On coffee, and taking the time.

“Coffee glides into one’s stomach and sets all of one’s mental processes in motion… Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

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The words are not mines, but I adore them. Balzac, one of the great french writers of the late 19th century, wrote thousands and thousands of pages over the course of his life. With a taste for luxury, and a big eccentric house to maintain, he was often crawling under his debts. At the time, he found a solution to his problems by publishing his stories, which would then be turned into novels, in weekly episodes in magazines. Every day, or week, a new episode would come out, a chapter, and he would be paid by the line. This explains two things : first, why there are so many descriptions, and seemingly useless details throughout his work (they're not useless says the Balzac fan). Second, why he drank so much coffee, hoping to work faster, always, faster. Some say his addiction killed him in the end as his heart failed him, having been soaking in caffeine for too long.

Over a hundred years later, the black matter maintains a wonderful power of attraction. Is it the warmth of the cup, the somber liquid, the acrid smell, the bitterness ? Like all good poisons, it attracts and repulses at the same time.

I have always been a black coffee drinker, milk and sugar stay away from my cups, but other than that my habits have evolved greatly. There were the days of my parents’ coffee machine, an electric filter machine that worked full speed every sunday morning as we gathered around the table reading the newspaper, biting into pillowy buttery croissants and silently sipping the hours away. With my first 2Om2 studio came my first espresso machine, the glorious Bialetti, practical, cheap and quick, ready to fill the thermos I took every day to university. It still sits proudly on my kitchen counter. I regret each and every one of them, but I could not begin to count the number of coffees I had for 4Octs at the university machine : disgusting, bitter, but providing of a rhythm to my days, a routine I would look forward to, whether as a social act, or a solitary break.

That was it until two years ago, when the revelation came. I was working in a small vegan café in Paris where we offered a brunch every Sunday, and was introduced for the first time to filter coffee, and the Chemex. I was first impressed by its looks, round, full-bodied, elegant and clear. Then I fell in love with the process of grinding, measuring,  boiling, pouring… And the taste of course encompassed all of the care put into it. On that day I realized I had never really known the taste of coffee before. Last Christmas, the precious finally found its way to my kitchen, thanks to my sister, and transformed the little habits I had built.

From now on, coffee is no longer a convenience, or a quick sip mindlessly swallowed to somehow make the day easier to get though. No, it has become a luxury, a true pleasure, a ritual. On weekdays I usually have a green tea and save Balzac’s murderer for leisurely week-end mornings, when I have time to properly brew my cup. Along with pancakes, and a good book, that is my way of savouring the taste, the process, and the moment.

And I think you should too.

What you need for 2 addicts, or up to 4 reasonable people :

  • A manual filter coffee pot : of course, you do not need a Chemex, you can find much cheaper versions of the same deal online or in shops and garage sales. You could also build you own following one of the many tutorials available online, like this one or that one
  • Filters
  • A boiler
  • Good coffee, from a coffee shop preferably (either ground or, if you have a grinder, whole is always best for a fresh taste)
  • Kitchen scales

Now, there are various methods and grams used, but this is the one I use, and like.

First, measure out 35g of coffee (grind them if necessary). Then boil the water, place your filter, and pour some on top to eliminate the slight paper taste that might be left there, and warm the pour-over. Take that water out, place your coffee in the filter and start (don’t boil the water again, it needs to be slightly colder than 100°C). You want to be weighing as you pour : first, 40g of water to “bloom” the coffee, wait 20 to 30 seconds, then start pouring, slowly, and continually until you reach 500g of water.

All in all, the brewing process should take about 3 minutes.

Now grab your book (one might even advise a Balzac) and pour yourself a cup. Cheers.

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