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Sunday, February 23, 2014

French Press Coffee: Drinking at Room With No View

French Press Coffee: An old, new way to drink coffee.

I started drinking coffee about fifteen years ago, in my late twenties.  Before then, I hated it.  Now, I drink it all the time.  I started with drip-coffee, and aside from the occasional cup of instant coffee, it was all I knew.  That all changed this Christmas when my son and his wife gave me a French Coffee Press.  Though my son had tried to explain it to me before, I had no idea what it was.  What it turned out to be was the best way to brew coffee.

A little background for those interested:  (If you're just looking for advice on how to use a newly acquired French Press, just skip down a bit to get to the nuts and beans of the process.)

The screen, which fits snugly inside the glass.
I first thought this process was probably very old, like an ancient coffee ritual.  It is not.  The process was patented by the Italian designer Attilio Calimani in 1929, which was an improvement on the French patent that was secured by two Frenchmen back in 1852.  Calimani's design included the spring that keeps the screen tight against the glass, ensuring that the grounds do not escape above it.  Another Italian, Bruno Cassel, improved it just a bit more in 1935, and this became the design that is most common today.

The process is used all through the world, and is known by many different names, depending on the country in which it is used.  Here in the United States and Canada, it is called the French Press.  (The first presses  were manufactured by Calimani in France, in a clarinet factory, of all places.)  In Great Britain and the Netherlands it is called a cafetière.  In France, it is cafetière à piston.  Down Under, in Australia, New Zealand, it is called a coffee plunger.  They call it this in South Africa as well.  I'm pretty sure I would not have tried this if it I had been given something called a coffee plunger.  Maybe in Australia, plungers are used for something completely different than here in the States.  I'm hoping.

So let's brew some coffee.

First off, you get to heat your water on the stove.  A gas stove is, of course, preferable.  Electric is just so boring.  Gas, lighting off with a whoosh, followed by a mesmerizing blue circle of flame, is way better.  Trust me.  I doubt it has anything to do with the taste.  But who cares?  Fire is just really cool.  Blue fire is better.  After all, isn't that what Wizards always produce?  But anyway, set your teapot on the stove, and heat it.  I said heat it.  Don't boil it.  Die-hard coffee lovers will tell you this burns the coffee beans.  So be sure to turn off your cool, mesmerizing blue flame just as you hear the kettle begin to whistle.  Actually, just before.  If you use a kettle, you'll recognize what I mean.

While the kettle's on the boil (is that a common British phrase?  It is something I heard in the song We're So Sorry, Uncle Albert), get your coffee grounds down from the top of the refrigerator, or out of the cabinet, or wherever it is you store them.  What you'll need is coarsely ground coffee.  If you use coffee that is ground for drip coffee, too much of it will get through the screen.  There are several ways to do this:

My daughter-in-law gave me coffee beans with the French Press and reminded me that Starbucks will grind the beans for you.  I just walked into the local Starbucks and asked them to grind the beans.  I was pretty sure they were going to think I'd just grabbed a package of coffee off the shelf and expected them to argue that I needed to pay for it.  After all, they didn't see me come in the door with it, I wasn't carrying it in a bag, and I had no receipt.  To my surprise, the only thing the barista asked me was how I wanted it ground.  Just tell them it is for a French Press, they'll take it from there.

The second way you can grind the beans is to buy a coffee grinder.  There are many different grinders available.  Be sure to get one that has an option for coarse grinding.  This is actually a little fun.  If you have kids, be sure they know not to play with it, since it consists of spinning blades, but also be sure to let them watch you grind the beans.  It makes lots of noise and they'll love it.  If you have your own grinder, you don't have to grind the whole bag, just what you need as you go.  This will help to preserve the flavor of the coffee.

You can also usually grind your coffee beans at the grocery store when you buy them.  Most stores have a self-service grinder, and it will have some way to select coarse grounds.

The beans and the means to
grind them into smithereens.
Since I received my French Press, I've used the Starbucks coffee that was given to me, I've bought cheap coffee beans from the grocery store, and I've ordered coffee beans online.  For me, the best so far was the coffee I ordered online.  Coffee Bean Direct has a crème brûlée flavored bean that is fantastic.  You have to buy a few pounds to make it worth ordering, but it can be done through Amazon, and if you have their free shipping it is quite cost effective.

Don't forget to get to the water before it boils.

So now, you put your coffee grounds in your press.  I've played with the formula they suggest, and let me say that it only matters according to how you like your coffee.  Try it out.  For starters, use three to four tablespoons (around two of those plastic scoops that come with coffee makers) and just experiment.  I vary it, depending on what sort of coffee I'm in the mood for.  Pour the water into the press, the amount will vary on the make of the press.  Just look at your instructions for it.  My press makes about two normal cups of coffee if I fill it to the brim, which is perfect.  It is suggested that you stir the grounds in the water with a plastic spoon.  Metal spoons have a tendency of breaking the hot glass.  You could use metal, but then you have to stir very, very, very gently.  Just get a plastic or wooden spoon.

Keep the plunger up for four minutes.
The coffee is brewing...
After placing the top on the press, with the plunger in the up position, set a timer for four minutes.  (Or, count to 240 at the rate of about 60 beats per minute.  Or, use a one minute egg timer and flip it four times.  Be creative.)  Eventually, like me, you'll probably just use your instinct on this.  I don't worry about it much anymore.  I just wait till I think it is right.  It usually is.

After the four minute mark, gently push the plunger to the bottom of the press.  That's it.  The coffee is ready.  Pour, add creme, sugar, whatever you like, or nothing at all, and enjoy some fantastic coffee.  It is recommended that you don't leave the rest of the coffee in the grounds.  I ignore this.  Since I use fewer grounds that most people, it doesn't embitter the coffee to let it sit awhile.  It will cool off if you wait too long, but I generally drink two cups fast enough that this is not a problem.

Using the French Press has helped me cut down on my coffee intake.  Since it makes two cups, I only drink two cups, and generally don't feel like brewing more.  When I use a drip coffeemaker, I tended to make a full pot, and yes, I'd end up drinking the whole thing.  So that's been a benefit.  Also, I have to agree with my daughter-in-law, who pointed out that one of the best things about the French Press is the ritual of making the coffee.  I just feel more involved with it.  I appreciate the coffee more.

Last but not least, the real benefit of the French Press is the flavor.  If boiling the water burns the coffee, consider how a drip coffeemaker turns water to steam (that's boiling and beyond, you know).  One reason I can use less coffee in the French Press is the fact that the flavor is so magnified, you just don't need as much.

So that's it.  So go ahead and give it a try.  Like me, you might not use your drip coffeemaker too much once you get the hang of the French Press.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Monuments Men: A Room With No View Movie Review

The Monuments Men, Directed by George Clooney

As I mentioned in my last post, I would put up a review of the new George Clooney movie, The Monuments Men.  Since I promised to do it, I will fulfill my promise.  However, as much as I loved the book, I was not impressed with the movie.  I try to keep things upbeat and positive on this site, but I plan to take a slight break from that and get a little critical.

Something you know about me is that I do not disparage movies based on books just because I am a book lover.  I know plenty of people who are condescending when it comes to Hollywood presenting their version of a much loved literary classic.  And much of that is well-deserved.  However, I don't mind Hollywood taking a book and tweaking it a little bit to increase the cinematic effect of a story.  After all, it is a movie, not a book, and it should have elements that make it worthwhile to watch in a dark theater.  I don't even mind if they change a few things.  The best example of this I often discuss with movie buffs and book lovers is the way Peter Jackson switched out Glorfindel in the Ford of Bruinen with Arwen.  As a kid, reading the Tolkien story, I was in awe of Glorfindel, holding off the Black Riders with his elf-magic.  However, though at first I squirmed to see Arwen--a girl, no less--saving Frodo instead of Glorfindel, I quickly saw just how great a switch it was.  It is now one of my favorite moments in the entire movie trilogy.


The director, George Clooney, having a drink and some
fun with pal Matt Damon in The Monuments Men
When making a movie based on historical events, I don't like to see major changes just to make things more interesting.  Tighten the anxiety a little in a scene that is historically accurate?  That's fine, I get the need to gig the audience a little.  But when several characters are smashed together to form a completely new character for time savings, or when a character is portrayed almost one hundred per cent accurately but their name is randomly changed...these things bother me.  If the story can't be told in two hours and you feel you have to make amalgamated characters, just don't make the movie.  So right off the bat, George Clooney, the producer, director, screenwriter (with co-writer Grant Heslov), star, and promoter of the film, uses both of these tricks to muddy his historical film.  And that didn't sit well with me at all.

But let's ignore the fact that he chose to change most of the story of the Monuments Men.  After all, you can read Robert M. Edsel's excellent book of the same name as the film if you want the facts.  We'll be generous and suggest that the film is simply meant to be an entertaining look at an odd little historical bit of World War Two.  And maybe we'll give a nod to the noble cause of championing the importance of culture and art in a civilized world and how much of that culture was in danger of being lost.  How, in fact, a few men saved the soul of Western Civilization.

So full of expectations, having waited nearly six months to see what I figured would be the film of the Christmas season, I set out to the theater in February (due to its being delayed from a Christmas release--more on that later) to see a movie set in World War Two about the importance of Western Art.  It seemed too good to be true.


First, let's hit the high points:

Clooney does a flawless job of recreating Paris and greater Europe at the end of the war.  I wasn't there originally, since I wasn't exactly in existence then, but I feel pretty certain he did an above average job of giving us a peek into that time period.

Bill Murray And Bob Balaban in The Monuments Men
As a fan of Bill Murray, I was thrilled to see him working again.  It has been a few years since I've seen him do any serious work.  And here he is mostly used as light (very light) comic relief, with a scene or two that is meant to be poignant.  The same can be said of John Goodman, though his moments of comic relief are much more heavy-handed.  Sadly, his are mostly clownish in nature.  Goodman is a great dramatic actor, and like Murray, can handle the deft skill of presenting a comedic character as both funny and heartbreakingly tragic.  This was a movie that should have used more of Goodman's skills in this area.  Instead, Clooney chose to give Goodman the bright red nose with the balloon animals.  A poor choice, I thought.

I thought the strongest character was the Frenchman Lt. Clermont, played by French actor Jean Dujardin (known most recently for his lead role in The Artist) who brings a natural charm to a role that allowed him to showcase his little known skills to the American public.  He should have been in Hollywood years ago.

As entertainment goes, the film was fun to watch.  Lots of laughs, good guys catch and punish the bad guys, and famous works of art are rescued in a dramatic and timely manner.  We feel great about what the Monuments Men have done,  a little sad at all the destruction, and proud that we spent some time watching a movie that had a tad more culture in it than the latest Superheroes CGI extravaganza.  Roll credits and walk out of the theater with a slightly good feeling.

Now, let's examine why that feeling was only slightly good.

The guys, having fun fighting Nazis.
From the beginning, George Clooney seemed to have one goal in mind for this film: let's get my friends together to make a cool, fun film.  So with Ocean's Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen pal Matt Damon in tow, he goes around and collects some old film stars to help him make a fun movie.  Neat-oh!  And don't think I'm being cruel here, folks.  You can see the gleeful smile on Clooney's face from the moment he is briefing the shadowy figure of FDR to the very end, when he is lecturing the evil Nazi on just how evil he is and how little he means now that he has lost the war.  Heh-heh.  If you need an example of this sort of oops-didn't-mean-to-smile-during-that-scene atmosphere, just watch Ocean's Twelve.  In that movie, Clooney wasn't the only one doing it.  The whole cast did it.  You know that each and every time Clooney yelled "Cut!" the crew let out chuckles, a few giggles, and some good-natured finger-pistol pointing that ended with a wink.

But I exaggerate.  Not in the whole film.  There are many moments when the film turns serious.  Bill Murray gets his ten dramatic minutes during a shower scene, of all things, that should have been the stuff that wins him an Academy Award nomination.  I'm serious.  It is a great scene, lost in the silliness that is this film.  It even has a great Christmas song that covers the scene, and could be added to the traditional Christmas movie favorites list.  I loved it.  Especially if it had opened Christmas day as it was supposed to.  Did I mention that before?  I did.  In fact, I said I'd get back to that.  So let's do that now.

Damon and Clooney with some British guy in between them
with those smiles that filled the picture.  (Actually, that's Hugh
Bonneville in the center, who handled his role quite well.)
The movie was supposed to come out at Christmas, but it was delayed.  Most of the time these delays come from the director tweaking his film, trying to fix something or other.  It turns out Clooney was having trouble getting the mix of drama and comedy right.  (This he admitted to TheWrap, which I only discovered while researching for this post.  But I knew it was the problem as soon as I saw the finished picture.  Honest.  Ask my wife.  Oh never mind.)   Pushing the film back didn't help.  Clooney never did solve the riddle.  Instead, he left the film muddled, and I felt this ambiguity acutely early in the film.

I won't spoil the film for those who haven't seen it, but members of the troupe die along the way.  And as this happens, we should feel a shift from the early, eagerness to join the war, to a sobering reality that all war movies tend to produce.  But Clooney never seems to settle in his mind that he wants to go there.  It is too bad, since all the elements are there to bring this off.  But inexplicably, it just doesn't happen.

Take for instance when the a Nazi who is set up at the beginning as a really bad guy finally gets captured.  It should be a tense scene that ends in the sudden relief that comes when a villain is captured.  A moment of "finally!"  Instead, there were chuckles in the audience.  It was funny that the really bad guy was captured.  What a lark.  Hee hee!  I have no idea what Mr. Clooney was thinking here, but whatever it was, he should have discarded the thought and tried again.

I'm a fan of Bob Balaban, and love the dry, emotionally drained roles he often takes.  Here he gets a great one.  A somewhat shy, slightly grouchy sensitive man who wants to get in the war and do something, despite just being an art expert.  He has some good chemistry with Bill Murray but he gets relegated to the clown role, much like Goodman.  However, Balaban is the sad clown, with the tears painted on his face instead a big red ball on the end of his nose.  Man, that really burned me up.  For what he did to Goodman and Balaban, Clooney deserves this review.

Cate Blanchett, hiding behind a veil of
smoke, hiding her acting skills in a role
that did not ask much of her.
I still wouldn't say the movie is a total wash.  It has some value, especially as a starting point for the discussion of the role and value of art in a world gone mad with war.  It is fun to watch, and there are performances that probably shouldn't be missed.  I've said little about Cate Blanchett's role.  And that's on purpose.  She sleepwalks through this thing, and it is mostly because her character is terribly boring.  Not much more to say about it.  She's prim, determined, secretive, and the fact that she sort of throws herself at Matt Damon was uninteresting to the story and not accurate to the history of the book.  But I'll give Blanchett this much--she can looked worried really well.  I believed her.  She looked worried that Nazis were in her Paris.  Really worried.  Maybe she was channeling her inner artist, who knew that Clooney's screenplay was full of bad dialog.  For someone like her, this had to be something to worry about.  After all, it was bound to make her character boring.  And it did.

The best moments of this film are captured in the trailer, with Shawn Lee's haunting song Kiss the Sky as the backdrop.  For me, I think this trailer sunk the movie.  It made it look like an Oscar contender.  Like a movie that would reach inside me and rip out my heart with the dramatic story of how courageous men stood up to the Nazis and saved the world's most precious non-living treasures.  For that, I'm mad at the man who edited this awesome trailer and that other man, George Clooney, for not making a film that stands up to its trailer.

So watch the trailer only if you want to risk ruining a slightly entertaining movie.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Monuments Men: A Book Review

by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter

Don't give up on this blog because you've just now realized it is a review of a book instead of a movie.  The movie review can be found at the link at this end of this post.  But I wanted to start out with the book, to make sure the real story is given its rightful place.

Robert Edsel and Bret Witter have done a great job of bringing the story of the Monuments Men back from historical obscurity.  I can easily admit to the fact that even though I consider myself a major World War II history buff, and a lover of classical art, I was unaware of these men.  It is sad to think that Walker Hancock, James Rorimer, and George Stout have been largely forgotten.  Edsel and Witter are to be congratulated for unearthing their story and bringing it to light.

I first heard of the story through a movie trailer last summer.  I was excited at the prospect of such a film: WWII, precious art, and the men who risked their lives to save the bulk of Western culture.  That John Goodman and Bill Murray were in the cast was just an extra bowl of ice cream added to an already sumptuous feast.  A little research led me to the book and I felt I needed to read it first before the film arrived.  I'd read a few rumblings that the movie took far too many liberties with the source material and I did not want to get blindsided with the truth after watching the movie.  So I downloaded the book onto my Kindle and broke into the mysterious past of the Monuments Men.

George Stout (from
One of the original members of the Monuments Men, the nickname derived from their MFAA designation (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section) was George Stout (pictured on the left).  Stout was the real drive behind this effort to get in with the Army as they liberated Europe and attempt to save whatever art and cultural artifacts they could.  It was an unheard of mission.  But early in the war, museum curators from Europe, as well as the United States, recognized not only that important architecture and art were at risk from battle damage but that the Nazis were quite purposefully plundering the continent.

Stout, like most of the men in the unit, worked mostly alone, moving with the allies as they pushed back the German line.  Given a list of monuments, art works, buildings, and historical places, Stout and his compatriots tried to find the items on the list as each area was liberated.  They weren't given much else.  No supplies, no transportation, and no authority to protect what they found.  But that did not stop Stout from accomplishing his mission.  Fortified with the zeal to protect the items listed, Stout and the others bullied, begged, and bluffed their way to protecting buildings and sites after, before, and even during battles.

In his mid-forties, Stout spent 13 months on the continent, in pursuit of the items on the list.  Many of them, valuable works of art, had been stolen by the Nazis, and Stout had to perform the work of a detective to track down the loot.  As the war drew to a messy end, the Monuments Men knew that their chances of finding so many missing works of art were growing slimmer by the day.  So desperate was their search for the pilfered paintings and statues, by the end of his tour, during those thirteen months, Stout only took one and a half days off for personal time.

The Madonna of Bruges
The Madonna of Bruges was one of the most important pieces sought by the Allies.  Sculpted by Michelangelo in 1501-1504, it was a beloved piece that resided in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Bruges, Belgium.  The only sculpture of Michelangelo's to leave Italy in his lifetime, it was first taken by the French during the Revolution (later returned by Napoleon) and then stolen by Germans during WWII.

This statue, one of over one hundred statues that were eventually recovered in the massive underground storage mine at Altaussee, had been meticulously hunted by Monuments Man Ronald Balfour for almost an entire year.  Along with Johannes Vermeer's famous painting The Astronomer,  it was one of the most sought after pieces during that last year.

One might wonder about more famous pieces, such as the Mona Lisa.  I knew it had been removed from the Louvre, as had all of the most important French pieces.  Oddly, the Nazis, under Hitler's direction, made an attempt to appear as if their looting had some basis of legality.  If works like the Mona Lisa were owned by a state such as France, they were left alone.  Most art stolen was taken from Jewish collectors, whom the Nazis declared to be non-citizens, which meant they could not own property.  As the war dragged on, this distinction became more hazy and the Nazi's lust for art led them to blur their own semi-legal standards.

from "Minutes of a Special Meeting of the Association of
Museum Directors on the Problems of Protection and
Defense held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art" Dec, 1941
The book is a fascinating look at the Monument men and their lonely attempts to complete such a noble exercise in the face of such a tragic, costly, and hellish war.  It follows not only the Monuments Men, but also the French heroes Rose Valland (custodian of the Jeu de Paume museum during the Nazi occupation, who spied on their looting operations) and Jacques Jaujard, director of French Museums, who asked her to do so.  

The amount of art stolen by the Nazis was astounding.  According to Edsel and Witter, "the Western Allies discovered more than one thousand depositories in southern Germany alone, containing millions of works of art and other cultural treasures, including church bells, stained glass, religious items, municipal records, manuscripts, books, libraries, wine, gold, diamonds, and even insect collections."  The totals are almost impossible to believe.

More impossible to believe is the dedication of the Monuments Men to save not just the culture of the Allies, but of the Germans as well.  British Monuments Man Walker Hancock, like the others, felt this was highly important.  According to Hancock, "to save the culture of your allies is a small thing.  To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won..." was unheard of.  But it is unheard of no more, thanks to Edsel and Witter.

The review of the movie can be read here.