Thursday, December 16, 2010

I've Got a Bean to Grind


I learned to drink coffee in Japan. Until that time, I was more like my mother, preferring unsweetened and unsullied by milk tea, and I was very excited to try the teas of Japan. Harder than it sounds. The Japanese have this silly notion that Americans drink coffee. And only coffee. So wherever I went, I was offered coffee.

“No,” I’d say. “I would really like some tea.”

“But you’re American,” they’d invariably reply. “You drink coffee.”

It didn’t matter how I tried to explain to my Japanese hosts that I really do prefer tea, and rarely, if ever, drank coffee. They would smile and nod, assume I was only being polite, then pour me another cup of Joe. And so, in order to be polite, I choked it down with the two sticks of sugar they usually provided automatically and no cream. (I shudder at the memory.)

Upon my return to America, I surprised my near-and-dear by starting to drink the stuff voluntarily, though I followed my father’s example of cream and sugar.

On a trip to New Orleans sandwiched between my time in Japan and now, I was delighted to be introduced to a local favorite, coffee with chicory. The exotic brew has a beautiful deep rust tinge and a sweeter taste than straight up coffee. I fell in love. When we stopped into an A&P (exciting in and of itself because I'd only ever read about them in short stories in college), I happily bought a bag of ground coffee with chicory to bring back with me to Michigan. Few at home shared in my love affair, but that just meant more for me.

Naturally, this bag ran out, and I mourned its loss for some time. Until one day, after I had moved to California and was browsing my local Cost Plus World Market, I saw a display with boxes of beignet mix and tins of ground coffee with chicory. What was this?? The labels read “Café Du Monde,” the famous French Market café. I’m sure I squealed as I snatched up a tin and skipped to the register. (I had actually already bought a box of their beignet mix during a trip to Michigan where I was floored to find it at Meijer. Meijer may also carry the coffee with chicory. I haven’t run out yet, so I haven’t checked.)

A year or so later, I again came across coffee with chicory packaged by another company: Trader Joe’s. But I have to say, I was very disappointed. I had been hoping for some time that Trader Joe’s, usually specializing in the odd little exotics, would start carrying it, so perhaps I was so let down because I fell from such a great height of excitement. Really, it’s not that good, and I have cautioned many newcomers to the brew around the sample table. Everyone I spoke to that was like me, had had it in New Orleans and was anxious for the nostalgia, agreed. It’s pretty bad.

I don’t normally steer people away from my beloved Trader Joe’s, but if you live in an area with a Cost Plus World Market or a Meijer, go there and buy the Café Du Monde brand. You can also buy directly from their website, though I am a fan of supporting local businesses when I can.

Some “exotic” coffees that I  do recommend at Trader Joe’s are the piñón (pine nut) and peaberry. The piñón, surprise surprise, has a bit of a nutty flavor that I find to be a nice change from the usual bitterness of American coffee, and the peaberry, more rare so it isn’t always on the shelf, is pleasantly sweet.

Call me a newb, but the best coffee I have ever tasted was during my trip to Italy. Coffee follows pretty much every meal, and I went to bed at night with a little cup of espresso in a happy tummy. (Caffeine doesn’t keep me awake. I actually find it calming.) I have not drunk espresso in America, and I don’t plan to. I don’t think I could talk my mouth into accepting it after two weeks of the sweet syrupy goodness that is Italian espresso. (Okay, maybe syrupy is a bad word, but it definitely is thicker than what passes for coffee here in the US.)

I have read that the machine the Italians (and probably other Europeans) use to make the myriad of café delights has been deemed unsafe and illegal in America due to its certain capability of blowing up. (Think about it. High pressure? Steam?) Thus, American coffee cannot be the same as its European cousin. Also, the reason our coffee is so often described as bitter is because we burn it. If you’re going to make coffee, get a French press. Seriously! World of difference.

So, although I still revel in a good cuppa tea and even have an entire drawer devoted to it, you will still often find me curled up in front of my computer, typing up a new story or working on my novel, with a steaming mug of caramel colored kōhii, because I am American with an Italian ancestry. Salute!

1 comment:

  1. The Coffee with Chicory is probably my preferred coffee for "daily use" since it seems to be less troublesome as far as the stomach oils go.

    Espresso seems to do less than drip, oddly enough. Maybe it's the liquid volume?

    If you do beignets anytime soon, granulated sugar is a poor substitute for the confectioner's sugar since it doesn't melt to the fresh ones as well.

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