MY PRIVATE ITALY: "ESPRESSO", WHY WE CAN'T DO WITHOUT IT

Thursday, 15 October 2020 08:26 Written by Serena Vocella
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"Giusto il tempo di un caffè e arrivo!” (“Just the time to have a coffee and I’m coming!") is the typical phrase used by Italians to measure time.

Italians usually start their days with a coffee at home or at the bar; then take one at the office during a break; another one after lunch, to start the afternoon full of energy, and often even after dinner, when the evening seems just begun.
Coffee is also synonymous with conviviality and meetings: I often invite friends and acquaintances to “have a coffee”, an excuse for going out, socializing, talking and having fun together.
I must confess that for Italians the research of coffee abroad is often a nightmare, because what we find is always wrong somehow: maybe too long, not very creamy or without any flavour; when I went to live in America, the first thing I packed in my luggage was the “moka” with some coffee supplies!
There are many legends about the origin of coffee. The best known is the one about a shepherd called Kaldi and takes place in Ethiopia: one day he took the goats to graze and they began to chew the leaves and berries of a plant; during the night they began to wander with energy and vivacity instead of sleeping and the shepherd, understanding the reason, began to produce coffee using the seeds of that plant. Another legend is the one about Prophet Muhammad who, feeling ill, one day had a vision of Archangel Gabriel who offered him a black potion created by Allah, which enabled him to recover and regain his strength.
Anyway, coffee is a drink from Ethiopia and Yemen and its name derives from the Arabic “????, qahwa” which means "stimulating drink".
Around the end of the 16th century, coffee was first introduced in Venice, thanks to its commercial relations with the Near East. The first cafes opened throughout Europe around 1700 and used to be a pleasure reserved only for the illuminist and innovative bourgeoisie, drunk by intellectuals as help to concentration. The "Cafes" were a meeting place for writers, artists and social innovators, a place to exchange ideas and elaborate their works. The most important magazine of the Italian Illuminism, “Il Caffè”, was founded and written by Pietro Verri and simulated discussions in a café.

The first inventions and patents of professional espresso machines in Italy date back to the end of the 19th century. In 1884 Angelo Moriondo in Turin patented the first coffee machine, which could produce many cups in series, helping the work of the bartenders: however, he kept this invention only for his bars without promoting it outside because, at that time, he didn’t have any entrepreneurial interest and did not recognize the importance of it. In 1902 the patent then passed to Desiderio Pavoni, founder of the company “La Pavoni s.p.a.”, who started the industrial production of the machine.
In 1905, Pier Teresio Arduino realized the potential of the bar machine and understood the importance of a machine capable of making coffee in an instant, “express” way, thus speeding up the work of bartenders. He began to take care of the aesthetic side of the machine, with precious inserts that gave style and elegance to the invention. In the 20s and 30s the number of machine manufacturers grew and in 1938 Achille Gaggia, a bartender from Milan, made a significant change: he introduced a piston mechanism that pushed water through the high-temperature coffee powder, replacing the previous steam one. The pressure espresso machine was born.
Since then Espresso truly became a daily ritual: in every neighbourhood of every city or small town, bars and cafes opened and in a very short time became meeting points for everyone, places to discuss sports, the Sanremo Festival, politics and other things.
Migration flows and the emergence of communities of Italians around the world exported, other than pizza, espresso machines and espresso, which became the basis of most coffee drinks.
Coffee today is no longer drunk only in bars, but also in airports, railway stations, bookstores and boutiques. It is now a symbol of the “Made in Italy”, another reason that makes us proud to be Italian.
Coffee is also a way to do charity. In Naples, you may hear about the so-called “Caffè sospeso” (“suspended coffee"): some people take their coffee at the bar and pay one more for a less fortunate customer who can enjoy this little daily joy too.
However, when I was working as a “barista” in the US, making coffee was one of my worst nightmares! The most difficult guests are the Italians, because of their requests. Foreigners could be undecided between espresso (short coffee) and American coffee (in a large cup and extended with hot water); on the contrary, when Italians order a coffee at the bar, you need to take a crash course to understand it. If they simply say "a coffee" then it is the normal one, espresso; "Un macchiato caldo o freddo” (“A hot or cold spotted coffee") is espresso with the addition of hot or cold milk; "Un marocchino” (“A Moroccan coffee") is espresso with the addition of cocoa; then you can choose the “light coffee version” between decaffeinated coffee, barley coffee and the one with ginseng; there is also the famous creamy cappuccino and finally, the digestive of every dinner, the "caffè corretto” (literally the “fixed coffee"), usually an espresso “fixed” with the addition of sambuca, grappa or other spirits. The list can be even longer because there are different variants and names, also depending on the location. My favourite ones are the Macchiato and the Marocchino coffee because I love the sweeter version.

If you visited Italy in person, you often noticed that your coffee at the bar comes with a curious short glass of water. In Piemonte and Liguria, you’ll find it in almost any cafè, while it’s not as common in Rome or Milan. But if you are in Naples, the true capital of coffee culture in the country, that tiny glass of water with your “tazzina” (little cup) is a must, a clear sign it isn’t a choice at all, but a real necessity of Italian coffee etiquette.
The tradition of serving a glass of water with a cup of brew has a pretty serious story behind it: in fact, it had become customary in times when almost every café would toast and grind its own beans and produce its very own blend. To make sure customers didn’t have the taste of their coffee spoiled by something they had eaten earlier, water was given to cleanse the palate. As it is often the case, history thus answers the crucial question of whether that water should be had before or after coffee (and the answer is rigorously before).
But if you look around while enjoying a caffè, you may notice many people have that shot of water after their coffee: why? Well, science tells us water is the greatest tastebuds cleanser available in nature, so it’s not only perfect to enjoy the taste of your delicious espresso — as noted just above — but also a sure method to erase and forget its taste, in case you didn’t quite enjoy it.
Well, in the end, why we can't live without it?
Because coffee is an important part of Italian culture, a social product that gives us the possibility to express our desire to meet, share and spend time together simply by enjoying a coffee at the bar. For me, Espresso is a moment of peace, slowing down the daily frenzy. It is a synonym of break and represents that joy of savouring the little pleasures of life. So, shall we take a coffee together?
Ciao da Serena

 

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