Tuesday 17 September 2019

Mary Kenny: Bean counters... coffee is the emblem and epitome of civilisation

Too many coffee shops? Never! Long live one of the most positive social developments of my time

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

No, no, no! There is no such thing as too many coffee outlets! An Bord Bia is surely in error by announcing that coffee shops in city centres in Ireland have reached "saturation point". Other "quick-serve" restaurants, maybe. Fast food has never been a culinary adornment.

But coffee is the emblem and epitome of civilisation. Among the greatest social improvements in the course of my lifetime has been the proliferation of great coffee. A barista, to me, is a person of higher calling than a barrister.

I came back from two years in France as a young woman appalled by the poor quality of coffee that was prevalent in Ireland (and Britain). Instant often masquerading as proper coffee - ugh!

I have heard it said that the two ugliest words in the English language are "bridging loan". For my 20-year-old, know-it-all self, the most unwelcome phrase was "do you mind instant?" Yes, I do mind instant coffee, if you please! The coffee drinker must have the real thing.

And now the real thing is everywhere - authentic coffee gurgling out of real espresso machines up and down the land. You can get as fine a cup of coffee now in Tullamore - where I happened on a lovely coffee house last year - as you can in Montparnasse.

I realised that Northern Ireland was on a totally new phase of social development when I bought a skinny latte in Belfast city centre, down by the Lagan, on a Sunday. The peace process would hold.

Mind you, not all coffee - even real coffee - is equal. You have to find the exact level of taste for yourself. I find Starbucks' coffee too bitter, and I'm not mad about international café chains either (though you have to give them a round of applause for reviving the great tradition of the coffee house.) And a successful group of coffee providers - such as Insomnia, which has a very strong fan following - will inevitably proliferate.

I found my ideal cup of coffee thus: when I read that the Colombian farmers were forced into harvesting cocaine because, at this particular point, coffee sales were down, I thought I'd support them by drinking Colombian coffee. It's ambrosia! It's rich and strong, but never bitter. The Central American coffees are generally delicious - notably Guatamalan and Costa Rican.

Maybe now we should start helping the Brazilian economy - flailing economies can slide into dictatorships - similarly. Fran Sinatra did a great song about it: "They've Got an Awful lot of Coffee in Brazil!" ("A politician's daughter was discovered drinking water/And was fined a great big 50-dollar bill!")

True, people can get faddish and fussy about coffee. It's one thing disdaining the bland taste of instant, but it's another insisting on grinding the beans yourself in a hand-turned moulin and using only the original 1933 Bialetti Moka coffee-maker. (The writer Mary McCarthy would only drink coffee from beans ground by hand, insisting that electrical grinding destroyed the innate flavour.)

But I stand by the classic Moka coffee-maker - the one you put on the stove and it percolates the coffee up through its own funnel. The announcement, recently, that Bialetti may go bankrupt and needs €68 million to keep producing the irreplaceable Mokas was dismaying. Can't someone start a crowdfund to save the Moka?

The coffee-house has a great tradition of sociability: from its introduction into Western Europe, from Turkey in the 1600s, it brought an interchange of news, gossip, financial tips (the London Stock Exchange was started in a coffee house) and the demand for beautiful china. It was, alas, in the 18th century superseded by the pub and the tavern, which became much more profitable both for trade and taxes. It's another sign of civilisation, surely, that good pubs are now selling good coffee.

For the reformed drinker, coffee is a life-saver, as well as a treat. And if you're looking for a caffeine high, try two double espressos followed by a can of Coca Cola.

Numerous medical studies have shown recently that coffee is excellent for health. Keeps the old brain ticking over, too. Yes, it's addictive, I know, but what harm? Nobody is going to go home and beat up their spouse and sprogs because they had an extra shot of coffee.

We understand Bord Bia's point about saturation of the market - staff shortages loom and any market can be overloaded with supply. But it's still the case that the coffee shop is the harbinger of harmony, pleasure and the interchange of culture and ideas.

Well, it usually was. The ubiquitous use of the electronic media - be it tablet, iPhone, or laptop computer - in the coffee shops has somewhat diminished the flow of brilliant conversation. We must hope that eventually people will tire of staring at their screens, and, perhaps stimulated by enough pure Colombian, will return to social intercourse once again.

However, it's evident that in this life you can't have everything. And sometimes you can't even have two good things at once. With the rise of the coffee culture has come, it seems, a certain decline in the quality of tea. A dunked tea-bag in a tepid plastic cup has replaced the warming communal tea-pot, where real tea was correctly brewed and poured.

If there are too many coffee-shops, that's the time to start on a revival of the tea-house.

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