S.P.Q.R.

Four letters that bring to mind the Roman Empire and which are equally commonplace around the modern city, but how many of those familiar with the abbreviation know what it represents? Even forty years after my school years I remember Senatus Populus Que Romanus, which simply means The Senate and People of Rome, and for once is a good literal representation of my topic.  (Ironically it was a statement about democracy in a city that was ruled over by despots in various guises for centuries thereafter)

Like the UK, the Italian Parliament consists of two houses; one of which, the senate, is located in a 16th century former Medici palace; Palazzo Madama, though in these times of heightened terror threats you notice the security measures before you take in the 17th Century facade. Besides which, this post isn’t about the Senate.

Nor is it about the nearby Pantheon, arguably the most impressive Roman building in the city. Completed in the 2nd century it has been in continuous use as temple and now church, and boast what is still the world’s largest roof made from unreinforced concrete.

Between these two grand edifices is a more modest enterprise (especially on my visit when much of the exterior was boarded up).  A caffé in what is little more than a back alley of the Senate building that when opened in the 1930’s was probably very modern, but which is now very not.  But you’re not there for the decor.

You might be there for the location; for if you’re a reporter its a good spot to buttonhole a politician on his or her way for lunch, and if you’re a people watcher much of the flow of human traffic between Pantheon and that other great tourist magnet the Piazza Navona will pass this way.

But really you should be there for the coffee.  Caffé Sant’Eustachio (named after the nearby church) treats its coffee differently.  They are passionate advocates of ethical trading and source their coffee carefully in South America, predominantly Brazil, but then there is a secret to how they make it.  I should stress at this point that I’m talking espresso at this point, for though you can purchase all the usual suspects there, it is the espresso that is something special.

Clearly displayed on the walls are warnings that if you don’t want sugar you need to say so.  I don’t usually add sugar to my drinks, but espresso is the exception as I believe that the rich black intensity needs to be sweet too.  Here in Sant’Eustachio it is intrinsic to how they make it, and though the process is shielded by the positioning of the coffee machines, somehow they beat the sugar into the coffee to produce not only a delicious caffé, but one which has a thick foam at the top.  Not just a crema, but something more akin to a cappuccino foam; thick and firm enough to survive the consumption of the coffee and needing the intervention of a spoon!

A great place for people watching, and perhaps the caffé is the real reason there are so many here.

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A Tale of Two Coffees

 

Like any Italian city, Genoa has a plethora of options when you need caffeine and Italia has some great institutions who have made it an art form; Florian in Venezia, Gilli in Firenze for example, and so when my guide to the essentials for 48 hours in Genoa included a stop at the city’s oldest caffè, I had high expectations.  Though I wasn’t relying on Lonely Planet at the time, they offer this description:

Pre-dating cappuccinos, Klainguti opened in 1828 and its Mittel European charms, and presumably its strudel and pastries, had Verdi and Garibaldi coming back for more. Waiters in bow ties toil under an impressive chandelier and the decor is a fabulous, if tatty, mid-century historical pastiche.

I was expecting something ostentatious then; perhaps polished fittings and woodwork seasoned by the thousands of hands that had rested on the counter in the nearly 200 years of service.  I walked past it three times before I recognised it, and when I did enter I was so underwhelmed that I failed to notice the chandelier.  The waiters wore matching burgundy waistcoats and aprons but no bow ties, and whilst I might agree with “tatty”, I wouldn’t have stretched to “fabulous”.

 

I probably wasn’t seeing it at its best. It was a cold grey morning and if might borrow from Python’s Cheese Shop, it was largely uncontaminated by customers.  Nor was my colazione particularly impressive.  The place felt like a stage set, designed to create an impression of age so long as you didn’t apply too much scrutiny.  I didn’t even bother photographing the counter, though a less jaundiced blogger has done so here  if you’re interested.

Maybe my problem lies with its heritage.  It just didn’t feel Italian, and of course the name, and it’s founding date point back to a period when Austria had been an occupying force here.  Still the Viennese have a reputation in the field of cafe und kuchen so that’s no excuse.

Klainguti was full of mirrors which bounced around a strange yellow light (correcting this in my pictures was a bit of a challenge) which is ironic since my favourite caffè in Genoa was Caffè degli Specchi (Cafe of the Mirrors), or as the sign outside quotes from Italian poet Dino Campana:

In my pidgin Italian, I understood this as meaning “Within the porcelain grotto I watched the proprietor grind coffee while the crowd grew” – please feel free to correct me Stacy di Anna Pollard!

It certainly seemed fitting for two reasons:

  • despite the reference to mirrors in the establishment’s name, it was the tiled ceiling that really drew my attention, and
  • there was no shortage of customer contamination here! 

Now you’re talking Italian Caffè culture, and it being nearly Christmas at the time, they even brought a touch of the festive season to the experience.

It’s The Real Thing

In the UK the coffee market is booming.

According to a report in the Financial Times last year we consume 1.7bn takeaway coffees each year from 18,000 retail outlets, and it seems we haven’t reached saturation point.  Gregg’s (the bakers) and JD Wetherpoon (the pub chain) want our custom too and it’s expected that in the next 5 years there will be almost 21,000 places to get our caffeine hit.Bologna

Most of those coffees sold will be in large cardboard cups with plastic lids, and whilst when I say large we still haven’t reached American size servings, but Costa’s Massimo is apparently 20 0z.  A pint.  Really?  A pint of coffee?

Perhaps this just offends me as a lover of tiny espressos, but my usual choice is a cappuccino, which when served from one of those big chains becomes a large cup of foamed milk with a submerged shot of bitterness in the bottom.  Why did that become the acceptable option?  I guess the global power of Starbucks is the answer to that question.

Costa promote themselves as “Britain’s favourite coffee shop”.  I’m not sure on what basis they claim that status – is it because they sell the most, which would hardly be surprising since their outlets are ubiquitous, or because the nation prefers their product to the alternatives?  I find it hard to believe it’s the latter.

Costa of course is an Italian name, and so it alludes to authenticity in their offering.  The language of coffee is Italian; espresso, cappuccino, Americano, latte are all familiar to us, but in Italy you can add in ristretto and corretto.   All very well until you remember that Costa is simply a brand belonging to Whitbread, the former brewers who also brought us Premier Inn and Brewer’s Fayre.  Not quite so Italian.
And so to my recent visit to Bologna, a city that thrives on food
production, but the emphasis on taste doesn’t stop there.IMG_2064

Order a coffee here and you get something very different to the bland milkiness of the cardboard cup.  A cappuccino is still made with foamed milk, but not so much as to dissipate the flavour of the espresso at its heart.  And that flavour is important.  So much so that to ensure you can fully enjoy it, you will also be served a small shot glass with each coffee you purchase; not full of grappa (unless you specified caffe corretto) but of water, and probably sparkling water.  It’s the perfect palate cleanser so you can taste your small, flavoursome, and often beautifully presented coffee.

Another reason for me to love this country.  Now what to have with it…?_PW_4826.jpg

 

Coffee (Habana 13)

In my time in Tanzania I witnessed coffee growing at a subsistence level; small family operations gathering fruit from a few plants, stoning the cherries, and drying the resulting “beans” in the sun until they resembled small white pebbles which they could then sell to a local cooperative. Hard to imagine that in the context of global trade, yet coffee is one of the most valuable exported commodities. Largely produced in developing countries and mostly consumed in the richer industrialised nations.

So I wasn’t surprised to find that Cuba is a coffee producing nation, though I had no idea as to its quality until I had lunch with a young French woman called Geraldine who had emigrated to the country. I had a fascinating conversation with her about several aspects of Cuban life, which I ended by asking “What is the one thing you would say that I absolutely must do before I leave Havana?”

She asked me if I’d been to Café O Reilly, a relatively sophisticated bar (by Havana standards) on a street with the same Irish name. (Which came first?)
She told me that this was the best place to buy coffee with my tourist pesos (there are two currencies in use in Cuba). I confessed that though I’d lunched there the previous day I had not partaken of their speciality (unless you count the coffee and lemon daiquiri that I consumed) but had noticed them selling freshly milled coffee to other customers.

As we had both finished our lunch and paid she said she would treat me to something special and took me to the bar of La Luz, a bar not selling alcohol but coffee, and a place that I had noticed packed with Habaneros every time I passed.

Behind the ‘L’-shaped counter a man was washing small white coffee cups while chatting to the eager masses of his audience and ensuring that he took payment from all of those present. He then dealt the cups to all around the counter and poured rich black coffee into each. A few sugar dispensers of the type found in 60’s coffee bars were passed around and it was time to taste his product…

…and it was delicious. As good as any espresso I’ve tasted. Geraldine had paid on my behalf as promised and in national pesos, the currency used by Cubans. Actually my use of the plural is incorrect. After a little Gallic charm she was given her coffee free of charge, so she paid only a single peso for mine.

The cost of this black nectar? Roughly equivalent to 3p!

Geraldine was reluctant to be photographed.  Not so these guys!

Havana-7