Good Food Blog
When in Rome...Posted at 12:02PM, 20 November 2008 by Emily Boyce - Sub-editor, bbcgoodfood.com
Our tiramisu bowls cleared, the waiter returned with our coffees, handing the latte to me and the espresso to my boyfriend. "No", I said, "it's the other way round". He cast pitying eyes over Michael and switched the cups. Michael has never quite forgiven me the humiliation.
It is not the done thing to order a latte after breakfast in Italy, much less after dinner
It is not the done thing to order a latte after breakfast in Italy, much less after dinner. Here, coffee culture is not the laid-back affair of the Parisian Left Bank, all newspapers and leisurely philosophical chats. It's a way of life governed by strict rules. It's an espresso necked at the bar because it costs double to drink it at the comfort of a table. If you're seen drinking cappuccino in the afternoon, you must be English. After dinner? German. And don't even think about sprinkling chocolate over it. Coffee made French-style in a cafetière? Filthy. You want an Americano? Go to America.
While we can walk into Starbucks and choose from every size, strength, syrup under the sun, the Italians have kept their coffee amazingly simple. Yet within these conservative bounds, there have been attempts at innovation. Lavazza, the coffee company whose headquarters are in historic cafe-packed Turin, are celebrating ten years of 'coffee design'. They've been working with Spanish super chef Ferran Adrià , using scientific techniques such as spherification, liquid nitrogen and siphons to produce such creations as coffee caviar, hot coffee eggs which burst like a yolk in your mouth, coffee spaghetti, and, somewhat bizarrely, coffee contact lenses ('an ironic tribute to myopia', apparently, this time developed with Italian chef Carlo Cracco).
Most of these are destined to remain the preserve of the nutty professors of coffee, but one which has hit the market in selected cafes in Italy, and which is soon to be found over here too, is the solid coffee foam 'èspesso' ('spesso' is Italian for thick). Giuseppe Lavazza presented us with a cup of the macchiato and cappuccino varieties at the Slow Food fair in Turin, along with a spoon to eat them with. They certainly had a fun novelty value, but would Italians be convinced? Mr Lavazza seemed confident. "Italians may be conservative, but only to the idea of good taste", he said. "They're ready to follow you, if you can prove your product is worthy".
Back at the San Tommaso flagship Lavazza cafe, we sampled some of the quirkier items on the menu. Cappuccino with coconut, peach melba espresso, autumnal coffee with apples and whipped cream... Are customers keen to try these exotic combos, or do they stick to what they know? I asked the barista. "In the morning, they'll come in for their usual espresso and be off again. But in the afternoon, they're a bit more open to trying something new, so I'll help them choose something".
Indeed Gabriella, a Turin city guide, says that it's now become acceptable to drink the traditional bicerin, made from coffee, chocolate and cream, in the afternoon as well as morning, and she's even seen the odd Italian sipping cappuccino at hitherto forbidden times. Change may be afoot in the world of Italian coffee, if only between the hours of 2 and 6 pm. Just don't go thinking it's safe to order that after-dinner latte.