Monday, February 15, 2016
A flower shop and coffee shop in one, 4121 Main is perhaps the most serene coffee space in existence. The flowers are intertwined with the experience, with arrangements bursting from the shelves and the coffee bar alike; it is a unique sensory experience to drink coffee while inhaling bouquets of florals. The space is reminiscent of a floral scene in a Caravaggio painting — without the chiaroscuro, since the small space is flooded with light.
Monday, February 1, 2016
I’m very excited to relaunch The Coffee Experiment; the composition of the new website better reflects my writing and the original idea that sparked this project. You will notice a new menu to the left, which are the new focuses of The Coffee Experiment: Conversations, Travel, Design, and Coffee 101.
I was always more interested in the social aspect of coffee — the way that it universally brings people together — than the coffee itself. CONVERSATIONS will focus on the people I have coffee with. The TRAVEL section will be a place I can write about travel, both coffee related and otherwise. I spend much of my time in coffee shops, writing, meeting people, or simply being. I am very inspired by the design of coffee spaces, the way they can be artful, while also serving as the gathering spaces for communities. Thus, the DESIGN section will focus on the architecture of coffee spaces, in every form. I still love to drink good coffee; COFFEE 101 will remain a place to write about coffee drinks and brewing methods that I enjoy.
Monday, February 1, 2016
Perhaps one of my favorite coffee spaces, ever: La Colombe’s newest addition to Philadelphia was built within the existing lobby of the Dow Chemical building. The building’s original architect, Pietro Belluschi, designed the space in the ’60s in the spirit of modernity and innovation; the original Plexiglass chandeliers (an ode to the original building’s owners, and creators of Plexiglass, Rohm and Haas) hang above wood panels and geometric stone columns. La Colombe added a beautiful bar, a hand-painted graphic mural by David Guinn, and a large metal dove to float atop the wood paneling. The original mid-century wood-paneled bathrooms doors, seamlessly constructed into the walls, were particularly cool.
Friday, January 15, 2016
The lush, mystical island of Cuba has beckoned Americans for some time. In the first half of the twentieth century, it was the most glamorous escape in the Caribbean. Now, in an increasingly small and globalized world, the idea of the island being “forbidden” has become part of an insatiable allure. Americans could eat Cuban food at restaurants, dance to the sounds of Buena Vista Social Club, puff drags of Cuban cigars — yet couldn’t fully immerse themselves in the spirit of the island.
I was truly compelled to explore Cuba due to a collective folklore most hold of this tiny Island, a mere 30 minute plane ride from Miami. That such a small stretch of land could yield such influence on the global community, yet the inhabiting residents’s stories so tightly controlled, was confounding to me; and the history, full of Castro’s communism — and America’s contention of it – remains a polarizing topic.
As travel restrictions between the countries began to ease, my best friend and I booked our tickets on a whim, knowing nothing of Cuba save for a limited narrative the media has continuously propagated.
Western media in particular loves Cuba. It relentlessly tells one of two stories. The first, led by a more conservative base, is to reject Cuba’s government, and thus its people, by calling for further isolation and the upholding of current embargos – tourism included. (As a financier on the flight to Miami aggressively told me, “One should never forget!”)
On the other hand, another media angle rests on a romanticism of a decadent past. The glamorous Cuba of the 1950s is now long dissolved, but easily reimagined through the stylish mid-century American cars that chug through blocks of colorful facades.
Yet Cuba, like any other country and its people, is exceedingly more complex than any one narrative.
Our chartered flight descended upon the island, passing green hills covered in a dense, humid fog. We made it through the long customs line, past security, and hopped in a taxi bound for old town Havana.
When we arrived in the city, it was barely past nine in the morning and our hotel room wasn’t ready — “Come back in an hour,” we were told — so we set off down the street in search of good coffee. We were directed to a very old and established café, where Europeans sat outside drinking frothy iced drinks while overlooking a square full of western shops. We lamented drinking such bad coffee, but did so anyway. A man sketched us on a napkin and passed it to us as we left.
We were staying at a hotel called the Hotel Ambos Mundos. It is a very pink, very old hotel where Ernest Hemingway once took up residence. Room 501, where he wrote part of For Whom the Bell Tolls, is now blocked off as a museum. When we finally made our way up to our room (after multiple promises of “Come back in one hour!”) we discovered that we were neighbors of Hemingway’s, sharing a wall with his history. At night I imagined hearing Ernest’s ghost typing away frantically at his typewriter, drinking heavily, perhaps taking drags of a tightly rolled cigar.
When I inquired at the front desk about good coffee, I was constantly directed to the same, terrible European café. So we ignored everything and continued to get lost amongst the achingly beautiful architecture. Not having access to any form of Internet, we wandered quite aimlessly, referring only to a paper map that we marked with pen every time we spotted something interesting. We had a formula, keeping an eye out for any type of crowd. Wherever there was a crowd of locals eating or drinking, we’d put an X on the map, to return later.
We turned down a particularly colorful street, the center of the road ripped up to the foundational pipes, the leaking water creating a sort of moat. We straddled the small stretch of sidewalk on either side of the abyss, stopping in front of a deep alley protected by a rustic wooden door, propped open to reveal another world. A woman, hidden in the shadow, cried out to us brightly from a window, “Coffee? Coffee? Come!”
We had just drank two cups of poorly prepared cappuccinos, so we smiled and waved as we passed, and promised each other that we’d return tomorrow to the magical alley for our morning coffee.
We had forgotten to put an X on the map, so the next day we roamed the streets, desperately trying to find the lady that had called out to us with promises of real Cuban coffee. We walked all morning in an oppressive heat, our clothes drenched and our faces continuously beading with sweat. We finally came upon the street, recognizing its colors and moats, and took it all the way down to its end. Had the alley disappeared? Had it been a mirage? We walked up and down countless times.
Finally, we discovered a bend in the road led to a hidden block. We found the alley and entered into the cool shade. The same woman immediately tended to us, shooing her family members off the only two iron chairs available and ushering for us to sit. We tried to decline but she insisted; she brought out two small glasses filled with no more than two ounces of strong coffee, bits of condensed milk floating to the surface. We drank the sweetness in a few sips, feeling alive.
The alley was a rabbit hole into an intricate world of crowded spaces, all teetering atop each other, clotheslines crisscrossing the open stairwells and wires hanging indiscriminately. Children ran back and forth as an older woman hung her intimates to dry. A blue façade was adorned with a hand-painted sign reading “CAFETERIA,” our Narnia of perfect coffee, and where we met our Claudia.
A Cafeteria is part of Cuba’s new wave of privately owned businesses. Cafeterias are dotted throughout the streets of Old Havana, casas and cafes in one. The licensed (and heavily taxed) proprietor essentially serves coffee out of their kitchen window; famous is the cortadito – a strong, single shot of Bustello-roasted beans poured over sweetened, condensed milk.
Claudia instantly connected to us — my best friend and I, two young American girls from New York. Cubans have been watching the headlines, as Obama, little-by-little, opens the rusty vault door that has kept Cuba and America from exchanging much of anything, including tourists. But we were the physical proof — young travelers not part of a sanctioned tour group. And we felt the buzz of newness everywhere we went: an excitement for freedom of exchange, culturally and economically, as well as a skepticism of America’s interests.
Claudia brought us a host of Cuban treats, like thick and sweet Mango juice, fresh-cut guava, another cortadito. We imbibed and ate drunkenly. She spoke only Spanish. My friend and I spoke a weird mix of Italian and English, since we mistakenly thought Italian could imitate Spanish (while some words are similar, it most often does not). We stumbled through conversation like an elaborate game of charades, where one usually gave up after the other’s futile attempt to understand simple concepts like, “Are you married?” (::Point at ring finger incessantly and make a heart with your hands::). There were many heavy but beautiful silences.
Claudia’s mother was a youthful woman who ran the café along with Claudia’s abuela, Isabella. Isabella cooked the food and prepared the coffee. Claudia, in her early 20s, was the exuberant face of the business, constantly running in and out to make sure our glasses were full. Her little sister, Mariana, couldn’t be more than ten and often ran through the alley with her jump rope. This was a female-driven enterprise.
We returned the second day for coffee, and we were met with kisses from the entire family. Claudia invited us to return that evening, as we understood it, for a home cooked meal, and later — what we assumed was the gesture for — fireworks. The city was having a celebration: the 26 Julio, the holiday of revolution. We understood to be there at ocho, and we’d let the night unfold.
The Malécon is a famous seaside boulevard in Havana, where residents come to see and be seen; young and old, groups stake their place on the seawall to gaze at passers-by, many playing music, some dancing. Waves crash in the background, making it a romantic spot for star-crossed adolescents to escape to.
We figured we were heading to the Malécon with Claudia for the party. When we drove right past the Malécon and through a tunnel, we watched as the city faded into the background. At that moment, we wished we spoke more Spanish.
We drove up to an old fort overlooking the bluffs surrounding Havana, where a festival was held, packed with Cuban tourists. Cuban actors dressed in Spanish colonial garb reenacted military marches, and vendors sold various trinkets. We arrived late, missing the fireworks.
After a while, Claudia asked us, “Fiesta?” Why not? “Mi amigo. Casa. Mango!” She had noticed we particularly liked the mangos in Cuba and ate them voraciously, because, who wouldn’t? They ruin all other mangos. We followed her down the hill and straddled the edge of a busy interstate to arrive at a bus stop. We boarded the bus – or, “Guagua!” as Claudia enthusiastically called it. It took off abruptly, barreling down the highway, shifting and shaking violently, full of crowded eyes illuminated by fluorescent green lighting. My eyes locked with an uncertain set belonging to a man in uniform, a fading emblem of the regime. I smiled to break the space of unfamiliarity, but he didn’t return the gesture.
Something about Claudia emanated trust. She would place her hand out like a mother when we crossed the street, protecting us from oncoming traffic. She often pointed at us sporadically while proclaiming, “Amigas!” She paid for our taxis and our food and vehemently refused our money, while simultaneously telling us that most things in Cuba, like sunscreen, were moy caro – too expensive. She was years younger than us, but she nurtured us. So we continued on with confidence.
About five stops later we stepped off the guaga in a rather nondescript neighborhood, far outside the city limits of Havana. The deep blackness of the night didn’t help us catch our bearings. We traipsed grassy areas under a few dim streetlights to a main thoroughfare, filled with a few shops. A hoard of people hovered outside a corner building – “WiFi… moy caro,” Claudia explained. People of every age clutched devices, video chatting to grainy images of loved ones or updating their Facebook status.
Claudia had no cell phone. So when we arrived at her amigo’s house in this unnamed neighborhood outside of Havana, Amigo was not there. My friend and I became a bit uneasy. The journey to Amigo’s house — through a myriad of dirt roads, past identical one-story houses — caused us to lose direction. After a while, I wasn’t sure if we had made a right turn or left; did we come from here or there? Unable to pull out a cell phone to locate us on the map or call for a car service, my friend and I looked at each other, mutually surrendering. Trust is a tricky thing without communication; Claudia smiled and shrugged her shoulders as we waited.
Finally, Amigo appeared: A skinny, shy boy – from Angola, we discovered – in Cuba to study medicine; education in Cuba, including medical school, is free (yes, free) thus attracting people from all over the world. He introduced himself as Raoul, gently grasped my hand and kissed my cheek in greeting, then led us into the house.
A mantle of mementos – crosses, Madonnas, glass flowers – greeted us as we entered the door, overlooking a set of red chairs. Claudia ushered us to take a seat and pulled up an old fan, blasting us with lukewarm air. She turned on a vintage 1980s television set, settling on a channel thumping reggaeton music videos. “Mango!” she said, as she disappeared in the back with Raoul.
Claudia reappeared with ripe mangos in plastic containers, and handed us two very large knives. She smiled and mimed how to cut and eat the mango – ::Slice vertically and peel it off the skin with your teeth:: – and left us alone once again.
We hacked at the mangos amateurishly and broke into laughter. “Where are we?” my friend asked. “I have no idea,” and I bit into perhaps the sweetest mango I tasted in Cuba.
We were left sticky from mango juice. Claudia brought us through a doorway, past a kitchen, to the backyard. In the backyard, through the darkness, I saw Raoul reach into a vat with a large pitcher, gathering water; he brought the water over to wash our hands and mouths.
“Discoteca?” It was getting late. We mimed that we were tired. Claudia and Raoul walked us back through the neighborhood, past multiple block parties; women dressed in sky-high heels, men with faded haircuts, and groups of children danced to house music in the street. The spirit of night was free, the streets were the real discoteca. We joined in for a step or two as we weaved through the parties.
“Sylvia!” Claudia suddenly yelled across the street. “Mi familia,” she told us. A young family, with their infant son, crossed the street to shower us with kisses, of course, as if we’d all known each other in another lifetime. They also happened to be on their way to the highway, looking for a taxi into Havana. We continued our walk together.
Their infant son was born sick, she mimed, pointing to his heart. They were headed into Havana – a near 25-minute drive – for healthcare. My watch read close to midnight. Suddenly, the mother handed the baby to Claudia, who passed the tiny infant to my friend.
They spoke Spanish to us, and we nodded and smiled, understanding everything but their words. We walked along together, my friend’s eyes filling with tears as she held the sick infant in her arms. The barriers that exist between others, the ones we experience every day – in elevators, waiting in lines, on airplanes – did not exist in these moments. There was an openness among this family, one that couldn’t be perverted – because it was pure. How much did we all really know about each other? We couldn’t properly ask a question, we could barely share a story about ourselves. Yet they welcomed us so fully.
Eventually, our group divided into two vintage cars, Claudia and Raoul chaperoning my friend and I. We drove back to Havana with the windows open, reggaeton music blaring, the night’s air salty and warm. They walked us to the door of our hotel, then disappeared into the night.
The act of sharing coffee has always been more than the drink itself; it is a social act that crosses the boundary of culture and has the unique ability to truly connect. Claudia’s family shared coffee with us, extending a hand and ushering us into their reality. I can’t say exactly what connected us to Claudia so instantly, but she brought us into such a personal space without hesitation. Perhaps it was a desire to show us the real Cuba, unadorned by government implication’s or inauthentic representations.
My experience in Cuba was both mundane and extraordinary; for us, it was an unexpected connection, an experience of Claudia’s intimate, albeit normal, daily life.
We went back the next day to bid Claudia farewell, and for one more cortadito. We had a late flight, so she invited us to an art fair in the eclectic Vedado district, and later we had ice cream in one of the many parkside cafe’s.
Weaving back through old Havana and the tourist areas – full of vintage salsa music and freshly painted buildings – it all seemed world’s away from the pulsing life of Cubans living within the crumbling structures a few streets down.
Cuba wasn’t what I expected, nor was it what I wanted it to be. It is a country with a complicated and contentious history; yet creativity can be seen in every crevice of the Cuban community, from the brilliant and thriving enterprises on the streets of Havana, to the near perfect mise-en-scenes found inside every interior.
As Americans will begin to trickle onto the island, I hope all remember that Cubans are the architects of their future – it is not for us to dictate or conform. Explore the country deeper, notice the complexities and the discrepancies, their government and their history — but only within the fullness of Cuba’s greater context: The people’s enduring spirit.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the subjects.
Friday, December 4, 2015
Blue Bottle coffee opened up a small, simple space in the dimly lit caverns of an underground midtown mall, topped by hectic Rockefeller Center. Shiny marble is framed by wood pannels, giving it a modern, minimalist feel.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
What was once a residential area with a nice parking garage and a few local businesses, has nearly exploded in the last few years with restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. Panther Coffee is a design-heavy space with rotating art and an industrial slant, warmed by yellow domed lights and an awesome outdoor alley for perfect people-watching.
Following pictures taken last year on my iPhone, thus Panther’s space has changed only slightly.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
New Orleans is so magical, it makes me dizzy. The city had me feeling as though we were drifting on a Caribbean island, with the colors and the architecture and the slow, yet pulsing energy of each day. New Orleans is very urban but also, 18th century; it’s located in the south, yet more singular in culture than any other southern city. The food, the jazz, the voodoo, the humidity — there’s a true sense of something mystical swirling around, it really did make me dizzy sometimes. Truthfully, this was most likely due to the air being so thick and damp I often felt like I was swimming through the streets, even in the winter’s cool air.
The city is anchored by an immensely rich history that dates back centuries, with vast influences from African, to Caribbean, Spanish, and French. New Orleans is nothing if not jubilant, people seem to dance at the drop of a hat, it’s infectious. They second line for everything, making life a celebration. To truly get a sense of this city, you have to take the time to wander, to sit and sip coffee (or a Sazerac) and engage in the energy; and of course, talk to people, because the residents of New Orleans are proud.
I recently spent a month in New Orleans, and this list is far from exhaustive. But the following places brought me so much joy, and showcased the uniqueness that makes this city so special from any other place in the country, if not the world.
TO EAT AND DRINK:
For a good cappuccino in the French Quarter, there is no other but Spitfire. With only three stools at a bar to vie for, the space is small but the baristas are relaxed and friendly. I love walking through the French Quarter to Spitfire in the very early mornings, to mingle with the the quirky mix up people, some walking out of bars, only ending their festivities, others just beginning.
FRENCH TRUCK COFFEE
New Orleans has a famous style of coffee roasted with chicory. They often drink this brew iced, as the bayou weather tends toward the tropical side. Traditionally, the coffee and chicory mixture is brewed as a concentrate at room temperature, creating a strong and syrupy drink. It is served on ice with milk. French Truck’s New Orleans is especially good, given that they shake the coffee and milk with crushed ice and sugar. It is, absolutely, the best and most addictive coffee drink known to man. Located in the Lower Garden District, the small space is painted in a bright yellow and blue palate.
New Orleans’s food lexicon exists mostly of words such as: Po’boys, gumbo, muffulettas, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and beignets, to name a few. After eating lots of said dishes, we were definitely craving something a bit more green. We happened upon Green Goddess completely by accident, while an ominously dark rain cloud hovered above us and forced us into the nearest shelter. And we felt like we walked into some kind of island oasis. Maybe it had something to do with the impending storm, the damp breeze blowing into the open air space, the black and white tiled floors or the starry lights hanging from the ceiling, but I felt completely enchanted in this place. The menu features many traditional New Orleans dishes with a twist, as well as vegetarian options.
GUY’S AND GENE’S FOR POBOYS
Next time I’m in New Orleans I hope to visit more Po’boy establishments, because there are so many and I’m sure they are all good. But I only made it to uptown Guy’s, for the fried shrimp Po’boy of my dreams, and Gene’s in the Marigny, for the heavenly sausage and cheese. I gained about 15 pounds after spending a month there, but I was plump and happy.
CAFE BEIGNET AND CAFE DU MONDE
Beignets, or glorified doughnuts to most, are a New Orleans specialty, extra fried and covered in a mound of delicate powdered sugar that sticks absolutely everywhere (I was brushing it out of my hair hours later). There are two places in the French Quarter that most New Orleans residents and tourists go to for beignets: Cafe Beignet and Cafe du Monde. Personally, I enjoyed both. Cafe Beignet’s pastry was certainly denser, while Cafe du Monde’s was on the light and fluffy side. Both are best warm. Cafe du Monde’s atmosphere takes the prize, though; we walked through the early morning’s dense fog (as if the magical element could get any more ethereal!) to the old-world, open-air space, and it was buzzing with energy.
This romantic, candle-lit restaurant had us coming back for more; literally, we ate here twice in only four days, not only for the delicious food, but because there was just so much atmosphere. Located uptown on Magazine street, past palatial Garden District homes and surrounded by boutiques and cafes, the floors are tiled and the ceilings are coffered with chandeliers hanging above; the menu changes daily, as all ingredients are sourced locally.
LA PETITE GROCERY
Similar to Coquette, La Petite Grocery focuses on local ingredients, with a little more emphasis on hearty, southern food. The yellow building was once a specialty grocery store that was known for its butter and coffee, which was roasted in-house — hence the restaurant’s name, La Petite Grocery. Located uptown, also on Magazine.
DRINK A SAZERAC OR A RAMOS GIN FIZZ, ANYWHERE
One of my favorite places in New Orleans for a drink was Sylvain (not pictured). But truth be told, there are so many gloriously old and quirky bars serving classic cocktails that it was hard to choose; this is a city that definitely likes its spirits. It doesn’t get more old-world than drinking a Sazerac in New Orleans, which is why one must do so. The Sazerac is special to the city because it is considered to be one of the first known American cocktails, ever — and created, of course, in New Orleans. At the namesake Sazerac Bar, for example, as the narrow space fills with jazz, there is no doubt as you sip your cocktail that you are in New Orleans; the scene gives you a buzz, as does the insanely alcoholic namesake drink — a Sazerac is made of whiskey, bitters, absinthe and sugar, finished off with a lemon peel. I loved the Ramos Gin Fizz as well, extra shaken with egg whites and cream and practically frothing out of the glass.
We spent New Year’s Eve at the ever-classic Galatoire’s. We were caught up and transfixed by the revelry — the charm of the green-hued dining room, the waiters in tuxes, and the raucous clientele ringing in the new year, NOLA style. It’s an old establishment that still brings in a diverse and posh New Orleans crowd, tourists and locals alike, and the food doesn’t change, with an emphasis on seafood and classic dishes.
Named one of the best new restaurants in the country, Shaya is a welcome stray from the delicious but often heavy cuisine cooking that New Orleans is famous for. Featuring Israeli and Middle Eastern dishes, the bread and Mezze dips, like lutenitsa and labneh, are truly standouts that we went back for again and again. The space is clean and modern, but the outside patio, with whitewashed walls and blue accents, feels like a coastal Mediterranean cafe.
Other favorites (I feel I should start to simply list them, lest this becomes a novel): ATCHAFALAYA for atmosphere and Creole dishes, ANCORA for the best Neapolitan pizza and cocktails.
Billy Reid is the fashion world’s patron designer of the south. His name and designs have infiltrated all over the world, yet he continues to live and operate his label out of his home state of Alabama. His clothes are incredibly well constructed, and the New Orleans store features a beautiful kitchen and outdoor space that doubles as a gathering spot for the city’s creative community. Moreover, the staff is the absolute best and I spent many hours hanging out in the store drinking cocktails with them.
MEYER THE HATTER
I really love hats. There is something so special and eccentric and nostalgiac about wearing them. This 80-year-old hat store is as good as it gets when it comes to hat shopping. They sell my favorite go-to brand, Borsalino, as well as American-made Stetsons and everything in between. The storefront near Canal street outside the Quarter is 5th-generation owned, meaning Meyer is still the Hatter, and his ‘Nawlins draw and witty quips will certainly make your hat buying experience unlike another. Not to mention his charming French-born wife and colleague who sells hats equally well — between the two of them I was so charmed, I bought not one hat, but two.
This French Quarter boutique is a small, curated collection of beautiful separates from inspiring designers around the world. Armina, a co-owner of the boutique, helped me pick out the perfect pair of vintage jeans. Impeccable and eclectic taste is sprinkled throughout the store, from the design of the space itself to the racks of artful outfits.
Monday, July 7, 2014
Fes, a medieval town in central Morocco, is one of the most visually stunning and vivid cities in the world; the sights and sounds, from the melodic echoes of the call to prayer, to the constant dodging of donkeys down narrow alleys, enlivens every sense.
It was a disordered spring in April when I traveled to Morocco; one week we baked ourselves in 90-degree Fahrenheit weather, the other we huddled underneath blankets to keep warm. I was there to work in the city of Rabat, the modern and diverse capital. Yet throughout Rabat, I continued to hear vague tales from other travelers, near folklore, about the magical city of Fez.
I had the weekend free, so I took a Saturday morning train through the countryside to the ancient city. After a leisure train ride through the countryside with views of the Atlas mountains, we arrived at the station and hopped a taxi to head to our riad. Riads are preferred lodging in Morocco — old, grand homes surrounding lush courtyards, many of which have been converted to hotels.
Many Moroccan cities are comprised of an ancient city center– the medina – surrounded by a more developed, modern city. Our riad (Riad la Calife; €100 for a double) was located in the trenches of the old city, where no cars could enter. A bellman dressed in red met us outside of the medina to guide us to our accommodations. It was a lovely and peaceful property, run by a charming French-Moroccan woman and her husband, tucked behind damp stone walls and a thick wooden door.
The medinas, dating back to medieval times, are contained by enormous walls which one enters through large, often elaborate gates. The medina is filled with souks: marketplaces selling produce, meats, trinkets, housewares, and really, objects of every kind. Much of it is handmade by the sellers themselves, while other more mundane goods and daily essentials are also available.
Inside the gates, Fez was buzzing with chaos and energy. Men atop donkeys navigated throngs of people moving in every direction. The dirt alleyways intertwined in a dizzying configuration, up and down hills and every which way. Without street signs, landmarks were the only way to sense direction. A guide is essential, and your riad will help arrange a good one.
Before we took off through the maze, our guide asks if there was anything in particular we wished to do. I went to Morocco with a mission to bring home one souvenir: a rug. I have a fascination with intricate floor rugs. To me, they are the most important design elements in a home. I love to cover my floors with an array of colors and designs. Morocco is known throughout history for their handwoven rugs, made by the Berber people – descendants of the indigenous settlers of North Africa. I had been told that buying a rug in Morocco is more cost-effective (and more fun) than buying one in the states, where prices usually double.
We set off down narrow streets, some so thin we had to turn sideways to pass through. We paused to drink glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice, impossibly sweet and poured from coke bottles; we ate soft cheeses still fermenting in vats; we watched as two men wove elaborate garments with their hands, standing across the room from each other, their fingers entwined with thread.
Our guide led us into an old palace. As we headed up winding, brightly tiled stairways, we noticed vibrant rugs hanging on walls and stacked in dusty piles. Men in white coats began to prepare a selection of rugs in a kind of choreographed dance.
We were led up to a rooftop to survey the city of Fez. After snapping a few photographs, we were ushered into a gorgeous room framed by a hand-carved wooden ceiling. The palace was a medieval gem, stunning in its own right, but even more beautiful when filled with brilliant, jewel-colored rugs of every kind.
A plump man appeared, his thin lips topped with a thick mustache: the owner and our salesman. He spoke a mix of heavily accented English tinged with French. Of course, we began the elaborate process the real Moroccan way – “Tea, mesdammes?” he asked, before uttering much else. In Morocco, sweet mint tea is drunk on every occasion, multiple times a day, and it is considered rude to turn down an offering. Luckily, the tea is addictive, so I always acquiesce.
“Marocain, ou Americain?” he asked of the tea; Moroccans drink their tea with an immense amount of sugar. Americans often find this too sweet, he told us. “Marocain,” we say in unison, much to his delight. An assistant ran off to make our tea, as we took a seat on patterned cushions.
The owner was incredibly proud of his castle of rugs, rightfully so. We sipped tea with him as two assistants presented us with rug after rug, each more beautiful than the last. He took us through history with each design, from the more modern, mass produced rugs to traditional handmade Berber rugs. “I, of course, am Berber,” he stated proudly. He showed us thick wool rugs of every color woven with geometric designs; “one-of-a-kind,” he said, shaking his head in admiration.
“Excusez-moi, madame!” he interjected as I admired a rug with motifs of good luck and wild fringe sporadically sprouting from the sides. “This. This is like a Picasso for the floor,” he told me. “It tells a story.” Moroccan rugs truly are pieces of art, and like any artwork, a medium used to tell stories; each chosen design and color has a purpose and narrative. The process of making is intricate and time-consuming, the threads dyed and woven by hand.
After hundreds of rugs and a second round of tea, each of us made a selection; I picked the colorful hand-made Berber. We had yet to discuss price, which I became more nervous about as time ticked on. I went into the process with a self-imposed limit on what I could spend, but I had a feeling these treasures would exceed those preconceived numbers. In Morocco, there is an art to bartering, though I usually failed miserably – a delicate game of finding a deal whilst avoiding any offense. This man made it easy: he offered a twenty percent discount, and refused any more.
When I returned to New York, I made sure to peruse carpet stores, asking to view rugs of Moroccan origin. Most Berber rugs ran much higher, some upwards of $1,500; I could find rugs online for much less than what I paid, though their authenticity was, of course, questionable.
The Berber rug remains one of my most treasured possessions. Every time my feet cross the living room floor and hit the thick wool, I’m reminded of my magical time in Morocco, and I usually go make a pot of sweet mint tea for the nostalgia.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
While in Rabat, Morocco, I must confess: coffee hasn’t been part of my daily life. It’s hard to find much coffee drinking happening anywhere, though there are a few cafes that serve it. Instead, Moroccans get their energy from very strong, sweet mint tea. This tea is a part of the country’s social fabric. Nearly every Moroccan pauses for tea many times a day. “Inshallah,” they say — God willing. In other words, why worry? It is out of one’s control. Their tea drinking reflects this; there is always time to rest and sit with others.
Mint tea is served in the morning when one wakes, and at night before sleep — and every hour in between. It is presented to guests to welcome them, consumed after meals and in celebration. It is ingrained in every Moroccan’s consciousness — one cannot separate Moroccan culture from mint tea. It is offensive to reject an offering of tea, and one is expected to drink, at the very least, two cups when offered.
Our house manager, Khadija, was a warm spirit and incredible cook. She taught us how to make tea, the Moroccan way. Though I’ve found that no two people make it the same, the components always consist of three things: green tea, lots of mint, and epic amounts of sugar. The tea is traditionally made in an engraved silver pot, called a berrad; the berrad can be placed directly on the stove.
First, boil water in a separate kettle. Green tea leaves are added to the berrad (or any pot in which one plans to serve the tea in), and a small amount of the boiling water is added. The tea is steeped for 2 to 3 minutes, swooshed around, and then poured into a glass; this “washes” the tea leaves, and the resulting first steep, believed to be full of dust and dirt, is discarded.
Fill the pot with water once again, this time filling the pot completely. Put the berrad on the stove and bring to a boil, then add a handful of fresh mint. True Moroccan tea is incredibly sweet; all around Morocco, we were often asked if we wanted the tea Morocain or Américain – apparently American tourists find the tea too sweet (which didn’t sound American to me!) For the true Moroccan taste, add two large sugar sticks. Moroccans never stir their tea, it is simply poured many times to dissolve the sugar. The tea is poured into accompanying glasses from a high distance, then poured back into the pot. This is repeated three or four times. The pouring must be done from a high distance to get a thick and bubbling foam; or as Khadijah explained, “Your tea must have a good turban.”
Finally, the tea is ready to be served in small, traditional etched glasses. Moroccans always drink three or more cups in one sitting.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
The Rancilio Silvia is an Italian-made espresso machine, producing high quality results while being both compact and rather easy-to-use. Clive Coffee named it one of the best single-boiler espresso machines under $1,000 (as many of you may or may not know, espresso machines are generally, expensive). Though I’ve never owned a more expensive machine in comparison, I can say that this machine has been my at-home savior.
After a couple of months, and perhaps 400 cappuccinos later (not all imbibed, don’t worry), I’ve learned a thing or two. And I wanted to share my amateur findings. There is, as always, much room for improvement. I’m only two months in to being top barista of my household.
The Rancilio Silvia is a single-boiler espresso machine — meaning there is only one water-heating source for both brewing and steaming. Therefore, it will take a bit more time to prepare a milk drink; after an espresso shot is pulled, there is a waiting period for the machine to heat up to optimal temperature again before steaming milk. Since I’m usually only making one or two drinks at a time, this isn’t a concern for me.
First of all, as always, good coffee is required for a good result.
When pulling espresso at home, one of the most important elements is your grind. Grind is an important aspect of any coffee-making, but one honestly can’t pull a good espresso shot unless a proper grind size is used. I received the Baratza Maestro (since discontinued) as a gift, and it has really made all the difference. There are even more efficient grinders for espresso use, but I have found that this one is doing the job for now.
The espresso should be fine and powdery, which allows a uniform and compact tamp (that little silver hammer which baristas use to pressurize the grinds in the group-head). While tamping, one should apply even, forceful pressure for about 30 seconds. There should be no holes or cracks in the espresso once it is tamped.
The extraction time is the final variable one must watch carefully. It is, quite simply, the time it takes to brew an espresso shot. Optimal time varies between machines, but generally lies between 20-25 seconds from the time you flip the switch to the end result. I am currently extracting espresso for about 20 seconds. A proper shot of espresso should be topped by a thick crema (that cream-colored frothy layer that sits on the top of an espresso shot, an effect of the gases being released during extraction.)
Next up, I’ll tackle the highly difficult art of steaming milk. Stay tuned!
I produced a short film on my iPad — grainy and pixelated — to give you some visuals.