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Monday, 23 November 2020

A Potted History of Coffee and Me

My coffee is always black. I grind the beans every morning, and have two large cups of whatever bean I have in the cupboard. I'm drinking an Italian blend at present, which is smokey, choclatey and with a superb balance of sweet and bitter tones . Occasionally I'll buy the already ground stuff. This is the result of, after being brought up on sixties and seventies cuisine, the cuisine that built the empire and then sunk it again,  finding out since the eighties that I have things called tastebuds.

And nowadays real coffee is as common as builders, tea (which I have also drank, stewed in a teapot on a gas ring, whilst shivering in a dusty, muddy, raucous temporary building on a few building sites in my life... After lifting flag stones, mixing cement or priming planks, those sandwiches washed down by strong tea really did always taste better than any three course meal).

At my current work, I drink black tea, or at lunchtime nip out to the local drive through Starbucks, which serves coffee that is head and shoulders above the odd brown, dishwater like stuff we used to get in cafés and kitchens in this country.

Except, of course, for the milky coffees Italian cafés used to serve. We had two of those in Banbridge, Fuscos's and Scappaticci's, who also served amazing Ice cream. Fusco's had incredible murals, on the walls - scenes of Mr Fusco's old country.
{Mrs Fusco and friend in front of some of tge Majestic Café murals} 

 Jovial, friendly, proud Mr Fusco, dressed in his white or grey cotton over coat, mixed the ice cream with ash precariously hanging off the end of the feyg balanced between his lips ... Smoking wasn't part of the rigourous health and safety regime he went through as he approached closing time. Cigarettes were part of being human. An appendage as important as a finger or a nose, or a good cup of frothy, milky coffee. If some of that ash ended up on your plate, you pushed it uncomplaining, to the side of your plate.
Some of my early memories are going in to Fusco's with mum, after shopping, having proper chips with vinegar and that chippy vinegary tomato sauce, and then an icecream float or knickerbocker glory while studying the scenes of Italy on the walls. I didnt know Fusco other than from the other side of his always friendly counter, but I went to his funeral with my dad, as he was part of my childhood and teenaged years. A decent, welcoming, friendly man who kept a great café. 

{Mr Angelo Fusco and Mrs Rosa Forte Fusco

Scappaticci's had great chips, icecream (though not just as good as Fusco, though close) and a juke box. These things mattered. Large coffee chains, play piped, coffee shop music, and all have a degree of interior design that reminds you you are in plastic Seattle, but have neither beautiful murals, or a jukebox that ranges from punk to Jim Reeves. We need another Italian invasion like the one that brought us Mr Fusco, and the Scappaticci's. 

I was thinking about the years I worked in  Down Shoes (Lotus Shoes, or as we referred to it, "The Shoe Factory). I used to drink this stuff out of a machine which was called "coffee" according to the button you pressed after inserting the proper change. Ten cups of it a day. Going to the machine, which was by a wall and two doors that intersected the Bottoms section, the Assembly, the Closing room, the offices and the Shoeroom, was an excuse to get away from the desk. And I suppose I was addicted to the stuff. It may not have tasted anything like the coffee I know of as coffee today, but they had, in the process of making the stuff that went in to the machine, managed to keep the caffiene in. Basically it was hot, brown and it had a taste that if someone had have said to me was essence of rotting wood, I would have had no good reason not to believe it. If someone, on their turn to go to the machine, bought you tea by mistake, it was difficult to taste the difference. Tea didn't taste like tea either. It was probably less rotten rotting wood. I remember the price rising to a round ten pence... We were outraged (remember those days when you'd have a ton of loose change in your pocket ?). Our water cooler moments were at this brown stuff dispenser, and I met at least three girls there I went on to have a fling with, once I knew what time their "line" had a break. And on Saturday morning overtime days, the morning after the Friday night before, it was a hangover cure. Not an amazingly brilliant one. Not one you'd swear by, but one into which you'd pump a good quid of that overtime. 

At home, when I lived with mum and dad, the coffee of choice was Maxwell House, or Douwe Egberts Gold. Those where the days when I drank milk. Drinking these odd almost inaccurate facsimiles of coffee black, really is not far from that strange brew back in the eighties and early nineties from that machine we slagged off, but really was a rotting pearl of joy in our long factory days.

Why don't we have taste museums? The development of what became coffee, really has happened in my lifetime, though before the invention of instant, surely people drank the real stuff? Its an extraordinary devolution of a beautifully rich, and luxurious drink (before my lifetime), and then its re-emergence (during my lifetime) is a history much more important than that of the much studied and discussed Classic Coke, New Coke thing. It really must have its origin in a consumer culture focused on price and speed rather than quality and factory, reconstituted, easy packed and stored mass production. Imagine classes of children tasting little thimbles of Shoe Factory caffienated  rotting wood, moving on to Mellow Birds or Camp and then an expresso from an amazing italian blender? Every morning I'm glad to be on the other side of the odd history of coffee in the industrial UK as I drink the best part of my breakfast.

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