Coffee here and there
Writer, food critic and eternal romantic, Van Houtte ambassador James Chatto delights us monthly with his views on the art of coffee. Avid traveler, Mr Chatto has enjoyed his favourite hot beverage in many parts of the world. Today he is sharing his observations on how coffee is savoured around the globe. Enjoy!
Some people say that American coffee culture – drinking a pint of warm, coffee-flavoured milk from a waxed cardboard cup while walking along the street – is taking over the world. Luckily, there are still countries where more civilized habits survive. In Greece, where I lived for many years, coffee was a much more leisurely pleasure. We would make our way to the village bar in the middle of the morning and sit outside in the dappled shade of the grapevine while the barman, our friend Philip, made us each a Greek coffee. Stirring finely ground coffee, sugar and water in a long-handled metal pot called a briki he held it over the gas ring until it rose to a boil then poured it into a tiny cup. By the time it was cool enough to drink, the grounds had settled to mud at the bottom and we sipped the sweet black coffee off the top – the flavour faintly spicy as if there were cinnamon in the grind. A glass of cold water refreshed our palates. Some days we stayed for hours, talking politics. Philip was an anarchist and coffee was the fuel he needed to clear his head for argument, the same role it played in the 17th-century coffee houses of Venice and Vienna, London and Paris.
Ah yes, Paris! Is there a more charming ritual than a fresh, buttery croissant and a bowl of foamy café au lait, first thing in the morning, sitting at a small round sidewalk table while the city slowly comes to life? It’s enough to make anyone feel like a poet. In Argentina, I loved my daily cortitos, the speciality of every sidewalk café – a smoky-flavoured espresso with an equal shot of hot milk.
And what of the heartland – the place where coffee began – the Middle East? My son once spent a summer on an archaeological dig in Jordan. The highlight of his morning was a visit from the coffeeman, a gentleman who wore an ornate brass and copper urn strapped to his back filled with hot coffee. He dispensed it through a long tube into tiny plastic cups that his small son carried carefully to the archaeologists. Warm and sweet, spiced with cardamom, it was curiously refreshing under the hot sun and always inspired conversation – an opportunity to look up from the ancient past they were unearthing and focus – for a moment or two – on something a tad more contemporary.
It reminded me of another coffee moment. Summer was coming to a violent close in southern Italy, the Mistral blowing like a furnace across the parched plains of Puglia. After an interminable business lunch with a wine producer we set off to drive to his vineyards, an hour away, the windshield of his Fiat coated with red dust. We were both uncomfortably hot and not in the best of moods. Suddenly, he pulled over to the side of the road and ordered me out of the car, almost pushing me into a tiny, very casual caffe. Two men stood at the counter drinking caffe correto – espresso “corrected” with a shot of brandy. We had ours without the liquor, downing the rich, thick coffee in two sips. Someone made a remark about a soccer team then we were back on the road. My host was smiling now. “Always the best two minutes of the day,” he murmured, as much to himself as to me.