Coffee was first brought to Italy by Venetian merchants in the late sixteenth century. It came from Constantinople, where it had arrived 30 years earlier from Egypt. Since then, caffé ristretto – very strong, very concentrated and very black – has been a habitual element at the Italian breakfast table, especially in the south of the country. ‘A Neapolitan coffee packs the kick of a mule; It keeps you going, and at minimal cost.’ writes the Australian writer and gastronome Peter Robb (Midnight in Sicily, New York, 1999).
It’s hard to think of a beverage that has sparked so much curiosity and triggered so much controversy. Comment isn’t confined to the gustatory dimension alone. In The Day of the Owl (1961), Leonardo Sciascia draws comparisons between espresso coffee and organized crime.
Maybe all of Italy is becoming a Sicily … A thought came to me, when I was reading in the papers about the scandals of the regional government: scientists say the palm tree line, that is the climate favorable to the palm tree form of vegetation, is creeping northward at the rate, I think, of five hundred meters every year … The palm tree line … I prefer to call it the short black coffee line, the line of the really strong coffee, of scandals: onward and upward through Italy, and it’s already past Rome …
Going back in time, in Old Calabria, the diary of a journey through the South of Italy in the early twentieth century, the English travel writer cum viveur, Norman Douglas, speaks disparagingly about the espresso.
Your ordinary employé begins his day with a thimbleful of black coffee, nothing more. What work shall be got out of him under such anti-hygienic conditions? … One would like to know for how much black brooding and for how many revengeful deeds that morning thimbleful of black coffee is responsible.
Be that as it may, in Edoardo de Filippo’s comedy Questi fantasmi (Ghosts – Italian-style), the protagonist, presumably one of the ordinary employés referred to by Douglas, speaks to a neighbor from his the balcony as he waits for the coffee to spurt out of his caffettiera alla napoletana. ‘I’d be prepared to give up everything except this cup of coffee out here on the balcony after an hour’s post-prandial nap,’ he exclaims.
Two diametrically opposed opinions, then: for Douglas, strong coffee is bad; for de Filippo, nothing is better. Who knows how the two would have reacted to Espesso by Lavazza & Ferran Adrià, a new invention about to revolutionize the world of coffee. Why? Because Espesso is literally a solid espresso. You don’t drink it, you eat it (with a dessert spoon, to be precise).
The creation is the fruit of a collaboration between the famous Turin-based coffee-producer Gruppo Lavazza and Ferran Adrià, the young Spanish chef (‘one of the world’s best if the judgment of a number of authoritative colleagues is anything to go by) and co-owner of the El Bulli restaurant at Roses Girona on Spain’s Costa Brava.
If Lavazza and Ferran Adrià have a common denominator, it’s their penchant for research. Lavazza boasts a long tradition in this respect. For over a century (since 1894, when founder Luigi Lavazza started the business in the old historical center of Turin),
the company has cultivated the art of coffee-roasting and blending, while for the last 20 years it has operated a Training Center, a sort of ‘coffee laboratory’ where it develops new products, tests unorthodox combinations and trains future technicians and experts.
Ferran Adrià also has a laboratory – his brother Albert’s restaurant in Barcelona – where he tries out all his culinary alchemies. It was there that he perfected his innovative and often provocative use of foams and mousses. Appropriately enough, in an article in Gambero Rosso in August 1998, Stefano Bonilli wrote that ‘At El Bulli, the soda siphon is the most important utensil in the kitchen’.
Adrià is a great lover of textura, the consistency of food. In his book, Los secretos de el Bulli: recetas, técnicas ey reflexiones (1998), he writes that,
When food enters the mouth, the tactile sensation we perceive, after appreciating the temperature, is the texture. In many cases, we don’t want to taste a dish, not because we don’t like the taste, but because we find its texture unappetizing.
To date, the structural evolution of Adrià’s inventions has tended to move from solid to liquid. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that over the last few years his signature dishes, such as Minestra en textura (Deconstructed vegetable soup) and Espuma di patata con trufa de verano (Potato mousse with summer truffle), have acquired cult status. Hence the novelty of Espesso’s going in the opposite direction: from liquid to solid, that is.
Anyone wishing to taste the revolutionary Espesso by Lavazza & Ferran Adrià may do so at Slow Food’s forthcoming Salone del Gusto, to be held in Turin in Italy, from October 24-28. A chance not to be missed!
John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food www.slowfood.com website