And thus begins a series on a simple but transcendent topic: cappuccino and croissant. It's a small breakfast that, for me, fulfills a need for both indulgence and utility. The indulgence is a balanced one: granted a good croissant is a miracle of layer upon flaky layer of buttery pastry, but it's not too sweet. There are no extraneous flourishes like chocolate or marmalade, no chintzy accessories to stand between me and that perfect crisp of browned buttery deliciousness. And the cappuccino, lightly sweetened, is similarly fundemental: the foamy head is just enough understated luxury. There's no need for saccharine syrups or heavy whipped cream when you get to savor the rich flavor of espresso. The combination is simple sustenance, elevated to sophisticated refinement.
This breakfast's utility comes from its accessibility. Nearly anywhere you might go in the western world, you can get some local version of this combination. I have been lucky enough to enjoy this little treat at a funky hotel in Montecatini Terme, Italy, and at a stylish cafe in the Munich airport (punctuated by a petite square of dark chocolate... What? I had to fill the 6 1/2 hour stopover somehow!). But the classic case was in London.
I was there for a family gathering, and in fact, much of said family -- at least 8 people, as I recall -- were staying in my aunt's smartly decorated, but modestly sized home in the city. It was really fun to be with all these cousins and aunts and uncles, but nights of party after party at my uncle's house, followed by restless jetlagged sleep on air matresses that deflated in the middle of the night, were taking their toll on all of us. I was going a little crazy, and needed to get out. I had noticed a building a short walk from our surrogate home that looked intriguing. It was a bizarre marvel of architecture, with a wild combination of brightly colored brick, tile and stained glass, all contributing to an unlikely theme: the Michelin Man*.
I walked over one morning, and still a bit bewildered by the building and what it was doing there, was dazzled by what the airy, sunlit ground floor held: a high-end florist stand churning out huge chic arrangements flanked a sparse, modern coffee bar. It's been a few years, but what stays with me about the place is that everyone seemed to know exactly what they were supposed to be doing: there was an overwhelming sense of order. It was like the essence of a perfect cafe was plunked down from the heavens to be my personal Zen retreat.
I sat down with a book at the corner of the bar, and ordered my usual. I pulled off pieces of the rich croissant, and with each sip from my cappuccino, I gradually regained my sanity. By the end of my little escape, I was steeled and ready to face the challenge of family togetherness.
So, obviously these simple coffee and pastry moments are quite special. So with this I'm going to begin documenting them. The menu out of the way, I can focus on details: the hard crunch of coarse raw sugar embedded in the glossy golden crust at one place, or the two men at the next table going through an agonizing break-up at another. Basically, I get to focus on two of my favorite things: coffee culture, and minutae. I think this will be fun. And verbose.
*Thanks to the magnificent Internet, I now know that that peculiar building was commissioned by the Michelin Tyre Company [sic -- hey, it's Britain] in 1909, and now houses a restaurant called Bibendum. Apparently Bibendum is the Michelin Man's real name (who knew?).