Saturday, December 23, 2006

Simple Pleasures In Life I - Coffee

A little history first (no, not the history of coffee, for that you can look here and here for example, as always MY history with coffee). I grew up in an orthodox Madrasi Tamil Brahmin household. So, the morning ritual of "suda suda oru tumbler filter Kaapi" was an integral part of life. It was the first thing I did in my life in the kitchen, make coffee. And for years and years I took my BSA SLR cycle every week to my local coffee shop and fetch my mother's blend of coffee freshly ground for her, ready for me to pick up. I loved the smell of the shop. My mother spent more on coffee than on electricity at that time, for she bought this special Peaberry roast that was very expensive. But, I never drank coffee when I was at home, namely for the first 17 years of my life. I somehow did not like the taste of the final product. My brother started drinking coffee when he was twelve or something. But I never did. I now know the reason. I hate chicory in coffee. At the time I thought I hated coffee. That, as you will find out if you stick with this rambling till its end, was completely wrong.

Then I went off to college and started drinking coffee, for no better reason that the milk in my hostel was some watery version of what it should be and tasted better with some of the brown liquid that passed for decoction mixed in with it and also socially at the canteen and the small shops outside our college because that was what people did. And then I went to grad school and started working hard for the first time in my life, regularly sleeping less than I wanted to, what with core courses and teaching and so on. I discovered that coffee helped me stay up better and started having a few cups a day, still rather indifferently. Almost anything, the suspicious brew in the graduate lounge and instant coffee from the microwave at two in the morning.

My love affair with coffee started when I went to live in Europe for an extended period of time. "Un cafe solo por favor" was the first thing I spoke out loud in Spanish. As if by some magic, I discovered a taste for coffee. I had cafe au lait in Paris and discovered the pleasure of having coffee with a little piece of chocolate to nibble on the side. Then I went on a five day hike in the hills of Granada in Andalusia in Spain in December. It was cold and we were walking from dawn to dusk. One of the Italian guys in the crowd suggested on the second morning that we start our day with a Cafe Corretto. When you ask for it, the guy at the cafe sets an espresso in a large glass in front of you and then starts pouring Grappa (a rather strong liquor as I discovered) till you tell him to stop. I found out by my third cup of Cafe Corretto that the appropriate amount of Grappa for me was exactly as much as there was coffee. It made me just warm enough and just high enough to keep walking till the next village. So, that was the first experience of coffee with alcohol. By the end of my stay in Europe I was hooked to coffee.

After coming back to the United States, I struggled for a while to make coffee that tasted right to me. But after experimentation for six months I settled into a system that worked for me and have stuck to it for four years now. Every morning, after my wake up ritual and ablutions, it is coffee time. I make coffee two ways, the first is the standard American drip coffee, with the recommended one scoop of dark roasted coffee grounds for every six ounces of water, but boosted with an extra scoop of espresso grounds. I drink it straight, no milk, never sugar. And one itsy bitsy piece of 99% Chocolate Noir degustation from Lindt. Two cups makes me feel good. Three cups makes me high. I am in heaven for those ten minutes of my day. And on bad days that is the best part of my day. The other way I make coffee is with my Italian coffee pot. This I drink with steamed milk and usually skip breakfast afterwards. Again, heaven! Just me, my cup of coffee and the silence of the morning (my coffee ritual is at 4:30 am on most mornings)! Boy! did I miss out on this pleasure for so many years!

I never became a connoisseur so to speak. I know the jargon now, Arabica, Robusta, Peaberries and Blue Mountain Coffee and so on. But, being an academic, I have dedicated my life at the altar of science in a manner of speaking and cannot afford to indulge in such things. On the rare occasions that I get to taste such heavenly brews I relish it, but then I go back the next day to my generic (not so generic as Folgers or Maxwell house, but still pretty generic) dark roasted coffee. And to tie the story back to where it started, when I went back home after being hooked to coffee, I discovered the real pleasure of Madras filter coffee. I made my mother brew chicory-less coffee at home and had a little taste of heaven. Then, with my father, went out to explore the world of filter coffee in Madras and discovered quite a few Bhavans (Geetha Cafe in T Nagar for example, near Naidu hall) that have good filter coffee with less chicory in them. So, now one of the things I look forward to whenever I go home is Idly vadai and "kaapi sugar illaama" at the nearest Bhavan the second morning of my stay (I am too jet lagged to see the morning of my first day back). So much for the first small pleasure in my life, history geography and all.

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