ON coffee at Larne

COMING through the ferry terminal at Larne the other day, surveying the unappetising and bland food on display at the buffet, and sipping the almost tasteless coffee dispensed from the machine, I reflected on how public catering so often still lags behind public taste. The improvement in coffee, in home and cafe, has been part of the revolution that has given us foreign travel, eating out, and wine with meals. In my boyhood coffee essence was common. For years after the war the British palate was satisfied by instant. Now tastes are developing, although they still have some way to go.

Holidays are a time for drinking coffee, for cooking and eating leisurely meals, for reading and reflecting. These activities intersect to a remarkable degree if you are, as I am, fond of the contemporary genre of American thriller-writing. When the heroes of these narratives use the phrase hard-boiled, they are almost certainly not referring to eggs. The conventions of the English detective story are quite different. We have the country house, the library. We have murderous intent simmering beneath the niceties of upper or middle-class manners.

In these novels working-class people usually appear as comic-relief, or in order to provide a sinister touch, but the rules demand that the murderer should be higher in the social order just as they specify that the butler, no matter how sinister, should not have done it. In the old days the police were plods and the sleuths were distinguished amateurs. Holmes was cerebral; Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey were aristocratic. In the course of the century, the policeman has come up in the world. We now encounter the sensitive and literary detective, forever writing poetry or fluently quoting from the classics.

These somewhat unlikely inventions find a regular place in the best-seller lists. Inspector Wexford likes his food simple. But pick up an American thriller, by Robert B. Parker for example, and in between the corpses you are liable to be treated to a great deal of culinary advice. There is still something of Philip Marlowe here. He played chess and could not be bought. Parker’s hero Spenser is incorruptible and, like Marlowe, takes his frequent beatings with equanimity. He kills without much thought but only hoodlums who deserve it; he is athletic in bed; but above all he is expert in the kitchen. Sex, violence and food are clearly a marketable mixture, richly successful in America’s hedonist culture. P. D. James makes Inspector Dalgleish a poet to show that he is sensitive. Parker makes Spenser a lover and a cook also to show that he is a cultivated man with whom, despite his violent life, the reader can identify.

One of Parker’s contemporaries, Ross Thomas, included in a novel detailed advice on how to make a good cup of coffee. If my memory serves, you had to use a metal pot. A tiny pinch of salt helped, and the last little secret was to add broken egg shells which (as I understood it) clarified the liquid as they sank to the bottom (Thomas’s hero then ate the egg). It is a sad commentary on my own powers of retention that it is just about the only thing I can remember about that book, and I was able, while on holiday, to put the theory to the test.

Coffee is a dangerous subject on which to discourse. There are many experts, just as there are many ways of making it. I leave to one side the choice of the coffee itself, whether it comes already ground or still in the form of beans, whether from Brazil or Kenya or wherever. The French, who make such good coffee, devote enormous care to its milling, and as with their bread buy it regularly and in small quantities. Here our shops offer a much greater choice than in the past, but it is in the making, just as much as in the milling, that the secret lies.

Most people know that coffee should not be boiled, or else it turns bitter. Some experts prefer methods which limit the exposure of the coffee to the water. Filtering is a pretty satisfactory way of achieving this. Real coffee buffs go for the espresso method; but the use of an espresso machine in the domestic context is not really appealing since each brew takes so long and produces so little.

The percolator and the cafetiere are both quick and easy, but both can give a rather bitter drink. So too do these vessels for Cafe Moka which are put on top of the stove. When the water boils it passes as steam through the coffee in the basket. For my money the Ross Thomas method is the best, though it takes time, and I do not think that either the pinch of salt or the egg shells make much difference.

A metal pot, for some reason, does produce a delicious drink. But the other part of the secret is that you should strain the coffee after four minutes into a heated jug, removing the grounds. The coffee can be returned to the pot and kept warm on the hob: each brew remains drinkable for some time provided that it does not boil. Like the French and the Italians, the Americans care about their coffee. It is the first thing served to them when they enter a restaurant. The British are more stoic and passive. Our cultural history encourages us to take what we are given.

We rarely complain about schools or hospitals or doctors. In restaurants we hate making a scene. Yet if our economy is going to depend more and more on the service culture, we must complain more, firmly and politely, whenever we receive second-rate service or produce. In our cities the coffee available in restaurants and cafes has improved greatly; but when the coffee at Larne becomes drinkable, we shall truly have arrived in Europe.