Monday, February 1, 2016

THE NEW COFFEE EXPERIMENT

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.

 

Friday, January 15, 2016

HAVANA, CUBACOFFEE WITH CLAUDIA IN HAVANA

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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!”

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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.

***

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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.

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***

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.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

NEW ORLEANS, LATRAVEL DIARY: TCE GUIDE TO NEW ORLEANS

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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:

SPITFIRE COFFEE

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.

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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.

GREEN GODDESS

New Orleans’s food lexicon exists mostly of words such as: Po’boysgumbomuffulettasjambalayared 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.

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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.

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COQUETTE

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.

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GALATOIRE’S

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.

SHAYA

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.

SHOPPING:

BILLY REID

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.

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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.

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 EXODUS GOODS

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.

EXODUS GOODS

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

RABAT, MOROCCOKHADIJA’S MINT TEA

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.


Monday, October 29, 2012

PARIS, FRANCETHE SIDEWALK CAFE

As I settled into the cold iron seat resting lopsided on the uneven sidewalk, I sighed heavily — a release of the stresses from travel mixed with the exhilaration of my first morning in Paris.  I love mornings everywhere, in any city. There’s always a quiet buzz, a certain energy still anchored by sleepiness. It’s a transition period; we are waking from our slumber, adjusting to the bright light of the sun, breathing in air consciously and deliberately. I hadn’t spoken French in a few years, and anxiety crept in as the waitress approached my tiny bistro table. “Que préférez-vous, mademoiselle??” she asked. “Un cafe crème, s’il vous-plaît,” I replied, hoping my American accent wasn’t obvious.

The sidewalk café in Paris is a universal meeting place. Found on nearly every street corner, sometimes three or four in a row are adjoined, all equally boisterous, full of tourists and locals. The only criteria, it seems, is that there’s a table available. People are seldom alone (though there are few single patrons, like me), and the entire experience is intimate. The tables are mere inches apart from each other, the groups sit closely, leaning in, lost in conversation.

The café is literally part of the sidewalk, one feels connected to the rhythm of the city. Tables litter the path of pedestrians: people walking to and from somewhere, entering and exiting the metro, in and out of the cafe. Though transient — new patrons fill freshly opened tables immediately — the cafe is a place where one may stay for an hour, longer. There is no rush, no limit to the conversation, no haste in time spent with those accompanying you.

As a writer who seeks good coffee for a living, and relishes her morning coffee the most, I found this cafe experience to be a conundrum. The time spent was rich and rewarding, yet the coffee, far from. I expected this, as I’ve been to Paris before. And I’ve talked to many Parisians who acknowledge this, too. The coffee in Paris simply isn’t very good. Most brew low-grade beans, usually ground days — perhaps weeks — before, prepared in automatic machines.

Recently, a handful of specialty coffee shops have popped up in Paris. Skilled baristas, quality roasted coffee, and beautifully designed spaces are growing, connecting those who love coffee in one of the most culinary cities in the world. Yet as soon as my plane lands in Paris, all I can think of is sitting at a sidewalk café, notebook in hand, and a cup of bad coffee on the table.

Paris is where many of my favorite writers drew inspiration before me, and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin all wrote at cafés still standing today (perhaps nursing a cafe crème, I imagine). Rarely, one’s environment may outweigh good coffee; in this case, it’s the people that occupy the iron seats, past and present, who truly have my attention.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

ROME, ITALYTHE TASTES OF ROME

Rome, Italy is often my answer to the daunting question: What’s your favorite city? The raw nature of the city and the energy it emits provokes a certain freedom; Romans live connected to their city, fully present to each day. They live slow and with meaning. They share food in a similar way — connected to the food, ingredients, and tastes, but most importantly, to those with whom they share the meal.

When I visit Rome, dining is at the center of my travels as well as coffee, and here is a list of my favorite places I found and returned to this year.

FOR PANINI: Forno, Campo dei Fiori.

These panini are heavenly — the bread is thin and salted, and the meats are perfectly cured.  These sandwiches are simple, usually made of only two or three ingredients.  My favorite is the Bresaola — salted beef cured for months — with fresh arugula and parmigiano cheese. A Roman tradition, Forno has been at the corner of Campo dei Fiori for over thirty years, a true testament to the fact that one doesn’t need all the fixings to create something delicious — just a few ingredients, prepared perfectly.

FOR CAPPUCCINO: Il Caffe Sant’Eustachio, Piazza Sant’Eustachio.

There is nothing like sitting at a cafe table outside Caffe Sant’Eustachio, with a mix of tourists and locals, drinking espresso and cappuccinos, watching as Italians on vespas, bikes, and stilettos saunter by.  Sant’Eustachio has been roasting coffee for nearly 74 years.  Their gran caffe, a thick double espresso served with an insane crema, is famous — a secret way of pulling the shots, their baristas will not divulge this method to anyone.

FOR VINO: Vino Olio, Via dei Banchi Vecchi.

This charming wine bar is cozy and friendly, packed each night with lots of locals enticed by vintage wines and amazing cheese selections.  Sometimes, the fun can spill out onto the cobble stone street, patrons with wine glasses in hand, lounging on parked vespas.  If you catch the aperatif crowd around five, it is a bit quieter, providing an intimate, relaxed candlelit environment.  It’s a perfect place to allow the sommelier to introduce you to the wonderful wines of Italy.

 

FOR SWEETS: Il Fornaio, Via dei Baullari (off of Campo dei Fiori).

Il Fornaio is what I imagine the land of sweets from the Nutcracker to be like.  The small, take-away shop is full of homemade cookies, cakes, tarts, cornetti, bread, candy, and even some savory pizzas.  I love their Neapolitan cake, and the crostatine filled with fruits.

BEST HOMEMADE PASTA: Lucifero, Via dei Cappellari.

Walking into Lucifero is like visiting a friend’s home for dinner.  Lelo, the robust owner, will greet you at the door, learn your name, and converse with you for hours as you enjoy his food.  There are two pasta specials each day, made fresh that morning, and the house antipasti of marinated vegetables, meats and cheeses is one of my favorite dishes in this world.  It’s a relaxed, unpretentious environment with checkered tablecloths and old wooden beams, and  it’s always delicious.  Lelo and his family will make you feel like one of their own, and you will leave full, drunk, and happy.

FOR FINE DINING: Pierluigi, Piazza dé Ricci

One of the best pastas of my life: the rigatoni with lobster from Pierluigi.

Need I say more? It’s gorgeous, the staff is charming and sweet, and it somehow remains upscale without pretense. Some of the freshest seafood in town, one can peruse the chilled fish and choose the one that looks best — they’ll even show you the squirming lobster table side before preparing your dish. End the meal with pastiera, a traditional Neapolitan cake made with ricotta, orange flower water, and candied fruit; It’s truly one of the most beautiful dining experiences one can have in Rome.

FOR SFOGLIATELLE: Pasticceria Bernasconi, Piazza B. Cairoli.

One might fail to notice this ancient pasticceria, as I somehow did on my many walks past the bakery and cafe. They are best known for their sfogliatelle, pastries made of flaky, shell-shaped crust, filled with orange-flavored ricotta; a laborious feat, sfogliatelle require skilled hands shaping the dough to resemble a fan. Bernasconi (rhymes with the not-so-liked former president, Berlusconi) also makes homemade cakes and torrone, a fluffy candy of nougat and pistachios.  Good luck snagging the single table outside; otherwise, it’s standing room only.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

LISBON, PORTUGALCOFFEE IN LISBON, WITH FERNANDO PESSOA

“Wise is he who enjoys the show offered by the world” – Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa may be Lisbon’s proudest resident, past or present. One walks the streets and feel his spirit in every cafe and book store. He was the poet of Lisbon, productive in the early 20th century, though his great fame came posthumously. Today, his words are well known by all of Portugal, and his likeness is seen in photographs, statues, and mementos littering the city.

Born in Lisbon, he moved to South Africa with his mother and stepfather at an early age, following the death of his father. There, he focused on his studies, mastering the English language and penning many of his first works under pseudonyms — many which he used throughout his career, it’s hard to keep track. He returned to Lisbon at the age of 17, where he would live out the rest of his life, rarely leaving his beloved city. He was a lover of coffee, lingering in the cafes, most often alone with an espresso and his notebook; he used the cafe as a meeting place, often debating with his contemporaries literature and philosophy. I decided to have coffee with the spirit of Pessoa by frequenting his favorite coffee haunts, attempting  to absorb a bit of his genius, and to see the beauty and character of Lisbon through his eyes.

Cafe a Brasileira (R. Garrett 120, 1200 Lisboa)

One of the most famous and oldest in Lisbon, A Brasileira is still as bustling and significant to Lisboans as it was when it opened over one hundred years ago. A center for meeting and sipping, it’s located in the chic neighborhood of Chiado. The inside is gorgeously decorated with mosaic floors, a long oak bar and intricately carved paneled ceilings. Brass chandeliers light up the walls, which are covered in eclectic art deco paintings. The expansive bar is a great place to grab an espresso, but I prefer to sit outside and enjoy Lisbon’s ever-present breeze. Many famous literary, political, and artistic giants have congregated here, but Pessoa may be the most celebrated — outside of the cafe, a statue of him seated at a table rests amongst the others, as though he’s having coffee with you.

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Cafe Martinho da Arcada (Rua da Prata 4-8, 1100 Lisboa)

Situated under an arcada overlooking the Praca do Comercio square along the Tagus River, Cafe Martinho da Arcada is the place to be seen. Dine al fresco on whole grilled fish and perfectly roasted potatoes (both Portuguese staples) and then move inside to the bar, where all the baked goods are housed. An espresso at the bar will complete the experience, and a Belem pastry for dessert is a must. The espresso is strong and good. Inside, one can explore the main dining room, where Pessoa’s presence is undeniable. The corner table where he most often sat is now a display of affection for the writer, postcards with his image and copies of his beloved books. In fact, nearly every wall is covered with photographs of him in his signature fedora, overcoat, and thick dark eye frames. He is said to have treated this cafe as an office, meeting fellow writers and artists to debate and discuss their work.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

LISBON, PORTUGALESPRESSO, THE PORTUGUESE WAY

Portugal is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe, full of culture, architecture, food and a vast coast. Yet it’s often passed over by tourists in lieu of more famous locales.

After a short six hour flight, our plane neared the coast of Lisbon on a strikingly clear day; I gasped at the beauty. Even from above, the winding coast, the jewel blue sea, and the white and yellow homes covered with tile roofs were breathtaking.

Lisbon is comprised of two parts: young and old. Built on seven hills, each neighborhood rests on either a hill or in a valley. This makes for an easily navigated city by map, but a difficult one by foot (excellent exercise routine: move to Lisbon). A violent earthquake in 1755 destroyed much of the city, which they rebuilt in a more nineteenth century fashion. This newer “valley” neighborhood is now known as Baixa, reminiscent of most other European cities, with large boulevards and expansive city squares. Alfama and Castelo are some of the oldest areas of Lisbon; winding, steep cobblestone roads that survived the earthquake because of their bedrock foundation. It’s magical weaving under arches and down stone steps, descending and ascending (and sliding — wear shoes with traction!) past buildings of yellows, blues, and greens, decorated by intricately painted tiles called azalejos. Decidedly older inhabitants make it even more charming, a step back in time.

Chiado, up the hill from Baixa, is by far the trendiest neighborhood, full of local art galleries, cafes, and bookstores. Lisbon’s culture is incredibly rich, with a beautiful local art scene and a love of literature — nearly every block of the city had a bookstore — not to mention home to the oldest bookstore ever, Bertrand, built in 1732. New restaurants are sandwiched between historical cafes, all still retaining the colorful architecture that makes Lisbon unique.

The way they take their coffee is unique as well. Not too big, not too small — “the Portuguese way,” as they call it. They prefer an espresso, always. Ask for um caffe, a coffee, etc., and you shall receive espresso. Unlike the Italian single shot, the Portuguese espresso is served in a larger cup, giving you a little more to savor.

Portuguese people drink coffee all the time. I mean — All. The. Time. It is part of their daily routine to have a coffee every few hours, up to ten cups a day. Every meal ends with um bica — the Lisbon name for an espresso, an acronym for the typical espresso machine.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

ROME, ITALYANCIENT COFFEE SITES OF THE CITY

If American coffee is to-go, and Costa Rican is to linger, then Italian coffee is to pause. Pause at the bar, then go; pause at a café with a friend, 15 minutes and then off to start the day. This is Roman life. Rome is a vibrant city — different energy fills each neighborhood as one navigates between modern life and ancient history. On a walk to the market, it’s possible to pass a Borromini Baroque masterpiece, a Caravaggio painting tucked away in a church on the corner, or a piazza designed by Michelangelo. One can roam the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum, or stroll past the Pantheon — that amazing structure built by Hadrian in 120 AD.

The coffee culture teeters between modernity and history as well. Nespresso, the European Starbucks (we have a few in New York, too) has become a large part of the Italian coffee culture; “everyone has one,” my Roman friend tells me over aperitivo, referring to their “instant” espresso machines. Many of the old, traditional bars are slipping in favor to more popular, modern cafes.  Regardless, the best place to get espresso or a cappuccino is the corner bar — cheap and good, it will always remain a lovely place to sit amongst the locals.

Yet there are a few historical landmark cafes that have been part of Rome’s history for a long time, and are an essential part of touring this city.

Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè (Piazza di Sant’Eustachio, 82)It seems like everyone and their mother,  upon hearing of my Roman adventures, remarked “have you been to Sant’Eustachio?” It’s famous. Because of this, it remains packed and lines of tourists form outside for a bag of their house-roasted beans or an espresso at the bar. But the locals frequent it too, because when a place is really good, it can be both a tourist attraction and a local spot. It’s extra nice (and an extra fifty cents) to sit outside and people watch as Italians move through the piazza. The coffee is served on silver trays, and they are best known for their “gran caffe:” Perhaps one of the only places you’ll find a double espresso on the menu, it is a special of theirs, served with a thick and creamy crema on top; the true process, I’m told, remains a secret.

Caffe Antico Greco (Via dei Condotti, 86) – One of the oldest cafes in Rome, there is a picture adorning the walls of Buffalo Bill enjoying a spirit there during his European tour (yes, the real Buffalo Bill.) Located near the Spanish Steps, on Via dei Condotti, one of the most premiere shopping streets in all of Rome (Gucci, Prada, Hermes, and Italians drenched in the aforementioned), Caffé Greco’s interior reflects this grandiosity. Plush red velvet seats, marble floors, chandeliers, and golden cases holding sfogliatelle and crostini lure one inside, but the coffee may keep one there. The barista described the espresso as having notes of florals, roasted and blended just for them, as “part of the great Italian tradition, a beautiful tradition.” An ancient Roman site in and of itself, this cafe has been serving coffee for over 250 years — and though it might be overpriced, it’s an experience to sit in a seat where Hans Christian Anderson may have sipped his coffee, perhaps absorb some of that genius.

Tazza d’Oro (Via degli Orfani, 84) – Perhaps the most famous of the bunch is Tazza d’Oro, around the corner from the stunning Pantheon (which gets me emotional every time.) Founded in 1946, everyone from Audrey Hepburn to famous politicians have taken their coffee here. Literally translated to “The Golden Cup,” the aesthetic is rather gilded, and fairly simple inside, with only a bar to rest on. They export “the best coffee available,” from South America (namely Brazil) and Jamaica (Blue Mountain). Locals, tourists, businesswomen (and men) — all come together at Tazza d’Oro for the best espresso or macchiato, usually taken at the bar. It’s one of the cheapest coffees I had in Rome, despite its location behind one of the most heavily visited sites in Rome.

(Art Historical note: on your way to the Pantheon, stop at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, sandwiched between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Inside are three of Caravaggio’s greatest works in the Chapel of St. Matthews.)
Bar Alberto Pica (Via della Seggiola, 12) – Everyone has their own “best gelato in Rome” pick; this happens to be mine, as recommended by the NY Times. The inside of this more than 40-year-old bar isn’t fancy, and mostly the staff is rather curt (though don’t be fooled, after going in quite often, I saw a softer side). The flavors are seasonal, and if Fico (fig) is available, it would be a sin to pass it up. Riso (rice) is also particularly good — like a frozen, chunky rice pudding. The outside patio is more charming, where one is served gelato and espresso under canopies adorned with greenery. Despite the press, Bar Pica remains cheap and strictly local — I spotted few tourists while there.

Monday, March 14, 2011

GUANACASTE, COSTA RICACOFFEE OF GUANACASTE

Our little white car, expertly navigating the narrow mountainous roads, comes to a sudden halt. “These are the new cowboys of Costa Rica,” Alex tells me. Two men on bicycles herd a large group of cattle across the road. We had left the small and lively town of Coco Beach to head into the mountains in search of coffee. On this side of Costa Rica — the Pacific side — the air is dry and hot.  The terrain seems burnt by the sun, unlike the Caribbean coast of the country, which is full of lush green rain forests and precipitation nearly year round.

Alex, an expert in all things Costa Rica and our guide for the day, accelerated up the mountain furiously. Two hours and a little motion sickness later, we arrive at Matambu coffee plantation in the town of Hojancha. Costa Rican coffee is produced in smaller co-ops like this, rather than by large companies, ensuring fairer conditions for farmers.

We sat at a cafe carved into the mountain, a table with an espresso machine and fresh ground coffee from the plantation set to the side. The region of Guanacaste — a sparsely populated region along the Pacific coast — produces unique coffee unlike most other Costa Rican beans. Costa Rican coffee is renowned as some of the best in the world; so much so, that Starbucks imports most of their coffee from the country. But Guanacaste, with its distinct dry and rainy seasons, grows coffee less acidic. The Diriá Coffee roasted at this facility was served with scenic views — mountains full of ripe coffee cherries.

We drove to another town to have lunch at a small restaurant. A plate of plantains, beans, steak, and rice was washed down with fresh juice: a typical Costa Rican meal. We watched the cattle as they grazed, reflecting on the fact that we most likely just ate one of their family members while admiring their view.

Coffee helped to end a meal and a perfect day, as we drove back to Coco Beach to lay in the sun. The mountains cocooned the beach like a blanket.

Other suggested adventures: Hiking up the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano, a wonderland for spotting exotic flora and flauna. After your hike (watch out for streams — which I clumsily tumbled into — and lurking Pumas), visit the tiny ceviche stand in Coco Beach. Ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus juices and spices.