The Curious Conundrum Of Catalan Vs. Castilian Coffee

I’ve recently returned from spending the holidays in Spain, which began with Christmas in Barcelona followed by New Year’s in Madrid. I also spent my summer vacation visiting both cities, enjoying time with family, great art/architecture, music, and of course, food. Yet a curious aspect of both trips was something which confused me and my traveling companions on both occasions: why was the coffee in Barcelona so good, and the coffee in Madrid so terrible?

Back in May/June, when traveling with an American friend with ancestors from Catalonia, I introduced him to what is called a “tallat” in Catalan, and a “cortado” in Spanish, which is essentially espresso that has a shot of steamed milk mixed in with it. It’s similar to the Italian “macchiato”, although in Italy they use milk foam rather than warm milk. [NOTE: the flavored “macchiato” that you order in Starbucks bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.] We began at Francesco, my favorite local café on the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, where we went for breakfast every morning, but we also ordered it in many places around town. It was always hot, creamy, sweet, and delicious, no matter where we drank it.

When we got to Madrid, it was as if we had moved to another country where the same word meant something completely different, like how in Spain a “tortilla” is an omelet, whereas in Mexico it is a flat disc usually made of corn. During our entire time in Madrid, every cortado that we ordered was terrible: tepid, thin, watery, and bitter, whether it was in a corner bar or in a swanky restaurant. I was genuinely confused and apologetic, and wondered whether we were just having bad luck, but this seemed improbable given the wide variety of places where we drank it.

Over Christmas break the situation repeated itself. We drank cortados at Francesco every morning for breakfast, but we also drank them elsewhere. We had cortados for elevenses or after a meal at various restaurants and cafes in Barcelona, and we had them at the seaside in the resort town of Sitges, about a half hour south of the city. While Francesco is unquestionably the best, even at these other establishments, the coffee was always good.

In Madrid, the cortados were once again a serious disappointment. We tried corner bars, nice restaurants, and even the café at The Prado, but the only place where we were able to get a good cortado was at an Illy café located across from the Mercado de San Miguel in Old Madrid. The fact that this was an Italian establishment was not insignificant, because unlike virtually every coffee chain in this country that claims to make espresso-based drinks – which in fact taste like burnt worm excrement soaked in muddy water masked by large quantities of corn syrup – Italians do it better, as the saying goes.

While café society in Madrid looked to France for inspiration, coffee culture in Barcelona was heavily influenced by the coffee culture in Northern Italy, Sardinia, and the Italian cantons of Switzerland. Although the French originally invented the espresso machine, Italians bring the hot water in their espresso machines up to about 195 degrees Fahrenheit, so that espresso drinks prepared in this way arrive at your table nice and hot. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that the inevitably tepid coffee in Madrid is at least partially the result of not getting the water in their espresso machines hot enough.

Many Italian restauranteurs opened restaurants and cafes for the Barcelona bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The now-gone Torino, for example, was an opulent establishment opened by the equally opulently-named Flaminio Mezzalama of Turin in 1902. It marked the only architectural and design collaboration between two of the greatest rivals for Art Nouveau outlandishness in Barcelona at the time, Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch. As you can see here, it was quite a magnificent building.

And then there is the problem of the coffee roasting itself.

During the period of austerity which followed the Spanish Civil War, Spanish coffee importers began using a processing method called torrefacto, in which the beans are roasted with large quantities of sugar. This helps the beans to keep longer in storage, by coating them in a black film of burnt sugar. This coating comes off when the beans are ground for making coffee, and the result is the bitter, nasty aftertaste that we were experiencing. Even though the lean years of the Civil War era are long over, at least some Spaniards developed a taste for this abomination, I suppose in the way that many American GI’s during World War II developed a taste for spam, which is why you can still find this product on just about every grocery store shelf in America.

As a result, torrefacto-processed coffee is still widely and commonly used throughout Spain, either on its own or blended with other beans. You can even buy it from Spanish food importers in the U.S. (dear Lord, why would you do this?) However it turns out that Barcelona has long been in the vanguard of finally casting off this dark shadow. For years now, Catalan coffee importers and roasters have been rejecting the torrefacto process, in favor of single-source beans and bean blends roasted in the traditional way. This, in combination with the Italian coffee preparation methods that are a long-standing part of coffee culture in places like Barcelona, explains why the same drink tastes so much better in Barcelona, than it does in Madrid.

If you ever get the chance to visit both Barcelona and Madrid, visit any corner bar in the morning, and you will quite literally be able to taste the difference between the coffee cultures of these two cities. Taste is largely individual, of course, so it may be that you prefer the inky, oily taste of Castilian coffee. But for my money, when I’m back in Madrid this summer I’m sticking to the Italian coffee shops – or ordering a cup of tea.

Caffe Francesco, Barcelona

>CoffeeQuest Review: Coffee Nature, Friendship Heights

>Adding to the ongoing series of articles about my quest for good coffee in a wasteland of poor, noxious concoctions, let’s take a look at Coffee Nature, located on Fessenden Street in Caucasia, i.e. Upper NW. (Those wishing to read my previous reviews should type in “Coffeequest” in the search bar on the upper left hand corner of this page.) Summer in D.C. is not always a great time to find yourself outdoors drinking a hot cup of coffee, as the humidity and heat even in the early hours of the morning can often be oppressive. Still: I do what I can for you, gentle reader.

The oddly-named Coffee Nature is a cafe close to the glorious emporium Rodman’s, about which I have written previously, just a few doors down from the intersection of Fessenden Street and Wisconsin Avenue. What sort of establishment was originally in the building I cannot say, though I would suspect it has probably held a number of different businesses over the years. It has a small patio area in front, some seating areas inside, and everything is a little bit hipster-dumpster diving with respect to decor.

The staff could not have been more pleasant when I ordered my macchiato. I happened to be rather hungry and also ordered a ham and egg croissant as well, and was very surprised when the lady behind the counter told me that my order would be brought to me. I explained that I intended to sit outside, and she insisted that my order would be brought to me, and that I did not need to wait at the counter.

The order arrived rather quickly, to my equal surprise. Before discussing the coffee however, I want to compliment Coffee Nature on what turned out to be a superb breakfast sandwich. The croissant was wonderfully flaky, like I would expect in Europe, and not the sort of gummy mess that is sometimes a bit too prevalent in this country. The eggs were perfectly cooked, and the ham was not too thick, not too thin. It was a delicious breakfast, and I say so as someone who generally feels a bit ill at the thought of eating anything at all first thing in the morning.

And then, there was the coffee, which of course is the point of this review.

To say that it was too bitter would be a bit like saying that the Dead Sea is too salty. It arrived in a waxed paper cup with a plastic lid, and as soon as I removed the cover I was hit with a very unpleasant, wafting aroma of burnt something or other. There was also far too much of it, whatever it was composed of. Not as much volume as a latte or cappuccino, but more than what a double shot of espresso with a little foam should constitute.

I put in two brown sugars, took a sip, and almost immediately wished I had put in six sugars. It was so horribly burnt, smoky, and unpleasant, that it is hard to describe. Moreover, it was volcanically hot. I thought perhaps if I put it aside and allowed to cool down, while I ate the (very delicious) sandwich, it might improve in flavor.

This was not to be the case. If anything, allowing the beverage to cool down to a drinkable temperature actually enhanced – if that is the word – the rather unpleasant aromas and flavors. The milk curdled from the lava-like coffee, and began to form itself into floating islands.

In the end, I could not bring myself to finish the coffee, and this is a very unusual thing indeed: even when something is gritty and unpleasant, I can usually manage to choke it down in the interest of not wanting to act in a wasteful fashion. I certainly cannot fault Coffee Nature for friendly, fast service, or for their food, as this was all very pleasant; out of sheer guilt, I cannot bring myself to give them 0 stars. Unfortunately for a cafe, however, their coffee is simply undrinkable.

My macchiato at Coffee Nature in Upper NW:
great service, good food – shame about the coffee.

>CoffeeQuest Review: Starbucks at Washington Harbour

>Sunday morning before heading to the flea market, I decided to bite the bullet and head to the nearest Starbucks over at the recently-sold Washington Harbour complex in the village, as part of a continuing series on my quest for proper coffee. For regular readers of this blog, this somewhat unusual course of action is analogous to, say, my voluntarily attending a concert of late pieces by Schoenberg or an exhibition of recent works by Grayson Perry. However, let it never be said that I do not go out of my way to keep you, gentle reader, as well-informed as possible.

The standard macchiato does not appear on the menu board at Starbucks, although a concoction known as the “caramel macchiato” does. Not being particularly in the mood for flavored wax first thing in the morning, I asked the barista whether it would be possible to make a plain macchiato, with just two shots of espresso and some foam. To his credit, he resisted the very obvious temptation to be curt and surly (a temptation to which his colleague behind the till could not help but succumb) and told me that he would make it.

The beverage I received came in a paper cup about the height of a ball-point pen, and was essentially a mini-latte rather than a macchiato. As seen below, the cup was filled to the brim with hot milk, and a little foam left on top. Having previously sampled Starbucks espresso on its own, this was probably not a bad thing, for I only needed two brown sugars as compared to the four or five that Starbucks espresso normally requires in order to be able to choke it down without gagging. Yet whatever this drink was, it was definitely not a macchiato.

The first sip was not bitter, which is what I would normally have expected from Starbucks based on previous experience. The beverage was markedly sour – not quite rancid, but definitely leaving a nasty taste unpleasantly like acid reflux inside the mouth. After the first shock to the tastebuds, they simply gave up and went into a kind of self-induced coma, so that the rest of the drink tasted like…nothing.

It did not taste like coffee, given all of the milk, but neither did it taste like coffee-flavored milk. Had you performed a blind taste test and not told me what was in the cup, I very much doubt I could have placed it as a coffee-based beverage. I might have thought you were serving me a Kaopectate cocktail of some kind, there was such a chalky feel to it. I was pleasantly surprised – if that is the right term – to find there were no coffee grounds swimming in the bottom for the finish, which is what I have generally come to expect from Starbucks.

Certainly I must give credit here to the barista for making an effort to try to meet his customer’s needs. Unfortunately in this case this is reminiscent of a habit very often practiced in Spain: when someone who is lost asks directions of a stranger, and the stranger does not in fact know where the street or the building asked about is located, they will very often send the lost soul off on a wild goose chase in completely the wrong direction rather than admit that they cannot help. Similarly, the fact that Starbucks does not carry the standard, unadulterated macchiato on its menu should be a warning sign to someone seeking this drink there – earning Starbucks just * star out of 5, for its employee at least giving the thing a try.