Travels with Penelope

Travel, Food, Wine, Spirituality and Everything Else

Category: Coffee

April 30, 2017 Wuhan, Zhongguo (China Journal)


It was Saturday, my second and last day in Wuhan. We decided to forgo the breakfast buffet at the hotel and head for Starbucks, but first I took advantage of what was an unusually clear and sunny day,  to snap a shot from our hotel window. When done, we left the room and headed out for a morning walk.



Continue reading

April 8, 2016 The Crawl

A warm day greeted me as I disembarked. The flight to Rome was as smooth as one could hope for, but I must remember to take food on future flights with AA. When my vegetarian meal failed to materialize, the flight attendant offered me a choice between tortellini and chicken. I chose chicken though I do not eat chicken because the plate had a few veggies: overcooked green beans and carrots heaped on mashed potatoes. Apart from the entre, the rest of the meal was made up of white flour carbs, a Velveeta style cheese, and a high sugar brownie. Unappealing and unhealthy! American Airlines, you should be ashamed. Thankfully, the food in Rome is more than making up.

Continue reading

Uncorked: a fun fundraiser.

Orange County Event Photography

This is my first post on my self-hosted blog site. It’s still on WordPress, but now at Do not ask me to explain what that means. If questions arise, direct them to Jackie Lovato. She’s the girl who got me up and running and continues to be my techie consultant, advisor and now adopted daughter. And, by the way, she’s also a professional photographer. Note the photos below.

Last night my travel’s took me back to my hometown when I attended SOCO’S Uncorked held in the OCMix in Costa Mesa, California. Continue reading

January 6, 2016 The Epiphany: Goose, Eggslut, Gjusta, The Rose

IMG_4440 MR

On Christmas I generally cook a goose. That I do may raise the eyebrows of some of you who know my penchant for vegan food, but I cook for non-vegans and the last thing they want, as I found out several years back, is tofurky for Christmas. In the past several years as I mentioned in a previous post, my food intake has gone from veggie to vegan to raw, to pescatarian, back to vegan with a few exceptions, eggs, goat and sheep cheeses among them. Early on in this evolution, I would moralize not necessarily vocally,  but in my thoughts about the benefits of vegetarianism to the health of humans and the planet.

During a night on the desert in Egypt in 2003 a month before the Iraqi war, my internal moralizing was deeply challenged… Continue reading

November 13, 2014 qahveh kaneh


In the once upon a time of typewriters and land phones we had a post-modern qahveh khaneh (Arabic for coffee house) in Davis replete with a counter and spinning, padded bar stools. The counter faced an open window through which those of us sitting on the stools observed the cooks preparing hash browns, ham or bacon, eggs and short stacks. Rise and shine came early in those days. I would bike down to Sambo’s, the chain started by Sam Bettistone in 1957, arrive by 7:00 am notebook in hand, and take my place at the counter. As the shop filled with patrons, coffee cups, spaced a padded stool apart, formed a line like toy soldiers down the counter. The waitress never asked if we wanted a refill; she simply replenished every cup as soon as it emptied. We regulars were grateful for the bottomless cup of Folgers or Maxwell House diner coffee.

The counter was a place where writers of all persuasions gathered. Some such as myself came to eke out stories, essays, or poetry, and some, academics from UC Davis came to edit future publications. Scattered among us were other locals just in for a quick cuppa Joe. After greeting one another and a friendly inquiry or two we would slump into our private space and thoughts. Against the clatter of heavy ceramic dishes set to counter and waitresses shouting orders from the four directions to the short order cooks, Sambo’s was anything but quiet. Inadvertently, in our articulated bar stool space we nudged each other, bumped elbows and whistled forgive me’s under our breath. In spite of the hub-bub, the counter offered what we needed. Writing is, I won’t say lonely, because I am not lonely when I am in that space, but it is a place where one journeys alone. Writers have no co-workers to chat with, no clients or customers; dialogue takes place between the writer and her inner voice; yes, they are two distinct voices; at our common table the counter, we worked separately, in solitude. We wanted that solitude, but we also wanted community. Both were to be had at the counter, and, at that small university-town Sambo’s, I had my intro to counter-culture.

By the late 70’s 1100, Sambo’s peppered the nation. (Due to a surfeit of law-suits because of its derogatory name, Sambo’s became The Jolly Tiger.) Denny’s came on the scene as well and like Sambo’s offered food and a counter. Dunkin Donuts limited itself to donuts and coffee. From the late fifties, coffee shops became an established part of the national culture.

On a visit to see my brother-in-law in Seattle in the seventies, he encouraged my partner and I to stop by a new coffee house located downtown not far from the first Nordi’s! It’s interior and menu reminded us of the coffee houses we had experienced in Europe. With the arrival of Starbucks, pre-brewed gave way to fresh brewed coffee, percolator pots to espresso and cappuccino machines. Following the Boston Tea Party in 1773 Americans turned to coffee as their preferred beverage. Two hundred years later Starbucks created a major shift in the American palate.

A few coffee houses were on the scene before Starbucks, mainly Italian in places like Little Italy in Manhattan. In the sixties and in their early careers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed at coffee houses in The Village in NYC. Lightnin Hopkins in his ’69 song “Coffee House Blues” complained that his woman was failing to take care of the domestic front due to spending so much time at the coffee house. However, prior to the ‘90’s, coffee houses were mainly found near college campuses; coffee shops serving family meals proliferated everywhere. But, leave it to Starbucks to pave the nation with coffee houses and a radical menu.  Latte and cappuccino became household terms.

Starbucks, later Peet’s and Coffee Bean on the West coast were among those “houses” that paved the way for an emerging third wave: sleek coffee bars many with their own roasting equipment and staffed with talented and friendly baristas.

According to the National Coffee Association, in ancient times, “Coffee was not only drunk in homes but also in the many public coffee houses — called qahveh khaneh — which began to appear in cities across the Near East. The popularity of the coffee houses was unequaled and people frequented them for all kinds of social activity. Not only did they drink coffee and engage in conversation, but they also listened to music, watched performers, played chess and kept current on the news of the day.  In fact, they quickly became such an important center for the exchange of information that the coffee houses were often referred to as ‘Schools of the Wise.’” One story describes how Sufi monks discovered that drinking coffee helped them to stay awake during early morning prayers.

It is not known exactly when coffee migrated from Ethiopia to Yemen from which the first coffee houses spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula. In the fifteenth century, the first house opened in Istanbul and in 1530 a coffee house opened in Damascus. In the following two hundred years the development of coffee houses went from the near east to France, Holland and Brazil.

As with the wine of the grape, the wine of the bean has classes, varietals, is influenced by latitude and longitude, weather, and local soil; all providing an influence on aroma and taste. Lately, I’ve been drawn to coffee from Ethiopia, the oldest site for raising coffee beans on the face of the earth. In her beautifully illustrated book Coffee Story Ethiopia, Majka Burhardt describes its history where, to this day, it creates “a livelihood for a quarter of Ethiopia’s population and accounts for 60% of its foreign earnings.”

Having the good fortune to be near enough to Portola Coffee Lab in the OC, Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle and St. Frank in SF, and Stumptown in LA, to visit on a regular basis, my palate has been  educated and broadened. I look for the quality of taste that truly reflects the bean, no interventions please, and I want a cup made individually, not one from a dispenser with coffee that has been sitting on a burner. When I travel I search out the best qahveh khaneh I can find to enjoy the finest example of the qahhwat al-bun’ (wine of the bean).

On my recent trip to Pittsburgh dark roast, bitter, pre-brewed coffee, flowed abundantly. I had just about given up hope of finding a “decent” cup when in my comings and goings from the William Penn Hotel I noticed a large poster in the window of the former Alcoa building. Under bold-faced letters, SIMPATICO – an invite into the lobby for coffee. I was skeptical – good coffee in the lobby of the former Alcoa headquarters? But longing for something better than the chain coffee at the hotel, I decided to give it a try.

The small bar dwarfed by the enormous lobby did not dissuade me.










When Ward, the owner, welcomed me and asked if I wanted “pour-over or trifecta,” I knew I had made the right decision. I perched on one of only two high-topped tables and eagerly awaited  my pour-over. This was neither shop nor house, nor did it have the sleek look of the new bars, just a bar. While I waited, several people in black business suits stopped for a cup to go. Ward delivered. I tasted my Americano and melted. After finishing my cup I approached Ward and we launched into conversation about the state of coffee in the steel city. He recounted  two events that lead to the founding of Simpatico.





Ward had moved to Pittsburgh from Seattle to work for a start-up, but, when the start-up failed and with his background in Seattle’s coffee rich town, he decided to bring his knowledge to Pittsburgh. A second event happened when Alcoa moved to a new headquarters. With the old building impossible to sell in view of the economy, the executives of Alcoa turned the building over to the city to be used as a business space for non-profits. Ward envisioned a coffee bar in the lobby. When he approached the managers, they offered him the small area used by former security people to check out visitors to the building – a pittance of space in view of the new bars – still, a space to make coffee and one that is playing an important role in the development of fine coffee taste in the city.

Ward reads the state of the local palate honestly with an eye to improving it. Fresh roasted coffees from La Prima Espresso Company are offered from what Simpatico “believes to be by far the best roasted coffees in the region “…unlike many downtown coffee establishments, we truly care about our product: properly extracted espresso; properly steamed milk; and not everything made ‘to go’—we offer ceramic cups for you to stop, sit and relax, and thoroughly enjoy a true coffee break….We don’t consider ourselves coffee snobs – we even sell flavored coffee, in our own opinion, a belittling element to quality but definitely what many of our customers want.”

Currently, with one of two trifecta machines available in all of Pittsburgh, Ward plans to bring in others, the finest hi-tech equipment available. That he has been asked to do a second downtown Simpatico speaks well for the first. Perhaps Pittsburg a second tier city with a bad rap is beginning to prove the naysayers wrong.

Simpatico in its Latin derivation sympathia means sympathy. Sympathy: “a mental connection or bond with someone, in sync with as having a psychic link to someone, getting along with, having mutual understanding, agreeable, likely, similar convictions, drives, direction, same pathos-emotional feelings, sympathy with deep understanding and full response, shared attributes, interests, of like mind or temperament.” Herein may lie the reason that coffee houses have been part and parcel of daily life from the sixth century on.

Ward serves up the finest coffee in Pittsburgh and like its name Simpatico, the small bar in the enormous lobby serves as a place to gather and bond, the same role that coffee houses played in the Arabian peninsula from the sixth century. I am pleased that I decided to give it a try for two reasons. One, apart from the quality of this particularly well articulated wine of the bean, the local dearth of what I wanted in a cuppa joe led me on an expedition not only through my memories, but to the research stations as well. Not only did I become curious about the origins of coffee, I began to reflect on the need, not for the beverage itself, but about the fact that every country has a favorite beverage. As stated earlier, ours would have been tea were it not for the Boston Tea Party.

September 28, 2014 Short on Saint Frank


I have an ambivalent relationship with coffee. It was late in life when I began to drink it, and I have never been able to fully commit to a monogamous bond. As a result, there are weeks, months and sometimes years when I go off it for tea, pu-erh, a dark fermented tea from Yunnan, China my latest affair, or Meyer lemon juice with hot water. When I am in India, chai with buffalo milk and cardamom is the only way to go, but, after I return, eventually coffee comes back to haunt me. When that happens, I pull out my Japanese Hario scale, fresh roasted beans and drum up the best pour-over of which I am capable. Many of you already know how critical or discerning depending on your view, I am about food. Believe me, coffee and tea are subject to the same scrutiny.

Just for starters, I want a taste so clean that nothing filters out or stands between me and my relationship to the coffee’s country of origin. Traveling through taste can be a multi-leveled journey to unusual sites around the world. The terroir of Ethiopia is in the coffee beside me at this very moment. I taste the qualities of its soil, I hear the voices of workers as they harvest the cherries, I feel a hot sun tempered by a quiet breeze as the day grows late in the rolling hills of the Yirgachefe District. The taste of floral, specifically lavender, coats my palate. Rich, round, full-bodied…I am beginning to sound like a set of tasting notes, yes, a few tasting notes to share. Not into dark roasts, this coffee is enough to make me commit! Long relationship guaranteed.




Several months back I posted a blog for Locals Only on Portola Coffee Lab in the OC. Today, for the second time, I must share my enthusiasm for another. Saint Frank on Polk Street in San Francisco is around the corner from Biondivino and across the street from Verbena (in former posts). I inadvertently discovered Saint Frank, named for Saint Francis the patron saint of San Francisco, when looking over a food-site on the web. What took me so long? Covering a coffee house was not on the agenda today, but this one happened to be in the neighborhood in which we needed to do an errand so we decided to check it out.




I sit, coffee in hand, surrounded by other writers and coffee hounds. Teas, available as well. Saint Frank opened last October and immediately zoomed into the national top rated coffee house lists on several media sites. Good publicists no doubt, but from my experience with this initial cup, it deserves the good press.






The philosophy of the owners for how they conduct business-described on St Frank’s website is admirable. The project in Burundi is impressive.

Meaningful connection with customers, coffee farmers, and roasters underlies the interactions at Saint Frank. The owners have installed a state-of-the-art espresso maker that fits under the counter. With machines and gadgetry down under nothing separates the barista from the customer. Conversation plausible, the feng shui could not be better! The uncluttered opens into unbounded space.





March 2, 2014 For Locals Only

In the OC today.

I am sitting in Portola Coffee Lab peering through tall windows at a blue sky intermittent with white streaks and gray cream puffs. The rain gone, every wisp of cloud is clearing. Unbounded space. Tomorrow warmth and sunshine predicted.


Café Om on Melrose in LA may be a writer’s destination par excellence, but Portola Coffee Lab at The OC Mix in Costa Mesa is the coffee drinkers’ destination sin qua non and a great place for writers as well. If the beverage of choice is not coffee, Seventh Tea Bar next door is an alternative. I tend to go back and forth. A personal port, I would be remiss not to share a bit about Portola.  First and foremost, coffee does not get any better.

I hear a simulated response out there.

“But Penelope, have you been to Blue Bottle in San Francisco? Four Barrel?”


“Intelligentsia in LA? Stumptown?”


“Had espresso in Italy?”



“And, Portola is the best coffee in the world, hands down!

Am I biased? Guilty as charged, but I admit, there is one other place where  coffee is almost as good.”



An aside: at Portola the baristas brew some coffees with Japanese brewing tools.

I discovered the quality of Japanese coffee a year and a half ago while in Japan for our son’s wedding. The coffee houses were wonderful, but on the day Kenjiro my daughter-in-laws father, took us fishing I experienced the extent to which quality brew had moved into Japanese culture. We met at the boat very early long before the coffee houses had opened. Next to the dock was a store, the equivalent of a 7-11. Can you imagine buying your morning cuppa Joe at a 7-11? Well, some may, but not this gourmet. When it comes to food and drink I wouldn’t want to buy anything from a 7-11. My daughter-in-law went over to the store and moments later emerged with pastries and cans, yes cans, of hot coffee. The 7-11’s in Japan have a hot box–looks like a small fridge that keeps cans of coffee, hot. I shuddered as she offered me a can. Not too hot, I could hold it in my hand unprotected. I popped the lid like a can of soda pop and gingerly took my first sip. Morning coffee from a can never tasted so good. Soon I was sailing out to sea, happily sipping a canna Joe.



I do not mean to draw comparisons here. It was not a Portola where every cup is perfectly handcrafted according to which of the three brewing methods Trifecta, V-60 or Siphon, the customer chooses. Interesting that V-60 and Siphon are Japanese, Trifecta American made. The Kyoto method of brewing ice coffee is also used.

While pursuing a chemistry degree, Jeff Dugan the friendly outgoing owner of Portola Coffee Lab worked in the coffee business. One thing led to another until he decided to devote himself to the brew. The baristas at PCL reflect the same enthusiasm, friendliness and passion for the work, as does Jeff. His story a great read, can be read at

Portola Coffee Lab‎



By the time the Lab was about a year old, Jeff was considered among some of the best judges as one of the top three roasters in America. I can only imagine what his future holds. The coffees he chooses can be purchased on-line.

OC Mix, the setting for Portola a unique collection of shops, no chains allowed, and foods establishments is a place where creative individuals have opened unique businesses that defy the usual models.

Around the in-door shops airy spaces furnished with tables, chairs and sofas are available for groups or individuals to gather. And gather they do, laughing and chatting with the world of front-page news another world away. Students, great grandparents, artists, tattooed hipsters, businessmen and women in dark suits and designer ties, mamas with babies in papoose, dog walking groups (sitting outside), Bible toting students coming in from classes at a nearby Church, women in traditional Muslim dress, tourists from Asia, the diverse list is endless.




IMG_3272When I decide to leave my cave to join other humans for a bit of social the Mix is one of my destinations. Would that we had more places  like it in our communities. In the advanced enlightened schema of life neither tea nor coffee may be necessary, but human interaction is  and coffee or tea is a drink that brings people together. They also are the way that most of us start the day. For now, I hope to enjoy the best I can find or the best simulation my mind can conjure.