‘The Coffee Shop’ By Sue Brown
It was in Germany I learnt to drink coffee. In my childhood home we drank milky instant coffee, I took it with two teaspoons of sugar so it was a rather sweet beige drink tasting of well…coffee as I knew it.
On holidays in France, I was young so I was expected to drink choclat, which was très magnifique to my young inexperienced taste buds. So, my understanding of a beverage which demonstratively originated from a bean was very slight. On the few occasions my mother held dinner parties she dusted off the old coffee percolator, drove down to the grocers to buy the smallest package of ground coffee available and set up the black bulbous apparatus. Once it was ready and set on the stove, we were all admonished to leave the kitchen for fear of it exploding. This produced a rather dense black drink, with an odd bit of ground coffee floating on the surface. It was served in very small, delicate china cups, to enhance the appeal of the contents. A matching bowl of little multicoloured grains of course sugar was passed around, especially brought out for the occasion. Then there was the jug, which contained, with its little silver scoop, the cream, and as a final touch, exquisite tiny silver teaspoons, a relic of the family’s days in India, sat on display in the saucers. I was never able to partake, having fallen asleep against my wishes before the ritual was finished.
So, my first real connection with coffee came on an extended visit to Germany when I had left school. I earnt little but there was a wonderful coffee shop in the small spa town where I was living, and I bicycled down to it on my days off. I would set off, determined to stay on the right side of the road but was hesitant when I approached the traffic circle, fearing I would go off in a familiar but wrong direction. I guess I was woolgathering one day, when a car behind me hooted and the large corpulent man gesticulated wildly at me saying something unintelligible. I stopped and almost shouted out, “Den mund halten, Idiot!” then pedaled quickly to the coffee shop, arriving rather shaken. I sat at the small table and the waitress arrived smartly with her pencil and paper and stood expectantly, “Eine tasse kafee, bitte,” I requested and she lazily asked, “Und kuchen?”.
“Nein danke,” I muttered, since the cost of cake was beyond my scant finances.
I gazed around the room looking at the middle-aged ladies, stout in their woolen suits, topped by their rather masculine hats, forks aloft as they expressed themselves, then lowering them to dig deep into some luscious gateau. This was an occasion.
When my coffee arrived, the aroma was enticing from the start. The grounds were placed on a dainty paper filter on top of the individual coffee dripper and I slowly poured the hot water over and watched it seep gradually through into the pedestrian china cup below. I waited leisurely then removed the now empty top filter, and reached for the evaporated milk in the classic jug with its sliding closure, before adding a lump of brown sugar to the cup below. At 17 years old I thought this the epitome of European sophistication.
Now, armed with the knowledge of what constituted good coffee, it was to be many years, in fact decades, until I found myself living in another coffee lover’s paradise, Melbourne. I have no doubt that many folks in some parts of the world would look askance if they had not visited Australia. So often seen as a British-dominated big island to outsiders, they forget the waves of Italian immigration and the legacy of a coffee culture to rival the best. I for one did. I arrived in winter to a country where visions of bronzed surfers, blue seas, and sunny days was replaced by cloudy skies, grey seas, and the cold I had forgotten after thirty years of living in Africa.
The word Africa may conjure up the taste anticipation of exotic Arabica beans, but the part that I lived in had no such romantic association. I spent a great deal of my time opening up a tin of branded Ricoffey, a curious powder which claimed to be part coffee, part chicory. But then again when it was drunk from a thick pottery mug with bits of rusk you had dunked into it before venturing out as the sun rose for a game drive, it did have its own appeal. On reflection this was rather patronising of me to assume an additive makes for a lesser beverage as I sip on my bergamot and tea which has the rather more prestigious name of Earl Grey. But, to return to Australia.
A short sabbatical in Far North Queensland introduced to me to coffee growing and coffee roasting whilst visiting the Atherton Tablelands. While back in Melbourne, my brother-in-law acquired precise blends from a specialist boutique coffee shop and set about brewing through a pressurized space aged version of my mother’s spherical hissing machine. Individual additives were treated with a modicum of disdain and the coffee served in exquisite china cups. The intricacies of the ritual in preparing and serving added to the enjoyment of the resultant beverage.
Even with trips to France and Italy over the years I thought nothing would take the place of my first coffee experience more than 50 years previously. Yet, on a day out window shopping in Collins Street, I sit in a small Italian café and the memories coming flooding back and I am again at one with my sophisticated European self.