Friday, 15 February 2008

parvus est...

in a world where we are constantly exhorted to super-size, persuaded that bigger is most definitely better, i feel its high time to come out and plead the case for the humble, small cappuccino – you remember small, it came in a cup, with good deep foam and a rich creamy taste; not tall or the preposterous grande in a cumbersome mug or bucket, all milky, weak and insipid…when did we start getting super-sized on our coffee, as well as everything else???

once upon a time nero (who claim to be italian) regularly served a small cappuccino, ‘eat’ offered 3 sizes, small, tall and grande, prĂȘt had only one size and it was mercifully small for a takeaway cup, and kro somewhat reluctantly served a cup instead of a huge mug if you asked nicely. i cant claim to know what starbucks served then or now, but i’m guessing from what i see in the streets that they pioneered the demise of the small option. anyway the thing was, it wasn’t hard work to purchase the simple classic coffees – cappuccino, espresso, latte if you wanted something a bit longer. it might sound slightly pedantic but its all about the ratio with coffee; coffee is based on the rule of thirds. espresso, short, black and intense; cappuccino, essentially an espresso with a third of milk and a third of dense foam; latte, an espresso with two thirds milk, swirl of foam…simple formula, perfect every time.

then something went horribly wrong, and cups disappeared, swiftly followed by any ‘small’ option - pop into one of the countless coffee emporiums in the city and try to spot the word small on the ever more complicated menus. you won’t find it, its simply gone, been erased, rubbed out…it might seem a tiny thing and not worth getting ‘het’ up about, but it’s symptomatic of a much greater problem and i have had to start boycotting all outlets that have infuriatingly expunged the classic cappuccino from our collective consciousness. suddenly coffee sizes start with ‘tall’ or the euphemistic ‘regular’, increasing to the gargantuan ‘grande’ -the inevitable pail of milky, vile slop. obviously this self imposed embargo is presently only inconveniencing me, but all great social/political movements have to start somewhere!

those age-old proportions are crucial – if my first fix isn’t sufficient, i can just ask for a second cup. drinking a giant version isn’t the answer; sometimes quality is more important than quantity. plus, like eating out, it's really about the ritual, the occasion, and the aesthetics of cup, saucer, tiny teaspoon and even the tiny biscotti on the side. its all part of the essential difference between making a big old thirst-quenching cuppa at home and paying for someone else to make you the perfect beverage that you would never bother to replicate in your kitchen.

this particular bee in my bonnet has only been exacerbated by my recent visit to rome, where coffee is always served one way – small and perfectly formed. coffee in rome is everywhere. it’s the home of coffee and they know their stuff. like their pizzas the secret is to keep it simple – the margarita, in england merely the base for a dizzying array of complicated, absurd ingredients, is in italy centre stage, embellishment – free. so it is with coffee, where even my innocuous vice of a small cappuccino after lunch is viewed as a milky over-indulgence!

coffee in rome is a revelation. sold to britons as a cultural indicator of urbanity and sophistication, served by specially qualified ‘baristas’ who like vidal sassoon stylists only create their complicated masterpieces after years of intense training, with not much change from a fiver, in rome it is truly democratic, served in tiny corner shops that look like tobacconists in miles platting, by men who could easily turn their hand to the plumbing or rustle up the local delicacy of fried offal in equal measure. its handed to you in double quick time no matter how many trillions of other romans are huddled up by the counter also quaffing espressos and snacking on a mini croissant or sandwich, and its drunk there and then at the ‘bar’. no seats, no take outs…just drink and go. it’s a joy and at under a euro incredibly cheap.

i realise i’m back home now and none of the above rules apply, but i’d just like a classic cappuccino in a small cup. we are in danger of drowning in a sea of overpriced, super-sized brown liquid, as the big chains cluster the city, opening more and more branches but offering less and less quality or choice, dominating the high street with bigger and ever stranger pseudo coffees. in the process they invariably see off the local independent, increasing the rapid homogenization of our city, and diminishing its unique character, what little is left of it.

perhaps oklahoma is the only place in town to get a real, small coffee. elsewhere there is loading bay behind sandbar, but everyone else has sized up, it seems, scared of the big boys coffee breath on their necks. wise up, people, actual coffee might be close to extinction…

No comments: