My relationship with coffee has changed over the years. As a young-un I didn’t like the stuff – ptoui – I was a tea drinker, thank you very much. When I was seventeen-and-a-half, however, I was forced to learn to tolerate the stuff as I began work as a landscape gardener on the YTS (a government training scheme designed to exploit the youth for cheap labour and keep them off the unemployment statistics). One of the earliest lessons I learned when mowing lawns and building patios was that if a client offered you something to eat or drink, you always said yes, no matter what. If you declined just once then you would never be offered again. Great were the times when the client would ask if you would like a tea or a coffee, but far more often they would just ask if you wanted a coffee. You should also understand that in those days Nescafe was the height of sophistication (before we learned about boycotting Nestle products) but you were more likely to end up with a supermarket brand chicory/coffee instant blend.
In my early twenties I went through a period of giving up caffeine altogether. And after a brief flirtation with Kenco Decaffeinated, I made the move to fruit/herbal teas, with a special fondness for bramble or strawberry. A few years later, once I had returned to education and become a mature student, I discovered the advantage of having a zero caffeine tolerance level was that if I did have a cup of coffee then it made me absolutely hyper for up to two hours. Fantastic for those times where there’s an essay deadline to meet and you’ve just slumped completely – in those 2 hours I could achieve what would normally take me eight or more. However, there was a price to pay. While the up was undoubtedly great, the comedown was a crock of shit. For an hour or two after the coffee had worn off I would feel tired, drained, and slightly nauseous. I never particularly enjoyed the taste either: coffee was to be used as a strictly controlled drug only.
A few years ago I flew out to Portugal for a long weekend to see an old friend of mine. While there he insisted on calling in at cafés for ultra strong espressos, which I could only stomach with a matching quantity of brown sugar stirred in. It tasted vile, sweet and fantastic in equal measure, and the hit from it was amazing. After three days I was hooked completely. My addiction was short lived, however, as returning to the UK the coffee was bland by comparison and I couldn’t face it in any quantity.
I kept my use of coffee restricted to the final stretch of long journeys, when I still had 100 miles to go but didn’t want to risk falling asleep at the wheel. However, as the motorway service stations started installing bars run by the likes of Costa Coffee and Coffee Primo I became increasingly intimidated by the jargon. I knew what an espresso was, and that my wife was fond of cappuccinos, but I couldn’t figure out what passed for a regular coffee. Even after discovering that it had been re-branded as an Americano, I was then assaulted with the array of sizes, none of which included the word “regular”. And the sneer from the assistants if I failed to pronounce ‘grande’ with the right accent was enough to have me snarling into my beard.
Over the past year, I’ve found myself enjoying the occasional mocha when out with my wife, although depending where we go it can vary widely from a hot chocolate with a dash of coffee to a coffee with a dash of hot chocolate. But in the past few months, as I’ve steadily felt more tired (see A Trip to The Doctor), I’ve started to develop a taste for a strong cup of coffee in the afternoon which my wife makes up in a cafetière.
On our recent trip to France, the cottage we were staying in only had a cafetière big enough for a single cup, so we went in search of a larger one, but for some reason I was unable to fathom, this French device for creating strong coffee didn’t appear to be sold anywhere in France that we could find.
Still, by this time I was obsessed with the coffees served in the French cafés. In this corner of France, if you ask for un café, what you get is an espresso; un grand café is a double espresso. And that’s it. None of your Lattes, Macchiattos, Ristrettos or Americanos. Just small, strong, coffee that I could stir in matching quantities of brown sugar. By the time we left I was on to a few grand cafés a day. My excuse that it was to counteract the tiredness of the B12 deficiency was only half the reason; the fact is that I was rapidly becoming addicted to the stuff.
Since returning home I’ve tried to restrict myself to one cafetière in the afternoon again, aware that it could easily spiral out of control if I’m not careful. Be it smoking, lottery tickets or food, I eventually learned that it’s easier to deal with addictions before they spiral out of control, than after.
The other day Maggie was out and I decided that rather than go through the plitter of using the cafetière, I’d just have a cup of instant coffee. Bleargh, it tasted like dishwater. It seems that the further down the coffee road you advance, the less able you are to go back.
My Portuguese friend always used a Moka Express Pot when brewing coffee at home. I have one in the cupboard somewhere; it’s just a matter of time before I figure out how to use it.