THE ART OF ITALIAN COFFEE

Posted By | Posted On Jun 13, 2008

In a world in which there seems little time or social acceptance to permit ourselves small pleasures, one delight – coffee – remains accessible to most everyone and seldom fails to please. Unfortunately, Americans do not understand what people in Europe and the Middle East have always known: Drinking coffee is not about acquiring an energy jolt, but about pausing, reflecting, enjoying and sharing.

It is said that the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia but did not reach Europe for thousands of years. The Arabs are credited with creating the way we drink coffee today but it was the Ottoman Turks, whose vast empire made possible an international exchange of commodities when they brought coffee to the West in the saddlebags of their invading armies. The Dutch laid the groundwork for the East India coffee trade when they introduced the plant into Java in about 1600. European travelers also discovered the beverage while on the Grand Tour, and brought back a taste for it to their home countries. By 1759, Venice counted 206 coffee shops, where coffee was sipped and sold to a mesmerized clientele; 30 of those shops were on Piazza San Marco.

At present coffee is the second most widely used product in the world after oil. It is consumed at the rate of 1400 million cups per day and is the second most popular drink after water.

There are two principal families of coffee plants from the same family but of different natures, producing coffee with different qualities: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora, commonly known as Arabica and Robusta. Arabica contains between 1.1% and 1.7% caffeine, while Robusta may contain up to three times as much (from 2 to 4.5%). Arabica prefers higher altitudes, is more delicate and requires more intense cultivation. Robusta, as its name implies is much more resistant to the tropical climate and to parasites. It is grown at a comparatively lower cost. Arabica coffee has a very fragrant aroma, is mild, well rounded, slightly acidic and often features a hint of chocolate with a pleasing touch of bitterness. Robusta coffees are more astringent, not as aromatic, full-flavored and more bitter.

As Americans have traveled more widely, they have come to appreciate the different tastes and preparations of coffee. If you make your coffee at home, here are a few tips on storing it to keep it fresh. According to the National Coffee Association of USA, the best way to store coffee is airtight and cool in a dark, dry place. A cupboard or pantry is ideal because the light is limited and temperature doesn’t fluctuate much. Roasted coffee begins to lose flavor after a week, ground coffee an hour after grinding. It is wise to purchase coffee in amounts proportionate to how quickly it will be consumed. Remember coffee is porous and moisture is the enemy, so never store coffee in the refrigerator.

Something as simple as coffee underscores the Italian penchant for variety. At home the Italians have little use for the espresso machines that are so popular in America. Most Italian households use the simple stovetop “moka”, that bi-level, two chambered aluminum (preferred) or steel pot in which boiling water from the bottom compartment is forced through the grinds, and collects in the top. But on every street corner, crowds usually gather throughout the day in coffee bars, each person ordering his or her particular concoction. Stimulating but containing less caffeine than any other type of coffee, Caffé espresso or simply said “un caffé” defines the daily rhythm of life in Italy. Prepared at the express order of the customer as its name indicates, this ebony nectar fills half a demitasse and is crowned with a “crema”, reddish-brown foam that floats on the surface. Other variations include: caffe ristretto- just enough coffee to cover the bottom of the cup; caffe lungo – an espresso containing a little more steamed water, usually reaching the brim of the cup; caffe macchiato – espresso “stained” with a few drops of steamed milk; latte macchiato – a glass of hot milk to which a bit of espresso is added; caffe corretto- an espresso corrected with a shot of liquor; caffe e latte – an espresso to which hot milk is added and served in a big cup or a tall glass; caffe freddo – cold, usually sweetened espresso; caffe decaffeinato – espresso made with decaffeinated coffee; doppio – double the normal dose of espresso brewed with the same amount of water; and cappuccino – the well-known combination of espresso topped with steamed, foamy milk. Italians consume cappuccino only in the morning, only a few may dust theirs with unsweetened cocoa – never cinnamon, and the cup is half the size of what we are served in America. It owes its name to the chestnut color of the robes worn by Capuchin monks. An Americano is simply an espresso with hot water added to make a larger cup of coffee and is said to have been invented for American G.I.’s during World War II.

Latte is simply milk, hot or cold, served in a glass. In Italy, syrupy flavorings would combine with mineral water, not coffee. The only thing that an Italian might put into coffee other than milk (and sometimes a shot of liquor) is an enormous amount of sugar.

Preparing a perfect espresso is a ritual of four rules. One must start with a unique blend of perfectly roasted coffee beans, ground to an exact grain, prepared in a clean optimally pressurized machine at the correct temperature by an professionally skilled operator.

Coffee should be treated as a prized commodity, storing it and brewing it with loving care. As long as we continue to do this, we can enjoy a pause, a brief break in the day to stop, renew, reenergize and savor one of life’s pleasures.

How to use a Moka pot – or stovetop espresso maker:
The stovetop espresso maker was invented in Italy in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti. Ninety percent of the households in Italy own at least one stovetop espresso maker, and most of them have more than one size. They are made in 1-, 3-, 6-, 9- and 12 cup sizes (referring to espresso cups). The more you use your espresso maker, the better your coffee will taste, similar to using a cast iron pan. The best way to clean them is by simply rinsing the pot well with hot water, never use abrasives or wash in the dishwasher. Moka pots require periodic replacement of the rubber seal and the filters and a check that the safety release valve is not blocked.

First unscrew the two halves of the pot. Fill the bottom chamber with fresh water to the level of the valve. Fill the funnel-shaped filter with espresso ground coffee until it is level. Do not pack the coffee or tamper it down. Drop the filter into the bottom and screw the top half tightly onto the bottom. Place the coffee maker on any type of stovetop using medium heat. The water will boil and rise up quickly through the ground coffee, ultimately filling the top chamber with hot espresso. When the lower chamber is almost empty, steam bubbles mix with the upstreaming water, producing a characteristic gurgling noise. Ideally, it should be removed from the heat before it actually starts gurgling. Do not leave the pot on the stove so long that the coffee boils. Brewing should take about 3-5 minutes.

Previously published in the North End News

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