Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Romanes eunt domus?

"People called Romanes they go the house??"  - Life of Brian

I've been to Italy about ten times. My first ever foreign holiday back in my late teens was near Venice. I've been to Verona and Lake Garda on weekend jaunts when I lived in Germany.  Been skiing at Cervinia. My wife and I passed through Lake Maggiore on our honeymoon. Etc etc.

I've always hated it. It has always been, to me, a caricature of itself.  This picture pretty much sums up the people I've encountered.

I have kept going back though, partly because I wanted to find whatever it is that other people seem to love about the country, and partly because I was disapppointed with myself that I had failed on multiple occasions. Failed to make the most of my surroundings. Failed to adhere to my own belief that you cannot generalise about an entire country and its inhabitants.  I desperately wanted to like Italy.

Now I do!

Last weekend Jan and I went to visit some friends who have an apartment in the centre of Rome, near the Circus Maximus. I had mixed feelings about the trip, what with it being to Italy, but was keen to see our friends and also to give the place another pop.  All the areas I have visited previously are in the North of the country, whereas Rome is more central. I wondered if there would be differences that might make me like it.  After all, back home there's a big difference between, say, Manchester and Norwich.

There were indeed differences. Massively so.  I expected a big, dirty city with too many cars, rude waiters, gaggles of fashionistas blocking the pavements, corporate tower blocks all over the place, and all food & drinks costing a small fortune.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Rome is a wonderful city, at least in the tourity central parts I visited. In a way, it didn't really feel like a city to me. Walking around the place was more like ambling through the streets of Bruges (Belgium), or the shambles in York (UK).  Cobbled streets, horse-drawn carriages, beautiful old buildings, and a genuinely friendly vibe from everyone in the shops and streets.  We were there three days and I'd go back tomorrow if I could.

We weren't there specifically for the coffee, but I was keen to try several espresso bars since I understood there to be some difference between Italian espresso and the 'third wave' style of espresso we might find in a good coffee shop elsewhere. 

Just around the corner from the apartment was our first bar.  Lesson #1... there is no such thing as a coffee shop. Look for the word 'bar'.  Our friends had recommended it, not so much because of the coffee but more for the environment.  It was beautifully adorned in smooth wood all over the place... walnut I think.  I asked for an espresso macchiato. Actually I'm not quite sure what I got! It may have just been an espresso, or the 'mark' of foam may have been so small it got lost in the crema.  Crema! There was actually some sort of crema. That surprised me a little, as I had expected Italian espresso to be a little flat. My understanding was that they don't put so much emphasis on bean freshness over there. As with all the espresso I was to receive over the weekend, it was a single and was pretty much knocked back whilst standing at the bar.  Result? Quite good. Nothing to write home about, but better than I had anticipated.  Not bitter. It seemed high in Brazilian flavours and little else, if my palate is anything to go by.  I looked towards the grinder to see an opened bag of Segafredo. Interesting. All the Segafredo I've tasted in the UK were nasty, and this espresso certainly wasn't.  The cost... about 1 Euro... 86 pence in Stirling. Cheap!

It was a fleeting visit, and we set off walking the streets of Rome fairly aimlessly.  We were right next to the Palatine Hill, and decided to skirt up the West of it, following the main road past the sites of various archaeological digs. These sites abound in Rome. Tony Robinson would be wetting himself with glee!

Soon we came to a big, old, round building, conveniently next to a bar/caff√® called Antico Caff√® del Teatro di Marcello, revealing that the circular building is an ancient theatre (and not in any way, shape or form The Colosseum, although as a Rome newby it did briefly cross my mind!).  The espresso here had less crema, was black and bitter... exactly like I've had from many cafes back in the UK except shorter (thankfully). Brazil came through strongly once again - or at least a very monotone flavour that I have previously found in 100% Brazilian espresso.  It was mid-late November yet it was lovely to sit outside in the 18C sun.

Heading off the main road and into the cobbled lanes towards The Pantheon.  I'm not massively into architecture but this place is fairly spectacular inside.  Anyway, just off from here is a little old bar that was recommended to us, called Antico Caffe della Pace.  Seriously impressive decor and atmosphere here, and equally beautiful espresso equipment, including a 3 group Faema E61 and a lovely looking rippled grinder (I couldn't quite make out the brand but think it was 'Mador').  Despite having lived in Italy previously, Jan had a lapse in concentration and ordered a latte... promptly receiving a glass of warm milk.  I ordered a caffe corretto... an espresso with a shot of grappa, although I was surprised when the barista's first suggestion was Sambuca.  Needless to say, with a shot of grappa in it the espresso wasn't something I could comment on! But the place was amazing and I'd love to go back.

 Over the next two days we hit a bunch of touristy things... Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps... all of which were actually really lovely and not noticably spoiled by their status as tourist hotspots.  The Colosseum in particular is quite awe-inspiring for many reasons, not least being the sheer scale of the place.  After spending some time walking around it and hovering on the edge of guided tours getting a free insight into what really happened in the time of The Gladiators, we hopped in a taxi up to Tazza d'Oro, a coffee bar that is reputed to be one of the best in Rome.  Again, it is right next to The Pantheon, and from the outside it doesn't look much. Inside, however, it is a bit of a baristas dream.  There's an old-looking roaster on site, which I'd estimate to be perhaps 15kg although I could be wrong.  Two Wega espresso machines, both four group, sat on the bar... one at either end.  Several grinders were filled with many different types of beans/blends.  Those beans also filled large glass cabinets under the service area, and also in the back room where an elderly gentleman filled up 250g bags on demand, and a long queue of customers lined up awaiting their fix of whole beans (yes, I bought some!).  It was unlike any of the other bars.  In some ways it felt more modern than the other espresso bars, more 'third wave', in the way it seemed to be promoting freshly roasted speciality coffee. But on the other hand it actually felt older, more traditional, than any of the other places, in the sense that this is perhaps how things used to be in Italy before the advent of mass commercial roasting.  It was spectacular, in my humble opinion.  


Jan's cappuccino had a heart on the top, which was once again different from the other bars. What wasn't different however was my espresso, which was once again a very drinkable but fairly bland affair. No bitterness thankfully, despite the beans in the hopper being quite a dark roast, and despite the grinder's dosing chamber being full, but not much complexity or acidity in the cup.  I thought I wasn't a big fan of acidity in espresso, but you don't know what you're missing until it's gone! Still, I enjoyed it anyway, and was also enjoying single espressos because it meant I could have another!! One thing I noticed here and in every other bar was that they don't use a tamper, preferring instead to apply a light press of the portafilter against the tamping attachment on the grinder.  It makes me wonder if they grind finer to make up for the softer tamp, because the extractions were invariably good visually.  They also don't seem to be too bothered by mess and old grinds, either on the portafilter basket or on the grouphead... or about wiping down the steam wand after steaming milk.  I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed at that.   
Cost: Espresso = 0.90 Euros.  Cappuccino = 1.10 Euros. What a bargain.

Next morning we went to a small farmers market near Circus Maximus, where there was a small shop selling coffee and cakes called Cristalli di Zucherro. It was a lovely modern little place, kind of like a French pattisserie.  Standing room only, which was fine as many customers were happy to stand outside in the sun. I liked the place.  They had a La Marzocco espresso machine, so I got my hopes up. The espresso, however, was fairly grim unfortunately.  I looked up and saw a shelf containing 19 one kilogram bags of beans - quite a lot for this small place, unlikely to be used up in a hurry, and probably part of the reason for the less-than-average espresso.

Whilst Jan and our friends got stuck back into the farmers market I did a quick runner around the corner and lo-and-behold there was another bar, just as I'd hoped! It was a nameless little place selling Lavazza through a nice looking 3 group Faema Emblema.  Tasted ok... a bit 'meh', as I'd come to expect by this point. What is great is that in Rome it seems you can find these places within 100 metres of wherever you are.

So in summary, I loved Rome, I enjoyed the espresso bars, and liked the actual espresso.  I wanted to find out whether it is somehow better than the espresso we love in the UK.  In my view it absolutely isn't better.  But that isn't to say Italian espresso is worse.  There are pros and cons in comparison with UK espresso.
I think the things we do better in the UK are:
- The freshness of the beans we use (in speciality coffeeshops at least... or indeed in our homes!)
- The frequent equipment cleaning that some of us here adopt
- The wider and more creative use of beans from around the world in our espresso compared with the predominent use of Brazilian beans in Italy (or at least in the places I visited)

However, there are some very clear things that they do better in Rome:
- I think the baristas over there are possibly more skilled than the average UK coffee-puller, since I did not experience a single bad extraction.  Despite an careless approach on the baristas' part, they consistently seemed to pull a good looking shot, of a lovely brown colour, in a good extraction time, of an appropriate volume.
- The Italian people actually drink espresso! It's great to see so many demitasse cups being wielded by customers.
- It is much cheaper.  I mean come on... a quid for a cappuccino. Granted it's only a 6 or 7oz cup, but the lower price makes it much easier to drink coffee more often. No wonder it's a big part of Italian culture.  (But I suppose part of the reason it is cheaper is that the beans used are not as good as the UK ones.)

If I had to choose between the two, I'd prefer a UK espresso... BUT only if it was prepared by a good barista in a good coffee shop using good beans, and there are simply not enough of those in the UK yet.  If it was a choice between an espresso from a random cafe in the UK, versus a random cafe in Rome, I'd choose Rome every time because I know it would at least be drinkable, unlike the horrible bitter crap that most UK cafes serve.

One question that I have not answered in my own mind is whether the darker roast adopted in Rome is better or worst than what we have in the UK.  My inclination is to think that it is worse, since the espresso is more bland due to the lack of varietal distinction and acidity, which is not replaced by anything as it becomes darker.  There was no increase in sweetness, for example, so I question the benefit of roasting darker. But as I say, I am happy to leave that door open. It gives me another reason to return to Italy. Perhaps I'll go further South next time!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

COM-100 TDS Meter (2)

Response received from HM Digital.

The COM-100 does have automatic temperature compensation (ATC), but with very hot temperatures off the baseline of 25C, it will take some time for it to adjust.  You will either need to let the coffee cool, or allow the meter some time to stabilize.  There's no way around this.  The TDS level will be the same at any temperature - it's just a matter of giving the meter some time to adjust for temperature discrepancies...  It does not need to be 25 degrees, but the closer it is, the faster you can obtain the reading.
Good to get a response, but unfortunately it doesn't ease my mind about how useful the device is to me.  I've already unsuccessfully attempted leaving it for five minutes to reach a stable reading,  and if I need to let it cool to something like 50C (as a maximum) to get a credible reading then the coffee is no longer good for drinking.

The best I can envisage is that I adopt the following method:
1. Brew
2. Taste and assess
3. Leave to cool and take a reading at 25C
4. Discard the coffee
5. Try to replicate the parameters on future brews.

In theory that should be fine, since of course I don't want to measure every brew, but it also means that there's a slight disconnect between assessing the coffee's taste characteristics and obtaining a meter reading.  I wonder if this limitation is typical of all TDS meters, including refractometers.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A Brief Interlude: The COM-100 TDS Meter

I've suspended my AeroPress testing for a short while because I've hit a snag in my brewing tests.  I use the COM-100 TDS meter, since it is a relatively inexpensive way to obtain figures for TDS and Extraction Yield in manually brewed coffee. I use it in addition to tasting, to establish whether I have found the correct brew parameters to create a great tasting coffee.

I already know from reading other blogs etc that there are accuracy issues with TDS meters. For example, the aren't actually measuring TDS. They are measuring Electrical Conductivity, as a proxy for TDS, and then using conversion factors to derive a PPM (parts per million) reading.  But anything is better than nothing... perhaps!

The problem I'm having is that Electrical Conductivity changes depending upon temperature. The COM-100 is supposed to be set to compensate for that, but I'm finding that I get completely different TDS/EC readings depending upon the coffee's temperature.  For example, at 68C the TDS might be 0.90%, whereas at 45C it might be 1.65%.  In coffee terms, that is a vast difference and renders the reading unusable.

I've emailed the manufacturer, HM Digital, to see if they have any suggestions.  In the meantime, I immediately feel like someone has stolen my security blanket! I haven't been using the TDS Meter very long, but it's amazing how quickly I seem to have become psychologically dependent upon it, not trusting my own palate.  Perhaps it's a good thing to have a break from the technology and rely purely on tasting for a while.

[See follow-on post here]