Thursday 6 March 2008

Italian coffee

The ritual of coffee in Italy is one of those things that non-Italians can probably never learn. We have been here for about eight years now and I am sure we still get everything wrong; for instance, I just cannot quite bring myself to adhere to this rule of not having a cappuccino after 11a.m. Call me a subversive, but a good cappuccino can be drunk at any time of day, as far as I am concerned (except after a meal, one has one’s limits after all).

Finding a good ‘cap’ is not always so easy of course; the tendency in Italy is to drink it tiepido, meaning tepid or lukewarm. My Italian dictionary also provides the alternative meaning of ‘indifferent’, which perhaps better sums up my own opinion of lukewarm ‘hot’ drinks. A good cap should have the ability to render pleasure unto the drinker, whilst simultaneously scalding a fine layer of skin from the interior of the mouth. In order to achieve this you need to ask for the cap to be bollente (boiling); be insistent, as most Italian barmen will not believe that you actually mean it. In your local institution you should eventually reach the point where you need no longer ask for this special treatment, though I prefer to be safe than sorry. When entering your local caffè for your morning, lunch or afternoon shot of the black stuff (alas, they do not serve Guinness quite as widely as a man with a surname like Cleary would like), don’t expect to find many options to choose from.

Fortunately Italy has not, as yet, been inundated with large high street coffee shops that offer bewildering arrays of choice. You will not find, for instance, a pumpkin-spice latte or a decaf-mochacino topped with glazed pecan choppings down at Pergo bar… The answer is - keep it simple, or corretto if you fancy livening up your espresso with some local grappa/rocket fuel. They never did explain to me if an espresso without alcohol is therefore deemed to be in some way ‘incorrect’.

An Element of Choice

Although most Italians stick to the staple ingredients of espresso, milk and alcohol for their coffee, there are still a surprising number of nuances to each individual’s taste. I for one simply ask for a caffè macchiato, which translates as a coffee literally ‘stained’ with a drop of milk, and take it as it comes in whichever establishment I have chosen to patronise for lunch. Others, however, might specify whether the milk should be cold, tepid or hot as well as requesting that they have more or less schiuma (foam) with theirs, not that I ever get to drink the foam now that Cecily our young daughter has taken a liking to it. Italians can be as opinionated about their caffè as they are about their food, which is to say, very. Being of a less sophisticated, Northern European palate, I cannot deny that it all tastes the same to me after a while.

Coffee drinking traces its roots to Aden, in the early 9th century, from whence it spread throughout the Middle East over the ensuing centuries, shifting from a religious to a popular beverage, before being taken up by European nations sometime in the 1600s. Whatever your take on the convoluted history of the world’s most consumed drink, there is no doubting the huge impact that Italian coffee culture has had on the rest of the world. Although high street coffee shops in the UK bear little or no relation to my own experiences out here in Italy, you would be hard pushed to deny where the influence comes from. I try to enjoy my cap when I am back in Cambridge, I really do, but something always tells me that the enormous, swilling bucket of burnt coffee and milk, served at temperatures hot enough to melt copper (at least it’s not tiepido), just doesn’t quite match the one I am used to. As I said, keep it simple. There is nothing more effective for a quick pick-me-up on a long night journey than a simple shot of espresso, though please bear in mind that caffeine is on the International Olympic Committee list of prohibited substances…

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