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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Espresso

In January of 2000 I went on my first trip to Italy. Three days after a job interview in Tartous with a visiting delegation I received a call asking me to attend a meeting in Treviso. The company had applied for an expedited visa on my behalf and one week later I was there, at headquarters.

We sat in a very large and Italian meeting room with glass all around instead of walls. The ceiling and the floor were mostly made of transparent panels too. It was fantastic architecture by all means and although I'm no great fan of cutting edge modern design I was impressed nevertheless. The same 3 men who interviewed me in Tartous walked into the room with an amicable disposition. They inquired about the flight, if my room in the hotel was comfortable enough and whether breakfast was to my liking. Then we sat down to business. I neglected to tell them that I didn't have time for a proper breakfast but instead only had a cupcake. Most importantly there was no coffee in the breakfast area and before I had a chance to order it from the bar the dispatched car and driver had arrived.

15 minutes into the meeting I was dying for a cup of coffee. I was also reflecting on how differently business in Syria is conducted. The first half an hour or so is mostly spent on pleasantries such as talk about the kids, the weather and world economy, in Tartous at least. Coffee and/or tea are brought in by an attendant. Sugar is premixed as per each individual person's preference. Then ever so slowly the talk tangos into the business at hand. One of my hosts, more attentive than the others and who eventually became a personal friend, noticed my discomfort and asked if he could get me something. Yes please, can I have some coffee?

I was surprised that in a company with over 800 employees worldwide and with an office staff of 150 there wasn't a single person with the designated job of making and/or serving beverages. Of course that was my first venture into the world of big business abroad. It's true that I worked in the US before and that there was no one to serve coffee either, but I only worked in a university and a small general aviation company. Carlo, logistics and international crew and recruiting manager, got up himself and fixed me an espresso.


I was 40 and I just had my first real Italian espresso but I got hooked since. There's nothing in the world, not a single dish or beverage that comes close to an Italian espresso. But more than their cuisine or their wines, the football or the super cars, architecture, painting or sculpture, Italians reached their true height in art and science with their espresso machines and coffee.

I bought my first and only espresso machine in February of that year as a birthday present for myself. It was simple and actually the only one I could find, a French Moulinex Gusto. Unlike fancier machines, which contain a stainless steel or a brass boiler, an exchanger, complex plumbing and a powerful pump to flash-heat the water to precise temperature on its way to the basket containing the ground coffee, minee had a plastic water tank, a small heater in the head and an electric pump. Once the water temperature gets to a certain degree in the head itself the thermostat light comes off. I push a rocker switch activating a pump which in turn forces a jet of water over the coffee. I had it for 12 years and it served me at least one cup of coffee every morning I've spent at home since. I never filled it with anything but Lavazza coffee, the brand that I chose as my favorite after my maiden 5 days visit to Italy.

Last week the Moulinex started leaking on the sides around the filter holder. I fiddled with it as best as I could but I realized that it had reached the end of its useful life. This morning, my cup of espresso tasted almost as bland as a cup of American coffee with the consistency and suspended particles I so much despise in Turkish coffee. I cleaned the machine reverently for it had served me well. I even spoke to it and promised that I'll try to fix it but with the relegated role of a backup.

I just bought a new machine, a steam powered espresso coffee maker and an Italian at that. My DeLonghi is set up and ready. I can almost smell the fresh brew and the temptation is killing me. But that will have to wait till morning. For now, a shot of Grappa to celebrate the change of guard is in order. Salute!

32 comments:

Gabriela said...

I'm not a coffee person at all. When I have to choose a hot beverage, it will always be a cup of hot milk, no sugar added. I simply love it! And for cold drinks, a good old Coke will do it.
But I can get your distress about coffee. And I'm sorry for your old espresso machine. I hope the new manages to fit those huge shoes!

Isobel said...

Congratulations on your new machine! Looks dandy! :) I hope you enjoy many years of good espresso with it.

I'm not an espresso fan but I understand the need for a good machine to brew a good cup of coffee. There's nothing worse than mud colour sock water! Lol!

Cheers!!

Anonymous said...

congrats on your new machine :) I hope it serves you at least another 12years and i hope to share with you a cup one day soon.
Abu Abdo

Joseph said...

Oh, the joy a measure of espresso brings in the morning. Mabrouk, Abufares.

Sasa said...

I love that story AF :) But you know Londoners make the best espressos. We have the world champion barista - seriously ya tartousi ;);) ta3l

Shannon said...

This makes me sad that I'm finishing my coffee as I type. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Salam Abu fares
The last time I was in Tartarus 3 years ago I discovered this place العلبي and had my best espresso, I still crave that taste. I have been disappointed with all home coffee machines (never taste as it does at the coffee shope), let me know if this new machine does the trick ,enjoy!
جارك ابو فارس

abufares said...

@Gabriela
Good morning Peruvian girl. I loved hot milk (with sugar) up to first grade, lol. Then my quest for something stronger officially began.
I'm not a huge coffee drinker by the way. You'll discover more interesting facts about yours truly in subsequent replies.
Oh, one more thing. I root for you every time I post. I secretly want you to be the first to comment but don't tell anyone I said that ;-)

abufares said...

@Isobel
Hello 2nd person to usually comment, lol.
She is dandy, you're right. I just need to give her a name. The old one was Bernadette.
You're not an espresso fan because I haven't made you a cup myself yet. Of course good coffee and a top of the line machine help tremendously but there's always the barista's magical touch.
I think your reference to mud colored sock water means that you drink American coffee. Oops! Should I say Canadian coffee to be politically correct? Don't get me wrong. I don't mind American coffee and I do enjoy it. After my small espresso cup at home I leisurely consume a large American one in the office. As far as I'm concerned it's more preferable than our Turkish coffee. But an espresso cafe is the equivalent of a beautiful flavor. It's a Ferrari while American coffee is an Oldsmobile and Turkish coffee is a horse driven cart.

abufares said...

@Abu Abdo
OK I have to tell you what happened this morning.
It didn't turn out that great. Well in all fairness I have to give the DeLonghi some time, or more accurately give myself time to master it.
My old machine was so idiot proof that almost anyone could make an above average espresso with it. Over 12 years I reached the point where I could make a perfect cup every time even blindfolded. I got so attuned to the noises it made and could manually shut it down at the precise moment. My cup always had the right amount of foam on top.
The new one being a real steam machine has a different way to control the output by pouring the precise amount of water in the boiler. It has 3 settings (light, medium and strong) which I still need to experiment with. As a matter of fact after I finish replying to comments here I will embark on a journey of browsing espresso related sites for tips and tricks.
By the time you get your ugly ass here and I would've perfected the science into an art :-)

abufares said...

@Joseph
It's really like driving stick-shift after many years of automatic. Besides, Lavazza comes in 2 forms, a packet and a can. I have discovered long time ago that the coffee inside the packet is finer than the can. It suited my Moulinex perfectly. This Delonghi would work better with coarser ground coffee and this is what I'll try next. Ideally I should acquire beans and ground them myself but quality coffee is not readily available in Tartous.
Any tips old mate?

abufares said...

@Sasa
Oh I had great coffee in London certainly but you know what's funny. I got so used to my Lavazza and my own machine that my espresso became the standard to compare to. It's very hard to be objective here but I actually have been brewing the perfect cup for quite a long time. Suddenly, I'm a novice again and I need to learn how to drive the new machine asap.
Glad to see you here.

abufares said...

@Shannon
I do feel kind of sad every morning when I finish my espresso.
There's a ritual. I eat a biscuit (A la française) first then sip my coffee as if it were the elixir of life. The only drawback of an espresso is also its strongest point. It's so damn small and you're left wanting more but you know that if you drink more you will ruin its essence. Kind of like sex but not really!
I think I should get into my Oldsmobile now :-) before I make more stupid similes.

abufares said...

@جاري أبو فارس
I've been to the Olabi coffee shop a few times. I like their coffee but in all honesty it doesn't compare to any Italian espresso I tried. As a matter of fact a friend of mine, a restaurant owner uses their beans in his expensive and very(professional) espresso machine. It's as good, if not better, than any you would drink in Syria, Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus included, but falls short of good Italian coffee.
As I said, my previous simple Moulinex worked like magic. I only made my first cup with the new one today and there's obviously a learning curve I must follow.
Cheers to you :-)

Gabriela said...

:D
Maybe, some little tiny part of me is still a firstgrader.
And don't worry, your secret is safe with me.

Hebe said...

What made me smile about your blog sits right at the end of it, when you tell us that you even spoke to your old Espresso machine... I bet the machine is a "She" and that you really spoke to her like she was an old lover! That is so YOU!

I still can not drink coffee, it gives me terrible shakes when I do. But, I do love the smell of it and my husband does not function unless he has had his Espresso each morning. He has Gaggia Platinum Vision machine that grinds the coffee beans and froths the milk so well that, the coffee not only smells delicious, but looks beautiful too!

I stick to my cup of Gunpowder Tea, or Jasmin, and when I want something stronger, Earl Grey with just a touch of honey. I love breakfast! Such a pleasure to go through the ritual each morning. Even though I only have tea, a good piece of rustic bread, jam and a glass of iced water, it is one of my favorite times of the day.

Enjoy your Espresso and may your New Espresso Machine give you many, many cups of the perfect brew!

Joseph said...

I have been using the same espresso coffee machine for the past 11 years. A pretty much manual one. My favorite for some time now is the dark roast 100% Arabica from illy. It comes in a can. I have often used coffee blends as well, from local coffee bean suppliers. Perhaps, in your free time you could source coffee beans of different origins, blend and, have them ground yourself.

Enjoy this.

abufares said...

@Gabriela
I think your heart is :-) and it's not tiny at all.
Be well and thank you for keeping a secret.

abufares said...

@Hebe
You're absolutely right, lol. I did speak to her I swear :-)
Your husband's Gaggia is like a Mercedes Coupe among Espresso machines. It's a beautiful one and excellent at what it does. Unfortunately, here in Tartous I have no say in what I can buy. The DeLonghi I got was the only one available. Now to add insult to injury I had to return it last night (no refunds please) cause its coffee turned out more like mocha than espresso. I don't mind a good cup of mocha btw but I NEED an espresso in the morning. I have to wait till my next trip abroad to look for and get a decent "one-cup-a-day machine". I only drink one espresso in the morning then a cup of American in the office and that's it. No one else at home uses it at all. Problem is most, if not all, good espresso machines are intended for heavier use and cost a fortune. Any suggestion from your hubby since I'm sure (by virtue of his choice) that he knows plenty about espresso?
As for your affinity for tea I totally understand it. I grew up in a family where tea was almost sacred. It's my fault that I turned out an ataet :-) You're right though, morning rituals are such an important part of our days. My breakfast is simple too but I gotta have it or else!

abufares said...

@Joseph
I like the Illy too. I've been drinking Lavazza 100% Pure Arabica for as far back as I can remember. I love it and I'm happy that I'm able to regularly buy it from Lebanon (Tripoli and Beirut). I've been considering experimenting with different beans for a while. My main problem is the limited choice in Tartous as far as good coffee is concerned. You have to remember though that the best ground coffee we have here is sold at $10 or less a Kg which simply mean that it's not top choice to start with. So, packaged ground Italian, (Lavazza or Illy) are by far superior to any alternative.
Next time I'm in Beirut buying my coffee I'll get my machine too :-)
Good Morning!

Isobel said...

Eh hem? Oldsmobile? I'm sure Maxwell House or Folgers could be equated with an Oldsmobile. But my Starbucks (if I MUST equate it to a North American vehicle) would be more of a Lincoln or Cadillac. PULEEEEZ!! As for mud coloured sock water...any cup of coffee, espresso included, can end up that way if done poorly wouldn't you agree? :)Sorry your maker didn't turn out as well as you had hoped. I'm sure, however, you'll find the perfect replacement for your old friend (or lover as Hebe suggested lol!).

Hebe said...

Hey, would it be possible to mail you an Espresso machine! Or is that out of the question???

abufares said...

@Isobel
Well I bet your coffee is more like a Mustang or a Camaro, 2 lovely cars that make me feel 21 year young all over again :-)
But wait a minute!!! I resent your insinuation. There was absolutely nothing between Bernadette and me. We were just friends and never lovers :-P

abufares said...

@Hebe
:-) Unfortunately and beside the mail being impractical for fear of the package getting lost in the twilight zone there's also the problem with proper voltage. Our household current runs on 220V (like Europe and the rest of the world) while it's 110V in N. America.
Hopefully, on my next trip abroad or even to Lebanon I'll get myself a new "good" one.
Meanwhile, Bernadette fixed me a great cup this morning. It's true that she leaks on the sides but nevertheless she still makes the best damn coffee around. OMG that sounded so wrong, LMAO :-D

Hassan G said...

Reading your post, I could nearly smell the coffee from you Moulinex :) Now I can't stop thinking of an espresso!



Another Tartousi.

abufares said...

@Hassan
Go for it, if not now then tomorrow morning. Sahha wa hana.
Thank you for dropping by.

Hassan G said...

Will try to in the morning :)
I follow your blog for nearly a year now.. But usually I'm it much of a commenter...
Cheers

Hebe said...

What a shame about the post office! I could have asked my sister in law to send you one from Italy : (

Hope Bernardette keeps you happy until you can get a new one.

cariños

Anonymous said...

Everything has an end to its useful life, and nothing lasts forever. That's what some just don't, or choose not to, understand.
Be well my friend

abufares said...

i@Anonymous
Oh but I understand and totally agree. The only reason I've waited so long to have it replaced is that I can't find what I want in the local market. As I said, first opportunity I get.
My Moulinex is limping along and every morning when the cup of espresso is made I breathe a long sigh of relief :-)

perfectly.imperfect said...

Hi, a new reader here! I stumbled across your older posts (around 2009) and fell in love with your story telling style of blogging. I felt like I was reading a novel! I hoped that when I eventually tapped the banner I'd be lucky enough to see you're still blogging, which you somewhat are. Looking forward to more posts enshallah

abufares said...

@perfectly.imperfect
I'm so sorry it took me all this time to get back to your comment and reply. I've been hopping from one place to another and just had my first chance to sit and write on my blog again. I'm glad and honored you liked my writing and I must say the same thing about yours from the little I read of it.
Thank you for your kind words. Please drop by any time you like.