Mastering The Machine

Here at the Pebbledashed Pad we recently decided that every good home needs a coffee machine. Or rather S, as Technology and Finance Director, did and it’s a move I fully endorse.

Coffee is very much a part of our morning ritual but admittedly the look and feel of that ritual has changed somewhat in the last year or so. Once upon a time S would drink his espresso in peace and quiet, marmite on his toast and the Guardian on his iPad. Now his coffee risks being spilt as Baby A reaches across the table with his long arms ala Mr Tickle, hellbent on securing iPad or breakfast (or both). With iPad now out of sight as is the age-appropriate porridge, S makes Baby A his own fingers of saltily browned toast and breakfast is accompanied not with the soundtrack of the news, Radio 6 or a podcast but rather the holler of a 14 month old who swipes his own toast soldiers off the table in purse-lipped fury if S’s triangles aren’t proffered.

My morning ‘ritual’ if you can call it such (my dad would refer to it more as a monkey’s tea party) also consists of coffee and noise.  My first cup, often made by S, usually goes cold as I make O his toast and Baby A his second breakfast (we feed him to stop him shouting …..so when he’s older he will be the size of Augustus Gloop but won’t say a word). With caffeine cravings un-satiated, at work I have my second cup then a third then fourth until my fingers pound that computer keyboard like a drummer on speed.

Coffee is, for me, more than just the means to survive a day however. It evokes notes of nostalgia as I recollect our very first date. S and I met online and so our first date was, in many respects, a blind one. We arranged to meet at the pub (as you do) and having silently assessed each other for physical (I’m telling the truth here) and characteristic deficiencies we both appeared to come to the same conclusion that neither of us was too ugly nor psychotic to prevent further development of the evening. So we progressed on to dinner and afterwards I offered to drop him back at his flat. He invited me in for coffee. I accepted. And he made it, clumsily as he was nervous, in a little stovetop cafetière that tumbled several times across the floor before arriving upon the gas ring and filling itself, almost magically I always think, with the bubbling hot liquid. That said, my tastebuds hadn’t at that time been weaned off of Nescafé so I drank it with a camouflaged grimace, ever fearful that S might think ‘coming back for coffee’ (or whatever this insanely strong, thick liquid I was drinking was) was a euphemism for anything more athletic. But despite being well versed in dating etiquette, the very action of making himself comfortable on the sofa opposite me by putting his feet up upon it made me bolt in fear. Now, nine years on and seven of those married, I’ve become accustomed to both his feet on the sofa and the bitter tasting liquid he presented as coffee. And whilst redundant of its duties, that little stovetop cafetière is still with us. And, sentimentally, I wouldn’t ever dream of parting with it.

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With almost a decade under our belts, not only do I now crave a stronger morning drink, I’ve also, many would accuse, become snobbish about it. We’ve become snobbish about it. And as such the unimaginable instant is now banned. Or rather, it’s buried in the larder and brought out when parents stay as, inexplicably, both sets seem to prefer it. In fact, my mother-in-law goes so far as to bring her own coffee-flavoured dust mixed with powdered milk in a plastic bag accompanied by a tube of sweeteners. I have to question whether any of those ingredients constitute towards the making of a coffee worthy of the name at all. Rather I think that particular hot drink should be given some other name entirely. (Suggestions in the comments please…..)

So with this kind of acute and judgemental habit you will understand why and how a Machine was sure to be the next logical step. Much research was thus conducted by the Technology Director. Sums were calculated by the Finance Director. Meanwhile, the ‘Everything Else Director’ read her Living Etc and drank pretty good M&S cafetiere fare. Then the postman knocked and we took delivery of the Sage Duel Boiler.

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I’d like to say that our coffee drinking was thus elevated to delectable heights. But contrarily we commenced making cup upon cup of sour, grainy liquid accompanied by clouds of blue air as we blasphemed our way through the process.

There was nothing for it. Time to go back to school.

And yes… there is such a thing as coffee school ….but it takes a die-hard coffee drinker to seek it out. The Winchester Coffee School …an achingly hip but almost secret roastery and distributer hidden away within an industrial estate in Kings Worthy offers professional barista training, filter brewing, roasting courses, a variety of masterclasses (including a Latte Art class) and what we went for…. the Home Barista course. Hastily, I signed up.

When we arrived a few of the Winchester set were taking their morning espresso on vintage chairs perched outside the unit-cum-cafe whilst inside – all concrete, hessian, pallet furniture, fairy lights and huge roasting machines – others perched on industrial looking bar stools chatting next to the temptingly freshly baked cakes. We had been instructed to bring our own equipment so whilst I made sure that we really were in the right place (as it certainly didn’t look like any kind of school) S heaved both the machine and grinder out of the boot and got them set up next to the one other student barista. We were then offered a glass of water (as opposed to the expected and much needed coffee) and stood nervously awaiting further instruction at the stainless steel counter whilst the cafe patrons, froth on their upper lips, looked on quizzically.

Our course began with a brief introduction to the labour intensive farming process that produces coffee and it was here that our respect for both the farmers and the foodstuff was initiated. No more buying of any coffee without a ‘roasted on’ date on the back of the pack was the lesson learnt…. anything bearing no date will already be stale.

M&S be gone.

Progressing on to the practical bit we moved away from our domestic equipment and over to the commercial machine to begin an exercise which would teach us to assess the coarseness of the grind for its effect on flavour. Lots of sipping and pretending to distinguish sourness on the front of the tongue and bitterness on the sides took place before we agreed that the coffee tasted ‘balanced’ and so therefore the grind must be correct. But rest not on our laurels was the next lesson. After every purchase of new beans, tweaks to the grinder would need to be made.

And it was at this point that the performance began.

First the grinder was switched on and the basket placed underneath it to fill with the freshly ground coffee beans. Next the basket was tapped, just the once, on the worktop  before being topped up with more coffee and the fleshy part of the finger  used to smoothly level the coffee into the gaps. Then it was one press with the tamper (elbow up), one twist and a light polish (if wished). Next the water was run in the machine to get any yuck out (I paraphrase) before the basket was twisted in and the button was pressed. But there were no pre-set programmes for our barista. No. We would learn, he told us sternly, everything manually so that we could then use any coffee machine we encountered. So instead of waiting until the machine stopped automatically we counted up the seconds. At five we were told the coffee should begin extracting.  Any less and the coffee is too coarse. Any longer and it’s too fine or compacted. We crouched down eagerly to watch ‘the colours’ running out and it was only when the crema coloured liquid began to flow that he hit stop. Only bitter flavours were running through at that point, we were told. “Kill it when it goes blond”.

Easy as pie.

Or was it?

Up until then I think S and I had both reckoned on this all being a bit of a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Yes, we wanted to learn how to use our machine. But no we didn’t expect there to be quite so much technique to learn. And passionately demonstrated technique at that. S took to the floor confidently. This was all looking much harder than it should.

He gave the basket a few good raps. Pressed the coffee into the gaps. Tamped (I’m not sure his elbow was up) and twisted the handle in. He pressed go. 9 seconds later and the first drops of caramel nectar squeezed through.

The barista offered his feedback. Too many taps, smoothing of the coffee grounds with the wrong bit of the finger (I kid you not), a heavy handed tamp resulting in delayed extraction…..

….Perhaps there really was method to this madness? No. That’s unkind. Not madness….obsession. And lord knows we all have them, she admits, supping cappuccino staring at her wall of frames whilst sitting on a care home chair…..

“Next up?” our barista called, looking my way. I shook my head. The other guy stepped up. I cowered behind. I was terrified….but I’d already figured this one out. I’d continue, as I had been doing, claiming ignorance when it came to the black magic of The Machine and relying on S to make my morning coffee instead.

But S was having none of it.

“Come on pet” he encouraged. “Excuse me…can she have a go?” and with the baristas enthusiastic encouragement it was to the Machine I went. Only this time it was to stretch proteins which is, I can vouch, also much harder than it may sound.

I’ll explain, though, for the benefit of any of you who may wish, in due course, to do the same. It’s a down-up movement with the wand six or seven times before the wand goes into the corner of the jug and you ‘spin the milk’ until the heel of your hand, against which the metal jug is resting, registers searing pain. That means the milk is hot enough. Or you could use a milk thermometer. Or one of the fancy jugs he had with a thermometer built into their side. But to be honest, the searing pain is a pretty good indication. Then it’s a tap, just the one, on the work surface to break up the bubbles before you spin the milk again by conducting small but rapid circles (base of the jug still connecting with the surface). When the milk looks like white paint, sticking to the sides of the jug as you spin, you are ready to pour. And theres (yet) another technique. You send the back of the jug up to pour the liquid and down to encourage the pooling of the white froth. At that point, of course, there’s jiggery pokery to make the trademark heart but as we hadn’t booked on to the Latte Art course he wasn’t giving much of that particular technique away.

Demo and practice sessions over, we were then sent back to our stations to execute our  learning on our own machines.

“Check your puck” insisted the patrolling barista as he poked a finger into our basket.

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It was a dry biscuit of spent grounds that he was looking for, an indication of the perfect grind. He shrugged.

“That’s good……it will be a bit wet from the preinfusion.”

I stared at him, bamboozled, until he explained that our domestic machine has a 6 second preinfusion, knocking all of our perfected extraction timings off. Crouching down low we dutifully added an extra 6 seconds to the recommended 5 to see if our coffee emerged on time.

“Watch the beautiful colours” the barista urged as the chocolate brown liquid emerged. “And kill it when it goes blond!”

“Just what’s his beef with blondes?” I whispered naughtily to S, running a hand through my newly highlighted hair.

“Concentrate. Your go…..” said my studious husband who by this time had his espresso shots off pat.

I stepped up to the machine, loading up my basket with coffee and filling a jug with milk.

“Remember your recipe!” called the barista, but in all honesty I was still struggling with the basics. The mathematics required to remember a cappuccino formula as opposed to that of a latte or flat white was, quite frankly, beyond me so instead I worked my way through a hopper full of beans and a pint of whole milk (the best kind for coffee-making…..if you are wondering) lining up unidentifiable milky drink after milky drink.

“Here’s my latest disaster” I said, placing a cup before Him.

“It’s awesome!” he overcompensated, taking a sip.

“It was meant to be a cappuccino but I can’t froth the milk. And I can’t do those hearts on top. It looks like a peach.”

“You are all making great drinks” he encouraged, “remember…. I’m pushing you to perfection.”

After two and a half hours of perfection -pushing however we were done, so packing up our machine and a bag of their finest roasted beans (which the Finance Director tried to blag, unsuccessfully and embarrassingly, for free) we buzzed our way back to London, high on caffeine.

The next morning S and I fought each other to be first at the machine, eager to try our our new skills. We each made an americano and they tasted better than any coffee ever had done from our kitchen.

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“Do you want one mum?” I asked, eager to give it another go. “I could make you a cappuccino?”

“Well, ok” she said, eyeing the Nescafe wistfully.

I sang out the process.

“Grind. One tap. Bit more coffee, brush off the excess…..S, did you notice his flourish?”

“Its years of practice, pet” came a caffeine-lubricated voice from behind his iPad.

“Elbow up’ I continued. “One tamp. Twist. Polish. Run the water…”

My mum looked confused.

“Handle in. Watch the colours……kill it when it goes blond! Heat the milk. Spin. Pour. Bottom up….and….oh.” I felt dejected. “not a heart.”

I placed the cup before her.

“Its a cappuccino. Or a latte. Or maybe a flat white?” I stared critically at its decidedly un-foamy top. “Well. Its a coffee.”

She sipped. She didn’t say, but I know her well enough.

“I prefer the instant.”

 

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4 thoughts on “Mastering The Machine

  1. Coffee is also an obsession in our house – although we’re more pour-over than espresso fans. Do you know Has Bean? They have really excellent coffee at very reasonable prices. (I don’t work for them btw!)

  2. Miss you! Hope you’re all ok. Come find us all on Instagram, tons of renovators hanging out there. Blogging is too much like hard work. I’m @simplythenest x

    • Hello! So lovely to hear from you. Thank you for asking after me, I’m really well just work took over and I’ve barely touched the house so stopped finding blogging time…. though miss it! I haven’t used instagram but yes, perhaps I’ll try that out!
      How are you and renovations coming on? Xx

      • Ah good to hear all is well! We finished our extension last year and are currently installing the kitchen. Third daughter just turned one. V happy x

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