Saturday, February 11, 2012

Opinions on Coffee and Cricket

For a change, here are a couple of opinions I agree with.

Australian food writer Michael Symons puts his credentials behind two claims I'm happy to make but can't really back up: the flat white is one of best ways to drink coffee; and its art has been perfected in Wellington:

As an Australian food historian, I declare that it started in Australia, where it often remains weak, murky, fluffy and under-appreciated. It was then perfected in New Zealand, more particularly, in Wellington. It's impossible to find a better morning coffee anywhere. I know, because I've tried.

I have some time for the view that you shouldn't put anything at all in espresso coffee and that its best form is its purest: what we call the 'short black'. But there's something about a cup full of strong coffee mixed with creamy milk -- most importantly, it lasts longer, and better accompanies a conversation.

I can't claim to have coffee-researched as widely as Symons, but whenever I'm away from Wellington for a while, it's what I miss most. In Brisbane I was frustrated in my search for acceptable coffee, even in Italian-owned places. Melbourne was better. From memory, London and Paris were as mediocre as Symons reports. In coffee-exporting Latin American countries you can generally get a fresh-tasting short black if you find somewhere with an espresso machine, but they have little idea how to make coffee with milk. Italy of course is the home of espresso: from memories of my last trip there years ago the coffee was excellent, but the tendency to serve it with lukewarm milk meant that the overall experience differed from this antipodean's preferences.

This should not be cause for complacency: in New Zealand, the average standard is that not that high,  It's still common to find watery, bitter, single-shot coffee, with milk served in excessive quantities and sometimes burnt. In most centres you have to seek out somewhere with a good local reputation. Even in Wellington, some of the speciality outlets have expanded too quickly at the expense of quality control.

Symons provides some admirable trans-Tasman history, and traces the stories of Supreme, Havana and L'Affare, among others. However, for me the best coffee in Wellington (and therefore possibly the world) is from the little hole in the wall cafe on The Terrace next to the Reserve Bank, which trades as the Gibbston Coffee Company (I know this only because it appears on my Eftpos transactions; the business has no apparent title and the stenciled lettering on the window says only 'coffee'). This has sacks of unroasted coffee beans stashed on the floor, a roasting machine that looks like something out of  Leonardo da Vinci drawing, and a single espresso machine, leaving barely enough space of the constant flow of customers. 

Meanwhile, with careers drawing to a close, Ian Chappell considers the legacy of the the era's three great batsmen: Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. I agree with his ultimate preference for Lara. You can't go past Tendulkar for sheer weight of runs and longevity. Ponting has played some incredible innings, such as the rearguard 156 at Old Trafford and the dominant 140 not out against India in the 2003 World Cup final.  But Lara's combination of technique, elegance and mental concentration just surpasses the other two. Playing in what was a relatively weak West Indies team (Ponting never had to face McGrath or Warne), he often seemed to stand single-handedly between oppositin teams and victory. If you had to choose someone to bat for your life, it would be Lara.


Erlkoenig said...

FWIW, my best flat white experiences were in upscale Italian restaurants in Santa Monica and in San Francisco, where they were called "cappuccino". So is the history of flat white a story of re-inventing the wheel?

Simon Bidwell said...

Well, given that the only difference between the flat white and cappucino is the [lack of] froth, maybe. I'm not really a cappucino fan, as it raises the risk of the tasteless froth/overheated liquid milk combo. But I've hardly had a decent cappucino anywhere else, either. Except in Italy, where they serve it lukewarm.

Interesting your Californian experience. I would also have assumed an upscale Italian restaurant would be a good place for coffee; however, I was taken aback by an experience in Brisbane in a restaurant owned by a prominent local Italian family, where the coffee was, to be euphemistic, disappointing.

Erlkoenig said...

The question of froth is intriguing. From its name I assume that a flat white is supposed to come without it. And yet I have never seen one served without a significant layer of froth, which makes it identical to the Italian cappuccino.

Simon Bidwell said...

The milk in a flat white is supposed to be "stretched" rather than fluffed. When I worked in a cafe that took itself seriously I learned that to heat the milk without generating too much froth you had to keep the nozzle well below the surface of the milk. To generate froth for a cappucino you would then lift the nozzle nearer to the surface of the milk. Obviously any milk heated with steam will not remain in a purely liquid form but will gain some additional "texture".

Nowadays the standard seems to be that a flat white is signified by pouring the milk to form a fern or some other design in the surface of the coffee. When I learned how to make cappucinos, the idea was that the peak of the froth should sit at least a couple of centimetres above the rim of the cup.

Here endeth my knowledge about coffee.