At the beginning of the seventeenth century coffee was known in Europe as the “wine of Arabia.” It was not until 1683, when the Turks were defeated in their attempts to take Vienna, and left behind several sacks of coffee when they retreated, that a large quantity of coffee was seen in Europe. The Austrians began to drink coffee with sweet pastries called kipfel, shaped like the crescent moon to celebrate their victory over the Turks. By the end of the century coffee houses were beginning to open in European capitals. The first Italian coffee house was Florian’s in Venice, soon to be followed by Caffè Greco in Rome. The playwright, Goldoni, captures the scene in his play ‘La Bottega del Caffè’.The invention of the espresso machine changed the course of gastronomic history and today Italian coffee has conquered the world.
A Roman cannot function until he has had his morning ‘fix’, and every one has his personal preference and favourite bar. What to you is an espresso is simply a caffè, but some people will only drink it in vetro, a small glass, in the morning. Then there are those who order it macchiato, stained with milk. There is the double ration, doppio, or diluted with more water, caffè lungo. Early in the cold mornings those setting off to do hard physical work often ask for a caffè corretto, coffee ‘corrected’ by having a stiff shot of grappa or brandy added to it.
There are more variations with milk. A latte macchiato is hot milk ‘stained’ with coffee. A cappuccino is known all over the world but an Italian would only order it in the morning and never after a meal. In Rome many people order it senza schiuma, without froth, or a caffè latte in a glass with more milk than a cup could hold.
To get a good coffee you need good quality, freshly- roasted beans and a machine cleaned daily. But you also need a skilled operator. The Illy coffee family say you cannot overestimate the importance of the human hand. Many barmen like to add their own personal touch. In some bars they add the froth in the shape of a heart and in others they sprinkle grated chocolate over the top.
In the centre of Rome there are two historic bars which are always packed with coffee fiends. They are both very near the Pantheon.
Sant’Eustachio, piazza Sant’Eustacchio 82 Tel: 06 6861309
Tazza d’Oro Via degli Orfani 84 Tel: 06 6789792
Panna cotta with coffee
Panna cotta originated in Piedmont but recently, with fresh cream readily available, Roman restaurants have adopted it as their own. I love the combination of the rich smooth cream and aromatic black coffee.
300 ml fresh cream
50 g sugar
2 leaves of gelatine (6g)
50 ml strong espresso coffee
1 T sugar
Soak the gelatine in cold water. Gently heat the cream before stirring in the sugar and squeezed-out gelatine. The leaves will dissolve immediately. Add the black coffee and pour into moulds. Leave for about 4 hours to set.
Just before serving turn out the creams and decorate with shavings of dark chocolate. If preferred the cooked cream can be poured into little ceramic pots or glasses and served in these, without turning out.