Monday, September 5, 2016


Our kitchen, with the trusty little Moka ready to deliver the good stuff.

Filo's espresso maker.  The concept of the Kuerig cup was actually invented by an Italian company called Lavazza.

The espresso machine at Bar Anna.

Outdoor seating on the piazza.

Another favorite bar, Bar Okay.  Cappuccino and a cornetto.

Cappuccino and pastry in Paestum.

Marocchino and gelato.

Twin baristas, beautiful and professional.

The crystalline waters off Isola Licosa.

Isola Licosa with its lighthouse,

Talk about service,  caffè delivered by watercraft.

       An Italian coffee shop is a beautiful thing, with its sleek bar, its sparkling chrome machines, the ranks and files of glasses and cups neatly arrayed before the mirror at the back of the bar, the lovely wooden glass-fronted cabinets with those ravishing pastries spotlighted, always freshly made at a local pasticceria that very morning, and the baristas with their cool, efficient demeanor.  In Italy, coffee is not so much a habit as a religion. And one, I have to say, that deserves all the veneration it receives.

      In his delightful little book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, (from which I am cribbing shamelessly here) Tom Standage makes the case that the Enlightenment, that eighteenth-century intellectual ferment which saw the end of slavish adherence to the tenets of ancient Greek science and philosophy, was fueled by good old coffee.  Much as I venerate Greek thought, I suspect he’s right.  And it should be noted that no one would have been more chagrined by that slavish adherence than the Greeks themselves.  Modernists take Aristotle to task for relying on dualistic, Aristotelean logic, but they don’t take the trouble to discover that Aristotle himself knew perfectly well that his clever little intellectual tool had severe limits.  Heck, the guy thought it was hilarious to set up a perfectly constructed syllogism and prove that a goat was a type of bird!  In any case, think of all the ideas we owe to the caffeine-powered Enlightenment, not least our system of government here in the US.

     But that was a long time coming.

     My first book started with a very simple question, namely, how did Rome, a city of over a million souls, manage to feed its population in an era without refrigeration and sterile canning and with a very primitive system of transport.  I nattered on for another 250 pages and never really mentioned the most basic reason, namely that Rome provided the one most essential element of the human diet in glorious profusion.  That nutrient is safe drinking water, something we modern Americans take for granted, and shouldn’t.  The human body can endure for two or three weeks without solid food, and some of us, sadly, probably longer, but if we go without water for more than two days, we’re in serious trouble.  I was interested to learn that sailors stranded at sea in open boats who survived to give us an account of their travails report that it was not so much hunger that tormented them, at least not after the first few days.  It was ravenous thirst.  In fact, British sailors had an unwritten rule called “The Custom of the Sea” which was understood to mean that when a stranded crew was up against it and it became obvious that without sustenance they were all going to die, it was acceptable to draw lots and kill one of their companions so that the rest might have some chance of living.  Terrible, I know, but who is to say what we ourselves might do in similar circumstances?  But the thing which really astounded me was that they also drew lots for various portions of the corpse, and the two prized portions were the liver and the brain, for the simple reason that these two organs retain the most fluid after all the others begin to wither.  Imagine the bitter irony of floating in a sea of water and thirsting to death.  As Coleridge has the Ancient Mariner declare, “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink!”  and ravenous thirst has driven some shipwrecked tars to madness, so that they began drinking sea water.  Sadly, salt is so hypertonic that it simply dehydrated them more, upon which they would repeat the cycle until they killed themselves in a raving fit.

All that by way of saying that throughout human history, various civilizations have devised ways of making impure water potable by creating staple beverages which purified it.  Thus the Egyptians and the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent were great beer drinkers, the Greeks and Romans great wine bibbers, and so forth.  Beer wort is, of course, boiled and therefore safe, and it has been experimentally proven that wine mixed with water in the proportions the Greeks and Romans prescribed kills all sorts of pathogenic microbes in brackish water, most especially typhoid and paratyphoid organisms.  The fact that alcohol in moderation has some delightful psychotropic effects as well hasn’t hurt their popularity either.  But when Islamic people, who by Koranic proscription are teetotalers, introduced distillation to the West and some bright spark figured out how to turn the process to distillation of wine and beer, the consequences were in may cases catastrophic.  Cheap gin was the bane of the poor in many cities, for example.  

     But our Muslim brothers more than compensated when they introduced coffee.  Before its introduction, most people in western Europe drank ‘small beer’, weak beer, for breakfast and lunch, since it was so much safer than municipal water supplies.  But coffee is boiled, and not only is safer, but leaves its drinker alert and energized instead of dazed and confused.  Coffee was introduced to Europe in the 1640s, and by 1674 an anonymous London poem heralded it as

…that Grave and Wholesome Liquor
That heals the Stomach, makes the Genius quicker
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad
And cheers the Spirits without making Mad!

Actually, coffee had been known in the Islamic world for several centuries by this time.  The legend is that Arabic shepherds noticed goats eating coffee beans and becoming extremely frisky, ground up the berries and infused them in hot liquid, and were delighted by the buzz they got.  Coffee as we know it from roasted beans was evidently introduced from Yemen, and was known in Arabic as qahwah, pronounced as KAH-va, ergo our words kava and coffee. The word java, meanwhile, derives from the island of the name, where colonial powers introduced the plant in order to break the Arabic monopoly.   Coffee at first had its detractors in Islam, since it also has psychotropic effects, albeit the opposite ones in many ways from alcohol.  But eventually it was accepted as healthful and proper and became (and remains in many parts of the world) the ‘Wine of Islam’.

    Coffeehouses became popular in London in the 1660s, and a short but by no means exhaustive list of new ideas launched in these centers of egalitarian intellectual discourse would include the Glorious Revolution as well as the Restoration, the Tatler, the insurer Llloyd’s of London, Pepys’ Diary, Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and the London Stock Exchange.  Coffee was embraced just as fervently in Italy, where it fueled the intellectual ferment that resulted, at long last, in the Risorgimento and the belated unification of Italy in 1861.

    As with everything else, there are arcane unwritten rules for consumption of coffee in Italy.  Most startling for most Americans is the fact that java is probably not your beverage of choice first thing in the morning.  Italians love to let their systems wake up slowly, so a light breakfast and perhaps some fresh juice is de rigueur  Then along about 10 am, everyone heads to their favorite bar for a little jolt.  Sadly, that is one Italian custom that Sandy and I have not assimilated.  I’m usually up thirty minutes to an hour before the night owl, so I stumble to the kitchen and fire up the trusty little Moka which produces a scant four cups of espresso.  I’ll sit and peruse the news and social media on the computer while sipping my two little demitasse cups, and when I hear Miss Sandy stirring, I fire up a half cup of skimmed milk in a little stainless steel tankard so she can enjoy her caffè latte.

     But often we will head down midmorning to our favorite bar in Agropoli’s centro, Bar Anna, or to another of our favorite bars, for some professionally produced go-juice.  Understand, when you see a sign for a ‘bar’ in Italy it will be a coffee bar, although they frequently have various liquors as well for the late afternoon crowd.  Most Italians drop into their regular place, where they’re greeted by name, and stand at the bar to get their caffeine fix.  It will cost about a buck and a half, maybe two and a half if you sit.  And if you order a caffè, you will automatically get a shot of espresso, unless the barista recognizes that suspicious touristy look, in which case you’ll get a tentative, “Caffè espresso?”  Also appropriate at this time is a good cappuccino, a shot of espresso mixed with warm milk with skim-milk froth on top, the perfect way to start a work day, according to many Italians.  And, if you insist as does my beloved on ordering one in the afternoon, knock yourself out, but don’t be surprised if the barista shudders on hearing the order, because any form of coffee with milk after noon is JUST NOT RIGHT!!!  At Bar Anna we sit out at the tables under the umbrellas on the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, drink our coffee, take advantage of municipal wi-fi, watch the passing parade, noodle on the computer, grab a pastry or gelato, and just pure lolligag.  Which you can easily do, because, just as at any good Italian restaurant, you will never, ever be rushed.  You can sit there the whole day and never once be asked, as in American establishments, “Is there anything else?” by which is meant, “Beat it, old geezer, I want my tip.”  What a remarkably civilized way to enjoy your coffee!

     More signs of civilized life:  Your caffè will typically be served in a pretty ceramic cup with a cute little spoon and a packet of sugar as well as a glass of water, unless the place is for barbarians.  Italians love their espresso black as sin and sweet as young love, and it is a joy to watch them carefully pour in the sugar, then slowly, carefully stir and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, and then throw the whole cup back like a shot of whisky in a bad western.  I’m telling you, there is real flair and panache there!  Meanwhile, I am so impatient that I always seem to knock mine back too early, and therefore suffer the humiliation of residual sugar goo on the bottom of the cup.  So I’ve decided to make a virtue of necessity and have adopted the habit of mixing a bit of water from the glass in the espresso cup and swirling it about a bit before a second knock-back so I can achieve the full caffeine-sucrose rush.

Unsurprisingly, I suppose, there are numerous variations on the basic espresso and cappuccino duo.  Instead of a cappuccino, you might care for a macchiato, a good shot of espresso with a small dollop of whole milk in the center.  Or perhaps you’ll want your caffè ‘ben caldo', ‘really hot’.  Since Italians don’t sip their espressos, they don’t want a scalding cup, but if you prefer to sip, the barista can set you up with an ‘extra-hot’.  Or just for variety, you might want a marochino, a cappuccino sprinkled with cocoa powder.  There’s even caffè d’orzo, not really coffee at all, but a substitute which poor Italians made from dark roasted barley during the world wars because coffee was unavailable.  It seems some of them actually became inured to the taste!  For the love of God, please don’t order an Americano thinking you’ll get a good cup of American coffee.  What you’ll get is a shot of espresso mixed with a ridiculous amount of hot water, a truly disgusting concoction which, I suppose, gives you some notion of how Italians regard American coffee.

    But if perchance you imbibe this foul abomination, do not despair.  What you need to remove the horrid aftertaste is a caffè corretto, a shot of espresso with a shot of booze on top.  Unless you specify, the liquor will be grappa, fiery Italian brandy.  But you can also specify ‘con Sambuca', Sambuca being a liqueur flavored with anise and elderflowers, or ‘con Cognac’.  These are particularly popular with commuters in the late afternoon, and that reminds us that Italians love a good shot of java along about 5 pm.  In fact, many of the train stations here have little coffee kiosks right out near the boarding platforms, and you’ll often see a harried commuter rush up to the bar, order a quick espresso, throw it back, and rush off to board his espresso.  Yep, the espresso train lent its name to the typical little cup of Italian coffee.  Both are going to have you speeding along.  But please, whatever you do, don’t call it an “EK-spresso’ as many Americans are wont to do.  Good coffee deserves more respect than that.

    My all-time favorite coffee experience occurred when our friend Franco Castelnuovo took us and Fernando by boat to see the beautiful island of Licosa, about 15 miles south of Agropoli.  As we motored down, Franco slowed the boat to a crawl to show me the crystal-clear view of the bottom of the sea and then pointed to the depth-finder radar:  12 meters!  The waters and beaches of this areas are famous all over Europe for their clarity and beauty.  We anchored about 30 yards from the island (the rocks were too difficult to navigate inshore), swam to shore, and explored the footprints of a Roman villa, quite a treat.  Franco’s lovely wife Adriana Zammarrelli had remained on the boat with Sandy to tend the boat.  As the three of us gents were swimming back to the boat we noticed a small craft driven by a handsome young fellow approaching the boat.  When we arrived, he was just serving the ladies iced coffee and soon produced from a small espresso machine caffè for the explorers as well.  Great coffee in one the the world’s most evocative places!

     I read recently that Starbucks intends to open its first concession in Italy in the northern city of Milano some time in early 2017.  Ironic, since Danny Schulz, founder of the chain, drew his inspiration for what was at the time a radical new way of serving coffee from a trip he took to Italy.  Now all the pundits are trying to predict whether an American coffee shop can survive in the land that worships coffee.  Stranger things have happened, perhaps; McDonald’s is eking out an existence in the country which venerates good food.  How do you explain that?  But, for what it’s worth, my prediction is that the venture will not end happily.  The first time a Starbucks barista serves coffee in a paper cup, the lot of them will be tarred and feathered and flogged out of Lombardy and the establishment will be torched.  And justifiably so; some things are so sacred, you mess with them at your peril.

A temple to the goddess Caffeina in Florence.

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