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Back Buzz - December 27, 1999

[pumping heart] Douwe Egberts After Dinner Dark Roast Coffee (from Utrecht, Holland)

[pumping heart] Cafédirect Rich Roast (from Fairtrade, UK)

[pumping heart] LaVazza Espresso (from Torino, Italy)

[pumping heart] Tesco French style Coffee (Tesco Stores, UK)

[pumping heart] Sainsbury's Continental Blend, Coffees of the World Kenyan Coffee, and Premium Blend (Sainsbury's Supermarkets, UK)

[pumping heart] Taylors of Harrogate Columbia Supremo (1 Parliament Street, Harrogate, North Yorkshire)

[pumping heart] Lyons Original Medium Roast (Paulig Ltd., 37 Windsor Street, Chertsey, Surrey)

[pumping heart] Various instants

Immediately after uploading last week's column on drinking French coffee in Boulogne, I received this glowing, encouraging response from my Bay Area friend, Mistah Rick:

"At first breath it seems like a mournful theme: a weeping Virgin and a road of Thiers. But it's a brief and happy article, lively -- dare I say perky. On your own in Boulogne, after a good French meal and a cup of real coffee, you sound like you're back in stride -- at least with respect to the coffee. This one article made me feel as if I've been deprived; and I have been -- of tasting dark, rich coffee through your lips. Makes me crave a cup right now, even though it's late evening and it would keep me from sleeping.

"As good and varied as it is, man does not live by beer alone. And to a large extent the beer speaks for itself to me. But no matter how good a cup of coffee I may find, it will always be surpassed by the sensual, existential experiences you report in the Double Shot Buzz. You owe it to your readers to find a way back to real coffee. Find your way across the Channel more often. Meet someone with a speedboat or a light plane. Stow yourself aboard a train. Coffee is life! Find yourself life in France."

I suppose the fact that I'm not writing about a cafe this week will be somewhat of a letdown now. But I feel it's time to discuss my daily coffee life when I'm visiting Kent. Alas, I don't own an English-compatible espresso machine as yet, so I must rely on my one-cup cafetiére to keep me happy. Hence my morning double shots have been replaced by old-fashioned cups of coffee made almost double-strength. As far as the beans I regularly use, since there aren't a lot of independent coffee vendors in the area I've found myself experimenting with the wide range of, um, er, well, um...supermarket coffees. (I know, I know...)

I realize this may shock my older readers who remember how addicted I was to Caffé Vita's robust Del Sol beans and Caffé D'Arte's deliciously dark Taormina beans. Or perhaps it will sadden them, or maybe inspire pity: "Poor mad woman! What's become of her senses?" But I'm going to write about these coffees for the benefit of anybody else in my present circumstance, i.e. any true coffee lover relying on finding decent, drinkable coffee to prepare in this vast English wasteland of instant coffee drinkers.

So I'll start with the best prepackaged coffee I've found: Douwe Egberts. Yes, this is the same Douwe Egberts famous for its rolling tobaccos including Drum and Samson. The D.E. Royal Factories in Utrecht, Holland have been making coffees since 1753. The variety I buy, After Dinner, is a blend of Kenya, Brazil, and Columbia beans. Sadly the only Douwe Egberts coffee I can find in the local stores is already ground, forcing me to leave my coffee grinder sitting in a dark corner of the kitchen counter, sadly ignored; but I know the company does sell whole-bean coffee. One of these days I'll luck out and find some somewhere.

My second favourite is Cafédirect Rich Roast. Cafédirect is owned by Fairtrade, which "guarantees a better deal for Third World producers". The company was founded by Equal Exchange, Oxfam, Traidcraft, and Twin Trading, and the coffee, bought directly from growers' co-ops, is produced without chemicals or GM (genetic modification). The price of the coffee is never less than an agreed minimum, no matter how low the world coffee price falls. Besides being environmentally sound and politically correct this is a good coffee, strong and black as night. Unfortunately it's also ground, and I'm not sure if they sell whole-bean coffees. I'd like to think they do, though, because it would be a quite respectable selection, not to mention a wise marketing move for us coffee purists.

Trailing third in my experience so far is LaVazza Espresso. Fortunately this well-known Italian coffee comes in the form of whole beans, so I do get to use my grinder occasionally. I've had LaVazza several times in Seattle and California [see reviews of Le Croissant in Beverly Hills and The Library Cafe in Ballard], so I fully expected it to be up to my minimal standards at the very least. And it is.

Other whole beans I've tried include Tesco French Style Coffee Beans from Tesco Supermarkets. These extra-dark roasted beans seem to be quite satisfying considering what limited choices one actually has in a supermarket. The next best store brand is Sainsbury's Continental Blend of dark roasted beans. This blend offers a nice robustness hard to find in the store brands. Then there are the Sainsbury's Coffees of the World series. I've tried their Kenyan beans only; the resulting coffee is okay but rather dull and lacks the bite I've always associated with Kenyan coffee.

As for the other ground coffees, Taylors of Harrogate's Columbia Supremo, roasted medium dark, was good but a bit too smooth for my taste. Taylors, egotistically (and undoubtedly erroneously) self-proclaimed as "The World's Best Coffee Company", was established in 1886 as a sister company to Betty's Café Tea Rooms in North Yorkshire. The other two ground coffees I've tried, Sainsbury's Premium Blend Medium Roast and Lyons Original Medium Roast, just were not memorable at all.

I suppose, since several of my English friends who will admit to liking good coffee still insist on drinking instant, I should mention something about the instant coffees available. "Now she's really lost her mind," I can hear you saying already. Perhaps I have; but I'm just trying to be fair. All the instants aren't absolutely horrible -- although I'll never understand in a million years why ordinary Nescafe is so popular. To its credit it's definitely easier on the digestive track than Kenco, another popular brand which tends to churn my stomach into a volcanic cauldron of pain and nausea after a mere half a cup. And Nescafe does have the decency to offer a selection of "gourmet" instants including Alta Rica (high roast), Cap Columbie (medium roast), Mocamba (light roast), and Kenjara (light roast). I'll admit I've been momentarily -- or perhaps only instantaneously -- amused by these selections, although without any hesitation I can claim the Nescafe Instant Espresso as the most interesting and memorable instant coffee I've tasted.

Don't worry -- next week I'll return to coffeehouse reviews, I promise! Meanwhile, on the subject of supermarkets and grocery shopping, here's a related e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from two years ago:

Tuesday as I was riding my bike homeward from downtown Oakland, I saw an abandoned shopping cart loaded with junk on one of the big boulevards like San Pablo or Market. Not unusual. Street people push the things all over town; I once saw a guy with three or four carts roped together proceeding right down the yellow line. But the one I saw Tuesday was fully loaded with big chunks of concrete. Have you ever lifted one chunk of concrete? This cart must have weighed at least a couple hundred pounds. That must have been one strong motha pushing that around. I wonder if he recognized the mythological symbolism in his futile act.

If you have more than two shopping carts, aren't you required to use the righthand lane for slower traffic? Especially if the carts are carrying a heavy load, like concrete slabs, mounds of clay-dirt, or blocks of compacted steel? I seem to remember that from my driver's handbook. And if you have two or more shopping carts in a row and you want to make a right or left turn, you're supposed to signal ahead of time by shouting incoherent obscenities while flailing your arms about, aren't you? (I believe if you're driving only one cart you're only required to make an obscene gesture.) Yes, it's all coming back to me now. At a traffic light you're supposed to stop on the red, mosey on across on the yellow, and mosey a little faster on the green. And then on the blue you're supposed to unload and then reload your shopping cart, and on the purple you're supposed to argue the merits and disadvantages of being a veteran of the Big War for a goddam country that doesn't give a flying rat's ass about your Social Security benefits while its lawyers are poisoning the water supply with silver nitrate and those bozos in the White House are stealing your checks and planting interstellar scanning devices in your teeth.