I owned a little cafe once. In Smith Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne. With my sister.
Our work there was strenuous. Days were long. Customers could be fickle.
But we survived. We survived our own naivety. We survived the introduction of a vicious new goods and services tax, all the while doing our own books. We survived the stigma of operating a business in a street where junkies came to score and shoot up. We even got through the media's typically distorted depiction of the drug problem, which frightened some patrons away. We survived our one pathetic disagreement; she threw an ashtray in my general direction and I, unable to get my hands on anything, threw...or rather floated...a serviette at her. Foot soreness, cuts and burns, in-grown toe nails, alcoholic habits at day's end...the list goes on...but we are both still here.
Thanks in large part to coffee.
Adrenalin and coffee. It was easier to make time for coffee than food. In fact, it was not uncommon for us to sit down to eat for the first time in the day at 3pm, eight hours after we'd opened and one before we were to close. Prepping, cooking, serving and cleaning up after customers is an endless cycle that really only halts when locking the cafe door at night. At first, we saw stopping to eat ourselves as rather self-indulgent, merely adding to the clean up and extending our working day.
But there always seemed to be enough time to gulp down an espresso or latte, to coordinate an extraction out of the machine between or with those of our customers. Coffee, sugar, sometimes milk to sustain a body on the race to the end of the working day is hardly a balanced diet. Not many carbs there. That is where the adrenalin used to kick in.
Learning the craft of making good coffee and various other aspects of one's own business operation leaves not much time for proper sustenance. The terminology, the machine, the beans, the grind, the blend, the 'seasons' of the milk, the humidity and temperature, the proclivities of the customers...so much to manage in the production of a uniformly perfect cup of coffee, every time. Who would have time to eat? This studious approach also involved lauding it over our employees to ensure the exacting standards never slipped.
So...a decade and more on, I find myself in Italy. And I'm convinced that the DNA of the Italian is different. They have a coffee-making gene or something. Nowhere in sight is the vigilanteism of our approach. With the orders being transferred from cashier or customer to barista at speed, it is not an overly systemized routine but rather an organic one.
Saucers clang and wobble on the counter and then teaspoons tinkle on them. All waving arms and conversation, the barista gracefully swoops the group handles out from the machine, dumping coffee grounds with a flamboyant tap-tap into the waste drawer. Fingers flick doses of fresh ground coffee from what seems like a constantly buzzing grinder. Perfect pressure is applied with a manual tamp, excess powder brushed aside with the palm of the hand. Italian baristas know the machine so well, I'm sure they could insert the group handle and wrench it into position without looking nine times out of ten. In a final flourish, the extraction is measured with the push of a button or the pulling of a lever or arm in older manual machines. A sigh of nonchalance issues from the barista at the same time as the black gold starts its tantalising trickle into the cup. They know they're getting it right every time.
Cup is placed on saucer.
"Prego" is uttered and the barista twirls back around to the machine as customers syphon sugar onto perfect crema, where it sits for a second before its slow release to the bottom of the cup. There is something so dramatic and sensuous about this part of the ritual. It's a moment in a day when one's entire concentration is focused on sugar on crema in coffee...and nothing else.
But there's no time to get lost in this thought in the busy Italian cafe. You better suck that caffe normali down and get the hell out of the way because you're a tourist and the other patrons are on the way to work, double-parked and shaking the sugar sachet in desperate readiness. And is the barista hurried or worried? No. His feet are sliding around on the fallen coffee grounds, his arms are gesticulating around the machine...in a series of rhythmic moves, innate in his make-up.
Twelve years earlier, in inner-suburban Melbourne, we made bloody good coffee but we lacked that natural rhythm. We danced around our coffee machine like the way white people dance.