There I was, standing in the sun outside a café in Naples - it might have been Scaturchio, but I can’t be sure - when a young, white-jacketed waiter came and joined me and began vigorously beating a jug of cream with a spoon. I asked him what he was up to.
He was, he explained, making crema zuccherato for caffé con crema zuccherato. You had to beat the cream to dissolve the sugar and to whip it in the air to make it frothy. I suggested that there might be easier ways of whipping cream. No, he said. This was the only way to make sure the sugar dissolved in the right way and the cream achieved the precise airiness required. He continued beating for some time, and then satisfied with his work, disappeared inside.
Presently he returned and handed me a small cup with a single espresso with a fat cloud cream elating on top. I sipped it. Sweet fluffy cream. Dark, intense coffee. Cool and hot. Diffuse and precise. Rich and austere. So many sensations of pleasure. A tiny, ephemeral miracle. I abandoned what had been, until then, my standard breakfast - ristretto or espresso with sfogliatella, that divine Neapolitan dainty, a kind of flaky pastry oyster stuffed with sweet ricotta and candied fruit - and took to the caffé con crema zuccherato.
To be strictly accurate, it was caffé con crema zuccherato and sfogliatella, although the combination of the two usually make me feel that I’d slightly overdone things.
I know its usual for true coffee connoisseurs to judge the coffee, the whole coffee and nothing but the coffee, but for lesser mortals, coffee is part of something greater, a beat in the rhythm of the working or dining day, a vital ingredient in the great tapestry of consumption.
Perhaps that’s why it’s rare that I’ve had a bad cup of coffee in Italy, even from a vending machine. I’ve come across the odd below par version, but nothing ever so bad as coffee routinely is in the USA, say, or France, Spain and the UK. Perhaps it’s a matter of national taste. Some nations clearly like ghastly coffee. I’ve never heard a Frenchman or woman or a Spaniard, American or Brit complain about the truly atrocious state of the coffee they’re routinely served in the way the Italians would and do.
Every Italian rises from his or her bed in the morning with the happy expectation of eating and drinking the best food and drinks their money can buy, and if they don’t get it, they complain. A love of clarion, clear flavours is part of their DNA. The same basic passion embraces coffee with the same warmth as it does all aspects of cooking and eating.
There have been other nations with very different, long-serving coffee traditions - Austrian, Dutch, Turkish for example - but none challenged the primacy of the Italian way. Think of the names we use names for the forms in which we drink it - Espresso, Cappuccino, Macchiato, Latte,
Lungo, Ristretto, even Americano. They’re all Italian. The exception is a ‘Flat White’, an Australian or New Zealand aberration.
I won’t pretend that everything is perfect with the state of Italian coffee. It is subject to the same forces as all aspects of the food chain - globalisation, homogenisation, economic pressures and social change. Indeed, in recent years the primacy of the Italian coffee tradition has been challenged by new, upstart national genres. Australian, Scandinavian, American roasters have become fashionable, one of the markers for a new generation of foodistas, for whom foods and drinks are social accessories marking their progress up a kind of gastronomic social ladder. Think of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sourdough bread, za’atar and dukkah, chorizo and pomegranate syrup. Each marks another step towards food enlightenment. So with coffee. It has nothing to do with taste or quality. It has everything to do with gastro-chic.
But for the real connoisseur standards are constant not ephemeral and have nothing to do with fashion. Or, rather, fashion is based on certain unyielding principles that never go out of fashion - quality, quality, quality. Scrupulous attention to every aspect of production. That’s why that cup of caffé con crema zuccherato has lived in my memory from the moment the creamy cloud kissed my upper lip, and a breath of sweetness heralded the bright exhilaration of the coffee itself, and why Italian coffee remains the benchmark by which all other coffees are judged.
Matthew Fort is a renowned food writer and critic. He has been a judge on the BBC’s Great British Menu since the series began in 2006 and was The Guardian’s food and drink editor for ten years. His great love affair with Italian gastronomy and culture has inspired three out of four of his books. We welcome Matthew as an ambassador for Piano Coffee.