ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
An age ago, someone asked my opinion on what aspect of Italy mostly characterised the country? That’s a difficult question, given the overwhelming cornucopia of possibilities, and gave me a very long pause for thought. Surprisingly, when asked just now a similarly difficult question, I failed to fall back on my original answer which had dodged the specific and offered the collective, all embracing ‘atmosphere’. That’s saying a lot, without describing a lot. Well, I’m aware that time and familiarity dull the senses, but despite that, experience has also sharpened my insight so that the aura of the environment or the metropolis continue to retain all those essential elements of wonder and surprise. And that’s without even stepping outside my local habitat! However, I was not so nonplussed when asked what aspect of Italy did I find the most pleasant and amiable? If I tell you I was sitting in a coffee bar at the time, you’ll know where I’m coming from.
I could be convinced that every metropolitan Italian, unless they have an aversion to company, possess 'their bar,' where they can be found at some particular moment in the day. How this phenomenon should come about depends to some degree on who you find in there for company, and as the Italians are the most gregarious people in the world, complete strangers are quite capable of proving to be instant intimates, and you’re hooked. To prove a point, my wife and I stumbled upon ‘our bar’ some twenty-five years ago. More anon.
A little history. Such establishments as the 'coffee house' seem to have come into being sometime during the seventeenth century in Venice where the Venetian ports landed the exotic as well as the mundane from half the world. Coffee was wildly expensive so these establishments could not have been the proverbial 'bar' we know today, and which materialised in their modern form sometime towards the end of the nineteenth century. They were certainly well established before the First World War when the first espresso machines appeared in Milan, though a forerunner seems to have been invented in Turin in the 1880’s. Both relied on passing high pressure steam through the coffee powder and creating an almost instant drink – hence the name ‘espresso’. Today, domestic versions that mimic such machines do exist, enabling one to have the pretensions of a coffee bar at home.
Well, not quite. Some forty years ago, on a visit to Italy, we purchased a lustrous red Gaggia version in Verona, that seemed to be just the thing, from a young manager whose sale succeeded on the strength that we could certainly reclaim the purchase tax if we declared it on leaving Italy. For some reason, we departed Italy via an almost deserted mountain pass with a dogana manned by two bored customs officers who were persuaded after much leverage to hand over the clearance slip for said machine. My wife was convinced it was all a waste of time and part of a typical sales pitch, but on arrival back home was sensible enough to duly send off, by mail, the proof of its arrival at a foreign destination. To our great surprise within a few weeks a cheque arrived, by some unexplained reason, from Liverpool! I haven’t determined what sort of Latin legerdemain that was!
The only set back of earlier domestic machines was that they only dispensed one or two cups, so a little tedious at the end of an evening’s entertainment. Not that I was particularly inconvenienced, having an equally desirable all glass English Cona coffee maker that produces fourteen small cups. It made very good coffee but its fragility, being all glass, was always a nightmare! I believe a version is still being made in Holland, the patent being sold off in Mrs Thatcher’s sales of family silver.
Having the Gaggia was responsible for a new experience while learning a few of the finer points of coffee. There are over a hundred species of coffee trees, all apparently with quite differently flavoured beans. There are shops where you can buy green beans to roast and grind your own, to bring out the aroma. But it is essential they be roasted evenly etc., - not something casually performed in the kitchen oven! The purveyor will generally, therefore, have done both for you, and all you need do is the grinding. However, a coffee shop in Salisbury where we once lived, supplied a pronto version which was described as 'Columbia ready roasted', and the first variety I preferred for the Gaggia. Commercially, there are two varieties of beans that sum up the generally available products – Arabica that originated in Ethiopia, and Robusta in the Congo – the former being by far the most common, and the one generally found in that friendly Italian bar. The reason is in the name of the latter. Robusta is considerably stronger than Arabica. A lot stronger, hence as an after dinner coffee, more likely to keep you awake all night! In Italy you can purchase such coffee varieties in a multitude of vacuum sealed foil packets, or sealed round tins. It is not unusual for the aficionado to mix different coffee flavours to arrive at their own acceptable taste.
Strangely, such a facility as the electric espresso machine is not so universal in the ordinary household where the ubiquitous Moka coffee pot is very often found.
This wonderfully simple accessory to the kitchen appeared in the thirties and, unlike its modern brother, is heated on the kitchen hob, passing water through the coffee grains held in the lower chamber to the, screwed tightly in place, upper chamber. Traditionally made in aluminium by Bialetti the possible effect of leaching harmful substances into the water saw the introduction of stainless-steel versions that are safer at the level of boiling water. That hasn’t stopped many Italians from favouring those still available traditional models, and as the owners seem to live to a ripe old age, perhaps such perils in its natural environment, are more imagined than real. Moka coffee pots also have an advantage in being made in a variety of sizes from one cup to twelve cups.
In Italy a general cup of coffee comes in three forms. Espresso, which is a very small cup of hot, black coffee, taken after a meal, for breakfast if you’re in a hurry, and most famously, in just about every bar in Italy, at ten o’clock. Cappuccino is a normal size (tea) cup with a topping of aeriated milk, sometimes formed into clever advertisements, and suitable for more leisurely moments. Caffe Latte is half coffee and half steamed milk, though it seems to vary considerably. No doubt there are other variations that I haven’t come across.
Naturally the whole business is full of gadgets. Mainly because domestic Gaggia or Moka, - it doesn’t matter which - Cappuccino they do not make. But all is not lost. Someone, who seems to have remained unnamed, has developed a very simple pot that by a little dextrous pumping creates a foamy milky ‘look-a-like’ topping quite efficiently - once you learn how not to burn your fingers! (Use semi-skimmed milk, not full cream.)
Somewhat rarer is the automatic ground coffee dispenser.
For some reason Italians, when presented with one, are at first puzzled then enthusiastic, as it is designed to fit all Moka variants without changing anything. You just place it on top of the coffee chamber and twist the lever, delivering the correct quantity of coffee grains. Verily, it is one size fits all!
The wonderful cappuccino is now an international favourite, found in the strangest out of the way places – even advertising the British ‘Transport Museum’ –
though back in Italy a battle for its legacy is a gloves off business between ‘Italy’ and ‘Naples’ for the cultural ‘Unesco Heritage’ status listing. As there might well be no ‘Italian coffee’ heritage at all without Venice, Milan and Turin I consider the former probably deserves it, despite another 'best' cappuccino I’ve ever come across being served in Naples, where the barista could be described as an Olympian, given his lightning speed at coffee dispensing!
So where do we go when we need to satisfy the habit? Never fear, wherever you are in Italy you’ll find a bar that may be just like ours:
Alright, it’s not like Gambrenus, just off the Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples, but it shares the same national identity without the affected commercial glamour – a more homely one, suited to its clientele. Sometimes they’ll even have a fresh Sfoglio con Mela left over from the morning rush hour to partner your cappuccino.
So, go on. When the opportunity arises, treat yourself to a cappuccino, and a taste of the real Italy!
That reminds me, it is coffee time!