Monday, 25 April 2016

Cafe Verite

Standards are important. Without standards we get garbled, impenetrable prose; we get mushy spaghetti drowning in watery sauce; we get spongy, undercooked (or something!) French bread that flattens between our teeth rather than divides satisfyingly into bites--a bit of crunch, a bit of crumb. And, most dispiriting of all, we get grainy, watery, flat coffee.

One of the distressing realities of American life is that very few culinary standards obtain.  You can't know whether a "good Italian place" creates sumptuous, lively dishes or whether they sling pale, tasteless, improperly cooked dreck.

Yuka Cafe, Brussels
You can't know whether you will get a good cup of espresso at a cafe with which you are unfamiliar until it's served.  Sometimes it's watery, sometimes it's bitter, sometimes it's watery and bitter.  Sometimes, it takes 10 minutes to be curated and tastes like iron filings. Until recently, here in Europe, every cup of espresso was good, and quick.  One might be a little better than another, but they were all acceptable.  Each had substance.  Each had an a full, heady aroma, a languorous chocolatey-bitey taste, the crema shivering atop the liquid.  Some had more than that.

The proliferation of Keurig "K" cups and capsule-pods for espresso, however, threatens this culinary equilibrium.  In London, and in Oxford, where I have been living this year, I have come across K-cup coffee in a number of places, but I thought I could put it down to a lack of British espresso tradition.  But on my my most recent trip to Paris, I had the memory of some fantastic meals marred by the hot pod-capsule water served at the end.  I have had lazy, sunny flaneur afternoons ruined by coffee I did not want to finish. Fortunately, it was not widespread, but even in Paris, I now began to look not merely for a place that looked comfortable, but for some clue from the outside of the place as to whether it was a real cafe, a real restaurant.  I regret that there is, as yet, nothing definitive I can offer short of an inspection and lengthy interrogation of the staff.   Here in Brussels, where I have traveled with an old friend, it is more widespread.

It doesn't have to be like this.  In Britain and Europe, the Real Ale and Honest ("Head is not Beer") weights & meaures campaigns forced bar and restaurant owners to use glasses with a liquid volume line on them.  And every establishment pours right up to the line.  There may be a nice head on the beer, which can certainly add to the taste, but you are not being cheated by a gassy line.

At this juncture, I don't see the need for government intervention.  Maybe just a decal on the door, or low on the window saying they make real coffee.  It would be a start.

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