The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Ten or 20 years ago no one would have thought twice about enjoying Nescafé or its equivalent. There is soothing ritual in spooning, pouring, stirring and sipping the mud-brown concoction in a mug. But nowadays, for a generation nourished on slow-roasted Colombian cashew-milk cortados, instant coffee seems as primitive as campfire cookery.
I recently stayed at Brownsover Hall, a grand Gothic mansion house near Rugby: a place where you can sit for a whole weekend in a Georgian wingback chair, gazing out at Warwickshire. In a wood-panelled bedroom, with ceilings loftier than millennial expectations, by the mini kettle and the branded writing paper, was the familiar tray of Nescafé sachets, PG Tips and milk thimbles. Downstairs in the restaurant they did a ‘proper’ coffee, of course, all smoky aroma and 5mm thick crema – if you’re willing to pay £4 for the pleasure. I do not think any of my friends would have thought twice. And yet for my parents, and indeed their entire generation, it would have felt an impossibly indulgent luxury. Are we now of finer palate? Or just deeper pocket?
I am not trying to claim instant coffee tastes better than freshly ground. But I do think it’s fair to ask: just when did everyone get so fancy? I also cannot help but wonder how some of my friends who have entirely unsophisticated palates when it comes to food can claim to appreciate their expensive coffee in all its apparent myriad complexity. Those who struggle to tell the difference between potato and swede when tucking into dinner are among the most fervent in extolling their exacting coffee predilections as they engage in highly dubious bouts of ‘aspiration’, noisily slurping their brew to better diagnose its subtleties. Talk about conspicuous consumption.
Whatever metropolitans would have you believe, instant coffee does not taste of dishwater or puddle
Now, I’m all for people aspiring to be aficionados. Being able to take inordinate pleasure in the simple things – especially when that thing is something relatively affordable and not unhealthy that you can enjoy every single day – is one of life’s gifts. So I can deal with friends lecturing me on mucilage and maltiness, alkalinity and astringency. But the arched eyebrows – or even smirks – from some when they see me with my Thermos of instant does grate just a little.
‘But aren’t you, you know, a foodie?’ they ask, perplexed. ‘Yes, but I like instant coffee. And Bird’s instant custard and Oxo stock cubes for that matter. And while we’re on the subject, if you are going to spend £3-plus on a coffee, at least go to an independent coffee shop doing properly good coffee, rather than spending a small fortune in Costa or Caffé Nero for stuff that is hardly better than instant. Or, even better, make it a proper hobby and make your own French press or drip coffee at home. Got it? Have a great Monday!’
For whatever metropolitans would have you believe, instant coffee does not taste of dishwater or puddle. Even the humblest Nescafé has a certain smokiness that I like, albeit a harsher, less aromatic sort than with a freshly roasted bean. No crema admittedly, only that slightly mottled effect like half-dissolved gravy granules. But it is hot and reviving. And you can of course also go for Kenco or all manner of other slightly more upmarket instant coffee brands that are still a fraction of the cost of shop-bought coffee. What’s more, instant coffee appears to boast the same health benefits as freshly-ground, while being lower in caffeine per cup.
Sometimes it is not taste or even money but nostalgia and sheer retro appeal that leads me to the simpler drink. More to the point, it is a silent – and perhaps slightly pathetic – protest against the extravagance I sometimes feel is part and parcel of my London life. If instant was good enough for my father at the start of a factory shift, then it darn well should be good enough for me.
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