Today’s London Times published something of a book review of a new four-volume series, Eighteenth-Century Coffee-House Culture (Markman Ellis, editor): Smell the coffee – Times Online. It’s a long-winded article. But compared to the British tolerance for long-winded, academic tomes (it clocks in at a whopping 1,840 pages), the article is a walk in the park — and represents a great savings over the £350 list price (over $720).
Unfortunately, the article’s author spends too much uncritical time on the curious-but-flawed documentary, Black Gold, and its unburdened, one-dimensional representation of Fair Trade as a cure-all. After several paragraphs of this, he suddenly remembers that he’s reviewing a book and not a movie. The question he oddly seems to keep asking — of both the 1600s coffeehouse and the modern Starbucks — is whether coffeehouses are inherent goods or social evils.
More interesting are the roots of the early European coffeehouses of the 17th century as places of literary enlightenment, the exchange of ideas, and the consumption of foul, rancid coffee. But just as often, they were considered places that either sheltered drunkards in need of sobering up — or sent away the sober to the local ale-house, seeking to vanquish the choking smoke. There are tales of symbiotic relationships with the newspapers in the 1700s that soon turned contentious — curiously mirroring the role WiFi Internet access plays in cafés today.
And all the while coffee went from bad to worse: from excessively boiling “badly transported, badly kept, badly roasted and badly brewed” beans to indiscriminately cutting the beans with other roasted beans and peas, chicory, mangelwurzel, and other impurities otherwise used for livestock. In some ways, it makes the coffee quality movement of the past twenty years seem like an unlikely miracle. Think about that the next time you are served a bitter, ashy restaurant espresso filled to the rim.
Although its approach is more from the caterer’s perspective, the Web site for the UK magazine Caterer and Hotelkeeper published an article comparing the merits and tradeoffs off traditional versus automatic espresso machines: Coffee machines: traditional versus automatic.
The article cites analysis where traditional machines used up 22% more coffee than their automatic counterparts. However, the automatic machines required twice as many training sessions (surprising, given their push-button operation) and more than twenty times the number of service calls in a year.
It’s been a long time coming. After three years of laziness, I found a clean way to add non-SF espresso bars to the online database without having them muck up the SF sorts and ratings. It’s not a lot, and there are still a few kinks to work out, but it’s progress.
And the timing may not be better, given that the city of San Francisco has canceled Halloween and declared itself closed for the evening. As SF Mayor, the honorable Burgermeister Meisterburger, put it bluntly, “Halloween costumes are hereby declared illegal, immoral, unlawful and anyone found with a pumkin in his possession will be placed under arrest and thrown in the Kink.com Armory!”
So take heart, San Franciscans. We begin with virtual travel out of this closed city by featuring the first non-SF café with this new resource…
San Tommaso 10 represents the birthplace of Lavazza, dating back to 1895. This café has also represented Lavazza’s flagship café to this day. This despite the Lavazza chain cafés around the world and their more recent Espression offshoot — both replies of a sort to Illy‘s Espressamente cafés. But make no mistake — this is no grand caffè. It’s all about modern design here.
Other than some branding revisions, this café has changed little since our first visit in May 2004 — when Lavazza had just started offering their èspresso mutation. It has a relatively modest façade on a mild-mannered street of downtown Torino. You can fetch your own pastries on the right in the glass case as you walk in, walk up to the tiny front bar with room for two (or by the single-person bar on the side by the newspapers) and have your morning breakfast. Though there is more stool seating further back, among the heavy Lavazza advertising section right before the lunch café starts.
The place is decked out with serious Lavazza accessories, especially centered around the Lavazza BLUE home/pod system. The space is now painted a sort of creme green/blue color scheme — and it’s still surfaced with many mirrors to make it seem larger than it really is.
Back behind the bar is a lone three-group La Cimbali. From it, they pull shots with a highly textured, speckled dark and medium brown crema that’s only hindered by it’s modest depth/thickness. As it is, it’s served more like a natural ristretto. Thus its flavor is relatively bold — suggesting the typical Lavazza profile, but stronger and also with some roasted woody spiciness. It also has a good, robust aroma. The cappuccini are large and have excellent microfoam. Served in Lavazza-logo IPA cups. A reasonable deal at €0.90.
Read the updated review of San Tommaso 10.
The post title is the question of the day. If I may paraphrase an old quote from a previous post — where we asked, “How does the fool who knows nothing about wine impress his guests?” — the answer is: by buying the most expensive coffee they can find — along with a good story to tell about it.
Case and point with American wünderchef, Thomas Keller. In a press release this month: Chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Per Se establish one-of-a-kind coffee program [56kb, MS Word doc]. Yes, the man behind America’s most esteemed of restaurants — including Yountville’s The French Laundry and New York’s Per Se — has proudly announced to his customers that his restaurants will now offer Panama Esmeralda Geisha coffee roasted by the consistently underwhelming Equator Estate Coffees.
But how can you knock that? After all, at least they’re not pushing kopi luwak, right? Problem is that the coffee service at The French Laundry is well, uh, severely lacking compared to the otherwise lofty dining expectations and l’addition. (For example, their espresso scored lower than the Starbucks at SFO.) So rather than get educated, train staff, and elevate the craft (if not also chuck their superautomatic Schaerer espresso machine for something less suited for an assembly line), they take the lazy short cut of espousing the merits of “the most expensive coffee in the world” on their menus.
And to drill the point home that they have the whole coffee-as-wine thing confused, here’s a direct quote from their press release — from their master sommelier, a man who sounds like he clearly knows the difference between his Malabars and his Harars:
Paul Roberts, Master Sommelier and the Wine and Beverage Director for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group notes, “We’re delighted to have the opportunity to bring our guests such a rare and extraordinary coffee as the Panama Esmeralda Geisha. The coffee is a truly a gold standard, and a wonderful compliment to our fall menu offerings.”
Thomas Keller’s restaurants don’t have to brew the best cup in the world. But if they’re going to promote an image of coffee connoisseur savvy to match their prowess with food, they should at least have invested more time and thought into it than they spend on boiling an egg.
I can buy some Geisha at the Peet’s Coffee around the block from where I work; I don’t need a restaurant to do that for me, charge me $210 for the privilege, and then act as if they just made me a 1959 Château Margaux with their bare feet. I’m respecting Coi Restaurant more and more for gracefully not pretending to be something they’re not.
In the article, she recounts Mr. Roberts’ use of descriptive adjectives and his telling of the story behind the coffee’s/estate’s history — which curiously looks like a verbatim recitation of what was once posted on the Peet’s Coffee Web site. (The Web page has since been taken down as their supplies ran out.) What remains to be seen is if Mr. Roberts and/or Mr. Keller are capable of demonstrating any knowledge of good coffee beyond the most overhyped coffee in years, let alone the Peet’s Web site.
Bernadette Melvin is a former employee of SF’s Spinelli’s, which was bought out by Seattle-based Tully’s Coffee in 1998 (Spinelli’s, in addition to generally good coffee, always had the best baked goods of any coffee chain in SF). When Tully’s pulled out of this physical location in 2007, she moved in and opened with — and insisted upon — Arnold Spinelli’s coffee (formerly Bonavita, now called LaCoppa).
She’s a long-time local to the neighborhood, and the locals love her back. The shop is even run largely by her family members. This gives the café a far more popular and friendly feel than Tully’s could ever engender here. And who wouldn’t want to tell their friends that they spent their Weekend at Bernie’s? (My trash-so-bad-it’s-good fetish with 1980’s Andrew McCarthy movies aside, that movie has become a cultural reference for everything from Pope John Paul II’s final days to Fidel Castro today. Weekend at Fidel’s, anyone?)
Using a three-group Faema E91 Diplomat, they pull shots with a rich-looking, darker brown crema. It may be a little thin, but there’s a lot to it. The cup has a full aroma and a robust roast taste of thyme and tobacco. There’s a lot to like here.
Read the review of Bernie’s.
Piemonte, or Piedmont, is a province located in the Italy’s northwest — near the Alps. Other than the 2006 Winter Olympics, the region has largely been a blind spot on the tourist’s map. Travel guidebooks and TV programs routinely ignore it. And that’s just the way we like it.
For example, in Torino — Piemonte’s capital and biggest city (and unified Italy’s first capital) — you can enjoy a vibrant Italian city with a population just larger than San Francisco that’s virtually unscarred by tourists. Here the spoken English language is still more of an engaging novelty — and not the ever-present drone of invading hoards carrying water bottles and looking for Renaissance art.
And while Piemonte represents only one of 20 provinces in Italy, it’s home to one-third of the 18 top cafés in Italy — at least according to Gambero Rosso. Torino itself lays claim to four of them — three more than any other town in the country.
But coffee is just the beginning of this region’s story. Despite lacking Italy’s biggest-name cultural treasures and tourist attractions, the area is rich with history, Baroque architecture, Roman ruins, hilltop Savoy castles, the Savoys’ answer to Versailles (La Venaria Reale, which opened the weekend we visited), arguably the best wine region in the country, an obsessive preoccupation with perfect food, excellent espresso, and the greatest grand café culture the world over.
There have been some significant changes since we were last in Torino (in May 2004, prior to the Olympics): far less air pollution (many city buses now run on cleaner energy), more infrastructure (they opened one of their two planned subway lines), and the conversion of the Lingotto complex from FIAT factory to Olympic Village to mega-mall.
To understand the context of Piemonte’s coffee culture, it first helps to understand their unique obsession with food and wine. Now in Italy, everything is about good food of course. But the Piemontese take this obsession to a whole other level. Emilia-Romagna may represent the heart of Italian culinary tradition, but Piemonte takes the traditional and decidedly makes it into deconstructed, modern art. In all my travels, I have never experienced anything quite like it.
Piemonte is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement and hosts its headquarters. We ate at restaurants where the menus listed the origins of their flour, butter, olive oil, etc. It’s home to barolo and barbaresco wines. The town of Alba is famous for the white truffle and its annual fair. And Torino is infamous for its gelato, it’s the birthplace of the chocolate bar (and home to arguably the world’s best chocolate), and it hosts the world’s biggest food and wine market in Eataly — an old Carpano vermouth factory that was converted into a kind of SF Ferry Building Marketplace on crack and steroids.
Despite popular local dishes that justifiably sound foul — such as crudo di Fossano, raw piles of veal, and vitello tonnato, veal topped with a tuna sauce (both excellent when done well) — the only thing we advise you to avoid is the pizza. It’s the one thing where they come up average (even the Ligurian farinata here). Most Americans don’t realize that pizza is a regional, not a national, dish. The popular consumption of pizza (as a Neapolitan creation) reached as far north as Roma just some 40 years ago. We’ve been eating pizza in Kansas for longer than many parts of Italy.
What don’t you know already about Italians and their coffee culture? The Piemontese follow the traditional Italian culture of having a quick espresso several times a day like clockwork. It’s an excuse to socialize in brief spurts; it’s the equivalent of a “smoke break” and platonic speed dating. And as in many other parts of Italy, employees stuck in offices and storefronts can have their espresso shots delivered (sometimes covered in tin foil for transport) straight from the café. At every public gathering place, there’s a social expectation that good espresso is accessible nearby.
Here there is virtually no such thing as a double shot, or doppio. People will order two successive shots, certainly, but not at the same time. This follows the pattern of how the Italians prefer smaller stove-top moka pots at home. And like other northern Italians, a number of cafés offer the apertivo (or happy hour) buffet spread of sandwiches, salads, and appetizers with your drink order. Enough to skip dinner.
And unlike the 22-year-old wannabe hipster baristas sporting T-shirts, piercings, and tattoos you find common to cafés in North America, Scandinavia, and Oceania, they are decidedly “no wave” here. Older baristas are commonplace, and younger baristas are often akin to apprentices. Both maintain generally high standards of professional appearance — including even white jackets and black bow ties — like true bartenders (given the origins of the word barista) you’d expect to see in a James Bond film. That is the grand café way.
However, the Piemontese seem to break with a number of Italian “traditions” — not all of them are necessarily good habits. Although the storefronts here shut down religiously for a long lunch, a number of Piedmontese seem to have picked up the 12-hour workday. While most Italian children are well-behaved compared to their over-stimulated American counterparts, here they often seem over-indulged and allowed to freely squeal in public. As for the Torinese, their restaurants seem flaming hot while the locals still bundle up in coats and gloves. And when walking their reluctant small dogs (they are close to the French border, afterall), the Torinese often look like they’re dragging a small pot roast on a leash.
But perhaps the most shocking difference of all from most other Italians is that the locals — not tourists, mind you — sometimes order a cappuccino or macchiato after noon. Even with dinner. This would be blasphemy to most Italian rules and regulations regarding proper daily digestion. But here, the sour sounds of a squealing milk-frother — foreign and as jarring as nails to a chalkboard — are not uncommon at dinner. Such brutes.
Given Torino’s chocolate history, one local drink of note is the bicerin. It is a concoction of coffee, liquid chocolate, and fior de latte — the latter of which is much like the cream on the Irish Coffee at SF’s Buena Vista Cafe. And just like the Buena Vista, although the drink is enjoyable, you’d be hard pressed to find locals drinking it.
So what about the espresso quality? In Alba I picked up a copy of the 2008 Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso that had just been published (FWIW, their Ristoranti d’Italia guide is stellar and never steered us wrong). It served as a good guide of what cafés to start with. Along with the six Piemonte cafés awarded 3 chicchi and 3 tazzine, we selected a mix of additional cafés to judge both their best and the typical.
Not surprisingly, their best didn’t quite match the very select best in North America. However, the typical blew 80% of America’s cafés out of the water. This also created a sort of quality compression — with the best not being that much better than the typical. They were quite consistently served with a medium brown crema speckled with darker brown, as if a local standard, and often with a small glass of water on the side.
Another generalization was that, like Portugal, most of their espresso shots are a touch watery for my tastes — even at the standard 30-35ml size. But ordering it as a ristretto makes a huge difference. However, to ensure fair comparisons, I stuck to my standard criteria when making reviews. Of course, none of the locals order a simple “caffè”. Their coffee order is more likely to be in the form of an adjective or a prepositional phrase than a noun: con la schiuma, bollente, forte, con la cioccolata in polvere sopra, etc.
On the subject of milk-based drinks, some of the places with weaker, thinner espresso would oddly offer some of the best milk foaming. Many cafés exhibit a token amount of latte art, but the cappuccino here runs very wet — there’s usually just a minimal layer of foam. The macchiato is, however, rather popular — even at its modest size compared to American versions.
Among the most common brands of coffee in the area, this was my general order of preference:
Piemonte generally follows the rule that northern Italians roast lighter than their southern counterparts. Contrary to the “Italian espresso” roast profile stereotype in America, the typical roast is medium to moderately dark brown with some second crack signs and almost no detectable oil on its surface (about an Agtron #45, in some roaster circles).
What’s undoubtedly most surprising from this list is how highly I rate Illy, let alone Lavazza. As I suspected at the Lisbon Espressamente last year, Illy coffee seems fresher and produces a much better cup in Italy than when shipped overseas — despite all their freshness quality controls. (Though I was just shipped a can of Danesi from their Northern California distributor, and I was truly amazed at what crema I could get out of an imported can.)
This also follows a preference pattern I noticed among the Piemontese. While some held local “artisan” roasters (such as MoKafè or Ponchione) with particularly high regard, in general the idea of buying from a local roaster was not nearly as compelling here as it is in the U.S. Part of that could be that the entire nation is about the size of Arizona. But I also got the sense that some of the bigger roasters, such as Illy and Lavazza, made such big investments in quality controls that “big national name brand” weren’t dirty words.
As for espresso machines, I came across some machines from Faema and fewer from Gaggia, La San Marco, and La Spaziale. The lion’s share was clearly La Cimbali. This made me recall the residents of Porto, Portugal (which I liken as a sister city to Torino) who originally called espresso “cimbalinho” in reference to all the La Cimbali equipment first introduced there.
In the coming weeks, we’ll publish a series of individual Piemonte/Torino café reviews and link back to them below here for reference.
|Name||Address||City||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Baratti & Milano†||Piazza Castello, 27/29||Torino||7.60||8.50||8.050|
|Caffè Al Bicerin||Piazza della Consolata, 5||Torino||6.00||7.20||6.600|
|Caffè Carpano||Via Nizza, 224||Torino||8.00||8.20||8.100|
|Caffè Mulassano†||Piazza Castello, 15||Torino||8.40||8.20||8.300|
|Caffè Platti†||Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 72||Torino||7.50||8.00||7.750|
|Caffè San Carlo||Piazza San Carlo, 156||Torino||7.00||8.50||7.750|
|Caffè Torino||Piazza San Carlo, 204||Torino||7.90||8.20||8.050|
|Caffè Vittorio Veneto||Via Po, 52/E||Torino||7.00||7.80||7.400|
|Neuv Caval’d Brôns†||Piazza San Carlo, 155||Torino||7.20||8.50||7.850|
|San Tommaso 10||Via San Tommaso, 10||Torino||8.20||8.30||8.250|
|Torrefazione Contrada San Filippo||Via Maria Vittoria, 21/A||Torino||8.00||7.80||7.900|
|Ben Tivoglio Cafè||Corso Nino Bixio, 44||Alba||7.70||8.50||8.100|
|Caffè Calissano||Piazza Risorgimento, 3||Alba||6.60||8.00||7.300|
|Casa del Caffè Vergnano||Via Cavour, 11||Alba||7.10||7.80||7.450|
|Golosi di Salute||Piazza Rossetti, 6||Alba||7.70||8.50||8.100|
|Pasticceria Cignetti||Via Vittoria Emanuele II, 3||Alba||7.00||7.00||7.000|
|Vincafè||Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 12||Alba||7.00||7.00||7.000|
|Bar Lo Stregatto||Via dei Cappellai, 1||Asti||7.00||7.50||7.250|
|Caffè Ponchione||Corso Vittorio Alfieri, 149||Asti||7.80||8.00||7.900|
|Pasticceria Converso Bra†||Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 199||Bra||8.30||8.50||8.400|
|Guido Ristorante Pollenzo||Via Fossano, 19||Pollenzo||7.50||8.20||7.850|
|Strumia†||Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 9||Sommariva del Bosco||8.20||8.00||8.100|
† — Rated one of the top 18 cafés in all Italy by the 2007 & 2008 Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso (3 tazzine and 3 chicchi)
Imagine a sort of twisted, parallel universe where CoffeeRatings.com was born of a chauffeured limousine driving about the city, shuttling me from café to café on an itemized list in search of SF’s finest espresso. Now imagine this endeavor sponsored by a leading purveyor of cheap plastic and metal, responsible for more kitchen appliances in our world’s landfills than any other company on the planet. Then imagine this happening in Toronto instead of here, and you’ve pretty much got today’s read: Krups Cup of Excellence – Suggested Itineraries – Martiniboys.com.
“Recruit a crew of coffee connoisseurs, supply them with a short list of cafés to visit within a day, and limo-chauffer them from café to café on a search for the city’s most quality-driven coffee house,” reads the plan. By this method, the article comes up with a few interesting suggestions for the “undiscovered” Toronto espresso. But given how I’ve held myself to no more than four espresso tastings in a day — to avoid taste bud fatigue, not to mention over-caffeination — do you think I could get Krups to spot me four months of personal limo service?
I could even rideshare with Willie Brown if need be. Hey, it’s gotta be faster than MUNI.
Now that I am back from my two weeks in Piemonte, Italy — recovering from jet lag and a major caffeine bender — this recently found article seemed like a good start to get back into the swing of things: Feeding My Coffee Addiction in Chile – The Santiago Times – English Language Newspaper in Santiago, Chile – News in Chile and Latin America.
In it, an Australian — who, IMO, spends a bit too much time trying to convince us of his nation’s coffee snobbery pedigree — shares some of his favorite cafés serving good espresso in Santiago, Chile. In downtown Santiago’s fashionable Bellas Artes neighborhood, in specific. Whatever you think, it has to beat the alternative of “a plastic packet, a cup of hot water and a stirrer” — where powdered milk and sugar are already pre-mixed in the stuff.
As for Piemonte, I’m sitting on a bundle of reviews and photos — which I unfortunately have to save for posting later, over time, and when I am more lucid. Until then, I’ll leave you with a photo from outside one of my favorite cafés in the area (this week as in my last visit in 2004): Caffè Mulassano in Torino.
More of a financial/business article, it discusses Illy’s role in the world of specialty coffee — touching on Illy’s technical innovations (some of them regrettable, IMO), brand positioning, and even Mr. Illy’s belief that Fair Trade is “a marketing business” with an unsustainable system that doesn’t reward quality (Illy follows more of the Direct Trade model). And while Illy isn’t gunning to dilute themselves like Starbucks, they have significant expansion plans in mind — whether to compete with Nestlé over the coffee pod market or to expand into the high-end café market with Espressamente.
For the past few days here in Alba, Italy, I’ve been sampling a number of the notable local offerings: from Antico Caffè Calissano and Pasticceria Bar Cignetti (each of whom serve Alba’s local MoKafè), to Vincafè (and their use of Asti’s SlowFood-friendly Caffè Torrefazione Ponchione), to Alba’s installation of Casa del Caffè Vergnano 1882 (selling on-site roasting of Caffè Vergnano beans), and to the many local dining establishments that serve that home province king, Lavazza. The espresso is solid and quite good just about anywhere here. However, the best I’ve had thus far in this gourmet-food-obsessed town comes from the Gambero Rosso-honored, locals-only Ben Tivoglio Cafè that — surprise, surprise — serves Illy under heavy branding. There’s often something about Illy if it doesn’t have to leave the continent.
More for a future post…
Here’s an appropriate story, given my current location in Alba, Piemonte — about 40 miles from Torino. Earlier this week, Reuters published an article on Michele Mastrantuono, one of Lavazza‘s official coffee tasters: A day in the life of an Italian coffee taster | Lifestyle | Living | Reuters. Mr. Mastrantuono performs quality control on Lavazza’s coffee supplies, and he can guess the origin of any among some 100 different coffee varieties.