Friday, May 6, 2011

A Cup of Zen

It's well known that cyclists love their coffee. Perhaps we are drawn to it as socially-approved dope. Or maybe it follows naturally from our inner nature, in love as we are with tradition, fancy gear, and pretty much anything European. In any case, I'm no exception. Traditionalist, esthete, and cyclist that I am, I also spend a fair amount of time seeking the perfect cup of rich, strong coffee. For months, as our recent trip to Italy approached, I became ever more excited by the opportunity to experience a culture famous for perfecting both of these mysterious arts. Italy did not disappoint.

Americans think they have gotten the art of coffee down pat in the last 20 years. News flash! The Italians have been working on it since the Dutch were stealing Manhattan from the Indians. Their coffee is so perfect, I nearly wept as I drank my final cup in the Rome airport, knowing that I was not to taste its like again until the next time I touched that distant shore.

In Italy, prendere un caffe, taking a coffee, is an old and gracious ritual, redolent with national character. Here are some of the principles I gleaned in my short time there:
  • Do not go to Italy if you prefer brewed coffee to what Americans call espresso. Brewed coffee doesn't really exist in Italy -- and where it does, you don't want to drink it. If you belly up to the bar and ask for un caffe`, you will receive an espresso. There are many other styles of coffee available there, but, with the exception of an occasional cappuccino for breakfast, I never saw anyone order them.
  • Less is more: I had something like 20 coffees while in Italy, and I never once was served more than an ounce or two. Four or five delicate sips is a serving. More would only confuse your ecstatic taste buds. That's why they use the iconic tazzinas, the tiny cups and saucers usually marked with the brand of the coffee served.
  • Less is more, II: You only need four minutes to enjoy the perfect caffe` in the perfect way. But you must never rush. You are engaged in a ritual far older than you; show respect.
  • Less is more, III: There's no need to order a second cup. (I never saw it happen.)  Five sips, a brief chat with the barkeep, and you're off, trailing a merry "Buon giorno!" in your wake. Taking a coffee is a pause in your day, a chance to chat with friends, or to quietly savor and reflect. There are many moments during the day ideal for pausing. Best is mid-morning, on your way somewhere. Four in the afternoon also works well, for a pick-me-up, hours before your 8:30 p.m. dinner.
  • While out and about town, you're never more than 50 paces from an espresso machine. However, I saw no equivalent to our trendy neighborhood coffee houses. You can go to a bar, a caffeteria, an osteria, or any other of the omnipresent establishments that serve food. But one law seemed immutable: The better the food, the better the coffee. I learned to stay away from the bars, which, during the day, are basically just snack shops. The most consistently excellent coffee I had in Italy, to my surprise, was in the dining room of our expensive hotel in Siena. Their food was unbelievably good.
  • Good coffee is inexpensive. Although food prices were dizzying, a caffe` universally costs one euro -- about $1.44 when we were there. It would be unseemly to overcharge a fellow citizen for what is, essentially, a civil right: Good coffee and good company.
  • If, like many Americans (especially the young), you like your coffee to leave you a bit breathless with adrenaline, stay in the States. Coffee in Italy picks you up, but that's less than half of its purpose. It never left me overcharged. (And I usually drink half-caf, which I found non-existent there.)
  • When an Italian has a coffee, there is nothing else being done. There is no working, there is no walking between shops, and there most certainly is no driving. From what I've read and witnessed, there is simply no such thing in Italy as a "to-go cup." It's not that it's forbidden; there's no consciousness that such a thing could exist.
  • Finally, taste. This is clearly a more subjective topic, but my observation showed that the inky-black, super-bitter stuff young American "experts" have turned espresso into, you'll only find at the cheap, inattentive joints on the street in Italy. The best eateries -- the places where they make food the way we would kiss our own children goodnight -- served a three-dimensional, aromatic cup, easy on the tongue, yet strong. It was never burnt or overpacked with "flavor."
In short, the experience of having a coffee in Italy is the fullest expression of one of their unique concepts: sprezzatura. Roughly translated, this means, "effortless beauty." It's probably the last thing left on Earth that's not for sale at Starbucks.


Suitcase of Courage said...

What is it about a good cup of coffee that causes one to become so lyrical: "the places where they make food the way we would kiss our own children goodnight" Beautiful image! Beautifully written, as always.

Velosopher said...

Thank you, SOC. I really enjoyed writing this one.

Glenn_in_MA said...

Another great post...ditto SOC's comment. I'll never forgive Starbuck's for gobbling up what I thought were Boston's best coffee shops - The Coffee Connection - and leaving behind nothing but bitter brew and over-priced sugar drinks!

Perhaps you know of this already, but I recently found this blog and thought you would like it.

Reading this blog is like knowing an old-time professional Euro cycling insider!

Velosopher said...

Thanks for the compliment and the tip, Glenn! We really should ride some day... I was gathering up miles and hills, both on and off road, this past Sunday, around South Hadley. Not too far from you...?