Coffee memories

This morning I was pondering coffee, as I sipped my cappuccino. As noted previously, I am not a big coffee drinker, and I am no connoisseur. But I do have it when I am occasionally out in the mornings, as my tea drinking is really too ritualistic for most cafes to handle.

I usually order a cappuccino; its ubiquitous nature seems to be uniquely Australian. And while I do enjoy the experience and opportunity, I’ve realised only today that it’s really a specific flavour that I am seeking when I have a coffee out; the flavour of the coffee that our mother used to have at John’s Milk Bar, in Hamilton in Newcastle, New South Wales (not to be confused with Jim’s Milk Bar which also had great milk shakes and ice creams).

John’s was on the corner of Beaumont and Tudor Streets and was a classic, Greek-run milk bar. My memory has it being a dark and cool space, with booths along the Beaumont Street side, and laminated tables with silver stripping around the edges of the table. The coffee machine was bright and silvery, and noisy.

Very occasionally – probably in the late 1960s and early 1970s – my siblings and I would find ourselves having a chocolate milk shake (two shared between three, with the usual arguments over who got the glass and who got the metal milk shake container) with paper straws, while mum enjoyed a cappuccino. We were sometimes allowed just a taste of her coffee to see what it was like, because tea ruled at home.

The flavour was mystical or other-worldly to me, rare in a way that is laughable today with our baby-cino coffee culture. The mixture of the creamy froth with its dusting of chocolate on the top and the milky, coffee flavour still seems unique to me today. I would roll “the taste” around on my tongue, savouring its softness, before it slid down my throat.


Memory engages all of our senses, sometimes together, sometimes alone. … It seems I have been searching for that texture and taste for forty years. Whether it’s the coffee experience, or the nostalgia for that time, I don’t know, but it’s unlikely I will get that specific flavour anytime soon.


Tea for two (or more)

My Twitter “friend” Hilary Wardhaugh (@hic_clix_pix) a local Canberra photographer, makes me laugh at least once a day, and for that I am very grateful. We both own black dogs, and are parents, so we share those life experiences, as well as a keen interest in Canberra’s cultural life.

Today I found out that, like me, she too is a tea tragic. This morning she posted of her frustration of getting a real cup of tea in a … (ahem) coffee shop, or anywhere, while out. “I am not a coffee drinker … (but) give me a teabag, pot of semi-hot water & try charge me for it in your cafe I’ll be very pissed off!” Oh, I hear you sister.  Once again, I laughed out loud. How many times had I had the same thought? My children cringe in the corner if I order tea when we are out, as they know they will be embarrassed in some way by my desire to actually receive what I have asked for … a cup or pot of tea that was drinkable not execrable – luke warm, milky and in a polystyrene cup.

As Hilary says, tea drinkers are second class citizens. We are assured it is real tea with hot water, but often what they bring is a half full, luke-warm cup of water, a tea bag in a wrapper, and warm milk, and then expect you to make it all yourself. Ask for more or hotter water, you’ll get a muted sigh. The second round of water might be hot when they poured it, but by the time you get it, forget it.

Tea pot

As for making tea with real, loose tea in a tea pot, that’s nigh on impossible, it seems. I mean, all you need is a couple of teaspoons (yes, tea spoons … look at the words) in a pot of hot water, a bit of milk on the side … and you’re done. I’m always curious about the plethora of loose tea shops that have emerged in the past five years. Who is drinking this stuff and where? Obviously not while they are out.

I suspect though that in cafes (yes, I know they are coffee shops), it’s not the making that is the problem, it’s the getting it all to the table. You need a tray, and you need to be able to carry it well. And it’s the cleaning up. Mucking around in the bottom of the pot to clean it out can be … mucky. But these days you CAN get tea pots with infusers. The wrist flick action to empty it is no more strenuous than the tapping out of the coffee grains from an espresso machine.

I guess it’s all about productivity and throughput and reducing washing up. Which, when you think of it, is not what having a cuppa is about. At least, not at my place. It’s about a stop, a quiet moment. It’s about the process as much as anything else. I worked with a woman once who used to refer to some meetings as being like Japanese tea ceremonies – she was referring to the importance of going through the processes and the motions of the meeting, before they were able to get to the outcomes. It wasn’t done to rush ahead.

At my place, the water must be just going off the boil before it’s poured into the tea pot. I like the milk in first, although there are lots of debates about this. And a nice vessel from which to drink is important too. The second cup must be as good as the first.

So I am resigned to keeping (most of) my tea drinking to home, or with trusted friends, or “special venues” who understand what real tea is meant to taste like. But if Hilary wants to start campaigning for tea drinkers’ rights, I’ll be there. A bit of hot water is occasionally good for the soul.