Ever heard of the famous expression “Drink Coffee like an Italian”? When it comes to caffeinated drinks it’s the Italians who have set the bar for the rest of the world so much so, that we’ve even adopted the Italian coffee language as our own. If you thought you didn’t know a word of Italian think again, Cappuccino, Espresso, Americano, Caffèlatte and the likes have become part of our vocab no matter what language we speak. Italian style coffee potions have converted more people than Catholicism to the point that 2,25 billion cups of coffee are sold religiously around the world per day. You would be hard pressed to meet someone who hasn’t taken a swig from Italy’s coffee religion, the home of Mauro, Lavazza, Illy, Passalacqua and Izzo these renowned Coffee Houses are celebrated the world over.
While Italians may not have discovered the first coffee beans, they certainly discovered where to buy them. In 1891 Pellegrino Artusi an Italian expert in gastronomy wrote a precious kitchen manual that was later translated and published in a number of different languages called The Science of Cooking and the Art of Fine Dining. In his book Artusi declared that the best coffee came from Yemen in a village off the coast of the Red Sea. Artusi’s claims pointed to none other than the finest bean quality reputed even today, the revered Arabica beans. Known for its high price and chocolate aromas the Arabica bean was first discovered in the Southern Highlands of Ethiopia then transported to Yemen to be sold in a small village called Mokhà. Soon word got around of the bean’s energizing properties catapulting the little village Mokhà into a massive trade area for the finest coffee in the world, better known then as Mountain Coffee. It wasn’t long before the premium coffee from Mokhà made its way to the shores of Italy’s south coast, where its people discovered excellent methods to roast and grind the beans, developed various techniques to brew the coffee and of course they created timeless recipes to make coffee drinking a joy and a pleasure not just in their own territory but internationally, casting Italy as the coffee pioneer of the world.
The coffee culture in Italy grew in leaps and bounds making it uncommon to walk down a popular street today without passing at least three coffee bars. There are moments when it’s time to go out, take a seat and relax with a drink in hand, but that kind of moment, is not for coffee. Italians take their coffees like they take a shower. It’s something that must be done as part of a daily routine. There isn’t that socialising aspect associated with coffee drinking like we would find in other parts of the world. If Italians want to fraternise they’ll do that with an aperitivo which is a cocktail before dinner time. Coffee rituals here look more like this, stop at one of the umpteen coffee bars around, park the motorcycle, order a shot of espresso and dash off. For those who have more time a cappuccino with a brioche is a common breakfast and when I say more time, I don’t mean sitting around, relaxing, reading the newspaper, I mean no more than 10 to 12 minutes unless you’re a pensioner with time on his hands. Walk into most coffee bars here, and those taking a coffee will be found standing around the bar ordering their shots like a typical scene from a crowded nightclub bar, where patrons don’t hang around waiting to be served while taking selfies. There’s no mucking about, coffee is a serious business with barista’s working their fingers to the bone during the various coffee rush hours of a typical day but even still never ever expect a coffee to go from an Italian Bar. Paper cup coffees are considered undignified unless you stop at a McDonald’s Cafe off the highway, all Italian coffees are traditionally served in porcelain or glass and its common courtesy to drink at the bar counter, leave your cup, say your thanks and make way for the next man to get his fix . It’s not surprising for the average Italian to take between 5 and 8 shots of espresso a day so be prepared to wait in line. The coffee drinking traditions here are stronger than the first drops of coffee brewed all over the country when the sun comes up that is why the more distinguished bars which have served cups to more than 5 generations of sons and daughters are still standing strong after over 250 years of service.
Of course drinking good coffee doesn’t end when the doors close. That minor dilemma was solved over 80 years ago when Luigi di Ponti invented the first home brewing espresso making device, better known as the Moka Pot. This unique 8 sided pot that allows for the diffusion of heat to enhance the aroma of coffee was created by Ponti for businessman Bialetti whose company alone has sold more than 200 million Moka pots since its inception with minimal design change to this day. It must be very difficult to find an Italian who doesn’t have a Moka pot. You would expect that if not anyone else, it would be the Italians who would own the most sophisticated coffee machines this world has seen, but the truth is, despite their state of the art coffee machine inventions, it’s the simplistic, vintage Moka pot that is the tried and trusted contraption brewing coffee in most homes in Italy. Moka pots are known as stove-top espresso makers and produce coffee with an extraction ratio similar to, but higher than a conventional espresso machine. Many non Italians who have switched to the simple Moka pot from expensive, sophisticated machines claim that the taste is incomparable and will never switch back. The brew from a Moka pot has an increased extraction of caffeine plus flavours from the grounds as opposed to filter coffee from modern machines, resulting in a stronger brew than that obtained by drip brewing hence more people around the world are saving their hard-earned cash and opting to buy the relatively affordable Moka Pot. Moka pots are easy to use but not free from many debates as to what it takes to get the best brew day after day after day. Most of the debates are centered around aluminium pots vs stainless steel pots, and which makes a superior brew. Since living here I have been using a Moka pot handed down as a family heirloom. This pot is not the 8 sided Bialetti design made from aluminium but rather a substantially old pot made by a company called Lagostina who were the first company in the world to produce stainless steel cookware. By using this pot as well as alternating with the more common octagonal Bialetti aluminium pot, in addition to speaking to a few Italian coffee gurus, I’ve discovered that it’s not the material used that determines the strength and aromas of the brew but rather a matter of following a few simple rules. These are my finds to getting the best out of your Moka pot.
RULES TO BREWING THE VERY BEST CUPPA FROM A MOKA POT
- Boil the pot with water before first using it.
- Never wash the pot with soap. A Moka pot that has been washed with soap will tend to leave a very slight taste of a metal in the brew. To avoid this from happening, clean your Moka pot with water and let the oils from the grind build up and coat the steel/aluminium walls of your pot to give you maximum flavour. In other words your pot must always smell of coffee and never look sparkling clean on the inside.
- From the moment coffee beans have been ground they start to lose flavour so it is advisable to buy fresh beans, preferably a week supply and grind them at home. Fresh beans make a premium coffee with a better aroma and a superior taste. Opt for speciality coffees instead of commercial coffees if it’s affordable. Arabica reigns as the best in the world but packs a pricey punch, second to that and more commonly used for espresso is a more affordable blend of both Arabica and Robusta.
- The grind must never be frozen, freezing coffee to preserve freshness is a myth, rather pack it tightly in a dark airtight jar and leave at room temperature.
- If not buying roasted beans then opt to buy a grind from local coffee roasters rather than big supermarkets. Bright lights and oxygen is bad for coffee. Ensure that the coffee is vacuum sealed in a tin foil pack. Never choose beans that have been left out in big containers on display.
- Never use distilled water, always opt for cold tap water or spring water. The water, believe it or not does make a difference. The word around Italy is that the best coffee comes from Naples in the South and the reason literally boils down to the water. Coffee in Naples is made with volcanic mountain water. We once had a great musician staying with us for a weekend and he could not stop talking about how superb the coffee was, and of course we took this as a huge compliment because he hails from Naples. The water used was regular tap water, but I must add that the water in this region is beautiful. It comes from the mountains close by that are full of water and every time I open the tap I feel like I’m drinking from a fountain.
- When filling the holder of your pot, never tap down the coffee, compressed coffee will result in a bitter brew. The grind needs the vapour to go through it effortlessly to create a premium quality coffee. Pile the coffee into the holder in a pyramid until you can not put in anymore coffee unless you tap it down at that point, you’ve added enough.
- Make sure that there are no coffee grains to interrupt the seal before you tighten the bricco (upper part). Ensure that you tighten it enough so the water will not leak out and disturb the brewing process.
- Use a low heat that will allow the coffee to gradually permeate with the water vapour to intensify the flavour. Bubbling spoils the flavour, so do not boil.
- Watch the temperature closely. Proper brewing temperature is 200° fahrenheit or 30 seconds off a full boil. Boiling water extracts compounds in the grind that are unpleasant resulting in a brew with a harsh after taste.
- Always let the coffee sit off the burner and let stand for a minute or two before you pour it allowing the brew to settle down and give you the best flavour.
- Do not reheat coffee, it must be drunk soon after it’s been prepared or else it will start to get bitter.
- Clean all the elements of the pot with water before every single use even when making one coffee after another.
- Crema, the foam can be developed by adding a bit of sugar to the collection reservoir but do not add more than a tea-spoon as the sugar will caramelize and block the holes of the filter. If using sugar it is advisable to always use a dark roast.
- To get the best out of your moka pot it must be used regularly. If you go days without using your pot, you will notice a slight difference in the taste. This will return back to normal once you start using it again frequently.
- Moka pots improve with age, consider it a grand inheritance to receive a moka pot that has been passed down from generation to generation, so keep the one you already have well.
KNOW YOUR ITALIAN COFFEE
- Espresso – most commonly drunk coffee in Italy espresso is a strong black coffee with no dairy, served in shots or miniature cups that has a unique brewing method. Espresso is made by forcing steam through finely ground coffee beans.
- Espresso Doppio – also known as double espresso is made up of two shots of espresso containing 50cc of coffee while a single espresso can contain 20-25cc.
- Ristretto – made from an espresso machine this variation takes only the first drops about 15-20mls of coffee to give you the strongest flavour and intense aroma. To obtain a Ristretto from a simple Moka pot the flame must be switched off immediately after the first drops come out.
- Corretto – Espresso with a few drops of alcohol added to the brew. Most common in Italy is Grappa but in it can also be made with Brandy, Rum or Sambuca.
- Cappuccino – a larger coffee than espresso topped with only the froth or foam of steamed milk.
- Caffelatte – Latte in Italian means milk and this variation contains more milk than coffee. Can be served hot or cold depending on the weather caffelatte is a cup of milk with a drop of coffee.
- Macchiato – macchiato means stained and this variation is an espresso stained on top with a spot of frothy milk .
- Bicerin – made with a base of espresso coffee, to which chocolate powder is added and topped with shaken milk to form a cream.
- Marocchino – basically an espresso with cocoa and foamed milk served in layers in a glass cup.
All said and done I have to leave you with one more very important piece of advice when shopping for coffee. Please remember as a social responsibility to always look for Fair Trade Coffees to help stop the child labour crisis that plagues the Coffee Industry.