Kitchen Confidential: It’s Just Coffee

For his first Yummy column, Chef Dario Aloisio guides us through some of the do’s and don’t’s of Italian coffee culture and makes a small confession of his own.

When in Italy forget the word “Espresso”. For Italians it is just a “coffee please”. Caffelattes, Cappuccinos, Americanos, these may be drunk in the morning but thereon after it is only coffee and by coffee we mean, of course, espresso. Is it a ritual? An addiction? A way to show who you are? A declaration of war?

There are so many different ways of drinking espresso: straight, hot and bitter, thrown back like a shot of tequila, sweetened but unstirred so once finished it can be collected from the bottom of the cup with the help of a small spoon; properly stirred with the spoon tracing a circle around the rim of the cup so the lips taste the sugar before the coffee; with the addition of grappa, or sambuca—known as a “corrected coffee”; sweetened with fake sugar because we all know that sugar is bad for you but a few litres of coffee a day is of course allowed.

No matter what anyone says, in Italy coffee is taken standing. You never sit and wait to be served a coffee, you stand at the bar and wait for your hit to be served up straight in a cup so hot your lips will almost melt. It is a treat for adults, a little naughty thing you allow yourself without limitations because, in the end, it’s “just coffee”. You are allowed to drink it from the age of 14 and it is actually one of the biggest steps in everyone’s life – a milestone, almost as important as getting a driving license, you have now entered the circle of the adults. All of this makes it very hard for me to make the following statement: I do not drink coffee.

I’ve never felt the need. While I don’t mind the taste and smell I just can’t drink anything with a temperature above the one at which red wine is served.

“You don’t drink coffee?” People will ask when I make this confession, looking at me as if there is something seriously wrong with me. “How is it possible? You are Italian?” I have no excuses and cannot lie by claiming I’ve just had one; in their eyes there would be no point not to chase it with another. I have long time friends, they know me like the inside of their pockets, yet they still offer me coffee, or ask me how much sugar I want and then regularly look at me with surprise. Sometimes I get invitations to meet for a coffee. I never decline but inevitably end up drinking a gin and tonic at two pm. Maybe if it was possible to find a decent crushed almond ice with a shot of espresso in it here in Nairobi, I would be tempted but until then I can do without a caffeine hit.

As a chef, even if I do not drink coffee I inevitably find uses for it in my kitchen. Back when I started out training in Palermo (the regional capital of Sicily) I once had to make tiramisu for over two thousand people. I remember going to bed that night and tossing and turning for hours, cursing the coffee vapours that must have seeped into my system as I laid out the dessert. Today using coffee in my kitchen usually involves making something cold. One of the most successful desserts I ever made was a white coffee gelato created by infusing 300 grams of whole coffee beans in a liter of thick cream. The resulting ice cream fooled the senses with its white rich and creamy vanilla taste but strong hint of dark roasted coffee.

I hope I have not disappointed you with my aversion to coffee. Life isn’t easy for an Italian who doesn’t love espresso!

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