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Saturday, September 25, 2004

Bottomless in America

Bertrand Russell was puzzled; if somebody had all the qualities of being a great general, was he indeed a great general, or just a reality-challenged fake? No, this blog isn't about President Bush; it's about espresso in America. Espresso is a traditional Italian craft, just as haut cuisine is traditionally French, or sushi, traditionally Japanese. American experts in such culturally rooted arts always suffer from "reality-anxiety," a fear that no matter how excellent they are, they aren't quite real. Such anxiety has its victims grasping after greater and more astonishing feats, sometimes salutary and sometimes off the wall. Which one the bottomless portafilter is, I'm not sure.

In Italy, espresso is an everyday thing, and its preparation and consumption without fanfare. The barman grinds the coffee, tamps it into the portafilter, and pulls the shot casually and quickly; the customer is also casual and quick drinking it. That the shot is reliably good is expected, and passes without comment. In North America, most of what passes for espresso is undrinkable slop; so those who do it well make a grand production of it. Grinders and espresso machines are tweaked with high-tech instrumentation more approriate to Nasa or Intel than a cafe, so that espresso is made at exactly the right pressure, temperature, and timing. In America, if all these things aren't precisely right, the espresso isn't real; and, in the minds of afficionados, the cafe is relegated back to the slop-pulling bush leagues.

Nowhere is this precision more obsessive and comic than in *tamping,* the act of pressing the ground coffee into the basket so it forms a firm puck. If this isn't done right, a hydro-geological-culinary catastrophe ensues, as the water channels through tiny fault lines in the puck, and ends up under-extracted in the cup. In order to avoid this disaster, there are multiple recipes for proper tamping, each more complicated than the next. They all require considerable upper body strength and a custom built, stainless steel, ergonomically correct tamping apparatus. In Italy, one tamps with a casual wave towards a plastic disk mounted on the grinder; but North America is obviously much more seismically active, and such half-measures won't cut it.

Tamping has gotten more and more complicated since nobody could actually see whether the flow through the puck was perfect or was being compromised by hidden fault-lines. Enter the bottomless portafilter and a new era in espresso precision. The traditional portafilter holds the basket filled with coffee grounds, and collects the extracted espresso emerging from the holes in the bottom of the basket, channeling the flow through a spout into the cup. The bottomless PF dispenses with this collection. The spout and bottom of the portafilter are cut away, and the espresso flows directly from the holes in the bottom of the basket into the cup. A mess is avoided, since surface tension collects the flow from the wide spread of holes into a narrow stream. In this arrangement, one can finally see which of the complicated tamping rituals works best, since it results in an even flow from all the holes.

So far, this sounds like something best discussed in the Journal for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders. Sometimes, however, out of madness comes beauty; and the flow of the espresso out of the basket, newly revealed by the bottomless PF, is beautiful, a coffee lover's candy cane of black and tan striations that've come to life. Even I'm thinking of getting a bottomless portafilter, so I can see this for myself; I just hope I don't need a five minute tamping ritual and a Zoloft prescription to use it properly.

Jim Schulman

posted by Jim Schulman | 1:45 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Geishas on Panama Mountains

These geishas wear leaves and flowers, not kimonos, since they are a type of coffee tree. Price Peterson, the new owner of Esmeralda coffee farm, found a stand of them in a remote corner of the property. Instead of mixing them with the rest of the beans, as had always been done, he tried them on their own. After he had touched down again, he gathered the 6 precious bags of fruit, named them Jaramillo Especial after the region, and took them to the SCAA auction. The coffee scored 96 points and was auctioned for the highest price ever, $21 per pound for the green beans. So around 800 people will have the privilege of trying a pound of this coffee roasted for around $45 a shot.

What will they taste? I scored one test roast's worth (thanks, Bob), roasted it very, very carefully, and tasted. My Hungarian grandmother would have loved this coffee. She used to make a festive desert, rakos palacsinta, consisting of a layer cake of crepes, alternated with melted chocolate sprinkled with roasted filberts, and apricot preserves spiked with apricot brandy, topped, of course, with whipped cream. This coffee is liquid rakos palacsinta, and has a jasmine tea aroma and some mandarin zest to boot (crepe batter with jasmine tea? Hmm.)

I would have loved to have been at the auction cupping as the tasters stumbled across this cup amidst what passes for quality coffee these days in Central America. In the last generation, the traditional tall and scraggly coffee tree of America, the Bourbon cultivar, has been replaced by Caturra and Catuai, more compact, easy to pick, trees. These beans have their champions, since they are exceptionally crisp, clean, and striking. But to me, they taste of peanut flavored lemonade, with vast swaths of nothingness where the rest of the tastes should be; striking yes, like finding a parking garage when expecting a building. The Geisha cultivar is close to its Ethiopian ancestry, and tastes like the very best from Harar and Yrgacheffe, a heady and complex mix of enticing flavors. I hope Cental American coffee farmers take note -- the Jaramillo went for $21 per pound, the next highest coffee for $2.50 per pound. Maybe, in ten years, we'll get a lot more geishas from Central America

Jim Schulman

posted by Jim Schulman | 5:55 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

Monday, September 20, 2004

And the award for the best gadget not by Ronco goes to ...

Like all proper gadgets, you'll be absolutely amazed to hear, it slices, dices, etc. Also like all proper gadgets, it's pretty much guaranteed to break in around 18 months. However, unlike other gadgets, I buy a new one, every time the old one breaks. After all, it's let me retire the food processor, blender and mixer, recovering all that valuable counterspace for the really important thing in life -- espresso equipment.

I'm talking about the Braun Multimix M880; a handmixer with attachable mouli, blender, and doughhhooks. The doughhooks turn out to be particularly useful. Obviously, they knead (unless you work a jackhammer on your regular job, start with the water and feed in the flour gradually, otherwise your wrists might snap). But they also can replace a paddle mixer. Cheese spreads and tapenades come out particularly nicely when mixed with doughhooks. They even mix the butter and sugar for pastry doughs in about a minute. My good knives and pans may sneer, but the old Braun keeps its place in my kitchen.

Lately, of course, the doughhooks are getting their workout on my quest for fresh morning balons. I tried a 2 hour second rise before refrigerating them overnight. This produced the right crust and bread texture, but the balons collapsed. Crispy pitas anyone? Stay tuned for the next episode.

Another quality substitute blog by Jim Schulman -- I bet you're all waiting for Fortune to get back.

posted by Jim Schulman | 9:50 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

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