xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Anyone for coffee?

Friday, 18 March 2016

Anyone for coffee?

When I was growing up in Perth in the 1940s and 50s almost everybody drank tea. Hardly anybody drank coffee. If they did it was a sickly sweet concoction that came out of a tall, dark bottle labelled, Chicory Essence. These bottles were generally stored in the back recesses of the kitchen pantry or kitchenette.

For those born in the last thirty years, a kitchenette is a large double door cabinet which contained dry goods, herbs, spices and various condiments. It had shelves and drawers for crockery, cutlery and other kitchen utensils. It also contained a rectangular compartment for storing bread and a tall, narrow compartment for storing brooms and mops. Almost every kitchen had one in the 1950s.

Yes, tea was the non-alcoholic drink of choice. So much so that we called our mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks Morning Tea and Afternoon Tea. I was a white and two sugars tea drinker. Everybody had their own preferred way of drinking tea. Some were quite different.  In the 1960s I was travelling in a Greyhound bus from Mexico City to San Antonio, Texas. The gentleman next to me noticed my Australian accent.

“I spent three years in Australia,” he told me. “I was stationed at the US Navy Catalina Base at Crawley Bay in Perth. The Australians were great people, but they had a real funny way of drinking tea.”

“Oh,” I replied in mild amazement. "What was so funny about it?”

‘Well they drank it hot and with milk.” Not long after that encounter I enjoyed my own cup of tea in San Antonio. It was black tea, served with ice in a long glass with a sprig of mint in it. Very refreshing it was, too.

While we Aussies continued to drink our tea hot, with or without milk and sugar, the tidal wave of European migrants in the 1950s saw an increase in the demand for coffee…real coffee. Good coffee, not Chicory Essence. Espresso coffee machines arrived from Italy and soon people were asking for coffee in cafes and restaurants and in the many coffee lounges that began to spring up in downtown areas. In those days the legal drinking age was 21. After the libraries closed at 9-00 pm, my university mates and I used to spend a great deal of our time in coffee lounges solving all of the world’s problems well into the wee small hours of the morning.

My favourite coffee lounge was called The Coffee Pot. It was owned by a Dutch couple who fled to Perth in February 1942 when the Japanese invaded Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies. In the Coffee Pot in the late 1950s we drank black coffee, Vienna coffee, cappuccino coffee, accompanied by Danish pastries, apple strudel and the very exotic spring rolls.

A great feature of the Coffee Pot was that the owners did not seem to mind that my student mates and I could order just one cup of coffee each and then sit there for hours and hours in deep and meaningful discussion. The owners possessed European charm, always had a friendly smile and did not hurry us in any way. We were eighteen and nineteen year olds but they treated us as if we were grownups. And they played great jazz and swing music on the very large radiogram that sat against one wall. We felt suave and sophisticated as Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Astrud Gilberto, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman and others played in the background while we solved all the world's problems.

Perhaps the Coffee Pot’s greatest feature, however, was the beautiful daughter of the proprietors. She waited on the tables. She was in her early twenties and looked like Juliette Greco. Only a man who spent his boyhood in the fifties can know the effect that this beautiful Greco like creature had on us pimply faced, pseudo intellectuals.

Since then, of course, coffee has overtaken tea as Australia’s non-alcoholic beverage of choice. Now, we have TAFE course awarding diplomas to baristas who hone up their coffee making skills, making  exquisite creamy shapes and patterns to top off our steaming cups of Java. Unfortunately, some coffee drinkers have become as tedious and pernickety as those fastidious wine drinkers who rattles on at length about the quality or otherwise of whatever it is that they are drinking.

We are now overburdened with choice when it comes to ordering coffee. We can have long black, short black, macchiato, decaf, double decaf, espresso, cappuccino, Vienna, latte, skinny latte in regular cups, large cups or pots. Recently, a friend of mine ordered a skinny, large cappuccino. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but translated it just meant she wanted a large cappuccino made with skimmed milk. Simple really.

People deciding what type and size of coffee to drink are now faced with the same multiplicity of choices that also now confront beer drinkers. Once upon a time, hotels generally only supplied beer from one brewery, so when you ordered a beer you did not need to tell the barman if you wanted a dry, extra dry, super dry, light or mid-strength Cascade, James Boag, Hahn, Heineken, Budweiser, Pirelli, Fosters, Tooheys , Carlton, Coors, Stella Artois, Millers, or whatever. You just said, “I’ll have a beer, please.” And that is what you got.

Waiters now need photographic memories when taking coffee orders for skinny lattes, long black decafs, short blacks, double decafs, large cappuccinos, skinny cappuccinos and so on.

Still, some places never change. Recently, my wife and I drove back to Perth from Brisbane. On the Eyre Peninsula we left our accommodation at Ellerston quite early, planning on grabbing a coffee somewhere along the road before we hit Ceduna. After a while we arrived at Port Kenny which consisted of a general store, a water tank and a couple of petrol bowsers. Inside the shop a very friendly lady smiled and asked me how she could help.

"I’d like two coffees,” I replied.

“And what sort of coffee would you like?” she said as she turned and walked towards the hot water urn on a bench behind the counter.

“I’d like a skinny latte for my wife and a large cappuccino for me.”

Slowly the lady turned and with a charming smile said, “Sir, this is Port Kenny, not Collins Street. You can have black coffee or white coffee.”

We drove away from Port Kenny with two white coffees. They were made with instant coffee and milk. The funny thing is, that  Port Kenny coffee tasted just as nice as some of the delicately designed and artfully constructed coffees we had so recently purchased in the trendy cafes of Melbourne and Sydney.

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