Taking the plunge

MOST COFFEE DRINKERS will be familiar with the cafetiere or French press (‘caffettiera a stantuffo’ in Italian and ‘Stempelkanne’ in German). The earliest versions of this were patented in the 1920s. For those not familiar with these devices, let me explain how they are used. Coffee grounds and hot water are introduced into an open topped cylindrical vessel, often made in glass but also in metal and plastic. After waiting for the coffee to brew, and people argue how long this should be, a plunger that snugly fits the opening of the vessel is placed on the surface of the hot coffee mixture. The plunger has a metal sieve that does not permit the passage of coffee grounds through it. This plunger is attached to a metal rod, by which pressure can be exerted to drive the sieve through the liquid towards the bottom of the vessel. As it moves downward, the coffee grounds become separated from the liquid (the brewed coffee) above it. Then the coffee, free of grounds, can be served.

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In the early 1960s, the cafetiere became a fashionable way of preparing and serving coffee. My mother and her sister were quick to buy one for each of their homes. They were elegantly designed with clear glass vessels and shiny steel holders with black handles. And, the coffee they produce is good.

My mother kept using our cafetiere until disaster struck. It did not happen to her but to her brother-in-law. One evening after dinner, my uncle began plunging the filter through the hot coffee when something slipped causing the plunger to descend far too rapidly. As it shot down into the boiling hot coffee, the liquid shot up onto my uncle’s arm and caused him serious burns. Hearing of this unfortunate event, my over-cautious mother decided that far from being useful, the cafetiere was a potentially lethal weapon. So, our cafetiere was decommissioned, never to be used again. My uncle’s family continued to use their cafetiere(s) despite the accident.

Many years later, my wife and I were entertaining guests one evening. My wife had filled a large glass cafetiere with coffee and hot water and told me to plunge the filter whilst she sat down with our friends. Usually when you press the filter plunger into the brew, there is some resistance as the coffee grounds begin the reduce the flow of water through the fine filter mesh. On this occasion, I encountered some resistance as expected but then something unexpected happened. Each time I applied pressure and then released it, the filter disc began rising up towards the opening of the glass vessel. This happened repeatedly and it became increasingly difficult to depress the filter. It seemed as if the coffee was fighting back, pushing the filter plunger upwards.

Eventually, I managed to force the plunger down sufficiently and I served the coffee, somewhat mystified. After the guests had left, I examined our weirdly behaving cafetiere. I removed the plunger and found a deformed stainless-steel spoon amongst the compressed coffee grounds. The formerly straight stem of the spoon had become bent into a ‘U’ shape. I had applied sufficient pressure to the plunger to bend the spoon. I felt as if I had become Uri Geller, famous for his spoon bending tricks. Fortunately, and amazingly, the glass vessel of the cafetiere did not break or even crack.

Breakages are common amongst the glass vessels used in cafetieres. It is not the making of coffee that breaks them but dropping them on hard surfaces does them no good. We now use cafetieres with stainless-steel vessels. Not only do these not break but also many of them have double walls to help keep the coffee warm.

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