& Coffee Heaven
Early days: Coffee Hell
Look out, it's the dreaded percolator! The older siblings cringe... He gets it out. He inspects it narrowly—don't ask why, he’ll personally have scoured it with lashings of washing-up detergent. He gets out the ground coffee...
Oh, God. Here is it: pale fawn, in his large, lowish cup that's his coffee cup. Offers Mum some. She usually refuses, not because she can’t stand it—doesn’t know any better, poor woman—but because her claim is after-dinner coffee’ll keep her awake. How could anything that weak keep anybody awake? What’ll keep her awake is that dark orange cup of tea she has at 9 o’clock, regular as clockwork, rain or shine, Hell or high water.
There's plenty! –There would be, there’s two level teaspoons of coffee in the thing to at least a pint of water. More, thinking of the size of the milk bottles.
“You can't know you won’t like if you don’t try it.”
Dad, of course I can know it, one look at— (Don’t say it.)
“Just because you don’t like tea—”
I give in. “Okay, then. Ta, Dad.”
UGH! It tastes like boiled cigarette ash in hot water. The full-cream milk only slightly ameliorates it.
He looks round the table hopefully. No takers. He drinks it... Give the man a medal! Or clap him up, mm.
That was coffee, when we were young. Forget the high water—sheer Hell, yep.
Where did such awful coffee come from? Well, Dad’s mean streak, partly. But it was largely the Colonial heritage, suffered by the whole of the English-speaking world. Theoretically the cookery writers knew how to make good coffee. Well-roasted beans—from the mid-19th century the books are full of advice about well-roasted beans—and boiling water. At the same time, they also advise really awful, hair-raising things:
“Allow 4 oz., or 1 tablespoonful, of ground coffee to each person; to every oz. of coffee allow 1/3 pint of water.” Mrs Beeton, in 1861. Hang on! Is she really advocating 4 times 1/3 pint of water to every person’s one tablespoonful? That’s one and a third pints, Isabella!! A pint is 600 ml, so we’re looking at 800 ml of water to 1 tablespoon of coffee. I’ve just checked my PDF file of The Book of Household Management, vol. 3. p.176, and that is what it says. Is it a misprint? Maybe it should be 1/4 oz. to each person?? Or “to every 4 oz. of coffee”?? Unfortunately it doesn’t read that way, and sousing a tablespoon of coffee in that much water certainly accounts for the awful pale fawn coffee of the British tradition!
“As Madame Lebour-Fawssett remarks, CAFE AU LAIT is never complete without chicory.” Dr Philip Muskett, 1894, in The Art of Living in Australia. His instructions, which include an incomprehensibly detailed description of a French “cafetiere” (see below), are so verbose as to be unintelligible, so maybe we can discount him. But chicory ain't coffee. Cheaper, though—yep.
“Standing on the grounds does not spoil the flavor of coffee as it does tea.” An American, Martha McCulloch-Williams, in Dishes & Beverages of the Old South, 1913. Her instructions are really good—up until this unfortunate sentence, alas! Leave your coffee to stand and you get that ole southern tobacco-ash flavour.
“Stand the pot over fire or gas until it comes to the boil, let it simmer from half an hour to an hour; serve with enough hot milk to half fill each cup, and you will have a drink fit for a king or a millionaire.” From “Mrs. C.R. Morris”, in the Australian Green and Gold Cookery Book, 15th ed. (rev.), circa 1949. How long? In conjunction with the adjuration just under this recipe (and at the bottom of each page of this book) to "USE BUTTER - NOT IMITATIONS", a regular serve of Mrs Morris's well-boiled coffee would have gone a fair way towards taking the king or millionaire off in his prime. Never mind, by 1949 very few Antipodeans could afford real coffee anyway—or wanted to.
The Essence of It
Back in the Fifties and Sixties when we were young there was no instant coffee—unimaginable, eh? It was real ground coffee or coffee essence, period. Mum refused to buy coffee essence—dunno why, think it was classed as both revolting and lower-class, but she wouldn't have used either expression, too mealy-mouthed. Funnily enough she managed to get the point over, though: she was good at that, poor old Mum. Whereas other people’s mums, her own old friends, and various aunties (ours or Dad’s) trotted out the sticky bottle without thinking twice about it.
“You could have coffee instead of tea, dear.”
“No, thanks, I’d really rather just have a drink of water.”
“Never mind!” (Brightly). “I can always use it in a cake—or I’ve got a lovely recipe for a coffee pudding!”
Gulp. “That sounds nice; ta.”
Real ground coffee was very dear, reason why almost no-one we knew bought it. Well, almost no-one in our suburb could afford a car, there was no cash to waste on fripperies. So Dad was very, very mean with the amount he used. In his shoes, wouldn’t you have skipped the almost-nightly routine and settled for a week’s worth of coffee all at once? It would have been strong, at least. Mind you, the percolator would still have ruined it. Oh, well.
Coffee essence was hugely popular with Antipodean home cooks right through the first sixty years of the 20th century. Suburban ladies, inveterate tea-drinkers themselves, used it as a drink as well as putting it in cakes and puddings. How it caught on, God knows. True, with two world wars and a depression, real coffee was just too hard to get and too dear when you could get it.
“During the Great Depression of the 1930s, chicory became a popular coffee substitute and additive and Bushell’s began making coffee and chicory essence.”
(Museum Victoria, http://museumvictoria.com.au/)
Lots of people in Australia and New Zealand loved it—I only remember the Bushell’s brand, but in Australia the “Turban” brand was terrifically popular, and people have nostalgic memories of its rich syrupy taste. Apparently. (See the comments, same site, under “Bottle - Kornies Food Co, Turban Brand, Essence of Coffee & Chicory, 1940s”).
You can still buy coffee essence and you still find old-fashioned Australian cooks using it in baking, though instead of the cakes and biscuits of fifty-odd years back they now use it in “slices,” as in “Coffee Caramel Slice” from “TrishJ” (http://www.bestrecipes.com.au)
Curiouser and Curiouser
Really weird coffee-making machines bobbed up in British culinary history from the middle of the 19th century: somehow the writers seemed to get the notion that the more complex and difficult to assemble the machine was (the engineering syndrome creeping in here, think it's a male-chromosome-linked gene), the better your coffee would be.
1861: Mrs Beeton’s Mad Machine
“There are very many new kinds of coffee-pots, but the method of making the coffee is nearly always the same; namely, pouring the boiling water on the powder, and allowing it to filter through. Our illustration shows one of Loysel's Hydrostatic Urns, which are admirably adapted for making good and clear coffee, which should be made in the following, manner:—Warm the urn with boiling water, remove the lid and movable filter, and place the ground coffee at the bottom of the urn. Put the movable filter over this, and screw the lid, inverted, tightly on the end of the centre pipe. Pour into the inverted lid the above proportion of boiling water, and when all the water so poured has disappeared from the funnel, and made its way down the centre pipe and up again through the ground coffee by hydrostatic pressure, unscrew the lid and cover the urn. Pour back direct into the urn, not through the funnel, one, two, or three cups, according to the size of the percolator, in order to make the infusion of uniform strength; the contents will then be ready for use, and should run from the tap strong, hot, and clear.”
1894: Dr Muskett’s Incomprehensible Apparatus
“The ... number of different models of coffee-makers is almost perplexing. But of them all, the one which is simplest, and perhaps most effective, is the ordinary CAFETIERE, or French coffee-pot. This has the advantage of costing only a few shillings, and is readily obtainable from any ironmonger. It consists of an upper compartment in which the coffee is made, and a lower part—the coffee-pot itself—into which the coffee descends. These two portions are quite separate, although the upper fits on the lower. The floor—on which the coffee is placed—of the upper part is perforated by a number of minute holes There is also a movable strainer about an inch in depth, which fits on top of the upper part; and a presser, consisting of a long rod with a circular plate at its end, which for convenience passes through the centre of the strainer, and rests on the perforated floor of the upper part.”
Drip, Drip, Drip
Of course what you really want is something simple, that’ll allow the hot water to penetrate the coffee slowly, for a good strong taste, and come out at the end without those pesky grounds. (Innumerable remedies for floating coffee grounds were tried—white of egg was one; and I think Anne of Green Gables is told to use eggshells, remember that?)
And thus the dreaded filter coffee was born...
The more I read Mrs Beeton’s book, the more convinced I am that the hubby, Mr S.O. Beeton, who was her publisher, had a definite hand in the pie. Like, more than just a finger. I can see Isabella and her faithful cook with their heads together over the actual recipes for The Book of Household Management, yes. They're mostly nice and clear, you can still follow the instructions today. But the descriptive bits, the history of the foodstuffs et al., are in quite a different style: long-winded, prosy and quite often boring. I'd take a bet it was hubby who advocated that daft coffee machine. She has to explain that for a large party (which you'd think an urn would be ideal for), it's too slow!
And I reckon this early filter idea is his, again, not hers:
A VERY SIMPLE METHOD OF MAKING COFFEE.
1811. INGREDIENTS.—Allow 1/2 oz., or 1 tablespoonful, of coffee to each person; to every oz. allow 1 pint of water.
Mode.—Have a small iron ring made to fit the top of the coffee-pot inside, and to this ring sew a small muslin bag (the muslin for the purpose must not be too thin). Fit the bag into the pot, pour some boiling water in it, and, when the pot is well warmed, put the ground coffee into the bag; pour over as much boiling water as is required, close the lid, and, when all the water has filtered through, remove the bag, and send the coffee to table. Making it in this manner prevents the necessity of pouring the coffee from one vessel to another, which cools and spoils it. The water should be poured on the coffee gradually, so that the infusion may be stronger; and the bag must be well made, that none of the grounds may escape through the seams, and so make the coffee thick and muddy.
Sufficient.—Allow 1 tablespoonful, or 1/2 oz., to each person.
(Here a tablespoonful, the amount of coffee per person, is half an ounce, so her other recipe is definitely misleading.)
1913: Drip Coffee: The American Contribution
Martha McCulloch-Williams provides more than one way of making coffee, in her Dishes & Beverages of the Old South. Here’s her take on filter coffee:
Two things are essential—an absolutely clean urn, and sound coffee, freshly parched, and ground neither too fine nor too coarse. The water must be freshly boiled. Put a cup of ground coffee in the strainer, pour upon it about two tablespoonfuls of boiling water, let it stand until the water drips through and there is no more bubbling, then pour on more water, but not too much, let it drip, keeping both the strainer and the spout covered to prevent the loss of aroma. Repeat until you have used almost five cups of water—this for four cups of strained coffee, as the grounds hold part of the water.
Keep the pot hot while the dripping goes on, but never where the coffee will boil. If it dyes the cups it is too strong, but beware of making too weak.
“Beware of making too weak.” Yeah. You said it, Martha. Dripping and filtering produces ye good old cigarette ash, as we were to discover...
Moving with the Times
He's got a new coffee maker! They're in the new place. Us kids are well out of it but conscientiously coming home during our holidays. Well, some of them. Once a year, usually. If we can manage it. Mum's made this place even more anally neat than the last, but that was only to be expected. So, on the pristine bench, he proudly places his new, um, thingo...
“What is that?” –in a hiss. My sister shushes me.
He’s boiling the electric jug, is it gonna be the greatly feared dark orange tea after all? (Don't say it.)
Now he's fumbling around in a drawer. Not the sacred cutlery drawer, no, the specially dedicated bits-and-bobs drawer for stuff she hardly ever uses... Huh?
Produces a jar of ground coffee. “See, this is the filter.”
He unfolds it and puts it in the plastic top thingo that's sitting on a new sort of jug. See-through. The jug, I mean.
“You put the coffee in the filter—” Long involved explanation, not too finely ground, but fine enough, blah, blah, oh, buy it at the new delicatessen, do ya, Dad? They'll’ve seen you coming, that’s for sure: isn’t the guy that runs it German or Austrian or something? And the filter bags, right, got that. I endeavour to nod comprehendingly, well, understandingly— You goddit that far back, huh?
And the boiling water goes into the top part and when it's filtered through it's done!
So now we all gotta have some. I don’t even need that sideways meaning look from my sister. Even Mum’s having some, as it’s only mid-morning. (Instead of that 10.15 a.m.-on-the-dot cup of dark orange tea? Has the world run mad?) Well, that proves it'll be weak as anything...
UGH! It tastes like boiled cigarette ash in hot water. The skim milk only slightly ameliorates it.
After this I get a demonstration of how to dispose properly of the used filter...
It dawns. Shit, ya can't re-use the bloody things! He’s throwing his hard-earned away on that, and she's letting him? ...Oh, right, got it: falls into the “harmless boy’s toy, let’s humour him,” category. Heaven preserve me from a relationship like that!
Gégé produces after-lunch coffee as a matter of course. The lunch was far heavier than I’m used to: sautéed calves’ liver with tinned petits pois, how he managed to make it absolutely delicious I dunno, he's a superb cook. Think these must be what the really posh English cookery books refer to as demitasse cups. Small.
He asks: “Combien de sucres?”—I’m blank.—“Deux?” he suggests.
“Eugh—oui, merci, Gégé.” Funny-looking little blocks: must be cube sugar, never seen it before, in a crumpled dark blue packet. Well, it would have been a very neat, oblong packet before he wrenched it open. We stir...
He reminds me that he warned me it’d be strong. Yeah, but I thought it'd be that stupid drip coffee muck that those ning-nongs in the French Department back home loftily make in their dinky genuine-French, unobtainable-in-EnZed apparatus: tastes like boiled cigarette ash in hot water, yep.
This isn’t coffee, mate, this is nectar!
“Ton café est formidable, Gégé!”
He just grins, he already knows this, see, and as he’s been to England several times, he also knows that anything that passes for food or beverages in the British Commonwealth is putrid.
Silently make up my mind that I’ll buy a coffee-pot like his, and take it home with me no matter whether it makes my baggage overweight and I have to pay a fortune for it. ’Cos it'll be worth it.
“Alors, c’est un truc français, ton—eugh—ta cafetière?”
Must be the right word, he doesn’t contradict me. He’s already decided to correct my French, it'll help me to learn, and although his English is excellent he’s forcing me to use French, it's the only way I’ll learn. At the moment I’m struggling. I can read it fine but I haven’t got much of an ear for languages, I’ve discovered. And of course they all speak in slang—tutoiement all round. Well, all his mates are either students or ex-students, like him. –But surely, you cry, we must have had audio-lingual classes when I was an undergrad? Not in the NZ of the Sixties, no. And none of the lecturers were actually French, so they all spoke the French of Stratford atte Bow.
Ooh, heck, the coffee-pot’s not French, it's an Italian brand! But you can buy them everywhere, they're really cheap.
With my luck? But I’ll give it a go. Um, well, there's that supermarket not all that far away—Gégé despises it, he won't use it, but it does have useful things, e.g. tampons, that his wonderful local market doesn’t. The market only stocks such things as incredibly fresh vegetables, wonderful runny cheeses, and so-fresh-they-twitch-under-the lemon-juice oysters. Right in the centre of Paris. Yes, true: we're just off the Grands boulevards, in the Dixième. Unbelievable!
And I know what! If the supermarket doesn't have the pots, I’ll look up my Guide Michelin and go to Au bonheur des dames!
Oops, no: Le bon marché. Too much reading hath made thee mad, Katy.
I don’t ask Gégé how to get to a shop that sells the coffee-pots, or what shop to go to, because I've realised that letting me look up his little book of maps of the Métro lines and forcing me to speak French, plus happily imparting his culinary knowledge, is as far as he goes. He's not into babying adult human beings, not even ones that have come halfway round the world and are completely at a loss in a foreign culture. I didn’t even realise that the little local shops wouldn't be open on Monday afternoons. In fact even after I discovered it, it took quite some time before it dawned that this must be what old-fashioned English novels call “early closing.” Gulp. And of course I’m not used to living in a great city at all, we’ve always lived in the suburbs with the traditional Antipodean quarter-acre.
Anyway, Gégé is definitely not the supportive type. Just as well his girlfriend is pretty independent, eh? And of course she’s lived here all her life, she doesn’t need practical support. The poor thing agreed to have me as a boarder, but now that I’m here she’s jealous. Unfortunately there’s no way I can tell her tactfully she doesn't need to be: although I can recognise he's charming, and I do like him very much, Gégé would be impossible to live with. And what he believes is his conscious rejection of all the bourgeois icons (and which I can see perfectly well, being an outsider, in fact isn't), is very tiresome—puerile, really. Her father’s a judge, so she's even more into rejecting the bourgeoisie and all they stand for than him. They’re about my age but they still haven’t grown out of the student thing, and a lot of their friends are the same. But I have. In fact I was never in it. Well, seeing both sides to every question—and frequently five different sides—does tend to inhibit rabid, blind support of any stance.
Day after tomorrow he’ll take me to a very interesting play at a very avant-garde little theatre, will he? Don’t understand the next bit but I think he's trying to say it’s theatre in the round. Oh, the actors are all nude! Right, goddit, that’ll be thrilling.
Gee, it’s not thrilling. Well, the men’s figures are all skinny, pale, droopy-shouldered European ones, the girls’ boobs are only remarkable for their smallness and flatness, nobody looks as if they washed recently, and in any case the place is so tiny and they’re all so huddled up that the nudity is barely noticeable. Besides which, if none of this breathless audience has realised it, we have all got bodies.
“Qu’est-ce que t’en pense?”
Well, Gégé, I think it was puerile. “Très intéressant, oui.”
He's so pleased with himself that he doesn’t notice a thing. Oh, well.
But at least I managed to find a nice cheap coffee-pot!
Back in the Antipodes
Very, very much later. I've now found a recipe very like the typical suburban aunty’s coffee pudding of my youth in the Calendar of Puddings: A Pudding a Day for the Whole Year, published by the South Australian Country Women’s Association around 1952. Like most Antipodean cookery books of its era, it was published over and over again, so the last thing its proud editors wanted was (apparently) a date on it. The book is very heavy on the favourite soggy hot puddings of this era: steamed or boiled (“sponge” puddings, etc.). On the lighter side, there are baked custards, jelly-type dishes and blancmanges. Domestic refrigerators were already available in Australia, though not yet so common in New Zealand, and there are already recipes for homemade ice cream.
Now, you've got 365 days to choose from, so what would you choose for February 10, which is guaranteed to be one of the hottest days of the year, often hitting 40 to 43 degrees, in South Australia? —Yeah, so would I: the colder the result and the less cooking required, the better.
Nah. No way! Turn your stove on—and if it's a wood-burner, that you’re stuck with on an Outback farm, so much the better, woman was born to suffer! The next step is to fill your kitchen with steam. After you've passed out, the pudding may still be salvageable. It’s technically a sort of custard and presumably (though the recipe doesn’t say), meant to be served cold: so when the menfolk stagger in from a hard day’s yacker on the property (or from the pub, if working in town), you can proudly produce it from your lovely new shiny Frigidaire!
3/4 pint milk, 3 eggs, 1 teaspoon castor sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla essence, 1 teaspoon strong coffee essence, 1 tablespoon caramel (the last can be made by melting a little sugar in a saucepan).
Beat eggs thoroughly with the sugar, and then add all the other ingredients. Stir well, pour into buttered mould, and steam gently, covered with greased paper, for about 1 hour, or until set. Serve with cream. –MRS W.J. WALSH (Spalding).
I failed to find out why “Midgley” (though I admit I didn’t try very hard). Presumably the secret of the derivation of the name, together with the secret of whether the thing’s supposed to be eaten hot or cold, has disappeared along with Mrs Walsh. (Many crucial instructions went unsaid, in these recipe books. As a proper Antipodean housewife, you were supposed to know.)
For a really superb coffee pudding all you need is coffee beans, sugar, a little gelatine, and real cream. Not sprayed out of a can and not adulterated with muck to make it jelly-ish, as in today’s Aussie supermarkets: just real cream. The cream seems to intensify the flavour of the coffee. I call it “Coffee Cream” but its real name, which is totally misleading, is “Crème au café blanc”. The original is in Jane Grigson’s Food with the Famous (1979), where she attributes it to Alexandre Dumas. She adds lemon peel, but I loathe lemon with dairy products.
(for 6-8 people)
4 heaped tablespoons dark roast coffee beans
600 ml cream
2 tablespoons sugar
15 g (1 1/2 packets) powder gelatine
6 tablespoons boiling water
1. Crush the coffee beans roughly.
2. Put beans, cream and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Bring to the boil, stirring all the time.
3. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Stir often and taste until the cream seems strong enough.
4. Dissolve the gelatine in 6 tablespoons boiling water, stirring briskly.
5. Strain the cream mixture onto it, and discard the beans.
6. Pour into 6-8 small tumblers (whisky tumblers are ideal). Put in the fridge and chill until set.
I've made this recipe, it's wonderful. It’s not suitable for kids, obviously. Serve it at a dinner party for your best friends.