspanner in Vienna’s Café Sperl with strudel and schlag ; a heart attack special as it involves espresso with cream and whipped cream on top with whipped cream on the cake. It took me a week of mistakes to discover that the best type of coffee in Vienna is the simplest, a Melange; a cup of strong filter coffee with a side of pouring cream, a small glass of chilled water and best with a flaky pastry or fruit tart and a window to gaze out.
I then tentatively explored more esoteric methods of brewing coffee such as a Vacuum system (invented in 1830 by Loeff of Berlin) or aeropress systems until eventually I was given an efficient Italian barista bean to cup coffee machine which I loved. It was a bit fiddly to set up, producing consistently good coffee with a great aroma but at the expense of any real sense delight, primarily due to the noise generated; I know many people love modern café culture, and you can’t walk down a high street without falling over people sitting outside a café now, but I can’t bear the noise generated in the chains by the espresso and the milk frother machines. Aside from the fact that these machines use the much cheaper robusta beans and make a coffee tasting like sludge the noise is such that I’d rather do without, irrespective of what treats are on offer.
Despite all these explorations I’ve not been able to replicate the sense of gemütlichlichkeit of the Berlin ritual (the familiarity of it combined with the oddness of the events surrounding the visits make that impossible ) but I have returned to the simplest and most familiar method: a filter, freshly ground beans and a kännchen although this one is a single cup sized borosilicate glass one, the filter is a Hario microfine metal dripper (now known by the millennial hipsters that frequent speciality coffee cafes as a V60 filter and not to be mistaken for a chemex filter!) and the beans are either Kenyan Peaberry or Yemani Port of Mokha B13 beans, with water poured using a Japanese gooseneck kettle; the cake is whatever I can get but I’ve found that walnut cake or a cardamom twist both work well. Inevitably, schlag and the smell of cigar smoke are off the menu but despite, or because of the ritual required to make coffee this way, a sense of contentment and of being grounded while everything else around is in turmoil can at least be achieved.
At least for a short while.
My grandparents apartment block in Berlin