Un caffe per favore

If you can’t make it through the morning without huddling over a freshly brewed cup of coffee, don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. But one thing I will say is that you want to make sure that coffee is a good one. In continuing my celebration of Italian Week, it would be hard for me to think about Italy without coffee. Just like pasta and pizza, coffee in Italy is an art form with its own customs and traditions.

I know coffee was not invented in Italy, but the coffee culture we all enjoy today certainly got its start there. I’d even like to think that if it wasn’t for Italy the world would not have Gloria Jeans, Zarraffas or even Starbucks (even if they pale in comparison).

If there was one thing I learned during my time in Italy, it was an appreciation of a well-made espresso (caffe). In fact, most Italians are so passionate about the quality of their coffee that they will not visit a bar that serves poor quality coffee. Oh, and that’s another thing – in Italy, a ‘bar’ serves everything from coffee to fresh juice to wine and spirits, and drinking at the bar actually costs you less than sitting at a table, which is good because that tiny cup of strong coffee is not made to be sipped casually; you want to drink your caffe quickly.

The good folk at Vittoria Coffee in Brisbane took to the stage in Queen Street Mall as part of the broader Italian Week festivities to show and explain how to best make a coffee.

First thing’s first – good beans make good coffee, but to make great coffee you need a the perfect combination of beans and roast. The two most common varieties of coffee bean are the Arabica, which is a full-flavour, low caffeine bean and the Robusta, a stronger and more caffeine-rich bean. To roast your beans like the Italians, you want that rich brown colour, a lot will depend on the blend; Robusta takes longer than Arabica, but you don’t want to roast too long or too hot. Perfectly roasted beans are air cooled, which allows beans to retain their flavour before the grinding process begins.

To get the freshest flavour, beans should be ground just before brewing. If you are grinding your own beans, get yourself a grinder that uses ‘grinding wheels’ rather than a ‘grinding blade’ as the Italians believe this allows for a more thorough grind. If you buy beans pre-ground like I do, look for vacuum-sealed packs as this ensures freshness and have a look for a ‘ground date’.

When I’m having coffee at home I use my caffettiera, a steel stove top coffee maker that makes coffee by boiling water that forces steam up through the grounds (I get my coffee from these guys – they’re great). It mightn’t be like the ‘real deal’ I experienced in Italy, but it is full-bodied and it does come bloody close. I’m not sure what I enjoy more – the ritual or the coffee.

But if you happen to be in Italy and want to order a coffee from a bar, ‘Un caffe per favore’ is your phrase (and caffe is pronounced Cahf-FEH). This naturally implies ‘espresso’ (so there’s no need to actually say ‘espresso’ in Italy), but just like pasta there is an abundance of coffee drinks you can order. The common ones I have provided below.

Coffee is served by itself and is commonly served after a meal, with the exception of breakfast. Another interesting fact I learned was that my favourite – cappuccino – should not be ordered after 11am because it is considered a ‘breakfast’ drink. I’m not sure if this is a ‘hard and fast’ rule, but it seems that ordering any milky coffee (so that includes caffe latte and latte macchiato) in a restaurant at any time other than the morning is looked down upon; something about hot milk hitting a full stomach makes the Italians cringe.

Perhaps that explains why I don’t drink coffee at all past lunch.

Popular Italian coffees

Caffe coretto: coffee ‘corrected’ with a shot of grappa, cognac or other spirit

Caffe doppio: a double espresso

Caffe freddo: iced coffee

Caffe latte: (not just ‘latte’) hot milk mixed with coffee and served in a glass, at breakfast

Caffe macchiato: espresso ‘stained’ with a drop of steamed milk

Caffe marocchino: espresso with a dash of hot milk and cocoa powder

Caffe stretto: espresso with less water (stronger than strong!)

Cappuccino: espresso infused with steamed milk and drunk in the morning

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