Bialetti, oh Bialetti

I reconnected with an old squash foe on Tuesday – Colin Eye. Colin and I have had innumerable court-based battles over the years, and he has often emerged victorious, being younger, fitter and faster.

After a long squash-playing hiatus for both of us, however, the disparity in athleticism is less marked, middle-aged portliness being a great leveller, and movement around the court could best be described as lumbering. I found myself wistfully recalling the days when I was able to change direction swiftly and without the assistance of the momentum gained from having crashed heavily into a wall immediately prior.

The result of the contest shall remain forever shrouded in mystery, as it would be churlish and graceless of me to be anything other than magnanimous in victory. Even a victory so crushing as that one.

Afterwards, between gasps and gulps of water, we wondered aloud when the pain would kick in properly. The next day, or the day after that? 

The next day, it turned out. My body, impatiently, decided it couldn’t wait for the day after tomorrow to arrive, and protested loudly regarding my reckless attempts at athleticism every time I tried to stand up, or perform any other routine function.

Wiseman got in touch on Wednesday. Sent me a link to an article he thought I’d appreciate. The article was entitled The Humble Brilliance of Italy’s Moka Coffee Pot. In it the writer regales us with not only the history of Bialetti’s stovetop coffee pot, but the history of coffee, and in particular its brew methods, from the dawn of time. Or the dawn of coffee being discovered, at least.

It was a wonderful and fascinating read, and I did appreciate it. I love my moka pot. I’ve made coffee that way every morning  for more years than I can now remember, even taking it with me on my travels, excepting those mornings when I was staying somewhere with an induction hob. Although I note that Bialetti now make an induction hob-compatible version, which I am considering purchasing purely for the five days in every four years or so that I spend in an induction-hob-equipped house.

I’ve found the moka pot provides a more consistently good, strong cup of coffee than any other home brewing method I’ve used. I have recently become a fan of the Kompresso espresso maker too, especially while travelling, but at home the moka pot remains my default coffee brewing device. 

The article, splendid as it was, was irredeemably spoiled by the news, right at the beginning, that Bialetti – the company that invented the moka pot, and still make the best version – is in serious financial trouble and struggling to compete due to the proliferation of pod machines. Globally, but even in Italy.

*&!!%# pod machines. *&!!%# George Clooney. 

Learning that Italians are choosing to make coffee at home from artificial capsules rather than their trusty moka pots is a hammer blow akin to discovering that Starbucks had successfully opened stores in Paris. And, only last year, in Milan. 

Oh Milano, Milano, how could you let this happen?

Is nowhere and nothing sacred anymore? I am grieved, dear reader, grieved. I feel sure that these events are referenced in the book of Revelation as signs of the end of days.

I could tolerate pod machines while they remained in their place, their place being in the kitchen of the undiscerning coffee drinker who values speed and convenience over taste and quality. But now that they’ve successfully wormed their way into the homes of even discerning coffee aficionados, my own dear sister and the whole of Italy included, I am most grievously vexed. The urge to panic-buy 3-cup Moka Express stovetops is strong.

It’s time to take to the streets. Or at least start an online petition.

Hold tight, Bialetti. I’ll be over here drinking proper coffee and listening to records, while the real world gradually digitises itself and becomes available only through a Virtual Reality headset on a streaming subscription basis.

The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think I’ve maybe skipped denial and gone straight to anger. Bear with me, dear reader, while I work through this…

Starbucks drive-thru fail

Decided to try out the Starbucks drive-thru this morning. Was on my way to the DMV (American DVLA) to ascertain how I might perchance obtain a Tennessee driver’s licence. Having been warned by Alyn that this could take some time, I realised that skipping my coffee this morning at breakfast might not have been such a good plan, and resolved to visit Starbucks.

Now, a word here about Starbucks, since earlier in these pages I have been, um, forthright in my condemnation thereof. I am still not a fan as such, but have now had three Starbucks coffees in the States, and they have all been OK. Not outstanding, but definitely ok.

But Starbucks is on the way to the DMV, and they have a drive-thru, and getting out of one’s vehicle for anything other an emergency is frowned upon here.

And so it was that I arrived at the window, where the nice lady asked me for $4.32. I did wonder if she might be prophetic, as I hadn’t ordered anything yet. And it transpired that somehow I had managed to avoid ordering anything at the intercom-thing earlier in the drive-thru queue and she was charging me for somebody else’s venti iced triple shot pumpkin latte extra soy decaf. I am conscious that I was listening to WSM country music radio, but not *that* loud. This basic inability to use a drive-thru was kind of mortifying. It’s not as if we don’t have drive-thrus in the UK. Anyhow, the rest of the exchange went like this.

“Not a problem, so what can I get you?”

“Black Americano, small please”

“Where are you from?”

“Uh, Ireland”

At this point she screwed up her face and banged her hands on the counter, exclaiming “DARN YOU!”

I looked appropriately puzzled. She apologised for darning me.

“It’s only my favourite place!” she explained.

“Oh,” I said, “Have you been?”


I love this.

“But it’s top of the list!”

I warned her to lower her expectations.

She gave me the Americano on the house, because “it’s not every day we get someone from Ireland in here.” I might have pointed out that I will be in there every day for the next 9 months if they keep giving me free coffee, Starbucks or no…

Decision Time

Westin O’Hare Hotel

15 September, 6am CDT

I know objectively that this life change I’ve undertaken is a big decision, but when people point that out to me, while acknowledging that it’s true (it must be), I’ve felt like shrugging and smiling.

This has been one of the easier decisions I’ve had to make in my life. I’ve had more stress trying to work out what to do with a free Saturday morning (ok, I need to get this, this and this done…would make more sense to have breakfast at home, save time and money…BUT I would really like to have brunch at Indigo Yard…but that’s going to take up a bit of time, agh, agh AGH!) than I have making the decision to sell most of my worldly assets and head to the States.

This decision has been signposted by God to me through various means since the beginning, and he has smoothed the way all along. It has taken faith, but my experience has always been, and never more so than now, that he rewards you for stepping out in faith for him.

This morning I am faced with another big decision. My bag didn’t make it to Chicago (never mind Nashville) last night, and in my carry-on luggage I have a number of life’s necessities (such as a baseball mitt) but no underwear.

So, yesterday’s pants or go commando? Uncomfortable grottiness or the risk of being deported for indecent exposure at airport security when I have to take my belt off and my trousers fail to stay up..?


Chicago O’Hare Airport

15 September, 8am CDT

Now in O’Hare having a breakfast burrito and Pepsi. I feel it’s important to try to embrace American culture early on.

It’s tempting to say everything went wrong on yesterday’s journey, but the reality is that all the important things went right. That is, they let me in the country. And so two delayed flights and one missed flight, a missing bag with all my clothes and an important chocolate consignment for chez Jones in it, don’t seem so bad after all. And I got an overnight in a Westin hotel, which Alyn informs me is an upmarket Sheraton, and certainly felt like it, courtesy of AA. American Airlines, that is, just for clarification.

They also supplied me with a voucher for breakfast, which upon arrival at the hotel restaurant, I realised totalled $7. 

“What can I get for $7?” I asked my server.

“Uh, a coffee is $5.50, more like $6 including tax.


I had to resort to the Starbucks outlet in the lobby. The day can only improve from here 🙂

Starbucks and skiing

Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, was interviewed in the Guardian today. I learnt of how he was inspired to build a chain after his first visit to Italy in 1983. Seriously? How can a visit to the home of beautiful coffee have spawned such a monster? How much better the world would be if he’d restricted himself to building daisy chains.

I read of how he’s planning to refit 100 UK stores this year, making their interiors more individual and in tune with their local area. Oh, the irony. Starbucks, the destroyers and growth-stunters of bona fide independent local coffee shops the world over, are to copy their approach. Stick to bland, bitter homogeneity Mr Schultz, it’s what you’re good at.

I also read how Peter Mandelson, responding to some derogatory comments from Schultz regarding the UK economy, launched a foul-mouthed tirade in his direction back in February. I found myself developing a soft spot for Mandelson all of a sudden. Perhaps I should stop reading the Guardian, it’s becoming unhealthy.
Still feeling the post-holiday blues after skiing, and wondering if I’ve maybe overlooked several hundred pounds in my current account somewhere that would allow me another trip this winter. I fear not. I have eulogised enough about the delights of skiing before now, but something new struck me on this trip – the uniqueness of each run down the mountain.

On Friday, we were making our way down the valley via a series of runs and lifts. Mel, one of the more talkative hobbits in the party, had fond memories of a particular run called Jerusalem, and en route to it, we found ourselves on a chairlift, ascending directly over a blue piste which was (a) groomed, (b) sunny, (c) virtually empty and (d) looking like a lot of fun. “Looking like a lot of fun” means it had a lot of bends which looked like they might like to be taken at high speed. So we postponed our pilgrimage to Jerusalem, temporarily, and bombed down this run instead. Twice, both times without stopping. Strictly speaking, I did come to something of a stop first time round, having misjudged the racing line somewhat through a bend, and slid horizontally off the piste, over a ridge and out of sight of MacRae and Kirsty, who claimed to be hard on my heels. Now, it being a fast run, and there being boys involved, it had developed into something of a race, without anything being expressly mentioned to that effect. When MacRae saw me crash and slide off the piste out of sight, potentially surrendering my hard-earned lead, he was (a) delighted, and then (b) momentarily concerned for my welfare. So he stopped, as did Kirsty, or so they tell me, and called out to see if I was alright. I did actually hear them call out, but considered the fact that I was back up on my feet and skiing on to be an adequate answer to their enquiry, so didn’t visibly acknowledge it. I didn’t realise they had stopped, and so as I got up, dusted myself off and skied back on to the piste, still in the lead, I quietly congratulated myself on being so far in front that I’d had time to fall over, laugh for a bit, and still be in front when I returned to the ‘race’. I didn’t hear MacRae loudly calling me a fascist at this point, but took all his abuse on the chin once we’d got to the bottom, and got our breath back.

It should be noted at this stage that Mel would have destroyed all of us in a race, real or imagined, had he been strapped on to his customary snowboard. However, he had chosen that day to temporarily reject the dark side, and use skis instead. I believe he had a grand old time, burning quads notwithstanding.

So the point of all that was to explain that the next day we went back to this piste and it wasn’t nearly so much fun. There were more people on it, which meant we had to ski more circumspectly, it wasn’t as sunny, and the piste wasn’t in quite such good nick. Every day is different, and the same run is different on different days. Which means that each time you do a run it’s a unique event, and adds to the joy of the experience such as we had on Friday, as you know that it’s not always possible to recreate those conditions again.

Carpe diem…

Camping and Clapton

“We’re going camping for the weekend!” Alison had announced a week or two ago.  So I did have some warning, but nothing quite prepared me.  Alison and Sebastian collected me from the City Airport in the Passat Estate, which was packed to the gunnels with all manner of camping equipment, and some equipment not conventionally associated with camping.  Like king size duvets, for example.  “I don’t really do camping,” my sister explained.  There was barely room for my luggage.  I was glad I had decided to travel light.
Camping on the south coast of England is somewhat different to my previous camping expeditions in Scotland and Ireland.  The ground, not to mention the air, is somehow drier and warmer.  After a pleasant lunch of baguettes and pork pies, Angela and I set to work on putting up the tent, while Alison blew up the airbeds and made a cafetière of coffee.
Later I poked my head into the tent to find my sister kitting out the beds with organic Egyptian cotton sheets.  Like she says, she doesn’t really do camping.
But we all did it, and survived.  Despite a decent thunderstorm threatening to rip the tent away from its moorings in the early hours of Monday morning, apparently.  I was oblivious to it all.  Ah, the value of good earplugs.
We retreated back to London yesterday, once the tent had dried out a bit.  I showered and changed and shot straight out again.  I had tickets for Eric Clapton, and I didn’t want to be late.  I wasn’t, as it turned out, and it was a great night.  I was there with my friend Iain, who also accompanied me to see Clapton this time last year, in Hyde Park.  This time round, it all felt a little more… civilised… which was, I suppose, entirely reasonable and to be expected given that it was in the Royal Albert Hall.  A magnificent venue, and we had brilliant seats, but all in all I preferred last year.  The band was slightly different this time, Doyle Bramhall II having been replaced by Andy Fairweather-Low, who was curiously subdued throughout, only getting a solo spot once, towards the very end.  In my experience, a band feeds off its audience to a large extent, and with a crowd of well-behaved mostly forty-to-sixty-somethings, all sitting down, as compared with last year’s younger, sunshine-and-alcohol-fuelled crowd, nothing was going to get set alight.  And with Clapton on the seventh night of an eleven night stint, I suppose the band were going to be on auto-pilot to a certain extent anyway.  ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ was certainly an unwelcome addition to the set-list from where I was sitting, and the acoustic version of ‘Layla’, while great in its own right, is not quite as, um, electric as the original.  Anyway, it was a good experience, and I’m glad I was there.
Today was a chance to recharge the batteries a little, although I ventured into the East End in the afternoon.  Got a little lost, and found myself passing the end of St Mary Axe, a street which houses the organisation that regulates my profession.  I considered popping up to their offices to see if any of their staff were doing enough work to merit our scandalous retention fee, but opted to try and find a record shop instead.  I ended up in a hip coffee shop on Brick Lane.
“Black coffee, please.”
“Americano or filter?”
The girl hesitated as her eyes fixed on my t-shirt.
“Can I read your t-shirt?”
The strap of my man-bag was obscuring the anti-Starbucks logo.  She was clearly concerned that it was an actual Starbucks t-shirt I was wearing.  I moved the strap.
“Oh, that’s cool.  We like that.”  Her colleague behind the counter chuckled.
Phew.  I was relieved that I was considered ok to drink coffee there.  I glanced up at the board on the wall above the counter to discover  “Chav Coffee (filter)” in the list of drinks available. Phew, again.  I settled down at a table with a left-behind copy of the Guardian, and tried to look nonchalant.
Tomorrow sees my second visit to a renowned London arena in three days. This time it’s Lord’s, for a Twenty20 thrash between Middlesex and Kent, where the newly-installed floodlights at the home of cricket are set to be used for the first time.  And I get to catch up with another old friend.  This holiday lark is just the thing.

Summer of Hope

“What’s the time?” asked Wiseman, nibbling the last morsel on his plate.

“Seven thirty” I replied, and grimaced. “Could totally have made the 7.30 showing.”

He nodded.

“Shops shut at eight, though,” I said. “Could go for a browse?”

We were having dinner in Ocean Terminal, last Saturday evening. Cricket had been cancelled due to the inclement Scottish weather, and Wiseman and I had landed upon a film that both of us would conceivably enjoy (Star Trek). We had bought tickets for the 8.30 showing to allow us plenty of time to eat, but the eating hadn’t taken us as long as we thought it might. We paid the bill and headed off for a mosey around the shops. They were all shut, obviously. Apart from Starbucks. We decided to do laps of the shopping centre instead. Is it not about time Starbucks went bust? Do people not forgo their overpriced cups of bitter-tasting ridiculously-named coffee in a recession? Apparently not.

I found myself at the doctor’s last week. Rushing in, slightly late, I made use of their hi-tech touchscreen self-check-in system, and took a seat in the waiting room. I resisted the seductive delights of Trout & Salmon magazine, and pondered instead on who thought it would be a good idea to install a touchscreen in a GP practice. Probably got swine flu now.

Today is Saturday again, and I would be playing cricket, but am en route to London for a week’s holiday. Have had an utterly seamless journey so far, no doubt due at least in part to having chosen to fly BA rather than easyjet. No queues at check-in, no mad scrum to get on the plane, no paying for your food on the flight (puréed breakfast comes as part of the package). Love it.

Sitting on the plane, looking out at England’s green and pleasant land bathed in sunshine, the summer is stretching out in front of me, full of optimism. Buoyed by a decent batting performance for the Holy Cross 3rd XI in my opening game, I’m actually looking forward to the forthcoming season. That’s if I can get my availability and a sunny day to coincide. The British and Irish Lions are about to depart for an eagerly-anticipated tour to South Africa, and the Aussies arrive soon for the Ashes. It’s beginning to bug me (now, four years on) that Sky have the exclusive rights to England’s home Test matches. Scandalous. With this kind of summer ahead, it would almost be worth getting Sky myself. Oh, and a TV.

Maybe not. My Sky Sports-subscribed friends have been warned…

It’s not all doom and gloom

I apologise for the lack of bloggage recently. I would dearly like to tell you that the hiatus has been due to my spending quality time with an outstanding woman, but I’m afraid the quality time has been spent with Commandos 2: Men of Courage, and the outstanding woman remains afar off. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as Burma has been more or less liberated, and I am currently in the process of rescuing a Resistance man from Colditz. No easy task, as I’m sure you can imagine. However, I have looked up from my computer screen long enough to pick up a copy of the Guardian, wherein I read an article on the world’s finest (and most expensive, surely) coffee maker, the Clover. This mostly hand-made machine makes coffee so good that retailers can afford to charge getting on for £10 a cup. Step forward Starbucks, purveyors of evil-tasting coffee. According to the article, Howard Schmuck, or is it Schultz, the Dark Angel in charge of the Starbucks Legions, was so upset that they no longer had the most overpriced coffee on the high street that he promptly bought the company that makes the Clover. Which means that if the coffee from these things really is that good, independent coffee shops will no longer have access to it, which is a dastardly ploy typical of the fiends.

Or perhaps it’s just a successful capitalist tactic. And here’s where I struggle. I can consider myself both a capitalist and a socialist, depending on which way the wind’s blowing at the time. I buy the Daily Telegraph from time to time, and the Guardian at other times. I sometimes even read them, and find myself amused by their extreme right and left winged-ness. I wear, with some pride, a T-shirt bearing a mock-up of the Starbucks logo with the words “Big Bucks Capitalism” replacing their name, and bask in the compliments from dissident-minded student types who like it. But I work for a company that is essentially capitalist in nature, and enjoy it. As I see it, capitalism rewards hard work. A socialist approach, while brilliant in theory, will inevitably be milked by those in our society who can’t be bothered to work and are more than happy to live off the hard work of others. But capitalism is also fallible, and susceptible to corruption, by corporations who grow too large to be bothered with ethics. Starbucks, I am sure, don’t even feature on the map of the world’s most unethical companies. They obtain their coffee from Fair Trade sources, I am assured, and pay the best prices for it. But somewhere along the way they make it taste really bad (I know, I know, that’s a matter of opinion) and charge outrageous prices for it (that’s indisputable) and place their outlets in every street in every land, even in France, where they should know better, adding to the global homegeneity and making me upset. And that’s, more or less, why I don’t like them.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Starbucks were referred to in the article as an “ailing coffee giant”. How I like that description. Jones informs me that 650 out of 830 Starbucks have closed. I presume he means in Australia, which is where he was when he told me that. And presumably they’re properly closed this time, rather than closing for a few hours to teach their baristas how to make coffee (you’d think they might have thought about doing that earlier).

When Starbucks finally falls catastrophically from its position in the global financial firmament, there’ll be a party at my place, and you’re all invited. Let’s hope it’s not overly soon, though, as my kitchen ceiling collapsed last week under the weight of a not insignificant amount of leaking water from upstairs. Not a problem, mum has returned to her position as chief cook and clothes washer, and I have moved my Command Centre to the living room. Colditz has been conquered (this blog was a while in the writing) and I’m about to liberate Paris. Vive la Résistance!