Italy’s ‘Espresso-strength’ Coffee Culture

By Grace Baxendine

Whether enjoyed in a café or at home, coffee for Italians is less of an act and more of an art.

As a language student, this is perhaps one of the most obvious points of culture to comment on, but rightly so. If you want to avoid appearing a stereotypical caricature of ‘the foreigner’ when navigating Italy’s cafés, or even living amongst Italians, there are some incredibly different customs to observe, and, in some cases, obey. Although it may be prepared very differently, for Italians from all corners of the country, coffee is a shared passion. This was made obvious for me after a single day of living with Italians from opposite ends of the country – one from Puglia, (the boot toe) and another from Trento (practically Slovenia). Back home, I was borderline obsessed with coffee, however nothing could have prepared me for the coffee lessons and explanations that I’ve learnt, and I am still encountering daily.

First lesson. Instant coffee is a cardinal sin.

I understand how incredibly dramatic this may sound, but I cannot express the disgust on my new flatmates’ faces as I placed the only jar of instant coffee I could find in the local supermarket on the kitchen shelf.

It is simply not used in Italy. The moka, however, is a household essential here, unlike the kettle and instant coffee combination we favour in the UK. My first few days in Italy taught me to use this fantastic contraption which creates the most wonderful, smooth, strong coffee. The powdered coffee used is no more expensive than instant and really does make for a much tastier drink! One thing is for sure: on my return to Birmingham next September, I will certainly be investing in a moka!

Drinking coffee when out is an altogether different matter. It of course differs considerably from the UK, but also from region to region. Padova, for instance, a forward thinking, eco-city complied of students, is a world away from a southern city like Napoli, or so I discovered visiting a friend there a few weeks ago. Unlike in Padova, coffee shops don’t really exist south of Rome, or at least not in the same way. There’s less sitting around for hours, chatting with a mug the size of a large Costa latte. It would be more apt to describe the process as walking into a bar, saying ‘’un caffè’’, stirring two large spoonsful of sugar for thirty seconds into your espresso cup before necking it and walking out. It seems more of a practical caffeine boost than a sociable habit. My Pugliese flatmate agrees with my observation, explaining the difference between Bari, in the deep south of Italy and Padova. Coffee doesn’t seem to be as much of a sit-down affair in the South as it is in the North.

Undeniably, coffee is culturally very different here in Italy and to me it seems that we English are missing a trick! Let’s ditch the instant coffee and embrace the moka!

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