Friday, 4 June 2010


Confession time. I’m cheating on my beloved.

We’ve been together since 2003 so I suppose it could be the famed ‘seven year itch’. Only this is more serious. This isn’t just an illicit fumble in the stationery cupboard. This is more. This is love.

Since I began nurturing my love of coffee I’ve tried every method under the sun to attain the perfect cup of Joe. For a while the Cafetiere was enough to see me through the mornings, heaping coarsely pre-ground beans into the warmed jug. The resultant sludge was passable but there was no panache, merely the niggling shadow of 1980s dinner parties and After Eight mints.

The trusty Moka Express came next – ‘every Italian home has one’ came the re-assuring sales pitch and sure enough it proved to make a cup up from the workmanlike brew that spewed forth from the Cafetiere.

Getting the brewing time right was difficult though – too fast and the coffee scorched becoming bitter as the final drops puttered through the spout and the bottom pot boiled dry. Too slow and it took an age for the coffee to appear. It was also a pain to clean and more often than not remained sullied with wet grinds for longer than was suitable.

There was also a frustrating lack of crema – the nutty caramel coloured layer that adorns the finest of espressos, a drink that was becoming my coffee of choice whenever away from home.

For a while I gave into my Swedish heritage and enjoyed the simple delights of filter coffee. Smooth and strong without being overly bitter, it was a coffee to drink throughout the day but it lacked that specific oomph and I never got excited about it in the same way I did about a really good shot of expertly made espresso.

There was only one course of action: to admit that I was a fully-fledged coffee nerd and invest in a machine that would allow making of exquisitely crafted espresso at home.

After much research I chose the La Pavoni Europiccola machine – as much a piece of iconic design as an espresso maker. I was dazzled by its classic lines, its manual mechanics and its apparent simplicity. It was a thing of shiny beauty – curvier than Marilyn Monroe and heavy with brass fittings, I adored it from the moment I bought it.

The love affair lasted quite some time. It had quirks that made it impossible for anyone other than myself to make it work. It was high-maintenance in the extreme, needing constant tweaking. There was no temperature or pressure gauge meaning a sustained period of trial and error before the two were in sync to yield a perfect shot of dark espresso with a satisfying crema.

The boiler itself was small – once enough water had been drawn through the machine to heat all the components there was barely enough left for a couple of coffees. It would have to be re-filled – a task that only the bravest of baristas would dare to undertake.

Tea-towels had to be wrapped around hands to avoid being scalded by the burst of steam that spewed, volcano like, from the boiler as the lid was unscrewed. More waiting, more releasing the pressure from the steam wand, more failed coffees if any aspect was amiss.

Drawing the perfect espresso is a hard task – if one single element is out of kilter, it drags the whole process down with it. Freshness of beans, size of grind, temperature of water, latent heat in machine, pressure, speed of extraction. All these had to be perfect before the Europiccola would even consider emitting a good espresso.

I grew to think of my machine as a well-bred, hot blooded Italian lady: happy to comply on rare occasions but unwilling to compromise and prone to increasingly lengthy bouts of sulking where compliance was NEFC (not-even-fucking-considered).

But those rare occasions when the planets aligned, they made me forget about all those failed shots poured down the sink. Those sleepy hungover Sundays when all I wanted was a simple coffee and instead what I got was violent steaming temper tantrum from an apparently inanimate object. The time I’d spent making coffees for more than two people. The red raw hands scalded from the steam. All those went ignored when I sipped the one 1% of shots that passed muster.

Inevitably though I grew tired of the tantrums. Frustrated by La Pavoni’s increasingly erratic behaviour, I sought solace in the simple pleasures of others.

Telling myself it was just a temporary measure, that I would have my machine serviced and the love would blossom again, I dabbled and toyed and conducted electric affairs with as many coffee makers as I could, desperate to find that spark.

Everything from the Aeropress, a plunge device made by a company famed for their flying rings to futuristic handheld gadgets powered by nitrous oxide. I tried them all desperate to rekindle that spark I’d once felt for the shiny silver elephant now in the corner of the kitchen.

But each brief encounter brought a growing realisation that the relationship with my Italian diva was over. The reality was that most of the methods I was now using made better coffee than the Europiccola ever did. I was just blinded by adoration, rendered incapable by its gorgeous curves and flawless design.

Heartbroken, I resolved never to love again.

And then my brother went travelling. ‘You can babysit the Gaggia, if you want,’ he said. I agreed, thinking it would serve a purpose but nothing more.

In the month since it has been resident in the kitchen, this wonderful machine, this glorious piece of modernist design, all square edges and simple function, has become as much a part of the household as the cats.

We’ve called him Gary. Gary the Gaggia. He sits next to the grinder, taking up more than his fair share of the space in our tiny kitchen but we don’t care. He tells us when he is ready, he never overheats, his pressure is so well maintained I think he may be on statins and he steams milk to textured perfection.

Once the coffee is ground and tamped into place, a simple push of a button is enough to have glorious espresso dribbling through the portafilter. Crema is inevitable and even the GF – who never dared go near the Pavoni – is happy to make coffees now. It is a thing of perfection.

The only problem is, at some point I’m going to have to give him back. Adam – if you’re reading this I might have to look after Gary a little longer…

So – how do you get your coffee fix? Is it a matter of anything goes as long as it is fast and caffeine jacked or are you more of a perfectionist? Share your thoughts below and there may even be some sort of coffee based prize in the offing.

Speaking of coffee, I will be putting my expertise to good use as part of the judging panel for the World Aeropress Coffee Championships at Caffe Culture, Kensington Olympia on June 25th. Come and say hello.


Neil said...

I've been using a Magimix R500 Robot Cafe for years now. Automatic beans to cup with yummy crema every time. The best part was that a reconditioned one was in as-new condition and £140 instead of £400 on amazon. It's served me well for about 6 years now.
I understand they've stopped making them (though parts are still available) so maybe you could pick one up on the cheap. Mind you, they are quite large and certainly not pretty.


Anonymous said...

I *adore* the word 'tamped' and mutter it to myself whenever constructing an espresso. It's the only use the poor word gets.

For me I do like the untreated flavour of a cafetiere and the lazy luxury of consuming it over a Saturday morning. We have a filter machine in the office and it's just not the same.


Kavey said...

Gulp. Even though I'm an instant coffee girl (the cheaper and weaker the better, my favourite, no I'm not shitting you is Tesco value coffee granules) I just loved this post... loved it!

Gloria said...

When I got to the part where your La Pavoni Europiccolo became redundant I'm afraid I covered my ears and started to sing to drown out what was to follow. I love my La Pavoni and in fact own 3, in case one needs sending off for a service plus a spare. Mind you I can do the basic service myself of an evening in front of the telly. Please don't go putting ideas into my head. My favourite part of the morning is watching the coffee stream through the group head and saying 'mouse tail' to myself. Yes for sure, coffee sends you bonkers.

Anonymous said...

I grew up on filter coffee, often 'cowboy' coffee - a brew made so strong that one could 'stand a horseshoe upright' in it. I started drinking coffee when I was 7 and haven't stopped since. It's not so much the caffeine as the flavor, the comfort - I can drink it right before bed and feel no worse for the wear.

But recently, like you, I discovered myself a coffee nerd. I don't trust most 'baristas' to make a decent cuppa, unless it's one of the few small-scale stops I favor. I acquired my mother's Krups single-cup brewer not too long ago. It was simple, though a little fussy (having been long-unused) but we grew on each other, learning our quirks and mishaps. I recently received a Moka Express and love it only slightly less, for the same reasons as you - no crema. One day, maybe, I'll own a decent maker with the same relationship as you and Gary.


chumbles said...

Brilliant writing Alex, just loved it, even down to finding love in the "stationary" cupboard - I'd pay money to see you try in the other kind!

For me, coffee will be the last vice I lose and that only because everything else has gone - I've given up cigarettes, beer and strong spirits (well, most days), but one of the reasons I travel to France once a quarter (besides the wine) is that I am utterly addicted to French breakfast coffee - fort et robuste et en grain. The powerful, but slightly oily liquid's aroma is my alarm clock - I have an old-fashioned plug timer and when it clicks over and the coffee is made, Pavlovian style, I wake up!

Not very glamorous, but oh so effective and never fails to put a smile on my face when thinking of sun-baked mornings in the Dordogne!

Dave said...

My sister is an expert with her trusty stovetop Moka Express - perfect every time, damn her eyes, because I've never really gotten the hang of it.

Therefore, espresso is a treat reserved for when I'm visiting her, and my daily coffee is strong American-style Joe (just so you know we're talking about two different breeds here - your espresso vs. the American version of coffee which I know most Europeans find to be weak swill,) made in a wonderful, 60-year-old electric percolator.

For me, there is no better method of making coffee, and the leftovers - never having been exposed to the open air, closed within the percolator - taste just as wonderful in the warm afternoon, served over ice.

Just Cook It said...

Neil - Sounds like you got yourself a bit of a bargain there. An option to check out when my brother inevitably asks for the Gaggia back.

roastpotato - It is a good word though perhaps it singular usage helps it maintain its mystique? I can see the benefits of a cafetiere, certainly but for me it's just never been quite right.

Thanks Kavey although it seems there is some educating to be done with you on the coffee front.

Gloria - I can understand the trepidation, it was hard enough admitting it to myself. The Pavoni may make a return though, we'll just have to see...

Wanderluck/Kate - lovely phrase to use about coffee strength. I think familiarity with your kit is important, especially when it comes to making coffee. It is most definitely a relationship although not always two-way, as I found out. Thanks for the comment.

Chumbles - Dammit, where's a decent sub-editor when you need one. Correction to follow shortly. From the way you write about it, I don't think you should give up your French breakfast coffee, there is a real fondness there - would be a shame to lose it.

Dave - I'm with you on that one, I've never properly got the hang of the Moka either. I sincerely hope that Gary keeps on running for another 60 years, there must be a real attachment to that machine now. Iced coffee is a real treat too, especially with some condensed milk.

seagrrlz said...

I find that I go in cycles. When life is crazy and hectic, i rely on my crappy coffee maker and starbucks. When life is beautiful it's the bodum or my stovetop espresso maker. A gaggia though is my dream machine. years ago in a coffee house in toronto, they had the most amazing gaggia. 5 feet tall, multiple wands, brass exterior. I wanted that machine more than anything,lol.

rachel said...

That was a wonderful post - and for a hardly-ever coffee drinker, so much useful information! I rarely drink it these days because it's often so awful, including my own efforts - cafetiere, filter, pot-on-the-hob, all dreadful - and I think it was Australia wot done it for me - every cup of coffee there was superb, except one early morning when the only place open was Starbucks, when I knew that my idea of bad coffee could still get worse....

Do you want to share your thoughts on types of coffee next? Bearing in mind that some of us only shop in supermarkets? That would be interesting!

Liv said...

Have you tried Vietnamese coffee? It has the most amazing taste - almost chocolaty. When I was in Vietnam last year I never had a bad cup of coffee, and since I've been back I've finally managed to track down a London source for it. Try it if you get the chance.

adam_rushmer said...

im glad its getting some use!
the best coffee i had in cuba was also the cheapest. the ´tourist´ coffees were bad, but the 1 peso (7 pence) local ones were great.

at the moment were in chiapas, mex (funnily enough, the largest coffee producing part of mexico. and we have even been to the museum!

as for the gaggia, there is a method (which involves impeccible timing) for frothing larger pitchers of milk. when usually it will just ´run out of steam´.

you flick the switch for the steam wand, leave about 20 seconds (just before the ready light comes on) bleed the wand then start steaming.
the idea is that it keeps creating more steam whilst your already using it. therefore giving you more juice to make enough microfoam for 2 cups

Patrick said...

Hi Alex

Nice post. Which Gaggia model is it that you've been using?


Kalyn said...

I use the Moka Express given to me for Christmas by an Italian friend who wanted to make sure I could provide proper coffee when he comes round to visit. It's of the single-shot variety and is of precisely the right size so that if I start it on tiny gas burner at the same time as the kettle (someone else will want tea, after all), they finish more or less simultaneously.

In my office there is a filter coffee machine, but the coffee itself is almost invariably purchased by a member of staff who likes dark roast--to me, this always, always, always tastes burnt. :-(

Anonymous said...

We get our coffee fix from our Nespresso machine. Produces a fabulous crema and glorious results time after time. I'm not a coffee fan, but even I am partial to a smooth, delicate Finezzo Lungo

Aveen said...

Love the photos! I wish I could afford something posh that made decent espresso but since I can't, I have a Morphy Richards Mattino filter coffee machine that I really like, and out of all the different types of coffee I've tried the one I keep going back to is Co-Op Fair Trade Italian blend (it's 5 on the scale of how strong/mental it is) which is absolutely gorgeous. I drink about a gallon of it a day.

Just Cook It said...

Newfie - I know exactly what you mean and that Gaggia machine sounds like a thing of beauty!

Thank you Rachel - You should give coffee another chance, promise it was a one-off

Liv - Hot tip. If it is anything like the Thai version I know it will be delicious

Cheers bro - hot tip indeed!

Patrick - It is the Gaggia classic that I've been using

Kalyn - Love it, talk about a 'bowling ball for Homer'!

Cara - I have used them in the past but can't get over the environmental impact of those little pods I'm afraid

angeltreats - Isn't it great when you find something you really like? So satisfying.

signe said...

Ah sweet Gaggia! My dad brought a Gaggia ice cream machine from Italy to Norway in the early '80s and it still works a treat. Invest in that Gaggia espresso machine (at the very least so your brother can have his back) and you'll still be using it 30 years from now :)

Marv ] said...

Without coffee I would have to give up work.....and proabably parenting as well!

It's not sustianable but my vice is my magimix nespresso machine... happily my 'get out of guilt free' card is that it was a christmas present from my mum so I cannot possibly get rid of it!

Having a 2 year old to manage at breakfast and being able to make a near perfect espresso one handed (with no mess) in about 20 seconds means I'm unlikely to give it up voluntarily anytime soon.

I'll invest in a Gaggia bean to cup when the nespresso eventualy expires (I recently saw one on sale for £250 at a local outlet store).

The best coffee I've ever had was from street vendors and petrol stations in Venezuela ....also the source of the best chocolate I've ever tasted.

Vietnamese coffee rocks ...its like a shot of affogato.

Anonymous said...

I adore coffee. I go to bed thinking of the coffee I will make the next morning, yet it always disappoints! I use a cafetiere, I dream of using a "proper" machine that spits or gurgles or hisses and ultimately produces a beautiful cup of viscous, dark joy. Have you ever tried Monmouth Coffee in Covent Garden? Monmouth Street to be precise. They sell beans too, it's coffee heaven in there. The smell, the cramped seats and creaky wooden floors, the best coffee I've ever had. I'm sure I'll never get that good!

Anonymous said...

Me again, I forgot to say that I live 2 hours away, by train, from London, so that coffee in Monmouth Street is a rare treat. Worth a 2 hour train journey though!

woodlandcreature said...

My brother and I fought over the Pavoni that my dad had when he passed away...we've since made up and I've gone to loose leaf tea. (Coffee is for visiting him in Seattle - he won).

woodlandcreature said...

My brother and I fought over my dad's Pavoni when he passed away. I've moved on to loose leaf tea and leave the coffee for visits to Seattle...he won.

Paunchos said...

One of the best posts I've read in ages. Awesomely cool photos too. And weirdly struck quite a few chords with me given that I just cooked coffee marinated duck in Sweden tonight. It's bizarre when these different themes collide like this.

Good luck judging the coffee contest.

Anette said...

Oh the lifelong pursuit of coffee perfection.... It never ends! Looking forward to judging with you in a couple of weeks!

Jellie said...

Two words: Rancilio Silvia.

Nuff sed.

And if you find yourself in Covent Garden, go say Hi to Dooma at the Drury Coffee shop - he is a coffee guru.

Liv - I gave up searching for the Vietnamese coffee in London... Where did you find it? I hope it's Trung Nguyen?!

'Cà Phê Su'a'ahhhhhhhhhhh....

Jazzy said...

how about 'bosnian coffe'?
have you ever try it?
the best coffee in the world if made properly.
here is the link for you to see how it looks when served

thanks for the great blog, very enjoyable reading and inspirational.

keep up a good work

Laurent said...

Lovely to see your evolutions from the Bialetti to that nice Gaggia espressomachine! :-)