lunedì 14 gennaio 2013

The sacred rite of coffee

(Note: the term "espresso" is a false cognate. In Italy, "espresso" refers only to "caffè espresso," made from the machines that you see in cafés and hotels, where the water is forced through the tightly-packed grounds. (The verb esprimere means literally, "to push through.") Any coffee made from a stove-top caffettiera or moka is not called "espresso" but simply, "caffè.")

In Naples, the preparation of coffee is a sacred rite.

In an Italian meal, the order of the courses is well-defined and immutable:

*first course
*second course, with side dishes and vegetables served on separate plates
*green salad
*fresh fruit and fresh cheeses

As a Florentine once told me, "After an Italian puts the coffee in his  mouth, if you were to offer him rabbit with truffles, he would not eat it."

The first Italian family with whom I ever stayed had a special ritual. The pranzo began at 1:00 following the order as described above — minus the coffee. Around 2:00, everyone took a siesta. Around 4:00, we were awakened by the sound of vigorous stirring. The mother made the coffee in the normal way, with a Bialetti stove-top coffeemaker. Meanwhile, she placed a carefully measured amount of sugar in a small, metal pitcher. When the first drops of coffee rose, she poured them into the pitcher and stirred energetically, making a paste. When the rest of the coffee emerged, she poured it into the paste. We drank our coffee, and the remainder went into a small glass vial, which was placed in the door of the refrigerator. The next morning, for breakfast, she made latte macchiato, "marked" with the sugared coffee of the vial.

Addendum (February, 2018): Of which metal was this precious pitcher?  Logic would say aluminum or stainless steal.  But the way I remember it -- probably wrongly, in this case -- is having been of pewter.  Probably this memory is colored by my Bostonian upbringing.  (Coffee pots of pewter were common in England and in Colonial America.) Be it right or wrong, this "emotional memory" (if not "factual memory") is ingrained in me.  Which is why recently, when I was in a second-hand store, my heart jumped when I saw this English pewter pitcher. I polished it this morning, and -- though I always take my espresso black -- I made the coffee-sugar paste.  In honor of that dear and unforgettable matriarch, who, in recent days, left this earth.
Addendum (February, 2014): For decades, I thought that the reason for this procedure with the paste and the pitcher was simply to mix the sugar evenly throughout the coffee. Only very recently did I learn that the old-timers in Cuba used the exact same technique, and that the reason was to replicate the "crema," that prized, yellowish foam that forms at the top of a good cup of espresso. I have seen Italians pour a spoonful of sugar onto their espresso and wait to see how slowly it sinks through the crema, as a means of judging the quality of that espresso. 
I am always amazed, however, that Southern Italians are so serious about their coffee, yet they rarely grind their own beans. (Naturally, they did in the olden times. Below you see my antique coffee grinder, today a decoration.)

The author, with the great George Howell (10 Feb. 2012)
I buy my beans from George Howell, and ONLY from George Howell. He produces the greatest coffee in the world. If we prize wine that comes from a single origin, why shouldn’t we prize single-origin coffee, as well? George travels the world in search of the finest beans, and he roasts them in an expertly fashion. I purchase a varietal from Brazil, roasted in the Southern Italian style.

I use approximately one bag (12 oz.) of beans per month. One of the greatest moments of my month is that moment when I cut open the bag. You can’t fathom the heavenly aroma!

I grind the beans in my Breville.

With a funnel, I store the beans in this glass jar.

I make it airtight with my Vacuvin.

Now, which caffettiera should I use?

You should use cold, purified water. And if you have a gas stove, you should use a low flame.

I do not use sugar; I take my coffee black as the ace of spades.

Therefore, I can justify the occasional biscotto, right?

Ma cu sti mode, oje Bríggeta,
tazza ’e café parite:
sotto tenite ’o zzuccaro,
e ’ncoppa, amara site...
ma tanto ch’aggi’ ’a vutà...
ma i’ tanto ch’aggi’ ’a girá...
ca ’o ddoce ’e sott’ ’a tazza,
fin’a ’mmocca mm’ha da arrivá!...

(But to me, Bridget,
You are like a cup of coffee:
Sweet as sugar at the bottom,
And bitter at the top.
So I'll stir and I'll stir,
And I'll keep stirring
Until the sweetness from the bottom of the cup
Finally rises and reaches me!)

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