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Saturday, April 20, 2002


the deed is done -- i'm now the proud owner of a mazzer mini commercial espresso grinder!

yes, upgrade fever gripped my veins. today the participants of the recent coffee party journeyed through some horrible traffic to new jersey to visit our hero jim at 1st-line. with the help of some teriffic croissants from ceci-cela, we survived the trip and arrived just 1 hour late.

once there, we produced a francisfrancis! x1 espresso machine that was literally on the blink. not only did its lights pulse strangely, but we soon discovered that its owner's fears were all too true: its thermostat was set too low, so it made terrible (and cold!) espresso. we left it there for repair and then moved to playing with jim's demo machines -- his livia, his electronic mini grimac with the e61 grouphead, and his la pavoni europiccola (aka the chrome peacock).

the owner of the broken francisfrancis! was much taken by the thought of the pavoni, but a sample use soon showed the limitations of these beautiful machines. they hold very little water, meaning you can make only a few cups of coffee before you have to let the machine cool down. and when you remove the portafilter between shots, you are often liable to get splattered with hot coffee grounds!

i loved seeing the e61 circular grouphead jutting off the front of the grimac. these groupheads are interesting because they are actively heated by circulating water, unlike the machines most home espresso fans are used to, which are passively heated as the entire machine warms up. and we know a hot grouphead and a hot portafilter means better espresso!

while the grimac wasn't nearly as lovely as the livia -- few things are; pictures just don't livia justice -- i still enjoyed playing with a commercial-type machine. after we worked to improve our coffee technique on the machines for a while, pulling shots under jim's watchful eye, he made us some coffee. i drank it, and thought it was pretty good. only then did he tell us that it was decaf! his 1st cup brand of coffee was new to me; and i have to say, it didn't taste like decaf at all. i would never, never have guessed that decaf could have such a full flavor.

finally we collected more fresh-roasted malabar gold for absent friends; jim gave us some old coffee sacks as souvenirs; and we headed off to have artichoke pizza at di fara's. all in all, a very good day.

check back tomorrow for first report on the new mazzer. i'll have to dial it in -- that is, experiment to find a setting that grinds the coffee fine enough to give me a 25-second pour from my little silvia. that usually takes some time. so i'll need patience in the morning! wish me luck. . . also, this means i'll be looking to sell my italgi jr./lux. i just don't have space for three coffee grinders!

posted by fortune elkins | 5:50 PM | top | link to this |


Friday, April 19, 2002


stop, thief!

drop the knife or you'll get it with this loaf of sliced white bread. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 5:14 PM | top | link to this |


Thursday, April 18, 2002


''i'm the luckiest guy in the world. i get to go to work and make candy.''

would that we could all say the same as pastry chef daniel budd. and there's no doubt that baking and chocolate work are the two fastest growing areas of the fine food sector as so many americans -- like you! dear reader -- finally are learning to appreciate bread and dessert.

but before you rush over to begin your bright future in the hospitality sector, let me remind you that hours are long, and the pay is low, for many years. everytime i think to myself "i hate my life! for just $5,400 i could go enroll in the french culinary institute's bread program!" i have to take a deep breath and ask myself if i really want to get up at 4am and go to bed at midnight every day for the rest of my life. . .and make only $28,000 a year. . .

the answer of course is no -- suddenly i remember everything i adore about my day-moday aeron chair. . . .and instead i take a nice long yoga class. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 5:22 PM | top | link to this |


Wednesday, April 17, 2002


in this unseasonably hot weather, you'd think i'd be focused on iced coffee. but no, my thoughts are occupied with espresso. . .

i've been reading an interesting but somewhat technically daunting book edited by andrea illy, "espresso coffee: the chemistry of quality." in this book illy and his co-authors discuss in massive detail all the chemical properties of coffee -- not only in the beverage, but also in the beans, roasted and unroasted. he analyses the compounds that constitute good espresso: all the lipids (fats), sugars, caffeine, acids, carbohydrates, organic solids, etc.

he discusses how various agricultural practices, processing techniques, brewing methods, etc. all affect these chemical components. it's all very scientific, and i admit i was running online to a chemical dictionary quite a bit to look up many of the advanced terms. but even if you were to skim this book, you would increase your coffee knowledge greatly. illy explains many of the rules of espresso making not just as good practices, but as important procedures based on scientific foundations.

in sum: read this book to the best of your ability and you'll soon be drinking your ristretti with near-religious devotion! i'm about half-way through. illy's most interesting fact yet: coffee contains small but significant amounts of the happy-brain chemical serotonin.

when you're missing your coffee and feeling antsy, maybe it's not the caffeine you need, but the serotonin! this would explain the unusual fact i noted several months ago, that coffee drinkers are less likely to commit suicide. . .and why a couple of cups of coffee reduce the appetite. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 4:22 PM | top | link to this |


Tuesday, April 16, 2002


remember when the soviet union fell, everyone worried that the famously super-smart russian physicists would sell their knowledge to nefarious dictators? look again. . .

this former soviet scientist applies his brains to selling rome's danesi caffe to moscow restaurants and hotels.

sadly, not all coffee news is so upbeat. remember my recent mention of the development meeting about the dire state of coffee in central america, which grows some of the world's best coffees? usaid has published a report from that meeting. the development agencies recommend that central american governments attempt to encourage domestic consumption, adopt more efficient farming methods, move into organic coffee farming and make efforts to brand and market their distinctive coffees in a modern way.

finally, they suggest that high-quality coffee producers skip the commodities exchanges altogether and sell directly to specialty retailers. this is the radical idea. further, i'm heartened to see that the development agencies formally suggest organic and sustainable farming practices.

as a little girl from kansas, naturally i grew up listening to the old farmers complain bitterly about how east-coast speculators were ruining their lives. it's the kind of thing you quickly learned to ignore, along with the usual "when i was a chil' we done had no shoes. . ." (i also remember quite clearly the general hatred of the bank, which was widely considered an agent of satan. people were proud to pay off their farms and burn the mortgage. my great-grandmother and i went to a couple of festive cookouts where we ate apple pie and watched the papers smoke. . .) well, here's a case where the development agencies themselves are blaming the problems on those darn-tootin' speculators! i know many careless perusers of this page think me anti-capitalist and anti-globalist. nothing could be further from the truth.

but at the same time we have to note that the market, like all human institutions, isn't perfect. it can get out of whack. and this has clearly happened in the case of coffee recently. since nothing is to be gained by impoverishing a huge section of the global economy, harming the coffee workers and growers, destablizing their social systems, and bankrupting their governments -- nor is anything worthwhile got by reducing the quality of coffee we put every day in our mugs -- i applaud the efforts of those who think about ways to smooth out this glitch in the global market.

but besides issuing reports, what will the development agencies actually do to help our neighbors in central america move to a better system? suffering as they now are from several years of low prices, central american coffee producers can't afford to go it alone.

the last thing i'm going to say on this topic may sruprise some: i'm not inherently a political type person. my awareness of the coffee situation and the plight of the people in it was brought about by asking the simple question: how can i personally get a better cup of coffee? this lead me to buying espresso machines, french presses, vac pots, fancy coffee. . .and finally to the reality behind the glossy ads promising that "rich, delightful morning cup."

i woke up and smelled the coffee. . .good grief, am i turning into some kind of ranting, coffee-addled rageboy?

posted by fortune elkins | 10:54 AM | top | link to this |


Monday, April 15, 2002


i don't get to scotland much. . .

but it seems that in edinburgh the perfect place for me exists: plaisir du chocolat. this little tea salon serves poilane bread with its brunch, and owner bertrand espouy makes his artisan chocolates on site. if only he would relent and serve coffee too!

while we're on the subject of uk chocolate, i do want to mention the artisan italian-style chocolate available at carluccios. they toast the chocolate beans over olive wood! this is said to be fantastic stuff.

finally, you really can't talk about uk chocolate without whispering the sacred name of world-famous rococo. this temple of chocolate uses valrhona in their candies, and owner chantal coady has written a killer book on chocolate. she is also one of the founders of the chocolate society, which i have mentioned before. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 5:09 PM | top | link to this |


Sunday, April 14, 2002


lemme tell ya, i'm getting too cranky for my own good. the day you lose your sense of humor, it's all over. . .you've got to be able to make fun of yourself. . .

so on this note, i was sitting around on this unseasonably warm afternoon -- we've gone from having september all winter, to january all spring, to june warmth instead of april showers -- eating a cold breast of duck and pondering the august new york times.

nothing like aimlessly enjoying a sunny sunday morning, (while the cat, who believes anything that once had feathers belongs in his little japanese bowl, climbed up on the couch behind me and leapt straight on my plate, knocking it from my hands and flat into my lap, in an attempt to create a distraction whereby he could make off with said duck by dragging it under any convenient piece of furniture. unfortunately for him, by the time he made his move, all that was left was the skin. . .which with his daring leap he had catapulted all over me!) wiping the duck grease off your face. . .

the problem with the new york times -- besides amanda hesser's so-called food journalism [rant here] -- is that it is always the very last to know. (ok, well, at least amanda hesser admits this week she can't really cook, doesn't really have any dishes to call her own, and grabs ingredients only so she can write an article on deadline about their novelty. which only further begs the question of why the times is printing her self-involved musings. . wait! is a blogger making this criticism? uh-oh. . . let's move on. . .)

for example, today it highlighted valerie's hair salon on the lower-east side as the epitome of secret chic, when in fact it was hip before 2001. (as a former client of valerie's, i know this for a fact.) i moved on with my stylist shiloh to an even cooler l.e.s. salon quite some time ago. shiloh, formerly of san francisco's architects & heroes (flash required), alone is responsible for the ultra-blonde barbie you all know today. i love this salon, even tho' they all quite mockingly call me donatella. . .hey, i'm a big girl, i can take it!

a more relevant example also in today's style pulse section, where the clueless times writer notes that scharffen-berger mini-bars, "with their european labels," are all the rage in fashionable handbags. (why isn't this article online yet???)

european labels? that scharffen-berger is made in the bay area seems to have escaped the attention of the times. but we true chocolatistas merely raise our eyebrows at such clumsiness. . .while keeping el rey bucare carenero superior 58.5%, courtesy of mr. right, in our own longchamp from last year. . . .

this, dear readers, is the humor: an ability to go from preachy, self-righteous liberal yesterday to clownish snobbery today, without a single care that bits of duck are probably still hanging from one's ears. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 10:23 AM | top | link to this |

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