Lately, I have become very obsessed with coffee. How it tastes is essential of course; but I have become more obsessed with how it looks. So what am I talking about? It’s the feeling of utter joy when I am presented with a perfectly shaped heart resting on the top of my latte. I sneak a glance at the barista and secretly wonder if he fancies me. My own heart sinks quickly when I see him creating them for everyone else. But what really matters in the end is that it looks like that each and every heart is created with love.
My obsession even drives me to remove the lid off a take-away coffee to check if there is a pattern. Seems ridiculous but it’s important. If there is no pattern, I inspect for bubbles and I inspect for glossy milk.
It doesn’t have to be a heart of course; a perfect looking leaf or flower will suffice. I will accept anything that looks like something reasonably spectacular.
Is coffee art purely an Australian thing? I don’t ever remember seeing coffee art in France or in Italy. When we were in Rome, every morning for four days, we would climb down five flights from our roof top studio, amble to the corner of the street and have coffee and breakfast at the same little place. After the first day, we worked out that there was a process. When you enter, you would walk to the right, tell the man what you want (panini, espresso or cappuccino – that was it!) and paid him. Then you would walk across to the left, give another man the docket and your order is ready in a couple of minutes. There was no seating, you just stood at the counter or small tables. No coffee art here. No lattes, no doppios, no machiattos, no skim milk, no soya milk, no long blacks, no chai – just espresso and cappuccinos. This was our favourite way to start the day in Rome.
But in Australia, there is coffee art and I love it. I want to be able to do this. I want to possess this skill.
So, every day in my kitchen, I can be seen practising frothing my milk. I can even get the temperature right without using a thermometer. I can even make a pretty good crema these days. I can even pour a 10ml head on a latte, less on a flat white. My long black and espresso are also good I am told. But the perfect pattern remains illusive.
Even my husband has caught the bug. Dean has gone from not drinking coffee at all to drinking the occasional latte and espresso. We obsess about the perfect crema, the perfect head on a latte but mostly about the perfect pattern. When we go out, we analyse how our coffee looks before we even touch it.
Before I enter a cafe, I sometimes look in the window or peak through the front door to check out the barista first. I usually write anyone off who looks younger than 25. If they pass the age test, I look to see if the person is taking pride in what he/she is doing? After frothing the milk, does he/she use his/her wrist expertly to swirl the milk around in the jug? Does he/she tap it loudly several times on the counter to ensure there is not one bubble left? Does he/she inspect it again and again to ensure it’s just perfect? Then, if I can lean far enough or better still, if there are tables outside, my final decision is based on inspecting the finished creation as it gets placed on the table.
I know people who have followed their favourite baristas to different cafes just like they would follow their favourite hairdresser. I haven’t succumbed to that yet because the great thing about Melbourne is that you are spoilt for choice. When one disappears, another one appears. The other good thing about Melbourne is that you NEVER have to go a chain. I won’t tell you where I drink my coffee because it’s subjective. So choose one or two to make a favourite of your own. Good art doesn’t necessarily mean good coffee. So both becomes perfection.
I used to be a loyal-barista stalker. When I worked in the city, like a lot of people, my day started at a local cafe near the office. Her name is Diane. Cafes came and went in that area but Diane always made my coffee. If Diane wasn’t there and someone else made it, it didn’t feel right. Hell, I didn’t feel right! Diane was so efficient and she knew my coffee of choice from day 2. Yes, day 2! Not just mine but all the regulars. That’s pretty impressive. Skinny flat white, no sugar. I just popped my recyclable coffee cup on the counter and Diane knew. Diane even worked when she wasn’t feeling well because she knew. I miss Diane sometimes.
The small joys in life do exist. Such as sitting in a cafe waiting in anticipation for my little coffee surprise.
So perhaps I am better off not perfecting the skill myself because I do not want to give up this small joy.
Coffee is an art.