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The Amateur Artisan by Ted Simpson
The 'Why' of Coffee. A review of "Espresso: Culture and Cuisine"
Posted: January 20, 2002
Article rating: 8.2
feedback: (0) comments | read | write

Coffee. It drives us. It powers us. Why does a tea made from the roasted seed of a cherry-like fruit move us to revolution, poetry and passion? If it were just caffeine, there would be Vivarin kiosks on every corner and you’d order a “double enteric coated slow release” instead of your tall skinny latte. I haven’t seen any hint this is about to happen.

The phenomenal allure of the coffee bean is illustrated by the fact that coffee is the second most extensively traded commodity after petroleum. We like our coffee and we pay good money for it. In Japan it isn’t unusual for a cup of coffee to cost $5 to $15US or more. Closer to home a $3 daily latte habit trashes a $1,000 bill in a year and that’s assuming a few days off drinking tea!

As a coffee hobbyist I find myself spending hours with The Bean and associated pursuits. This weekend has seen: a two hour roasting session following hours spent assembling and tweaking a new homebuilt roaster, several hours working on the heater system of my treasured homemade one pound fluid-bed roaster (without success, I’m afraid), another few hours pulling espresso shots for my wife and I, as well as roasting, grinding and brewing her cold-brewed morning coffee extract for the coming week. That’s a lot of time and energy spent on a mere seed.

When people ask me why I burn up so much of my life playing with coffee, I can try to explain how satisfying it is to grind, tamp and pull a rich, creamy shot with beans you’ve roasted yourself. How wonderful the house smells when the sweet, dark beans have been ground and brewed. Or the immediate gratification of starting and finishing a roasting session, how turning hard green nuggets into fragrant, mahogany-colored coffee makes me feel like an ancient alchemist. I COULD try to explain these things, but enough glazed eyeballs have taught me to keep it to myself. Explaining the ‘how’ is easy compared to justifying the ‘why’.

Until now. Now I have a little book that says it all, at least to someone willing to listen.  At less than 100 pages, smaller than a trade paperback with an unprepossessing black and white cover, “Espresso : Culture & Cuisine” by Karl Petske and Sara Slavin doesn’t look like a book that could make much of an argument for obsession, but it does. Petske and Slavin have fashioned a slow and dreamy stroll through the café culture. I found myself flipping the pages willy-nilly; like trying to choose ‘the’ dessert from a cart crowded with delicacies, it is tough to decide just where to settle in and read. Though it contains definitions and recipes, “Espresso” is not a ‘how-to’ book to be read in a straight line like a flowchart. Rather, it is more like an easy conversation between friends that meanders from topic to topic, where the convivial interchange is as much the purpose as the information.

The text is punctuated with attractive color and black and white photos that are lovingly crafted to pull the reader in and make them a part of the conversation. I was charmed to find on page 51 a picture of a single group Unic Diva. One like it resides in my kitchen and a bit of its elixir fueled this review (it is now 1:00 A.M.). The Unic is a French-made machine; espresso is not just about Italy, and neither is “Espresso”. This little volume conveys in its sparse text and clean graphical design an ardent interpretation of a far-reaching culture that revolves around coffee and which pervades modern Western life.

The authors managed to be informative in case your needs run to the factual. Recipes include the basic espresso cuisine of espresso, cappuccino and their classic variants, along with such delights as Espresso-Hazelnut Scones, Espresso Cheesecake with a Hazelnut Crust, Chocolate-Espresso Torte and Espresso Brittle. The recipes, more than twenty of them, are scattered throughout the pages and are accompanied by mouth-watering pictures in many cases. In addition, while this isn’t a textbook, the factual information seems to be pretty accurate at least from this amateur’s standpoint.

But again, the reason why this charming book is destined for a prominent place on my bedside table isn’t the recipes and information, nor the pictures or even the clever design. As a coffee aficionado I can’t help but resonate to the authors’ vision and passion. As they say, “For us, espresso is the essence of coffee, that Mediterranean drink, as perfume is the essence of flowers and brandy the essence of wine. It signifies all that is good about the regions of the sun: the love of life, the love of words and images and ideas, the sweetness of doing nothing, the art of inhabiting the earth. (p. 11)” I can’t help but hope that some of their vision might rub off on me so when someone asks me why I spend time on coffee the answer might strike a little closer to the mark.

“Espresso : Culture & Cuisine” by Karl Petske and Sara Slavin is published by Chronicle Books of San Francisco, copyright 1994. ISBN is 0-8118-0434-8 for the hardcover, and it is available in paperback as well. I note in passing that it appears to be available at Amazon. Wherever you might find it, I commend it highly. Like a fine espresso, it packs a lot of enjoyment in a tiny package. Enjoy!

The next article in this loosely organized series will discuss the rudiments of roasting from an amateur perspective.

Article rating: 8.2
Posted: January 20, 2002
feedback: (0) comments | read | write
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