For many years, I considered coffee drinking a key element in European sophistication that sadly evades those not born on the continent. When I first moved to Italy, the erudite Milanese would scowl in horror at the concept of ordering a long drink over the obligatory espresso and I was duly punished, paying three times as much as them for my mistake.
However, one must understand that coffee culture in Italy is not about laptops and long drinks, but more about fast glamour and quick hits. All sounds too mysterious and complicated for an instant coffee lover or tea-fiend? It should, because coffee-culture in Italy has more strictures than a Catholic wedding so it’s essential to do your research pre-trip to avoid any caffeine related calamities.
Like food, coffee is a sacred Italian ritual. The scent wafts through the early morning air, reminding you of the sumptuous, stormy goodness that awaits you when you stagger from bed to bar. Like most Europeans, Italians have had a lot of practice; coffee was brought to Venice in the early 17th century from Arabia. Originally Italian priests thought it was a drink for ‘infidels’ because of its origins, but its charms soon captured the locals and it became the drink of choice.
The original version that the Venetians were drinking tastes nothing like today’s Italian coffee. Based on Turkish practices, it was very strong with the grounds left in. The debate about the perfect coffee proliferated across Europe, with each variation developing in each nation and city. A preference emerged, most likely from Vienna, for filtering before drinking, and adding milk for the softer, western palates. Like most things here, when the practice spread to Italy many variations were experimented with and sold to the public. And the coffee bar was born.
Today one of the most famous of these coffee bars is in central Milan: Peck a renowned enogastronomia was established in 1886 and since its inception has been frequented by the astute Milanese. I went to speak to the caffettiere straordinario to find out what makes the perfect coffee and the die-hard drinking rules you need to adhere to...
Coffee etiquette in Italy
1. The Milanese are busy people and the surcharge imposed upon sitters means that they drink small espressos at the bar. In fact I’m not convinced they even drink them, so quickly are they placed by a well-dressed elbow and whipped away a few seconds later they must inhale it through their pores.
2. A cappuccino (often shortened to cappuccio in Milan) is part of your breakfast meal, or a mid-morning snack and shouldn’t be spoken of thereafter. The strict Italian eating rituals mean that drinking a thick, milky drink on a full stomach is bad for the constitution, which is probably true.
3. You often have to pay first and then receive your order: Did you know money is the thought to be the dirtiest thing in the world? Neither did I, until I thought about it. For this reason in many cafes one person will handle your money and another make your drink. Take the receipt with you when you’ve paid and then order with the barista.
4. A barista in Italy simply translates as a waiter or waitress, it is not someone who is specially trained to make coffee. The practice of making coffee is so diffuse and well understood that every barista knows how to make it. If you stop in at Peck however, they’re staff years of knowledge that they respect by giving them the title of caffettiere.
5. It’s best not to complain to your barista about the lack of American coffee houses in Italy, these names are dirty words and go against the concept of simplicity being the gastronomic choice over here. Coffee is about the care, attention and knowledge of the maker, you don’t going playing around with that by adding ice and cream and vanilla flavouring to that knowledge.
Now don't say you haven't been warned...