21 February 2014

Full of Beans


While Finchley isn't exactly famed for its wildlife - we don't get many visitors here doing a safari - we're lucky. Our flats have lovely gardens and a fair bit of greenery, and the school we overlook has some beautiful, long established trees on its borders. Most mornings then, doing the washing up, we get a charming procession of playful squirrels, tits great, blue and long-tailed, wrens, a nesting pair of mistle thrushes and a few rarities: this winter's odd weather has seen a couple of redwings turn up and I once had to stop the car as there was a green woodpecker sunning itself on the tarmac. 

We've now got a couple of bird feeders stuck to the window and I've already had to get up twice writing this to stop the big sodding jay eating all the peanuts, the greedy pink bastard. Right now, there's a blue tit helping himself to seeds and a robin pecking at a fat ball. It's all rather lovely. Some mornings, we even get a woodpecker - greater spotted or lesser spotted this time, I've not worked out which yet - popping across for breakfast. The power in its neck is quite remarkable: if the window's open and he's attacking the tree, it's like someone's using a power drill. When he attacks the fat ball, it sounds like someone's breaking in. This is either a charming distraction from work or the cause of much swearing. The difference? Coffee. If I've had my morning caffeine, it's brilliant and aren't we lucky? If I've not, whether he's greater or lesser spotted isn't questioned, oh no, I've got a whole wealth of words to describe him (although, to be fair, one does sound a little like "pecker"). 

Right. I'll stop being David blooming Attenborough and get to the point. Yes, coffee and journalism is a bit of a cliche but with good reason: I work a whole lot better on caffeine. More than that though, I love the stuff. I don't think I've done a "simple pleasure" photo of coffee yet but that's pure oversight, there are few greater joys in daily life than a really good, well made, espresso-based drink. 

A couple of years ago, Lavazza kindly offered me one of their capsule machines to test. It made pretty good coffee as it happens, although I ended up mostly using the milk steamer as, for various reasons, I had loads of coffee beans to get through, and had gone back to using my trusty old, pleasingly chipped, properly browned Bialetti. When the milk steamer packed up - no idea why, I followed all the pernickity cleaning instructions - I just went back to the milk pan for less frothy results. 

To be honest, with a domestically made coffee, I'm not that fussed about appearance or elaborate foam art. I just want it to taste good. And it does: I use good beans and I use fantastically fatty, utterly delicious Jersey milk or, more recently, the superb raw milk from Hook & Son. As mentioned in that Lavazza post, I like the ritual - the grinding of the beans, the slow percolation of the Bialetti, the smell - but most of all I like the 15 minutes away from my desk. That switch of focus is almost Zen-like and many's the time I've returned to the keyboard with the perfect opening / closing line or a solution to some other problem. 

But I'm always up for trying new things, so when another random e mail hit the inbox asking if I'd like to roadtest a Panasonic espresso maker, I didn't need to be asked twice. Between that e mail though and delivery, in my mind I was agreeing to test a Nespresso machine. What turned up was around 800 pounds worth of NCZA1, a serious, domestic, fully programmable, touchscreen-operated "bean-to-cup" coffee maker. 
Panasonic... with some of the drawers and bits showing

Happily it was pretty instinctive to use, and the instruction manual - about half an inch thick - covered many languages, so wasn't anywhere near as daunting as it first looked. In a very neat touch, the machine comes with the key instructions / explanations on a couple of bits of plastic that slot conveniently into the top of the machine. And, after a few minutes of washing up, simple assembly and playing with the click-in / click-out drip tray, it was plugged in, the water tank was full, the beans were in the grinder, the long plastic hose was dropped into the milk container and we were off. 

The level of choice is remarkable. As well as the basic selections - espresso, black coffee, latte, cappuccino, hot milk - each item is fully customisable, from length of shot to richness of milk foam, via adjustable milk/coffee ratio, strength of coffee, etc. In addition, the grinder has three settings - fine, medium, coarse - depending on the roast of the bean. 
Hot milk... 

Somewhat inevitably then, the first coffee wasn't great. It was better than instant but still considerable distance from Monmouth's finest. The second - with an adjustment on the grind, and a little less froth - was better. 


The basic display... 
All told, it took me about a week to get the balance right for my tastes, and a further week to impress Mrs L (or LSA as some people this week suggested I refer to her). I'll give you a minute or two to insert your own joke here... Finished? Good. There are good reasons for this though. First of all, I just can't handle too much coffee these days so was only making a couple each morning and then picking up the experiment 24 hours later. As for Mrs L, she has a proper job - hence I can be the flighty media one - has to leave the house early and thus only got to try a coffee every two or three days. Plus, it transpires, what she wants isn't so much your classic latte as a lot of hot milk, a couple of espressos and a bit more foamy milk on top, so it wasn't particularly a reflection on the NCZA1 and its more conventionally proportioned drinks. That combination was easy to do with a few button presses. My own preferences, once sorted, were easily stored in the machine's memory and thus could be easily recreated time and again. 


Shot glass not my usual morning weapon of choice... 

Actually, in retrospect, the biggest leap in quality came from changing the beans to a stronger roast: I found Monmouth's organic espresso particularly good in the machine, though for my tastes Workshop Coffee's Yukro was outstanding (and, I fear, the start of a major addiction). 
My biggest concern with the NCZA1, especially after the relatively quick death of the Lavazza, was keeping it clean. Would I remember to do all the necessary maintenance? I needn't have worried. As I should have suspected from a machine that, as part of the set-up, asks you to test water hardness (there's a testing strip in the box) and adjust the machine accordingly, cleanliness is part of the ritual. When you turn it on, the first process is a cleaning shot, so that you're starting afresh with sparkling pipes. When you turn it off, there are instructions to flush out the milk hose after use (they even include a bottle of the relevant detergent) and then rinse through with clean water, all of which is done with a single button press. There are alerts whenever the waste tray needs emptying and, in the case of the main filter getting jammed, a warning flashes on screen, you slide it out, loosen it with the special tool provided and are good to go again. 


The cleaning ritual... 
By the end of the month or so it was in the kitchen, I'd got the Panasonic churning out pretty damned decent espresso although I didn't generally make it in a shot glass, that's just to show off the crema. If I'm being particularly purist, the milk was a little more froth and a little less "microbubble" than you'd get via other methods, and the foam dissolved pretty quickly, regardless of milk used. I also found it hard to monitor just how many beans I was getting through each time. Some days it seemed to be eating the things, other days it was if the tank atop the machine was magically replenishing itself.  


Yeah. Pretty decent crema, I'd say... 
So, to the big question... would I spend £800 on one? And the answer is... probably not. To put that into perspective though, apart from an oven and, obviously, a Thermomix, I wouldn't spend that sort of money on any piece of kitchen equipment. The NCZA1 is a smart looking, neat machine and the results - for the majority of the country who just want a decent cup of coffee and a lack of faff - are surprisingly good. As mentioned above, the memory setting is easy and I also liked the option to make a pot of espresso, which is a very convenient dinner party trick. 

On a personal note, I think I'm just slightly too set in my coffee making ways. The Panasonic requires a similar level of devotion but I think I'm just too attached to my long-standing coffee-making ritual to change this dramatically. I also find more pleasure from grinding beans, not to mention the sense of anticipation from that eye-popping, just-ground-coffee-bean aroma, than I do from flushing out milk hoses, as satisfying as that could be. No. Really. But hey, when my Euromillions numbers come up later this year (as they surely will). I'd happily put one of these in at least one of my houses...

(The wonderful blue mug, by the way, was made by my friend Mark, who's a quite excellent and very friendly potter. Do buy things from him, he does lovely work and he'd be very grateful...) 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Was considering one of these machines as a (significant birthday) gift for a coffee addict. Hadn't associated Panasonic with coffee making before but this review, and one other I have seen so far, have been encouraging. One thing I have noted though is that for a very expensive slick looking machine it appears to have a very unsightly rudimental transparent plastic tube on the side of it for the purpose of the machine's milk intake. It almost looks as though they completely forgot about the milk intake in the design stage and hastily cobbled together a bit of old tubing and thought....ah, sure that'll do.
It's good to hear though that it makes good coffee. The 'pot of espresso' option is particularly intriguing.

GM said...

Well, this machine can now be had for £350 on Amazon....for someone who just wants a quick and easy freshly ground coffee - that seems to make this more of a buy than it was at £800?