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Matthew Fort: The Curious Coffee Culture of Gibraltar


Gibraltar. The Rock. British Overseas Territory. Part shopping precinct, part mini-Las Vegas, part financial casbah, part communications listening-post, part stout corner of the empire.

A bloody great piece of rock it is, too, a great hump towering above the sea looking out towards Morocco and Tunisia, with Spain hanging on by a narrow tail of land at the side.

In the dim and distant past when Gibraltar was part of the Caliphate of Baghdad, it was known as Jabal Tariq - The Mount of Tariq - the anglicised version of which makes its name today.

It became British as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 and for a long time the docks were a shelter for the Royal Navy. The navy withdrew in 1984 although a garrison still remains to keep an eye on things.

Gibraltar’s position, conformation and economic policies make it a haven for trippers and shoppers, smugglers, gamblers, people seeking to reduce their tax burden, spies and chancers. And all 32,194 of them (according to the census of 2012) are crammed hugger mugger into a space the size of a postage stamp, making the territory one of the most densely populated places on earth. Every metre of usable land is put to some use or other sometimes one thing and another - the territory’s landing strip runs directly across the main road to Spain. Or it could be the other way round?

What on earth has this to do with Piano Coffee, or, indeed, coffee at all?

Well, it’s like this. Gibraltar has a particular coffee culture, more Continental Europe that British, if you ask me. For example the cafés are full round about mid-morning by pensioners and young mothers sipping Café con Leche, usually served in clear glass coffee cups with wire handles. (These days Café con Leche is made with fresh milk, but there are still plenty of folk who can remember when it was made with evaporated or long life milk.)

Ten years ago the coffee market was dominated by Sacarello, a local roaster with a famous coffee shop in what’s know as Irish Town. But Sacarello’s dominance has gradually eroded as Gibraltar’s own economic circumstances and horizons have changed.

In have come the likes of Illy and Lavazza, and, more recently, Costa Coffee, market preparation, you might call it, for Piano Coffee.

Piano Coffee not only has the great advantage of being a product of the highest quality - Francesco has just won a Great Taste Award - but also of relative rarity and so of exclusivity, something that is very attractive in the burgeoning coffee culture on Gibraltar.

Hence the trip to The Rock. I can say no more than that, but watch this space. I apologise for being so secretive, but that’s in keeping with the nature of the place.

Matthew Fort is a renowned food writer and critic. He was a judge on the BBC’s Great British Menu from when the series began in 2006 up until this year 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.