Nov 08

The domestic guide to good coffee

This guide is a work in progress. Currently you are seeing the first draft.

Grinding your own

Always choose a burr grinder. A non burr grinder will chop the beans instead of crushing them to release oils. Chopping a good roast is a terrible thing to do if you want half decent coffee. It’s not worth buying a grinder at all unless it’s a burr grinder. If it doesn’t specifically say “burr grinder”, it most likely isn’t one, however expensive the unit may be. If you don’t buy a burr grinder, it is always better to have your beans ground at the shop where you buy it.

The quality of a burr grinder is defined by two variables:  

  1. Consistency of grinds
  2. Build quality (length of life, ease of cleaning etc)

It’s possible to purchase a cheap burr grinder for reasonable results. The Krups GVX2 is reasonable, although it may not last a lifetime. Mine broke after a few years. I found a replacement at Debenhams for £36 – an absolute steal. I believe Starbucks sell a branded version of the same model. It’s the cheapest reasonably decent grinder, and I use it. The compartment is not the easiest to clean, it requires a little shake sometimes mid-grind, to keep the beans flowing through. Also, you’ll need to clean grinds up, it does make a little mess. But that’s what coffee is about.

Better still would be the KitchenAid Artisan burr grinder. I haven’t used this unit myself, but it has great reviews.

Espresso machines

I’ve a lot to say on this subject, but I may fill this out at a later date.

It goes without saying, you must avoid cheap units in department stores or online. They often call themselves “cappuccino makers” or “latte makers”. The look like this.

The most important specification of an espresso machine is its pressure. Pressure is measured in bars, or atmospheres. Compare different machines on this specification to start with.

Avoid machines that use anything but coffee you can put in yourself. Nespresso is a well-known brand, and it’s the exception to this rule. It can make perfectly reasonable espresso, even with their cheaper models, and at an acceptable price. It makes a very good every-day espresso machine with minimal cleaning fuss.

The very best domestic espresso is made in lever machines like those from La Pavoni. They are also very high maintenance. You really have to want good coffee if you use this regularly.

Using a stove-top

Stove-tops are the cheapest way of getting espresso-like coffee. They cannot yield a true espresso, and they do not give a crema. That’s something that only a real espresso machine can do.

The most common stove-top make and size is the Bialetti Moka Express 3 cup. This is the one I have had most success with.

Often the coffee can taste way too bitter or way too weak, and sometimes coffee has a subtle taste of burnt rubber to it, due to the slight softening of the rubber seal. The seal may be replaced on Bialetti stove-top makers.

Stove-tops can yield reasonable coffee, but it’s very difficult to make them comply. It’s therefore advisable to lower your sights and use shop-bought name brands such as Illy or Lavazza as the consistency of the grounds will always be high, and grounds consistency is a variable that can throw the results out (strength, bitterness etc) by factors of ten.

It’s best to experiment with volume of coffee, volume of water, length of boiling and amount of heat. Also experiment a little with tamping pressure (how hard you press the coffee down) – start by not tamping it at all except to level the coffee grinds. Never tamp too hard.

A good starting place is to fill a 3 cup Bialetti Moka Express filter funnel with Lavazza espresso coffee, so it comes to just below the top of the funnel. Pat down with your finger to level the coffee. Run your finger around the rim of the funnel to remove loose grinds, ensuring that the rest of the funnel has no grinds stuck to it. Fill the bottom section up with cold water (filtered water is usually better, although such subtleties won’t be appreciated with a stove-top). Screw the lot together, nice and tight. Place on a medium gas heat from the smallest ring of your stove, or equivalent. Wait until you hear the perculating noise and wait a further 30 seconds to a minute. Taste the results without milk if you can, and vary the process.

It’s not uncommon for coffee to randomly taste so bad it’s undrinkable. It’s not uncommon for the coffee to simply never percolate at all; I’ve noticed this happening randomly on my own and friends’ stove-tops. It doesn’t necessarily mean a replacement seal is required. Just cool-off and try again.

There are no hard and fast rules except the following:

  1. Never fill water above the pressure valve. It’s usually best to fill the stove-top with cold water so the water level is just under the valve.
  2. Always remove grinds from the rim of the filter funnel before proceding.
  3. Avoid using washing up liquid on any of the parts, and never use a dishwasher.

Nov 08

Reflections on the UK political system after Obama elected

As a Brit there are two Western political systems of democracy that affect me: the UK style and the US style.

Up until now I’ve had a natural preference for the UK flavour of party politics as opposed to presidential; my reasoning that party politics allows leadership by consensus not character, and lends itself to the long-term development and continuity of political ideals. A party governs a country, and the leader of the party serves the party, rather than the party serving the leader. The consequent of consensus government is the requirement to stick to a party line; the word ‘Maverick’ doesn’t sell back in the UK. I have always believed that party politics is more progressive than presidential for these reasons.

Our two major political parties have worked themselves into an ideological deadlock. When New Labour moved into the centre, I was most pleased; finally there was a party I could potentially bring myself to vote for who were in with a chance. But how does an opposition party defeat a governing party that has led from the centre? How does it gain political capital over a party that has positioned itself to appeal to all?

Here’s how: they take the centre ground too, and pick pick pick away at the governing party. They pick to show they are better at running the centre ground, even if they aren’t. They pick away incessantly to the point where the real issues affecting the electorate are ignored, instead of fulfilling their duty to balance power and challenge the governing party. They pick and pick and pick until the political bubble so obscures their view of reality that the whole concept of party politics is ruined.

Does anybody remember when David Cameron was elected leader of the opposition party?

He called for an end to “Punch and Judy politics”.

“People in this country are crying out for a Conservative Party that is decent, reasonable, sensible, common sense and in it for the long term…”

Any human being to have witnessed PMQs in the House of Commons on a Wednesday afternoon knows that, three years on, that hasn’t happened.

(Click here for a very good, topical example. It depresses me beyond reason.)

Anyone who thinks our country isn’t run by a terrible bunch of rowdy smugsters clearly hasn’t seen our politics in action. Whilst it’s true to say we Brits don’t go in for the emotional, patriotic style of government, their jeers and sneers are enough to put any sane human with a soul off politics.

Cameron promised to “switch on a whole new generation”. He preceded by appointing three Old Etonians to his shadow cabinet. And fifteen on the front bench. I don’t think I’d like my 21st Century Britain to be run by a bunch of chaps who all went to the same school, thanks.

No wonder this country doesn’t vote.

Once this deadlock is achieved, how can it be broken? The greatest aspect of party politics, that replaceable individuals conform to the will of the continuous group, is also its flaw.

US politics, however, can reinvent itself.

Why should this be necessary? I can see two reasons.

1. When a President with centrist political leanings, or non-partisanship, governs a country, he can do so effectively or ineffectively – however the electorate decide who is to govern at the beginning of each term. If the electorate still want a politically central government, but they are unhappy with the effectiveness of the current leader, this problem can be solved by the election of another. A party, however, elects its own leader.

2. Every new era requires a new politic. A new politic allows a country’s government to live up to the needs of its electorate without the need for revolution. When the governing party moves to the centre, they are inadvertently setting the political agenda for the opposition party, however by definition, to appeal to the majority of the electorate, the opposition must take-on the centrist politics of the governing power. The core values of the two parties become increasingly similar (or at least, they purport to be similar). The only way forward is then political point-scoring, a form of political battle that is at its heart completely out of touch with the electorate.

Whilst I am not against the domestic policies of ex Prime Minister Tony Blair, or against his style of leadership, it does seem that his leadership has indirectly diluted the core values of both political parties – and because of the sedative effect of party politics, there seems to be no way out of the deadlock.

Witnessing the US Presidential election in all its technicolour excitement brings the above point home – but even more depressing were the UK leaders’ childish responses, each wanting to align themselves with President-elect Obama to bolster his own political position.

The personal upshot? I shall vote for the Liberal Democrats, as I can’t bring myself to vote for either main parties now – but I do so regretfully; they are the party who will never gain power in this country. I regret that our politics cannot morph such that one of the major parties can become politically libertarian, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and with a firm but peace-loving foreign policy. I would happily vote for any Labour or Conservative party with such values.

Either that, or I’ll move to the land of the free.