The many and various ways I pass the time now has a new addition. Usually it involves drinking coffee whilst sitting at a computer keeping in touch with chums, or sipping wine sitting on our tiny terrace catching the sun, and wondering what else I can do to avoid any cleaning or tidying or putting away of stuff and things that aren't even MINE. And now I am going to type this blog. Provided that doesn't become a chore as well, in which case...

Monday, 11 October 2010

Damn Fine Coffee

There was a time in my life, Dear Reader, when I didn't use to drink coffee.  It was during the years 1981 to 1998.  Gosh! I hear you exclaim.  Goldenlady is very sure of her dates on that, which is strange, as "Went Off Coffee" isn't often marked down in a person's diary, followed by "I Find I Can Now Drink Coffee Again" a matter of weeks or years later.  So how can she know?

I will tell you how she knows.  Those are the years of her first marriage.

There were two things going against coffee in those years - the first was the stove-top espresso maker that had been scorched by overheating so often that the coffee always tasted faintly burnt.  Even getting a new one didn't help as within days it had happened again.  Stove-top espresso makers, gas cookers and being too easily distracted always conspired against the production of good coffee by that method. And yet somehow we were locked into always making it that way.  The First Husband stuck to his guns that this was how he liked it.  As he also, for much of our marriage, smoked Balkan Sobrani pipe tobacco I am guessing his tastebuds were pretty much shot.

Back in the early 1980s coffee wasn't the national obsession it is now; I decided to drink only tea and so we settled down to the daily habits of a marriage that was rarely more contented than an uneasy state of truce.

The second obstacle was it didn't seem to do me any good at all if and when I did drink it.  Occasionally I'd be offered coffee elsewhere, made some other way, and liked the taste.  But my tolerance to caffeine was so finely tuned that after a cup or two I'd be sitting on the edge of my seat, eyeing the door, and trying to remember what desperately urgent errand needed me to be elsewhere, now, that minute.  It happened so often at one particulary observant friend's house that it was she who realised that it was the coffee doing it.  It put me into a huge cortisol surge, an adrenaline spike that had me flickering like a faulty switch between fright, flight and fight.

It made us laugh once she worked out what was causing the reaction.  But it also made me think.  Was the coffee waking me up to the supressed feelings of high anxiety and stress I lived with constantly but had to ignore to survive?

Without much more by way of detail (as The First Husband is also the father of The Daughter, so at least some discretion must prevail) I can tell you that in 1997 I left him to his own very particular way of doing things and eventually, after some up-and-down weeks, took up residence in a tiny flat in the spring of 1998.  It was really more a glorified bedsit, but in its great favour was the fact it had a telephone, its own ensuite shower room and was but three minutes walk for The Daughter (who stayed where she was to do her A-Levels) to pop over and see her mother.

When I lived there I quickly developed a lasting liking of my own company.  I loved coming back from work and having no-one to serve or please but myself, no expectations from anyone of a making a decent meal for a minimum of three, no toppling ironing pile to tackle, no niggling, sniping or rowing, no visiting in-laws, no uncomfortable silences.  Just me.  My thoughts.  My (until then often neglected) needs.  I didn't have to justify any little purchases by way of clothes or new things for the house to anyone else. I was a girl of slender means, but my budget was my own. So gradually I furnished my minute little home with extras, and one day, on impulse, I bought a cafetiere. The same week I also bought a CD of Bach's French Suite No 5 in G major, BWV 816, played on the piano at a calm and even tempo. I can now sometimes make a brave stab at this first movement myself, but I can never approach even within a country mile the playing of the infant phenomenon in this clip

Child Wonder Breaks Adult Amateur Pianists' Hearts

Right there I sank the foundations for the pillars that held up the tabernacle for my Sunday morning ritual from then on.  Coffee and Bach became my day-of-rest serenity, my restorative oasis of calm during the two years it took to complete my divorce.

I found that now I lived alone I could drink even a one litre cafetiere of coffee without any of the old feelings of skin-crawling unease. I could drink it, and I could sit still.  I could think, relax, read the paper, or just listen and separate the intertwining skeins of Bach's counterpoint.  I was able to rest up from a week's work, and plan the next seven days, arranging them as far as possible to my liking. Coffee and I were friends again, companions of many sweet hours of doing nothing much in particular and lots of it.

That is a dozen years ago now.  My relationship with coffee has since become so intimate and abiding that we are daily, almost daylong, companions.  The cafetiere remained my favoured method of preparation until last month, when I spotted an electric espresso maker that - wondrously - I could actually afford.  It's a Krups XP4000, an ex-display model and end-of-line offer, for sale at a hugely knocked-down price. It had its box, but no warranty, one of the filters (forturately the much less useful single cup filter) was missing, and there were no instructions, but manuals are usually downloadable, so I snapped it up at £50 (down from £125).

For a month The Husband and I have been transfixed with delight at espressos with a genuine and inimitable caramel-coloured crema on them.  We've become part-time barristas, dab hands at lattes and a fairly decent cappucino.  We've taken to a shot of delicious darkness after dinner, lingering at the table and chatting in a desultory and unhurried way, our dining room holding for us both the charm of a favourite restaurant or a fondly remembered holiday hotel.

It's felt like a recaptured courtship. The Husband has said many times in the ensuing month that it's the best bit of kit he's ever had in the house.

This morning I tamped down the finely ground Lavazza into the filter and screwed the handle up tight.  I put one of the clear glass cups we now use (for the fun of it) underneath and waited for the twin streams of a double espresso to pour their deliciousness into it.   Nothing.  Nada.  Niente.

I unscrewed the handle, whereupon of steam and sprayed coffee grounds spurted out alarmingly in all directions as the pressure was released.  Dammit.  I cleaned up and tried again.  Exactly the same disastrous results. So I spent the next few minutes thoroughly cleaning the separate sections of the filter, and tested it again.  Everything sounded OK, the milk frother shot out an effective jet of steam, but (and this was almost heart-breaking) even when I then tried to run just water through the machine using an empty filter with no coffee in it still nothing came out.

Could it be that a month from bringing it home it was dead already?  Had we killed it, exhausted it with our enthusiasm?

I checked the manual we'd printed out for help, but in my rising panic couldn't seem to decipher any meaning from it.  I rang The Husband with a pathetic catch in my voice, meeping like a disconsolate toddler with a broken toy.  He said to switch it off and try not to worry, dust off the old cafetiere and he'd have a look when he got in.  But I couldn't let it lie.  With a sort of mesmerised masochism I read page after page of on-line reviews, finding several disgruntled customers complaining of messy leaks which needed new gasket seals (ours wasn't leaking, it was more witholding) and even more attesting to the machine packing up completely within a month or two.

Ayyeeeeee!  Not much of a bargain now, was it?  Not if it would take a costly repair or a bunch of spare parts to fix it after only a month's use.   

Feeling stupid with disappointment and more in desperation than hope I Googled "KRUPS XP 4000 troubleshooting".  It offered me up a question and answer page on a coffee enthusiasts' website.  I clicked and scanned down the page, to find some other benighted soul had posted that they had the same machine which was also producing nothing but weary and feeble bubbles from its nozzles.  A helpful - and cheap - hint from another poster was to run white vinegar through the machine twice, a cupful at a time, and this would probably break down any calcium deposits that might be blocking the flow of steam or coffee.  Crossing all available digits I did this.  Two foaming streams of boiling vinegar flowed forth, the acrid stench filling my nostrils and making me take a recoiling step backwards, but at least this was the first thing to come out of it all morning.  I did it again, for good luck putting extra vinegar directly into the filter.  Two even more promising jets of hot vinegar appeared.  It then remained to flush the system through with several rinses of plain water, and the machine could be tested to see if it could again produce some, by this time, very badly needed coffee.

It did.  It has.  I drank it, and savoured it so gratefully and appreciatively that I decided to type the paeon of praise to the restorative and inspiring virtues of coffee which you have just read. I will thankfully bring to its perfect cadence this little chamber rendition (imagine me singing the top line, if you will) of the Coffee Cantata

JS Bach Coffee Cantata (Excerpt)

which I hope has enjoyed some harmonising additional vocalisation from my readers.

I guess if you haven't shared my born-again enthusiasm for caffeine you will not appreciate today's blog.  But if you do, celebrate with me, please, and if you aren't far away pop over for a cup of damn fine coffee one day soon.

If you have a similar espresso machine that just stopped working properly one day (especially if, like us, you are in a hard water area) and it has been - perhaps unfairly - consigned to the back of a cupboard in disgrace ever since get it out again and give the vinegar descaling trick a go. If it works, allow your machine some counter space for a while, and some space in your day for drinking - and even more so, sharing - the best of what it can give.


  1. Delightful! Words fail (because I am not you) to describe how much I enjoy reading your blog. If I could, I would see my beloved off to work, walk my hound, drink coffee, listen to bach, and then read your blog. I think this should be a totally awesome existence.

    However, at the moment I AM listening to Bach, have read your blog, (I won't drink coffee, as it's now well gone pumpkin!, and am 'exercising' Henry The Hamster. So, I guess life ain't bad.

    PS: "...and so we settled down to the daily habits of a marriage that was rarely more contented than an uneasy state of truce."

    Whoops of laughter.

    Ooodles of love

    The Daughter xxx

  2. Nespresso charges a fortune for its descaling kit. So one day I descaled the machine with white vinegar. Perfect. Then, noting that the water reservoir was a bit scaled up, I tried leaving a solution of vinegar in it. And - hmmmm - the bottom fell out! Luckily My Husband was able to successfully glue it back. The repair has lasted about five years but I have been hesitant about using vinegar in that bit of kit since.

  3. oh, and ps

    "...and so we settled down to the daily habits of a marriage that was rarely more contented than an uneasy state of truce."

    Ain't that normal, then?

  4. Not what as happened in my second marriage.

    We are very peaceful together, hardly ever at odds.

    Sorry to be so soppy...