A few years after we’ve broken up and after she’s returned to her native China, I got a message from my ex-girlfriend, T: Haven’t we been to this Gran Canaria food restaurant? Lol.
A memory of my reluctance to brew our morning coffee leaps up at me as I shake a barely measured amount of pre-ground Starbucks medium roast into a French press, waiting for water to boil in a plastic electric kettle.
The morning I didn’t want to make our coffee, I just wanted to lean against the wall facing the small, slanted window in T’s attic apartment in Madrid and watch her take charge like always. We called her place the barco because its low, exposed wooden beams made us feel like we were in the hull of a ship. I was too tall for the place and had to walk around carefully so as not to knock myself out and duck to enter her bedroom which was just beyond the kitchen. T was the tiny captain.
But T asked me to make our morning coffee, said she wanted to see how I’d do it. I didn’t want to, but she’d laid it all out for me: scale with a timer, thermometer, a choice of Aeropress or a pour over, maybe a Hario V60, a Hario hand grinder and a beautifully designed bag of specialty coffee beans which had been roasted within the optimal two-week window. This was science, precision, chemistry. I needed caffeine in my system before I could start to think about the math of extraction times. This felt like a test.
I didn’t want to brew the coffee. I didn’t want to mess it up.
Through T, I learned to appreciate the art of exquisite fresh coffee, and after she left I chose to go back to what’s not as good. This “stale” coffee has a pleasant but dry coffee punch. A door has been slammed on all those other notes I learned to pick out, and its taste is hollow.
When it is freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee blooms. The scent is wet. Hot water releases carbon dioxide and bubbles froth up in the brew. What does earthy mean? I could feel heaviness like wet earth and chocolate, and there was almost the moisture of overripe fruit when we’re grinding the beans.
There were no fights or fireworks in our breakup. Spain refused to offer her a work VISA after her student VISA ended, and she was too disheartened after talking to lawyers for months and making her case to unsympathetic bureaucrats to keep fighting. We’d met through a mutual friend in Madrid in 2014. I was doing long distance with a girlfriend I’d left back in Houston, and the first time T bounced into my friend’s kitchen I was wrapping up a Skype call with her. T had more energy than anyone I’d ever met, pinging around the kitchen and delighting in talking about food and coffee. She made a big impression on me that day, and I stayed too long with them so that I ended up missing my bus back to Murcia, a city in the south of Spain where I’d gotten work teaching English. The next year, she’d come down for a music concert with our friend, and they’d sleep on the floor of my tiny room. I was newly single in the spring and shared my goal of staying out of a relationship for a while. They talked about hooking up with people at the concert, and T lamented that it was only ever men who hit on her, saying she didn’t fly her bisexual flag very high. Something bolted in my brain, and I began to look for hints of interest in our future messages.
Following T’s Gran Canaria text was a screenshot of a post from Gofio, a Canary Islands restaurant in the heart of Madrid, giving enthusiastic thanks for their first Michelin star. On our first visit, we sat facing each other at a little table on the right near the entrance and kept our legs tangled together. T was always impressing me with new places, and I was happy to follow her lead. She had an ability to know a city better than its own locals. I remember the skinny room’s clean white lines, wooden paneling and a mural of a cactus painted on the back wall and seeing the chef, Safe Cruz, walk outside for cigarette breaks. He looked Brooklyn as all get out in a wide brimmed baseball cap, and we praised their papas arrugadas, small potatoes roasted and salted until their skin was wonderfully wrinkled and a little crispy, which are eaten with a slightly spicy mojo rojo, a really welcome bit of kick within Spain’s tame flavor palate. I swell with the memory and take pride that we loved the place years before it got its star. That we had the good taste enough to recognize its excellence. It’s important to me to have good taste.
- * : “A very good restaurant in its category” (Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie)
- ** : “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (Table excellente, mérite un détour)
- *** : “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage).
I don’t want to care so much, but I value this Michelin star enough to look up its origins. As food and coffee guided every one of our travels together worth a detour and worth a special journey remind me of our first date.
We did not know it was a date (I was hopeful). We booked a twenty something euro flight to Milan for a weekend to visit a café designed by Wes Anderson, Bar Luce. I’d joked about flying to Milan just to see a café on Facebook, and T had sent me a private message asking if I really wanted to go. When we started emailing about it, one of us jokingly called it a honeymoon trip, and the possibilities felt wide open. It was a whim of a reason to visit a city, and after the budget airline’s inexplicably delayed plane, a five hour wait, a canceled flight, and an unexpected free night in a fancy new airport hotel, I was able to shift our friendship into romance.
It was not a carefully planned trip; the airbnb I’d booked was farther out of the city than I thought, and one of their twin IKEA beds collapsed under our shared weight. We got so lost looking for Bar Luce (it actually sits within the Prada Foundation) that we arrived after closing and were only able to take a selfie standing up on a window ledge in the glow of their neon sign. T had to fly back to Madrid for work on Monday, but I worked part time so I was able to stay one extra day and have coffee and lunch at the cafe, admiring their pastel chairs and soft palette. A Prada suit who worked for marketing came over, flirting, and curious as to why I was there. He said I looked very zingara, not finding the word in either Spanish or English, gitana, gypsy.
I was unable to give a very sophisticated assessment of their coffee, saying it was good and detailing more about their décor and teacup design. As a poet, I like to interrogate where physical objects come from, and I’ve always had a problem with collecting too many little things. I’m a gatherer, and physical objects act as little anchors of memory to remind me where I’ve been. I keep a dead spider in a 1.5 oz. mini jam jar I pocketed in a hotel in Paris. The dead spider is also French, but he died on a windowsill up near the German border. Cause of death: unknown. Why I’ve kept it after five years: also unknown. I’ve been called a hoarder, but being connected to a place through an object makes me feel connected to the world. Aside from a general feeling of like and dislike, I’d never paused to consider what was in a cup beyond how much it cost and its temperature.
T was deep into Madrid’s exploding coffee culture and on my next few visits, my initiation into the world of cupping began. The Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel and the shades of meaning in the Roaster’s Dictionary gave me my visual buzz, but it was harder to unfold and pay attention to the different physical territories being stimulated on my tongue. A flavor profile paid attention to what was going on at the back of the throat separate from the tip of the tongue, a kind of awareness I found hard to interpret. What was I tasting and feeling on the sides of my tongue in contrast to underneath it? I began listening to coffee podcasts and reading articles like “Building Cupping Skills with Triangulation.” I learned what a flat white was.
The first time someone asked if I could taste plum, I thought they were joking, but fruit is actually not far off from many of the flavors that unfold in these coffees. It wasn’t just the taste of plum flavoring (like the difference between eating an actual banana and having banana laffy taffy), like “plum” would translate into candy, it was like the silky, silty body of the plum and the plum flesh and the way meat is kind of like jelly on your tongue, different from the crisp structure of an apple, but not as gooey or matte as a banana.
Talking tastes and palates was such a clutch backdrop for the unfolding of our new relationship. The science of it was satisfying, and I began to know the terrain of the tongue and could feel where acidity and mellowness were perceived. I was wooed by the aesthetics of coffee culture: the curves of glass brewing accoutrements, the well-made leather aprons, espresso machines with the sleek appeal of old Cuban cars. Being in specialty coffee cafes made me feel fancy and artistic. There was a strange, shabby wealth to the exposed brick of stripped back walls and hundred-year-old beams, neon lights against polished concrete or rough white walls.
Without Michelin stars to guide us, we would pilgrimage to any and all places that promised to roast their own beans, seeking out The Loaf in San Sebastian, Satan’s Corner and Casa Bonay in Barcelona, and Hola Coffee and Hanso in Madrid. Too many cafes in Madrid. My first real introduction came from Enrique of Cafés Guayacán in Madrid, who showed me my first green coffee beans.
I had no idea what coffee looked like before it was black coffee in my cup. In a loving flourish you could see had been practiced many times, he held out his cupped palms and showed us two different green beans. The green of a coffee bean is a soft mossy green. In one hand, the green beans were plump and smooth, and in the other, they were slightly paler and had fine, light cracks like dry lips. He wanted us to see the difference between fresher beans and older ones before we even got to roasting. He took us back behind the counter, back to the back room where the roaster stood taller than a person. He kept a dizzying amount of data on a computer screen hooked up to the roaster and was able to track how varying roasting times affected the coffee’s flavor profiles.
When Enrique turned on the machine, huge paddles shifted through the beans to give them an even roast, and the smell of popcorn filled the little room. Before the first pop, he explained the “first crack” as the beans’ shells responded to heat, and he removed a couple beans out of a sample slot to check their progress. They were a shiny brown about the color of my own skin, much lighter than I had ever seen roasted coffee. There would be a second crack, and the roasting beans would start to smell more and more like the coffee we recognized, but with a heavier, wetter scent.
T had such an obvious passion that roasters and brewers were always inviting her behind the counter, and we joked that she could get behind any counter in under ten minutes. I was envious of her obvious ease with winning people over. I’d always been on the shyer side and would never have dreamed of asking so many questions or slipping beyond that barrier between customer and barista. We traveled to Hornillos de Eresma in Valladolid, Spain, flat green farmland that reminded me of my native Texas and somewhere I certainly never would have visited on my own. There we visited a gorgeous roasting space converted from an old barn which housed Puchero’s roasting operation, and the owners put us up for the night.
As part of this couple, I was folded into a special world, and there were enough lesbian couples on the scene to make us feel part of a lovely little club. There was the couple with the café slash video rental space in the north of Madrid, and the women with a special coffee booth in Valencia’s classically tiled old market. We were especially fond of a lesbian-owned restaurant called La Berenjena (The Eggplant) where one woman worked front of house taking orders and the other was the chef. I began to see a future for us in this world, but I felt unable to fall into it entirely. Adjacent to the world of better coffee was better cheese, better eggs, better bread, and we got delicious loaves from a place called Panic (playing on bread in Spanish, pan) where they sold out every day to long lines of people and took reservations for loaves. Everything better was more expensive, and I read glossy spreads in magazines about artisans doing the heroic work of bringing us back to land and craft. I enjoyed reading their stories, and their narratives were all surprisingly similar. For many of these artisans, there was an almost religious need to convert people to these new ways of appreciation. They claimed that the quality of many Spanish staples had lapsed during Spain’s Civil War and people got used to subpar coffee, bread, you name it. There was almost a moral quest or crusade to return people to an ability to appreciate good products. In the world of coffee, this was specifically a fight against torrefacto coffee, coffee which is roasted with sugar, originally as a way to give an extra layer of protection against oxidization and give it a longer shelf life. The anti torrefacto line was so hard that I heard again and again how it would give you cancer, despite the fact that the only scientific study I could find found that it actually had more antioxidants that other roasts and that none of the sugar ended up in the final coffee.
There was a snobbish extremism to a lot of the coffee talk, and the price between normal grocery store coffee and specialty coffee leapt up as much as ten times; you can pay anywhere from eight to fifteen euros for a bag of nice beans instead of one to two euros. I made 700 euros a month teaching children English in three spread out, rural schools. My smallest school had three classrooms. When the wind went wrong, the stench of rotting melon or new fertilizer coated the throat. My experience of actually seeing the fields in Murcia was difficult to romanticize, but I did want to visit coffee growers as many roasters talked about. I had my reservations. In Murcia around my schools, the dynamics between the migrant workers mainly coming from Morocco reminded me of bad relationships between Mexican farmworkers and racists in Texas.
I could taste a huge difference in their coffee. There was a depth of flavor, a general nuttiness or funky fullness that other coffee didn’t have, but it was not the end of the world if I also enjoyed a “regular” cup of coffee. I kind of did like it just fine. I liked “stale” pre-ground coffee the way I liked double stuffed Oreos or a Snickers after a long day of teaching Spanish kindergarteners. Of course I understood intellectually that some Michelin chocolate mousse made from carefully produced cocoa nibs and organic cream would be “better,” but I also know exactly now a Snickers or Coke will taste and how satisfying that reliability is, as well as its cheapness. I was often out of money by the end of the month, and we were consistently paid weeks late but forbidden from accepting outside work. After I picked up illegal tutoring gigs, I’d hit a fruit shop on my way home and buy fresh produce and dates.
Before moving to Spain, I drank my coffee black because I thought that was the way writers were supposed to like it, and I did brew it in a pour over but without any sort of understanding of what process yielded the most caffeine or flavor. I never took sugar in my coffee, but many of the specialty coffee crew would mock customers who asked for sugar or they would keep the sugar behind the counters so that people had to ask for it and could be persuaded to try the brew “pure” first. Sugar was the damning mark of people who didn’t know how to enjoy real coffee, who didn’t know how to understand and read the complex flavors of real coffee. People who didn’t match grind size with extraction method or care about the temperature of their brewing water.
A friend who lived in Addis Ababa brought me a bag of green coffee beans like the people there buy at their normal grocery stores. In Ethiopia, it was customary to roast the beans freshly for each new cup, so ordering a cup of coffee has much more of a ritual to it. He said it was usually a woman who roasted the beans over an open flame in front of you, and then the coffee would be ground and brewed immediately. I’ve since read that having a more business oriented younger population means that this tradition is being pushed aside for the more instant gratification of preground and roasted coffee.
When I was asked directly about what notes I tasted in a cup of special coffee, I felt like a fraud. People talked about melon and brazil nuts, but I only seemed to be able to pick out these flavors after they were suggested to me. I liked the coffee, but I wondered if part of wanting to be part of that world was about signaling my good taste and value to people I wanted to impress? What would I drink alone?
After watching a few videos, I took a small skillet and roasted my green beans. I jumped at the first crack but smiled too as the unmistakable smell of popcorn enveloped the kitchen. My roasting job was not delicious, there was something slightly raw and like a chestnut to the thin brew that I ended up making, but it was my roast.
At their best, these baristas and roasters cared deeply about the red coffee cherries and their obsession stemmed from wanting to do right by the raw materials. It came from loving the thing itself, the bean itself, the little red cherry, and the long journey that it takes to become a dark black cup, moving from red cherry to green bean to a whole rainbow of deep tans and browns.
In the end, T hadn’t been home in over two years, and what she’d been reading about the specialty coffee scene in China intrigued her, and she also talked about visiting growers in Vietnam. At a certain point, she realized she needed to go back even if it felt wrong to be forced back. She was not going to try to do that kind of long distance, she said, and I didn’t offer to try and follow her.
Helping her pack was a ridiculously difficult task as she tried to make an impossible amount fit into two large suitcases. I got a tiny skillet and sleek scale and many beautifully designed coffee magazines. We ended up leaving one tub of belongings with friends who owned a café, along with her beloved skateboard which she would have to return for. At the airport we cried and then tried not to, looking away from one another and talking about anything other than separation until we cried again. T decided to walk through security early to save on more tears, and on my way back to the barco I got off the metro early, so I’d have an hour and a half to walk and think before I got to our empty bed.
I can barely remember that I did make the coffee that morning. What I remember more was the conversation that wound itself around those empty glasses where I said I wasn’t going to use the timer or weigh the beans. Maybe I did wait until the water hit the optimum temperature, and I did appreciate the way the coffee grounds bloomed up, but I wasn’t into precision brewing before caffeine was in my system. It wasn’t quite an argument, but for a brief moment we felt incomprehensible to one another. Why would I willingly not try to make the best cup I could?