Caffe Fiore, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.
I live in Seattle, the fair city of evergreen trees, looming mountains, and tremendous food. But when I tell people from other places that I live in Seattle, they always ask me two things: “Doesn’t it rain a lot there?” and “So, do you drink a lot of coffee?”
No, not so much. New York City actually has more inches of rain per year than Seattle. And when was the last time you actually listened to the gentle pattering of rain on the roof? And when was the last time you actually splashed in puddles with utter abandon, like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain? There’s nothing like it. If I lived in a place where the rain was merely sporadic, I’d feel bereft. So it rains, but not as much as the bad press likes to claim.
And coffee? Why yes. Yes I do.
Early in the morning, when I stumble into the kitchen at 6:02 am, the blat of the alarm clock still ringing in my ears, I’m only thinking of one action: flipping the switch of the coffeepot, which I have already filled with water and put in the filter mounded with rich, dark coffee grounds the night before. And when I hear the burbling, the gasp of air, the hiss and sigh, and then I smell that dark, biting euphony—it’s only then that I know I’m going to be able to make it out the door on time. Because before that, I’m in doubt.
Thank goodness for coffee.
I still haven’t become a wine snob–too complicated, too snooty, and too expensive for my taste. But a coffee snob? Definitely. I insist on clean, dark tastes, not a hint of bitterness. Full-bodied, with a resonance that lasts all morning. I don’t like coffee to unnerve me. I don’t want to slurp up an acrid syrup at the bottom of the cup. And I want it to be so strong that I could stand a spoon in it, but so gentle that I could drink more and more of it. No milk–just black. That’s when you know that a coffee really works, when you can drink it black. And on top of that, I want it to be organic and sold under fair trade agreements. I drink enough of it that I want it to be right.
Fortunately, in Seattle, I have my choice. Last year, I was walking to school in the morning, and for some reason, I started counting all the places I passed where I could buy a cup of coffee. It’s a three-mile walk, from the top of Queen Anne hill to the bottom, through downtown and up to Capitol Hill. These are some of the most vital parts of Seattle, where people think of when they talk about Seattle. Can you guess how many of them there were? 62. In three miles, I passed 62 places where I could have bought a cup of coffee. And that didn’t count restaurants. Eight of them were within six blocks of me. I never lack for coffee.
Starbucks isn’t my choice, even though that’s what most people picture when they think of Seattle coffee. But it’s not for me. And it’s not because they’re a giant corporation, taking over the world. When I lived in New York, where coffee was certifiably putrid, I was almost happy to see a Starbucks on nearly every corner. And my dear friend Dorothy, who works at the corporate headquarters, has been teaching me about how much Starbucks gives back to the community. And I appreciate that. No, for me, it comes down to taste. (Doesn’t it always?) To my palate, Starbucks coffee tastes burnt on the tongue. Drip coffee there is acrid and bitter. No thanks.
I buy local, instead.
With all these choices, how do I choose? Well, I have my favorites. Arosa, on Madison, wins my money when I’m teaching, because the friendly Swiss man named Hans who owns the place flashes you a genuine smile when you come in th etiny shop. And he makes his mochas with real Swiss chocolate. I buy organic coffee from PCC and Trader Joe’s. And I love El Diablo coffee shop, on Queen Anne, a Cuban-style shop with cafe con leches, fruity batidos, and caricatures of elongated red devils on the walls. You can find me there often.
But now, if you’re looking for me in a coffee shop, there’s only one place you’ll find me.
Oh joy! (she says as she claps her hands There’s an organic coffee house in my neighborhood now. And it happens to be my favorite micro-roast coffee in Seattle: Caffe Fiore.
I stumbled by it on Saturday, stopping by Trader Joe’s on Galer. Wide-open windows, reflecting the blue sky, with blond-wood Adirondack chairs out front, just beckoning me inside. I was intrigued by the organic name. What did that mean?
Inside, burnt sienna walls, with enormous black and white photographs. Dark wooden tables, with comfortable chairs. Beautiful hardwood floors, burnished to the color of a peach pit. Tall, hardwood countertops. An enormous menu behind the bar, lit from within, book-ended by amber stained-glass panels. Clean and wide. Inviting. Spacious. I had to walk in.
Now, I know coffee shops well, and I can size them up just by looking. And this one was going to be good. I stood at the counter, waiting to give my order, just taking it in, slyly grinning a little as I watched the employees smile giant enthusiasms. It was only their second day of business—everyone was excited.
Of course, the display case full of baked goods made me feel a little depressed. My body has come to the point of equanimity: I look at traditional scones and cookies and breads with not a hint of desire. On a visceral level, I’m so aware of how horribly ill gluten makes me that I’m not even interested in it. But what I do often feel, in situations like these, is left out of the choice. Since I was on my way to Trader Joe’s (essentially next door to this shop), I knew I wouldn’t suffer hunger pangs for long. But still, it will be a blessed day when every coffee shop offers gluten-free treats to dunk into my latte.
Still, I adore Caffe Fiore, so I knew the coffee would be good. Roasted in Seattle, in small batches, this coffee plays on the tongue and dances down the gullet. I’ve been drinking it for years, stumbling on it when I first returned to Seattle from New York. Drinking my first cup of it was like hearing small voices singing in my ear: “Welcome back!” And it turns out that the parent of one of my students years ago started the comapny, so sometimes I’d walk into my office, suddenly especially awake, to find a pound of coffee sitting on my desk. Also, Hans the Swiss man uses Fiore in his lovely coffee shop, Arosa. So having a Fiore spot near my home was reason enough to feel happy.
Just as I was ordering my coffee, this man with blond hair like Samson and a direct gaze asked me, “And would you like anything to eat?”
“Ah, thanks, but I can’t,” I said, prepared to go into my little dance. “You see, I can’t eat gluten.…”
He rushed around to the back of the display case and grabbed a bar I had overlooked. “This is from Flying Apron. Can you eat this one?”
I nearly fell to the floor. Flying Apron is one of my favorite places in the world, here in Seattle. Started by a father and daughter team several years ago, they began baking vegan treats, almost all of them gluten-free. I’ve shown some of their cupcakes here, in photographs and words. And I need to write about them more fully, a separate time. Suffice it to say that any time I find one of their treats outside of their little corner spot on 50th and University, I’m thrilled to bits.
It turns out that the bar the owner offered me had oats in it, so I couldn’t eat it. But their stock was depleted, since they had been serving grateful customers, surprised to find a new coffee shop in their neighborhood, for two full days. What’s better, however, is that Deming (I quickly learned his name) leaned down over the counter and asked me to explain why I couldn’t eat oats. He already knew about gluten-free treats, but he needed to know which ones I could eat. I told him about celiac disease, the vagaries of eating oats, and the apricot thumbprint cookies. And he knows coffee and customers well, since he was the manager of Uptown Espresso, and then the Caffe Lladro stores before striking out on his own. Rarely has anyone in food service listened so attentively to me before.I left with a foamy latte and a big smile.
I went back tonight, exhilarated after a bike ride, just before they closed. (They’re open from 6 am to 7 pm every night.) Deming recognized me right away, came over to shake my hand, and immediately said, “The apricot thumbprint cookies are on order. They should be here on Friday.” Yeah! But I looked over to see that my second-favorite treat, berry tea cakes, were already in place. Of course I had to have one.
Everything in the shop is organic: the coffee; the whipping cream; the chocolate. Numi teas have a delicate taste, not the pounding-down too much of most American teas. Dagoba chocolates are some of my favorites, especially the lime and cherry, and they’re stamped gluten-free on the back. Even the syrups used to flavor the coffee are gluten-free. Apparently, Monin experimented with making batches of organic syrups, but they didn’t sell because of the extra cost. Deming told me that he found out the stash of organic syrups were sittting in a warehouse in Florida, and he bought up the lot. The milk for the coffee drinks is hormone free, but customers have to ask for the organic because it is quite a bit more expensive. But it’s there, in the refrigerator.
This place excites me. Not only because the coffee tastes damned good and they have gluten-free treats. But also because I believe so deeply in organic foods, in authentic tastes, and in people who start small businesses with the idea that they’d like to do something right in the world.
And it’s ten blocks away from me. The first Fiore coffee shop is in Ballard, and Deming told me that people would drive from Queen Anne just to buy the coffee. Luckily now, I don’t have to make that trek. “This neighborhood feels like it knows good food,” Deming told me. Yes we do. And we’re happy to have this place be our neighbor.
So I sat down with a happy sigh, watching the west light arcing down Galer. A gluten-free treat, an intricate leaf arced out in thick foam, and the chance to write. What more does a gluten-free girl need?