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Saturday, December 21, 2002

tale of two illys

today i had the unusual situation of two illy coffees at two separate brooklyn coffee shops: one way down the street at paula's, and the other way down the hill at the dumbo general store.

long-time readers know that i'm not a big illy fan, but it's usually better than say, starbucks, or having your legs cut off with a hacksaw. the people in my office just love it, however.

so. i'm wandering down to dumbo today to see fellow yoga student sheila g.'s open studio, where she was exhibiting prints, ceramics, jewelry. it's a tad windy -- ok, big chill wind -- and ambling down hicks i stop in at sleepy nabe corner place paula's.

now that spot has oh about US$2,000 of antique coffee pots in the window, beautiful stuff, like a lovely pre-war copper napoletana with a double wooden handle. just lovely. and so i decide today to hop in for an espresso macchiato.

paula's is a grungy nabe dive, and the proprietress herself appears to be none too concerned with her store or alas her coffee. she is an illy shop, with the requisite unic phoenix. the illy standard small shop machine. i looked around -- i couldn't see a grinder. maybe it was behind the machine? i ordered the macchiato.

the owner languidly reached next to the diva and extracted a square packet from a jar. just the same size and shape as a condom packet. was it going to be a trojan coffee? then it hit me -- oh my god, it was a pod. she was serving pod-water, made with little sachets of pre-ground illy, packaged individually in paper discs.

i must say i bore up remarkably well. so i was presented with the little illy paper cup of espresso, with a thin, beige layer of something that was supposed to be crema. she handed me a quart of milk, still in the paper carton.

"you wanted milk with that, right?" she said. i nearly hit the floor. "um, could you steam that?" i asked. she obligingly shambled over to the steam wand, turned it up full blast for about 10 seconds and presented me with a mini-pitcher of boiled milk.

where oh where was illy new york sales manager guido zoli when you needed him?

but i sipped the pod-scum, and was surprised to discover it was actually drinkable without sugar -- except of course for the burnt milk. anyway, i continued down to sheila's (with a quick stop off at the new dumbo abc carpet & home). on the way back i had to stop at jacques torres to pick up some last minute gifts for my co-workers.

passing over dumbo's charming cobblestones carried me past the dumbo general store, a cool upscale coffee bar cum artist's supply house. i noticed the illy logo on the door. ok! i made my mind up. i would do it again!

dumbo general has the artsy expensive purple leather couch, the carefully prepared concrete floor, the tall wooden bar with design-y stools, the edith piaf wafting up against a 20-foot ceiling. handsome young starving artists of the various genders are strewn about the place in intellectual eyeglasses, while an italian covered in oil paint is downing something at the bar, which is decorated with careful wading pools of light from gallery pin spots.

the barista is likewise a painter making her rent. but there i am heartened to see a mazzer super jolly in all its glory, its elegant hopper replaced with a robotic illy head. the giant can of illy, bulging from its pressure packing, gave the delicate silvery blue grinder a deformed look. i wanted to raise money to send it to a children's hospital where they fix that kind of thing. still, i asked for an espresso macchiato.

but my hope fell to the usual despair to see the mazzer doser stuffed full with pre-ground coffee, which had clearly been ground, oh, that morning. all bad. still, at least the portafilters were mounted in the grouphead! instead of pod-water made by an indifferent soul, i at least had somewhat freshly ground coffee -- maybe? -- that could be made by a real barista.

but no. the artist-formerly-known-as-bartender lazily twitched the doser handle, swiped the top of the coffee with a tiny fisher-price tamper, and tossed the the portafilter into the unic phoenix. the phoenix really is the standard illy machine, after all. the coffee roared into a cold espresso cup, and was then topped with sea-foam. i mean the bubbles were larger than what you'd expect on the storm-tossed waters of the bay of fundy.

i held this cup to my lips and drank. bitter horror assaulted me. i think it might have been paint thinner, actually, or damar varnish. no, varnish is thicker. . .my horror was compounded when i realized that actually this was worse than paula's pod-water. oh lord, my soul cried, how can you give such a great espresso bar set up and have it ruined and despised like this?

it's really sacrilege, you know. dr. illy should sue. at least jacques' chocolate-and-fresh-fig torte was superb when chased with his classic hot chocolate. if only he wouldn't boil the milk. . .

it's such a shame, since long-time readers know how simple it is to make exquisite espresso at home. all you need is fresh specialty coffee, a decent grinder, a serviceable espresso machine, an aluminum tamper, a warm portafilter, and a pre-heated cup. dear friends, learn from my misery!

take your coffee back into the home. offer your family and friends the luxury of fine gourmet italian coffee. that gauzy experience promised by the tv ads can be yours -- just not with the tv coffee. drop by local roaster and get some fresh coffee today.

should you lack even my humble set up, a little silvia and a mazzer mini, you can still make astonishing coffee with nothing more than a burr grinder, a tea kettle, a thermos, and a clean muslin sock. . .tho' a stovetop moka pot might be more expedient!

posted by fortune | 7:33 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Friday, December 20, 2002

reality check

just when i think i've lost all touch with the real world and have gone too far into this coffee silliness, i sit back, have a cup from my office cafetiere (a.k.a. french press) and remember that good, fresh coffee is not only great for the spirit, it's also a fun way to make friends in the office!

of course, another attraction of fine specialty coffee is that it's an affordable luxury; a pleasant, cozy thing you can easily do for your family and friends to make their lives a little more enjoyable, the time you spend together a little more special. it's nice to be able to add little things to your life without having to get all martha stewart about it. . .

but as i had the extreme pleasure of speaking to new york roasters dallis brothers coffee today, i did begin to think i was losing it a little. perhaps even they were a little taken aback when we started chatting about faema machines and the like. of course, long-time readers know i don't have such a fancy machine; i make do with my little rancilio silvia.

so it's with pleasure that i read an article today about enrico maltoni, a guy so in love with antique espresso machines he started his own home museum. i felt like i hadn't quite gone off the deep end -- yet!

still, i had to go to his museum website (in italian); his machines are truly beautiful.

posted by fortune | 5:14 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Thursday, December 19, 2002

yoga never dies

just when i had to swear that the yoga fad was completely over, i get fresh news that it still has legs. legs longer shawn bradley's.

don't believe it? here's a nice retired lady from wichita touting yoga as the cure for arthritis. at the same time, MTV has just released its first yoga video. when was the last time a hot trend ran from young to old, from urban to suburban?

now, clearly, it must on its way out; will the hip-hop kids from bed-stuy be doing tree poses when they discover our grandma from kansas on the mat next to them?

whether it's hot or not, there's new proof in an english study that yoga fights heart disease. the researchers were so impressed with the results of their survey, they suggested a larger life-style trial.

and finally, on the last-minute yoga gift idea front, i'm recommending 2 authoritative and trustworthy works:

posted by fortune | 4:53 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

nice overviews

today we have nice overview articles on two of our favorite topics, coffee and chocolate. for those just stumbling across this blog by accident -- you were searching google for yoga shoes, bowling alley wax, or who knows what -- and wondering what the hell i'm talking about, read 'em.

i'm completely aware that the gift deadlines are coming. last minute shopping is always a crisis. let me help out by pointing to a great list for coffee lovers, with a wide range of gift ideas at all prices.

don't worry, i'll make targeted recommendations for lovers of our other passions in the coming days. . .

posted by fortune | 4:24 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

rural mexican indigenous culture

seems like an odd topic, hmm, dear readers, doesn't it? but the point of this little ethnographic article is to show the evidence of the human suffering the continuing coffee crisis wreaks on the most far away places.

that's right -- the greed of the largest coffee companies, those responsible for the supermarket canned coffee brands -- the coffee most people drink every day -- is destroying lives and villages in rural mexico.

read the article about the changes in this indigenous tribe of mexican natives. it all seems harmless enough, almost a feminist fable, until you realize it's about a coffee region.

you're reading about the plight of native huasteco women, guardians of their unique langugage. the plummeting price of coffee has left their husbands out of work, turned to alcoholism and lost in despair. some of these husbands have been forced to become illegal immigrants, to risk their lives crossing the border.

(the next time you read the short blurb on the back pages of your paper about the 11 mexican immigrants found dead in a sealed boxcar, you will know who you're reading about, why they died the way they did, and the effect on their families in mexico.)

what you're looking at is a story about the collapse of the social system in rural mexico. in that light, it's deeply sad.

but don't be bummed out. not only can you do something about this -- you will, i'm sure. run down to your local coffeehouse and ask for some fair-trade or relationship coffee. give fair-trade coffee to your friends. and consider donating a few dollars to either coffee kids or lwr coffee project, both excellent charities.

posted by fortune | 2:16 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Monday, December 16, 2002

chocolate: art & idea

it was in fact deeply amusing to read the new york times yesterday, where the magazine noted the rise of a new idea: chocolate sophistication. unfortunately for the times, they are little behind the ball on this one. . .and the over-priced confectioner they cite, lunettes et chocolat, which i've mentioned before, is far from stellar.

and also in the realm of chocolate, i was thrilled to see the price chocolate "watercolors" are now fetching. i don't know how jean wertz's chocolate truffles are, but his copies of van gogh in chocolate are really rather fetching; his mona lisas less so. . .

posted by fortune | 4:12 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Sunday, December 15, 2002

the perfect pizza

does the perfect pizza exist? even though i have an excellent recipe, i'm still always tinkering with the proportions of the flours -- right now i'm favoring 50-50 clear flour and king arthur's sir lancelot -- as well as exactly how much oil.

then there's the question of how to place the cheese on top for the perfect layer of melty goodness. large, ultra-thin squares sliced carefully from a ball of fresh mozzarella pressed a bit for shape seem best. but slices are square, pizza is round -- there are sometimes unsightly gaps, or you have to overlap slices, leading to uneven cheese thickness and imperfect browning.

but science may have my answer: a mathematical formula for topping placement!

meanwhile, the new york times' love affair with yoga continues. they might as well start a new section, it seems. but the paper does point out the must-have of the season, the dr. scholls yoga shoe.

these soft and stretchy shoes are to wear to and from yoga class, since yoga is done barefoot. what's great about the dr. scholls variety is that they have a stylish look without the high sticker price of the nike, nuala, etc. shoes.

the amazing thing is that i don't think any place sells these online yet. i even checked froogle. you'll have to hop down to your local shoe repair place (like the one on university and 12th in manhattan) that sells dr. scholls everything. except they're probably already sold out. . .

posted by fortune | 12:54 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

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