Bean town, U.S.A.


One of my first memories of coffee is from Trieste, my mother’s home town. Yes, as children we used to have our morning bowl of milk flavored with strong coffee, so I did become a devotee/addict early. But the real joy associated with coffee occurred on Sunday mornings, after mass. We’d approach one of the cafes we frequented and the aroma alone of fresh espresso mixed with the sugary scent of palmiers, brioche, and krapfen would make all the boring sermons of the world worthwhile.

Today, whenever I travel to Italy I anxiously wait for that first sniff, that first Proustian jolt, to verify I am on Italian soil, and to whet my appetite for the first Caffe Pasticceria that I can find to commemorate my return.

Of course, Trieste is known to bean buyers worldwide as an epicenter of coffee roasting. The city supplies 40% of Italy’s coffee and a recent mayor was the Illy patriarch, the head of a global coffee empire. Triestines drink more coffee than other Italians.

Trieste’s many coffee houses are celebrated for their history as elegant, 19th century Viennese-style hang outs for all manner of intellectuals. Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba, and James Joyce were habitues (many of the cafes serve aperitivos and wine as well.) The cafes have been well-tended over the years, and are very well preserved, even if the intellectual is not. On a winter night a few years back, my cousin’s husband pulled me out of his palazzo apartment, put me on a tram, and took me to the Caffe San Marco, where Joyce was reputed to imbibe his brew (as well as at the Pironi and Garibaldi, actually) but we couldn’t get any of the owners to even acknowledge who Joyce was. Chi e? Non lo conosco.

So I was delighed to learn this week that Portland is, in addition to a culinary haven, a coffee connoisseur’s paradise.

Between this and this we have Starbucks gasping for air. Not that we shouldn’t give Starbucks their due; before they came along, you could not find a decent cup of coffee anywhere outside of Seattle and San Francisco. Business travel outside these areas was hard to endure back in those days! But if you ask me, Starbucks doesn’t handle roasting very well. Perhaps it is hard to do unless you treat the process as a craft, as these Portland roasters do.

It still amazes me that good coffee is not a given in a town like New York City. Sure, you can get an espresso or latte, but in many of the eateries coffee is still of the Chock Full O’ Nuts variety. You can see right through the glass pot in which it is served.

Crema Bakery & Cafe, my current go to place for Northwest coffee ambiance, which even hosts international baristas of reknown.

Alas, my coffee days are probably over. I overindulged over the years, and have turned to my second favorite beverage, tea, which is easier on my nerves. I look for it in coffee houses, blending the familiar and soothing ambiance with my new comfort drink.

As a tea maven, I am now waiting for Portland to be known as the place for the best pot of tea as well. Tazo Tea was born here, but my local fave is still The Tao of Tea. It is not just that they have more than one hundred loose leaf teas on the menu, it is that they know their tea and how to brew it. Plus the Indian, Chinese and Japanese sweet or savory snacks on the menu are perfect accompaniments. And it has its own quiet and cozy ambiance as well.

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About kmazz

I spend as much time as possible pursuing my interests in global culture, arts and politics.
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2 Responses to Bean town, U.S.A.

  1. PDXFoodDude says:

    Starbucks is “gasping for air”? ;>) I’m not sure about that, but I like the sentiment. A year ago I particpated in a national contest to see who had the most starbucks within one square mile. Portland placed second. On the other hand, starbucks gets lots of folks their start, sending them on the road looking for something better.

  2. KM says:

    I do get a little aspirational when talking about Portland’s best! Starbucks will continue to thrive, I am sure.
    But they do get concerned when they notice competition from the smaller, local houses, and buy them out, as per Coffee People. Irritating. I hope Albina and Stumptown stay true forever.

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