Friday, November 26, 2010

Neapolitan Coffee History... with a Kiss

This Completes My Tour Of Espresso Twists:  Although I boldly traced the beginnings of coffee on the European continent to the Medical School of Salerno in the 12th century, coffee scholars maintain that if coffee was used in the Campania region, then it remained only for home use or quickly disappeared due to its high cost.  (The beans would have come from the port town of Mocha in Yemen, the first coffee trading city in the world.)

Once the beverage disappeared, the traveler from Rome, Pietro de Valle, during the 17th century thought he was the first to discover coffee in Constantinople.  He wrote about the beverage to his friend in Naples, speaking of the dark brew as though it didn't exist on the European continent.  After de Valle not much was written about coffee as it related to Naples, probably because coffee house culture didn't take hold in this region.  Caffe Florian in Venice was considered one of the first coffee houses on the continent, established in 1720, but generally, the Italian lands didn't take to the cafe culture either.  Meanwhile, coffee houses blazed a trail of popularity in Austria, France, England and the United States.  Some coffee scholars even claim that the French Revolution came about due to coffee house culture.

In the early 1900's northern Italians invented the espresso machine and a new kind of coffee culture was born within the boundaries of the new country of Italy.  The Neapolitans, however, mostly used the French-invented Flip-Over Coffee Pot in their homes.  Only in the 1960's did actor Eduardo de Filippo associate the pot with Naples and Neapolitan culture.  His description of Neapolitan coffee -- dark, semi-sweet, and tasting like chocolate -- is what most roasters in the South try to achieve in taste today.  What's more, 75% of coffee drinking still takes place in the home with Cafe do Brasil the leader of coffee roasters in southern Italy.  The Moka, however, has replaced the Flip-Over Coffee Pot as the a popular stove-top brewing coffee pot and can be found in nearly every home.

Moka Pots and Neapolitan Flip-Over Coffee Pots on display

Today also, the coffee house culture in Naples remains unimpressive.  Businessmen don't sit down at a cafe with their laptops, college students don't linger by themselves at a table doing homework, and mothers don't bring their children for a playdate to a cafe.  More frequently, the cafe-bar provides a quick sip-and-go at a counter.  The emphasis isn't on lingering, but rather on taste.  Choosing a local roaster is important to cafe-bars and variations on the espresso is meant for those with a refined sweet-tooth.  Espresso twists are in the aristocratic and wealthy tradition of Vincenzo Corrado and Domenico Barbaja, sometimes so rich that they taste more like drinkable desserts.

Because coffee history in Naples is somewhat thin, the beverage can be considered more of a modern drink -- providing the cultural top-layer of a city that boasts being one of the oldest in Europe.  Riccardo Dalisi is the modern artist who fuses this modern and Neapolitan traditional culture together in his Alessi version of the Neapolitan Flip-Over Coffee Pot.

Unlike my other tours, espresso twists in Naples cannot be enjoyed as a one or two day tour.  (At least, I won't recommend or condone one day's intake of 12,000 calories and 2,300 mm of caffeine!) But as a finale to my Espresso Break Tour, here is my absolute, best of the best, top pick for THE Naples cafe and their fabulous coffee drink:

Intra Moenia sits right next to the excavated Greek foundations of Naples.  The cafe-bookstore has its own publishing house and is frequented by artists and students.  A reigning favorite on the menu is Caffe al Bacio (coffee with a kiss).

The barista coats a brandy glass with syrupy nutella.  She then adds a healthy shot of espresso and a dollop of milk foam.  Cocoa flakes sprinkle the top.  It’s expected that you’ll stir the hot beverage for a long time before taking it down in four or five gulps.  Caffe al Bacio also comes with an auditory twist.  Intra Moenia is one block away from the music conservatory, so often a soprano practices her scales from an open second story window while you drink to her tunes.

For more about coffee history in general, my favorite book is:  Uncommon Grounds:  The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast

No comments: