A hands-on experience

(Earlier in the year, I entered the CBC Nonfiction Competition. I didn’t win, so I am allowed to post my entry here now.)

It is Tuesday morning, it is sunny, and we are downtown. We are sitting in Gusto Italiano, at the bottom of the street from our end of campus. Our server carefully hands us our drinks and I smile; table service feels like a rare luxury. This place is what would hopefully become my sixth ‘fieldwork’ site, and I quietly relish the fact that I am at liberty to while away whole afternoons guzzling espresso in a pleasant cafe, all under the guise of research. Gusto Italiano is run by a slim, slightly harassed-looking woman named Esterina. She runs the place with her partner, and between them they serve coffee, bake and prepare lunches, forcefully organize the other servers and baristas, manage all the unseen parts of cafe life, all the while maintaining an impeccably neat and impossibly stylish Italian attire and demeanor.

It was my friend Anna who introduced me to the place, praising first the convenient location on route to the Geography department, but then also the quality of the coffee. I was not convinced at first. I am skeptical of places who advertise ‘genuine Italian coffee’ – Italy is a long way away, after all – but this place won me over. It’s a bit pricey in here, but you are paying for the ambiance, the Italian-ness, and the perceived sophistication as well as the coffee.

But coffee grows in the tropics! Latin America, the top of Africa, India, South Asia, Indonesia. How did coffee become Italian? The caffeine in my drink attaches to adenosine receptors in my brain, blocking my natural fatigue from a late night study session, sharpening my thought processes and focusing my mind. I imagine coffee connections snaking out across my imaginary globe, linking up like synapses. I am a British ex-pat in Canada, sitting in an Italian-style coffee shop, with my Polish friend. The coffee is made on an imported Italian espresso machine but roasted in a German-designed roaster. At a guess, it was imported from a Central American cooperative and the huge plantations in Brazil, through the brokerage in Seattle, before being blended together by experts at the roasting company. Before it even got there, it underwent one of the most complicated production processes of any foodstuff we consume so regularly, and so thoughtlessly.

How many hands have touched the beans that formed my smooth, yet beautifully bitter espresso? Long before I ordered it, an impoverished family in the volcanic Nicaraguan highlands tended their tiny crop of Arabica coffee trees, patiently investing four years of care before the trees even bore their first fruit. Each coffee cherry would have been picked by hand – usually, the children’s hands as theirs are smaller and more nimble, adept at picking only the ripest fruit from the tree.  Then, the skin and fruit flesh have to be removed. More hands, those of strong young men, crank the wheel on a ‘dispulpadora’, a loud, heavy machine that squashes and crushes and pops the precious seeds out of the fruit.

Wet, wrinkled and icy cold hands immersed in acidic, sickly-sweet water wash the last layer off the coffee, the sticky mucilage. The beans, bucketed, are allowed to ferment for a day or so after their violent bath. The stench and the humidity on the farm during harvest season are suffocating for the uninitiated. The sweetened run-off water soon drains into the soil, the acidic coffee-fruit juices stripping away nutrients from the earth. Next year’s harvest will be smaller.

The coffee bakes in the sun, drying to a mustard-yellow colour. The hands of the whole farming family help scoop it into rough burlap sacks and heave them into the back of an ancient truck where a large sow, also destined for the city market, sprawls on the sacks and suns herself on the way down the mountain.

The next process removes the dry, cracked parchment skin that surrounds the coffee beans themselves. The yellowing beans are spread out on huge concrete patios, where men pace up and down, walking barefoot on the hot coffee gravel, rakes in their calloused hands and their shirts tied around their heads to block the harsh sun. They rake the beans in lines, rhythmically scratching the ground, turning them over and over, line after line, hour after hour, to make sure they dry evenly.

In a dusty hut to the side of the beach-like patios and shaded by a thatched roof, thirty women sit on narrow benches, with unending piles of beans in front of them. Here, they pick out the bad beans: broken ones, rotten ones, beans that are too misshapen, beans that haven’t dried properly, beans with the boreholes of coffee weevils. Their keen eyes and quick fingers are their only tools. Their work is vital for the coffee’s quality – one bad bean can spoil the two-dozen next to it. And if the quality isn’t high, neither is the price they’ll receive. But it is so meticulous a process, so labour-intensive. I watched the women’s hands dance over the pile: cup, spread, scan, snip up between two fingers and deftly flick away a bad one; repeat. They handle all the beans that come through the cooperative’s mill, not just the crop from a single farm. Thousands upon thousands of beans, every day. 

“Couldn’t this be mechanized?” I asked, naively. “Isn’t there some sort of machine that could sort the beans for them?”

The coffee mill’s foreman shrugs. “But then thirty people would lose their jobs,” he replied.

More bags. Bags being weighed, sealed, stamped with the quality assurances, Fair Trade certification marks, farms of origin, coffee varietals, date codes. To be warehoused until traded, then exported, by truck, by boat, or even by train. Tiny batches of the coffee are roasted on site and brewed in a makeshift laboratory, ground up and spooned into a series of identical white bowls. Someone gently pours hot water over the grounds and the steam rises. Several noses sniff the rising fragrance, hands cup the wide bowls, and large spoons break the crust of coffee grounds that form on top of the unfiltered liquid. Spoons are brought to eager mouths to test, and the noise of each participant’s inhalation of the brew echoes around the sparse, sterile lab. This is called ‘cupping’ – the main form of coffee testing and quality control -yet no cups are involved. A better name would be ‘The Great Slurping’. Those hands scribble notes, and eventually, consensus is reached. White hands shake brown ones. Papers are signed and stamped. Bags are exchanged for dollars.  (Not many dollars.)

The coffee is now in North America. A master roaster with forty years’ in the job behind him shovels the hard, musty-smelling and now blue-green beans into his polished brass Diedrich roaster. His small switch ignites the gas flame inside the massive drum chamber. He steps back as the machine rumbles into action, listening attentively for the first crack. After only a few minutes, pops and snaps, loud, stark and irregular emerge from the drum. He pokes a narrow spout into a peephole in the top of the roaster and collects a few beans. It is dim and hazy around the roaster, but so much practice has given him an expert eye.  After checking them carefully, he throws them back in. Not yet… not yet. And then, the second crack: much tinier noises this time, but more frantic; like stepping on bubble wrap more than making popcorn. Always work fifteen seconds ahead, he asserts. The margin for error is minute.

Yet more bags, containing smaller and smaller volumes of coffee. These ones are vacuum sealed to keep the flavours and aromas in, but the air that degrades them so quickly, out. The beans have now assumed the familiar, shiny brown appearance, and a colourful array of branding and logos adorns their packaging. In Gusto Italiano, Esterina snips open the top of a large foil-lined bag and carefully pours it into the hopper on top of the grinder. It whirs into life, grinding only as much as is required for the two drinks we just ordered.

A barista in a crisp white shirt takes over, balancing his portafilter – the heavy steel handle that holds the coffee grounds and slots into the espresso machine – under the grinder until it fills with the correct dose of coffee. He tamps it skillfully, compressing the small circle of ground coffee using a sturdy weighted plug that disperses the pressure evenly. The handle is swiftly clipped into place, and he presses the double shot button. The machine forces water through the compacted coffee grounds, exactly 98͒° Celcius, exactly 15 bars of pressure, to produce one 30ml shot of espresso. The liquid slides elegantly towards the waiting shot glass, faster than a dribble, gentler than a squirt. The two trails of espresso look like mouse tails, dangling out of the machine. Meanwhile, the barista is steaming the milk, cradling his small jug in one hand, and controlling the flow of steam with the other. He no longer needs a thermometer to know when it is ready. He can hear the change in sounds of the milk forming a miniature tornado in the jug: at first a loud and gurgling tantrum, raging against the heat of the steam. Then, as it thickens it acquiesces, the protein molecules stretch and relax, and the noise dulls to a mere hiss. The barista knocks the jug on the worktop a few times to remove the few remaining air bubbles. He tops the espresso in my cup with the milk, remembering the tilt the cup, not the jug. The stark contrast between caramel-coloured espresso crema and the white milk produces beautiful patterns. Anna gets a heart. I get what I assume is a feather design. It looks a little phallic.

This morning I came in here to meet Anna. As usual, she was late to arrive, but Gusto Italiano is the sort of place anyone can lounge around in for hours, staring at the pretty lattes and pretty people. I tried not to draw attention to the fact that I wasn’t spending any money while I waited for her but then bought her the latte, just to be on the safe side. She looked appreciative.

Anna, being her typical, inimitable self, really likes Gusto Italiano. The first time we came here, she immediately adopted the manageress and yabbered away in fluent Italian about the merits of Italian wine, and I remember thinking, where did she learn Italian? Today, however, she just poked me affectionately with her umbrella, giggled a lot and invited me to help devour a huge chunk of genuine Italian chocolate cake. Italian Chocolate cake.  Chocolate does not grow in Italy either, nor Canada. Anna licks chocolate ganache off her finger, and I start to wonder about the story behind cocoa beans. The coffee cup gradually grows cold in my hands.