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Loving what you grew up with

Taste is such a complex affair.

People perceive the flavors in a dish based not only on the balance of ingredients its cook has assembled, but with an emotional sensibility unique to each individual. Flavors ring bells, causing unconscious sense memories to zip around our mind-body like atomic-sized pinballs, affecting how we like the taste of something.

I’ve been fascinated by this for a while, but had been having it confirmed in my thinking last week while reading a great book, “The Flavor Bible,” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, and found myself at Natale’s men’s clothing store in Hanover with my husband.

After some time shopping around and talking with owner Nat Agostino [pictured], he offered us a coffee.

Agostino, as it turns out, is passionate about espresso, and I understand that because I’m ridiculously particular about coffee myself: I don’t like most coffee that comes my way, and if I don’t love it, I’d rather not have it.
Which is why I initially declined Agostino’s offer. But, then, when I saw the thick crema on the espresso he served my husband, I got interested.

My curiosity piqued, I had to know how he made it. Which is how I ended up in Agostino’s light-filled office, refusing his coffee a second time.

Because I saw that his beautiful electric (Alma brand) espresso machine uses coffee pods, and I was sure that pre-packaged pods could never produce a vivid cup of coffee. (I’ve tried dozens of pods to no avail.)
“I’m sorry. I don’t like the taste of coffee made from pods,” I told him. “So, no thank you.”

But Agostino was unfazed by my comment; reaffirmed that his Giusto coffee was the best; and stood ready to make me a cup.

But Calabrese, it seems, are not known to be hardheaded for nothing (Agostino was born in, and I’m descended from, the Southern Italian Province of Calabria): I did not want an espresso I wouldn’t like, so I said:
“You know why I won’t like the espresso and you do? Because taste isn’t based only on objective flavors, but on memories and emotions and experiences that affect what tastes good to us. You’re used to this coffee and it’s delicious to you, but I won’t like it.”

I felt comfortable with this man and I really said that to him, wagering that he’d be interested in the phenomenology of individual taste and find it fun to ponder. I knew, from our conversation, that he had traveled widely. And his magnificent store and personal gentility made me think he’d have something to say on the subject.

But, he didn’t acknowledge my words.

Instead, he continued to insist that his coffee was delicious, and that I should try it.

So, taken as I would be by anyone that passionate about coffee, I had a cup.

And he was right, it was delicious – a smooth, thick blend of bitter and sweet. Really, seriously great.
He was pleased.

“My philosophy is you give the best in life to people,” said Agostino. “When I make a cup of coffee, I make it with love. I really do.”

We spent quite a bit of time, then, talking about coffee. He told us that in 60 years, he’s never had so much as a single cup of American coffee. He remembered a particular, awful espresso he was served once in Paris at Charles de Gaulle Airport — and the best coffee he’d ever had in his life: a cup made by two guys in the street in Beirut, Lebanon.

Two days later, I stopped by the shop to take a photo of his coffee. While he was making it, I asked him, again, if he could understand my fascination with how each of us likes the flavor of different dishes – and coffees — based on unique experiences that affect our sense of taste.

And he said that he did understand – and went on with great humor and joy to recount how his friend, Angelo Sodano, makes Neapolitan coffee in a little pot on a hot plate, near the bathroom, in the back of his foreign cars store in Quincy, even though he also has an electric Alma machine Agostino gave him.

“I wonder why,” I said. “It must be because that’s what he’s used to, what tastes good to him.”

And then, Agostino gave me the gem I’d been after: the confirmation I’d been hoping to undercover in his experience.

“I agree with you,” he said. “I’ll tell you a story. As a young boy, we didn’t have money to buy coffee, but we grew orzo [barley] and my mother roasted it dark [in a frying pan over a wood fire] and ground it and made coffee with it and it was delicious. And that coffee that I told you I had in Beirut in the street from those two guys — the best coffee I ever drank in my life — it was exactly like my mother’s.”

So, wonder of wonderful story of stories: The coffee he remembers as the most delicious of his life reminded him of his mother’s grain coffee!

Bravo our mothers, our memories, and the love that lives in our taste buds.

Follow Joan Wilder on Twitter.