There is something pleasantly uncluttered and contemplative about guessing the perfect espresso by getting to know the inner workings of a coffee machine, writes James Harkin
When Leonard Cohen, who loved to start each day with a freshly drawn espresso, chose to become a Buddhist monk, he went to a monastery at the highest peak of the San Gabriel Mountains in California and settled into a small cabin in a quiet contemplation: his only companions a laptop, a keyboard, a Menorah and a coffee machine.
After five years, Cohen decided he didn’t have what it takes to be a monk and came back down the mountain. It’s likely that after all that espresso, it just wasn’t very zen.
Cohen crossed my mind a lot when the lockdown began, during the time my Italian-made Pavoni semi-automatic espresso machine whistled the last.
I had been with me for 20 years, longer than any romantic relationship.
Lately, however, he had become so intemperate, so prone to fly away and involuntarily spit (a phenomenon sometimes known as “Pavoni’s fart”), that his ability to die just when I had it. no longer needed, just as the cafes in London closed their doors, seemed typical to me.
My first call was to my own espresso guru, a South African called Haddon Rustin who had successfully serviced him. Neither of us bothered with the usual corona pleasures. We talked a bit about his age and condition and Rustin informed me, with all the seriousness of a mentor, that my faithful companion had served me well but could no longer be brought back to life.
He could find me another Pavoni if ââI wanted. But it would take time, and as coffee technology had evolved over the past 20 years, it wouldn’t be the same. In other words, and in the first weaning puffs of espresso, I was on my own.
Espresso is the simple consequence of forcing almost boiling water through finely ground coffee under pressure. More than any other coffee preparation, it is as much about the machine as it is about the beans.
That’s why you can make a really good pour with nothing more than a gooseneck kettle and a cone filter, but an espresso machine can be as big and loud as a motorcycle. It is worth the investment.
This laborious pour, new to trendy coffee shops, is likely to be accompanied by whimsical tasting notes on the aroma, acidity and origin of the beans. What flows from the bottom of any decent espresso machine is way beyond the notes.
It’s rocket fuel for the soul.
To do it right, you have to learn to love the machine. Stuck in the limbo of working from home, and with a whole world of internet videos and online deliveries at my fingertips, I set out to find a new one. First Learning: The authors of espresso instructional videos lean towards cheerful middle-aged men who seem to have recently found themselves single.
Perhaps this is also why manufacturers tend to name their espresso machines after pretty girls. After serious hours of due diligence, I found myself drawn to a family-owned Italian business called Lelit, which prides itself on its stainless steel boilers: from a semi-professional line that included Glenda, Grace and Diana, I chose Anna.
She arrived a week later and I started pulling dozens of practice shots, using a huge beanbag as directed, to try her out. Soon it wasn’t enough.
Anna’s clean lines from the 1950s were gorgeous, but despite my best efforts, her shots tasted a bit bitter and thin in cream, especially compared to the espresso porn I spent my evenings eyeing the net.
What I take away from the runaway of the following weeks is the incessant arrival of accessories from all over the world until, late one evening, my mouse settled on the Flair Pro 2 – a machine. fully manual, to be assembled yourself which involves the use of a makeshift lever. and a few other pieces to force the water through the coffee grounds.
The Flair Pro doesn’t even require electricity, just a kettle to heat the brew head and water. To the untrained eye, it looks like a sex toy. Five days later, and from Irvine, California, it was dropped off at my doorstep.
Its components came in a neat little briefcase; putting them together for a shot made me feel like a metrosexual assassin. Then there was the sufficiently aggressive arm wrestling of the lever, pulling slowly to exert my own pressure and watching the blow press like cinnamon nectar, which made me want to do it over and over again.
It was a dangerous game. Setting up simultaneous shots on both machines to taste the difference left me at my kitchen table surrounded by finely ground espresso, like a Scarface with added coffee. It also required sipping a bit of each stroke, which led to bouts of panic insomnia.
My girlfriend, very pregnant and right after her espresso, was initially grateful that I had acquired a hobby, but she quickly felt that all of my shots were alike.
I was only beginning; at one point I was pulling the lever so often and with such ferocity that I pulled a muscle in my back. My dark night of soul mirrored that of the late and legendary food critic Jonathan Gold, who, determined one day to get himself the best espresso in Los Angeles, allegedly had 27 glasses before arriving, shaking and sweaty, to dine with friends.
According to a New Yorker Profile of his work, he “started to panic and begged the group not to have dessert.” When someone ordered a tiramisu, he “broke down in tears, ran out of the restaurant and took the bus home.”
Not very Buddhist therefore.
Closer to a martial art for the softies. But in the age of coronavirus, there’s something pleasantly clean and contemplative about guessing the perfect espresso by getting to know the inner workings of a machine. Think of it as Zen through the art of coffee machine maintenance.
If I ever go on a spiritual journey, or if I find myself taken aback during the next confinement, know that now my coffee machine comes attached to my person, that you are dealing with someone who can build their espresso from zero.
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