Food

Brewing memories

By Kenny Mah
February 05, 2013

Espresso and customers at Santo Grão Café, São Paulo. — Pictures by CK LimEspresso and customers at Santo Grão Café, São Paulo. — Pictures by CK LimSAO PAULO, Feb 5 — For some reason I’m rapidly gaining an unfounded reputation as a coffee snob, and café-hopping in Brazil is not helping.

I am surrounded by labels: Louis Vuitton, Alexandre Herchcovitch, Giorgio Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, Versace, Salvatore Ferragamo, Marc Jacobs, Reinaldo Lourenço. The only one I recognise and can afford is Havaianas, but somehow I suspect wearing a pair of flip-flops, even branded ones, isn’t the right apparel for coffee here.

Waiting for tables at Santo Grão Café.Waiting for tables at Santo Grão Café.My friend Paowen tells me that Rua Oscar Freire is the Orchard Road of São Paulo. Thankfully there are far fewer cars and even fewer rabid shoppers out for the latest bargains. Instead this tree-lined street feels like an idealised Parisian boulevard where the locals are dressed immaculately and go about their day in an unhurried fashion. After all, where else would they rush off to? They are already here, and they are definitely waiting to be seen.

Neil, Paowen’s husband, passes his car keys to the valet after we tumble out of his Alfa Romeo. Parking can be a nightmare in the city and the Paulistanos are thus skilled almost from birth to manoeuvre their vehicles into the last square centimetre of available space. Better to let the professionals handle it.

There is usually a long line of customers waiting to get a table at Santo Grão, Paowen tells us, but today our lucky stars must be shining on us: we are seated within minutes. There is a light chill in the air and none of us smoke, yet it’s an outside table we all want.

One of the traditional activities of Rua Oscar Freire is people-watching and we weren’t about to miss out on the eye candy. Oscar Freire strikes me as not entirely beautiful in the classic sense (too man-made), but everyone sure is very pretty.

Brew your own coffee (left) or buy beans for home-brewing (right).Brew your own coffee (left) or buy beans for home-brewing (right).Part of me balks at sitting at this tiny table, surrounded by well-heeled high-society types out for their chi chi afternoon tea. Another part is simply grateful that my friends have elected to take a day off to spend some time with me. What I love best about travelling and finding myself in a new city or country is simply catching up with old friends and new, as though it was only yesterday that we were sharing a bowl of cendol after school, and now we are sipping coffee in South America.

I remember how my parents would forbid me from drinking coffee when I was a kid, warning me that the bold, black brew would stunt my growth and make me a midget. Considering I’m the tallest in my family by quite a stretch, my parents and sister must have been sneaking and downing copious cups of kopi-O behind my back during my formative years.

My first cup of coffee was an accident, really. My grandfather had taken me out one Sunday morning to his favourite kopitiam, just across the street from our house. Weekend breakfast meant thick toasted chunks of white bread slathered with a lumpy kaya that was redolent of both pandan and santan (even if it wasn’t very pretty to look at, what mattered was that it tasted good; something I wonder if my nephew and nieces appreciate in this day and age of plating over palate).

Dipping the pieces of toast into soft-boiled eggs (already doused professionally with soy sauce and white pepper by yours truly) was as good as it gets. Until that fateful day, that is, when my grandfather asked me if I would like to have some coffee and before I could answer, ordered me one.

To his credit, it wasn’t a full-on black kopi-O, which would probably have been too much for me then. Instead I received an easier-to-manage kopi the colour of a lurid watercolour brown when I’ve mixed too many paints in my brush-washing container.

Customers enjoying their coffee and cake.Customers enjoying their coffee and cake.I took a tentative sip. It was bitter and crude, what I would imagine the sludge inside a particularly disgusting longkang might taste like. I made a face. My grandfather frowned and scolded me. Stir it first, silly. Ah. There was a layer of condensed milk sunk at the bottom of the cup. My spoon circled once, twice, thrice, and the dirty brown transformed to a kinder hue. Another sip.

Sweeter. Creamier. This was not a safe, chocolatey Milo, nor a wholesome, heart-warming mug of Horlicks. I have had my first taste of coffee, albeit a robust, local brew (probably an Aik Cheong, since very few Malacca kopitiams still roasted their own beans, even back then), and it was a revelation.

I didn’t like it.

It didn’t matter though; what I do remember is my grandfather taking me out for breakfast and spending time with me, all these years later, long after he had passed away.

The coffee here at Santo Grão isn’t especially memorable either. Perhaps the coffee itself is faultless, for how could it compete for attention against conversation amongst friends who have not seen each other in years?

You don’t need to be a snob or a sage to realise that while coffee isn’t everything, it certainly is in service of building memories, good ones that last a good long time.

Neil looks at my empty cup and asks, “More coffee?”

Definitely, I nod. Definitely.

Santo Grão Café

Rua Oscar Freire 413, Jardim Paulista, São Paulo 01426-001, Brazil

Tel: (+55) 11 3082 9969

Website: http://santograo.com.br

* Kenny is not a coffee snob. (No, really.) Read more café stories at http://lifeforbeginners.com/cafestories.