Coffee’s convoluted culture

Paul Sparkes
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Centuries after its discovery we still argue over what makes a good cup

Five Roses flour launched the first in a long series of cookbooks in 1915. “A Guide to Good Cooking” has been through many editions since then, boasting in the 24th edition which I have on the desk in front of me that it has been “Canada’s most popular cookbook for well over half a century.” My copy (it’s not dated) would therefore have been published around 1966. Better evidence that this book is well out of date will be found in a couple of statements from its introduction:

A selection of mugs, makers and servers. From the left, a demitasse, a one-cup French press, a Persian samovar, a Keurig, assorted mugs, a chrome 1950s percolator, a modern-day drip, a Krups espresso maker and a silver coffee server from the 1890s.— Photo by Paul Sparkes/Special to The Telegram

This book has been specially designed for today’s busy homemakers.”

“The Five Roses Guide to Good Cooking has become a popular gift for the new bride.”


What’s old? What’s new?

My purpose in pulling this book out of its resting place was to see if there was anything different about coffee-making nearly 50 years ago. I happen to like coffee to the extent that I am of the opinion that I would not survive (psychologically, anyway) without it.

The problem is, coffee is not necessarily Coffee.

But first, a little of what the above-named  recipe book (dedicated to selling flour) has to say about making coffee:

“Always start with a perfectly clean coffee maker.” (This, I presume, is a reference to the  kitchen appliance and not your choice of brewer).

You are advised to buy only one week’s supply of coffee at a time. As to amounts, for one cup of weak coffee you scoop one tablespoon; for one cup of strong, scoop three. Then suddenly we are told to read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully — the ones that came with your coffee maker. That’s it! Shouldn’t we at least plug something in?

Coffee is so widely varied that from one coffee shop to another, one restaurant to another you almost never find the same creation twice. No wonder Five Roses abruptly gave up.


It’s a matter of taste

Take a paper cup of hot Tim Hortons to a bean picker in Colombia and surely he would take a sip as he paused from his work under the scorching sun (that, by the way, is a condition that prevails in some regions of the world) and he would run his tongue across his wetted lips and ask you quizzically, “Hmm … what is this?”

Yet we cannot live without it. For example, to accommodate it at all times, young people have developed a skill that puts the pace of bipedal evolution to shame — they can walk upright, text with one of their thumbs, hold a Tim Hortons delicately at bay and still avoid utility poles.

But to my taste, what they are carrying is not worth such a finely honed balancing act. I must say at first, of course, that I am sadly outnumbered. And I realize that in the mouth and innards reside any number of critics — albeit making subjective decisions.

Well-brewed, percolated coffee imparts the bitter but engaging taste of the bean to the (preferably) unadulterated water. It also imparts caffeine. You take a mouthful, hold it there, and then when your mouth gives the green light, you abandon all caution and introduce it to your expectant gut.

This is an enjoyable experience, however, only when the beverage has truly earned the name coffee. Well ... subjective again.

Let me return to my leading premise: I like coffee. I do have a few favourite specialty sources in St. John’s.

First of all, the good news. Starbucks I like, even if I have to carry a fistful of sugar packets to my table — the coffee walks over on its own. Rocket’s version is good, too. And so are some of the locally generated interpretations of the brew, where the proprietor of his/her very own coffee shop has free rein, shorn of the shackles imposed by a chain gang.

Now for the less-than-good news. If I go to a restaurant and am reckless enough to ask for a coffee, I am likely headed for trouble. Most middle-of-the-road eateries pour a coloured liquid which seems to embody all of the waiter’s lack of interest.

They flippantly call it “coffee.” It would seem to be something brought in by van, with everything (pot, water, envelope of brown grit) bringing up the rear so as to avoid the dangerous likelihood of anyone imparting imagination to the end product. The resultant thin brown water is invariably served in a battle-proof mug designed to draw the heat from the coffee before you can reach the bottom.

First published in England in 1948, Good Housekeeping’s Cookery Book includes the following in its coffee coverage:

“Coffee extracts and powdered coffee — these are for people ‘in a hurry’. Many of them contain chicory” (presumably not the people — but it is possible), “but some are pure coffee extract and can be conveniently used for flavouring cake icings and sweets as well as for a beverage. Follow the manufacturer’s directions.”

An easy exit from the “what makes good coffee” debate.

Would you buy anything with a view to ignoring directions? To me, it is the English way of trying to avoid the fact that the Americans hit on something big when they invented instant coffee.

As to instant coffee, by the way, I well remember my parents being introduced to it when it was in its infancy. They approached it as one might a land mine. Does anyone remember that when it was new, instant coffee was terribly reluctant to dissolve in boiling water?

The above-referenced book (Good Housekeeping’s) has more than two intensely-worded pages on coffee. I will just give you a snippet:

“Making coffee in a jug: Choose a jug of which you know the approximate capacity and put it to warm. Make sure that the jug is really hot” (difficulty making up their minds here)  “then put the coffee into it and pour on fast-boiling water” …  we are told to stir it vigorously, then leave in a warm place (the Carolinas, perhaps?) “to infuse” … after five minutes you are to continue leaving it alone (it is no wonder England lost its American colonies) … “undisturbed, for the grounds to settle.”  You are to cover the jug with a lid, a tea towel or saucer and to “place it on the plate rack of a stove to keep it hot.”

All of this lacks acknowledgement of the historic foundation laid in the British culture by an unwaivering adherence to coffee in the 1700s. This milestone dedication to coffee blossomed into the ubiquitous coffee house. Have the British forgotten that many of their most momentous decisions as a nation were made at coffee houses? Or, at least germinated there: when to fight the French … when not to fight the French … decisions like that.

I won’t keep on with this, except to say that the British have most convoluted ways of preparing this simple beverage. Their parting shot after the above set of directions (euphemistically called a recipe) was to “strain it through muslin.”

My Bailey’s (English) Dictionary of 1752 defines coffee thusly: “a Drink, well known, made of a Berry brought chiefly from Turkey.” It really helps to know it is “well known.”


‘Real coffee’

It is not difficult to lose patience over the international dalliance so often associated with this drink. I recall gulping (once, many years ago) a cup of “real” coffee prepared in a small and average street-side café in Genoa, Italy. It was presented to me as an ordained person might elevate the host. No motherly flow of warm milk, no soothing heaped spoons of brown sugar for this brew! No. Just a demitasse and several pairs of Italian eyes. That pressure was almost equal to the pressure imposed by this “shot” upon an erstwhile well-ordered system of North American bowels.

It used to be that coffee was no good without conversation.

People got so worked up with debating and arguing in England’s coffee houses (referenced above), that one king even considered coffee houses dens of sedition. Today no politician need fear. Yes, we patronize coffee houses, but we do not debate, or discuss. Oh sure, a few might. But for the most part we go out to network at the coffee shop only to turn on the iPhone or laptop and view the flickering icons as companions (mind you, while still keeping one eye sleuthing at the door).

Ordering coffee today brings with it its own reign of terror. You must enter a shop or pull up to a window and betray no anticipation, no awkwardness at the esoteric terminology facing you. You must order your choice in clipped fashionable language — “Grande,” “Tall Pike,” “Small doubledouble.” But beware. If you want to be suddenly uncool, say, “May I have a medium coffee with two sugars, please?”


Selected appendages

Four coffee tips from about 115 years ago:

(1) “A cup of coffee is an excellent restorative and invigorating refreshment even for weak persons, provided that their digestive organs are not too delicate.”

(2) “Coffee sometimes produces great excitement and a sensation of restless and heat ensues. For throwing off this condition, fresh air is the best antidote.”

(3) “Coffee, substitutes for: collect dandelion roots at the end of the year; dry them at a gentle heat and reduce to powder. Some mix coffee with it, others roast the root in the manner of coffee but probably at the expense of its medicinal virtues.”

(4) “Make coffee from the raspings of the crust of loaves of bread procured at the baker’s.”


CAFÉ NOIR (c. 1870) – “This is usually handed round after dinner and should be drunk well sweetened with the addition of a little brandy or liqueurs which may be added, or not, at pleasure. The coffee should be made very strong and served in very small cups.  This is a very simple and expeditious manner of preparing coffee for a large party but the essence for it must be made very good and kept well corked until required for use.”



Organizations: Tim Hortons, North American

Geographic location: England, Columbia, Turkey Genoa Italy

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Recent comments

  • julio salgado
    April 29, 2014 - 08:12

    Great article. As a coffee lover living in Europe I can relate to your statement: I would not survive (psychologically, anyway) without it. One comment however, I notice that you keep spelling the name of Colombia (Country) as Columbia (US State - wrong). Bes regards, Julio