State Of Grind
There's a secret to making the perfect cup of coffee, as Alexander James finds out as he trains to be a barista at the Illy school in Trieste.
Photography by Alexander Short
The last time I sipped the perfect cup of coffee was in the least salubrious of places – a fast-food diner in Pisa. It was made by a grunting, wispy-haired gent, with no hype, no ceremony and no stamping of loyalty cards. The result was a thick gulp of liquid-velvet richness that left a touch of sweetness lingering on the tongue.
I have been attempting to recreate that cup ever since, which is why I signed up to a course promising to transform coffee virgins into fully fledged baristas – taking me to the Università del Caffè, run by Italian gourmet coffee brand Illy in Trieste. What would happen I wondered? Would I be able to make the perfect cup of espresso, and free myself from freeze-dried instant forever?
When it comes to coffee, Rome and Vienna are renowned, but Trieste is truly Italy’s hidden coffee gem. Stuck at the crossroads of Latin, Germanic and Slavic Europe, Trieste is identity crisis brought to life in bricks, mortar and very attractively laid out public spaces. It was Austrian until 1918, independent for a while after World War II – when the Iron Curtain descended unceremoniously right through its suburbs – before becoming Italian, but only in 1954. While Venice and Florence have their unique cultural pull, Milan is the cosmopolitan heart of fashion and Rome has la dolce vita, Trieste is the Java-hub of Europe, with it’s this melting pot of second- and third-generation Austrians, Czechs, Croatians and Slovenians that harbours a passion for coffee like no other.
In the average Triestine coffee emporium you will find a selection of 50 ways in which a coffee can be served. There’s a poster showing all of them at Caffè degli Specchi on Piazza Unità d’Italia. To the untrained eye they look like different servings of espresso with varying degrees of milk, but they are in fact far more complex. Take the “Nero Gocciato in Bicchiere”, a shot glass of coffee, crowned by a micro-foam drop of milk, heated to such a temperature that it adds a smooth round taste to the intensity of the bean. Heat the milk too much, however, and the result is a burnt flavour that smothers the coffee flavour. It’s a delicate balance. The people of Trieste have their own specific tastes of coffees and times to drink them. When I ordered a cappuccino after 11am the barista stared at me like I’d just insulted his mother.
Luckily Illy’s Università del Caffè, where wannabe baristas are trained, is here to help me survive. Entering the coffee company’s headquarters, I stroll past espresso bars and through sleek corridors to find a lecture theatre adorned with super-powered coffee machines. Glass-encased desks make up the rows, with artist-designed espresso cups gleaming inside.
I find out from wall displays that coffee first came to Europe through nearby Venice in the 17th century, but the roasting houses started in Trieste at the same time to support the new trade. The city’s position as the main trading port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire helped to establish it as an epicentre for perfecting the art of the bean.
Morena Faina, head of education at Illy, tells me just how far this art goes. “There are 50 factors that can affect the taste of the coffee. Even the types of rain and sun a coffee bean is exposed to influences taste,” he says. “Within each factor there are also causes for concern. Even the way you open a bean before it is pulped needs to be done with care, without it you can cause a chemical reaction that damages the flavour. The job of the barista is to respect the love that has gone into the bean, and to bring out the flavours.”
The barista works to a set of basic rules, and to disobey just one of them could lead to his handiwork being spat out in disdain. “The ideal taste of a coffee should be a perfect balance between bitterness, sweetness and acidity, and that is where the barista comes in,” Morena says, before passing me over to one of Illy’s head baristas, Michele Pauletic, to show me the basics.
The water filtering through the machine should be no more than 90°C, and filtered through the coffee drip for precisely 31 seconds. Any more creates too much pressure. Lastly, there’s the milk, which must be full fat. Anything else will not give you the same texture or finish.
“A cappuccino is like a cocktail, and the ingredients need to be right. That includes the milk,” Michele says. “It needs to have a temperature between 37°C and 65°C, and be frothed until the consistency starts to shine.” To create latte art he shows me how to pour the frothy milk into a black espresso, tilting the milk jug backwards and forwards, as the froth starts to rise. You pour the milk down with a wriggling action to create a ripple-effect leaf.
I try quite a few times, managing to spill half the milk on the first attempt, before getting one almost right. Michele has been doing this for 15 years. No wonder he makes it look easy.
So next, with my new education to hand, I hit Trieste’s cafés to check out how the local baristas do it for real. Wandering around this calm and beautiful town by the sea, overlooked by rolling hills, with its uplifting architecture, two castles and centuries-old churches you’ve no choice but to unwind and focus on what’s important. For literary titans and sometime Trieste natives, James Joyce and Jules Verne, coffee drinking was an essential pastime. Joyce, who is remembered by three different statues in the city, would sip espresso at the Caffè Stella Polare on Via Dante (tel: +39 040 632742). Needless to say the barista here pours my latte expertly, getting that ripple leaf just right.
Coffee is more than a drink in Trieste; it’s a culture. It’s made by the barista here with the same sense of intuition a sailor has sensing the wind. I haven’t been here long enough for coffee making to become second nature yet, but I do know it’s as much about respect as it is technicality. I’ll raise a thimble-sized glass to wispy-haired gents across Italy for that.
THE STORY OF ILLY’S SUCCESS, BY www.FORTUNESTREET.COM
Trieste has inspired what is arguably the world’s best coffee brand: a brand that was born of one World War and sustained through the next; a brand that brought the iconic red square on a silver tin to cafés and restaurants around the world; a brand so dedicated to creating the best blend possible that it earned its founder’s son the nickname “missionary of the espresso”.
Like the best brands, the little red square has become a hallmark of quality coffee. The ubiquitous silver tins are sold in 140 countries around the world, serving all five continents and stocked at more than 50,000 bars. Every day, more than 6 million cups of coffee are made with the Illy blend worldwide.
The global economic crisis has changed the relationship we have with the brands we consume. Nowadays, big is not always best and in some ways “global” has come to mean rootless, anonymous, artificial and exploitative. What we’re looking for now is authenticity, for something from closer to home, for something that tells a story that isn’t about exploitation or greed but that is about dedication, pride and commitment instead.
We want to buy into brands that care about how and where they are produced, and which care about the quality they give to the people who buy them – because that way we can care about them too. We want things that come from small, out-of-the-way places, from experts who have literally dedicated their life to making their products the best they can be. All this is fulfilled by the Illy brand, and it’s why we love it.
The coffee’s unique blend and brewing process is a result of the dedication and time spent researching and testing in the Illy family’s two research centres, four laboratories and coffee university. And the quality control system for every batch is second to none. Each bean has to pass 125 checks before being packaged – a far cry from your average coffee chain school of coffee making.
Undeniably, Illy is a global brand, but the continued commitment of the Illy family comes across wherever in the world you are, and the brand feels like something that all of us can own. Its name isn’t overtly Italian, so anyone can pronounce it – and the coffee is totally delicious and guarantees taste. The brand is a testament to the unique culture of Trieste and the passion of the close-knit Illy family.
TO ENROL IN COFFEE COURSES AT ILLY, CONTACT: UNIVERSITA DEL CAFFE, 110 VIA FLAVIA,
TEL: +39 040 389 0178, EMAIL: UDC@ILLY.IT, www.UNICAFFE.IT
SIP THE CITY
Classic coffee houses San Marco (18 Via Battisti); Tommaseo (4/C Piazza Tommaseo, tel: +39 040 362666); Urbanis (3 Piazza della Borsa, tel: +39 040 366580); and Torinese (Corso Italia, tel: +39 040 632689). Buy a book of six vouchers to spend on your caffeine fix from the tourist office on Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia (tel: +39 040 347 8312).
Al Barattolo (2 Piazza San Antonio Nuovo, www.albarattolo.it) for great-value pasta, pizza and meat dishes with waterside views.
Super Bar Stella (4 Largo Pitteri), Bar Ferrari (18 Via San Nicolo) and other bars during “spritz hour” (6–9pm). For about €3.50 you get a drink and can nibble on snacks like pizza and wild mushrooms.
The best- value rooms in town, from €30 for a double, at www.turismofvg.it
The FVG Card for free access to museums, tours and public transport, from the tourist office on Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia. Prices: 48 hours, €15; 72 hours, €20; one week, €29