There’s something pleasingly pared-down and contemplative about divining the perfect espresso by getting to know the inner workings of a coffee machine, writes James Harkin
When Leonard Cohen, who liked to begin every day with a freshly pulled espresso, opted to become a Buddhist monk, he travelled to a monastery at the highest peak of the San Gabriel mountains in California and hunkered down in a tiny cabin in quiet contemplation: his only companions a laptop, a keyboard, a Menorah and a coffee machine.
After five years Cohen decided that he didn’t have what it took to be a monk, and slaked back down the mountain. It’s likely that after all that espresso, he just wasn’t very Zen.
Cohen crossed my mind a good deal in early lockdown, during the period when my Italian-made semi-automatic Pavoni espresso machine hissed its last.
It had been with me for 20 years, longer than any romantic relationship.
Lately, however, it had become so intemperate, so prone to flying off the handle and involuntarily spluttering (a phenomenon sometimes known as the ‘Pavoni fart’), that its ability to die just when I needed it most, just as London’s coffee bars closed their doors, struck me as typical.
My first call was to my own espresso guru, a South African called Haddon Rustin who’d successfully serviced it before. Neither of us bothered with the usual corona-pleasantries. We talked a little about its age and condition and Rustin informed me, with all the gravitas of a mentor, that my trusty companion had served me well but could no longer be brought back to life.
He could source me another Pavoni if I wanted. But it would take time, and, since coffee technology had moved on in the past 20 years, it wouldn’t be the same one. In other words, and in the first flushes of espresso withdrawal, I was on my own.
Espresso is the simple consequence of forcing nearly boiling water through finely-ground coffee under pressure. More so than any other coffee preparation, it’s as much about the machine as the beans.
That’s why you can make a perfectly good pour-over with no more than a gooseneck kettle and a conical filter, but an espresso machine can be as big and as noisily industrial as a motorbike. It’s worth the investment.
That laborious pourover, newly fashionable in hipster coffee bars, is likely to come with fanciful tasting notes about aroma, acidity and the origin of the beans. What drips out of the bottom of any decent espresso machine is far beyond notes.
It’s rocket fuel for the soul.
To get it right, you have to learn to love the machine. Stuck in working-from-home limbo, and with a whole world of internet videos and online deliveries at my fingertips, I set about finding a new one. First learning: the authors of espresso instructional videos skew towards chirpy middle-aged men who appear like they’ve recently found themselves single.
Perhaps that’s also why manufacturers tend to give their espresso machines pretty girl names. After serious hours of due diligence, I found myself drawn to a family-run Italian company called Lelit, which prides itself on its stainless steel boilers: from a semi-professional range which included Glenda, Grace and Diana, I chose Anna.
She arrived a week later and I began pulling dozens of practice shots, using a huge sack of beans as instructed, to try her out. It soon wasn’t enough.
Anna’s sleek 1950s lines were gorgeous, but despite my best efforts her shots tasted a little bitter and thin in crema, especially compared to the espresso porn I was spending my evenings ogling on the net.
What I remember from the fugue of the following few weeks is the endless arrival of accessories from every corner of the world until, late one evening, my mouse settled on the Flair Pro 2 – an entirely manual, selfassembly machine which involves using a makeshift lever and a few other bits to force water through the coffee grounds.
The Flair Pro doesn’t even require electricity, just a kettle to warm the brew head and the water. To the untutored eye it looks like a sex toy. Five days later, and all the way from Irvine in California, it was deposited at my door.
Its component parts came in a natty little briefcase; putting them together to pull a shot made me feel like a metrosexual assassin. Then there was the satisfyingly aggressive arm-wrestle of the lever, pulling down slowly to deliver my own pressure and watching the shot squeeze out like cinnamon nectar, which made me want to do it again and again.
It was a dangerous game. Setting up simultaneous shots on both machines to taste the difference left me at my kitchen table surrounded by finely ground espresso, like a coffee-addled Scarface. It also required sipping a little of every shot, which led to bouts of panicky insomnia.
My girlfriend, heavily pregnant and right off her espresso, was initially grateful that I’d acquired a hobby but soon took the view that all my shots looked the same.
I was only getting started; at one point I was tugging on the lever so often and with such ferocity that I pulled a muscle in my back. My dark night of the soul mirrored that of the late and legendary food critic Jonathan Gold, who, determined one day to source Los Angeles’s finest espresso, reportedly downed 27 shots before arriving, trembling and sweating, for dinner with some friends.
According to a New Yorker profile of his work, he ‘started to panic and begged the group not to get dessert’. When someone ordered tiramisu he ‘burst into tears, ran out of the restaurant, and took the bus home’.
Not very Buddhist, then.
Closer to a martial art for the effete. But in the age of the coronavirus, there’s something pleasingly pared-down and contemplative about divining the perfect espresso by getting to know the inner workings of a machine. Think of it as Zen via the art of coffee machine maintenance.
If I ever go on a spiritual journey, or find myself caught short in the next lockdown, know that henceforth my coffee machine comes strapped to my person, that you’re dealing with someone who can build his espresso from the ground up.