LRK, Fernando Pessoa, and coffee

I came to Lisbon to write.

I got here Friday, following a lot of travel and those days of chaos that precede a long trip, and managed to check my email.  Period.  The rest of the day was travel and catching up with my daughter and son in law, who have lived here since October.

Saturday was a day with a goal: If I’m writing, I need a printer, since I am incapable of doing any extended work on a screen.  So my need determined the direction of our steps, into the town center.

Giant store located and conquered, printer identified, we could then relax and get on with such urgent matters as visiting the café where Portugal’s national poet, Fernando Pessoa, took root—and of course, a photo of yrs truly seated across the table from his bronze self.  (The chairs inside are an identical design, and every bit as uncomfortable.  Hard to imagine spending hours on them.)

Minuscule cup of startlingly powerful coffee drunk, traditional pastry shared, on we wandered to the second most important item on my shopping list: coffee.

To explain for a moment: I am not a coffee snob.  “Snob” suggests choices made for the purpose of proving one’s superiority in matters of fashion, and coffee is too vital a part of life for that.  My first real job, many and many a year ago, was selling coffee beans and tea leaves in a tiny store called, appropriately, The Bean and Leaf, where the press of customers was so leisurely I had no problem finishing my various university assignments and still having time to read novels from the nearby second-hand bookstore.  It was there the odor of coffee penetrated the deepest recesses of my brain, never to leave.

My first full-time, responsible job was managing a similar store, this one in a high-traffic, affluent town named Los Gatos.  We called the place Kaldi’s (now known as the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company) after the Ethiopian goatherd who first noticed that his lugubrious charges were remarkably cheery after they’d eaten from a certain bush, and decided to join them in sampling the berries.  Coffee became the drug of choice, first for Muslim holy men wishing to keep awake, then for the rest of the world when the coffeehouse spread from the Middle East to Europe and England, becoming the center of the Western world’s political and intellectual communities.

Religion, politics, and literature, all stimulated by a tiny pale green bean that when roasted becomes ambrosia.

In other words, coffee is important.

Which is a lengthy introduction to the next bit of Portuguese life.  Up the street from the giant store (everything in Lisbon is either up or down; nothing is flat for more than a few yards) was another stretch of urban landscape where trendy boutiques alternated with shops unchanged since the 1920s.  It was into one of the latter that my daughter led me, the Casa Pereira, and all the pores of my skin and lungs—do lungs have pores?—opened in pleasure: coffee.

I couldn’t see any, since the shelves of the dark, narrow little shop were crowded with shiny packets and the display cases showed mostly a boggling variety of candied almonds and other hard candies, but there was coffee here somewhere.  I sidled towards the dim recesses, spotted first two ancient grinders and then a small display of perhaps ten tidy mounds in small bowls: coffee.

Each mound had a neatly hand-written description, but they weren’t the kind of label we see in the US.  Three of these had place names and things like: 20% Robusta, 80% Arabica.

I grinned in recognition of the sign of true expertise, and with the realization of why the tiny espresso in the coffeehouse had pounded my heart like a mallet.  The bigger Robusta beans are grown in the lowlands, and have a higher caffeine content than the highland, and more subtly flavored, Arabica.  But they had two 100% Arabicas, both with unfamiliar names.

I summoned the resident translator, my daughter’s in-all-ways-excellent, Brazilian-Portuguese-speaking husband, and had him ask the small, elderly gentleman about the beans: Which had a flavor more like a Mocha (that is, deep and winey) rather than a Columbian (with its sharp, clean flavor)?

Six minutes later, the gent paused for breath and I got my translation: Portuguese coffee had traditionally been limited to that from Portuguese colonies, and the two coffees sitting before me were from those former colonies.  After some discussion, I asked for half a kilo of the Sao Tomé. He measured the beans, poured them into his once-red grinder (I might have to buy a printer here, but I’m not fanatic enough to buy a coffee grinder for five weeks’ stay) that was probably older than my daughter, waited a while for its burrs to work their way through the load, and brought out a plastic sleeve filled with aromatic powder.

My appreciation brought a smile to his face.

He neatly folded the top of the plastic bag close against the coffee and taped it down.  He then took the resulting corners, tapped the bag against the counter to settle it, folded the ears against the top, and taped them neat.  And turned the bag over to do the same with the bottom corners: no stray corners flapping around THIS gent’s coffee.

Then he took a ball-point pen and jabbed a small hole in the bag.

Because fresh coffee breathes.  If Folgers sealed its cans with the fresh-ground beans, they would swell alarmingly, which is why tinned coffee is allowed to stale first.  A small hole in the bag permits the exhalations to leave and the packet to remain tidy.

He performed the same ritual (minus the jab of his pen) with a square of white paper, slid the package into a plastic bag, and exchanged it for 11 Euros.

That coffee is what I drank this morning.  That coffee is singing through my veins now, as I prepare to begin the next Russell.

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  1. strawberry curls on March 22, 2010 at 5:57 am

    An ode to coffee…marvelous!


  2. Merrily on March 22, 2010 at 7:43 am

    Oh Laurie…now I so desperately want a cup of good coffee, and a ticket to Lisboa…neither of which is in the offing, at least not this morning.
    I had an aunt and uncle in Los Gatos, wish I’d known you were in that coffee shop when I used to visit them. What a small world it is, truly!
    And congratulations on finding your printer, we want nothing to interfere with your Muse.

  3. Erin on March 22, 2010 at 7:49 am

    Love the slight tangent on snobbery and totally agree 🙂

  4. TheMadLibrarian on March 22, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Ohhh yes… I recently discovered the joys of Mocca Java. Although I ‘buy local’ whenever possible and support our local growers, I still indulge in Mocca if I find some at a good price.

  5. Laraine on March 22, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    So nice to think of you having a Lisbon retreat to write, complete with excellent coffee! I don’t know why it is that coffee almost always seems to be richer, fuller, taste better when I’m travelling, but it does; so, it was great fun to read your account of the excellent coffee gentleman’s work. Much enjoyment to you, Laurie, and happy writing!

  6. Alexandra on March 30, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    I have read somewhere that coffee arrived in Europe through the Turkish occupation of Vienna, and changed the habits of drinking. People went from drinking beer since morning (and therefore being permanently slightly drunk), since water was not potable, to drinking coffee, and the stimulating bean encouraged philosophical and speculative discussions; the meetings around a cup of coffee paved the way for the “Siècle des Lumières”, and the Industrial Revolution!!
    Can you believe it? (I can).
    Anyway, thanks for sharing that experience with us, Laurie.

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