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Chasing the espresso

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Until relatively recently, I never quite understood the appeal in Italy of the espresso. It seemed a pointless drink. Barely a mouthful, it would be over before you’d even started drinking it. How could it possibly be satisfying? However, having an espresso in the morning (or at any other time of day, mind you) seems to be a national pastime of sorts. There is even (and I’m not joking) a National Espresso Institute in Italy, which defines the exact portions and temperatures for making an ‘espresso’.

Now would be a good time to say that is not called an ‘expresso’. There is no such thing. Also, the plural is simply ‘espressi’. The word ‘espresso’ itself translates as ‘express’ or ‘very fast’, though the word is no longer commonly used in Italy as an adjective with that original meaning. Espresso can refer to the coffee drink, ‘express delivery’ letters, or even an express train. Note that the word also happens to be the past participle of the verb ‘esprimere’ (to express–as in to talk about an idea or sentiment).

Vocabulary aside, a cup of espresso coffee is one prepared using a machine (the espresso machine) which prepares the coffee far more quickly than making it by hand. Hence the name espresso. The machine shoots a stream of hot water (not boiling!) under high pressure through finely ground, roasted coffee beans. This produces a thick, dark liquid with an intensely concentrated flavour and a golden creamy layer on top (called the ‘crema’). It is usually served in a small glass and can be consumed in a couple of sips, or supposedly a single one if you are a real Italian! Each glass of espresso is called a ‘shot’, which inevitably conjures up images of alcoholic drinks that are drunk the same way. An espresso is certainly a grown-up drink, to be accompanied with a cigarette and a few brooding thoughts on the unfairness of it all. 🙂

I once saw an advert in Bologna airport for a certain brand of coffee stating that “Il caffè fa parte della nostra storia”, or “coffee is part of our history.” Indeed, people have been drinking coffee in Italy for hundreds of years, ever since the coffee bean arrived in Europe via the Middle East. The first European coffee house was established in Venice in the 1600’s, followed by others in major Italian cities. Many of these old coffee houses (‘coffee shop’ just doesn’t cut it) are still around, often in majestic buildings of their era that stand as almost cathedrals to the Italian love of coffee. There was a scene in one of the recent Inspector De Luca films in which the protagonist, upon sipping an espresso, says “Quant’è buono il caffè vero.” (“How good is real coffee!”). The film was set in the Second World War, during which time chicory had often been used as a coffee substitute.

Note that if you simply ask for a ‘caffè’ at an Italian bar or restaurant, then what you will get is an espresso. If you want something else, then you will need to be more specific. Ask for a ‘caffè latte’ to have milk added, or a ‘caffè americano’ (or just ‘americano’) to have hot water added. There are of course many others, but they are mostly all based on the espresso.

Sitting down (or standing up) for this little drink, along with your ‘dolce’ and maybe a small glass of water is a wonderful ritual with which to start the day or even relax in the evening. This is what I’ve personally realised about the espresso–that it’s not just about the taste or measure, but the culture, lifestyle and history that it embodies. Small enough to enjoy in both hot and cold weather, it is truly a drink all’Italiana.

Photo: Illy 75th Anniversary reflective silver mirror series – with espresso (by CoffeeGeek on Flickr).

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