Do you remember the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had? I do. I was in high school - I was 18 years old - traipsing around London (as you do) with my Mom. I didn’t live in England, but we spent an awful lot of time there when I was growing up. I remember when I was 15 and went with a friend’s Dad to visit an old friend of his who was at that time producing a video for a little known band in the US (but well known in the UK). We went to Knebworth Manor to watch a few minutes filming of a little ditty called “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”. Didn’t meet the band, but I was more into walking around and staring at the architectural elements of the manor rather than the filming itself*. But I digress.
Usually my time in London with my parents was centered around shopping. Shopping is the breadth of life for my Mom. I’m hesitant (for a variety of reasons) to let her visit here, one reason being she’ll want to go into each and every store in each and every shopping center, and I don’t have the stamina and patience for that. One Thanksgiving, while visiting my American grandmother in Miami, Mom had me drive her to each one of Miami’s malls on Black Friday and follow her along as she shopped. She is exhausting. I’m one of the few women I know who really, truly hates shopping because of this (unless it’s for food, then I’m all about it). But this particular London trip we did a bunch of touristy things that for some reason we hadn’t gotten around to before. I’m sure we started at Harrods or Harvey Nichols, because Mom would have insisted; but then she and I went to Tower of London and walked around outside in the bitter windy cold along the Thames. For some reason we were looking for Scotland Yard, though I’m sure that was more my doing. I can’t imagine Mom being interested in something she would clearly consider mundane. Walking along the river, the wind began to howl; we had come to a stop in front of some random fish-and-chips joint. We both looked at each other, and without a word went inside and installed ourselves at window seats while the owner’s wife, a Rubenesque woman with an enormous beehive hairdo, served us coffee with cream. And it was heavenly. I don’t know if it was because of the really good English cream, or the fact that it was such a shit weather day, or because this woman with the crazy ass old-fashioned hairdo was giving Mom the stink eye because she was French, but that cup of coffee was magical enough for me to remember it as the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.
I’ve had some good coffee (and a lot of bad coffee) since. When I moved to Gainesville, Florida, there was this little place downtown called Café Espresso, where I spent countless hours drinking subpar coffee (later it was found out that the owners reused coffee grinds, which prompted us to start calling the place Café Depresso). Vietnam has a huge coffee culture. You can’t walk down one city sidewalk block without passing at least 3 cafés or vendors set up with a tarp overhead and wee plastic chairs underneath. (you can’t walk down a city sidewalk anyway without it being an obstacle course, but that’s another story). There’s also the mobile coffee sellers, the ones who have a whole set up on the back of a motorbike or a push cart, who install themselves in front of office buildings and at intersections, selling variations of cà phê đá (iced black coffee) or cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk). There’s been talk in the past couple of years about how the coffee being sold is actually fake - chemically laced soy beans and corn - made and sold for super cheap which the masses drink up. This is interesting - and sad - since one of Vietnam’s biggest export is robusta coffee beans. I do enjoy the occasional cà phê sua dá, but only occasionally since I imagine the sweetened condensed milk, which makes the drink delicious, goes straight to my hips. A buddy of mine, one of the head honchos of the Buon Ma Thuot Coffee and Commodity Exchange (BCCE), gave me packets of locally sourced arabica earlier this year, which I’ve slowly but steadily worked my way through. I generally prefer arabica to robusta, though I’m no coffee snob and don’t pretend to really know the difference. I just like the taste better.
I went to the café where I used to work to get some beans for my French press, since I like the occasional cup of coffee in the morning. The café specializes in importing beans from around the world and roasting them on site, so their inventory changes often. This week they have Ethiopian, Mexican, Burmundi, Costa Rican, and decaf (at which I made the sign of the cross, hissed, and pushed it to the back of the counter). One of the girls had me smell the beans while she waxed poetic about which coffee is best for Chemex versus French press, and bitterness versus sourness. “Yeah yeah, but I take my morning coffee with a teaspoon of sugar and some cold milk”, I said. A look of pure horror spread across her face. “But you miss all the flavors that way!”, she moaned. “How can you enjoy the dryness of this bean if you add all that to it? Oh and make sure the water temperature is just so. Not boiling”. But I’m a stick in the mud when it comes to that first cup in the morning. After that, sure, pour me all the fancy coffee tonics, cold brews, nitro brews galore, for I do love them. But sometimes you just want a regular cup ‘o joe, or even diner coffee.
In my bleary eyed fog this morning, I ground up some Ethiopian beans, added them to my French press, dumped in some scaldingly boiled water from the kettle, then went rummaging around in the fridge for some milk. I found a container with the dredges of maybe 2 tablespoons worth of milk left in it. Though it wasn’t too early for me to be strolling out to the nearest Circle K for milk (they’re open all night), I had just woken up and didn’t feel like facing the world plus cross a busy street and dodge city buses just for some milk. I made do with the 2 tablespoons of milk. Sitting there, savoring that cup that I probably made with water too hot for coffee snobs’ personal tastes, I remembered that long ago cold day in London with my Mom; and for a brief moment all was right with the world.
*Bit ‘o trivia: Knebworth Manor is also where they filmed Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes” video. And that, folks, is my useless trivia for today. I’m full of goodies like that.