Friday, May 25, 2007

Coffee Confessional

Hello, my name is Rebecca, and I drink Nescafé. Actually, hold the phone, I like Nescafé. I think it tastes better than normal coffee. Yes, that’s right, I like powdered instant coffee better than the real thing, and it's time I admitted it. I don’t know what it’s like in your family, but in mine, this is a grave confession. In fact I may never live it down. You see, we’re one of those gourmet local roasters shade-grown can’t drink it once it’s got cold types of families. And it smells fantastic in the morning doesn’t it? I just love the smell of fresh coffee, but it makes that first sip of scalding hot acrid water twice as nasty.

I like my coffee the consistency of sludge, which is easy to achieve with Nescafe, all you do is keep adding powder until the stuff makes your hair stand on end from five feet away. And don’t forget to add lots of powdered milk and sugar. The idea, really, is to make something that resembles a melted chocolate milkshake, only hot, coffee flavored, and way more caffeinated. Sometimes, if I'm really feeling mad at my degestive tract; I just make a plain cup and drink it that way, but it’s better with lots of milk and sugar.

I suppose I could turn this into a snobbish dissection of the inferiority of French-press coffee and the inevitable disappointment that results from most drip methods, but really, this is about the fact that I have come to not just abide Nescafe, but prefer its taste to most regular coffees. Also, I like Robusta better than Arabica, which may be a clue to why I like Nescafe, since it’s made with Robusta.

Now let me clarify for those of you who, like me before I got to Guinea, have no idea what the hell Robusta and Arabica mean; Almost all of the coffee imported into the US is of the variety Arabica, a milder and more picky family of coffee than Robusta, the stronger, more acidic variety grown primarily for local consumption. I learned about this as part of my agro-forestry training for the Peace Corps. That and one of my friends is an even bigger coffee snob than anyone in my family, he won’t touch Robusta with a stick. He considers Nescafe a sacrilege, and would rather drink tea in the morning than suffer through a cup. I think tea is for sissies.

Most of the coffee grown in Guinea is Robusta, and they make this dark nasty version of espresso called café noir that they cook for about twenty minutes and often tastes of burnt sugar and something vaguely sour. It’s served in a demitasse cup (that’s redundant isn’t it?) which your average Guinean will add two lumps of sugar to, spilling a third of the contents over the side. And if you’re in a hurry, you can get it to go in a little clear plastic baggy that you bite the corner off of later to suck down the contents.

I’ve never met another foreigner who actually likes café noir, which may be why I enjoy it so much. It’s pretty good as long as you don’t skimp on the sugar. I particularly like sitting in the coffee bars where they serve this stuff. In the states we have the horrible institution of coffee shops, which strike me as a commercial attempt to corner the market on places to meet and hang out. In Europe, you get your morning coffee in the local bar, the same place you go at night to drink and hang out, very convivial. Guinea, what with it being muslim and all, has two kind of bars: the kind you buy beer at and the kind you buy coffee at. They’re both equally shady, since even non-drinkers need somewhere to go sit and crack dirty jokes and escape the wife.

The kind of bar that serves alcohol is typically very dirty, and made of cement, and will have at least one resident drunk, plastered and weaving uncertainly at any hour of the day. Coffee bars are usually outdoors, my favorite style consisting of a three sided counter faced with corrugated tin roofing sheets tucked under an awning fringed with a curtain made of strings of folded bottle caps. The counter is topped with a tray of eggs, several really beat up thermoses, a can of sweetened condensed milk and a dirty jar of sugar. The shelves behind the barman are filled with various delights, such as canned sardines, corned beef, insecticide, tomato paste and fabric soap.

At a bar like this one, you can order your bread with margarine, mayonnaise or fried eggs, and you coffee options are the local café noir, Nescafe with sweetened condensed milk and sugar, or some sort of powdered chocolate drink with milk and sugar. If you’d like that black, good luck, your best chance is to order café noir but I think they add sugar to it before serving most of the time. And no, they don't serve that in a grande.

Now I don’t mean to say that Arabica is all bad, since I think it makes a damn good espresso, but there’s no real basis of comparison between coffee and espresso. Coffee doesn’t have that satisfying oily flavor that espresso does, and however good it may smell, once I start drinking it, it mostly tastes like brown water. Whatever weird additives they put in Nescafe more than make up for the usual gap in flavor. And I can make it so strong my teeth hurt with just an extra spoonful.

Now, I should point out that most of the world’s coffee drinkers disagree with me, including my family. It isn’t a question of the sophistication of my pallet, or a lack of choice, since people keep sending me ‘real’ coffee. The coffee I had from the states has been sitting on my shelf for six months while I drink Nescafe. I know Peace Corps volunteers who would kill me for such a waste, but really, I just like Nescafe better.

It's time I came clean about this to my friends and family. No more guilty excuses about running out of real coffee, no more settling for brown water when I can singe my taste buds with the delicious thick bitterness that is Nescafe. I'm coming out of the coffee closet. What I’m not sure of is how my family will take it when I lug home a huge can of instant coffee on my next vacation. Maybe they’ll let it slide if I promise not to get it out in front of company. I can already see my dad shaking his head in bewildered consternation as he wonders what happened to my good taste.