To me, pretty much the perfect coffee form is the espresso. The one to the left is from To A Tea, just to prove that you don’t have to be a coffee specialist to make good coffee. I didn’t really get espresso until I went to Rome in 2000. Then I really DID get espresso and have been a fan ever since.
The key thing about a good espresso is that it’s a short drink (ie there’s not that much of it). The worst mistake anyone who doesn’t understand espresso can make is to fill the cup to the top. NO! This is wrong (and one of the few instances where I’ll go out on a limb and say this isn’t just about taste). By volume, a good espresso should take up about half the cup, certainly no more than two-thirds.
Interestingly, this is also one of the few instances where I will be happy with something that’s half full. Promise me a mug of coffee then give me a mug that’s only three-quarters full and I’ll be disappointed. It’s not about the quantity, by the way. Give me the same amount of coffee in a mug three-quarters of the size and I’ll be happy.
Anyway, I digress. A good espresso is short. It should also have good body (ie be quite thick, not watery), have a good crema (the foam on top) and the combination of the crema and body should mean that the crema coats the sides of the cup as the espresso is drunk. The crema should also last; if it’s gone within a few seconds, it’s not going to be a very good espresso.
Taste-wise, for me an espresso should be smooth and slightly bitter. Too bitter and I’ll pull a face, although I wouldn’t call it a bad espresso, just not to my taste.
That said, there’s so much more to espresso than just taste. With taste alone, it would be over rather quickly. No, the pleasure comes as much from the ritual. First is the accompanying glass of water (this one is from Caffe Reggio in New York). If a place is really, really good, the water comes without you having to ask for it. When that happens, you know you are in for a treat.
Then comes the drinking of the espresso. This is how I was first taught to drink espresso by a real affectionado many years ago:
First, you cleanse your palete with the water, so you can truly appreciate the taste of the espresso. Next, you blow gently on the crema, releasing the aroma, which you take in. Then, and only then, do you take a generous sip. Taste and smell combine to give you the ideal espresso experience.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is as pretentious as I get about my coffee.
Of course, if you are making an espresso, there’s entirely another ritual associated with it. That, however, is a whole blog post in itself, and one I’ll save for another time.
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