Bear with me while I reminisce about my first. I remember it distinctly: that very first sip of coffee with milk frothed up by way of pressurized steam.
Some of my earliest recollections revolve around the time I learned from my parents that we’d be leaving our home in Wichita, Kansas, to move to Greece. The idea was very confusing to me. I was four years old and fairly confident that Greece was a blob in a frying pan, not a habitable location.
Spoiler Alert: I was wrong.
An Intro to Café Culture
We moved to Athens. Everything was so new and different. It was the first time I could recall having encountered something along the lines of café culture. In those days I was too young to have been able to form any such concept of lifestyles and how they differ based on culture — yet still, I had noticed a difference.
The streets were full of people. People out walking or shopping at local markets. People who enjoyed watching people. Lively social interactions were part of the daily street scene. Life in Athens was livelier and more pedestrian-centric than what I had been used to in small-town, USA. (Not that I was drawing on much experience at that point in time.)
Now back to that first sip. I think I was already five by then, and we were getting settled into life abroad.
I was with my parents and sisters in a public gathering place — let’s call it a coffeehouse or café — but I did not know what a cappuccino was. My parents had each ordered the frothy beverage, and it looked so inviting, so tempting, so… YUMMY.
I begged them to let me have some. Eventually they gave in and allowed me a sip. I carefully held the warm cup with both hands and drew it in. What I imagined as a sort of chocolate-infused liquid-marshmallow mix touched my lips, it approached my taste buds, and… and…
It was GROSS!
It was NOT yummy.
It had tricked me with its frothy veneer!
It was bitter, not sweet like a hot chocolate, which I had been expecting. Cappuccino-Fappuccino. What a letdown that was.
Fast-forward twenty years. I had become an adult who could appreciate the value of good coffee. My taste buds had matured.
And now, you know, I’m all about that cappuccino. Or espresso.
In college, I had my first opportunity to partake in the Italian varietal on a school-organized trip to Venice, Florence, and Rome. To be brief, Italy was magical, and the coffee was divine. I was a convert from the get-go, ever-so convinced that the Italians know what they’re doing when they’re brewing.
To be honest, I didn’t really know much about the cult of coffee then. But I felt I knew enough: that I just had to trust my own taste buds. And it made sense. Italy and coffee kind of go hand in hand.
For starters, let’s look at the etymology.
The words we use to place our caffeinated-beverage orders are Italian. My dictionary tells me that the use of “cappuccino” and “espresso” in English dates from the 1940s, taken from the Italian language.
“Cappuccino” is derived from the Italian word, “Capuchin,” because it resembles the color of a Franciscan Capuchin friar’s habit. And “espresso,” is from “caffè espresso,” meaning “pressed out coffee” in Italian, which describes the process, whereby steam is forced through ground coffee beans.
Although in Italy, they would not call it an espresso, but would simply refer to it as “un caffè.”
Personally, I’m more inclined to order a latte these days. Short for caffè latte, it’s also Italian: “latte,” meaning milk. Knowing the etymology of your favorite drink may be nonessential trivia, but it’s something to ponder the next time you’re waiting to place an order with your barista (Italian for barman).
Fun Facts: If you ask for a latte in Italy, you'll get a glass of milk. Be sure to specify that you'd like a "caffè latte" to get some caffeine with your milk. In German, "Latte" is a colloquialism for "erection." Ask for a latte in Germany, and you might get more than you bargained for.
Yet — while the coffee lingo is Italian — the origins go back further (chronologically) and farther (geographically).
Mocha Choca Lata Ya Ya
The probable birthplace of the coffee plant is southern Abyssinia, today’s Ethiopia, but the earliest documentation of its use as a popular beverage points to Arabia, where coffee seeds were first roasted and brewed, specifically in Yemen.
Thanks, Yemen! We truly appreciate your contribution to humankind. Especially at 7am.
Interestingly, the Mocha variety of coffee bean stems from the Yemeni town of Mocha, on the southwest coast of Yemen, where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea. And while the chocolate-flavored drink (Caffè mocha) was a subsequent development, it can thank Mocha, Yemen, for its name. Think about that the next time you’re singin’ “mocha choca lata ya ya.”
From Yemen, the popularity of coffee spread across Arabia, and throughout the Ottoman Empire. Some sources say that the first coffee shop opened in Constantinople in 1457, while others claim that date is off by almost one hundred years, and that it wasn’t until 1554. Others contend it was actually in Damascus in 1530 that the first coffeehouse opened.
What we do know is that for a while it was dangerous to be caught coffee-handed. In 17th-Century Turkey one sultan was hell bent on eliminating consumption of the aromatic brew. Consequently, “unfortunate coffee drinkers were decapitated as they sipped.” Off with their heads! Given how popular coffee is in Turkey today, the sultan’s tactic obviously did not work.
Kahwa, Koffie, Kahveh, Coffee?
Getting back to etymology for a bit, let’s examine the origins of the word itself. Referencing my handy dictionary again, we can see how “coffee” made its way into the English language: “from Turkish kahveh, from Arabic ḳahwa, probably via Dutch koffie.”
The language morphed along the trade routes in a way: spreading from Arabia through Turkey, reaching continental Europe, continuing north of the Alps, and beyond. With trade between Venice, The Middle East, and North Africa thriving, those brown beans sure did get around.
By the end of the 1500s coffee had made its way to Italy. For a bit of chronological perspective, Columbus had reached the Americas before coffee had arrived in Europe.
It wasn’t immediately welcomed with open arms or empty mugs. As the story goes, priests had petitioned Pope Clement VIII in 1600 to banish the “devil’s drink,” a supposed evil brought to the continent by Muslims. Legend has it that the Pope summoned a cup, partook, and declared: “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.”
If beheadings couldn’t stop coffee consumption in Constantinople, imagine what a Pope’s blessing would do? Coffee shops sprouted first in Italy (1645), then in England (1652), in Paris (1672), and, later in Berlin (1721).
And with the spread of coffee across countries, continents, and cultures, different traditions evolved. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” the old adage goes. Likewise, when in Turkey, one simply must sip a Turkish coffee: strong, smooth, bold, and with the grinds still in the cup.
Speaking of Turkish coffee, just FYI: the dregs at the bottom are not meant to be consumed. I’m not saying that because I learned it the hard way or anything.
In Vienna, coffee is embellished with a big dollop of whipped cream on top! And possibly also supplemented with some form or other of liqueur. We won’t judge if you order one before noon.
And perhaps it is while sitting in a Parisian café, watching the beautifully dressed people promenade down grand boulevards or quaint, narrow arcades, nursing a noisette, and thinking of the poets, thinkers, writers, and artists who’ve inhabited these places in the past where one truly feels a sense of joie de vivre.
Noisette, by the way, is espresso with “a spot of cream” and derives its name from “the French word for hazelnut because of its color.” Thanks for the explanation, Paris by Mouth!
Coffee Culture: All Roads Lead to Italy
And what of Italy’s coffee traditions? Well, Italians have very strict cultural rules about when and where what coffee is acceptable to drink.
Earlier this year, I rode the Bernina Express from Pontresina, Switzerland, to Lugano, Switzerland, with a brief lunch stop in the Italian town of Tirano. I tried to order a cappuccino with my Caprese salad and was immediately scolded by the youngish, blonde waitress for attempting to order such a peculiar combination.
Let’s just say that the look of disbelief (disgust?) on her face combined with the sound of dismay in her voice as she vigorously protested in a language I could not understand, encouraged me to reevaluate my decision.
Such an encounter would never have happened at home, in the US, where the-customer-is-always-right mentality reigns supreme.
In this case, though, I have to admit that she was right. And she had no qualms about letting me know it.
I ordered a vino bianco instead.
Last May, while assisting on a Rick Steves’ Heart of Italy tour for work, I was introduced to a caffè specimen I had never tasted before. The talented and entertaining David Tordi, lead guide of our tour, revolutionized my Italian coffee experience. He introduced me to caffè corretto — in other words: “corrected coffee!”
Who knew I had been drinking incorrect coffee all these years?
What is caffè corretto, you ask? It’s a shot of espresso with a smidge of grappa, sambuca, or brandy. I tried the sambuca version myself and immediately was a fan.
Keep in mind that sambuca is an anise-flavored liqueur. And like licorice, you either love anise or you hate it. If you fall into the latter category, it’s probably best to steer clear of sambuca and opt for a grappa or brandy corretto instead.
This year, not long after the Caprese kerfuffle, I found I had even more to learn about Italian coffee traditions and faux pas. The lesson came from another of our stellar guides, Sarah Corfield, on a Rick Steves’ Village Italy tour. A coffee with milk, she said, should only be enjoyed in the morning, and never after a meal.
Coffee According to the Italians
Apparently, a true Italian would never be caught indulging in cappuccino, caffé latte, latte macchiato, or other such milky concoctions, past noon (with the exception of a macchiato — an espresso coffee with only a small amount of milk). Only unenlightened tourists do that.
The reasoning? It’s bad for digestion, of course.
The Pedrocchi Café in Padua, where intellectuals and revolutionaries used to chill (without the Netflix). Try their specialty, Caffé Pedrocchi, a secret blend of coffee with mint-flavored cream, topped with a dash of cocoa. Delizioso!
Furthermore, the placing of über-complicated coffee orders is taboo in Italia. Contemplating a tall, decaf, double-shot, no-foam, coconut-milk latte with a pump of vanilla? Sei pazzo? Non ci pensa nemmeno. Don’t even think about it. You must be crazy.
So, hundreds of years in the making, Italy’s coffee traditions seem fairly well established, right? What could possibly change any of this?
Enter Sandman. Or, rather, Starbucks.
Italy will be getting its very first Starbucks early next year, 2017. Not to be overly dramatic, but the store, due to open in Milan, will mark the beginning of the end. “The end of what?” you may ask. The end of la résistance. Or, la Resistenza, in Italian.
England was the first European country to succumb to the jolly green mermaid, in 1998. Austria, Scotland, Switzerland, and Wales were next, in 2001. Germany, Greece, and Spain capitulated in 2002, with Cyprus and Turkey following suit in 2003.
(They’re falling like overly caffeinated flies!)
In 2004, Northern Ireland, and even France, gave up la résistance. With Ireland raising the white flag shortly after, in 2005. A tough blow was dealt in 2007 when Denmark, the Netherlands, Romania, and Russia admitted defeat. They consoled themselves over a Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte.
In 2008, Starbucks adopted a new mission statement: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” They could have substituted that last bit with “one country at a time.” That year, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, and Portugal also joined the Seattle-coffee bandwagon.
Then Poland, in 2009; Hungary and Sweden, in 2010; Finland and Norway, in 2012. Even glamorous Monaco laid out the red carpet for the green mermaid in 2013.
Next up on the horizon, in 2017, almost 20 years after England got its first Starbucks, Italy will conform to the trend.
Will this change Italy’s coffee culture? And if so, how?
A New Era of Coffee?
Will the Starbucks presence eventually be accepted in Italian culture? Or will it ultimately be phased out? As was the case with the Starbucks that opened in Beijing’s Forbidden City in 2000, only to be closed in 2007 due to local opposition saying it “marred the solemnity of the Forbidden City and undermined Chinese culture.”
Will Italians succumb to Starbucks’ counterintuitive ordering lingo, where a medium-sized cup is called a “Grande,” (meaning “large” in Italian), while the large-sized cup is called a “Venti,” (meaning “twenty” in Italian — referring to its 20-ounce size, even though Italians use liters to measure liquids, not ounces)?
Will Italians start placing super-complicated beverage orders, and will they start drinking milky Frappuccinos in the afternoon?
These are all very good questions. And nobody knows for sure what the answers will be. What are your thoughts on the matter? “When in Rome,” would you order a Starbucks? Or opt for something more traditional?
Perhaps it’s something best discussed over a cup of coffee.