Italian coffee and cappuccino, it appears, with all their variations and relations, latte, caffelatte, and so on, have conquered the world.
Espresso is now one of the most successful symbols of ‘made in Italy’ in the world, and one of the most copied products, yet it is often made very poorly.
Frequently the name espresso, maybe associated with other symbols evoking the spirit of Italy, is used to conceal simple blends of poor quality coffee or products that have nothing to do with the little cup of black, silky, aromatic, strong, hot drink.
Espresso is the best way to obtain from skillfully roasted coffee beans all the pleasure that they can give. In practice, espresso is the drink-in-a-cup obtained by forcing adequately pressurised water through coffee powder. Espresso coffee should not contain any additive or flavouring and should be free of any artificially added water.
The Italian Espresso National Institute has introduced a certification programme to safeguard and promote the quality of espresso.
The quality of coffee beans, the expertise of the coffee roaster, the technology of the coffee-machine and grinder-dispenser, and the skill of the barista combine to produce the perfect cup of coffee.
If even just one of these elements is missing, espresso cannot be said to comply with the requirements set forth by the specification.
Italians drink almost exclusively espresso coffee, and treat with contempt every other coffee, which they sometimes call ‘acqua sporca’ (dirty water) meaning that the coffee in these drinks has no other effect than stain the water.
Bars in Italy serve only espresso, and at home people use the ‘caffettiera’, a utensil which imitates the performance of the coffee-machine on the domestic kitchen’s cooker.
Italian Coffee History
The history of Italian coffee starts at the beginning of the twentieth century. It underwent a transformation in the post-war era, when in 1948 the company Gaggia began manufacturing machines that made espresso in ways that couldn’t be reproduced at home.
At the time of Gaggia’s innovation, Italy was in the process of transforming from an agrarian to an industrial society, and a “drinking out” culture was better suited to the city than the countryside.
The new coffee machines became symbols of a new Italian modernity, much the same as Vespas, expressed in designs that stressed their role of aesthetic objects, pleasing for the eye as well as useful. “Anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte” is a traditional Italian saying, which means: the eye wants its share too.
In 1950 the first coffee bar using a Gaggia machine opened in Britain: the Moka in Soho. That marked the beginning of the 1950s coffee bar fad and ‘frothy coffee’ fad. By 1960, there were 2,000 bars throughout the UK. After that, cappuccino declined in visibility, retreating into the Italian-styled restaurant and catering sector, until re-emerging as a cosmopolitan drink in the 1980s.
At that time in the United States, Seattle, home of Starbucks, saw the birth of a new fashion. From Seattle in the 1980s the coffee bar craze spread to the rest of the country and beyond. So, an American culture of speciality coffee consumption in the 1980s was created.
This movement was introduced into the UK in the mid-1990s, with the subsequent coffee shop explosion of the subsequent two decades.
The UK has experienced a coffee revolution in the last couple of decades with consumption outside the home overtaking tea in 2000. By 2003 one fifth of the population were buying coffee drinks on a daily basis.
In 2008 people in the UK consumed 70 million cups a day, which shot up to 95 million in 2018, an increase of no less than 25 million over the last 10 years, according to research carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) .
How far the penetration of espresso-based coffees into mainstream catering has gone can be seen from the fact that they are available from automatic machines on garage forecourts.
In this way espresso-based drinks such as cappuccino spread from their Italian origins to their current global prominence. These drinks are still seen as “Italian” despite their appropriation by American multi-national coffee chains. Britain is a market in which both Italian and American influences operate to create a “glocal” culture of consumption.
Language Tips and Further Resources
“Latte” in Italian means milk. So, if you ask for “latte” in a bar in Italy, you might be served a glass of just milk, although it’s possible that barmen in Italy will by now know the English usage of the word. If you wish to order what is usually called “latte” in English-speaking countries, ie coffee and hot milk, ask for “caffellatte” or “latte macchiato” [pron. latte makkiato]. The former has more coffee in it than the latter, which literally means “stained milk”.
You can also order “caffè macchiato”, which is coffee with only a tiny bit of milk.
“Cappuccino” is coffee and frothy milk, sometimes sprinkled with cocoa powder over the top. The name derives from its colour, similar to the habit of Capuchin friars.
If you’d like to try espresso coffee laced with a spirit, such as brandy (Italians usually call it ‘cognac’ like the French), grappa or whisky, ask for “caffè corretto al cognac, rum, vodka etc”.