Monthly Archives: September 2007

Rimbaud, Goethe and even Gaggia, spinning in their graves

This blog is once again fuelled by bitterness, but then coffee is an intensely bitter drink. In fact, if one more customer, when offered sugar, says “No thanks, I’m sweet enough already” I will string them up from the air conditioning unit and pour espresso straight into their nostrils.
Ice Queen (the assistant manager who neither assists, nor manages) criticised my latte the other day. “If I’d trained you, you’d probably be doing better.” she claims. I had to bite my tongue, hard. Without wishing to sound equally as arrogant, I know a lot more about coffee than she does. I was trained very well, by and with people who are really passionate about it. Ice Queen does not even drink the stuff.

I will cling to my bitterness. Espresso is the purest form of coffee, and I love it, but only when it is made correctly. Even with the ‘training’ we minions receive at the Mothership, and all the technical wizardry of the hissing monstrosity, it is still entirely possible to screw it all up. Some people burn the coffee by tamping it too hard, or putting too much in. Others make it too watery and bitter. I am the first to admit mine vary considerably, depending on my mood, concentration level and my judgment of whether the customer wants good coffee or just fast coffee.

We are instructed by the omniscient ‘Gerry’ – Our Glorious Leader, that the coffee machine is a sacred instrument, and that our Patron Saint, Senhor Achille Gaggia, designed it specifically and Saw That It Was Good. Praise be! The fact that our ‘gaggio’ machines bears no resemblance to the hissing brass contraptions he would have used is irrelevant. Gaggia knows all, and thou shalt honour him, O heathen ones!

A grain of historical impartiality – Gaggia was an opportunist. His machine, invented in 1945 was neither efficient nor the best of the time. It did, however, look highly dramatic, produced a lot of steam and involved a complex array of levers and pistons which added to the performance of the barista. In a time when coffee was little understood, this machine was adopted and adored, and sanctified within the coffee shop industry. Modern machines have far more in common with Luigi Bezzera’s creation, patented in Italy in 1902, but sadly this machine did not involve so much showmanship.

There is a lot of doubt also, over the origins of ‘espresso’. According to the Oxford English dictionary, it is derived from ‘express’ – as in, made fresh and promptly in from of the customer. It could also originate from the machine itself, which looked and sounded like an express steam train at the time. Neither form takes in to account the Italian ‘espres’ meaning, pressed. Steam is pressed through the coffee under pressure to produce the drink. This almost implies that the English were unaware of, or simply didn’t use this method when the word first entered the language.

But back to the latte. In our world, Latte is a long drink, in which hot steamed milk is added to an espresso base. In a lot of coffee shops, it is served in a glass, with the milk added first and the coffee poured through so it forms pretty layers. At Nero, we are trained to do it the other way up. This annoys customers who prefer the aesthetics. Nero claims our way is more authentic.

In Italy, however, Latte means ‘milk’. If you walk in to an Italian coffee bar and ask for coffee, you will get espresso. Very few Italians drink it with milk, and when they do it is far more likely to be Macchiato, equal parts milk foam to espresso, not the long drink we prefer.

Pre-Italian coffee obsession, however, lattes would have been even more unheard of. In ancient Yemen, at the Port of Mocha where it all began in the 16th century, they believed that adding milk to coffee would give them leprosy. Back to Caffe Nero, and a ‘mocha’ is a long drink with espresso mixed with chocolate powder, diluted with steamed milk and topped with whipped cream. Authenticity isn’t always the brand’s strong point.

The Turks believed that coffee should be ‘as black as hell, as strong as death, and as sweet as love.’ The Arabs believed it brought wisdom, and that ‘man could not know the truth until he had tasted coffee’s goodness’. Coffee also inspires poetry – creating a manic intensity in artists. Goethe, the poet and artist was also a keen scientist and a coffee drinker. Amongst his infamous writings he can also be credited with helping to discover caffeine. He was aware of the effects coffee has on the body, (he was prone to insomnia) and asked his friend, the German chemist Runge to set about isolating the substance that caused these effects. For their experiments to work, he required coffee in its purest form. Although this would have been long before the invention of the espresso machine, Goethe’s drinks would have been highly infused, very very strong and bitter, the blackest of the black; far more like the Turks chose to drink it than our modern equivalent. It is a safe assumption then, that coffee was a significant influence on both his poetry and his science.

Another manic poet, Arthur Rimbaud, was also heavily influenced by coffee, in more ways that one. Writing in 1870, Rimbaud is famous for his free verse poetry and his surreal way of describing sounds as colours was typical of his supposed synesthesia. He also believed, however, that in order to write poetry, you must have “long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses”. This was usually achieved through consuming copious amounts of absinthe, but coffee could have similar effects to those unused to strong doses of caffeine. Ironically, in 1884, Rimbaud gave up writing entirely, and became a coffee merchant based in Harar, Ethiopia. Ethiopian coffee was not fashionable at the time, and his was cheap, and generally regarded as rough and bitter. Rimbaud certainly never made a lot of money from this trade. It is claimed that it was the coffee trade that eventually killed him, he died just seven years later, aged 37 having gotten typhoid fever whilst surveying his plantations.

Rimbaud, given the opportunity, would probably have been quite bitter about this as well. Coffee is a bitter drink to swallow. It is saddening to thing that despite all the romance and intrigue and artistry that has gone on in previous centuries, our most recent, and most popular addictions to the story of coffee have to be the embrace of milk and sugar. We are diluting the stuff, literally and metaphorically, sweetening it to make it more palatable to our lethargic culture. But underneath the whipped cream and chocolate peripheries in Caffe Nero, coffee has a long, dark and bitter history.


Posted by on September 4, 2007 in caffe nero, coffee, espresso, gaggia, goethe, latte, poetry, rimbaud


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