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My cups runneth over

Susan KurosawaFrom Nespresso machines in five-star hotels to turmeric lattes in Sydney and alarming deep 'plunging' in India, in search of great coffee.

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by Susan Kurosawa

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Many hotels provide guests with an in-room Nespresso machine, which is always a welcome sight and a generous gesture. But no praise can be given for the attendant supply of capsules, which will be puny, and always includes at least two that are decaffeinated and therefore so unloved by proper coffee drinkers that they are growing cobwebs, or possible tiny hipster beards. Some five-star palaces deem just a pair of capsules, displayed in a padded box and looking like minuscule Easter eggs, to suffice. As if.

The hospitality industry should never underestimate the passion of proper coffee drinkers, and especially if said connoisseurs are Australians. Oh yes, I am proud, as a Sydney resident, to announce that we are the world’s biggest and most fickle coffee snobs.

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We are a nation of continental immigrants who have a deep knowledge of coffee and would not tolerate Starbucks. In seven years, the coffee chain accumulated about US$105 million in losses and was forced to close 61 locations and head back to Seattle with its Starbucks Experience and white chocolate mocha frappes uncomfortably between its legs. The 40 or so that remain in Australia are located in tourist areas or drive-thru shopping malls.

{White-gloved waiters would approach with a silver tray on which sat an uncapped jar of Nescafe granules, a silver spoon and a fine china cup and saucer

Australian travellers have a rich repertoire of coffee disaster stories. In provincial France I have been served a cappuccino with cold swirled cream on top; in the far reaches of rural New Zealand, a version with condensed milk. Such crimes against caffeine are common but lest Australians feel too superior, it should be noted that if we insist on asking for the travesty known as a “latte” in Italy, then we should not be surprised if a glass of milk appears. Try “caffe latte” if you actually want coffee in it. Ditto for a flat white or short black, which are unknown in many countries, and rightly so in South Africa.

Years ago when travelling in India, Nescafe was deemed to be the height of sophistication, and white-gloved waiters would approach with a silver tray on which sat an uncapped jar of the powdered granules, a silver spoon and a fine china cup and saucer. Travellers were invited to mix their own, as if it were cocaine, not caffeine. At a fraction of the cost, excellent southern Indian coffee, robust and fragrant, was available everywhere.

My mother banned me from ever drinking instant coffee, deeming it the work of the Americans, and therefore the devil. She died before the advent of coffee-making machinery but would have loved my tale of being served coffee in a princessy tented pavilion near Ranthambore National Park by a handsome young waiter swirled in Rajasthani scarves who arrived with a glass cafetière and all the trimmings. As I welcomed him in my (admittedly utilitarian pyjamas) and savoured the aroma of brewed coffee ready to be pressed, he whispered, "Madam, may I plunge?"

Not that any of us should be scouring the globe for echoes of home but, really, who could drink the average cup of joe served across the USA, with the exception of NYC’s Italian cafes. Those silly drip-drip filter machines are still widely used, including on board Pride of America, the ship that cruises on round-trips from Honolulu, circling the lovely islands of Hawaii, where you must remain vigilant as coffee frequently comes laced with macadamia, vanilla and caramel.

I was aboard Pride of America a couple of years ago and when our little group of travellers made gagging noises and asked if there was proper coffee on board, we were directed to the Lavazza bar near the purser's desk. There was a surcharge and the queue was quite long and exclusively Australian so it turned out to be a very good way to meet all our fellow passengers from the (coffee) land down under.

If you are venturing to Australia, be prepared, gentle travellers, to encounter the likes of colourful moustache-making beetroot, matcha, cinnamon and turmeric lattes. To be attended to by hipster-barista chaps in full-length butcher's aprons. (Or barristers, as my late father called them, privately believing it would be preferable to be served a subpoena rather than a soya frappuccino.) To be quizzed forensically about the type of milk you wish - full, half, skim, skinny, low-fat, almond, coconut, goat's, camel's, yak's. To be treated to a superior smirk if you say something totally idiotic like, "I'll just have a coffee."

It's all rather wearying. There are some days when you could just give me a cream bun rather than a man bun, thanks, and a nice old-school cup of tea on the side.


Susan Kurosawa has been the travel editor of The Weekend Australian newspaper since 1992 and is the author of seven books. She drinks double-shot skinny flat whites in public and matcha lattes in darkened rooms.

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