Last week I bought a cafetiere (or a French Press for our American friends). “Woah, Mikey”, I hear you say, “stop right there. I can’t cope with any more tales of your wild and outrageous life”. Yes, I’m living on the bleeding edge.
No, I really am. You see, in Thailand, real coffee – coffee from Brazil or Kenya or Java, you know, COFFEE – is really hard to find without going to a restaurant, sitting down and drinking it. Tea is easy. and abundant; I can swan into Tesco (yes, Tesco) and pick up all the Twinings Earl Grey I can carry. The only coffee available, however, is a sickly, sugar- infused powder in a mug. So, after yet another enervating breakfast featuring my seven-hundredth cup of Nestle Instant Disappointment, I resolved to end this barbarism once and for all. This proved to be easier said than done. A cafetiere is a difficult object to find in these parts. It’s hard to explain what you mean to a non-English speaker – there’s the French name for a start. Nonetheless, undeterred and spurred on by a burning, reckless optimism, I began the search in my local 20 baht shop. These wonder emporia – microcosms of the sum total of one’s existence – profess to sell a universe under a roof. Batteries, cutlery, saucepans, hosiery, screwdrivers for everything – even Apple things – clothes hangers, DVD players, USB chargers, Bluetooth speakers, indoor heaters, windcheaters, nail files, box files, socks and tights, bicycle lights, cheap dresses….but no French Presses. No, it seems that whatever Creator devised this gallimaufry for the needs of all humankind wasn’t that much of a coffee drinker.
I proceeded, my burning optimism now a bit soggy, to the only other place I could think of, Robinsons, the out-of-down department store. Robinsons has everything you need to make a house into a stylish home at just slightly more than you’d expect everything in a stylish home to cost. A sociologist might call its pricing “aspirational”; I call it “pant-wettingly exorbitant”. I recovered my composure in the household appliance section, surrounded by a selection of reassuringly expensive coffee makers, grinders, steamers and seducers – too rich for my modest means. So, I find the assistant who is hiding behind the kettles, desperately hoping I don’t ask him anything.
“I’m looking for a French Press?", I venture in an embarrassing absence of any Thai words whatsoever. His impression of a startled gazelle is impressive but not encouraging. Perhaps if I mimed a plunging action it would help? No – the gazelle remains dumbfounded. This is going to require a complete performance. So, I point to the grinder and pour my imaginary beans into my imaginary pot. I make percolation noises as the imaginary water begins to brew the imaginary beans. I plunge on the imaginary plunger and pour the imaginary coffee into my imaginary mug, sniffing the imaginary aroma and adding a declamatory “mmm aroi mak!” which seems appropriate for the development of my imaginary character. This unswerving commitment to the Method works a treat and the assistant directs me - rather too quickly for my liking - to a shelf replete with glassware, teapots, teacups, measuring cups – and about a dozen cafetieres.
Ah, the agony of choice! I examine the treasures before me – an embarrassment of riches in every shape and style. Broadly speaking, though, they fall into two distinct categories; posh looking and expensive, and the one I’m going to buy. I select the dusty, neglected, slightly battered box on the bottom shelf which has been shunned by its wealthier, more sophisticated brethren. This cafetiere is small, and encased in a fetching blue plastic. It costs 150 baht and it’s coming home with me – The Little Cafetiere That Could.
The fires of my caffeine addiction now stoked by the excitement of my new purchase, I set off again in search of coffee coffee coffee. As any expat living in Thailand will tell you, there is only one place you go to find the culinary comforts of home in a strange land. Be it French’s Mustard, Schweppes Tonic Water, Tim Tams, Jacobs Creek Chardonnay or Campbells Soup, you will find them all in this Valhalla of expat cuisine; I refer, of course, to Tops Market. Tops Market has all the tasty treats you know from home at about four times what you’d expect those treats from home to cost. Well, you are paying for the Emirates flight as well, I suppose. You can always spot the British tourists in places like this: short, pink, and standing by the biscuits trilling -
“Ooh look, John, they’ve got Chocolate Hob Nobs!”
This is invariably followed by –
“Bloody ‘ell, Mary, that’s about four quid! Put them back, love.”
Yes, citizens of the world, these are my people.
I politely nudged my way past the now bickering biscuit enthusiasts and we acknowledged one another with a cursory nod, complicit in this shared and exclusive ritual. Beyond them, I discovered the coffee, but I’m afraid it was the usual slim pickings. All the brands I recognised - Nestle, Kenco, Douwe Egberts, even Waitrose - were Instant only. This left me to contend with the Thai products which, being Thai products, with descriptions of their contents written in Thai, made their identification as decent coffee somewhat problematic. Therefore, I spontaneously devised my own bespoke method for ascertaining their contents, of which I am now rather proud - something I shall refer to from now on as Coffee Fondling. This is how it works: you put your ear to the coffee whilst gently squeezing each packet with your fingertips, feeling for the size and sound of the granules inside. Large, loud and crunchy = Instant. Small, quiet and powdery = the good stuff. I set to work at the far end of the aisle, systematically working my way back up towards the biscuits. Fondle fondle – instant. Fondle fondle – instant again. Fondle fondle – Oh, for God’s sake! “Does no one in Thailand drink proper coffee?!” I’d reached the end of the aisle and the end of my tether. Exasperated, I looked up hoping to find a kindred spirit in John and Mary, my British compatriots, but they had long taken their search for biscuits elsewhere and in their place stood a petite, slender and immaculately dressed Thai lady some decades my senior. From the look on her face, she had been observing my actions for some time and with not without some mild alarm. She was wearing the sort of facial expression one might adopt if unexpectedly encountering a new and as yet undocumented sexual fetish. I was wearing whatever expression it is that the face keeps in reserve for when there is no known social protocol for the situation.
A small eternity wafted between us.
“Um,…filter coffee?”, I blurted, making the little plunging gesture again. I thought it best to eschew the percolation noises. Slowly, silently, she pointed a perfectly manicured index finger with all the portent of divine judgement to a small bag just above my head. I hadn’t noticed it before. Espresso Blend, it said, in perfect English, and beneath that, Italian Filter Coffee. “Ah”, I said, confident that this one syllable would convey to the poor woman that this was exactly what I had been looking for all this time and that now I had found it, she could rest assured that my previous incongruous and perhaps rather disturbing behaviour would not reoccur. I smiled, reached for my prize, and turned back to offer a polite “kob khun khrap”, but she had fled. I sensed that my farang eccentricity had probably also outstayed its welcome in the supermarket of smiles and so, my possessions acquired and my mission accomplished, I made good my escape.