There must have been times during the last few months when we’ve all wished we were somewhere else. Somehow Venice has kept popping up among the tides of my own nostalgia. I’ve visited that divine and improbable city several times, most notably ending an epic, 6-month exploration of the Italian islands there in October 2015.
Memories were brought into sharp focus by a wonderful newsletter written by two good friends Lisa Hilton and Anna Gilchrist, both authorities on Venice and its many cultural and culinary delights. Together they run the Venetian Supper Club
and write a bewitching and more easily accessible Newsletter about Venice’s life and times. I strongly recommend subscribing to it. There’s no more captivating magic carpet on which to travel for anyone dreaming of escaping to bold adventure from the comfort of their own arm chairs.
Anyway, they recently posted a newsletter about Venice and coffee, complete with recipes. Here is Lisa’s characteristically beguiling and informative introduction: -
Venice credits itself with the arrival of coffee in Europe, though the precise details are murky. Coffee houses were very much a thing in Istanbul by the sixteenth century, and the Venetian ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Gianfrancesco Morosini commented as early as 1585 that the locals were enjoying a “stimulating black water”. Coffee was supposedly brought to Venice by Prospero Alpini, physician to another Venetian diplomat, the consul of Egypt, via a shipment of beans from the port of Mocha in Yemen. When precisely the magic beans turned up is vague, which hasn’t prevented many historians of Venice from plumping for the precise date of 1615. Coffee shops existed in Venice from the second half of the seventeenth century, though “Venezia Trionfante”, which opened in 1720 in Piazza San Marco (better known as Florian’s after its founder Floriano Francesconi) can claim to be the most enduring, if not quite the first. Florian’s was followed by Lavena in 1750 and Quadri in 1755, and by the end of the eighteenth century there were thirty-five coffee houses in San Marco alone. Goldoni’s 1750 play La Bottega del Caffe demonstrates the centrality of the coffee house as an intersection for public and private life- a staging post between the street and the palazzo where gossip, intrigue and scandal flourished.
Florian’s remains the ne plus ultra of the caffe experience, but many visitors are put off by the astronomical prices and the rounds of applause for couples who will get engaged daily at 4pm. Our tip is to make like the Venetians and pass by early evening for a drink standing up inside at the bar - a far more relaxing way to appreciate the atmosphere and the gorgeous nineteenth century decor. Italian-style coffee is now commonplace all over the world (though hipster cappuccino-shakers might want to recollect that the title barista isn’t a badge of artisan honour; it was invented under Mussolini as part of the re-authentication of the Italian vocabulary), so this week we thought we’d experiment with using coffee in a different way, as a base ingredient to conjure up some surprising but brilliantly satisfying flavours...
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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.