Monday, June 20, 2005

 

Coffee culture

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In Boston, a regular “coffee” has lots of half-and-half and sugar. In New York, if you say you want cream for your coffee at a take out-place, they’ll insist on adding it themselves to prevent undue customer usage, but then pour in so much that your coffee turns off-white. But if you ask for cream in a New York diner, you get a juice glass at least half full of half-and-half.

You’ve read about these things right here in CM. I’ve always thought of myself as a careful observer of coffee culture and have always tried to teach myself to speak the local coffee dialect wherever I go. On former trips to Europe, I’ve made it a point to know how to order coffee correctly before even learning how to say “toilet.”

But on this trip to Europe, while I certainly talked about coffee, I’ve glossed over coffee dialect. Maybe I was too busy obsessing about cultural differences in internet access. Or maybe I spent too much time in Starbucks, which has developed its own coffee lingua franca: Walk into any Starbucks, anywhere in the world, say “grande decaf soy latte” and you are guaranteed to be understood.

The word “decaf” itself is a problem. The importance of caffeine-free coffee has not yet been fully understood in Europe (where some places won't have it and a few will still give you the equivalent of Sanka). In some parts of Germany, you have to ask for “kaffeine frei” (which sounds something like “coffay-een fry”) while in other parts it’s “entkaffeiniert.” In almost no parts of Germany were my pronunciations of these words understood.

My failure to brush up on coffee speak was driven home to me here in Belgium, where I ordered a "café au lait," only to be given black coffee with a small packet of butter on the saucer. Actually, the butter turned out to be coffee creamer, but that's not the point: the point is that I thought I had surely ordered a big, milky cup of coffee with foam on top – which, as I recall, is café au lait in France. To get that in Brussels, you have to ask for “café russe” – Russian coffee, bizarrely enough. Whereas, I believe that in France, a black coffee with a small drop of butter on the side – er, milk – is a “café creme.”

The Russians, although they too serve hot beverages – tea – in a glass, traditionally do so with a metal glass holder with a handle. The Germans, you will recall, just give you a hot glass. The way to get steamed milk in your coffee in Germany is to ask for "kaffe latte" – in some places. Outside the more sophisticated cities and towns, that was a good way to get a blank stare. But ordering kaffee latte also usually (not always) guarantees you get your coffee in a glass.

Milch kaffee is a safer bet in Germany – I think it’s the German's version of café au lait (French, not Belgian), meaning literally “milk coffee” – and it always comes in a cup, usually with milk already put in and a bit of foam on top. But I found I was not always understood when asking for "milch kaffee" because of unpredictable (to me) regional variations in how Germans pronounce “ch” – sometimes a soft “sch-” and sometimes a semi-hard cross between the Hebrew “ch-” (the hocking sound) and a whistle originating in the back of the throat. This is a lot to think about before you’ve had your first cup of coffee.

In France, you often have no choice but to get your early morning coffee in a bar. Yes, it’s called a café, but by 8 a.m. it’s already filled with cigarette smoke, and you walk up to the bar and ask a large, burly man standing in front of a wall of liquor bottles for your café au lait, or café creme, or whatever. He then goes to the complex looking espresso machine and makes you a fabulous cup of coffee.

I think French mixology schools must teach how to make coffee. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you need a special license certifying that you've received such training if you want to make legal retail cups of coffee in France. Gives an added meaning to the concept of “barista,” doesn’t it?

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Comments:
Have you considered giving up the life of a law professor to take up full-time food and travel blogging? Really. Fodor's has nothing to match you.

(stopping by the Dunkin' Donuts for a regular coffee chock full of half-and-half and sugary goodness.)
 
I agree with phantom. This has been a VERY interesting trip!
 
Well, this is interesting. I did a blog search for barista training and found your site. When I get some time I'll come back and find out where barista training appears and how it relates - if it even does. Take care - nice work.
 
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Keep up the good work.
 
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Read anything that really sets your mind on fire with a passion to do good?

How about doing something important for yourself?

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Got a Plan?

Know how to get there?

Most people don't. They just go through life hoping for the best. How can you possibly reach your dreams if you don't have a real plan?

A new year is coming. It's time to start thinking about your New Years Resolution and really start planning your life don't you think. Follow through on some of those old goals you had years ago.

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As a coffee junky from Germany I totally understand you're problems. By ordering a "Milchkaffee" in Germany, you sometimes get a coffee with a pack of coffee creamer and sometimes that large cup with milky coffee. Modern cafés or bars actually offer the last as "cafe au lait".
When I first went to france alone, I wanted to get some "cafe au lait" (yes that big cup with milk in it). They didn't understand me. After 10 minutes I managed it to get a "cafe creme"...
 
I am in search of the perfect cup of coffee and found your blog. Thanks for the post. I am thinking about starting my own blog. I get pretty specific about my interests. Currently I am looking into Espresso Machine. Anyways...thanks for the info, all the best.
 
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