The Malta Independent 22 July 2024, Monday
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Coffee: Not just a matter of life and death

Monday, 23 February 2015, 10:37 Last update: about 10 years ago

Louis Michael

"Well that was nice," my companion commented, in his steady New England drawl. The two of us were in a small rural trattoria in Sicily at the end of an evening. Both newcomers to Sicily, and indeed Italy, we had adjourned from the local town for a late repast.

The pasta had been exquisite and the fish divine, even the water had been just right. We relaxed back in our seats to savour the lingering flavours and heave a satisfied sigh; several in fact.

"And I know just the thing to finish it off," my American friend continued. Mmmm... cannoli? Maybe a little gelato? I was at the limit of my knowledge of Italian dolci, we both were.    

"No, a nice cappuccino."

Splendid idea: an exotic local drink to complement the local food. I voiced my agreement and the waiter answered our nods. As the small wiry man made his way over as we readied our halting Italian.

"Due cappuccini, per favore." My friend smiled contentedly in appreciation of my fine Italian and the expected treat.

The waiter stopped in his tracks, a look of shock on his face. He pulled himself up to his full 5' 6" and raised his nose in derision. The reply was snapped with the crisp crack of a pistol: "No!" And having fired his contemptuous retort, he performed a dismissive pirouette and strutted purposefully away.

We sat bewildered. Had we, in our ignorance of Italian, accidently referred to his mother as a "lady of the night"? Or worse, insulted her pasta?

Thankfully we hadn't. But we had committed a cardinal sin; we had ordered a cappuccino after the cappuccino season had ended. And that ends daily at around 11am.

And that was my introduction to the real world of coffee. Till that time I, and my friend, had been accustomed to the Americanised version of coffee: long on quantity, short on flavour. In the 1940s, American GI's had been "Overpaid, oversexed and over here!" in my part of Ireland. They had dazzled the girls and been resented by the boys, but loved by all for the coffee they brought. You made it by the gallon, added milk and drank it all day; it didn't require much knowledge or skill. Coffee wasn't an art form, it was just a drink. And then I went to Italy.

Some years ago, I would say many but I remember it, a certain very passionate football manager from Scotland said "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death... it is much, much more important than that." In Italy I discovered that sentiment to be true of coffee. Coffee in Italy is indeed an art form, a coffee-shop is not just somewhere to meet people for a leisurely chat and coffee is not just a long drink to satisfy a thirst.

A café is a temple dedicated to coffee and all Italians worship there. It is part of the essential fabric of life. It is taken on its own or to finish a meal and is never consumed with food, except during breakfast. A cappuccino may be consumed with a cornetto or brioche, but not after 11!

And yet coffee is neither grown nor harvested in Italy. So how on earth did coffee become the epicentre of culture in Italy?

"Yes, think of coffee and you think of Italy." A delighted Dr Salvatore Schirmo beamed his agreement. We were sitting inside a Republic Street café enjoying cappuccinos; it was breakfast of course. Very true Salvatore, but how did it happen?

"I don't actually know but I will find out," he replied, "and if you come to the Magic Box this month you will too." So I did. And very interesting and informative it was.

In the Magic Box for February, Dr Anna Porcheddu presented Lorenzo Forforelli talking about coffee.

Lorenzo Forforelli is not only a lover of coffee but works in the coffee industry, so is well qualified in his topic. He represents the Trinacle brand of coffee in Malta. As I'm sure you can tell Trinacle is a Sicilian brand of coffee. Trinacrium is the old Roman name for Sicily and refers to the island's triangular shape, giving the flag of Sicily its distinctive Trinacria symbol of Medusa's head surrounded by three running legs. And very nice coffee it later turned out to be.

We started with a potted history of coffee and its "Europeanisation". Everyone is familiar with the original Arabic or Turkish coffee, but it arrived in Europe from north Africa through the port of Venice, where it was very expensive and favoured by the rich and privileged. In the early years it was considered a sinful drug and deemed an Islamic threat to Christianity! With the rising popularity of coffee, Pope Clement VIII deemed it a Christian beverage and opened the way for the first coffee shops.

Named for the beverage, the first caffè or café, opened in Venice around 1683 and became the byword for comfort, conversation and sophistication. Thus, began the Italian love affair with coffee. But it was still basically Turkish style.

The nature of Italian coffee being brewed fast and strong owes its origins to commerce. 18th century businessmen wanted to reduce the amount of time lost to morning coffee breaks and invented a machine to force coffee through tightly packed grounds. And so the stronger and more aromatic espresso was born and it came to epitomise the style and culture of Italy. I, for one, am very thankful for 18th century Italian business acumen.

We were treated to a short trip through some of the great and historic cafés of Italy before Lorenzo got down to the business end of the evening. He gave us a presentation on the plantations showing the preparation of the bean, ready for shipping to Sicily to be prepared and roasted, and finally discussed the correct way to make the perfect espresso. This final part was of course followed with hushed reverence by the rapt audience. 

Time for the informal part of the evening and the eager crowd flocked to watch Lorenzo as he proceeded to demonstrate his artistry with the coffee machines.

The coffees were excellent and to complement them what could be nicer than a selection of good dolci. Ronnie Caruana and Carly Caruana of The Cake Box in Mosta and Qormi provided the treats and Carly herself was on hand to help out and field the inevitable avalanche of questions. I myself asked a very sensible question, "Can I have another one please?"

I caught up with Lorenzo to offer my congratulations and express my jealousy of his job. I like these coffee machines and want one in my life. I wonder they do anything else?

"This one makes tea," he replied "in case anyone doesn't like coffee." My snort of derision at the very notion was interrupted by Dr Porcheddu, who reminded me that her mother likes tea and not coffee. Sometimes I do wonder if Anna is really Italian.

So another excellent evening at the Italian Cultural Institute was over and again the Magic Box had shown its varied programme to be interesting and entertaining. It really has become a fixture in the month.

I'll see you there next month, anyone know what's on?



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