Elixer For The Soul

by Nancy Michael

If you're a coffee fanatic you probably use a French press coffee pot. It's a simple design that makes great coffee quickly and easily. Just place the fairly coarse ground fresh coffee in the bottom of the French press pot, pour water "just off the boil" over the grounds and let it sit for a few minutes. Then, using the plunger, which contains a fine mesh filter, press the grounds to the bottom. The liquid that's left is divine. It's a rich creamy and full of coffee flavor.

The reason? The coffee oils aren't trapped in a paper filter or burned to figurative ashes in a percolator. They float up lazily and form a rich, thick brew that tastes like a heavy cream in the mouth.

It doesn't get much better than this. So to whom do we pay homage for this simple device? Well, a little surface research says the French developed it. Dig a little deeper and Italians say it's theirs. Such a dilemma!

Does anyone really know the true history? We'd like to think that the correct chronology runs like this: The French invented the press pot in approximately the 1850's. The first pots were metal, and functioned roughly like they do today pressing coffee grounds to the bottom of a metal pot, through a metal screen (or sometimes through a loosely woven material).

In the 1930's, the Italians reinvented the French press pots, using first metal, and then glass. The pot has been refined over the years to the single-chambered French press pot we know today. The latest twist on the French press pot is a two-chambered version designed for (horrors) the microwave, by Ian Bernsten, author of the book Coffee Floats, Tea Sinks.

Well, the truth lies somewhere in between the historical accounts. Unearthed from a pile of dusty notes in an old church in Provence, here's the real fractured fairy tale about press pots.

How the French Press Pot Came to Be

He wasn't a sharp thinker. No, not the old man on the hill. But he did spend a majority of his time generating thoughts from the top of a tall hill or mountain, if you like. Every day, the old man walked slowly from his house in Provence to the top of the hill, where he sat for hours... thinking and drinking his coffee.

Through the windy Springs, hot Summers, bittersweet Falls and the snows of Winter, he made the daily trudge to his hill. In the coldest part of winter, when there was little daylight, he'd carefully carry his ground coffee, a bit of firewood, and his old coffee pot to the top of the hill where he made a strong brew to warm his bones and soul.

The old man boiled his coffee and water together in an old pot, then drank the strong, bitter liquid- a punishment of sorts- for the coffee tasted dreadful. One day, he made the mistake of boiling the water without the coffee. A simple oversight, you say? Ahh, but a fortuitous one. When he realized that he'd left out the coffee, the old man quickly dumped the fresh grounds he had wrapped in an old, soft kerchief into the boiling water. The grounds formed a thick plug of coffee at the top of his pot. 'How will I ever drink this coffee,' he thought to himself, cursing.

Of course, at just the right moment, a small, weather-beaten Italian man appeared at the crest of the hill, toting his wares: a large section of metal screen and an Italian flag (that's why we know he was Italian).

The old man took one look at the screen and saw the perfect way to save his coffee. He jumped to his feet, ran to the Italian, and grabbed the screen from his hands. He carefully fit a section of screen over his pot. Using a stick, he pressed the screen to the bottom of the pot, leaving the fresh, creamy coffee in the pot.

One sip and the Frenchman knew he'd achieved greatness.

He shared his thick, tasty brew with his new-found friend, who charged him a million centimelira for the portion of screen he nabbed. Together they began a manufacturing plant in a small village of Cafe-Si-Besoin, a suburb of Bern, Switzerland where they crafted French press pots and made a fortune.

Today, over 2.5 million French press pots are sold each year in the United States. The standard design is a glass beaker, surrounded by a metal or plastic holder. The plunger is attached to the pot lid and presses the coffee grounds to the bottom of the pot. There are several manufacturers of the popular coffee (and tea) pots. All will provide you with a great pot of coffee that reflects coffee's aroma, flavor and true taste. If you haven't tried a French press pot, go get one... and think about the old man on the hill. History tells us the coffee will be an elixer for the soul."

Nancy Michael is the owner of French Jacket(tm), a firm that manufactures and sells patented warmers for French press pots. She can be reached at 818-243-7949 or frenchjacket@earthlink.net.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.