Italy calling

I’m about to set off on holiday to Italy (Sicily) for the first time since I became a barista several (many?!) years ago! This is not a working holiday, or some sort of coffee-exploration holiday – it’s just a very welcome holiday! But, it IS Italy, the birthplace of espresso, and one of the few places in the world where espresso is drunk regularly as part of daily life and often taken pretty seriously.

Some people’s reaction might be ”Ooo! So you’re going to Italy? You’ll get some proper coffee there then, and see how the experts do it!”. As it is, I’m really not quite sure what to expect. I think the stereotype for southern Italy is for very dark roasts and very ristretto shots… For sure, it will be really interesting for me to experience a very different perspective and some very different shots from my day-to-day experience as a barista here. Hopefully I will get to try some inspiring, well crafted espresso, and it should in some small way be valuable and educational, regardless (I’m by no means so assured of my own limited coffee knowledge or ability as to think it won’t). But at the same time, I’m not necessarily expecting to be blown away by anything remarkably ‘artisan’ or cutting edge, or wowed by beans of exceptional quality while in Sicily. Contrary to popular belief, general Italian espresso quality and practices are by no means necessarily considered to be the be all and end all of what great espresso is capable of, by the most skilled speciality espresso folk elsewhere in the world (although this isn’t based on any specific knowledge or experience, just my generalised understanding from what I’ve heard and read). As far as I understand it, Italian espresso is quite traditional in its flavours and preparation, and while it’s more commonly understood, and MUCH more commonly prepared better than it is here, generally …at the same time it’s also not particularly modern, ‘gourmet’, or ‘3rd wave’ (awkward but sometimes useful concepts), and it is perhaps even more rarely really exceptional (from a 3rd wave perspective) than it is here in the UK. (Controversial..? Have I said too much? Will there be a horse’s head waiting for me in the hotel bed?!)

That said, I don’t think anyone in the speciality espresso industry anywhere in the world wouldn’t admit that Italy has a wealth of espresso understanding and experience that we can all learn from, and a much more widespread, well accustomed understanding of the basic principles that are all too easy to overlook, and is also quite progressive in some other areas like machinery development.

It might be true that Italian blends are generally of a more commodity quality, and blended with robusta for a more traditional, homogenous, balanced taste and texture, rather than top grade, traceable, single estate arabica beans (blended or not) that are sourced, roasted and prepared meticulously so as to showcase various wonderful and inspiring inherent natural characteristics to the utmost. It may be that Italian espresso is not ground fresh on demand very often, and beans may be much older (or deliberately ‘rested’ for longer) than I would normally leave them myself. But equally, I can often guilty of putting forward beans that I don’t understand well enough (thoroughly), because I’ve only put them in the grinder an hour or two ago, of sometimes dancing with coffee that is fizzing and harsh from being too fresh, if anything, and of using awkward coffees (however beautiful potentially) that could be perceived as too unbalanced, one-sided, acidic/sour, or wacky – even when well prepared, and more so when not (which is all too easy, especially if it’s not a blend) – all for the sake of attempting to experience, and demonstrate, a variety of different, amazing flavours, rather than simple consistency and dull, roasty, expected flavours.

Anyway, needless to say, I’m pretty curious and excited, and I hope to experience, taste, and learn just a little more about espresso while I’m there, if only in a very casual, snapshot kind of way. Any last-minute tips on what to expect, or recommendations, anyone? …Coffee might just be the last thing on my mind while away anyway (possible?)!

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4 Responses to “Italy calling”

  1. Howard Says:

    Hi Trevor,

    My experiences in Italy are an almost exact duplicate of what you seem to be expecting, with one big caveat – I have twice been to northern Italy, but never to the south. It will be interesting to hear your experiences and compare.

    Oddly, despite the absence of truly outstanding espresso (in speciality coffee terms) I was rarely disappointed with my morning cap’ and subsequent ‘caffé’ throughout the day. Perhaps I just accepted that the coffee was less than optimally prepared in terms of freshness and that the blend would forever remain ‘the roast-masters secret’ and just found pleasure in the ready availability of well timed shots (almost without fail), smart service and general ambience of an authentic – not some marketers’ imitation – Italian espresso bar, and the fact that another one – the same but not the same, would be right around the corner…

  2. Trevor Says:

    Hiya,

    Likewise – your experiences are very similar to both my expectations, and also what I found when there.

    On the one hand, I did not come across any truly remarkable espresso, and had a couple of bad ones.
    Roasts/blends seemed pretty dark, and were very same-y and standardised, with roasty, tar/smoke/chocolate, bitter/sweet, low acidity flavours dominating. Illy featured fairly frequently.
    There was little of what really excites me about speciality coffee, as I percieve it normally.
    All the coffee I saw was pre-ground in the dosing chambers ready for dosing. 😦

    But on the other hand, there were lots of pleasing, interesting little positives:
    Everywhere serves espresso, as a matter of course, and everyone’s drinking it – great!!!
    The same standardisation that makes for boring flavours, also makes for very forgiving blends, and, combined with a general familiarity with espresso preparation, shots are pretty soundly and consistently timed and prepared from place to place – although no shots are stunning, they’re generally quite tasty and pleasing, wherever you go, and rarely really awful.
    Shots were a fairly standard, full, or short-ish, 1 ounce.
    Beautifully thick, white narrow/tulip cups everywhere – SO thick!!
    Wonderfully cheap espresso – often only 1 Euro – commodity quality, but still!
    Many older baristas…
    A few baristas who (while not particularly meticulous in any aspect of preparation of the shots) displayed a pretty practised, fluid, natural and rapid production of shots that made me a little jealous.
    Authentic, usually independent, espresso bars and cafes!
    All in all, beautiful settings, amazing scenery, and a carefree, holiday state of mind, makes average-yet-consistently-quite-tasty-and-approachable espresso seem rather good …and those tarry flavours marry so well with a cigarette, as is the custom! 🙂

    Getting back and tasting a great V60 of OCR sidamo was quite a contrast though!

    Admittedly, I didn’t specifically seek out good coffee places, on reputation, etc – I just tried what I was passing here and there, and returned to particularly good places. I doubt very much that a similar snapshot across just one town here in the UK would produce such favorable results!
    But, even if I been prepared to search further afield, I’m not sure I would have been able to find anything really amazing …which is something you can do here, sometimes..!

    All interesting stuff.

  3. Howard Says:

    Thanks for the review/snapshot of your experiences. People have a tough time coming to terms with the fact (and I do believe it could be called fact) that the Italians don’t make the best coffee – but I would happily concede with a great big generalisation that they serve the most consistently good coffee – as our experiances seem to tally.

    ‘even if I been prepared to search further afield, I’m not sure I would have been able to find anything really amazing …’

    …I offer Caffé del Doge in Venice (admittedly the other end of the country!). Decent house blend available in two forms (with and without Robusta) and with information as to the origin of its components. Then, quite amazingly; 8 (eight!) Mazzer Mini E’s on the back counter, each loaded with a single origin and dialled in ready to go! I’ve still not seen anything else like it! Perhaps speciality ‘caffé’ does exist in Italy; it’s just even more tucked away than it is here!

  4. Trevor Says:

    Wow! Sounds great – if I ever go back to beautiful Venice, I’ll be sure to check it out! It was a bit of a flippant comment, I know – I’m sure there are some places doing the speciality ‘thing’ in Italy too …just not many, perhaps. I wonder how it goes down over there – I get the feeling it might be even trickier for people to ‘get it’ than it can be here in some ways …not sure.
    Tasting a successful shot this morning, first day back, was delightful though (not meaning to be arrogant in any way here, just a genuine perception). Wasn’t quite sure how it would compare, but was actually a little blown away by the flavour, the fruit, and the sweetness, and very pleasantly reassured! A real break from your own coffee can help to make it new to your palate again – when you taste it all the time, I find you can get blinded to the positives, while only perceiving the imperfections more.
    Phew! 🙂

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