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Sunday, 12 December 2010

Real coffee: accept no substitute

A recipe for making coffee – am I serious?  Maybe I’ll be doing a recipe for boiling water soon.  Yes, I am serious.  For some reason, making real coffee seems to defeat too many people; even good, accomplished cooks can fall down in the gourmet stakes when it comes to the coffee stage of the meal.  It seems too time-consuming, the paraphernalia complicated – much easier to get a spoonful of instant from the jar.  I want to change all that: if you are an instant user, I want to turn you on to the joys of real coffee.

I adore coffee.  Almost before I am fully awake, the machine is gurgling, the water dripping, and the wonderful aroma beginning to drift around the house.  I like it strong, black and unsweetened, and two big mugs set me up for the day, usually while I’m reading my emails, having a look on Facebook, seeing what’s up on my favourite sites and forums, and generally getting ready to face the world.

Being British, I do like a nice cup of tea, too, but that will come later: it’s the morning, so it must be coffee.

Instant coffee is an oxymoron – there ain’t no such thing, in my opinion; real coffee takes a little time.  To me, the instant stuff just isn’t coffee.  The taste is wrong, there is no true aroma; made mild, it is weak and insipid, made stronger it becomes unpalatably bitter.  And yet to the majority, the freeze-dried granule is coffee.

No, no, no, no and again no.  If your coffee experience stops with the jar, please follow me, and learn to make the real thing: you won’t look back.

It is difficult to get it right at first, and the ways of making it can seem bewildering: do you use a cafetiere, a filter balanced on top of your mug that you fill from a kettle, an automatic drip machine, a percolator (and if so, a cycling or pressure one)?

Before we get to the method, though, we have to make a choice at the grocery.  Ready ground, and if so, fine, medium or coarse?  Beans?  But you’ll need a grinder.  And which type of blend and strength: breakfast blend, after dinner blend, Italian blend?  Supermarket’s own, or one of the fancy brands?

I will give you a few suggestions, but the only sensible way is to experiment: and like all good experiments, you must make note of exactly what you do, until you arrive at a brew you like.  You don’t have to make written notes, but be aware, and do measure the coffee – a quarter of a scoop more or less makes a huge difference.

First, let’s buy the coffee.  I suggest you start your real-coffee adventure by getting a ready-ground blend, and a reasonably strong one, at that.  If your brew turns out to be too powerful for you, you can easily dilute it with a little boiling water: trying to make a strong coffee from a milder blend by packing in more grounds will result in a brew that is bitter, with unpleasant mouth-feel.  In the UK, blends are usually marked with a strength guide, from 1 being very mild, to 5 being the strongest.  I get a 5, and would suggest that you start your experiments with nothing lower than a 3.

Get yourself a filter.  Most households who use instant coffee will have a drip filter machine knocking around in the back of a cupboard; I doubt that there are many who haven’t received one as a birthday, Christmas or housewarming present at some point in their lives.  Dig it out from its hidey-hole, or go and buy one.  The basic machines are not expensive.  As I mentioned above, you can get filters that sit on top of your mug, cup or jug: you simply fill the filter with your grounds, pour on water from the kettle, and wait for it to drip through.  Considering that they are such a compact, simple and efficient gadget, they are quite hard to find outside of France, so you will more likely have or get an automatic filter machine.  Follow the manufacturer’s instructions; if they are missing, following the long sojourn in the cupboard, they are pretty obvious, and you only really know if you need to use paper filters, or if it has a washable, reusable filter built in – fill the water reservoir, add a few scoops of ground coffee to the filter, replace the jug, and switch on.

Take note of the result.  Have you ended up with enough coffee, or too much?  Use more or less water, obviously.  Too strong, too weak, or just right?  Next time, adjust the amount of coffee as necessary.  Try a couple of different brands or blends, and before you know it, you will be a convert, and cross the jar of instant off the shopping list.  If you are lucky enough to have a local grocery that grinds, or even roasts, its own coffee, use them.  It’s worth a visit just to savour the aroma in the shop.  You may even get them to make you your very own blend.

If you buy your own beans to grind at home, take a tip I got years ago from the proprietor of the famous Algerian Coffee Shop in London’s Soho. Keep the beans in the freezer; not only will they store longer (not an issue in my house, the rate I get through it) but more importantly frozen beans will not burn from the friction of the blades.  You could even go wild and buy your own green beans and roast them yourself: to be honest, although this is a tempting thought, it is a step too far for me.  One of these days, perhaps.

By far the most common varieties of coffee beans used are Arabica and Robusta.  I always use 100% Arabica, in common with most true coffee-lovers.  Robusta, as its name suggests, has more body, but is more bitter and generally has less flavour.  You will also find blends of the two.

There are other ways than the filter to make real coffee.  One of the simplest is the Turkish method: a small pot, usually with a handle, gets a scoop or so of ground coffee, and is topped up with water.  It is brought just to the boil, then taken off the heat; traditionally, the bring-to-the-boil-and-taken-off-the-heat process is repeated three times before pouring into the cup, usually heavily sweetened.  The grounds settle to the bottom of the cup, where they provide an unpleasant surprise for those not expecting it.  It does make a good cup of coffee, though, and well worth a try.

The cafetiere, (also known as the French Press, or plunger) has become popular in the last couple of decades, and is much loved by restaurants, bistros and dinner party hosts for its ease of serving and cleaning, and its dishwasher-friendliness. You put in the grounds, fill with boiling water, give it some brewing time, then push down the plunger, trapping all the grounds at the bottom. My own personal opinion is that they don’t quite make a satisfactory coffee.  They are convenient, but somehow the flavour doesn’t really develop properly, and the grounds, although trapped, are in constant contact with the brew, giving it an oily and overbrewed feel.

My favourite is the stove-top percolator.  I have several, including the traditional “plop – plop” bubbling machines; but once again, I feel that the coffee constantly recycling through the beans can impair the flavour.  I prefer the pressure type, usually called the Moka machine, or macchinetta, the best-know manufacturer of which is the Italian company Bialetti.  These clever pots, with their angular, art-deco lines, push the boiling water through the grounds and into the top of the pot, where the coffee collects ready for pouring.  The fresh, boiling water only makes one contact with the coffee, preventing over-brewing.

Traditionally, you pack the grounds-basket as full as you can, the resulting brew being a very strong espresso that will probably increase your heart-rate several-fold.  Although I enjoy an occasional espresso, I actually prefer to linger over the longer version usually known as Americano.  The proper way of doing this is to make espresso-strength coffee as above, and then dilute it to your taste with fresh boiling water.  My somewhat non-standard method is to simply put less coffee in the basket.

Whatever method you use, do keep the equipment scrupulously clean: the coffee oils can build up in tarry layers, giving you a bitter and unpleasant brew.

I hope this has tempted you away from the screw-top jar.  Once you have the knack of your favourite method, it really doesn’t take much longer to make real coffee than the instant stuff.  And I hope you agree that there is no comparison with the taste and aroma.

And what inspired me to write this paean to the bean?  Heavy night last night, friends staying over: wake up, first thought, put the coffee on.  Calamity.  Somehow, have managed to run out of fresh grounds.  The only alternative being the crusty, dusty, jar of emergency instant at the back of the cupboard.  Not happy, and reminded forcibly just how much I hate the stuff.

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