Friday, May 27, 2011

La gente del cafe/"coffee people" -- or, how to make tolerable espresso in a cheap "made in China" pot

You know you've been in Guatemala long enough (or have been listening to Guatemalan commercial radio enough) when, on a trip to the US, you are still hearing, with your inner ear, the omnipresent and frequently repeated advertisements that seem to take up 20 minutes of every half hour on Guatemalan radio.  When I was in the states recently for my daughter's graduation, I kept hearing some of the most annoying ads ever, like the one for chicken, that has an oh-so-bouncy female voice singing the praises of "pollo, pollo, pollo". 
Another ad (thankfully bereft of upbeat singing) proclaims that all Guatemalans are "coffee people".  This may or may not be true. People in rural areas drink coffee, when they have it, from childhood through old age, and frequently drink it late at night, apparently with little ill effect (but it is mostly so weak that it can't have that much caffeine in it).
Here in Antigua, I can satisfy my craving for espresso-based beverages, although they are pretty costly.  Back early in my stay, I stopped at Cemaco, a moderately upscale housewares store, to buy, among other things, a stovetop espresso pot. Although I had been warned against purchasing the less expensive, "made in China" pot, the price differential was irresistible. However, it did not seem to produce drinkable coffee. Or any coffee at all, at first. I filled the base with water, scooped coffee into the basket, screwed on the top - and then watched most of the steam seep out the sides and top, leaving only a few bitter and burnt drops of espresso in the top half of the pot.
Disgusted after several tries, I put the pot aside and contented myself with purchasing lattes from some of the local cafés and chains, especially &Cafe ("y cafe"), which also sells very cute thermoses (thermi?). However, the recent theft of my car has prompted a wave of frugality. I have decided to stay in Antigua for several days -- I need to stay until Saturday to follow through with the police report on the theft, and then since I would have to be back on Monday night for my last class at the university, it hardly seemed worth my while to go back to Quiché by public transportation and then have to return again to Antigua. So, that would mean spending a fair amount of money, relatively speaking, on coffee.  I have an electric cappuccino maker in Chinique, so I make my own.  
So, back to the cheapo Chinese espresso pot.  I purchased a pound of coffee on my way back from an unsuccessful visit to the Ministerio Público, where I was supposed to "ratify" the crime report, but it hadn't yet been submitted. I made the first pot using a technique I'd learned in Cuba: let a little coffee come up, pour it out into a cup, and then put the pot back on the flame. Somehow the movement of the pot and the liquid inside the base prompts a better flow of steam.  It was still kind of bitter, as the first drops were very slow in coming, and as they fell onto a very hot metal surface (the inside of the top of the coffee pot), they got kind of scorched while waiting for more coffee to pulse up. And I had to pour out and then replace the pot on the flame several times to get all the water, or nearly all the water, to steam up.
So then I hit upon the idea of boiling the water in the base first, and only when the water was already boiling, quickly putting coffee in the basket and screwing on the top. Which I did, and the coffee spouted up very smoothly, and with much less of a scorched taste.
So, herewith, instructions:
1) Fill the base of the espresso pot with water (up to where the little valve is). Put on the flame.
2) When the water is boiling, briefly remove the pot from the flame (keep the flame going). Insert the basket for the coffee groups, lightly scoop in the coffee (don't pack down), and quickly screw on the top (you will need a potholder or glove to hold the hot base). Make sure you screw on the top securely.
3) Replace pot on flame and listen/watch/smell to make sure it is brewing, and check when it is done. You may need to take it off the flame before the very last drop of water has been brewed, but that's okay. You don't want to let the brewed coffee that has accumulated in the top of the pot start to boil.

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