Cafes are all the rage, here. Each cafe boasts that they have Rarotonga's best "this" and world famous "that". It all seems easy enough, until you step up to order. Exploring town, we sauntered into one of only three remaining original buildings on the Island. A cement, one story structure with arched windows and doorways, it housed a high priced souvenir shop, TAV clothing (the island style preferred by Duchess Kate) and a cafe. The cafe had an open air rooftop, a record player spinning 50’s American Jazz, and a man and a woman working an impressive looking espresso machine (not to be confused with “expresso”). A newspaper article about the cafe and its owners hung on the wall, interviewing the very man and woman who hustled around the little galley, grabbing white cups and filling them with all manner of dark, bitter liquid.
As I approach the countertop, I panic a little bit because I see no menu for coffee. Muffins, cakes and cookies look tempting on a bookshelf behind the counter, and a food menu tantalizes customers with options like egg and ham “toastie” with chutney sauce or a smoked salmon on cream cheese bagel with capers and purple onion. But, I wasn’t in the market for food, just a coffee. No matter, I’m a purist at heart, so I order a black coffee.
“Black coffee?” The man behind the counter asks me, looking puzzled. He stared back at me as though I had just landed from Mars and asked for a moon-cake. “Yes, just black coffee.” I respond. He doesn’t move, instead looks at me as though I am daft.
“Well, what kind of coffee do you have?” I ask.
“Just espresso.” He says. Now, I look around at the handful of customers sipping from their cups around the cafe. Some of them are the traditional, miniature espresso cups I am familiar with, but others are normal coffee sized coffee cups. I am confused as to why he is confused, and vice versa, I’m sure. So, to end both our suffering, I say: “Well, great! An espresso then.” Andrew makes it two espressos, and we duck away from the countertop.
We sit at a table, receive two tiny mugs of rich, strong coffee. We sip, read a newspaper all about Rarotonga dining, and then scurry off still puzzling over our coffee options.
When we see them next, Phil and Laura asked us what we had been up to that afternoon. When we tell them we stopped in at a Cafe, they chittered on about having found “Flat Whites” after spending so long in tropical places that do not offer such coffee delicacies. I don’t know what a “Flat White” is, so I ask. When they describe it to me, it sounds exactly like a latte: coffee with foamed milk. I say as much, and they both vigorously shake their heads. “No no, it’s different.” Something about proportions.
We had better luck at Jireh’s “Home of Rarotonga’s world famous custard squares.” They at least had a menu of coffee options, and what do you know: A Flat White is available. So, we order two Flat Whites and a world famous custard square and give them a test.
Since this is my first custard square, I cannot speak as to the quality of the custard square. But does world fame necessarily mean that it is the best custard square? I don’t know. The white-flour crust is thin but dense. It did not crumble in your mouth, but instead provided a chewy juxtaposition to the thick vanilla custard sandwiched between top and bottom crust. The square was only mildly sweetened, allowing the cream, toasty flour and vanilla to be the focus of the taste. It was pretty good.
The custard square was mostly gone when our “Flat Whites” arrived. I looked down at my coffee, and it looked just like a latte. (But don’t tell Laura and Phil.)
The barista at our final cafe excursion provided our enlightenment. Within walking distance of Sonrisa, there is a “famed” waffle cart. The five tables seated in the morning shade are filled with groups of locals, all cajoling one another from one table to the next, reading newspapers, and/or weaving a flower crown. One remaining table was available for us. The waffle cart had a fancy espresso maker, too, but they provided a coffee menu. “Ah-hah!” I say, and then scowl.
Starbucks did not prepare me for this. Seeing my grimace, the woman inside the cart says “Are you American?”
“Ah, you will want an Americana.” She responds.
“Wait, wait, wait. Why? Can you explain these coffees to me?”
She laughs and explains that an Americana is the only “filtered coffee” they have, and Americans are used to filtered coffee. I make her take me through the rest of the coffees, and I learn that all of the other coffees are made with espresso (coffee made by using high pressure steam to push water through extremely fine ground coffee beans), then have various amounts of water or milk added. For example a Long Black is two “shots” of espresso with a shot of hot water added. A Short Black is one “shot of espresso” with two shots of water added. A Flat White is one shot of espresso with two shots of milk added, then steamed for a foamy top. She explains the difference between a Latte and a Flat White is that a Latte is filtered coffee topped with steamed milk, whereas a Flat White is an espresso diluted with milk and topped with steamed milk. So, then what is the difference between a Cappuccino and a Latte? Further research is required.
I get the sense that this is another one of those British things. Like celsius, a kilometer or a gram. Why can’t we all just agree on common measurements: Fahrenheit, inches, miles, ounces, and let the Italians name all coffee drinks?
Andrew orders a “Short Black” and I order a “Flat White”. We order two of the waffles topped with fruit: Andrew with berries, me with papaya, banana and chocolate sauce. We read the newspaper, listen to the good natured local banter, and sip our coffees.
I knew this trip would teach us important lessons. I just knew it.
P.S. A note on the “World Famous” custard square. I had to call my bank in order to unlock my account due to continuous inability to correctly type my password. As I forced the young man on the phone to wait out the extremely slow internet, he asked me what is wrong with the internet out there in Las Vegas. When I explained to him that I am not in Las Vegas, but instead in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, he paused “Wait, where are you?”
“Rarotonga, Cook Islands.”
Silence greeted me on the other end of the line for a few moments: “I have never even heard of this place.”
Wait, what!? Surely he has heard of the World Famous Rarotonga Custard Square! But no, he had not. I didn’t ask him if he knew what a Short Black is; silly Americans.