11 June 2007

Tea drinkers. What do they know?

I moved to Melbourne in 1991.

When I arrived, I was proudly informed that Melbourne was (and, I'm told, still is) the coffee capital of Australia.

Not really being a coffee drinker at the time, I bought this. I thought, "OK."

Now this sentence is a wonderfully predictable thing, because 80% of the time, the person who says it is then going to follow this non-falsifiable Popperian's nightmare up with the delightful and improbable statement, "You can't get a decent cup of coffee in Sydney."

This statement tells you a number of things about the person saying it:

A. They believe everything that they're told.
B. They believe that everyone from Tasmania without exception has 3 eyes and a hump; and
C. They haven't set foot north of the Murray.

Anyone who knows me knows that this sort of idiotic statement holds no truck with me, because in my case the following holds:

1. Having travelled between Melbourne and Sydney more than anyone else reading this blog (I really think I am not exaggerating here) I am in a wonderful position to judge relative coffee quality.
2. I have had both good and bad coffees in Melbourne and Sydney, and in roughly similar ratios.
3. The best cup of coffee that I ever had was in Melbourne, and it was at Pellegrini's in Bourke Street in the CBD.
4. The worst cup of coffee that I ever had, though, was also in Melbourne, and it was at the cafe next door to the cinemas at Chadstone Shopping Centre.

At about this point, anyone that I'm talking to about this really pointless yet annoying topic will turn to me and say, "well that's different. Chadstone's in the suburbs," which will confirm one additional thing about the person saying it:

D: They are a stuck-up inner city dwelling snob who isn't fit to have their car keyed by Shane and Hayley from Blackburn South.

Narre Warren and Endeavour Hills are as much a part of Melbourne as Fitzroy and Richmond are, no matter what Bruce and his partner Trevor from Windsor like to think.

Never mind that this is both a 'no true Scotsman fallacy' and a case for special pleading.

So it gives me great joy to finally have this to say about all you inner-city coffee drinking prats: You are all a disgraceful bunch of know-nothing hypocrites who wouldn't know your arabica from your robusta, if it reached up between your legs and latched you after having warned you in advance with postcards showing pictures of squirrels.

This has been building up for a long time.

The most pretentious strip of cafes in Melbourne is the one that occupies the business end of Acland Street in St Kilda. These cafes are so pretentious that legend has it that the following story actually took place:

"...so we went in and asked for a decaf soy cappucino with carob sprinkles and, after some deliberation between the waitress and the barista, we were asked to leave. The owner appeared as we were being shown the door and it looked for a moment as though he was going to request our presence in the back alleyway while he took to us with a plank with nails through the end of it. Fortunately the cafe next door was able to oblige..."

I know an experienced barista who works this strip, and she's told me that the regulars will return coffees that are burnt straight away.

Even if they're not actually burnt. Sometimes they just do it to show off. It's a bit like how if Russell Crowe doesn't like the waiting staff at the establishment, he allegedly will order the most expensive wine off the list, try it and claim that it's corked and refuse to drink it. He supposedly got halfway through a case of Chateau Mouton Rothschild once doing this, which I'd believe if not for the fact that Crowe allegedly only drinks Australian plonk.

But I digress.

It was a public holiday in Melbourne today. Normally, I'd reward myself by sleeping in on such a fine day, but I was feeling particularly masochistic so in a fit of self-flagellation, I woke up at 12.30 PM and went out to one of Melbourne's finest establishments for a late breakfast and a pot of tea.

"The full English and I'll have my eggs over hard, thanks and a pot of darjeeling, thanks," I casually requested from our waitress friend.

Her tone darkened as she asked, "Um sorry, we only do 'normal stuff' here."

"I'm sorry, 'normal stuff' isn't a term that I'm familiar with. Could you please elaborate?"

"Well, you can have your eggs fried, scrambled or poached. Also, I'm not sure we have the brand of tea that you've ordered."

"Over hard is fried, both sides, until the yolks have set. Darjeeling is not a brand of tea, it is a blend from the north-west of India, and it is one of Twining's biggest sellers."

"I'll see about your eggs, but I can't promise anything," she said. I was a bit shocked at this.

She continued, "and you can choose your tea from the following: English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Green tea, Peppermint, Chamomile and Apple & Cinnamon."

Now only one of these is a black tea. Earl Grey is a tisane. Peppermint, Chamomile and Apple & Cinnamon - FSM only knows what the hell is in those.

"OK." I gave in. "English Breakfast."

Now I may only have been having breakfast at 2.30 PM in the afternoon, but it was the afternoon. And English Breakfast is a breakfast blend, for crying out loud.

And this is where I get lost with the macho posturing about Melbourne's "coffee culcha." It's contrived and silly. It's more than just a little bit wrong. It smacks of hometown parochialism.

It's simply not good enough to not know, if you are offering fried eggs, the difference between sunny side up and over hard. It's not good enough to offer only one kind of black tea, and a breakfast blend, at that.

And, this appears to be considered blasphemy, but I doubt whether the majority of Melbourne's baristas would know the difference between a ristretto and a short black. I already know that of the baristas I know, if you asked them to detail the difference between a caffe latte and a flat white, most of them would tell you that it's only the vessel that it's served in.

And I know that on one street - supposedly Melbourne's coffee-drinking heart - if you were to ask for a Vienna, you will get the most strangest of looks, as though you've just sacrificed your first-born on the table.

This is rubbish.

All I want is a decent coffee. Not excellent, but decent. I admit that I get that, but I query the pretence and the ignorance that goes along with it.

And if I order breakfast I would like to have some real choice as to how I get my eggs. Fried does not mean either sunny side up or over easy.

Lastly, if I order tea, I do not want to hear the sheer ignorance of cafe owners who simply don't know their orange pekoe from their china black. Tea is not just English breakfast. Earl Grey is a tisane and peppermint and chamomile are abominations.

It's just not good enough.

11 comments:

Plonka said...

Nice one Dikkii. I love the "Melbourne v. Sydney" thing. I don't know why it exists, but it can be a lot of fun, so I think I'll just wade right on in...:)

"You can't get a decent cup of coffee in Sydney."

There was a time when you could but alas, I moved back to Melbourne and took my machine with me...:)

The best cup of coffee that I ever had was in Melbourne, and it was at Pellegrini's in Bourke Street

Naturally. It's had that reputation for quite some time now and is not about to relinquish it to some upstart that doesn't know the difference between a short mac and an espresso. And the linguine is exquisite...:)

The worst cup of coffee that I ever had, though, was also in Melbourne, and it was at the cafe next door to the cinemas at Chadstone Shopping Centre.

Well naturally. It's had that reputation for quite some time now and is not....you get the picture...:)

As for the Acland Street incident, I'm with the first guy. I probably would have followed them next door though too, just to make sure the lesson got through.

I do commiserate with you however, as to the sorry state of tea knowledge in this city. I am an avid tea drinker myself and find recently that I'm more often than not confounded by tea houses (both city and country) that think rock cakes and Liptons tea bags are a suitable substitute for fresh scones and Darjeeling or a good strong Prince o' Wales. The shame of it all. Whatever happened to the Country Women's Association? They used to pride themselves on such things...

Dikkii said...

G'day Plonka:

There was a time when you could but alas, I moved back to Melbourne and took my machine with me...:)

Heh heh heh. Never realised you spent time up there.

...And [Pellegrini's] linguine is exquisite...:)

I'm going to have to give it a go. I don't think I've ever eaten there - unless coffee counts. Or the odd slice of cake.

Not sure where I stand on the old "decaf soy cappucino with carob sprinkles" thing.

On the one hand, the fact that someone asked for this seems ludicrous in the extreme.

On the other hand, if a cafe owner is so precious about coffee that they refuse to serve anything other than classic ingredients, this is not good.

But putting both of those aside, the whole story is laughable in the extreme.

The CWA? They know the importance of a good cup of tea. They're a group you hear less and less of lately.

And you're right. Tea houses in the country are just as bad. A decent cup of tea is a vastly underrated commodity in my book.

Plonka said...

Dikkii: Yeah. A year or so while I serviced a contract with a fledgling Optus, way back when. I started about 3 months before they went live.

The CWA? They know the importance of a good cup of tea.

Not to mention a fresh scone baked just so...:)

Dikkii said...

Mmm. Scones.

Kathryn said...

I don't drink coffee. I don't care whether coffee is better in Melbourne or Sydney - except that I've started to wonder whether hot chocolates are better at a place that can make good coffee.

Don't start me on hot chocolate. Okay I've started:
1. "Hot". This does not mean luke warm.
2. "Chocolate". This does not mean flavoured with Cottee's chocolate topping.

Why is this so hard?

Dikkii, according to your own included Wikipedia link, Earl Grey is "black tea with bergamot ... Such preparations are varieties of tea, not tisanes."

But other than that, I agree with you in that it is a shame that, with such a variety of teas, blends and even tisanes available, if you want a cup of tea, 9/10 times you're charged $3.50 for a cup of warm/hot water with a 20c tea bag in it, Twinings if you're lucky, and Liptons grass clippings if you're not. For $3.50, I want a pot of hot water, loose leaf tea, strainer, jug of milk (even though I don't use it) on a tray. Sugar, lemon and honey optional. Fine bone china tea cups would be nice too. With matching saucer.

Plonka, you're right on the money with the scone... Ooh yeah, nothing quite so nice a a good pot of tea, a fresh, home-baked scone or two, some homemade jam, with cream...

If I ever make it to Devon, I may not make it out again...

Oh, Dikkii, as a fellow Melbourne suburbs dweller, I appreciate the comment re: inner city snobs. Sometimes you wish they'd pull their heads out... Get out of their concrete jungle every now and then... How often do you think these people more more than 10km from the CBD? (Apart from ski season). There's more to this place than lattes.

But last thing I heard, Shane and Hayley have been forced out of Blackburn South by the rising rental market - I think they're in Rowville now. I'm sure they'd still be happy to key your car, though.

(sorry, I crapped on a bit again)

Dikkii said...

Aw Kathryn. "Hot" chocolate. Do not get me started on this one.

Re Earl Grey - I was wondering when someone was going to click on the link. I don't really care what Wikipedia says - it's got bergamot in it and it tastes like soap. That's a tisane to me.

There is nothing better than a good cup of tea. Bone china makes it so much better.

The backlash against inner city wankers starts here. And I'm in a position to criticise - I was one for many years.

Shame about Shane and Hayley having to move from Blacky South - they were having such fun too, what with Shane's new HSV Commodore and Hayley's friendly pit bull pup.

You need a blog of your own, Kathryn. But in the meantime, feel free to crap on here all you like.

taj said...

Someone who spent the better part of a career at a tea plantation once told me that whatever the theory behind Early Grey, in practice it consists of pretty much whatever crap they have left over once the better leaves have been used up.

I have my doubts however. I can't see how they can do that and _still_ have it consistently taste like dishwater.

taj said...

Yes I do know it's Earl Grey.

Dikkii said...

Taj, Earl(y) Grey does consistently taste like dishwater.

I always thought that the replicator on the the Enterprise had the same problem with a cup of tea that the Heart of Gold had - otherwise, Picard might have ordered one with a bit more bottom end.

Honestly, Earl Grey did to tea what Kenny G and Celine Dion did to popular music.

Kathryn said...

I don't eat soap either so I don't know that I can say that's what Earl Grey tastes like! I drink it, and like it, but I don't think you can justify calling a tisane just because you don't like it, Dikkii... I think Lapsang Sou Chong smells like the smoke from a fire burning sweaty men's socks and dirty underwear, but I still will include it as a tea...

Although I do remember mentioning Earl Grey tea to my mum years ago, and she told me about a song she heard on 774... "Earl Grey tea, tastes like wee..."

Dikkii said...

I don't think you can justify calling a tisane just because you don't like it, Dikkii...

It's a good thing I gave the addition of bergamot as another reason for not considering Earl Grey to be a pure tea. Otherwise there may have been some confusion.

Have to say I agree with you about Lapsang Souchong - although the cult following that it has appears to verge on the fanatical.

Great song, too, by the way.