Monday, 9 July 2012

Elephant No. 281: Cappuccino

For today's elephant, I decided to try drawing in the surface of a cappuccino. A few people have been encouraging me to try this, but I've never had a camera handy when I've had a cappuccino in front of me.

Cappuccino is a strong coffee or espresso topped with steamed and foamed milk. About a third of the cup is filled with coffee, followed by the same amount of hot milk. The top third is foamed milk, sometimes sprinkled with chocolate shavings, cocoa, cinnamon or other spices.

Although there is a popular belief that the word cappuccino derives from a drink made by Capuchin monks in seventeenth-century Vienna, there is no historical basis for this. The word cappuccio is Italian for "hood", making cappuccino "little hood". While the name of the monastic order may share a similar etymological origin, the drink was likely named for the "little hood" of foam deposited on the surface.

European coffees grew out of the traditional Ottoman way of preparing the beverage, which involved boiling together ground coffee, sugar and water to make a thick, sweet brew. As coffee gained in popularity across Europe, it was sometimes enhanced with milk, chocolate and spices.

Cappuccino itself was developed in Italy in the early twentieth century. Following the development of large espresso machines that could be used to heat and steam milk, the popularity of cappuccino grew. In 1948, the Italian company Gaggia produced the first high-pressure espresso machine, and by the 1950s, cappuccino had evolved into its current form.

Traditional "wet" cappuccino.

There are different types of cappuccino, based on the amount of milk. A cappuccino chiaro ("light cappuccino", also known as "wet cappuccino") has more milk than normal, while a cappuccino scuro ("dark cappuccino", also known as "dry cappuccino") has less milk than normal. There is also a cold version called cappuccino freddo ("cold cappuccino"). An "iced cappuccino" in North America is somewhat different, usually not including frothed milk. Variations on cappuccino itself include a caffè-latte, which is a larger drink, with more milk and various amounts of foam; and a caffè macchiato which is a smaller drink, consisting of espresso with a small amount of milk.

It's hard to say when people began making art in the tops of their lattes and cappuccinos, but there are certainly some highly elaborate designs. Some seem to involve the use of cinnamon, chocolate and even colours to enhance the design, but the ones I like best are the ones that use only the shades available in the milk and coffee.

Cappuccino tiger.

The video below shows a master cappuccino artist producing a face. We won't be expecting this level of skill from me today.

Some talented baristas can even produce designs just in the way they add the milk, as in the video below. We won't be expecting this from me, either.

Because I've never tried this before, for today's elephant I decided against going to the local Starbucks, because I was pretty sure this whole thing would involve my buying multiple four-dollar coffees to play with. Nor do I have a cappuccino-maker at home, so I bought this "instant" cappuccino. I vaguely remember having this in the house once before, and I think it produced an acceptable surface to play with. I guess we'll see. If worse comes to worse, I live a block from Little Italy.

Instead of a coffee cup, I chose a teacup with a wide mouth to give me a large surface to "draw" on. I poured the contents of one package of cappuccino mix into the cup.

The package says to add 157 ml (2/3 cup) of boiling water and stir vigorously to make the mixture foam. Instead I added a little under 125 ml (1/2 cup) of boiling water so that I wouldn't overflow the teacup. I did stir it vigorously, however.

The surface was disappointing because, although foamy, it was a single beige colour. I tried poking at it with a bamboo skewer, but the coffee beneath was the same colour. Hmm. I should have gone to Little Italy. I didn't feel like going out again, however, so I decided to see what I could do with this bland surface. I poured a small amount of heavy table cream into a small pitcher and drizzled it in a vague elephant shape over the surface.

Interestingly, the cream actually stayed on the surface. Thinking I had to work quickly, I pushed it into an elephant shape. It looked okay, but I thought it needed some contrast, so I poked the tip of the damp skewer into some cinnamon and added some shadows to the elephant.

I liked this well enough, but I thought it might be even better if I dotted a bit more cream on the surface. I rinsed the cinnamon residue off my skewer and dipped it in the cream remaining in my pitcher. I touched this lightly to the surface, which gave me some slight highlights.

I decided at this point to leave well enough alone. The final result is not a classic cappuccino masterpiece, by any means, but it's my own fault for not going to a coffee shop and getting myself a real cappuccino. On the other hand, it was interesting to see how I could add highlights and shadows just by dipping the tip of a bamboo skewer into some cream and cinnamon.

If you decide to try this, you'll discover that's it a very forgiving medium. You can push things around quite a lot before it becomes overworked and turns into a single bland colour. Such as what I started with. But even then, you can see that all is not lost if you get to that point.

I like the final result well enough, despite the lack of bright white areas and the fact that I had to use cinnamon. And it only took about five minutes. The next time I try this, however, I'm definitely going to start with a foamy white cappuccino.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants don't have a natural taste for coffee berries. However, as coffee plantations expand into their former territories, they appear to have developed a distinct liking for the crop.

At first it was thought that the destruction of coffee plants was a by-product of normal foraging activity. As privately controlled forests were turned into coffee estates, it was assumed that the elephants had little choice but to eat whatever they found across their previous range. This, however, was only half the story.

The district of Kodagu in India's Karnataka State is home to some 9,000 Asian elephants, representing one of the largest contiguous populations of Asian elephants in the world. Over the past 20 years, as global demand for coffee has risen—along with a loosening of restrictions within India's coffee sector—the elephants' normal range has continued to shrink. And, whereas landowners didn't really mind elephants crashing through their forests before, with a valuable cash crop on the land they now mind very much.

A full one-third of the land in Kodagu is currently under coffee cultivation—more than double the area of 30 years ago. This single district produces two per cent of the world's coffee, and elephants are no longer welcome. Unfortunately, the adjacent state-owned teak forests just don't have enough food and water for the elephants anymore.

Because the coffee plantations are well irrigated, they also provide perfect conditions for growing mangoes and jackfruit. These juicy treats were originally thought to be the elephants' primary draw, making destruction of coffee berries an unfortunate by-product. For many years, it probably was. Over a 12-year period, most of the coffee destruction seemed incidental. More recently, however, farmers have been reporting that elephants are actually targeting bags of recently harvested coffee berries, rather than seeking out coffee berries still on the bushes.

It is not clear yet whether this new behaviour is confined to a few elephants. Unfortunately, conflicts between people and elephants are on the rise, and electric fences and trenches are not proving terribly effective at keeping elephants out. One commentator suggests, however, that within the conflict there may lie an opportunity: the creation of an elephant-friendly coffee label targeted at Western consumers.

Elephants foraging in coffee plantation, Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park,
southwestern Sumatra.
Photo: WWF Indonesia

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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