Archive for the 'Coffee and Food' Category

From Russia with love

Sailing in from Shanghai in 1925, Ivan Repin, his wife and children disembarked the Tango Maru in Sydney to start a new life. Like many Russians in early 20th Century Australia, Repin and his family were refugees who had left as a result of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and civil war.

Repin had studied engineering in St Petersburg, but as the economic crises of the 1920’s loomed and a foreign tongue showed, it was tough for Russians to find work in their field.

After trying his hand at a few different occupations, including running his own single bus line, Repin the entrepreneur opened his first ‘coffee inn’ in 1930, shortly after he was naturalised. By 1934, he had two shops open, first on Sydney’s King Street then on Pitt.

His geographical inclination can be largely attributed to his success. As there were close to 2,000 Russians in Sydney, most of them were located within close proximity to his coffee inns, including the ethnically established club, the Russian House.

Repin employed many Russian speakers including Estonians and Ukrainians in his shops as they became a haven for misplaced office workers who could no longer afford to rent premises because of the Depression.

Opening mail, company meetings and networking were all frequent business within Repin’s inns which also included proper coffee and rich breakfast like sweet cranberry waffles and eggs on toast.

‘Repin’s coffee inns were also to some extent a home away from home for Russian speakers in Sydney, including those of the visiting Ballets Russes dancers whose first language was Russian,’ historian Michelle Potter from ANU remarks on the hospitality Repin’s business showed travelling Russian Ballerinas.

It was a completely different concept to the way coffee was viewed in the predominately tea drinking society in Sydney. Although coffee or tea was inclusive with a breakfast order at the inns, a lone cup of coffee or iced coffee was charged, an idea which spread like wildfire when Italian immigrants entered the scene in the fifties.

 But you weren’t so much paying for the fast service it was more an admittance fee for a type of European sophistication not present in the pub on the corner.

As his inns sprouted up around Sydney, Repin travelled to the United States to source out better coffee and learn from the industry abroad. Much like coffee roasters do now, when they fly to Guatemala, Kenya or Indonesia to find produce for their roasters, Repin wanted the best for his customers.

In 1948, Repin purchased a coffee roaster and sold fresh take home beans over the counter. He had become a coffee enthusiast by this point and wanted to share his passion for superior product with Australia.

Repin didn’t just give Sydney a palate workout, he introduced a venue that housed culture, like-mindedness, great coffee and a place for migrants, refugees and Australians to go to escape a tough economy and get back on their feet.

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Post coffee

It’s been six months. Six months since I’ve felt a jug of milk heat up in my palm, watched the espresso drip out of a porta-filter and felt sweat glide down the front of my forehead trying to get ahead of the order.

It’s been six whole months since I made coffee and I miss it dearly.

I’ve had dreams of making coffee, thought about doing a trial and daily consider asking my local barista to shove across so I could take over. Ever since I joined the race I’ve been a little down frequenting the café as a consumer, not a producer.

After I finished my post-grad I went into full time work, 9-5 at a desk. It has taken me months to get over the guilt associated with sitting down all day, something unheard of in the field of hospitality.

But throughout this whole transition from working student to clockwatcher, coffee has been constantly in my thoughts. I am obsessed with it and given the lines I see on Saturday morning throughout Melbourne, so is everybody else.

So I am changing the direction of this blog – since I now stand in a very different place in the café. As a paying customer I’m curious as to why the coffee shop is probably the most frequented place next to the office and home.

I’m embarking on a social history of coffee in Australia, following the trends, the people, the influences, growth and how a love of beans became what it is today.

Although I’m pretty sure dreaming about coffee isn’t normal, I bet those that did in the past are the ones that transformed a popular foreign plant into a staple in society.

Starbucks back on top?

Starbucks the coffee mogul, Starbucks the international meeting place, Starbucks the failure, now Starbucks the news distributor?

I can see the board room discussion that took place two years ago when Howard Schultz came out of retirement and re-appointed himself as CEO.

“We’re losing money and have closed hundreds of stores around the world,” Howard would have screamed across a long rectangular table.

“The internet seems to have taken off, why don’t we do something with that?” A pimply faced intern would have replied.

“I like it! To the keyboards!” Shultz would have said.

And that’s what probably happened. Since Shultz’s return, Starbucks has become the number one consumer brand on social media with over ten million friends on Facebook and nearly one million Twitter followers.

In fact, they decided to go a step further then the status update and on July 1st introduced free Wi-Fi in all of their US stores and a few in Canada.

This is not a new thing, free Wi-Fi is something people now expect from a café and most public places. The crumbled communal newspapers are being replaced by laptops and Apple gadgets.

However, it is the upcoming launch of the Starbucks Digital Network (SDN) that is changing the dynamic of the café.

Partnerships with iTunes, The New York Times, Patch, USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! and others are enabling Starbucks to offer otherwise exclusive content free to their in store customers.

Pay walls on news sites such as The Wall Street Journal can be side stepped upon purchase of a beverage and free downloadable music will be available through their deals with iTunes.

So their stores become downloading hubs. Not being able to find a place within the specialty coffee market has forced the company to give content away for free in order to get back on top.

As they filter information in their cafés to caffeinated consumers, they will no doubt re-invigorate their brand. Sitting in a café on a laptop for hours can equate to multiple purchases as one coffee does not fulfil hunger, only a muffin could tie you over til you’ve reaped all the benefits from the SDN.

Yet the perpetuators of the second wave of coffee may now have started the fourth. This network may very well turn the social part of a café into a point for connectivity, where we all stare at our screens, silently flicking through the web giving whole new meaning to the phrase ‘having a quiet one’.

Confessions of a former bitchy barista

This was first published in the National Times on 6 July, 2010

I did something crazy, something so un-Melbourne, anti-social and mood altering that I am a changed barista. No, I didn’t pick up a habit; instead, I got off drugs.

With dispensaries lining each of our main drags, we are consistently putting caffeine in our systems. I indulged with an espresso eight times daily. Teetering on addiction I decided to give up coffee for seven whole days.

I went cold turkey and took away what fuels my lifestyle. This included of course coffee, chocolate, energy drinks, coke and all teas except the herbal varieties. I have been making coffee for nine years and through that time have not gone more than a day without the stimulant.

It wasn’t completely on a whim. The University of Bristol in the UK published a study earlier last month that found that we build a tolerance to caffeine by consuming it daily. Our morning shots are not waking us up; they are merely bringing us back to “normal”.

This I’ve heard countless times but never believed it to be true as I thought I was getting a buzz from my morning ritual. Yet my week without stimulation garnered a new opinion.

I got the first headache the second day in. It was probably one of the worst migraines I have ever had, only bed cured the sharp sensation pulsating behind my half-closed eyes.

Then nausea followed. I was “flu-like”, experiencing how the body reacts without using the classified drug. I was out of it and feeling terrible but at least I wasn’t irritable.

In fact, I was the complete opposite to irritable, which was second to headache on the uninspiring withdrawal symptom list. I was completely unfazed by any problem I encountered, I had adopted a new personality.

As I said, I make coffee for hundreds of people that all seem to know how to push my buttons. This has made me a moody little shot-pouring demon quite capable of throwing change back at customers after it’s been scattered on the counter. Yes, I was that kind of hospitality worker.

Yet after a few frail days and about 11 hours sleep each night, I had become so calm most customers probably thought I had jumped on the Mary Jane bandwagon.

The fog eventually lifted and I gained clarity. Being spacey probably added to my mellow demeanour but, after sleeping and drinking litres of lemongrass and ginger tea, I became productive.

The attention age has taught me how to multi-task and open endless tabs to bask in status updates and tweets. Searching the internet for crap and data is where caffeine makes its presence in the system most noticeable.

So I single-tasked. I stopped stalking Facebook “friends” while trying to conjure up witty one-liners to feed my Twitter followers. I did everything one task at a time with more focus than a one-armed calligrapher. My mind stopped jumping.

So there I was a calm, slow-talking, unstimulated being capable of holding a conversation on one topic instead of following tangent after tangent. This was me off caffeine.

I didn’t realise the effect it had had on me. It had never occurred to me that my consistent mood swings were related to the eight shots I was consuming. I was able to manage stress better and not fly off the handle when something went awry.

When day seven rolled around I was hesitant to have the first one back. I had already stood up from my chair proclaiming caffeinalism and herbal tea rehab seemed to balance me out. Yet in the name of science I got all dressed up and went to my local.

The study was correct. I went from aloof to jittery after a strong latte and for the rest of the day displayed an erratic bout of productivity. I cleaned, exercised, Googled everything and talked to everyone.

Habitual use was keeping me at a level where I didn’t feel the effects anymore. I had to get it out of my system to see what it really did. It gave me more energy than I had had for nearly a decade as my tolerance was re-configured. I have since scaled back my habit to one a day, which seems to wake me up yet maintain my new laid-back trait.

Although the eight shots were aiding my jam-packed life, I was rarely in good spirits and no one wants to get a coffee from a bitchy barista.

Espresso’s challengers

This was first published in Broadsheet Melbourne on 20 April, 2010

The white residue that lingered on the recently sponged blackboard said Ethiopian Sidamo earlier. Now it’s Yirgacheffe. If Kenyan were to make an appearance this afternoon, all palates in the cafe would be balanced.  

Melbourne’s reputation for knowing good food and good wine is matched by its reputation for knowing good coffee. But as the city’s ever more sophisticated coffee culture proves, there’s always something new to discover about its favourite brew.

The single origin boom is well underway. In cafes all over Melbourne it is now possible to sip coffee from most corners of the world. Some purists insist it must be black, but single origin lattes and flat whites are not unheard of.

As the beans escape the brand of the roaster, longer, more exotic names are taking over the black boards – names of farms, homes and towns. An increased appreciation for the origin of our coffee is powering this cultural shift.

In conjunction with greater understanding of where the beans have originated, brewing methods have proliferated. Melbourne cemented its coffee reputation by offering some of the world’s finest espresso. So for many, weaning off the European style has been tough. But a few brewing methods better suited to extracting the subtle flavours of single origin beans have been popping up with increased regularity.

The syphon is gaining widespread popularity in Melbourne now. All of the St Ali cafes have at least one. Auction Rooms and Proud Mary also heavily feature the contraption, which resembles a gas lantern and works using a vacuum effect.

It is a delicate brewer and takes a skilled hand to multitask between the heat, water and grounds. However, the results can be close to perfect and the theatrical process gives an air of importance to the brew that’s delivered to your table.

The theatrics also give a glimpse into the production behind coffee. What is being tasted is not just caffeinated goodness, but the origin, region and estate.

It’s easy to say that a Sumatran blend is best used for espresso because of its earthy undertones but when you remove the cloak of milk, blackberries, toffee and plum surface.

The clover is another part in discovering which blend best suites your taste. This machine is about the size of the domestic espresso machines many coffee addicts have nestled next to their toaster, and like the syphon it uses a vacuum to make a single cup of black coffee. The clover and syphon produce different textures in the coffee and display different subtleties in the taste.

Abbotsford’s Three Bags Full sells clover-brewed coffee for five dollars – a fair price considering the machine costs as much as a new car. Aside from its technical sophistication, the price is also a result of its rarity. There aren’t many clover machines floating around these days; Starbucks bought the Seattle-based company last year and took them off the market, perhaps as defence against the independent cafes leading this ‘third wave’ of coffee culture.

At the end of the day the point of finding a roast that makes you salivate is to be able to bring it all home and do it yourself. Enter the pour over.

Dead Man Espresso and Market Lane are some of the cafes offering the pour over. This will produce a cup that is closer to American-style filter coffee. The measurements and water temperature are key to this endeavour, yet it is a simple paper filter that does its job once the grounds and water go in; all you need to do is stir.

It lacks the theatrics involved with the complex syphon and mechanical clover, but it enables the characteristics of coffee to come through the pour. It is also very affordable so cafe-quality coffee can be done in the home kitchen without the need of a barista course.

As the chalkboard scribbles turn into paragraphs, identifying a region that suits your taste is getting easier with the help of a number of cafes.

Being able to identify a well-developed fresh product already works well through food and wine; coffee was always going to be next.

Free Food!

Remember me?!

Yes, it’s true I’m giving away free food at Caffeine this friday (19/2).

More specifically, I’m mixing up a batch of espresso brownies that will hopefully blow your socks off and keep you buzzing throughout the day.

In case you need a memory boost click here to view my Magic Brownies post.

They won’t be displayed, so in order to sink your teeth into one you need a password, which is:

May I please have a brownie

So come on in, have a chat and get your brownie on!

My Compliments with Breakfast

A great coffee is finger licking good. Coffee that’s amazing will make you venture to an eatery where the food is mediocre, the service is slow yet just so happens to be packed like a can of sardines.

When breakfasters devote their weekend mornings to their favourite hole in the wall or unnamed den that boasts a great goat’s cheese omelette, it’s really all about the coffee.

But which coffee goes with what dish? Will a long black compliment the smoked salmon sitting on a pile of hollandaise and eggs?

I went from Northcote to Brunswick, Thornbury to Wesgarth, Coburg to Collingwood in order to find a flattering combination of coffee and food. I woke up early each Saturday for the past month to see which coffee brought out the best in breakfast.

As much as I trust my own palate, I also used a food pairing guide to keep me on track. I am after all a soy drinker.

I stuck to the more traditional dishes, ones found in most cafés, in order to provide a rough guide when food pairing. Maybe you’ll re-think the usual next time you are out and about enjoying the most important meal of the day.

Eggs Benedict (eggs, hollandaise, english muffin, ham)- A long black or short black will go nicely with this breakfast staple. The acidity in the coffee will bring out the lemon from the hollandaise. The ham also goes well with black coffee as it is a rather flavourful meat. The bitterness of the espresso competes with the strong taste of ham bringing out the sweetness it has to offer.

Eggs Florentine (eggs, spinach, hollandaise, sourdough bread/english muffin)- Same as above I’m afraid. The exception being the spinach which has such a distinct flavour it is best paired with just espresso in order to allow your palate to taste every part of this dish.

Big Breaky (This kitchen sink breakfast is usually with sausage, bacon, tomato, mushroom, eggs, bread and sometimes a minute steak)- Mushrooms and tomatoes go well with milk. Milk tends to put a damper on the acidity that tomatoes can cause and mixes well with mushrooms. But there is a lot of meat on this plate which calls for black coffee. I would suggest a strong latte, just enough milk and plenty of espresso to brighten this heavy meal.

Muesli (this varies from place to place)- Nothing like a big bowl of Bircher with a scoop of Greek yoghurt to meet your carb quota for the week. Milk and fruit are like peas and carrots. The fructose brings out the sweetness in milk whilst that sour fruity taste becomes more pleasant. I would choose a flat white or latte, both are the milkiest of coffees and that tad of espresso will compliment the bran and other nutty bits.

Pancakes or French Toast– If you are going to indulge at breakfast then go all out, pair these two delicacies with a cappuccino. The cappuccino has a lot of froth so it will taste stronger which goes well with fluffy pancakes or French toast soaked in syrup. Gooey sugar-laden breads need thick creamy froth, like cookies and milk, but that espresso will make the dark sugars from the syrup pop in your mouth!

Omelettes (I’m going to assume you picked one with cheese, served on toast)- Cheese seems to only suit black coffee although the bread and butter call for a base. I would suggest a long macchiato the rich espresso and touch of milk pair nicely with this classic.

Smoked Salmon (some places put this with hollandaise for a reason)- Fish actually tastes great with milk. The reason most breaky places put hollandaise on top is the same reason baristas mix milk with espresso, it works. I prefer a strong cappuccino (no chocolate) with this meal as the milk takes away some of the saltiness smoked salmon provides and the espresso revives my taste buds.

Switch up your routine saturday morning coffee, try something new. You never know, it could make that mediocre breakfast into the best thing you’ve ever eaten!


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