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by Serge Remy

Coffee Letters from Italy

www.Book-Coffee.com


Serge Remy. Coffee Letters from Italy. – Kyiv: 2014. – 208 p.

Espresso is one of the world’s great coffee cultures, and one of the most successful. The Italians have managed to turn coffee into a fashion and a business at the same time. Espresso Italiano has become an integral part of Italy’s fashion scene, its social life and, most importantly, its LIFESTYLE. Why is the coffee life in Italy so special? This book gives the answers...

ISBN 978-1-77192-034-6

© Serge Remy, 2014


The Author

Serge Remy (Sergey Reminny) is a coffee expert and the proprietor of Ionia il caffè, a coffee importing and distributing company in Ukraine. For five years he has been Coordinator for Ukraine of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe. By training a linguist and translator, he lived and worked for many years in Italy where he learned the ins and outs of coffee. His fascination with coffee has taken him to over 40 countries; he has visited coffee farms in Ethiopia and Yemen, Panama and India, Costa Rica and Hawaii, Colombia and Rwanda, Nepal, Indonesia, Brazil and many others. A maximalist in all he does, he lives the coffee life to the fullest.

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Table of contents Preface...........................................................................................................................6 1. Translating «Espresso»...............................................................................8 2. Al Pacino, coffee star............................................................................... 11 3. A coffee campaign on the roads of Italy......................................... 13 4. I drink coffee at Florian’s in Venice.................................................... 17 5. What kind of person is an Italian «Barista»?.................................... 24 6. The lure of the Bialetti............................................................................ 33 7. Espresso Sicilian-style............................................................................. 40 8. «Espresso Italiano» or «Italiano Espresso»?..................................... 45 9. The legends of Caffè Napoletano....................................................... 48 10. How coffee was roasted in the olden days..................................... 76 11. Why is it so difficult to find Decaf in Italy?....................................... 81 12. What do coffee and Ferraris have in common?............................. 83 13. I drink coffee on Mount Etna................................................................ 94 14. How Italians are taught to drink Espresso.....................................101 15. 10 Espressos on my birthday.............................................................103 16. Cappuccino blindfold...........................................................................120 17. The proper way to serve Espresso....................................................124 18. Why you should never order «Latte» in Italy................................130 19. Farewell to «la Napoletana»................................................................133 20. Which coffee cup is considered right?............................................144 21. The strongest coffee I ever drank.....................................................152 22. I sell coffee in an Italian bar................................................................154 23. A great coffee cartoon..........................................................................159 24. A coffeemaker for six.............................................................................162 25. Espresso with a lid..................................................................................165 26. When the Moka was young................................................................170 27. Gran Caffè Gambrinus..........................................................................173 28. What kind of drink is «Fiordilatte» coffee?.....................................184 29. Coffee-flavored noodles......................................................................187 30. The smallest coffeemaker in the world..........................................189 31. My friend orders a coffee in Italy......................................................193 32. A Sicilian drinks coffee to my health...............................................196 33. Two Cappuccinos and a smile...........................................................198 Afterword............................................................................................................... 200

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Preface Looking through my coffee tales (and there are over a thousand of them now,) you soon notice how many are devoted to Italy. How could it be otherwise? Espresso is one of the world’s great coffee cultures and, from my perspective, it is the most successful, because from a business point of view it has been the Italians more than anyone else who have managed to turn coffee into a lifestyle and a business at the same time. It was the Italians, surely the world’s most gastronomically advanced nation, who invented Espresso, which is now the foundation of the coffee menu in millions of bars and restaurants around the globe. No wonder Starbucks, the most successful international coffee shop chain, bases its menu on Italian Espresso.

And isn’t it great that the Italians have not turned coffee into a dull, standardized product, as too often happens in business? Espresso Italiano has become an integral part of Italy’s fashion scene, its social life and, most importantly, it’s LIFESTYLE. Why is its cultural value in Italy so special? Well, because Espresso is just the best thing you can do with coffee. Italy is very dear to me on a personal level. For almost 20 years of my life I have been doing business with the Italians, 6


and it has been a uniquely fulfilling commercial, gastronomic and personal experience. We opened one of the first Ukrainian businesses in Italy, and for many years I lived in the north of the country. So it is only natural that in my coffee tales I return again and again to this amazing part of the planet (which also happens to be conveniently close to my own country, Ukraine). That is why my first book devoted to a single coffee country has to be «Coffee letters from Italy.»

So let us take a closer look at what a cup of Espresso means to the people fortunate enough to inhabit this blessed Mediterranean land. And «Buon caffè a tutti,» – I wish you all good coffee!

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1. Translating «Espresso» What is the correct version?

I think the only proper way to start a book about coffee in Italy is by defining the most important word in an Italian’s coffee vocabulary: «Espresso.» So, before we go any further, let’s have us a coffee language lesson. About 5 years ago I started getting tired of people telling me, «Espresso is called that because it was first prepared on express trains.» I decided to find out for myself. I diligently studied the literature, and for the next few years was constantly badgering my Italian friends, including experts at the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe. Italians, I knew, would have the answer because the full meaning of the word could only be sensed by someone with Italian as their native language. For some of them, Espresso has also been their family business for the past 50 to 70 years. So, how did this wonderful beverage get its name?

There seem to be almost as many translations of «Espresso» as there are articles, books and websites discussing coffee. We are told it means «quick,» «fast,» «squeezed,» «compressed,» «express,» and so on, but for some reason no one seems to think of looking it up in a good dictionary. 8


As a linguist by training, I instinctively turn to an academic dictionary, which is effectively a language’s written constitution. That is why a specialist, instead of trying to come up with a pet theory based on guesswork, or believing some nonsense he has found on the Internet, will go straight to that source. Which is the most authoritative dictionary in the language? For English, it is the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Italian equivalent is Zingarelli. From Zingarelli we discover that «espresso,» meaning a kind of train, comes to Italian from the French «exprès,» which means not «fast» but «on purpose, specially.» Because there is no letter «x» in the Italian alphabet (and when Italians do meet it, they pronounce it «eekess,») «express» had to be changed to «espresso.» The dictionary also tells us that «espresso» is the past participle of the verb «esprimere,» – «to express (oneself, an opinion).» So is the literal translation of «espresso» – «expressed»?

Unfortunately, the meaning of «to squeeze something out» physically is not, as coffee experts sometimes suggest, covered by «esprimere». That is a pity because, given the way Espresso is made, it would be a logical fit. So do we have to settle for «expressed»? 9


Not quite. «Espresso» also has an older meaning, closer to the French, which is why linguists know not just to translate literally but also look at ETYMOLOGY, the history of a word. Something made «espresso» is made «expressly, especially at a given moment.» The Zingarelli dictionary’s second meaning of «espresso» points us precisely toward this translation. «Detto di cibo o bevanda fatto sul momento per chi la richiede» literally means, «said of food or drink made to order.» Older Italians have told me that «spaghetterias» sprang up after the war, analogous to today’s «pizzerias» except that their main offering was fast spaghetti. Uncooked pasta would hang in bunches above the counter in a spaghetteria and, when a customer ordered a dish, the spaghetti would be taken down and cooked to order. It was called «spaghetti espresso,» which did not mean «fast spaghetti» but «spaghetti cooked HERE AND NOW.»

So, in spite of all the mystique surrounding Espresso coffee (and who would want to undermine that?) the harsh historical reality is that even spaghetti could be «espresso.» Accordingly, the linguistically correct translation of Espresso is «Coffee made this very moment and specially for you.» I go along with that as a translator, and can assure you that this is currently also the understanding of Italians in general and of Italian coffee experts in particular. 10


2. Al Pacino, coffee star AKA «Al Cappuccino»

A short note about a movie star who richly deserves to be among the first subjects of a book about coffee. Envelope, please: And the winner is... AL PACINO.

This is the man who in The Godfather mythologized the mafia, a man whose Italian temperament won him an Oscar and the devotion of millions of fans, a man whom the Speciality Coffee Association really ought to invite to join their honorary Board of Directors. «Why?» I can hear you ask. The answer becomes apparent as we discover a little more about Al Pacino and what he specially enjoys in life. We learn that his greatest pleasure is COFFEE. (Okay, given the focus of this book, that may not have been too difficult to guess.) Al Pacino fell in love with coffee when, as a young man in the early 1960s, he was leading a bohemian life and acting with friends in short performances at cafes and small theaters. He was working a long way from his home, and often ended up sleeping in the store room of a cafe where people would 11


give him coffee (which was not only invigorating but also a lot cheaper than a meal). Al Pacino can drink coffee around the clock, a lot of coffee, and always with relish. This is why at the start of his career a sharp-tongued colleague nicknamed him – oh dear! – «Al Cappuccino.»

Al Pacino has remained faithful to this great passion in his life, and for 15 years has drunk nothing stronger than coffee. What more is there to say? One of the most famous quotes from «The Godfather» I could apply to myself with only slight paraphrasing: «Life made me a coffee offer which I couldn’t refuse.» I am so immensely grateful to you, Al Pacino, a man who celebrates the Sicily which I so love, who personifies courage, and loves coffee.

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3. A coffee campaign on the roads of Italy Coffee saves thousands of lives

A few years ago there was an interesting «coffee for drivers» campaign in Italy. I gave an interview about it to a Ukrainian specialist magazine, «Today’s Gas Station.» Rather than paraphrase, I offer you here the original article. Q. Sergey, what is the idea behind this very original campaign? A. The campaign slogan says it all: «If you’re driving at night, ask coffee to help. It’s free for you!»

The idea was to offer motorists traveling on Italy’s autostradas on weekend nights (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday between midnight and 6 am) free coffee at the Autogrill. Q. What is an Autogrill? A. It is a large service area, with a gas station, shop, bar, restaurant and so on. You find them on Italy’s tollways, which are the country’s main arterial roads. There are more than 200 Autogrills in Italy, and they are all very public-spirited. You see that in constant campaigns like the one we are talking about. Q. You mean, free coffee? A. Yes, but that is not the main point. Much more 13


important is that the driver gets a boost from a cup of Espresso, which keeps him alert and makes him feel safer on the roads, where the average speed is 100-130 kilometers (60-80 miles) an hour. Q. Why Italy? A. First, because Italy is a record-holder in terms of the highperformance cars it manufactures. Second, because the road infrastructure – with toll roads and their Autogrills – is one of the most advanced not only in Europe but in the world. And third: Italy has a better understanding of the place of coffee in human life, including the lives of car drivers.

Q. Are there any statistics yet on the outcome of the campaign? A. Yes, and they are AMAZING: The campaign lasted two months and, compared to the same period last year, the number of fatal accidents is down 80%! What is more, the campaign was operating at night, when the rate of accidents is 5 times higher than during the day. The Italians have extended it for several more months. 14


What is so great is that the campaign has benefited absolutely everybody. The state spent about 600,000 euros on 600,000 cups of coffee (which is roughly the number given away free,) but in return saved the lives of hundreds of citizens. European states put the average value of the life of one of their citizens at about 1 million euros. How’s that for a return on a national investment! The campaign also benefited the Autogrill bars, because drivers recognized the good effect drinking coffee at night has and started drinking a lot more of it during the day too.

Even in Ukraine a good bar at a gas station will sell several times more coffee than a bar in a town. In Italy the profit adds up to tens of thousands of euros a day; processing 100 kilograms of coffee a 15


day is perfectly normal. Don’t forget, a cup of coffee is the perfect business product: the profit margin can be as high as 1,000%! The campaign has, of course, also benefited drivers, and I say that without needing to get starry-eyed again about coffee. On a purely pragmatic basis: drinking coffee = not falling asleep at the wheel = staying alive. Q. What kind of coffee do Italians drink at night? A. More often than not, the same as they drink during the day – Espresso. We’re talking about Italy, where Espresso is the classic. In any case, Espresso really is the most concentrated drink you can make from coffee. The way it is brewed means that the maximum amount of goodness is extracted from the coffee beans, including caffeine, and caffeine is what you need to combat drowsiness. Q. How does caffeine have that effect? A. A very good question! Contrary to the popular belief that caffeine STIMULATES you, many scientists now think that caffeine instead acts to stop you from falling asleep. There is no real need for advertisements telling people to drink coffee if they want to stay awake: everybody already knows that. It is just a matter of encouraging them to actually DO it if they are driving at night. Just for SAFETY.

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4. I drink coffee at Florian’s in Venice The ultimate classic

Florian’s, situated on Saint Mark’s Square in the heart of Venice, is unquestionably one of the most famous cafes in the world. Opened in 1720 by Signor Floriano Francesconi as «Venice Triumphant,» over time it has became known simply as «Florian’s.» So many international celebrities have patronized the cafe that it would be a practical impossibility to list them all. Lord Byron and Marcel Proust, Stravinsky and Rousseau, Modigliani and Carlo Goldoni were all habitués. Was Goldoni’s famous play «La bottega del caffè» («The Coffeehouse») perhaps inspired by Florian’s?

For the amorous Giacomo Casanova, Florian’s was «a hunting ground». It was here that the Venice Biennale international art exhibition, first held in 1895, was conceived. Florian’s recently celebrated its 290th anniversary. It is not far off from its tercentenary! 17


The cafe recently changed hands which, I should mention, is almost unheard of: in the center of major Italian cities no property gets sold for centuries at a time. The Vedaldi family, who owned the establishment for the last 70 years, have sold both the cafe and the Florian «brand.» I do not know why they sold up; I suspect they just got tired. As to how much it sold for, one can only speculate: real estate prices in Venice are astronomical, and there is nothing remotely similar anywhere else in the world. The new owner (the sensibly named Florian Holding Ltd) is planning to open a number of businesses under the Florian brand in locations around the world, including the famous Harrods store in London. In the best traditions of modern marketing, there are plans to «brand» such items as home accessories and textiles, designs, and a fragrance (which has already been created). Florian also markets coffee under its own trademark. I bought a pack. The price was 10.50 euros for 250 grams. I have not got round to trying it yet, but the design of the pack and the trademark have already created a pleasing sense of anticipation. 18


So, FLORIAN’s. How could I resist drinking an Espresso in such a legendary establishment? To my disappointment, the coffee was no better than you would find in any other tourist center. If you want really good coffee, you need to get out of central Venice to where the Venetians live, go into a little bar there, and drink your coffee at the counter. The starting price of a cup of coffee in one of the world’s most exclusive coffeehouses was 6 euros. A Cappuccino would cost you 8.50 euros, and «Venetian-style Coffee» (Espresso with Florian’s house liqueur) would set you back a cool 12 euros.

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There was more to come.... The cost of providing a place to sit in the center of Venice is so high that the Italians try every trick in the book to milk customers of their last euro. As you sit on the terrace outside the cafe (right in the heart, remember, of stunningly beautiful Piazza San Marco), a small band is playing. I heard them play a few Russian romances and asked where they came from. They were lads from Moldova and, to give them their due, played charmingly. But... when your bill for the coffee arrives you find an unexpected «supplemento musica» of 6 euros per person. The incomplete concert you enjoyed had to be paid for.

When I complained to the waiter, «Well, now I begin to think you Italians really are gangsters,» he looked away in some confusion and mumbled, «It wasn’t my idea.» 20


If I had really decided to make a fuss, I expect they would have discreetly taken the «supplement» off the bill, but I was in an expansive mood and did not want to spoil a pleasant day out.

But I certainly think they are doing it wrong. A customer who finds an unexpected music surcharge slapped on his bill is hardly going to leave in a positive frame of mind. My wife had a drink called Bicerin, which is quite popular in Italy and which I will tell you about another time. Just for a change, I ordered «Caffè filtro.»

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This was not standard filter coffee, because it was rather exotically served using a small individual metal filter. Florian presents this as the way coffee has traditionally been prepared there. As you watch, the waiter pours water into the filter, which already contains ground coffee.

He asks you to wait for one minute, after which you may start drinking. There are almost no coffee grounds left behind in the filter, which is not a particularly good sign.

The coffee was a deep roast. I found the taste only average, although I imagine an unsuspecting tourist might think it was great, because the method of preparation is very unusual for 22


Italy, looks exotic, and creates a vibe. (Taste, as we know, gets kicked to second place by vibes.)

Incidentally, they only prepare your coffee this way inside the cafe. I even had to move inside to order it, most likely because they fear tourists outside on the square may pocket the filter as a souvenir.

With that, my visit to Florian’s was at an end. It is just a pity that no description can sufficiently convey the atmosphere of Venice, the buzz of Piazza San Marco, the charm of Florian’s 300-year old cafe, or the special experience of drinking a cup of coffee there. 23


5. What kind of person is an Italian «Barista»? The job of the century in Italy

It is quite surprising that I have not got round before now to devoting a separate tale to one of coffee’s key figures – the Italian barista. To tell the truth, I do not feel quite ready even now to do justice to this professional, but I want to touch on one key aspect of the barista which, in spite of the job being so fashionable, almost nobody ever mentions. Today there are vast numbers of championships, and many courses and schools for baristas are springing up. All that is good, both for advancing and popularizing the profession in particular, and for raising the level of coffee culture in general.

The only problem is that, in our enthusiasm for trends and modish terminology, we are in danger of forgetting the real meaning of the word «barista.» Let us begin as usual with a look at the definition. In most Italian dictionaries «barista» is firstly defined as «a person who serves customers in a bar,» «a person who works behind the counter in a bar,» or «a person who serves drinks to customers». Then, however, there follows a second meaning: «Chi possiede un bar,» or «Gestore, proprietario di un bar,» 24



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