Interiors: Shot in the dark
They're designed to make life easier and create the perfect cuppa each time. Eleanor Flegg tries out caffeine machines and their capsules.
Remember when Mrs Doyle was shown a state-of-the-art machine for making tea? This gizmo, the sales assistant enthused, would take the misery out of making tea. Mrs Doyle looked him in the eye: "Maybe I like the misery."
While Fr Ted's housekeeper as played by Pauline McLynn, was without doubt, a masochist, she probably had the right idea about automation.
Machines that take the misery out of making tea, or coffee, also erase social and cultural traditions. So given one of the offending gadgets for Christmas, Mrs Doyle took a screwdriver to its innards.
In Japan, the tea ceremony is an ancient and elaborate tradition in which every step is important. Ireland's tea ritual is a bit less formal. It's customary to refuse the first offer of a cup of tea, and that refusal is never taken seriously. "Ah go on you will, go on, go on!"
Mrs Doyle's nemesis was based on the Teasmade – a British invention that combines a tea-maker with an alarm clock. Back in the 1990s, British Prime Minister John Major was ridiculed when his wife Norma admitted that they had one in the bedroom.
But today the Teasmade is so naff that it's become cool. The British have loved the idea of an automated morning cuppa for centuries. Dr Samuel Rowbottom's Automatic Tea Making Apparatus was patented in 1892. It ran on gas and required a pilot light (just what you want beside your bed).
The following year, Mr James Alfred Greenhalgh invented a similar machine with a clock timer. In 1932, Mr George Absolom developed an electrically powered version that connected with a reading lamp and, within five years, the Teasmade was in production. The latest edition, the Swan Vintage Teasmade, costs €86.49 from www.argos.ie.
But my problem with automation is that it removes the element of chance.
Coffee capsules – little pre-packaged pods of coffee that fit into a custom designed machine – are designed to eliminate that variation. Every cup of coffee that you get from a capsule machine will be the same as the last, unless you change the coffee-type. For some people, this is a huge advantage. Every cup of coffee is consistently good.
The coffee capsule is a double sell. First you need to buy the machine and then you need to buy compatible capsules. The technology was pioneered by Nestlé through Nespresso, which was first patented in 1996. They now dominate Western Europe's €4bn market in coffee capsules. This is big business.
The compact and attractive entry-level Nespresso Inissia machine costs €99. A swankier version, the Lattissima costs €499 but, as the name suggests, it also makes latte and other frothy milk beverages.
Nespresso machines are available from a range of vendors, including Brown Thomas, but – here's the catch – the capsules are only available from Brown Thomas in Cork and Dublin (www.brownthomas.com).
I went into the Grafton Street outlet to have a look. Several escalators and one very expensive lipstick later, I made it to the Nespresso boutique at the top of the building. There's actually a silk rope arrangement in place to manage the queues. The sales area is visually spectacular – all those coloured coffee pods – and Brown Thomas is a luxury experience.
But it's not particularly convenient, especially if you don't live in Cork or Dublin. To to this end Nespresso is soon to open another shop on Dublin's Duke Street but, since you could hit it with a stone from the top window of Brown Thomas, this doesn't massively extend the franchise's outreach.
The alternative is to buy to pods online at www.nespresso.com. But now you have to be around to take a delivery at home or at work.
Nespresso capsules range in price from €3.60 to €4.20 for a sleeve of 10 capsules. Until recently, Nestlé successfully defended itself from rivals producing identikit coffee capsules but, following a series of legal battles, other companies can now sell capsules designed to use in Nespresso machines.
Last month, Lidl (of course) introduced Bellarom capsules that are allegedly compatible with Nespresso machines and cost €1.99 for a box of 10. Nespresso doesn't recommend them and won't stand over any damage that they do to your machine, but many people have used them without a problem.
Lavazza coffee capsules are available in more outlets than Nespresso and cost from €6.25 for a box of 16. They are a different shape and can only be used in Aeg coffee machines, which start at €99 from www.harveynorman.ie. You might go for this one if you really like Lavazza coffee.
If you're a dyed-in-the-wool percolator you might like the Pantone Universe series in trendy colours (€25 - €37 from www.designedinlondon.com). Personally I'm still percolating away. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don't, but I like the variation. I have had good cups of coffee from capsule machines - several of my friends swear by them - but I've never had a great one.
Or maybe I just like the misery.