Much more than caffeine culture

Nina Caplan explores our enduring fascination with the seductive and addictive taste of the best cof

At the Guildhall Library in London is a book that was given to the wine writer André Simon, called Cigars and the Man. It contains a 1939 letter from the cigar purveyor Martins of Piccadilly, encouraging Simon to purchase its wares, and maybe he did, because the aroma of cigars wafts out when you open it, even though Simon - a wonderful stylist - probably didn't linger long on a tome that seems to have been written by Yoda. (Sample sentence: "Secretly hurt will be your host if you puff fiercely as soon as you have lighted up.")

I'm not supposed to be reading about cigars. I am researching another sensuous consumable - coffee. So powerfully do I adore this "wakefull and civil drink" that I'm prepared to believe the 17th-century botanist Richard Bradley that it can cure the plague, though I'd rather not check; but
I have tested its uses in settling the heads of those so "drunk with Wine, Beer, Ale, or Brandy, that they are unfit to manage their Imployment". Trust me - it works.

Still, like alcohol in wine, caffeine is just a pleasing addition to coffee: the point is the taste. No sensible person would adulterate good Burgundy, so why pour milk and sugar into decent coffee? One miseryguts claimed that coffee does to the tongue what prostitutes do to the tail - give
it the clap. I'd say that this slander applies today to the cheap stuff made from robusta beans and mixed with cow juice and sweetener. As for instant coffee, that infernal stuff is neither instant nor coffee.

Yet good coffee, rich and subtle, is nectar, but with more variety. Excellent beans (which technically aren't beans: they're seeds, but never mind that) grow in South and central America, Asia and Africa - and sell, in an ever-changing range, in Monmouth Coffee's shops in Borough Market, Bermondsey and Covent Garden. Now and then I stray to other purveyors, but regret the infidelity. Monmouth shops, like Simon's book, emit the scent of luxury products formed using heat and impossible to consume without it. No wonder cigars and coffee warm us like an open fire.

Experiment with countries' styles as you would with wines: South American is often soft and chocolatey; African beans are often earthier and more powerful. But don't get adventurous with coffee machines. Fancy ones are expensive and impractical. I was once offered instant coffee at Gordon Ramsay's house because his super-posh device came with a DVD of instructions, and nobody had the time to watch it, least of all Gordon. Cafetières work well if you're generous with the grounds; so do stovetop espresso-makers. If you must add milk, ask a good coffee shop for advice - I am a purist and cannot help you.

Turkish fright

Even purer is the author of A Broad-side Against Coffee; Or, the Marriage of the Turk (1672). Coffee came here through Turkey, which is why he felt able to pun on the union of this "Turkish renegade" with Christian water, thus allowing for an amalgam of racism, sexism and taste snobbery. No wonder purveyors make claims for the health benefits of coffee, he says: it looks like medicine. It is too swarthy, this "bold Asian brat", for pale western water; it's a pervert, too, reversing the missionary position because water, the female element, must lie on top.

Anyway, coffee is an infidel, and we all know they cannot be trusted. Nowhere does this rancid individual write of a perfume that has the power to kindle warmth and joy. I wish his tract emitted the bouquet of coffee as Simon's does the scent of cigars. That lush aroma would be pure pleasure for me, and it would serve him right.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis