The Coffee Sonata

hitchcock-notorious1

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no cup of coffee tastes as good as it smells. The same might be said of bacon and cigarettes. When I was a child I had two curious idees fixes of adventurous high romance in daily life. The first was the modest desire to possess a sponge bag, filled with toilet requisites: my first term of boarding at prep school both fulfilled and killed that fantasy. “My passion & my poison”.  The second was the yen to live on coffee and sandwiches. For many years this wish partially came true.

When I was at school we brewed up instant coffee from pre-dawn to dusk on charred gas-rings which burned with a spectral blue light in dingy corridors. We learned to drink Nescafe and Maxwell House black and unsweetened as our pocket money dwindled with the term. Coffee was served constantly: from the time we arose surreptitiously at 5am to attend to our neglected essays until we   reluctantly retired at 10 pm. At one stage I reckoned I was drinking at least 25 mugs a day, often more. No wonder we were all so lively and – well – ‘exuberant’. Like Balzac we were inflamed and maddened by the beverage.

Nowadays I am told that the sandwich is moribund – “The Great Sandwich is dead!” – elbowed out by cakes – “O! The CAKE!” – and miniature meals in little pots¤. But then as now I loved the idea of wonderfully aromatic and brilliantly coloured sandwiches. White waxy bread or brown granary bread lavishly buttered then daintily¤¤ plastered with ham, mustard, tomatoes, egg and cress, cream cheese and cucumber – and accompanied by stinging strong hot coffee “handed separately”. That heavenly contrast of smells and tastes: the bitter black coffee and the moist, well-stuffed snacks: yin and yang, absolutely. Even reading about such refreshment in novels – often called for after a shock or during a crisis – still makes my mouth water.

Gertie Lawrence used to sing about the experience:

“The things I long for are simple & few:
A cup of coffee, a sandwich and you”

(She “don’t need lobster or wine”).

The very word “coffee” (from the Arabic via the Turkish) is one of my favourites. I like the double F’s and E’s – the soft exoticism of of the assonance. I am prejudiced in favour of that old Hollywood writer Lenore Coffee simply of account of her exotic name. Ms Coffee’s movies turned our heads¤¤¤ just as the eponymous bean does. The drink originated in Abyssinia where the ancient Coptic monks used it to keep them awake during the prayerful vigils of the night. Contrary-wise I was assured many years ago that in Brazil it is served as a soothing nightcap.

Coffee chocolates, coffee eclairs and coffee ices. Coffee and walnut cake: now there’s a divine combination of taste, colour, texture and scent – the graininess and slight bitterness of the nut and the smoothness of the coffee. Coffee enemas; coffee grounds to deter the slugs – especially germane in this strange summer – and coffee perfumes.
At Les Senteurs you can smell coffee flowers whipped up with frothy cream and chocolate in MUSC MAORI. ( “You’re the cream in my coffee” – remember Marlene’s screen test for The Blue Angel? She always said it had been pinched by the Red Army in ’45, and eventually she was proved right).

Then there’s INTOXICATED – a scented jeu d’esprit that one can imagine being served up to the Empress Josephine, that connoisseur of perfumes, on a painted Sevres tray. Picture la belle Creole lolling in her great golden swan bed at Malmaison: the wallpapers and draperies are saturated in her favourite musk and rich jasmine oils of the Islands; the smell of 10,000 roses drifts through the windows. And mingling with all this, coffee – “hot as Hell, black as night and sweet as love” – fragrant with green cardamom seeds and precious glazed sugar from Josephine’s homeland in Martinique. An earlier femme fatale, the Dubarry, relied on coffee – among other things – to stimulate the appetites of Louis XV. Of a morning, early, he’d kindle the fire and she’d boil the water – “La France! Ton cafe!” Their little private bourgeois idyll, years before Marie Antoinette took up farming.

And most recently, please Ladies and Gentlemen, here comes 8 MARS 1764 by Pozzo di Borgo, premiering soon at Les Senteurs. More C18th redolence: an evocation of the era when the cult of coffee reached its peak. Cognac and bitter coffee; sweet incense, leather and glittering citrus notes. The life of the Corsican grandee, Carl Andrea Pozzo di Borgo, St Petersburg’s Ambassador to Paris, translated into immortal fragrance. (Before you ask – he never met Josephine; he was Napoleon’s mortal foe¤¤¤¤).

“There’s An Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil!” So, come, another cup? ‘

¤ Tesco sells a dear little pack of 2 hard-boiled eggs – exquisitely shelled – on a miniature bed of baby spinach. The perfect “snack on the track”.

¤¤ not too daintily, mind. “Be generous!”

¤¤¤ she scripted big hits for Flynn, Harlow, Crawford, Davis…

¤¤¤¤ though he achieved the distinction of being portrayed on film by Norman Shelley, an actor loved by millions as ‘Colonel Danby’ in The Archers.

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