Spilling the beans

MICHAEL SYMONS
Last updated 12:28 29/01/2012
Wellington coffee
PHIL REID

The coffee barons of Wellington, from left, Chris Dillon of Coffee Supreme, Geoff Marsland of Havana and Jeff Kennedy of L'affare.

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New Zealanders argue with Australians over the origins of the pavlova because it seems their biggest claim to world culinary fame. But Aussies now have a much better gastronomic boast.

That's the flat white, which is milk coffee, perfected. It's so good that it's being taken up in London, New York and elsewhere.

Trouble is, the flat white turns out to be a joint, trans-Tasman invention, too.

As an Australian food historian, I declare that it started in Australia, where it often remains weak, murky, fluffy and under-appreciated. It was then perfected in New Zealand, more particularly, in Wellington. It's impossible to find a better morning coffee anywhere. I know, because I've tried.

The flat white should soon be recognised as the single greatest Antipodean contribution to world gastronomy - so long as it's made the Wellington way.

A good flat white is emphatically a coffee drink with a double shot and a smaller cup (typically a "tulip" of 160mls). Yet the milk remains a feature, providing a sweet and velvety platform by being merely stretched, without fluffiness. Sharply defined latte art (usually a fern in the foam on top) is only one clue to a well-crafted cup.

A short black better concludes a meal. Single-origin brews can be intriguing, so that smart cafes have sprouted Clover machines and all manner of siphons. But don't be distracted, the pinnacle of the regular morning coffee remains the flat white.

When Wellington barista Dave Lamason - now owner of Lamason, New Zealand's first dedicated siphon coffee bar - made his first trip to Italy, he blogged that the pizza was everything television made out, and he would always remember a white wine at a restaurant on the coast, but "we still have a thing or two to show Italians when it comes to espresso and milk coffees".

New Zealanders only really took to espresso in the 1990s, so, with fewer bad habits, open minds and learning from the rest of the world, they got much right. Australian coffee principals, including some from Adelaide's Rio Coffee, have been flying to Wellington to "see what the fuss is about".

Moving to Wellington a decade ago, as soon as Peoples Coffee opened its tiny shop in Constable St, Newtown, I was there every morning. The flat whites were so satisfying that no-one demanded the obscenity of "a skim/ skinny/soy cappuccino, and I'll have a slice of chocolate cake".

When Lamason became a Peoples backroom technician, replacement Dan Minson brought intense Tai Chi concentration, and presumably some moves, to satisfying the queue out the door, almost everyone wanting a flat white.

Returning to Sydney four years ago, I discovered baristas of that calibre almost impossible to find, so I invested instead in my own Mazzer grinder and ECM Giotto machine, and am still learning.

Yet, after all those coffees, I only belatedly realised that the flat white is truly milk coffee's fulfilment, now taking over the world.

THE CASE

Proof of the superiority of the flat white comes, firstly, from taste. I've often had the response, "that's just the way you like coffee". But a well-made example crushes any scepticism. Just as relatively untutored palates have little trouble recognising the quality of their first "real" tomato or a three-star Paris restaurant, they know a sublime drink.

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On a recent hunt through Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, I kept finding sloppy practices. Too often, the flat white remains a single shot of a darker roast.

Fortunately, just as Peoples has contributed in Brisbane, Wellington roaster Supreme took its skills to Melbourne, where I bumped into more than one Kiwi barista saddened by the prevailing styles. Things go better when they run the place, such as The Batch (code for "bach") in Balaclava, Melbourne.

That Antipodeans perfected espresso might challenge cultural cringe, but it's a fact. Large numbers of Italians arrived in Australia after World War II. While many would never have known Achille Gaggia's break-through coffee machine (developed in Milan after the war, using pressure to extract better flavour, and leaving the distinctive "crema" or mousse on top), they soon found work operating them, and helped make espresso fashionable at cafes.

Australians became so much more familiar than Americans with espresso that Starbucks closed 61 of its 84 Australian outlets in July 2008. This cannot entirely be credited to widespread connoisseurship, but rather that local franchise chain Gloria Jean's alone had 470 stores.

With a devotion to espresso exceptional outside Italy, Australians developed local peculiarities. The principal drink, the cappuccino, was sprinkled with chocolate powder, and only later challenged by the caffe latte, seemingly more sophisticated in a glass.

Australians called the basic espresso a "short black". However, many preferred what became a "long black", extended with hot water. With hot milk, this became a "flat white".

Australians and New Zealanders share much history, including tea drinking, but not similar Italian immigration, so Kiwis only embraced espresso through the 1990s.

A pioneering Auckland cafe owner and now roaster, Derek Townsend, claims to have improved the "Sydney" flat white in 1988, but his peers are dismissive.

The drink presumably emerged from many hands in both nations, as did the pavlova, on which I recently published my final word in scholarly journal Social Semiotics. In the 1920s and 30s, numerous large meringue cake recipes, and the pavlova name, circulated in both countries. After two or three decades, everyone gained an idea of the "real" pavlova, so expected some "original" recipe that never existed.

It makes sense, though, that Australia's flat white was perfected in a compact, political capital with strong university and arts communities, supplying both the smart students who found work pulling shots and a supportive clientele.

Inspired by a Vancouver cafe, Tim Rose and Geoff Marsland started Midnight Espresso Cafe, in Cuba St, in 1989, and were soon doing their own roasting. Their street was named after a ship, but nonetheless suggested the Havana label for their roastery (and the country of origin of many of their beans).

Jeff Kennedy began roasting in 1990, his Caffe L'affare brand now taken over by a multinational.

As the third roasters on the scene in 1993, Chris Dillon and Maggie Wells of Coffee Supreme competed on quality, promoting the skills of the barista. In their first year, Dillon recalls, they supplied beans to Caffe Mode, Kelburn, whose Craig Walden had recently returned from Melbourne and was making a flat white using a double shot, not in a big cup. "We took this up and pushed the smaller- volume double-shot flat white as a tastier alternative to the latte, " Dillon said.

By the time Fuel pioneered hole-in- the-wall takeaway espresso in 1996, Grant Sheehan had published a collection of photographs of New Zealand cafes, and Moore Wilson was soon serving a choice of three local brands.


When Paul Schrader of Nikau Cafe moved to Melbourne in 1993, he recalls that "it was all cappuccinos and bowl lattes" back in Wellington, but not when he returned in 1997.

The scene only kept hotting up: Mojo opened in 2003; and Matt Lamason launched Peoples Coffee in 2004, reliant on Fair Trade beans and brilliant baristas, not least his brother, Dave Lamason, Dan Minson and Jessie Hack.

A COFFEE QUEST

The Wellington flat white stands out in world terms, as I discovered on a recent quest through the Pacific north-west of the United States, Canada, Denmark, Germany, England, France and Italy.

Scattered cafes might earn loyalty, and I could survive on morning caffe lattes from Coffeehouse Northwest, using the highly respected Stumptown roasts, in Portland, Oregon. But, mainly, North America proved frustrating. Perhaps the long, weak and murky preferences suit lingering indoors in cold weather.

Le Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris once served a worthy conclusion to lunch, but, generally, French coffee is as bad as the croissants are exemplary. Cafes have for too long relied on strong, bitter robusta beans from former colonies (the traditional blend is two-thirds robusta and one-third Arabica).

Italians make much better coffee, even if mired in complacency, a "pride- time-warp of their own making", as Minson put it.

In Bologna, four baristas working quickly in Caffe Terzi proved serious to the point of preciousness. They used a Faema E61 machine, provided a glass of water with each coffee, lined up a range of sugars and honeys on the counter, and served the latte for their "caffe e latte" in a separate jug. With the cappuccino almost all schiuma (light foam), I finally saw the point, and resolved to become more tolerant of well-made cappuccinos (without chocolate).

Incidentally, in Italy, asking for a latte would simply mean "milk"; so, ask for a caffe latte or, even more pedantically, a caffe e latte - a coffee and milk.

Coffee terminology is far from settled and, in a striking show of inconsistency, the next day's cappuccino at Terzi was almost a flat white, even to the latte art, but weaker.

Near the Pantheon in Rome, Sant' Eustachio il Caffe displays two articles from the New York Times, William Grimes asking: "New York's best espresso? Buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant'Eustachio cafe", and Mimi Sheraton praising the "creamy froth, or spuma, that tops lightly sugared espresso at the always jammed Sant'Eutachio".

On my two visits, the coffee was both weak and bitter, although I appreciated the froth.

In two weeks of desperate searching, no Italian coffee came up to the best in Portland, Melbourne or Sydney - and definitely nothing like Wellington. Even the Italians still have a "thing or two" to learn, as Dave Lamason found.

TAKING OFF

The flat white's superiority is confirmed by its rapid uptake throughout the world. A New York Times survey of that city's increasingly exciting cafes found an "Australian coffee diaspora", and at least three of its recommended spots - Cafe Grumpy, Glass Shop and Milk Bar - served flat whites.

Following up for Melbourne readers, a Sunday Age reporter located an Australian "behind New York's first barista college".

The expatriate was reluctant to be interviewed. "Look, mate, if I talk to you, then people will read about it in Melbourne and they'll all want to set up shop here. I'd love to get some recognition back home, but I don't want to give people ideas."

In Britain, a blackboard menu at Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds proclaimed, "Yes, we can do a flat white", although the sample was not entirely convincing.

Much credit for the drink's popularity in London goes to the Flat White cafe in Berwick St, Soho, financed by a coffee- starved Australian - investment and fund manager Peter Hall - in 2005, and using Kiwi expertise. There, my flattie was a fair representation.

Announcing that the "search for the perfect coffee will soon be over", the Costa chain made them available in Britain from January 2010. The company's media release boasted: "Richer than a Latte, creamier than a Cappuccino".

Racing to beat Costa, Starbucks UK launched a version a few days earlier, and a sample at their outlet behind the Liberty Store, off Regent St, was not much chop, but this is, after all, the supreme test of a barista.

Finally, a flat white at Seven Seeds in Carlton, Melbourne, was reasonable, but too milky. When discussing the standard use of single shots, the barista described a double-shot alternative taking off in Melbourne that the owner claimed to have invented. It sounded like a flat white, but was called a "magic".

It was a pale copy, but what clinching support for the flat white to reappear as a "magic" coffee.

Food writer Michael Symons instigated the influential Symposiums of Australian Gastronomy in 1984, organising an offshoot when living in Wellington from 2000 to 2008. His books include A History of Cooks and Cooking (2000) and One Continuous Picnic: A gastronomic history of Australia (2007).

FLAT WHITE OR LATTE?

A flat white should have less milk than a caffe latte, and the milk should be velvety rather than fluffy. The flat white is therefore "stronger", which requires a shorter, "ristretto" run to avoid harsh flavours.

THE PERFECT FLAT WHITE

As perfected in Wellington, a flat white is a double shot of espresso, making around 30ml in a 160ml, usually tulip-shaped cup, topped with carefully "textured" or "stretched" milk without "dry" (light, cappuccino) foam, and at a hot but not burning temperature. It is finished with "latte art", showing the fern emblem, similar to the "rosetta" elsewhere. The secret is care with every step: high- quality arabica beans, not overly roasted, towards a week after roasting (and no more than 10 days), freshly ground; a clean machine, run for 25 to 30 seconds; starting with cold, full- cream milk; steaming that creates a vortex without bubbles; served immediately in a ceramic (never plastic or paper) cup.

- The Dominion Post

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