Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Beauty, Nespresso and the reluctant coffee convert

I have a friend of a friend who I see maybe once a year.

Every time I see him he asks me, without fail, 'where are the best places to go to see lots of fit girls?' as if I'm some kind of authority on the topic.

This always amuses me. I was never in contention to be the editor of FHM, Nuts or Zoo, and it's not an issue that frequently crosses my mind. But he listens earnestly and attentively and I usually say something about the security line at the airport.

(This is true. At airports all over the world you will likely encounter a broad spectrum of stunningly beautiful people of all nationalities in just a few minutes waiting to put your clear plastic bags on the conveyor belt. If such things matter to you. And, indeed, if they do not.)

Nespresso store - pic from Retail Focus
My friend of a friend takes in this information with a vague sense of awe. I don't think he is widely traveled and quite possibly doesn't even hold a passport, which may heighten his interest.

Anyway, I do worry that one day he will cotton on to the fact that I always give the same answer - even though it's his fault for always asking the same slightly weird question - so next time I see him and he asks the inevitable question, I shall say 'working in Nespresso stores'. He may even get to visit one of those to see if the story checks out.

Corporate Pods

I visit them quite a lot. Not for the eye-candy (honestly!) but I've become a bit of a reluctant advocate for the Nespresso system lately.

Yeah, I know. Big Corporate Bad Guys. Not proper Coffee etc. Except that it really is. I've been drinking the stuff almost every day for months now.

I done got me some shopping
I can take or leave coffee, but I enjoy good coffee, if that makes sense. What I mean is, I'm not one of these annoying screechy people that 'needs' a caffeine hit at a certain time of day and goes round saying things like 'God I need coffee! Can't function without it! Caffeine in my veins now!'

So I'd rather drink nothing than drink bad coffee. Ergo, if I consider this worth drinking, it must be alright.

Now I'm fairly late to this game. I never owned a coffee machine until late last year. I was skeptical that this 'pod' malarkey was all gimmickry and conflated 'Nespresso' with its ugly sister 'Nescafe'. An understandable mistake maybe, but I was wrong.

OK, so clearly it's never going to be as good as that Espresso you get in a pavement cafe in Milan, made by an expert barista from some hugely expensive machine crafted from love, passion and chrome. But that's not really the point. For a relatively small investment it is now possible to drink coffee at home that is far, far better than anything we used to have. A proper Espresso with a frothy crema. Where we you when I was a student?

And you have lots of options now too. Double Espresso. Ultra-concentrated Ristretto. Lungo. Americano. Want it strong? Weak? Decaff? Plenty of Arabica? Robusta? Hint of Vanilla? You got it.

With a £100-150 coffee machine and a 35p pod you can make yourself something tastier and more authentic than you'd get in Starbucks or Costa. And you get to buy it in designer packaging from pretty European girls. We are living in a golden age for coffee and much as it pains me to say it, a lot of that is down to the work of the Nestle corporation.

I fucking hate biscotti
The Nespresso stores are spotless, boutiquey shrines to modernity. I feel slightly out of place in there, trying to act nonchalant while picking out packs of coffee pods. Owning a coffee machine and visiting Nespresso stores is about the most conspicuously middle class thing one can do.

You can have a free coffee while you're in there so you can try out the latest blends. The staff are chatty and knowledgeable about the product as well as attractive. It's all very 'Lifestyle'.

This fashionability I tolerate, in much the same way that I tolerate biscotti on the saucer, because of the actual coffee.

Some coffee reviewy stuff

There are probably about 20 different coffees in the standard Nespresso range, plus seasonal specials and variations - it's almost like beer in that respect - so if you like decent coffee you're bound to find something you like.

Then you've got your 'compatible' pods from other manufacturers that work with the Nespresso system, giving you even greater choice. (Apparently you can even get compatible tea and hot chocolate pods but that's something to investigate another day).

The coffees are graded on an intensity scale from 1 to 12, though there don't appear to actually be any 1s or 2s. This is unrelated to the caffeine content - there is a decaf Arpeggio, rated 9, which is dark and intense with plenty of Latin American Arabica beans. Personally I don't particularly care about the caffeine hit as much as the flavour profile.

Is there an in-store Espresso in store?
One of my favourites is Dharkan (11 rated), a big, rich, powerful coffee that fucks you with a strap-on of bitter chocolate and winter berries. The Indriya is more of a gentle comforting hug with a spicy crema.

The 12-rated Kazaar doesn't do as much for me. It's very intense and peppery but maybe a bit one dimensional. On the other hand, the Capriccio (5) is rather enjoyable in its light, gentle character; almost biscuity.

Now the purest way to taste coffee is probably in the ultra-short ristretto format, but often that isn't going to be what you feel like. Sometimes you want a longer drink and most modern coffee machines will give you the option to serve different lengths, which will of course change the character, so a Capriccio Ristretto will in some ways drink stronger than a Kazaar Americano. There's a world of experimentation to be had. And, yes, that includes blending more than one different coffee. Probably not for the purists, but then are the real coffee purists drinking Nespresso anyway?

In some areas I am a purist myself. Obviously I don't faff around with milk-based drinks, and whether it's long or short, my coffee is always black, but it's entirely possible to do your own passable cappuccinos and lattes'n'shit at home now as well.

However I am (mostly) a fan of the 'Variations' series, Intensity level 6, with gentle flavour additions, the Vanilla and Carameltio do exactly what you'd expect. Just a hint of sweetness, but plenty of Vanilla and caramel. Serving these as Lungo or Americano kinda dilutes the flavoursomeness, so you'll want to use two or even three pods for a long, delicious drink of warm, comforting goodness.

So, given that the Vanilla and Caramel are both rather delightful, you might expect the third in the series, Cioccatino, to deliver a satisfying chocolate-coffee hit. And you'd be entirely wrong. This is by some distance the worst pod in the Nespresso range - I don't pick up much chocolate at all, but there is a distinctly unpleasant oily, even meaty thing going on.

So what about these 'compatible' pods - widely available in supermarkets now and slightly cheaper (though only slightly) than official Nespresso capsules.

Taylor's Of Harrogate, better known for their tea, do a Brazil Yellow Bourbon which is a satisfying everyday blend and reminiscent of the coffee you typically find in the US. It works best as a lungo and is a great standby if I run out of my favourites.

The India Karnataka is their strongest one (though it's unclear if the '10' rating is out of 10 or if there is a theoretical maximum beyond). As an espresso it's alright, though just lacking in a little something. Taylors also do a decaf that I'm really not wild about.

CafePod do a little range that promises 'good STRONG coffee',  and their 'Supercharger' Espresso is certainly strong, though perhaps a bit of a one-trick pony. I'm unconvinced and some people have had trouble getting their pods to even work properly.

Overall the official Nespresso pods seem to offer a bit more in short form, though if you're drinking Lungo or Americano the difference is less noticeable (and if you're adding milk, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between any of them, I'd imagine).

As I say, I'm not normally one to promote the products of big corporations, but Nespresso has substantially metamorphosed the way we consume coffee and I wish I'd given it a little more attention a few years ago.

And, as an added bonus, you now know where to go to gawk over girls who are way out of your league!


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