Coffee was discovered in the African mountains of Ethiopia, but it soon spread around the world. Today, it is one of the most drank beverages worldwide, second only to water, and, let’s face it, one we just can’t do without. However disseminated our beloved drink may be, there’s one place that prides itself as having one of the most entrenched coffee cultures in the world: Italy. In this week’s post from the Coffee Rituals Around the World series, we’ll be covering the highlights of Italian coffee culture.
The Origins of Italian Coffee Culture
Coffee was introduced in Europe in the 16th century, and it made its way to the ports of Venice by around 1570. At first, coffee was a luxury commodity only the rich and powerful could afford, but it soon spread to all strata of Italian society. At the beginning, coffee in Italy was drank much in the same way as in other countries, but it didn’t take long for Italians to make it their own and to start experimenting with different brewing methods, adding different ingredients to it and, in general, innovating coffee in a way that was unheard of at the time. It was this thirst for innovation that drove Angelo Moriondo to invent the world’s first high-speed high-pressure coffee brewing machine in 1884, and so, the espresso was born.
The espresso is the basis of Italian coffee culture. The machine Moriondo invented became wildly popular because it made it possible to serve freshly brewed coffee on demand. Before the espresso machine, you either had to wait a long time for your fresh brew to be filtered, or you would end up drinking a stale or, god forbid, reheated cup of coffee. Even though the invention came three centuries after the introduction of coffee in Italy, it is today the basis for all Italian coffee based drinks.
Italians are to Coffee what the French are to Cuisine
In some countries, when you ask someone to go with you to a bar, they’ll assume you want to have a couple of drinks and dance the night away. However, in Italy, things are different. A bar in Italy is what most of us know as a coffee shop or a café. If you put two and two together, you’ll quickly realize where the term barista comes from. Yes, it’s pretty much like saying bartender in Italian; only this bartender makes coffee during the day, not cocktails.
This is just one example of the fact that Italians didn’t just give us the espresso; they also gave us the whole lingo and terminology related to coffee. Almost every term you can find in any particular type of coffee’s name comes from Italy, just like most terms in cuisine come from France:
-Latte is Italian for milk
-Macchiato means spotted, so latte macchiato mean spotted milk (lots of milks, just a bit of espresso) and caffé macchiato means spotted coffee (lots of espresso with just a touch of milk)
-The name cappuccino comes from the color of the robes that the Cappuccine monks use, and so on…
Peculiarities about Italian Coffee Culture
As with all the coffee rituals we’ve covered until now, in Italy there are unwritten rules that dictate how and when coffee is prepared and drunk. Italians are very conservative about their coffee habits, and they tend to stigmatize anyone who breaks the norm as a “turista”.
The Order at the Bar
The first thing that you’ll notice when you walk into an Italian bar, is that there’s no queue to pay for or order your coffee. People just walk up to the bar, yell out their order hopping the barista will hear him, drink it and pay for it later. It feels like ordering fruit at a farmers market, but the authenticity of it is overwhelmingly delightful, if you can manage to get the barista to hear you.
Where do Italians Drink their Coffee?
The second thing you’ll notice at the bar is that there are no tables or even seats anywhere. Italians traditionally drink their coffee while standing at the bar and chatting away among themselves or with the barista. You won’t find hipsters with laptops and earbuds drinking coffee and working at the same time. Italians keep to the old ways and consider coffee as a social ritual, one which is very short but may be repeated several times a day; it’s an excuse to take a break from work, not to keep working while you’re at it.
Cappuccino after a meal? Never
In many western countries, cappuccinos and other milk based coffee beverages are sometimes drunk as desserts. This would be a slap in the face in Italy, since they only drink cappuccinos in the mornings, as a part of their breakfast. Their argument is fairly simple: milk is heavy, so it slows down digestion. In a country where food is one of the most important elements of everyday life, slowing down digestion is a catastrophe! Consequently, there seems to be some sort of national agreement about not drinking cappuccinos after 11am.
On the other hand, an espresso or a caffé duopio is ok at any time of the day, and is commonly drunk, to aid digestion, after meals.
Common Confusions Tourists Run Into
It’s not easy to blend into the crowd when you go to an Italian bar in search of an authentic coffee experience. Apart from what we mentioned above, there are other subtleties that characterize Italian coffee culture. In Italy, coffee and espresso are the same thing. If you ask for a caffé or for a cup of coffee, you will get an espresso. If you want anything other than the concentrated 30mL Italian brew, you have to be specific.
If you don’t want such a concentrated coffee, you could ask for a Luongo, or an Americano, which are diluted versions of the espresso, similar to what you would get when ordering a plain black coffee somewhere else.
Also, consider that ordering a latte implies that you’re ordering milk, so that’s exactly what you’ll get. You have to ask for the full name is you’re looking for a latte macchiato (but remember, not after 11am).
One Size for All!
There’s actually nothing standard about the size and type of coffee cups you’ll find at different Italian bars. Some offer fine porcelain, others offer thick ceramic cups, and yet others serve coffee in a glass. However, in each bar they will only serve one size, so don’t go asking for a large coffee or something similar. Especially avoid asking for a to-go cup if you don’t want a furious look from the barista’s face. This lack of customization is probably what has helped maintain the Italian coffee way unaltered throughout the years, so instead of an inconvenience, it’s actually something worthy of respect.
You’ll find the same ceremonious behavior in any coffee bar across Italy, but there are variants in the way they drink their espressos in different regions. In some places, espresso is flavored with local herbs and spices like cloves, or cinnamon to give it an extra kick and a distinguishing feature. This makes coffee tourism in Italy a wonderful thing. If its authenticity you’re looking for, just look for the smallest, oldest looking bar you can find in the narrowest most hidden corner of the city, and you’re in for a treat.
Changes in the Horizon
The specialty coffee culture and third-wave coffee shops have made their way into every major city in every country in the world, but Italy has resisted thanks to its rooted sense of tradition. However, many Italians have become entranced by all the different flavors and aromas they can experience with gourmet coffee beans and specialty blends, and some specialty coffee shops have already been established in the more touristic cities.
According to one such Italian entrepreneur, the biggest obstacle isn’t the tradition itself, or even the quality of the coffee (which is sometimes much better); the problem is price. For an Italian, paying more than 1 euro for a cup of coffee is unheard of, as it is traditionally a cheap commodity available to all. Things are beginning to change, though, and more and more Italians every day are starting to appreciate the added value that a perfectly curated, roasted and blended bean can give his beloved espresso.
Italians are proud of their coffee culture, and they should be. They’ve earned every right to brag and we all owe them due respect, even if the espresso is not our beverage of choice. Even if globalization keeps pressuring for change, it is as unlikely that the Italian coffee ritual would disappear, as it is that Italians would all of a sudden stop eating pasta.
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