December 2007

Monthly Archive

State may eye safety of caffeine in drinks

Posted by on 11 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

Being popular is hard. No, this isn’t the plot for the next Legally Blonde sequel; it’s the message our society sends when changes in popular consumer tastes inevitably raise questions of product safety.

A decade ago, the advent of cellular phones inspired a wave of fear mongering when the Paranoid Whack Jobs (henceforth referenced as PWJs) stepped in to tell us all that cell phones gave us brain cancer. Today, with the proliferation of Starbucks and rising global demand for quality coffee, many of those same PWJs are aiming their sights on caffeine.

At least the excuse behind the fabricated cell phone scare was a lack of any social history with the devices. However, caffeine and coffee have been tightly woven into popular culture for hundreds of years. So why are some PWJs acting so suddenly surprised by caffeine as if by some horrible new threat?

And while too much coffee or caffeine can clearly be a bad thing, isn’t that true for most anything without sensible moderation? Even fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and D, can cause liver and kidney damage from high doses of seemingly healthy vitamin supplements.

“I’m no scientist, but I play one on my blog”

And yet we’ve noticed more frequent reports of things like “coffee rage” reaching epidemic proportions in the U.K. — as if the Queen’s tea was always herbal. And closer to home in California, yesterday a state advisory board recommended a study of caffeine for potential Proposition 65 warning labels: The Associated Press: Calif. Board Suggests Study of Caffeine.

You could argue that there’s something of an odd anti-caffeine lobby forming out there — made of born again anti-caffeine zealots hoping to refashion the Temperance Movement of the 19th & 20th centuries in the form of the double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato. But I don’t mind those PWJs so much as the preposterous trend in this country towards mystic opinion and amateur science — if not outright anti-science.

We see this trend in the PWJs who, wielding their “far superior” armchair scientific research and statistical analysis skills, have authoritatively decided that immunizations cause rampant autism — trumping all the social benefits of child immunization programs throughout history. And while every PWJ is entitled to an opinion, it is a dangerous precedent when half-baked opinions influence public health and public policy. Just how long before we invoke the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Fortunately, there are scientifically educated voices out there to help separate fact from fantasy: More California Dreamin’: Proposition 65 and Caffeine > ACSH > Facts & Fears > Archives. The question is if anyone is listening. Because of natural human biological wiring that’s attuned to alarm us of potential threats, sensationalism and fear mongering sells. The rational person who says, “false alarm” offers little attention-grabbing interest to compete with that.

Trip Report: Bar Lo Stregatto (Asti, Italy)

Posted by on 08 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series returns to Asti, Italy for a café known more for its food than the espresso it serves per se. However, its espresso is good enough to have earned it a respectable 2 chicchi rating from Gambero Rosso (in addition to its 2 tazzine rating).

Entrance to Bar Lo Stregatto in Asti

This is a popular lunch spot with the locals. The friendly owners serve espresso from their two-group Faema E61 Legend at the bar. It has a darker crema with a large white spot, indicating some heat control issues, and the body could be thicker. It’s still a good cup, and it has a solid flavor of medium spice and some pepper. They use, and strongly support, Caffè Aymorè beans from an obscure roaster in Alessandria. Priced for the locals at €0.80 a tazzina.

Read the review of Bar Lo Stregatto.

Bar Lo Stregatto's Faema E61 Legend at work The Bar Lo Stregatto espresso

Trip Report: Baratti & Milano (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 06 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

We again return to Torino, Italy for our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series — this time for a review of Baratti & Milano, one of the top 18 cafés in all Italy as reviewed by the 2008 Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso (rated 3 tazzine and 3 chicchi).

Founded by Ferdinando Baratti and Edoardo Milano in 1858 as a cafeteria, it moved to its present café location in 1875 with the construction of the impressively classic Galleria Subalpina, which runs along its east side. To this day, while the café has windows facing the inside of the gallery, its entrance is exclusively from the arcades of Piazza Castello — a point known as Portici della Fiera.

Baratti & Milano from inside the Galleria Subalpina Inside the Galleria Subalpina, next to Baratti & Milano Movie poster for 1969's 'The Italian Job' - starring Torino and the Austin Mini

After several expansions and world wars, it has survived as a classical Torinese grand café with an emphasis on its production of confections. Today it may be known more for its chocolate (particularly Gianduiotti and Cremini, today made near the town of Bra) and old-school opulence, but they also roast their own beans for their coffee. Local SF specialty Italian grocer, A.G. Ferrari, carries many of their confections.

Baratti & Milano is a classic grand café with plenty of space, chandeliers, mirrors, dark wood, and old elegance. And perhaps almost as classic, the Galleria Subalpina was used for part of an infamous Austin Mini (today: Mini Cooper) car chase scene in the original 1969 production of The Italian Job. (IMO, it ran laps around Hollywood’s 2003 remake.)

Here’s the movie trailer:

And here are some of Baratti & Milano’s cameo scenes from the movie:
The Galleria Subalpina - as represented in 1969's 'The Italian Job'. Little has changed. Taking the stairs in the Galleria Subalpina

Racing past the Baratti & Milano window in the first photo Diner in front of Baratti & Milano about to lose her chicken

Yes, Torino, the Mini, and — at least to me — Baratti & Milano were immortalized in a Michael Caine classic (though what movie hasn’t he been in?) with perhaps the greatest car chase scene in British cinema history and a hip/cheesy lounge cat Quincy Jones soundtrack. How can you go wrong? Put it on your Netflix list.

Upon entering inside, past the counter of sweets, they use a red, four-group La Cimbali to pull espresso shots with a thinner, even, medium-to-dark brown crema. The shot is pulled a touch short, giving it a darker pungent flavor with a woody edge. Served in Schönhuber Franchi Baratti & Milano logo cups. Yet only a mere €0.90.

Read the updated review of Baratti & Milano.

Today's entrance to Baratti & Milano - sadly, no place to order chicken under the porticos Man behind the counter, Baratti & Milano

Baratti & Milano's La Cimbali The Baratti & Milano espresso

Madison, WI: In search of a good (small) cup

Posted by on 05 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Today’s Isthmus (Madison, WI) published an article discussing the classic Italian espresso, its merits, and how most of its American purveyors fail so miserably at it: Isthmus | The Daily Page – In search of a good (small) cup.

Going on a cappuccino crawl among twelve Madison, WI espresso bars, the article started with the local Starbucks‘ cappuccino standard: “no ceramic cups”…”12-ounce ‘tall’s”…”this is a latte”…”the milk was scalded”…”the color was like dishwater.” Surprised? Hardly.

The article pointed out how a proper cappuccino should be a mere five ounces — a point duly noted here before. Also noted by the author is our long-time lament about the importance of cups: “Indeed, the problems of American espresso have much to do with cups.” … “The smallest available cups were much larger than five ounces, and the baristas filled them to the rim.”

As for the five local cafés that made their cut: Mother Fool’s, Ancora, Espresso Royale, Ground Zero, and Steep & Brew.

Trip Report: Pasticceria Cignetti (Alba, Italy)

Posted by on 04 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Today we make a brief return to Alba, Italy for the latest stop in our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series. Pasticceria Cignetti is one among many boutique food shops along Alba’s pedestrian-only main street/fashion runway. But it is a good example of a local espresso at a place where the espresso isn’t exactly the primary focus. They earned a 2 tazzine, 2 chicchi rating in the 2008 Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso — and deservedly so.

As indicated by it’s name, it’s primarily a pastry shop. Inside it has several indoor café tables, it sells a variety of gourmet food items on its many shelves, and it also serves espresso at a small bar in the front.

The Pasticceria Cignetti storefront Pasticceria Cignetti's machine setup

Using a three-group M32 Classic La Cimbali machine, they produce espresso shots with a thinner layer of a mixed medium and some darker brown crema. It has a smoky flavor with some pungency and a medium body.

The staff here are apologetic that they don’t roast their own beans. But they were using local Mokafè beans at my visit, and they supposedly also rotate with Torrefazione Leprato in nearby Acqui Terme. One of the cheaper shots in town at €0.80.

Read the review of Pasticceria Cignetti.

The Pasticceria Cignetti espresso

Trip Report: Caffè Al Bicerin (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 01 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew

Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series next takes us to quite a historical café — and the closest thing to a tourist trap in Torino this side of the Holy Shroud. Caffè Al Bicerin was founded in 1763 as an apothecary shop and later remodeled as a café. But over the centuries it has remained a tiny, dark place with simple furnishings of wooden tables and benches.

We first wrote about this café for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. And it is no stranger to accolades — winning the coveted Gambero Rosso award for the best bar in Italy in 2000. In the Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2008, however, it rates 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi — dropping it just out of their top 18 and reflecting an absolutely justifiable downward correction on their espresso quality (though I would even take it a step further).

The Piazza della Consolata and Caffè Al Bicerin Façade of Caffè Al Bicerin

The most recent proprietor of Caffè Al Bicerin is Maritè Costa, who represents the latest in a series of women who have operated this café since it was first opened by a man. But this café owes its notoriety to its namesake drink, the bicerin. By around 1700, you could easily argue that the bavareisa was the official breakfast of the Torinese — a fashionable drink served in large glasses and consisting of coffee, chocolate, milk and syrup. (Chocolate was exclusively a beverage until the Torinese later popularized it in its present day solid form in chocolate bars, etc.)

Traditionally, these three ingredients were served separately, and the bavareisa initially combined them in three different variations: pur e fiur (today’s cappuccino), pur e barba (coffee and chocolate), and poc ‘d tut (a little of everything), which mixed all three. This last formula quickly became the most popular combination. A century later, this hot drink was named for the container in which it was most commonly served: a small glass with a metal base and handle known as bicerin. Though today it is served in small glasses throughout the city without handles.

Today the bicerin is served as a hot beverage with layers of coffee, liquid chocolate, and fior de latte (€4,50 at Caffè Al Bicerin) — the latter of which is much like the cream on the Irish Coffee at Buena Vista (but with better coffee and no booze). Although here they suggest that you do not stir (girare) it much, if at all, you’ll end up with a chocolate bomb at the bottom.

The cramped quarters inside Caffè Al Bicerin The serving bar inside Caffè Al Bicerin

As for the space itself, it is in an odd piazza — just behind the impressive Basilica della Consolata and just a couple blocks south of the shady street urchins along Corso Regina Margherita. The café itself is incredibly tight on indoor space — a few tables in a wooden, mirrored, cramped room — with more spacious outdoor seating under a couple of parasols in the pleasant piazza.

Using a new, two-group Faema at the bar/register, they serve espresso with a medium brown crema — mottled with a darker brown and with white heat spot. The resulting cup is a bit thin and tastes a little scorched (along with its relatively hot serving temperature). It tastes a little watery too, but at its base it has a pepper flavor with a slightly ashy edge. Served with a slightly large pour with a chocolate square on the side. A highway robbery at €1.70, since it also rated as one of the worst espresso examples we had in Torino — let alone Piemonte.

Read the review of Al Bicerin.

Bicerin Al Bicerin The Caffè Al Bicerin espresso

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