coffee

Reliable (+ a Flat White)

13 April 2015

Coffee and I, as has been well-documented on this site, have a long and mostly happy history. I don’t know for sure when I first started drinking it regularly, though it probably was during college. I remember coming home to California for a visit in the early years and being taken to Chez Claude in San Francisco on the way home from the airport. I ordered a cafe au lait and felt marvelously grown-up and decadent sitting in the sunlit cafe with my elbows perched on the wooden table and a large bowl of milky coffee in front of me. I’ll still drink the occasional latte or cappuccino but for everyday whoever makes his or her way down to the kitchen first puts on a pot of simple American-style coffee and we work on it throughout the morning. I’ve had my flings with drinking coffee black, without sugar, with cream, with half and half, with soy creamer, and have finally settled on whole milk and about a 1/4-teaspoon of sugar per cup. It works, it’s easy, you can drink coffee like this in most places you may find yourself.

In Morocco you could get a cafe filtre (filtered coffee) at Starbucks and we went there fairly frequently, mostly because it was fun to be able to order a traditional American coffee and drink it out of the house. Most of the local cafes we went to didn’t offer it, so we’d have espresso or a cafe nus nus, which was half espresso and half milk. I will also admit to indulging in a nutella espresso on occasion at the Segafreddo downstairs from my friend’s apartment on Blvd. Moulay Youssef. I certainly acquired a taste for the cafe nus nus – real coffee drinkers had qahwa idlan, which is basically strong espresso drunk black – but my only problem with it was that it was a bit small. After the advent of Sierra my coffee consumption ramped up considerably, to the point where it now holds steady at about 2-3 large cups per morning.

At Starbucks the milk wasn’t left out the way it is in the States (and there aren’t the options you’ll find in America) so you always had to ask for it and then you didn’t get to pour it in yourself. Also, despite soy milk being advertised, it was never available, so with my strange penchant for soy milk lattes and soy milk lattes only I mostly stuck to a cafe filtre, occasionally iced, and often accompanied by a surprisingly delicious muffin.

Then something called a flat white appeared on the menu and I broke with routine and discovered my happy place. Wikipedia describes it thus: A flat white is a coffee beverage invented in Australia in the 1980sIt is prepared by pouring microfoam (steamed milk with small, fine bubbles and a glossy or velvety consistency) over a single or double shot of espresso. It is somewhat similar to the traditional 5 oz cappuccino or the latte although smaller in volume, therefore having a higher proportion of coffee to milk (closer to a cortado), and milk that is more velvety in consistency – allowing the espresso to dominate the flavour, while being supported by the milk.

Similar to Morocco, in Riyadh if you’re grabbing a beverage at a Saudi Starbucks milk is not left out for quick customer access. For me it’s easier to order something with the milk already mixed in rather than have to bother someone to get it for me; thus the flat white has become my ideal cultural bridge. I find now that when I order it I have to hold back from saying ‘un flat white, s’il vous plait’ as I was conditioned to do in Casa (most people speak at least decent English here) but the principle remains: an enticing concoction with rather more espresso than milk that’s small but not too and which will keep you buzzing along quite nicely without tipping you into the danger zone.

When I lived in San Francisco I fully subscribed to the magic of the pour-over, made with locally roasted beans please and cut with organic milk and if my cup was never as hot as I might like, well, hell, it was made with care and the proper amount of seriousness. Still, I held a fondness for Starbucks and in the early days of Sierra’s newborn life we’d drink medium cups of take out many mornings when making a pot of coffee at home seemed to be tipping over into ‘too much’ territory or hiking over to Divisadero was just a bit far (we saved those outings for the afternoon when we had more energy). The outlet on Fillmore Street was right on the corner of the Saturday farmers’ market, so there were many Saturdays I’d get my cup and do the shopping and if it was always just a touch more bitter than I’d like it was a small price to pay. The coffee was always steaming hot so that was something.

A funny thing happens when you move abroad: when you’re especially homesick you gravitate toward the familiar if you can find it. Starbucks, which has stores in nearly every country, does seem a bit of a beacon when you feel particularly far from home. This is not to say I don’t frequent the local coffee places too; I do and did. And it’s also not to say that each Starbucks doesn’t put its particular spin on its coffee products and food items, for it certainly does. I suppose what it is is sometimes you just need something you can count on, and if it’s a take-out coffee drink in a recognizable cup, so be it. Anyway, I have Starbucks – and my friend Emma – to thank for my penchant for the flat white. I’ve been happily surprised to find it on the menu at other restaurants here as well, and when I’m not drinking coffee at home it’s now my standard. My reliable, if you will. It’s nice to have something to count on; and for me, a flat white never disappoints. The smooth, velvety milk perfectly contrasts against the strong espresso and every other time I drink one will (sacrilege) add in a small slip of raw sugar as a special treat. Wherever in the world you go, there you are. And if there’s coffee, too, then all the better.

  • Helen Spiridakis 14 April 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Really good blog…..very informative and interesting to those of us who drink a “blah” cup of coffee with sugar and milk. You know your coffee stuff! Also love the photos. Good to know “home is where the coffee is”. Not even a hint of Hardcore in there…..times are changing!

  • Audrey 14 April 2015 at 5:20 am

    Flat Whites are my favorite! I have an Australian friend to thank for introducing them to me.