Italy in a cup. Guess what – you are an espresso expert!
As someone who appreciates good food and drinks, you probably like what Italy has to offer. Navigating Italy’s culinary specialties though is not easy. If you go to Italy, you will soon realize the difficulties of eating and drinking as the locals do. There are intricate rules dictating the what, where, and when of culinary consumption that only the natives know. And most don’t even know that they know it, because the culinary heritage is so deeply rooted that it becomes second nature for them and would take us years to comprehend. This doesn’t make the authentic experience impossible; if you are lucky and friendly, you can make friends with aboriginal Italians and go with whatever they serve or suggest. If, however, you don’t want to rely on luck and wish to take matters in your own hands, there is a simple way to the authentic Italian espresso experience:
Have a coffee! Just order “un caffè, not “espresso”, not “latte”, not “double foam” or anything like that. Do it as the locals do, “un caffè and add a little sugar to consume it in two or three sips.
Espresso is probably the smallest culinary unit available in Italy. Yet the very essence of refined knowledge and decades of experience go into this tiny beverage that is consumed with such leisure. You can have a wonderful taste experience anywhere in Italy without concerning yourself with what it takes to make a good coffee. Yet to appreciate good espresso, we should have a look into what all goes into making a good espresso on the way from the coffee plantation to your cup (and the following list by no means exhausts all factors).
the 4 M’s
The essentials for making good espresso are attributed to 4 “ingredients”: First comes the “Miscela”, the choice and the blend of the beans and their processing. Most coffees are a blended collection of beans that comprise each other’s characteristics associated with certain geographic and topographic locations. Only a few coffees are not blended “single origin”. The process of roasting is essential to the production of consumable coffee and so is the timespan from when the beans were roasted to consumption. Second is the “Macinatura”, the grind. How evenly in size and to which size the roasted beans are ground will determine the quality of the extraction of coffee. Each batch of roasted beans is different and requires a readjustment of the grinder. The “Macchina”, the espresso machine, is third. Tradition and experience with espresso making tell us that to achieve optimal taste, extraction of coffee from the grounds should last no longer or shorter than 25-30sec, at a consistent pressure of 8 to 10 bar and a temperature of 195-205ºF (90-96ºC). A good espresso machine is adjustable to these requirements. The fourth ingredient is the “Mano”, the hand that makes the coffee. With experience, good taste, knowledge, and hopefully ambition the barista orchestrates all the controllable variables to a more or less perfect “caffe” in your cup.
The beauty of having espresso in Italy is that you do not need to know about all these factors to be able to experience culinary poesy. Others have thought it through for you to enjoy. And even more beautiful is knowing that nowadays you do not have to go to Italy for such an experience. Coffee houses are popping up like pimples on an adolescent’s face in American Urbania. Your curiosity and desire of good taste hopefully inspire you to venture out and explore beyond the typical foamy and sugary comfort-zone. Patience and integrity can guide you on your culinary ventures in our New World:
Take your time and try a few places. Just order an “espresso” and see if you like it. If it is too hot, or bites with sourness or its bitterness makes you shudder, don’t drink it. You may want to ask the barista about it. Some will weigh in with their years of their experience, or they may refer to the reputation of their establishment. They might attempt to educate you away from your taste and judgement. Others will insist on the desirability – of what you just experienced as unpleasant – and request an acquired taste. And possibly, a few Baristas will soon admire you as an expert in matters of espresso. You on the other hand should focus and not get distracted from your search by all this noise. You do not need to compromise – stay true to your taste and soon you’ll be rewarded! There are plenty of places to explore and with a little luck and persistence you can find what you are looking for; Italian coffee is good and your taste makes you a fully capable judge.
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