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The devil’s in the detail making perfect coffee
By Fangfang Gong

The best coffee I’ve ever tated was undoubtedly in Italy. It was at a small " cafe in the morning, bar at night” establishment near St John’s University campus in Rome called “il Piccolo Diavolo” — “The Little Devil”.

The handsome barista was indeed a little “evil” in the beginning, with plenty of that nonchalant  Italian cool that can slip into arrogance and downright rudeness.

But actually, he probably had a right to be a little pleased with himself as the cappuccino he  made was unbeatable. Not a pinch of sugar was added, but neither was there any obvious bitter  taste; instead a hint of sweetness lingered. Truly amazing coffee!

For the 10 days we stayed in Rome, every morning started at “The Little Devil.” And his initial  surliness did soften quite a bit toward the end —maybe because he realized that we were serious coffee drinkers, not some annoying English-speaking tourists.

Talking of annoying, I’m often stereotyped as a tea drinker, only because I’m  from an Asian country well-known for its long association with those aromatic green leaves.

I do drink tea, with oolong and black tea my favorites. And I did grow up in a household with  tea in its pantry at all times, and, yes, most of my family members are indeed dedicated tea-drinkers.

So maybe tea’s too much of an everyday drink for me — I’ve never had a real “tea-moment" in my life, which left me and a tea buddy inseparable ever after.

Anyway, it’s now Easter Sunday as I sit again to write this and two hours have passed without asign of the muse (or indeed of a word written).

I can’t focus and think that something’s missing. Maybe it's coffee. I had traditional Chinese breakfast this morning, which I don’t usually have coffee with. Maybe that’s the reason behind my lack of productivity.

I go into the kitchen and polish my new sapphire-blue mug from Heath ceramics; grind my current favorite Ritual coffee beans; set up the Hario pour-over driper on the mug; and pour in the freshly ground coffee.

The geeky fine point here is to make an indent in the center of the ground coffee with my  index finger, into which I pour in the first drizzle of hot water to “bloom” the coffee.

I did all these prep-work while waiting for the water to boil in the swan-necked  kettle (not   sure how vital this detail is to a perfect cup, but it looks good), knowing that I  would have a delicious cup within minutes.

I usually make pour-over coffee on weekend mornings, since it’s not something to rush. Patience is the key here as it’s quite a meditative process.

A sip of fresh-brewed coffee finally taken, I can at last sit down and write. That is how important  a role coffee plays  in my daily routine — I don’t function well without a cup of good coffee in the morning.

Now, you might say that I’m addicted to caffeine. Scientifically this might be true, and I won’t deny it; but it’s to a very small extent.

And I don’t have to glug down eight cups of coffee in order to function normally —one cup in the morning is enough to start my day pleasantly. But that one cup is crucial! Without that single cup, I feel empty and unsatisfied, as if I’m not ready for the day.

Making coffee is an acoustic experience as well. The rhythm from the hand grinder, the sound when the grounds hit the filter paper, the gurgle of boiling water in the kettle.

And when the first drizzle of hot water hits the coffee mound, you can almost hear a tiny breath from the coffee as it absorbs the water and blooms. The coffee comes alive, ready to release all its flavors.

Then the nose takes over from the ears as a hearty aroma rising from the brew fills every corner of your house —pure happiness, as my cousin describes it, especially if you have someone brewing that coffee  for you.

We live for these simple pleasures in life; and we work to have such moments of our own.

My earliest memories of coffee were the instant coffee brands Nestle and Maxwell House and  the  Coffee-Mate powder that came with them. My grandma was influenced by a Western lifestyle in her early years, and coffee-drinking was part of her life.

Even though she didn’t have the luxury of brewing fresh coffee in her later years in the 1980s, she was happy to find the alternative —instant coffee, which was considered a fashionable item at that time.  

But while coffee was no stranger in my life, I didn’t establish a serious coffee-drinking habit until I moved out and started my own life in college. While I sacrificed my mom’s loving breakfast, I gained the freedom to explore, and I will always be a fearless adventurer when it comes to food and drink.

Not fancying Nestle or Maxwell House, I discovered some new domestic-made instant coffee brands and introduced them into my breakfast routine.

Their taste hasn’t left much impression on me, but they can’t have been too bad because I’ve rarely started a day without coffee since then. And once I discovered the fresh brew, coffee and I were happy ever after.

My authentic coffee life started with the moka chambered coffee pot — the Italian essential found in almost every household there. 

It captured my heart immediately and is still my favorite way of preparing coffee.

My first encounter with a moka pot was by chance when I moved to Chicago. The Japanese UCC  instant coffee I was using was running out and the closest Japanese store was an hour away.

Starbucks coffee beans were everywhere and a moka pot was not ridiculously expensive. It was  time  for a change — but I didn’t know it was a change for a lifetime!

The memory of my first moka pot latte was vivid. The minute I saw that rich, dark brown liquid  coming out of the pot, I knew I was hooked.

The aroma was incomparable, and the first sip was undeniably my “coffee moment”.

I thought to myself: “What have I been drinking all these years?” There and then I knew  that I would never go back to instant.

It was that soft, velvety, rounded texture, the well-integrated bitterness and balanced acidity, the heart-warming toasted nutty aroma, inviting me to one and then another irresistible sip; it was a harmony of taste. In comparison, instant coffee seemed just a coffee-flavored bitter drink.

Since then, various coffee contraptions have found their way into my home, including Hario  drippers and grinders, and Chemex pots. Ground coffee has been replaced by whole beans;  Starbucks giving  way to Intelligentsia, Ritual and Blue Bottle — more crafty, small-batch coffee beans.

I still go to Starbucks, when I don’t have other choices, but I realize just how much I miss more subtle flavors.

Stay tuned, there’s plenty more coffee talk brewing. 


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