Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Coffee as an Art Form

     28 March 2018 
“Do you want to buy one of these Mr. Coffee makers? They’re on sale for $15”, Paula asked one day shortly after we returned from our fourteen-month European travels. The new school year had just started. We live far enough from Cal Poly, the local campus of the California State University, that we are little affected by the sudden influx of students.  But stores in San Luis, vying for the students’ business, always have school start-up specials. (I got a couple of cases of beer at a great sale price from a supermarket close to student apartments, a loss-leader to get the students’ attention.)

We were resettling into our home again and sorting things out, finding what appliances and utensils we needed after our long absence. But I knew all about making coffee, and an appliance manufacturer’s idea of how to do it did not interest me. Because, you see, a few years back I decided to become a coffee snob.

I felt completely supported in my decision when in the very next week I discovered a commercial coffee roaster only a mile from our house! And just after that I found a classic Italian stovetop espresso maker at a local Goodwill store. Well, three, actually. A large one that had seen heavy use and little cleaning; a small one, never used, that was heavily corroded, and a mid-sized one that was just right. (Really!)

I grew up visiting my Italian grandmother in San Francisco, and she always had one of those aluminum, octagonal pots on her stove. For me it is the very symbol of an Italian kitchen, which is to say an Italian home. So I was very pleased to finally have one of my own!

The classic moka pot, made by Bialetti
(Photo from the article referenced in the text) 
As part of my new coffee snobiness I began to investigate on-line coffee sites and blogs, of which there are a very great many. And I found I was just a neophyte snob: there was much more to know, and so many coffee snobs so much more… snobby than I. And there was so much about ordinary coffee to disdain!

I quickly came to the realization that the ultimate expression of brewing coffee, the technique that led to endless debate and discussion, the darling among the élite of the coffee snobs, was espresso.

Now, espresso is not coffee. They are both a hot-water extract of ground coffee beans, but there the similarity ends. Espresso is made by forcing super-heated water through finely ground coffee at a high pressure. This requires a boiler (only pressurized water will get to the required 225°F/ 107°C) and a pump (to produce the required 9 bar – 130 psi: espresso, after all, means expressed: pressed out under pressure.). The result is a fine, delicate thing; its production is more art than science, although the science part is important, too. To quote an article on Gizmodo:
“To brew great espresso, a confluence of events must occur that marries human judgment with mechanical precision.”

Using the right coffee, correctly roasted, is important; the grind is critical (slight changes in fineness can make or break a good espresso!); so, to, is the temperature and pressure of the water. And, ultimately, it is il mano del barista, the hand of the barista, the human judgment, that determines the quality of the final brew.

It starts with a good machine (the “mechanical precision” part). I bought a real espresso maker, a Gaggia. An Italian brand. I used it for several years, came to understand the principles of making good espresso, how it differed from, you know, just coffee. And the engineer in me reveled in understanding the machinery developed to make espresso. I also began to see where this inexpensive machine cut corners and made compromises to save on cost.

My Gaggia Evolution, a reasonable beginner's machine
Eventually I bought a better machine, a Rancilio. Another Italian company, Rancilio makes commercial espresso machines, those giant, five-foot long chrome-and-enameled monsters common in cafes and bars in Italy (and all over Europe), and increasingly in real coffee shops in the US. The model I got (from a great deal on eBay!) is their only consumer unit, small but solidly made of stainless steel and brass. It furthered my exploration of the art of pulling a good espresso, trying always for that elusive crema, the white, creamy foam on the top of a real espresso (composed of caramelized coffee sugar, according to the chemists). The Rancilio – Rocky to its friends – was a good machine, a great tool for artistic espresso expression; the rest was up to me. Il mano del barista was now my hand!

A Rancilio Miss Silvia much like mine, including an external controller ("PID") for exact water temperature
(image from Flickr user TonalLuminosity via the article referenced in the text)
Every morning I’d go through my ritual of warming up the machine, making sure the water tank was full. Then grind the beans, a three-minute affair with my hand grinder (espresso – and coffee in general – is a sensory experience; I like to feel each bean as it splinters and is crushed), load and tamp the grounds; then hit the switch that runs the pump for a precise 25 seconds. Watch as the precious liquid runs into the tiny cup: how’s the color? The texture? Does the viscosity seem right? Carry the cup to the window and examine the brew: oh, dark with a fine crema today! Try a sip. Ah! Better than yesterday, but not as good, quite, as the day before. Decide on any fine adjustments – a firmer tamp, perhaps, or one notch coarser on the grinder.
A commercial espresso machine, this one made by La La Marzocco
(image from the article referenced in the text)
Then carefully weight out another portion of beans and grind them up while the machine reheats from the last pull. Repeat. Looks like a good shot; set it aside and switch on the steam heater. Prepare the milk. Foaming milk with the steam wand takes a delicate touch.  (And I’ve found that some brands of almond milk foam really well; others, not at all.)  The foam was always good, but only about once a week did I achieve a really fine micro-foam. My cappuccinos were always great; every once in a while one would be extraordinary. A gold star morning!

Then we left on our open-ended European trip, and a lot of hard decisions had to be made. I packed up the Racilio. It didn’t seem right that this fine machine should sit unloved until we returned, so I sold it to a friend, Frederic. Now, Frederic comes from Holland, and appreciates the finer things in life, including a good espresso. He readily agreed to take the machine, and I left knowing Rocky was in good hands.

During our six weeks in Italy in Spring of 2017 I finally – finally! – came to fully appreciate espresso. There ain’t much of it in those miniscule cups, only an ounce (30 ml) in the typical shot, and it is a learned experience. To the uninitiated, it can seem bitter and, well, disagreeable.  I like it, but it took an advertising slogan to really drive home what espresso was all about.

There are not many chain stores or restaurants in Italy, or in Europe in general; most shops are individually owned, especially restaurants and cafés. Many cafés, at least in Italy, are sponsored (if that’s the right word) by major coffee companies; cafés tend to serve coffee exclusively from a particular company. One company puts its slogan outside each of its sponsored cafés: Piccoli sorsi di grande piacere: small sips of great pleasure. (See here for more info on coffee in Italy!)

So the patron stands at the espresso bar and sips – or gulps – their tiny cup of espresso, and leaves. Then, for the next 20 minutes or so, the flavor, the sensations from those small sips, lingers and gradually fades: the bitter, the sweet, the sour melding and slowly vanishing. That’s why, in Italy, coffee is never served with meals. Rather, it comes after dessert as the diners relax, savoring and prolonging the pleasures of a fine meal in good company, providing its great pleasure.
Tiny sips of great pleasure!
 I contemplated all this as I was making the coffee one morning shortly after our return, hand-boiling the water, carefully pouring it into the filter full of fresh-ground beans, waiting as the water dripped its slow way into the thermos below. And I thought, this is exactly what that coffee machine would do: heat the water, and slowly dribble it through the very same coffee resting in the very same filter. But I wouldn’t have to stand here and watch it. I could go do something else, something more interesting. Play Sudoku, for example…

“Hey, Paula! Buy that Mr. Coffee machine!”

And we’ve been it enjoying ever since. 

(And yes, I do miss Rocky! Every time we visit Frederic and Lynda, our friends in Santa Barbara, I get to sample one of Frederic's fine espressos. And some day, once we settle down a bit, I'll get me another good espresso machine. Because I know Frederic won't be letting go of Rocky...)

Time grows short before our departure! Only 3 weeks left!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Whatever Happened to the Travel Blog?

We’ve been back in our home on California’s Central Coast for quite a while now, 10 months. And for that whole time, I have not felt like writing or taking pictures. Kinda done with that for a bit. Somehow, when we’re not traveling, my urge to write dries up.

But I’ve heard from some fans lately (well, one: thanks, Linda!) who miss the occasional updates. So let’s try again…

One big thing we overlooked while we were gone: in the summer months our county, San Luis Obispo, explodes with music! Maybe it’s the same now all over California, or even all over the country, but I’ve never lived anywhere where we have as many musical choices as here. There’s dozens every week, throughout the county. Why, right here in little ole Los Osos we’ve got a concert every Saturday afternoon at the golf course, and then there’s “Beer at the Pier” on Monday evenings…

While in Europe we saw a number of memorable musical events. Every country has its own specialty, its own genre of music. And musicians in each of those countries are great at their own music. But the Blues is a truly American form of music.

The Blues musical idiom in Europe is perhaps a bit like American football in Europe – there is a very devout and dedicated group of aficionados, but for the most part, locals don’t know much and don’t care. This means that the second-strings, those who aren’t really competitive in the US, have a huge opportunity in Europe. Lots of B-team football players do very well in Europe, as do less-than-great blues players. But we’re back in the US now…

One night we went to a wine bar in Morro Bay for what was publicized as a “tribute” to Rodney Crowell. He’s not even in the top 10 of my fave musicians, but I did have a fling with him (well, his music) a few decades back, listening to a tape in my car as I did my daily driving.

The event in Morro Bay turned out to be a great evening, in spite of those who insisted on carrying on their everyday conversations during this great live music (a pet peeve of mine: why don’t they stay home? Or wait outside?) Rodney Crowell is a great song writer, and we heard amazing tender ballads, and raunchy love songs. But it wasn’t until the very end that we got to hear the songs I’d come to listen to, the raw honky-tonk stuff he was into a few decades back. Here’s a brief sample by Steve Key, organizer of the event.

And it occurred to me… we NEVER hear this kind of music in Europe! It helped me realize that there are some great, uniquely American things! The American musical idiom is popular (as is much of American culture) around the world, but it’s not done anywhere better than here in the good ole US of A.  

I’ve discovered a whole range of things that don’t annoy me now as much as they used to, before we left for Europe (well, I still hate it when people talk during live music!). Things like our nonsensical Imperial measurement system, with its pounds and quarts and inches and teaspoons. The metric system, used in Europe and the rest of the world, is so much more logical and easier to understand. What a relief to spend time where we can escape the craziness of 12 inches per foot and 64 ounces per quart (or is that per half-gallon?). But now on our return I find the system – since I already understand it – quirky but colorful. How quaint! All those meters and liters now seem so… drab. (But I still measure lengths in centimeters – fractional inches drive me up the wall. And don’t even get me started on wrench sizes…)

So what else have we done since we’ve been back? Took a road trip to Seattle, WA to visit my brother (1000 miles / 1600km north of here). Spent some time in Portland to see my daughter.  Caught the total eclipse of the sun on August 21 – that was more fantastic than I could ever imagine!

Thanksgiving in Phoenix, AZ, to catch up with another brother, and my son, and other family members. Lots of house projects underway back home in Los Osos: new front doors, landscaping, reorganizing. Oh, and planning our next European trip, in April.

Plans are still in process, but we will be visiting some of the Scandinavian countries, and will some time in Scotland. We’ll go back to Spain, this time Madrid; re-visit Seville and the friends we made there; find a place on the Mediterranean coast to stay for a while (Alicante, as it turns out).

After that the crystal ball gets cloudy. We’re thinking Prague, Budapest, and Vienna deserve some time, as well as parts of Eastern Europe. Clearly, the problem is not a lack of places to go!

Oh, but before signing off on this installment, we must mention the photographic summary of our last European trip. In the final weeks of that trip Paula and I put together slideshows for each country we’d visited So here on YouTube are seven 3-minute videos, one for each country, in roughly chronological order. Not intended to be travelogues, but just hints at what we saw and did. Relax and enjoy!

But before we close, here's a few photos from our own beautiful area...
The Elfin Forest on the edge of Morro Bay, a few blocks from our house
Twisted trunks of scrub oaks in the Elfin Forest
Morro Rock, form the beach

Looks like rain on the beach near Morro Bay

High tide near Los Osos
Another fantastic sunset from our front windows!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Town Made of Stone Part 2

This is Part 2, continuing our exploration of Lecce, in south-eastern Italy (the "heel" of the boot). 

           We met some locals who have just opened a delicatessen making and selling hand-rolled pasta, done in the Lecce style. 

Alessio and Emanuela at Pasta d'Elite in Lecce
Here's a quick video showing their technique...

          (In case that link doesn't work, try this one:)
               Hand-rolling pasta at Pasta d'Elite

If you're really into it, here is a longer version of the video. Do try this at home!

And speaking of food, here's some local delicacies we've found...

I like the little chickens (pollotto)! Chicken-shaped pastry shells filled with... you guessed it, chicken! And peas. (A chicken-shaped pot pie! Delish.) Directly behind the chickens are spinach pastries, filled with spinach-laced cream sauce. And to the right... ah, the real specialty of Lecce, Rustici (singular Rustco), a pastry filled with mozzarella, bechamel, and a spoonful of tomato sauce. Described by one writer as "If a croissant and a pizza had an even more delicious baby..."
See more local specialties here. I'm particularly keen on the pasticciotto.

Ah, Coffee!!

           Paula and I were doing a bit of exploring the other day. I wanted to sit in a cafe, because we can! In another week the best we'll be able to do is drive someplace to sit inside with an overpriced cup of coffee  (Starbucks, maybe, with their incomprehensible drink names and sizes) and end up paying $5 for an over-roasted something.
Then we saw this sign in front of a cafe (with shaded outdoor tables).
It gives a nice explanation of standard coffee drinks, which differ only in their amounts of steamed milk and foam. I've heard often enough that coffee with milk (any form of milk) is totally unacceptable in italy after breakfast, but clearly this place caters to a more, ah, accepting crowd. It emboldened us to ask the waiter for a cappuccino (at 1:15 in the afternoon!). He readily seated us. But before leaving to fill our order, Paula asked, "Italians don't drink cappuccinos after 10 in the morning, do they!"

"No," he agreed. "But you're Americans, so it's OK!"

Two excellent cappuccinos and two pasticciotti later the cost was... $5

This sign seems to sum up coffee in Italy: "tiny sips of great pleasure"

Take a Walk on the Dead Side

We took a walk through the near-by cemetery and found some extraordinary examples of funerary art and architecture. Not as famous – nor as well shaded – as Pere Lachaise in Paris, it does have some family mausoleums that put those in Paris to shame.

For starters, here's the entry gate

There's not a lot of shaded alleyways, but there is this!

THe mausoleum of some ambitious family; looks like a church in town!
There must be an explanation for the Egyptian theme but I'm clueless
Death head locks on the crypt. How cool is that?!

Small, but one of my favorites. It's wired for electricity, too...

We Celebrate Republic Day

And finally, we come to Republic Day, celebrating the day in 1946 when Italy ousted their monarchy (think: Italian 4th of July). We observed the holiday by going to an evening concert at Divineria, a small local wine bar. It was a great, thoroughly enjoyable evening even though there was only one song we recognized…

                                   Click here if the link won't work

On the Road Again

Our time in Lecce -- and in Europe -- draws to a close. Saturday morning we will once more be out early, trailing our luggage across the cobblestones to the bus, to the airport, to Milano. More exactly, to Ferno, the small town that serves the Milan-Malpensa Airport. We'll spend a couple of nights at a BnB where we've stayed before, run by a  generous and welcoming family. (Shameless plug: Il Gelsomino B and B). We'll get a car and maybe drive to the lake (Lago Maggiore; Lago di Como; one of those).

Then on Monday we fly to Boston, and meet up with Paula's brother. We'll visit with him and his family (and the four grandkids!) for a week before, finally, coming back to home in Los Osos, CA.

           A Parting Shot

I came around a corner in Lecce and saw this archway

Final note: We're now at our favorite BnB in Ferno, a small town near the Malpensa airport, aobut an hour west of Milan. Monday we fly out to Boston, at 6:30 in the AM, which means dropping off the car at 4AM. Groan! But today, Sunday, we'll explore the lakes, Como and a few others, just north of here.

See you soon!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Town Made of Stone

4 June 2017
It’s been a while since we’ve published a blog entry. As our time for these travels comes to a close, I feel less and less inclined to write. I don’t know if I am truly “worn out” by travel and am ready to head home, or if it’s just that the calendar says we’ll be leaving soon. But whatever, the words ain’t flowin’!

We’ve been in Lecce, the main town of Salento (the heel of the Italian boot) for a bit over three weeks. It’s a small, quiet town in a rather unassuming area of Italy. So why did we pick it? Tomatoes. Buffalo mozzarella. Basil. Olive oil. In short, food! 

Many areas of the world claim to have special dishes or extraordinary cuisine. Some do, some don’t (in fact, I feel a rant coming on… but we’ll save that for another blog posting). But Italy delivers on the food front. And the freshest food is in Puglia, the south-eastern region of the country. (I have to be careful here, because every region in Italy is proud of their specialties!)

So yeah, Puglia.* Why Lecce, specifically? Well, did I mention it was a small, quiet town? I’ll add amazing buildings, a very walkable old town, and not far from beaches on two different seas (the Adriatic to the east, and the Ionian to the west). We were here three years ago, for only a couple of days, and it certainly seemed worth revisiting.
* Puglia is the entire south-eastern shin of Italy, from the bone-spur of Vieste to the stiletto tip of Punta Ristola; Salento is just the peninsula south of Ostuni or so.

What’s remarkable about Lecce is the buildings. Made of a local stone (Pietra leccese) that is both strong and soft. Strong, for solid buildings; soft, and so easy to carve. And nearly every building is decorated with elaborate carvings. Today’s prominent buildings were built in the 17th century, at the height of the Baroque period, when every artistic expression – painting, sculpture, dance, architecture – was elaborately over the top. It was a “visceral appeal aimed at the senses. It employed an iconography that was direct, simple, obvious, and theatrical…”.

Let’s have a look:

Chiesa del Gesù (day)

Basilica di Santa Croce (undergoing repairs)

Porta Rudiae, one of the entries through the original walls
One of our favorite streets in Lecce -- love the flower boxes with red geraniums!
The city takes on a whole new aspect as night falls -- Chiesa di Santa Chiara

Chiesa del Gesù at sunset

Sant'Oronzo Column, honoring the patron saint of Lecce

The thing about Lecce is there are no specific “sights”, no famous tower or impressive ancient ruins. But as we stay here longer, I’ve come to appreciate the small pleasures; coming around a corner and seeing this:

Red geraniums!

It's a look faux painters can only dream of achieving...

Or these little guys, in a side-chapel of the main cathedral:

The spiral pilasters (the twisty things on the sides of the painting) are typical of the Salento

Aside from photographing buildings, what have we done?

            We rented a car for three days and visited the coast south of here, steep and rocky, reminiscent of the Big Sur coast.

pool at Grotta della Poesia

Faro di Puna Palascia, eastern-most point of Italy and spitting distance from Albania
Cathedral in the city of Otranto; rather dull on the outside...
... but rather fabulous inside...
... with amazing mosaic floors

The Otranto marina, in the impossibly blue Adriatic

            We got a visit from our dear friend Maureen (a little bit of home!), and the three of us took the train to Gallipoli, a smaller city on the Ionian Sea due west of Lecce.

We found this cute cart full of ice and wine along the sea front. What's not to like...?

Us (left), with the Fortress (right) and Gallipoli's Big Ugly Building (center)

Lunch, back in Lecce!
Next up: More on Lecce, food and, uh, the cemetery...