A tableful of Italians are congratulating me for microfoam.
I try to raise my voice above the clamor to explain that I would have made it before but I just didn’t understand why it would matter when you’re using cheap coffee and UHT milk. I’m learning that pride in appearances is more important than other qualities, including flavor.
When I complain about not being able to speak at the table, the host writes to me: “A latte with coffee is different from a cappuccino, even though it is the same milk and the same coffee. Moreover, if it were not so, there would not be the cappuccino that the whole world loves and that the Italians have invented.”
I spend the morning fuming about foam.
In San Francisco, a ritual of childhood was visiting Freed Teller & Freed, where I pretended to enjoy the gift of a terribly bitter chocolate-covered bean while my mother’s weekly supply of freshly roasted oily “French Roast” beans were packed. This was long before the coffee revolution of micro-roasters and fresh beans swept the country. I didn’t find out about milk in coffee until I lived in New Zealand, where the milk is so delicious that cappuccinos are pop culture.
When tragedy struck my life, those cappuccinos became my lifeline. Terrified to go to bed at night, the morning cappuccinos were the only positive thing I could think of. That sole pleasure became the ritual by which I created a new life, alchemizing minutes of pleasure and optimism into intentions printed into my notebooks.
For over a decade, I’ve been drinking my coffee with milk and it has remained the most important –and non-negotiable, if no longer sole– luxury of my life. I buy from the best coffee roasters wherever I live (although I don’t buy their most expensive roasts). I buy the best milk I can find. I have a real burr grinder and a heavily-researched semi-automatic espresso machine (Gaggia Baby). A special heatproof glass pitcher of just the right dimensions for the Gaggia’s steam wand. My portable terroir includes a favorite coffee cup, because I can’t drink coffee out of the whatever most people have.
My solitary birthday often consists of spending an hour at each of my favorite cafés, investing extravagantly in dreaming the next year to life.
Given all that, it’s rather surprising that I have never before considered the question of foam. I have never observed it, distinguished one from another, commented about it. I have never distinguished one foam from another. For my host it’s the only thing that counts. For me it’s the only thing that doesn’t matter. I’m fascinated by how this is possible.