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Matthew Fort: A Great Cup for your Coffee

The great French diplomat, connoisseur and gourmet, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, once said that he liked his coffee ‘Black as night, hot as hell, pure as an angel and sweet as woman’s kiss.’ I’m pretty much at one with CM de T-P on this. Well, perhaps not as hot as hell, but hot certainly. But by focussing on the coffee, he ignores the critical role of the cup in the coffee ritual (as, indeed, do most coffee websites). It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the Sistine Chapel or a sip of coffee, perfection comes from ceaseless attention to every small detail, and that includes what you drink your coffee out of.

The finest coffee cups I ever sipped from were handed to me in the offices of the foreign department of a bank in Milan, Cariplo - Cassa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde. I visited the head offices only once, but the impression they made has never left me. They were of a magnificence usually reserved for stately homes in Britain: spacious, grand, hushed, impeccable and immaculate, the walls hung with silk fabric.

Ah, but the coffee cups, they came from a higher, more rarefied world. The one handed to me by a white gloved flunky, had an ethereal lightness, and an exquisite fragility, as if a butterfly were resting in my hand. The contrast between the virginal white of the porcelain and the darkness of the coffee was striking, the purity of the one emphasising the purity of the other. Best of all, it held the coffee hot, as CM de T-P said it should be.

You only come across such perfection once in a lifetime if you’re lucky. I’ve never been moved in the same way since. Nevertheless, experience made clear the critical role that the cup plays in the way we enjoy coffee

For example, those cardboard or styrofoam buckets favoured by coffee chains mark a level below which it’s impossible to sink. The contact between your lips and the container has a dreary, barren, lifelessness quality. I find it actively unpleasant. (Nor does coffee become better because it’s served in quantities big enough to swim in).

To be honest, I’m not in favour of glass, either, and certainly not metal of any description, silver or gold notwithstanding. They don’t feel natural to me.

No, it’s got to be china or porcelain for my coffee. And a cup, not a mug. Size is important. Putting a single or even a double espresso or cappuccino into a mug is, well, a mug’s game. Your coffee will be cold by the time you get to the end of it. Nor does a mug give the surface area to bring out the best of a cappuccino.

So here are my rules for drinking coffee.

  1. Get the right sized cup for whichever variety of coffee you plan to drink.
  2. Make sure it’s made of porcelain or china
  3. Warm it before putting coffee into it (usually attended to in Italy, but rarely in Britain).
  4. Meditate on the qualities of the world’s most fascinating libation as you sip.

Featured image © Piano Coffee

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.