A hot cup of coffee skin

Chill: Cafe Le Bon Georges in Paris

Why is Paris not called the café capital of the world, wonders a friend.

Maybe it is.

It’s spring in Paris. In town for the Paris Book Fair, I am rediscovering the joy of travel, albeit nervously, with one eye on the rising COVID numbers.

On a little side street in Montparnasse, there’s crêperie after crêperie with little tables out front. No matter what street I walk on there’s a café or a brasserie with tables on the sidewalk, the specials of the day written in chalk on a blackboard. At all hours of the day there are people sitting outside in the sun drinking little cups of coffee, or glasses of wine, smoking cigarettes, ordering pastries. They were always there but in my new post-COVID consciousness, I am struck by the plethora of open air options.

Eco-cool life

But I also have an odd feeling of familiarity even though I have not been to Paris in a decade. And then I realise it reminds me of South Kolkata. Not the architecture. Not the river flowing through the city. Nor the people, though someone jokes that like Kolkatans, Parisians are cultured, possessed of a superiority complex, and deeply opinionated. But it’s not that. I realise it’s the cafés.

Kolkata, ever since the pandemic, has seen an explosion of chic little open-air cafés too. The modest South Kolkata street I grew up on had one famous hole-in-the-wall tea shop. The devoted clients would sit on the stoops of houses around it, smoking, arguing and drinking cups of extra strong tea. Now just one crossing on the same street has three chic coffee shops.

Cascara on offer at Roastery Coffee House, Kolkata 

Cascara on offer at Roastery Coffee House, Kolkata 

The swankiness can be stress-inducing. At the tea shop milk or no milk were the only options. There was no green, Moroccan mint, chamomile, Darjeeling, first or second flush and there was no coffee. Now in this new Café City in coffee shops lined with books, potted plants and bleached wood, we have to learn a whole new vocabulary and be confronted with a dizzying variety of choices. Chronicling the café makeover of Kolkata, Bachi Karkaria once wrote that in this “single estate, bespoke” world ordering can be traumatic. “You must agonise over To Kill A Machiato, Murder on the Orient Espresso, Lawrence of Arabica or the French Press Connection.” It can be all too clever for its own cool.

“Cascara is “greener” because it upcycles waste that was headed for the compost heap. So we can virtue signal while drinking it”

And then there’s cascara. Every hip coffee bar seems to have discovered it. Cascara, I learned, is Spanish for skin, peel or husk. One obtains it after extracting the coffee beans from the coffee cherries. The pulped skins are sun dried and then brewed and the cascara can be drunk hot or cold. Some describe it as a “coffee-tea” and detect notes of cherry and hibiscus. Others think it’s more of a fruit tisane with much lower caffeine content than coffee. Once a by-product of coffee manufacture, the husks have now acquired an eco-cool life of their own in a wine glass. Of course, a name like cascara helps. It wouldn’t sell as well in Kolkata if it was called “brewed coffee husks”.

Ahead of New York

The cascar-ification of Kolkata can carry alongside the notes of cherry, vanilla and rose-hip, a slightly bitter taste of pretentiousness. We are basically spending good money to drink coffee waste, chuckled a friend visiting from New York. Then a few weeks later he sent me a picture of cascara on the menu in a Brooklyn café. Our cafés in Kolkata, it seemed, were ahead of his New York café.

I have not discovered cascara on the menu in the French cafés yet or perhaps I’ve not scrolled down far enough in the endless choices of coffees, teas, wines, beers and cocktails. Or I’ve been too distracted by the colourful explosion of flans and tarts and macaroons in the boulangerie windows. But I am keeping an eye out for it because cascara in an open-air café seems to be the drink that encapsulates in a glass the strange new world we inhabit. It’s “greener” because it upcycles waste that was headed for the compost heap. So we can virtue signal while drinking it. It has less caffeine so we can drink more. It has wineglass chic. And ordering it from a QR-code menu and then sipping it in an open-air café allows us to pretend we are dodging the virus. What more can we aspire to these days?

And while Paris might be the uncontested café capital, maybe Kolkata can become the cascara capital.

Sandip Roy, the author of Don’t Let Him Know, likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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Printable version | Apr 30, 2022 4:21:48 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/drinking-cascara-is-the-new-cool/article65344673.ece