One thing that made life in Cherepovets much easier than it is in Kazan (one among many, I should note) is that in Cherepovets, I was not a coffee snob. Now a cappuccino has the power to make or break my day, and Russia’s offerings tend toward the latter.

Should you ever come to this country (and I highly recommend you do), prepare yourself for weak, weak espresso that has no crema at all. At the cafes where I’ve watched–and I always watch–they pull the shot for about 5-7 seconds, as compared to the US standard of somewhere between 20-30 seconds.  Also, they don’t fill the danged basket up. It’s like they don’t know that IT’S MADE THE SIZE IT IS FOR A REASON, AND THAT REASON IS THAT THE ESPRESSO SHOULD REACH THE TOP, Y’ALL. The milk is steamed to somewhere around body temperature, which is a whole nother can of sad little worms.

 

 

This shouldn’t be surprising, since Russians have notoriously sensitive taste buds. I have gotten complaints about the cinnamon in apple pie being too “spicy”–and no, they did not mean “spiced.” There is a word for that. But in this particular case, they used the same word you would use to describe a habanero or the blade of a machete.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a sign above the espresso machine at the cafe that said “Want to learn how to make coffee? Ask us to teach you!” On the one hand, I was like “Puppydog, please, the shots pulled by Kate are among the finest in the land.” On the other hand, if playing the fool for a minute or three means making my own cappuccinos in the future, then that will dramatically improve my quality of life. After all, my shots are among the finest in the land.

So I asked Anya, an employee with whom I’m on above-average terms, for a demo, mentioning having worked at HoBros in passing so that maybe she would just let me do my thing. She didn’t. Fortunately, she got distracted while I was dosing the grounds, allowing me to fill the basket up all the way. But just as I reached for the tamp, she turned around and exclaimed, “WHOA, THAT’S WAY TOO MUCH!” Part of my right ventricle shriveled up and died as she scooped the coffee out with her finger, leaving a big divet that I could only assume the brewing process would fill up with steaming-hot disappointment. “There you go,” she said, brushing my grounds, hopes, and dreams into the trash. “That’s how you get Real Espresso.” My tongue began to bleed.

After the five-second brewing, it was time to steam the milk. Steaming milk is one of my favorite things, right up there with brushing horses and peeling the plastic film off of new electronics.

So when Anya cupped her hands over mine around the pitcher, taking complete control of the steam wand, it was like receiving a furless puppy.

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“I want something very close to this, but this is just not it. Now no one’s having fun.” – Me that day

When Anya turned off the steam wand, I was still in full contact with the mug. I don’t know about you, but when I imagine my ideal cup of coffee, I don’t imagine something that I could comfortably stick my hand into. But Anya said that it was Just Right. Too brow-beaten to argue, I took my lukewarm, discolored milk and went to reflect on the futility of my dreams.

 

Fast forward to today. A new guy was working, and, unusually for this cafe, he was the only employee present. And, lo, he was busy. I perched at my usual lace-covered table by the (only) window and observed as he carefully topped off each jar of tea leaves. When his hands looked good and full, I channeled my bubbliest, most outgoing friend (Alexandra, if you were wondering) and skipped up to him. “I have a favor to ask of you.” He eyed me with all the trust of a child in the dentist’s chair. “Anya taught me to make coffee. Can I go make my own, or is that not OK?” He said he didn’t care.

And so, unattended and with my head cocked at a dramatic angle to accommodate the slanted ceiling, I pulled two golden shots and poured (to my hopefully-concealed surprise) a perfect circle of foam into the center. Warm, rich, and a thing of beauty– the first real cappuccino in months.

Those Russians just don’t know what they’re missing.

2015-11-18

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