I have a confession to make. It’s shameful, debasing and goes against my principles. But somehow, it’s happened, it’s real, and I have to admit it.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am now a regular drinker of…instant coffee. The realisation hit me slowly, recently, percolating not unlike the better quality of its kind, until I could ignore it no longer. How, I asked myself with growing horror, had this happened?
Coffee. Le café. Il caffè. It seems so simple. So evocative. Ever-present; the first thing I drink in the morning, nice and milky to get the day going. Aromatic and black to wake me up in the mid-afternoon; later skipped in favour of herbal tea to signal the winding down of the working day; smooth and decaffeinated in the evening before bed – and on particularly special occasions, short, strong and full-bodied as a sharp end to a good meal.
Caffeine in the evenings has never seemed to bother me. Maybe my actual sleep is disturbed (who knows?), but basically, I go to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow (it’s getting into bed in the first place without procrastinating for hours on end beforehand that’s my problem). Coffee presents the punctuation to my life, and, aside from the days when I decide that from here-on-in that I’m a solely-green-tea, holistic, my-body-is-a-temple kinda girl (very short-lived), that’s how I like it. But…instant? Please.
I actually trained myself to like coffee. Aged around 14, I decided that, since I didn’t drink tea, I didn’t drink fizzy drinks and, at that point, I didn’t even drink wine, I really had better start liking coffee if I didn’t want to survive on a liquid diet of orange juice, ice tea and water for the rest of my life.
At the very least, I’d have an answer to that perennial social question; Tea or Coffee?, and graduate definitively from child to adult. So I made myself a strong, black number with my parents’ coffee machine (permanently set to the ‘on’ position, between the hours of seven am and ten at night) and, inhaling the gorgeously velvet scent which I’d always liked, promptly poured two sticks of white sugar into the thick mixture, stirred, and gulped. Eventually I cut the sugar sticks down to one, and then, under the disapproving eye of my mother, cut it out altogether. By that point, the coffee had begun to taste as aromatic as it smelled, and I had done it. I had opened the floodgates on my love of coffee.
The power of coffee
Coffee – that great uniting force. One of the options offered when meeting new people, entering a room, going for an interview. A stalwart, available in varying qualities whenever travelling, be it by plane or train – the well-known crutch that purports to wake up whole swathes of humanity, and provides the gloriously hot, generally palatable (save a few sad, sad occasions, in which case water will just have to do, or, brace yourselves, in the most desperate occasions, the pallid, sorry beverage that is breakfast tea) oil that makes the cogs of daily life turn round ever more sweetly. With lashings of milk, or dark and bitter – there are as many cups of coffee as there are people, and so accepted is it power that it is uniformly available day and night everywhere you go, as the fuel to your fire, your dash of courage, your ten minute afternoon break, your night-time hug.
Un café-au-lait, s’il vous plait
Coffee, by all accounts, has also been a harbinger of historical, social and political change. What intellectual step forward in the past two to three hundred years has not been attributed to the mysterious ‘coffee-houses’ of the past, the aromatic, exotic halls of creative thought – filled with quick witted gentlemen peppering the air with violent ripostes and timeless truisms; women escaping the gilded cages of their front rooms to meet friends and acquaintances; and later, in the backstreets of Paris, London or Naples, filled with smoking bohemians or impoverished writers making their own lettered journey towards literary greatness and enlightenment, all accompanied by the distinct whiff of early-years coffee. A romantic, not-strictly-historically-correct collective memory of the drink perhaps, but a strong connotation all the same.
Even more recent writing phenomenon J. K. Rowling lent credence to that impoverished-but-coffee-drinking-genius-artist image when she told the true story of how she wrote the first Harry Potter books in a local café, baby in a pram, huddled round one, long cup as she staved off the cold from her unheated flat, and wove tales of wizards and magic under the brown liquid’s caffeine spell. Or something like that, anyway. Coffee certainly played its part, I’d wager – how could it have not?
Coffee: a political tool
And coffee also manages to remain political, as well as a social marker between different groups. One of the easiest ways to dismiss the political seriousness of those pesky protesting scamps under St Paul’s Cathedral late last year was to cuttingly denounce them for popping into the local Starbucks for their morning mocha. Ha, the papers cried, how could they possibly be serious in their indictment of capitalism and bankers’ bonuses, when they continue to patronise the globally-known face of coffee-imbued evil that is Starbucks? I mean, anyone who’s anyone knows that Starbucks isn’t even coffee, right? Pah, these people don’t know their full-bodied, Guatemalan roasts from their apolitical elbows. Shame on them.
Because yes, no self-respecting coffee connoisseur would be seen dead crossing the threshold of one of the five hundred and twenty seven thousand branches of the Seattle-born coffee corporation that currently mushroom on the streets of our once-great capital. (I mean, really, they’re so common that between Charing Cross Station and Embankment Tube you can almost see three of the buggers in a single eyeline. To name but one example! Anyway, I digress.) I admit, I used to agree with this assessment. Want coffee? Avoid Starbucks like the plague. Warming, sociable, friendly, and faux-cool – all sofas and up-to-the-minute, seasonal flavour combinations, I admit, but coffee? Please.
Coffee, such as the pure, unadulterated liquid brown found in only the best Roman espresso bars tucked nonchalantly behind a row of parked Vespas, knocked back by slick-haired Italians on their way to work, does not come in fifteen thousand different flavours or poured plastic vats sullied only by the extra addition of the Frappuccino-cum-vanilla-cum-gingerbread-shortbread-sugar syrup on the top. Oh, and that’ll be half your week’s rent, please. Frankly, you’re only marginally better off with the poorer cousins Nero or a Costa – is it not just basically instant crap plus sugar? Again, please.
Coffee: a social marker
And of course, then there’s the social element of coffee – the middle classes (who I’m very much part of, I’d be the first to admit) who think they’ve cornered coffee and want nothing to do with the shit that comes out of roadside cafés and instant jars (my dilemma, magnified). No, only for them the top-notch stuff that was hand-picked by the ancient Mayan people of the Mexican hillsides and served from the original sackcloth bags over petit-fours at your recent dinner party, without so much as an instant granule or caramel syrup in sight – and in this case, it’s totally OK that it costs the same as your grocery bill. It’s authentic, darling. (I should know, I’ve actually seen the Mexicans doing the picking when on holiday in a coffee-producing region. Oh god, see, what did I say about being very much part of those middle classes? Gah.) Basically – want coffee, I used to think? Your options, frankly are to make it at home or buy it in Italy (or imported from, obviously). End, as they say, of.
The foil of wonder
Indeed, one of the many ways I used to put two fingers up to the stereotypical portrayal of slatternly students in a media that seemed to think we were capable only of surfacing from our drink-induced comas to eat cold baked beans from a can before heading out on another night on the lash (well, maybe some people, but, alas, not me or anyone I know well), was to brew and drink only the best coffee I could afford, in the best way I knew how.
So no, clearly this did not lend itself to a fuck-off, granite-topped kitchen-surface-space hogging machine from the deeper recesses of the John Lewis home section, but it did mean a metal percolator, and finely ground coffee from the Taste the Difference shelf at Sainsbury’s, or, in particularly flush months, the holy grail: the rounded, chrome beacon of fabulousness: the Illy coffee tin. My fellow coffee-loving friend and I would speak of it only in hushed tones, and text each other fervently to let the other know that a New Illy Tin Had Been Purchased.
We would baptise it with a calm opening of the top, hold our breaths while the crisp, unadulterated foil would be pierced, and take turns to smell the sensual aroma emanating from the shining barrel. The first cups, anticipated warmly as the percolator began to bubble softly on the crap student-issued hob, were a delight, and we sniffed and tasted the dark liquid, she with lots of milk, me with only a dash, and sighed as the spectre of the next essay deadline was relegated to the background for another blessed half-hour. When my then-boyfriend gifted me an electric percolator, which, because it had an element which heated up solely from being plugged into the mains, removed the need for me to trek down the grey corridor to the disgusting kitchen and allowed me to make the drink without leaving my room, thereby filling the space with the wonderful smell of just-roasted coffee with only minimal effort, I could not have been happier.
Not my thing
Instant coffee barely registered. In fact, the small, glass tub of the unutterably awful Nescafé that I’d bought on some odd whim in the first term of University followed me around my various student rooms for the entire three years, untouched and unloved; barely opened. The same thing happened with the instant coffee I preparedly bought when I started my long, thankless months of work experience soon after graduating: I found it behind a load of spices in my old flat’s cupboard once I’d moved to London, seized solid to itself in a jar-shaped block after months of non-use. Instant coffee, shall we say, was not my thing.
And then I started work. I tried in vain for several weeks to set up my electric percolator in the evenings so that I could brew fresh coffee when I got up, and have a cup waiting for me when I got out the shower. But the liquid was so hot that I couldn’t begin drinking it until I’d almost finished drying my hair, at which point it was (and still is!) time to leave, so I’d have one too-hot gulp and dash, leaving the remnants of the gorgeous liquid in its little cup, forlorn and forgotten, to stave away in a cooling heap until I got home and sighed, before taking it downstairs to be emptied and washed. Also, while the hit of caffeine I’d get from the espresso definitely propelled me out of the house on the days I managed to inhale some before leaving, so strong was it that by the time I got to work I was either shaking slightly from lack of accompanying food, or wilting as the first hit of the day started to wear off. Neither of these things were the best way to begin already sleepy mornings, so I stopped drinking coffee before I went to work, and the percolator took its still-current place next to my bed, unused and unloved.
Need coffee, now
Because, then I’d get to work, without so much as a sip of water having touched my lips on the huge rush to get out the door before the train leaves the station, and need coffee. Now. Refusing to hand over half my week’s food bill to the aforementioned, money-grabbing coffee-swindling corporations, I was down to the rather feeble, but free, options offered at work. For months I resisted the call of the sorry, red, round, corporate-sized tin of ‘Freeze-Dried Coffee’ that sat chillingly on the far sideboard, and I paced the floor as the marginally superior coffee from the filter dripped its slow way through the doily-like paper into the slightly depressing, office-speak jugs on their acrid metal elements, ready for my first cup of the day (only the first one to three cups from each brew are acceptable; any longer and the coffee becomes less liquid, more mud).
On some days, though, the worst would happen, and I’d get to the office just as the smug early bird-brew sat mockingly in the bottom of the jug, swamp-like and over-hot, totally unsuitable for human consumption, and demanding only one thing – that I put on a new batch. Now, sometimes, this is fine. I duly change the filter; empty the mysterious bag of granules (trying to make sure no-one in authority sees me, lest they think of me as the pre-feminist embodiment of the office coffee-girl, ha) and wait. Some days though, this is the pinnacle of unacceptability. Wait, for my coffee?
Have you no idea how much I procrastinated (or blog-wrote) last night instead of getting my recommended eight hours? You must be crazy.
My downfall is complete
And so, maddeningly, smugly, self-satifyingly, comes the instant coffee. I knew you’d fold eventually, it says, from its plastic, round tub. I knew you’d come for me. Only so long can mere mortals resist the cool convenience, the insatiable speed, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it effervescence of my instantly-melting, freeze-dried granules. Spoon me in, soak me in hot water, I’m yours, baby. And you don’t even have to change the filter.
Oh god, instant coffee, you’ve seduced me in with your wicked ways! I’m a fallen coffee drinker, a slattern of epically caffeinated proportions!
Once I’ve tasted convenience, I can’t go back. I still drink proper coffee every now and again, and was tempted by the smooth wonderfulness of an Americano from ‘Pod’ – the new food outlet popping up all over London – that my colleague brought in, which we both agreed approached coffee heaven. However, at over £2.50 a go, it’s just too steep to justify on a daily basis (£2.50 x5 = £12.50 a week, £50 a month. On coffee. Yeah, exactly).
But it’s gone deeper than that. I’ve actually started to appreciate the sweetness of the instant cup, savouring it with or without milk, enjoying the even-handed predictability of its flavour from the almost-full sprinkling of granules that can be measured from a normal kitchen teaspoon, loving the dreamlike way in which it dissolves under a slew of pleasingly-warmed water from the instant-heating kitchen box, removing even the need to wait for the kettle! Oh Kenco, what have you done to me?!
Weekends are no better. Not for me the halcyon days of the Proper Coffee Cup, when I allowed the Illys or Sainsbury’s Taste the Differences of this world to meander slowly to their full-bodied conclusions of a morning (early afternoon, to be honest, I mean, who the hell are we kidding) when I’ve supposedly got ample time to do so. Only one in every three weeks or so will I even get my caffetiere out, and make a proper go of it (not even a percolator in sight). Nope, I get out my teaspoon, measure a small splattering of those hateful little freeze-dried specks into the mug, and sink the boiled water over them as a cupful of sweet, convenient, quick, coffee-flavoured pleasure materialises before my fickle eyes. And, do you know? I actually quite enjoy it.
Oh sweet, sweet caffeinated Jesus. Where the hell did it all go wrong?