Coffee Likbez with Federica Ricci

“Coffee” is one of the most beautiful words in every language and also one of the most traded commodities in the world, second only to crude oil. 2.25 billion cups are consumed each day and as Italians basically coffee flows in our veins!

The history of this product is fascinating and mysterious and can be enjoyed better with a cup of espresso or cappuccino in your hand! Just sit comfortably and relax.

Not many people know that coffee comes in cherries, and Ethiopia and Yemen are the two countries where this plant grew natively and according to my favourite of the many legends coffee was discovered by goats!

A goat herder named Kaldi noticed the excited behavior of his goats after they had eaten these red cherries. He then brought a sample to the monks, whose reaction was not the best one, but can serve as a clear example of serendipity: the monks were furious! Those beans were considered the Devil’s work and they ended up thrown into the fire.

However, the smell coming from it was so good the monks could not resist giving coffee a try and they found out it could help to keep them awake at night during devotions.

Exactly like alcohol or chili pepper, coffee has a long history of prohibition: it was considered sinful and for this reason outlawed (until Pope Clement VIII had to intervene but we are not there yet, that’s another story).

Now you are probably thinking why is then Italy the country of coffee? Shouldn’t it be Ethiopia or Yemen?

Well, the plot thickens. Around 1727 the Portuguese Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta fell in love with coffee and seduced the Guaianese governor’s wife to get her help and steal the seeds, to smuggle them across the borders. This Don Giovanni technique worked and that’s how coffee reached Brazil where it found the perfect conditions to grow beautifully.

The popularity of coffee soon spread to Europe and especially to Italy, mostly through the Dutch. Venice was one of the first European cities to import coffee in the 16th century: the century of Renaissance, the century in which Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They were the years when Copernicus proclaimed the sun to be the center of the solar system and Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. During those prosperous times, the Italians did what they do better than anybody else: they loved life. They loved food, wine, art and their love for the Dolce Vita found an expression even in the coffee business where they became the artisans of roasting: all the finest roasting techniques were born in Italy among simple people who were just doing their jobs with passion.

All this knowledge became particularly useful in 1901 when Sir Luigi Bezzera came up with the idea of forcing water through the coffee powder and invented the first espresso: expressly made, at request.

Espresso with its more than 800 aromas, complex taste, and low in caffeine soon became the favourite drink of all the businessmen in Torino, artists in Venice, gentlemen in Rome.

Interestingly, coffee was reserved to men at first, almost like everything else.

It was in 1933 when Alfonso Bialetti invented the Moka pot that coffee reached every single Italian at home. That iconic object everyone knows today has since become the ritual for Italian families who still today start each and every morning with the good smell of coffee brewing up through the Moka pot and the blupblupblup-ing of the last drops.

Funnily enough, the word “Moka” is used worldwide to indicate something with coffee and chocolate but the name comes from the port of Yemen where coffee used to depart from – Mocha. Ask for a Moka in the US and you’ll most likely end up drinking a foamy cappuccino topped with chocolate, ask for it in Italy and you will get a coffee pot.

Italians were and are keen on coffee and their passionate research made them experts in blending and roasting, knowing the difference among varieties and origins. One of the strongest memories of my childhood is the coffee smell my dad brought in when he came back home in the evening after a day spent roasting. I was able to guess which kind he had roasted that day. Whether it was a South American or an Indian one. The art of roasting is not an easy one but Italians will never admit it because they (well, we) like pretending everything is simple.

The traditional Italian blend has been kind of fixed for many years: it consisted of 70% Arabica and 30% Robusta. What does it even mean? Arabica, of which the greatest producer is Brazil, is the mildest and most delicate variety of coffee. It grows best at high altitudes and contains a low amount of caffeine. Robusta, as explained by the word itself, is the variety that grows naturally almost everywhere (especially in Vietnam) and contains a lot of caffeine, produced by plants as a kind of poison to protect themselves from insects.

The before mentioned percentage is not that common anymore. The continuous change in coffee prices and the political instability of many producing countries made it difficult for many roasters to keep quality and standards high.

Nowadays all sorts of creative combinations can be found (sarcasm alert). At our café in Rome, we have been serving since 1938 our house blend consisting of only 100% Arabica, quite unusual for espresso! Another interesting reason why Italians became so good at roasting comes from the geographical nature of our country: it is shaped like a long boot. If you have ever been to our beautiful country you would have noticed that an Italian from Trieste is very different from one from Napoli. From the North to South Italy gifts us with such a wonderful diversity in food, landscapes, traditions, weather, and of course roasting techniques and methods.

I am afraid your coffee is now cold which is not good according to the Ethiopian saying ‘coffee and love taste best when hot!’

Let’s save all the other interesting facts for next time!” –

Federica Ricci

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