The Weasel

Whooshing, spluttering noises, gusts of hot air. Cheltenham Festival? No, furry mits are mastering the Gaggia
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Regular readers of this column may recall the Weasel family's joyful acquisition of a Gaggia espresso machine earlier this year. As is often the way, this impressive piece of ironmongery fell into desuetude when our initial keenness evaporated.

However, my enthusiasm for the real stuff percolated once more last week. I was offered a place on the half-day course run by Costa Coffee, which promises enlightenment on this fashionable beverage. Since the course fee is pounds 50, most of my fellow students who gathered at the Costa's fragrant roastery in Lambeth were associated with the coffee biz in some way. Bob worked at Costa's marketing agency, Mary produced adverts on coffee, while Paul and Otavio were waiters. Only Kate said she was just nuts about coffee.

Our tutor Angelo began by explaining the art of the barista, a specialist found behind the counter of Italy's 150,000 coffee-bars.

"The barista should know everything about coffee from start to finish," Angelo announced, moustache bristling with pride. "If the weather changes, he knows how to adjust the ground size to get the perfect cup of coffee." A particular expertise of the barista is caffe corretto, coffee that has been charmingly "corrected" via a splat of your favourite grog.

Looking at the two types of coffee bean, you could tell that robusta was a gnarled plebeian, while arabica was a refined aristo. Coffee made from robusta smelled nice but was uninteresting in flavour. Arabica coffee was smooth, nutty, complex and fresh. But if you want a buzz, go for robusta. It has twice the caffeine content of arabica. Robusta is mainly used in instant coffee "That's why after drinking a cup of instant, you begin to shake," said Angelo. "Though people don't know it, espresso has less caffeine."

We then sampled different kinds of wonderfully exotic arabica: Sumatra Blue Lintong, Brazilian Mulato and Medellin Supremo, the second most famous product of the infamous Columbian city. They all tasted, well, coffee- ish to me, although Angelo maintained that the three infusions tasted variously smoky, herby and nutty. "To get the full flavour, you should take in a little air at the same time," he advised. "Imagine you're eating spaghetti."

He also stressed that the sign of a good espresso is the crema (mousse) on top of the coffee. "You test a barista by sprinkling white sugar on the crema. If it stays a while before dissolving, then it's a good crema."

Next he elucidated the mysteries of the cappuccino. When frothing milk, the liquid should double in size but should not be heated to more than 150-155C. "When pouring the milk, you should hit the middle of the coffee like this, so you get a nice brown rim round the foam." The result drew spontaneous applause.

Finally we were let loose on a professional espresso machine. The huffing and gargling which filled the room were at odds with the tiny widdle that emerged from each piece of apparatus. The crema on my espresso was thin and full of holes. Worse still, my foamless cappuccino appeared distressingly naked.

Back alone at Weasel Villas, I dug out the Gaggia and tried again. After bubbling the milk, I got it smack-dab in the middle of the espresso. Mirabile dictu, the result was perfection: a lagoon of white froth encircled by a slender ring of coffee.

Costa Coffee will supply a barista for your dinner party for pounds 150. Or you could have the Weasel plus Gaggia for somewhat less. The only drawback is that to ensure success, I have to be the only person there.

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LUCKY SOULS attending the Cheltenham Festival of Literature (you may have spotted one or two passing references to its sponsorship by this newspaper) will be faced by an embarras de richesse tonight when they have to make the impossible choice between two men whose titanic contributions to our times cannot easily be confused: Ian "the intolerable face of capitalism" Dury and Sir Edward "Billericay Dickie" Heath.

On a flying visit to Cheltenham last weekend, I thought I had made a mistake when I plumped for a symposium on the current state of "men of letters". Evelyn Waugh once noted that the man of letters belonged to "a category, like the maiden aunt, that is now almost extinct". But this musty topic sprang to life when the novelist DJ Taylor expressed the view that "the standard of reviewing in this country is very low."

"Absolute nonsense," interjected a familiar, incredulous voice from the audience. Tom Paulin, resident scourge of Late Night Review, exploded: "The standard of reviewing in Britain is absolutely marvellous."

DJ Taylor returned a broadside: "Julian Barnes's new novel received uniformly excellent reviews but the word on the street is: `Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.'"

Another example of the harmony that prevails in literary circles emerged in a dialogue between Marilyn Butler, an expert on the romantic poets, and Richard Holmes, who has just spent 15 years on a biography of Coleridge.

MB: He seems to me the great writer who never was.

RH: What a very remarkable view.

MB: He was a little bit of a philosopher. But where was he an artist? He wasn't a great poet. He didn't write a novel.

RH: Romantics felt the freedom not to complete works. Biography is the way that they can still speak to us.

Pointedly quoting Coleridge's maxim, "How mean a thing is a fact unless illuminated by truth", Mr Holmes added that he was "only too happy to spend 15 years making this truth come true." Although he conceded that the relentlessly garrulous Coleridge was not someone you would want to meet on Hampstead Heath: "He once spoke at a christening for five hours."

Maintaining Cheltenham's spirit of bonhomie, the euphonious novelist Lisa St Aubin de Tern described a central figure in her recent memoir, The Hacienda, as absolutely insane, a total loonie, clinically defined as a schizophrenic psychopath, a complete lunatic and, briefly switching tack, the laziest person in the world. It hardly needs to be explained that this was her first husband.

In a discussion on the late Peter Cook, we learnt that the great comedian coped with the break-up of his marriage to his second wife, Judy, by ringing up a radio phone-in. Adopting the persona of Sven, a Norwegian fisherman, he lamented the loss of his lover, Utta. On other occasions, it seems, Sven would inform listeners for hours about fish.

Cook's biographer Harry Thompson recalled that the satirist once appeared at the Literary Festival. "A nice polite person asked a question and received a volley of abuse." Thank goodness such acrimony is now a thing of the past at Cheltenham.

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