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Coffee anyone?

Walk around Melbourne and you’ll realise why it prides itself as the capital of coffee culture in Australia.

Quists, the oldest roasting house in the city, proudly displays old equipment from the 1930s.

Photo: Ranjita Biswas

Distinct flavour: A typical downtown cafe.

THERE are many kinds of walking tours: city tours, heritage tours, garden tours, you name it. But this was the first time I came across something like a Historical Coffee Crawl tour. It was in Melbourne. The city prides itself as the capital of coffe e culture Down Under. And rightly so. Thousands of them, ranging from the bohemian to the European style chic ones on Collins Street to the traditional coffee houses at Carlton, serve a bewildering variety of coffee. And now there is a tour for the coffee aficionados, to sample them and savour their history.

On our rendezvous with coffee in many avatars and gelato, the Italian ice cream, our guide was the effervescent Maria Paoli, a trainer of baristas, an accredited coffee judge, and a teacher. “The walk commenced three years ago but I have been in the industry for 16 years, starting off as a barista at a five star hotel in Melbourne,” she said. A descendant of Italian migrants in the aftermath of World War II, she was the right person to introduce us to Melbourne’s coffee culture. After all, the Italian connection is very much a part of it. There is even a Melbourne Coffee Review which is avidly followed by coffee lovers.

Expanding tastes

Coffee was first grown in Australia between 1880 and 1926, mainly producing the Arabica variety due to climatic conditions which does not sustain other varieties. But its production is not enough to meet the growing, and diverse, tastes and so the country imports extensively from all across the world from Brazil, Papua New Guinea to India. One of the most popular varieties is the latter’s “monsooned” Malabar. But when the bean first appeared in the Australian coffee market during the British colonial days, it was almost rejected. During its long passage through the sea from India’s southern coasts it was exposed to the humidity of the sea air and monsoon winds caused the beans to swell, lighten in colour to almost white. This was unfamiliar to the local roasters. But once it was reluctantly roasted, the intensely mellow flavour reminiscent of aged coffees made it an instant hit. When transport improved, the beans arrived in a shorter time; they were no longer white and hence not what roasters recognised as Malabar. They complained. So the beans were allowed to rest in open huts to expose them to moisture and produce the same result. Today, this taste is recreated by storing the harvested beans in special warehouses that allow moist monsoon winds to circulate around them. Monsoon Malabar AA is considered as the highest grade of monsooned coffees by experts.

In Melbourne’s cultural psyche, the café is a place synonymous with an oasis, a small intimate escape from the rush of a bustling metropolis. The love affair with the brew actually started in post-war emigrants, first the Greeks who gave a taste of “real” coffee to Sydney and then the second wave of them, the Italians, to Melbourne. The government too encouraged setting up of cafés to wean away drinkers from the bars as alcoholism was increasing. The 1950s saw the emergence of the type of café that is now common in inner-city Melbourne, essentially European in its cultural roots but patronised by people from diverse backgrounds.

The passion for coffee in Melbourne is evident from the fact that at every road corner you will come across a café offering many varieties, familiar to us: caffe latte, caffe mocha, to Long Black (espresso and hot water in equal parts), Short Black, Flat White (cappuccino without most of the froth), decaf-a-chinos, soy lattes, and not to forget espresso, Italy’s gift to the coffee culture. By the way, we learnt that the term means “pressed-out”, rooted in the Latin origin of the word, which is a “quick” way to prepare coffee. But in India, there is a common misconception that it refers to a brand of coffee as opposed to a method of brewing.

Major Australian cafés often have a barista, a word almost unknown five years ago but now a part of the vocabulary indicating the prevalent coffee-culture. Some espresso bars pay extra for qualified baristas who make great coffee, make it consistently and make it quickly. Barista is a term originating in Italy; it literally translates to “bar man” or “bar person”. In Italy, it is the person who professionally prepares espresso based drinks, as well as other non-coffee based beverages including those with alcohol, in cafes or “bars”.

However, Maria claims that statistics show that coffee drinking is on the decline in Italy while in Australia it is getting more popular. Also, here there is more emphasis on freshly brewed coffee, not the instant variety.

The coffee crawl

Our tour commenced from Antica Gelateria del Corso, the famous “affogato”, on Collins Street. The Italian word literally means “to drown”. Served over ice cream, affogato means drowning in coffee or espresso. It is usually a single scoop of vanilla gelato with a single shot of espresso poured over the top and served immediately. The flavour is simultaneously smooth and bitter. There is only a little more espresso than gelato, so if it is properly made, it should not melt the gelato too much, and you should get a nice combination of textures as well. Different gelato flavours (chocolate, for example) to get a Mocha Affogato or others can be tried too. Antica has truly an amazing variety. Not a place for dieters though.

The next stop was Quists, the oldest roasting house in the city, going strong since 1938 which proudly displays old equipment going back to that time. Its legends say, “An army marches on its stomach and a city functions on its coffee”. For connoisseurs’ information, it sells 16 different varieties of coffee.

Then there was the legendary Pelligrini, the original Cafe Bar opened in 1954 with the very first Gaggia Espresso Machine.

We went past Brunetti on Faraday Street, a Melbourne institution, where the Brunetti cake is equally famous.

Even the suburbs in Melbourne have great coffee houses, including Cafe Racer Marine Parade St. Kilda, where all the bike racers on the seaside promenade stop for coffee and Mailing Room Cafe in Canterbury found on Melbourne’s oldest shopping strip.

Indeed, the Coffee Crawl was a revealing experience. I never knew that there is so much behind a cup of coffee.


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