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Back Buzz - May 29, 2000

[pumping heart]Harbour Coffee Company, P&O Stena Lines between Dover and Calais

I still can't believe this happened. Yes, I know, you were beginning to doubt me. But I actually finally had a really good espresso drink in England!

Actually it wasn't quite in England -- well, technically the place is in England for part of the time, and part of the time in France. I'm talking about the coffee shop on board the P&O Stena Lines ferry which runs between Dover and Calais.

What?! You're now saying. Surely she can't be praising industrial coffee, the sort of swill you normally get served on airlines or train rides. Of course I'm not because I'm not talking about drek. I'm talking about the surprisingly impressive Harbour Coffee Company where the staff dispense espresso drinks to a long, slow, rocking line of commuters with almost as much enthusiasm as your average Starbucks employees. And the atmosphere, based on your typical chain-coffeehouse-for-travelers decor, leaves a bit to be desired. If you can get a window seat that's an improvement, of course.

My first indication I was in for a big surprise was when I passed by the drink menu board as I inched my way swayingly through the long line of caffeine-and-Danish-hungry travellers. There was a long list of espresso drinks including a Double Espresso for £1.50 and an Espresso Macchiato for £1.30. The drinks range from £1.10 for a single espresso to £1.60 for a "Harbour Classic Creme", whatever that is. But considering the inflated prices on your average public transport, these prices are quite reasonable. And the sandwiches looked very nice, too: the smoked salmon and cream cheese and the roasted vegetables and cheese looked especially good. (My croissant was the most mediocre of the mediocre, but this ain't exactly France, so whaddya gonna do?)

The big surprise, after the pleasure of having no languge difficulties ordering a single macchiato, was just how good my macchiato was! The espresso, made with Kenco coffee, was robust and strong with an interesting roasty, toasty, almost sweet flavour, and it was served in a vastly appealing squat smoothly-rounded white ceramic cup. And of course the milk foam was perfect. I'm still completely amazed - I really liked this macchiato. It was excellent! Does this have anything to do with the large percentage of French travellers and commuters who frequent this establishment? Is that why the coffee bars at Gatwick and Heathrow Airports are of better quality than elsewhere in the UK?

Why is it the only decent espresso you can get in England is enroute between another country?

As I sat sipping my macchiato I watched the other passengers drinking their coffees as the ferry rocked back and forth on this slightly rough day. Does this natural frothing of the Channel's churning waters help froth the milk, I wonder? If someone were bringing some fresh dairy milk with them straight from the cow pastures of France, would it be homogenized by the time they went through UK Customs? Would the extra-virgin olive oil from Italy have turned itself into mayonnaise?

Speaking of olive oil reminds me of an e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from a few years ago:

Well, this Christmas season I made it until Monday night, December 15, before I heard the song "Sleigh Ride." I was at the El Cerrito Safeway with a 12-oz. bottle of extra Virgin (aren't they all!) olive oil in my hand when I was struck with it. The onset of that melody induced a few spasms. I held the bottle by the neck and was seized with a vague urge to shake it, perhaps even strike another shopper over the head or dash the bottle to the floor. But my concern for the value of its contents helped me suppress the urge.

I never thought of the potential symbolism of Extra Virgin olive oil for the Xmas season. Why don't those deeply Catholic Italians capitalize on Americans' attraction to images and package an Xmastide bottle in the flowing robes of the Extra Virgin Mary? For that matter I wonder if a Popeye cartoon ever took advantage of the comic potential of extra virgin Olive Oyl. Was Olive Oyl a virgin? I know she did often carry a little baby around, but it was never clear that it was her own. And it too could have been a virgin birth.

Is fondling a bottle of Virgin olive oil aged 17 years or less considered a sex crime? Is there such a thing as Extra Promiscuous olive oil? What about Monogamous olive oil? Isn't olive oil a monounsaturated fat? Would that also make it monogamous by nature? Would that mean polyunsaturated safflower oil would be necessarily polygamous? Do safflowers start out virginal? What about Virginia peanut oil?

Wasn't the name of Olive Oyl's baby Sweepie, a slurring of the name Sweet Pea? If Olive Oyl is truly the Virgin Mary, does that mean Sweepie was crucified? Or is that what the masses thought they saw when they spotted a sweet pea vine curling its way up a cross-shaped trellis? I mean, it wouldn't be that far-removed from spotting Jesus in a tortilla. Once again this could change the whole meaning of the Bible. Was Sweepie the Son of God, or did the original text say the Son of Pop? Or was Popeye simply a stand-in for Joseph? And what does that make Brutus? Is he Satan? Or is that Wimpy? Perhaps Brutus tempted Wimpy with the hamburger in the Garden of Eatin', and that's why Popeye preaches the gospel of good ol' spinach.

So would this all be in the New Testament, and the Cheesus story is in the Old Testament? Makes sense; it was once believed cheese was very good for you, and now it's all vegetables.