Coffee Memories and the European Experience
It all started when I went to Bregenz, Austria in 1982 on an 8-week summer course from college. Being from Kentucky and having only known coffee as a watery substance that required a lot of cream and sugar to make it palatable, getting my first exposure to the European types of coffee was an experience I hadn't expected.
The apartment that I and a couple of other guys had was in the same building as an Eduscho Cafe on the first floor. It was my first experience with such a stand-up cafe where you went in, got a pastry and cup of coffee for a Schilling or so, and consumed it standing up. No, it wasn't take out, it was a real cup of coffee in a real ceramic cup, and a real spoon to stir it with. You got two cubes of sugar in a paper wrap and a little plastic cup of milk covered by foil. It was "H-milk" meaning it didn't have to be refrigerated.
Eduscho was a popular chain brand back then and the coffee was strong, nothing like the watered-down mop water you got in the states. I thought it tasted amazing. This led me to a newfound fascination with coffee and how good it could taste. It brought me forward to the idea that bitterness is a good taste, a pure taste, a healthy taste, and a clean taste. Even though I did use cream and sugar with it, the taste still had that bite of bitterness that would become a staple of a desirable taste sensation for the rest of my life.
This, of course, led to the Italian coffee types, espresso, and cappuccino, the French Cafe Ole, the Greek coffee later on, and the amazing Swiss Coffees. Later I got a job serving great coffees in the Cafe Creme de la Creme in Rochester, New York after I graduated from Eastman, making cappuccini and espressos from a big beautiful clunky old copper-clad Italian Machine where you had to pump the water into the tanks, and pull down those levers to press the water through the coffee just right to get the coffee essence into the cup before adding the steamed frothy milk which you also did by hand. I became quite good at it, and we had a French Roast coffee there that was to die for. I have yet to find another "Cafe lungo" that was that good.
When I returned to Europe in 1987 as a member of the International Opera Studio at the Zürich Opera House, the coffee binging just went crazy. The "Schümli became my favorite poison then, and the coffee stand at the Bellevue Platz became a place of worship for me. After having dished out Cappuccis at Creme de la Creme in Rochester, New York myself, I had a newfound respect for people who could make perfect cappuccinos. Bellevue Platz in Zürich is right next to the bridge that crosses the Limmat River where it meets the Zürichsee, just a block from the opera house. The Trämli from the Zürichbergstrasse would stop there and I would get off there to have a quick espresso or cappucci before heading off to rehearsals. It was a very high volume stand, and they were slinging coffee like nobody's business. Again, no paper there either. Ceramic cups, real spoons, and awesome coffee. You got a little cookie on your dish as well. Lord, I miss doing that. The varieties of people swirling around there was a broad menagerie of the homo sapien species. There was everything from the bank executive to the penner, from the hot swiss chics to the determined old ladies. People from all over the world, as well as original Swiss, and of course the famous gawking American tourist like me. But, I really wasn't a tourist, I was living there.
The Swiss are well known for several foods. Obviously chocolate, which makes the coffees taste that much better, the cheeses, the baked goods like Käsekuechli, Zwiebelkuechli, Gipfeli, the Cheese Fondue with schnapps, Bircher muesli, Spaghetti Carbonara, that hard fire-baked bread, and the Mövenpick Ice Cream. OMG! I'm sure I'm leaving some out, but that is the list that comes to mind.
So when I made that first fateful night train trip to Bremerhaven, on Saturday, June 13, 1987, to audition, little did I realize that 33 years later I would be writing a blog post about coffee! It was a whirlwind trip. Leaving Zürich at 6:00 p.m., I arrived in Bremerhaven at about 8:00 a.m. with nowhere to go but, you guessed it, McDonald`s. American coffee again, but it actually wasn`t, it was pretty good as I remember it.
However, I didn`t spend the night in Bremerhaven, I got back on the train with my first full-time opera singing contract in hand and took the night train back to Zürich.
The coffee part of the story begins when I went back up to Bremerhaven to look for an apartment. I stayed at a Pensione, (pronounced pen si own eh) and when I went to breakfast the next morning, they brought me Ein Kännchen Kaffee! I poured it into my cup and poured in a bit of this rather tan looking cream, and a lump of sugar, and proceeded to drink it. It tasted completely different to all of the other coffees I had had up to that point. It was strong but had sort of an off taste to it that is difficult to describe. While not a great fan of this type of coffee, it made a lasting impression on me over the years and became a part of my taste experiences that recall the amazing life I led in Germany.
The other coffee oddity that was prevalent back then was getting a cappuccino in an Italian restaurant in Bremerhaven, that featured instead of steamed milk, had whipped cream on top. My experience with the Viennese Schlagobers had yet to be established, so I was a bit confused about Italians making Cappuccis that weren´t Italian. I found that the whipped cream cooled the coffee down too much and made it too sweet, for my taste anyway. But, I became accustomed to the practice and accepted it going forward.
Admittedly, this post is about coffee, but the other thing that sort of rocked my boat in Bremerhaven was my first experience with the 7 minute Pils. Of course in Bremerhaven, the standard brew was Becks. It is a typically herb tasting bitter beer that has the bracing elements of being served cold, had that incredible golden clear color, and was incredibly tasty upon first exposure. I`ll never forget walking into that Kneipe in Bremerhaven, sitting at the bar, which was in a square around the middle of the restaurant, and ordering ´´ein kleines´´. I waited, waited, waited, and waited. I asked the lady tending bar if she had forgotten my order upon which she smiled at me saying `Nein, ich mache es richtig für Sie!``. A few minutes later she puts down the Bierdeckel and in an elegant little 0,2 ml Becks Bier flute was the perfect beer. Golden with a real head of schaum, dripping down the outside, and the paper doily around the stem. It tasted fresh, clean, flavorful that began my complete disdain for American beer, of which all were a sad attempt at an art form that I began to appreciate as much as coffee.
I feel true sadness for people who have not experienced some of the foods and tastes I have and I am sad that I have not experienced more myself. You see, good food and drink really are a sign of civilization. They are a sign that people care enough to take the time to make beautiful things for human consumption, and not just bland, throw it in your face hash.
Cooking, picking and making good drinks, delicate desserts, and fine dining show respect for a quality of life, and not the gluttony of quantity. Yes it takes time and things of quality are a bit more expensive, but the question is, it is our bodies and our souls which are the benefactors of eating well and growing the techniques of the Cucina.
That bitter German coffee with evaporated/condensed milk out of a can are not among my favorite things, but it recalls the times when new experiences became a constant source of joy, and the memories that come from them will always remain in my soul.