Last week I took a long, laptop-free weekend vacation in Rome. It was my first time in Italy and I had a blast. There were a lot of good things packed in there, from being in the middle of EuroPride to eating at a fantastic seafood restaurant. One thing that I had decided to do was to finally explore coffee. Drinking coffee is quintessentially Italian, and I figured “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” I’ve never been a fan of coffee – I’m a hardcore tea drinker. I’ve never understood everyone’s fascination with the bitter beverage, especially since the caffeine factor is a non-starter. I don’t get any particular kick out of caffeine until I have a lot of it, and when I do I go directly from nothing to pure jittery and feeling a little sick. I don’t drink anything for a “kick” since nothing works that way for me. So, my exploration of coffee is based purely on taste. And so far in my life, it hadn’t said much to my taste buds, but then again I’ve never really tried it with an open mind once I decided I hated it in my teenage years. Now was the time to try again.
I did a little research to even figure out what the hell everyone was talking about in the coffee world. Once I figured out that there is a difference between drip coffee (the stuff I was used to seeing and had learned to hate) and the espresso family, I tracked down descriptions of the common Italian coffees. I decided to start easy, with lots of milk, and work my way up to espresso. One thing I decided was that I wouldn’t use sugar. Something about sugar mixed with the bitterness of coffee makes it taste even worse to me. I wanted to get straight to the classic, unadulterated Italian style of coffee.
My mission before me, I landed in Rome and proceeded to drink my way from caffè latte to espresso (skipping a few along the way).
A caffè latte is pretty much a shot of espresso with a bunch of steamed milk in it; normally a 3 to 1 ratio of milk to espresso. (Note that in Italy a latte, without the caffè preceding it could get you a glass of plain milk.) My latte had a big ole head of foam on it, which I wasn’t expecting, but I like milk foam on these espresso drinks so I was cool with it for sure. It was pretty inoffensive. All that steamed milk and foam meant that the coffee taste was pretty diluted. It was a good start.
A cappuccino is a shot of espresso with an equal amount of both steamed milk and foam, i.e. 1/3 each. I actually preferred this over the latte because the bitterness of the coffee gave enough interest but didn’t make me screw my face up. I found the latte a bit dull really, but the cappuccino hit the perfect balance. As I said, I also like that foam so I enjoyed myself with this one.
The macchiato gets dangerously close to espresso. It is a shot of espresso with a bit of steamed milk/foam. The classic proportion on this one is 4 to 1, espresso to milk/foam. Basically you get an espresso that has the edge taken off by the milk. It was a little bitter for me, but definitely drinkable. Not something I’d pursue much, but I could see myself feeling daring some days and ordering one of these.
So this is the big mama. Pure espresso. It is so tiny and cute, at about 60 ml (2 oz), but that belies its punch. Yeah, I made a little bit of face with my first espresso. Going slowly with tiny little sips was OK. Definitely not for me, but I did my best to enjoy it.
There are a bunch of espresso drinks out there and I would have loved to try them all, especially a caffè correto (with a shot of grappa), but I had limited time and didn’t want to be completely jittery all weekend. The main one I hopped over was the Americano (shot of espresso with hot water). I also still want to try the non-Italian Cortado, which is a Spanish drink of equal parts espresso and steamed milk. That makes it a step between a cappuccino and a macchiato, so I think it is one that I would like.
So, I did my experiment and came away with a better understanding of the words my coffee zombie friends use and a greater appreciation for coffee. I’ve even found myself wanting cappuccino! I had one at the airport before we left and decided to give it a try at a cafe here in Copenhagen yesterday. Yep, I like it. I had no intention of trying to make myself like coffee (I don’t see any purpose in that) and I don’t really foresee myself waking up and heading for a coffee. I do love my morning tea. But I can see being out with friends at a cafe and getting a cappuccino, and enjoying every moment of it. Opening my mind to tastes I think I hate has always been eye-opening in one way or another, and I’m glad I gave good ole Italian-style coffee a try.