I've been wanting to write about coffee for a long time now, or more specifically, the ritual of drinking coffee. I had a slow start in getting on board with the hot beverage made from the seed of the coffee plant fruit (that's true, it's only called a bean because it looks like one); it seemed I just didn't have the palate for it. I worked at a coffee kiosk one summer while I was at university and I did try to come around to it, but was left wondering how something that smelled so good could taste so bad. In hindsight I think it just wasn't great coffee! Years later I found myself at a gathering where coffee was made for the group, and the enthusiastic barista proudly offered me a cup of his special brew made with techniques honed while living in Italy. I was too polite to say no, so I accepted. To my surprise, I loved this particular cup! I could taste rich, nutty notes that with a bit of milk carried through to a chocolatey finish. And back then I added sugar. Actually, that sweet, creamy mug was more like a mocha dessert. But it still took a few years before I would become a regular coffee drinker, adding milk but leaving the sugar behind for good, and really begin to appreciate the unique qualities of different beans and blends.
So here I am today, thoroughly enjoying having coffee as a part of my daily ritual. I say ritual rather than routine, because there's purpose to it. I don't 'use' coffee, as in see it merely as a means to deliver the jolt of caffeine to my system. In fact I don't care if it has caffeine or not. It's about having an activity that begins each day in a positive way, one that is enjoyable and starts you off on the right foot so you can get on with your To Dos. I think the morning coffee ritual has positive psychological benefits for so many of us because not only do we thrive on consistency and routine - it makes us more organised, productive and mentally healthy - it's also got those feel good, tactile qualities. It's warm on the hands and mouth, it fills the nose and the house with a pleasant aroma, and if you pay attention, you can taste all of the different qualities and flavours. Coffee time also gives you a moment to yourself that you can really make the most of if you want to. In fact, coffee - from your preparing of it right through to post-sip - can be used in meditations that teach us to savour the moment, to be aware and present, which when practised even for a short time is very effective at helping you regain focus and feel more happy and content. Dr. Danny Penman outlines one such meditation in his book, Mindfulness for Creativity.
But even the most pleasurable of rituals can feel routine after a while, so things need to be shaken up a bit from time to time. You can buy a cool new coffee mug, or be more adventurous and broaden your coffee horizons by trying different blends or brands. And that's what I'm doing this morning. A friend and I are sampling some new coffees bundles from Gourmesso, their Nespresso compatible pods that come in 25 varieties of which most are Fair Trade certified. I love an intense, dark roast so I went for the Etiopia Blend Forte, a combination of Arabica beans from Ethiopia and Vietnamese Robusta beans. It produced a nice, thick crema, and I can honestly say that I didn't think such smoothness was attainable from a pod. Its dark, nutty notes are followed by a subtle hint of citrus which didn't taste acidic to me, but rather gave it a fresh, aromatic finish. Perfect!
And of course there are cultural rituals around coffee which reveal so much about a country's attitudes and values. I had my first (and so far only) 'enlightening' experience several years ago in a Versailles restaurant just outside of Paris. After the main meal, the waiter appeared at the table to take our order for the next course and I asked for a creme brûlée and cappuccino. He immediately put up his hand in a 'stop' gesture and uttered a definitive 'Non.' My mistake was mentioning the coffee once I'd given my dessert order. The French do love to indulge in food and drink as we know, but there is a difference between enjoying something with elegance and being piggish. And I was clearly being called out for being piggish! But rather than be offended and embarrassed, I laughed along with the rest of the table at my gaffe, the waiter had a good humour about it as well, despite being deadly serious about upholding traditional customs. I appreciated the strict observance of the order of things, because it served a purpose. In France, coffee is treated as a separate course, to be enjoyed at leisure, especially in a restaurant - as opposed to the more casual bistro or brasserie - where dining is a multi-course, lingering event. And coffee really is too heavy a combination with dessert, one needs to digest before moving on! But if I had been in Italy, my request of a milky coffee after an evening meal would have been rejected outright, or at best, begrudgingly granted with a head shake, for the Italians never, ever, drink milky coffees of any kind after morning. It has something to do with their aversion to the idea of hot milk hitting the full stomach. They're right though, I've never had a cappuccino or latte after a big dinner and not regretted it immensely. Milk is heavy! And I find coffee in itself very filling as well. However, back to the French tradition, I've since heard that some Parisians are now taking their coffee and dessert together, but it must be asked for this way, it will never be assumed. The request may be graciously accommodated if you're not being served by my Versailles waiter!