Damned good coffee

Dante espresso.jpg

This morning I pressed the same button twice on the espresso machine by mistake and the water kept running into a very watered down brew. My sister, who as she does every morning came from her house next door to have a buchito (sip) of espresso, called it zambumbia, but she drank it anyway. I turned my eyes up and apologized to my father's spirit for having committed such a crime.

Like most, probably all, Cubans, dad had very strict notions about coffee. It had to be very strong (and loaded with sugar); anything else was zambumbia and basically undrinkable. In Cuba the word originally named water sweetened with sugar syrup, and according to historians it was given to slaves to bolster their energy. On Sundays the drink was fortified with aguardiente -- sugarcane eau de vie -- for the slaves' partying. This spiked zambumbia was probably an ancestor of the mojito.

Mutatis mutandi, the sugar-water's name got applied to watered-down coffee. At least it was where my father came from, a sleepy town in the middle of sugarcane country. Its two plosive b's allow the speaker to exaggerate the bombast, laced with scorn. That's how my father pronounced it. For scorn he definitely felt. And he just wouldn't drink it.

Curiously, he'd drink American coffee. Some aspects of American life fascinated dad in our first trip to the US -- Miami in the 50's. Two of them were Walgreens drugstores, which unlike Cuban pharmacies were all-night department stores with a coffee shop; and American coffee, which he believed was so weak that it could not rob him of sleep, so he'd drink it at night at a Walgreens counter before going to our hotel to sleep. Soundly.

He never thought of this radically watered-down coffee as zambumbia. It was a whole other species, and from the start he'd call it "coffee" even when speaking Spanish, while the Cuban version, the kind that could be ruined if it became the dreaded zambumbia, was always café. Many years later when he and my mom visited New Orleans they sampled the coffee at the Cafe du Monde and didn't like it, though I think it was my mom who most objected to the chicory in the brew.

Cuban coffee is nothing but sweetened espresso. Some will add sugar to the ground coffee before brewing, which is possibly more authentic. And, of course, it wasn't always espresso. By the time I was old enough to have it, usually with my dad, at Havana's sidewalk coffee stands, it was made by big Italian machines. At home and outside the city however, coffee was brewed in cloth bags. Eventually home devices were introduced and Cubans became as hooked on the stacked Bialetti coffeemakers as Italians -- today available in every Miami bodega. Trouble is that by then Cubans were also hooked on the crema, the coffee foam created by those powerful commercial machines. We call it espumita and this is how it's made at home.

You watch the little Bialetti on the stove until the first few drops slip out of the upright spout. Immediately, you pour those drops, and only those drops, in a cup with the sugar you want for the coffee, and you beat it all vigorously with a spoon until a thick fudge has formed. By then all the coffee has been brewed, so you pour that into the cup. Presto! A head of foam rises to the top. 

Today many home espresso machines have enough pressure to create foam -- and better tasting coffee. But they tend to be pricey. I remember wandering through a gourmet shop once and watching the demonstration of an $1,800 Italian machine that ground the beans, made the coffee and disposed of the grounds. This was years ago, so I imagine it'd cost more now. I sampled the espresso it made and, yes, it had a head of crema and tasted good. But at that price I'd expect it to teach me Italian and read me choice passages from Dante or project Antonioni films on the wall.

The first espresso maker my family owned was small but heavy, made of stainless steel, and it brewed decent coffee, but no espumita. We bought it at Havana's Sears and brought it with us to the States. We used it for years. When I got married my parents gave it to me and I used it for years. I don't know what became of it. It was certainly indestructible. Since then I've gone through many. These days I use one that takes pods, a truly guilty pleasure because the pods are expensive, I feel like a sloth for skipping the work of filling a coffeemaker with ground coffee (never ground my own), and the company that makes it is very politically and ecologically incorrect (you know which one).

But it makes crema/espumita. Possibly there's a circle in the inferno for my sins that the divine Tosco che per la  città del foco went around chatting up the damned could not have foreseen. But espresso is one of my addictions. And sloth is another.