Field Trip: Widening the senses with Turkish coffee

I recently had what was – without a doubt – the strongest coffee I have ever had. This is not a mild statement, as I have come to be known as one who likes her coffee notoriously brutish (like her men – just kidding). I have a reputation for making coffee so strong that my boss and mentor – a coffee veteran herself – says she needs to “shave her feet” after ingesting my brew.

Coffee is my drug of choice, the “black medicine” as the some American Indians call it. I have wondered, at times, like the rest of the country, whether this love of something so mood-enhancing and engine-revving is healthful or harmful. Every other week there is a litany of possibilities both hopeful and dire – coffee is full of antioxidants; it raises your blood pressure; it lowers your cholesterol; it helps you lose weight; it causes you to gain weight…blah, blah, blah. It becomes so fatiguing to monitor, one requires a cup of espresso just to follow along. I’m going to stop paying attention, until I feel otherwise. I choose life. I choose coffee.

I came to coffee late in life – at the ripe old age 25 when I was hanging out with a friend who didn’t arise much before noon and drank his coffee into the wee hours. Up to that point, the only coffee I had ingested had been childhood sneaks of it here or there at family gatherings, where I crowded the cup with so much sugar and Coffeemate, the coffee presence was nearly undetectable. Somehow I had managed to make it through four years of college fueled only on the caffeine from sodas (including, during one notorious all-nighter, Jolt cola with a chaser of No Doz tablets). Once I began taking coffee with my night owl friend, I developed quite a taste for it, and there was no turning back.

And as the years have advanced (and perhaps to make up for my late start), I have loved the black medicine in stronger and stronger levels of concentration (I’ve learned my limits, too – near hysteria means it’s time to stop), often enjoying it free of any dilution such as cream, creamer, half and half, steamed milk or any of the frou-frou embellishments one can have that turn coffee into a milkshake. I like it dark as the midnight hour. I prefer one of the darkest roasts, such as Italian where the beans are deep black and shiny as beetles. I believe I make my coffee at espresso voltage through genetic default. My mother’s coffee, as my dad puts it, is so thick “you could slice it with a knife.” I have come to refer to this as “A KANSAS GOOD MORNING!!!!!” If you’re going to have anything, whether it be coffee or a candy bar, why not have it at its fullest potential. There is nothing so depressing as a weak cup of coffee — I have poured more than one of them down the sink, my friends. Why bother?

AWS begins her day in a dark house, turning on very few lights. The brew has come from a varied cache of implements – an automatic drip coffeemaker, a stovetop espresso carafe (“Moka Express”) and the glass French press with plunger. She sits on the floor with a warm cup in her hand and an even warmer rabbit nearby. She doesn’t do much but wake up, occasionally she muses or even writes, but it is a mostly meditative time, coming alive for the day with caffeine-induced energy and the growing natural light. Coffee finds its way into the latter parts of the day, too. After lunch as a lift, AWS enjoys the delightful VIA instant coffee from Starbucks to carry her through the afternoon of work. And coffee sometimes serves as an accompaniment to evening dessert or as the finale to an evening meal all by itself.

Now, that is where this strongest cup of coffee comes in (you knew I’d get back to my point sooner or later, didn’t you?). Having a late lunch at an area Mediterranean eatery (Sahara Restaurant, 907 First St., Benicia, CA, 707-746-0505), I noticed Turkish coffee on the menu. The server said it was strong coffee brewed with cardamom. Ever intrigued by some unexplored interpretation of my favorite brew (and, after having annihilated a platter of falafel, feeling a bit sleepish), I ordered some to finish my meal.

The presentation of the coffee itself awakened my sense of adventure. The coffee arrived in a small exotic looking brass pitcher with a long handle accompanied with an innocent white demitasse cup. It was all terribly mysterious and exciting – the coffee thick and dark as river bottom mud, the spicy floral aroma of cardamom drifting off of it, as an unknown bloom enchants in a warm spring wind. A taste. I was hit – immediately — by the force of it, not in an alarming way, but in a near elevating way. A train whistle, if you will, loud and full of possibility. My eyes widened, my pores widened, my senses sharpening to animal-like awareness. The coffee flavor was deep, as deep and earthy as the darkest well. The cardamom (of which I had only previously had in teas), lightened the flavor with a lavender-lemon taste that reminded me of a restaurant in Southern California where the espresso was served with a lemon rind you rubbed along the edge of your cup. As it turned out, I got three cups of coffee from that small pitcher, enough to seize me and take me on a flying coffee carpet ride of sorts. I promptly went home and within a half hour, I was napping.

I’ve since learned that Turkish coffee (also referred to as Armenian coffee) is served around the world, and the term refers to the preparation, not the coffee itself, and there are various versions, some with cardamom, some without. Some are made with equal amounts of coffee and sugar. Sugar, according to “Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying” by Kenneth Davids, thickens the coffee, causing the grainy foam on top often desirable by many cultures (the version I had came unsweetened). Some include milk. All seem to be made of a dark roast coffee served with the grounds – finely powdered – unfiltered and dregs remaining. The exotic little pot is called an “ibrik.” Cardamom, a common spice in Middle Eastern fare, comes from a plant in the ginger family and is a digestive aid, thus making it a perfect enhancement for after-meal coffee. It can be found in whole green pod or finely ground in grocery stores with a good spice section.

I have not yet attempted to brew my own Turkish coffee yet, but may look for my own ibrik to add to my collection of coffee accoutrements.

One last note on Turkish coffee making it ever more mysteriously exotic, a detail that I had wished I had known before I had left the table of my first Turkish coffee experience. Apparently, you can see your future in the grounds remaining in your cup. As enlightened as my senses were from that coffee (however briefly), I believe it. One forecast I would have likely been able to make would be something really quite obvious: MORE COFFEE IN YOUR FUTURE.

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