Closing cycles give me a sense of elevation through deeper understanding. I like connecting occurrences of the past with current ones.
While living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I frequented a Mexican Restaurant near Harvard Square, mainly because I was impressed with their coffee. I felt it was prepared with honest passion and it satisfied my need for good tasting experiences. Such coffee was by no means self-evident in the USA of the 1980s. It was, however, my very beginning as coffee drinker, hence, mine could have been more of an impression in the mind than one on a knowledgeable coffee palate. After visiting a New York Mexican Restaurant recently for the third time, a circle might have closed, or reached a certain completion.
Mexicans seem to be patient people, or at least they appear not to rush time. No time for espressi. The Mexican coffee is cooked in a large unglazed clay pot over fire: water, coffee, “panela” and “canela”.
Canela – our cinnamon – is also used in several coffee versions in other cultures, but it does not always play the balanced role it does here.
In several Latinamerican countries many recipes call for panela. This whole cane sugar, aside from having received a heat treatment, is in its raw state. Its taste reminds me clearly of the magnitude of a single sugar source. Refined white sugar, brown sugar, muscovado and panela are all very different taste contributions to a coffee. Besides their sweetness, only the brown sugars have a noticeable taste, but only the white one seems to alter the coffee taste, while the others are a pleasant and agreeable result in pairing.
Two things I remember from sugar cane in my childhood, long before I even considered sugar. The first is the delight for one’s whole being, when chewing the juice directly out of the cane, after it has been peeled with a machete. My father was one of those educated men that could manage a machete just as well, especially by preparing coconuts or sugar cane for his
family to eat and drink them. The second memory is drinking the cane’s juice, obtained by turning a crank and thus the cylinders that press, crushing the complete cane. This is nothing but the pure and direct juice from a cane, turning brown within seconds due to natural oxidation, known in the Caribbean as ‘melao de caña’.
How does the trajectory between two points in time become the completion of a circle? A first contact starts with innocence. No circle, no line, no life, no experience is foreseeable. The initial tasting is there just for itself. Bitterness might lack true bitterness. The sensation might be based for the most part on the surprise itself, the first impression, more than on a conscientious perception of bitterness, an aspect within the uniqueness of coffee complexities.
It takes some time before such a coffee initiation could set itself. Repetition accommodates a wider taste spectrum for each of the additional future cups. This could multiply immensely if the types of brewing vary. Being reminded today of coffees I drank in the early eighties, completes a circle. This circle encompasses recognizing the characteristics of a Mexican coffee, drank at the beginning and at the end of a 25 year span, with hundreds of others in between – espressi, Turkish, Ethiopians, french pressed, frappes and a few other cold and hot experiments.
Tasting these different coffees kills any possibility of monotheism. In all I have repeatedly found masterpieces for the palate. And those making these drinks prepare them each time in the conviction they are creating the center of the coffee universe that very moment. When Doña Gloria lovingly explains the process and part of her story, this is precisely what she is doing. Unhappy she explains that for many years she used the clay pots. Her kitchen staff broke these pots on a weekly basis and each time she had to order a new one from Mexico. This forced her to use unbreakable pots.
Through that change some of the valuable taste and characteristic have diminished, but none of the passion and demanding attitude. In the Café el Portal Doña Gloria sits and stands daily, while her portrait on one wall expresses tradition and aesthetic. Her smile and her attentive eyes speak honest dedication quite clearly, ever inviting me to taste the completed circle.