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Beauty and the Bean

by Ann Zuccardy

Back in the mid-80s (yikes, was it really 20 years ago?), I was a young teacher working in New Orleans. To earn extra money, I worked part time across the street from my Magazine Street apartment, at PJ's Coffee and Tea. Having grown up on instant Maxwell House, I was not the most coffee-savvy drinker in the world.

In the days before Starbucks, before coffee houses became trendy and common, I learned the basics about roasting coffee beans and serving coffee from experts. I learned about coffee's origins, roasting methods, and how to prepare the ultimate cup. In my opinion, the best cup of coffee can only be made with a French press, a glass carafe in which you mix ground coffee, boiling water, and use a simple plunger-press device to push the grounds to the bottom when you want to serve the coffee. This is the best way to make coffee because you don't "cook" the coffee as you would in a drip machine. Cooking coffee releases its acidity and makes it bitter. I was so in love with my French press, I used to bring it on camping trips. There's nothing quite like rolling out of your tent in the woods at dawn, wrapping your cold hands around a warm cup (not a paper cup, perish the thought!) and sipping slowly as you tend the fire for your morning breakfast.

I might also argue that the cold drip method is up there with the French press. This method produces a coffee concentrate that you can keep in your fridge, but it's slow and I believe best suited for iced coffee, which is how I learned it at PJs.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-drip or anti-percolator. Heavens, no! For large scale convenience, there's nothing like machinery. I own a drip coffee maker and a Krups cappucino/espresso maker and use them frequently. When I'm bolting out the door in the morning, I fill my metal thermal mug (never plastic, ick!) with a dark, rich French roast. If it's a particularly good roast, I drink it black so as not to sully the flavor. If it's mediocre or I'm just in the mood for light coffee, I use Half-and-Half. No sugar in my coffee, thank you. My husband uses skim milk which upsets me to no end because it produces a grayish colored murky coffee I find unappealling. But hey, he likes it and as long as he knows never to use skim milk in MY coffee, we're cool.

Now about those flavored coffees...I often take flack for this, but let me say I am vehemently opposed to flavored coffee. Coffee IS a flavor, so adding additional flavor to it is like adding ice cubes and club soda to a pricey bottle of merlot. How would you possibly appreciate the personality of a bottle of wine if you added extra stuff to it? You'd change the entire personality of something elegant and simple and make it complicated and confusing. With coffee, as with many foods and drinks, simplicity is elegant.

Back in my coffee house days, we did not serve flavored coffees. We offered a dark roast, a medium roast, and a water-processed decaf to our customers along with an assortment of fresh baked goods, made from scratch by local bakers. We believed flavored coffees were just wrong because they covered up the true essence and beauty of the bean. Plus they weren't popular then. I know they are popular now. The rows of syrupy flavors in bottles lined up in some coffee bars are testimony to the popularity of flavored coffee. I'll pass, thank you.

To eat or not to eat with coffee? Again, keep it simple. Toast or an English muffin and a steaming cup of java comprise the ultimate breakfast. A medium roast in the afternoon with fresh biscotti is heaven. A demi-tasse of dark espresso with the tiniest slice of lemon rubbed around the edge of the cup allows me to linger and enjoy the afterglow of a perfect meal.

Ahhh, did I mention shortbread and coffee? Always appreciated, always appropriate, a wedge of Vermont Shortbread with your coffee is the ultimate in luxury and pampering. It's probably not something you'd eat every day, but for those times when you want to practice extra self-care, why not enjoy your coffee with the most elegant and simple of all cookies, shortbread?

When food and drink are pure, simple, and flavorful without being contrived, you will want to savor them slowly and purposefully. You will want to sit quietly with your steaming cup and your snack with your eyes gently closed and allow flavors, aroma, and warmth to dance their slow, sensual dance of comfort and nurturing. And guess what? The world feels a whole lot friendlier when you take the time to enjoy the simple beauty in your bean...or in whatever you're eating and drinking.

Ann Zuccardy, creative entrepreneur, food lover and owner of the Vermont Shortbread Company, invites you to sample a taste of her buttery-rich, authentic Vermont Shortbread. Place your online order for shortbread boxed fresh from the oven and shipped right to your doorstep at http://VermontShortbread.com

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