I just completed a whirlwind two-week vacation in Italy, with family in tag. That includes my seven-year-old son who still thinks Francesco Bernoulli would appear in Formula-1 next year, and my thirteen-year-old daughter whose primary purpose of the vacation was to try out some shopping in Milan. The last time I visited Italy was in 2010, when I made an overnight train trip to Rome from Paris. The train was late by half a day due to a fire in the mountains, and the trip was more memorable for the journey than the destination. How many times do you travel with someone who reads Tagore in a foreign land? The primary reason for any travel is to get to know the people of a new place through what they create. Art, food, and other things of interest. This time it was coffee.
All along my life, I might have been drinking holy cow piss, believing it to be coffee. The realization hits when you have your first espresso in Italy and life is never the same again. There are no bad coffee bars in Italy, only the good, the great, and the holy grail. Coffee making has been reduced in Italy to the bare minimum. Just a thimblefull of espresso, with a healthy head of crema. Not a hint of bitterness. You won’t find it, no matter how hard you try. Served always in a tiny ceramic mug, always with a spoon. No, not those pesky plastic spoons. Real spoons in steel. Sugar within arms length – white, brown, and low-cal for people who shouldn’t be drinking coffee in the first place. Served always by a cheerful, well dressed barista, no matter what time of the day. Even when they throw the coffee in your face, it is always in a cheerful manner. All the coffee machines I have seen have all been squeaky clean. These guys love their coffee, and their coffee machines. Every time you ask for a ‘caffe’ and the barista knows you are a tourist, the next question invariably is if you want an espresso or an americano. I don’t know how the heck espresso with milk became americano! The guys in the new world are still drinking litres of french press loaded with god knows what. Smokey mountain blue coffee? I never found that in Italy. I guess the Italians believe all tourists are americanos. It was a little triumph when on the final day of the vacation I asked for ‘caffe’ and the espresso arrived with no further questions. It might have been a case of a sloppy barista, for it was 5 am. It was also Milan. So I guess these guys are used to overseas business travelers, for a change.
When I came back to Qatar I immediately felt a little nostalgic about coffee (the fact is I started having cravings). I went to a popular coffee bar with a large green logo of an enlightened woman. It looked like the woman in the logo was being electrocuted by the coffee. I almost felt like killing the barista, if you could call them so. They shout terms like talle, grande, doppio all around the place and pride themselves in having invented a new lingua franca for coffee. If you really want to know, the Italians never shout around orders. You pay for your coffee and ‘you’ shout your order to the barista. Usually it is just handing over the bill and mumbling ‘caffe’. The espresso came in a paper cup. Espresso in a paper cup! That itself would have been sacrilege. I ordered for a single shot and the volume was more like a doppio. People in Qatar probably like more coffee, you see, since they pay twice for their coffee compared to their european brethren. To compensate, the coffee was actually half the strength. You can’t have it both ways, can you? I had to mix the sugar with a wooden stick. A wooden stick! I asked for a spoon and they showed me one that wouldn’t fit in the cup. You could go all the way to Nicaragua, dodging bullets and all, embrace the coffee growers and teach them to grow your special blend, and finally when it comes to delivery, throw it all in one stroke by putting a wooden stick of unknown origin to mix the sugar. I guess the idea was to imbibe a 12-year-old oak flavor in the coffee. I would like to keep paper and wood away from my coffee, and for that matter anyone’s coffee. The coffee (if you could call it) was so bitter, bat’s droppings probably tastes better. In future, I’ll just stick to lattes. I need that healthy dose of sugared milk to mask the malodorous foul coffee. You can call me Indian for preferring milk with coffee.