Foamless in Topsham...

Topsham, Devon July 21, 2002 I am, I confess, in something of a personal crisis (and not for the first time, I hear you sigh). I wonder if any of you would admit to watching the movie Austin Powers, but if you have happened to see it, you'll know that in the first and original movie, the bucktoothed eponymous hero loses his 'mojo' (or as the Arsenal/France striker Thierry Henry would put it, his 'va-va-voom'). Well, it's not exactly like that for me, but it's pretty darn bad all the same: you see, I have somehow, somewhere, lost the knack of making foam.
Now some of you may remember my coffee angst, the search for the perfect espresso machine, our debate over makes and types of coffee makers, etc etc blah blah blah. To cut a long story short, I did eventually (and after much soul searching not to say lengthy discussions with the bank manager) find the perfect machine, a single group, professional Rancilio semi-automatic, plumbed in to boot. Believe me, the espresso this baby pumps out is quite simply 'eccezionale' and I reckon we've now got it down to a fine (if fragile) art: 100 percent arabica beans, ground to just the right degree of fineness; precisely 8 g of coffee per cup (not 7, not 9); tamping firm but not excessively so; a quick swipe off the top of the holder to remove any excess or stray coffee; then an 18 second extract, the espresso emerging in a slow stream/quick dribble and creating that thick and perfect layer of crema with a little offwhite patch that is the hallmark of a bar quality caffe. The taste: concentrated and smooth, not bitter, with that characteristic espresso jolt followed by an ever so long retrogusto that is as much a mouth sensation as flavour. Mmmmnnnnn. We've long been addicted and now find ourselves like junkies suddenly given an unlimited supply of the previously unattainable; we've been drinking it in probably excessive doses (could that be why my hands have developed a rather consistent jiggle or for that matter why I've taken to watching late night -- i.e. 3am -- telly?).
Anyway, so far so good: perfect espresso at the touch of a button (well, almost). The problem, however, has come from an unexpected source: the milk. Now just about any dime store coffee maker available anywhere can foam milk, right? That's certainly never been the problem, and indeed our old Baby Gaggia was perfectly adequate for this basic task. So when we got the new Rancilio fired up, it never even occurred to me that making cappuccino would be a cause of problem, let alone serious marital strife. Foaming milk for cappuccino? Bah, it's child's play. We have an excellent stainless steel jug for the task, and we long ago discovered that semi-skimmed is best for foaming, both for taste and for volume. When first let loose on the new machine, I foamed quite happily for the first few days or so, nothing extravagant, mind you, but with quite adequate and acceptable results (if admittedly a tad on the thin side). One problem was that on this new machine, the steam wand is located on the left hand side (on our old Baby Gaggia, it was on the right), so I figured it was taking me a little time to get used to working the knob with my right hand while gently swirling the metal jug with my left. With practise, I'd soon be in foam heaven (or equivalent).
Throughout the next few days and weeks, that machine got a mighty workout as I foamed and extracted and foamed and foamed to my heart's content. Of course I know there is something of a knack to this basic operation: the jug must be rotated around the spout, which itself must be raised and lowered just sufficiently to draw in a little air, but not so much as to create large and coarse bubbles. The milk must be heated through, but not so quickly that it boils. Getting that balance right, that's the challenge. But let's be honest, it's hardly rocket science and even a three year old ought to be able to do it.
The problem was, the harder I tried, the worse it got, until finally my foam was so pathetic that I was ending up with just jug of boiling, bubbling scalded milk with maybe a quarter of an inch of foam on top at best. I'd spoon that tiny bit of foam -- yes, all of it -- out for Kim's cappuccino, and hope she wouldn't notice. "Nice," she'd say, hardly taking her eyes up from The Guardian over breakfast, "nice latte." The giveaway was the shaking of the newspaper as she struggled to stifle her guffaws. And to make matters infinitely worse, as my foam collapsed to insubstantial nothingness, Kim's seemed to grow proportionally ever more magnificent: fine, tight and so dense yet so light and airy that you could literally sculpt with it! I mean it, you could quite easily create complex figurines or abstract shapes that would last, seemingly, for hours. Kim's foam was so maddeningly thick, she'd have to spoon it out with a tablespoon as it was far too dense to pour. I have to admit, the cappuccino she would then present me with, trying not to but nonetheless exuding unbearable smugness all the same, was as good or even better than anything tasted and enjoyed even in our favourite bars in Venice or Florence.
So that's where I am right now, reduced to a foamless, wandering, lost shadow of my former self, all confidence in my ability to perform, totally and utterly shattered. It's either a question of not being able to get it up, or once up, being able to keep it up: that, in a demi-tasse, is the essence of my problem.
Any suggestions, tips, referrals for counselling, therapy, or advanced foaming instruction gratefully received. Please email urgently to


The seriousness of this condition compelled me to take professional advice from a much respected psychotherapist (who happens to be my sister). Dr. Michele observes:

This is a clear case of performance anxiety, whereby your anxious focus on the results paralyzes you and interferes with your natural foaming abilities. Because you are so convinced of failure and live in dreaded anticipation of the subsequent humiliation (compounded of course by your spouse's gleaming success in this department), you will never succeed, if you continue along these lines, to overcome your problem. It may even get worse as you slump into a generalized depression and wonder if you're capable of doing anything worthy in life at all. You are overthinking (common male problem). The solution: stop thinking, stop trying. Try to make only lattes, with no foam whatsoever. Attempt to avoid foam at all costs! Banish that ridiculous frivolous light-headed foam! Out out damn foam! But you must be patient with this--you can't just half-heartedly try it once, while hoping and praying in your heart of hearts to produce, while not trying to, the most marvelous foam ever to grace the earth. Trust in the process, enjoy your lattes. (Personally I find foam to be highly over-rated.)

Copyright © Marc Millon 2002

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Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2002