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ITALY EXPLAINED

How Italy came to be Europe’s coffee capital

The tale of how Italy's superior coffee culture came into being is a long and storied one. Grab your (espresso) cup, and settle in...

Venice’s Caffè Florian, founded in 1720, claims to be the oldest café in Europe still in operation.
Venice’s Caffè Florian, founded in 1720, claims to be the oldest café in Europe still in operation.Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Given how protective Italians can be over their coffee culture, you might be forgiven for thinking they invented the drink.

But that title actually goes to Ethiopia, where much of the world’s coffee is still grown today.

According to the coffee blog Home Grounds, the story goes that in 700 AD, an Abyssinian goatherder named Kaldi found his goats prancing around and acting strangely.

Seeing red berries on some nearby bushes, Kaldi surmised that they might be behind his herd’s odd behaviour.

At this point different versions of the story diverge in their telling: one says Kaldi gave the berries to a monk, who was happy to find something to help him stay awake to pray all night; another says the monk disapproved and threw the beans on the fire, where they released the delicious aroma of roasted coffee beans.

Unripened coffee beans growing on branches.
Unripened coffee beans growing on branches. Photo by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash

Either way, humans started drinking coffee, and they haven’t stopped since.

From Ethiopia, coffee spread across the ocean to Yemen and proliferated throughout the Arabian peninsula. Here it gave rise coffeehouses or qahveh khaneh, which became hubs of social and cultural activity.

Coffee didn’t make its way to Italy until 16th century, when Venetian sailors brought it back from the Ottoman empire.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

At first this black, bitter liquid was feared to be from the devil, and local priests called on Pope Clement VIII to denounce it.

But, the legend goes, the pope decided to give the drink a try before delivering his judgement; and after a few sips, he proclaimed, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” He gave the drink his blessing – but not before baptising the beans, just to be safe.

Coffeehouses subsequently started popping up in Venice in around the late 17th century, and by the mid-1700s there were over 200 of them, frequented by great artists, writers and poets of the time.

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that a series of Italian inventors started devising the innovations that led to Italy gaining its current reputation as Europe’s custodian of coffee.

As coffee became more and more popular, people started looking for ways to produce it at speed rather than having to leave each cup to brew for several minutes, and the idea of forcing steam through coffee grounds at pressure in order to make coffee quickly began to take hold.

An old-fashioned Italian espresso machine.
An old-fashioned Italian espresso machine. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

The first effort at something approaching an espresso (literally, ‘pressed out’) machine was presented by Angelo Moriondo at the Turin General Exposition in 1884, where it won a bronze medal – but the device was somewhat impractical in its design, and was never produced commercially.

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

A while later, in 1901, Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzerra developed and patented a smaller and more efficient version of the machine, making it commercially viable, though it still had some faults.

By 1906, Bezzerra and fellow inventor Desiderio Pavoni had more or less perfected their version of the instrument, and the first steam-based espresso machine went on the market.

This device was ultimately replaced by Achille Gaggia’s 1938 invention, which dispensed with the steam (which could give the coffee a burnt flavour) and made espresso by forcing hot water through the coffee grounds at very high pressure, producing a highly concentrated drink very similar to what we think of as espresso today.

In between, one Alfonso Bialetti came out with his stovetop Moka caffettiera in 1933, which allowed ordinary Italians to make something not unlike espresso coffee in the comfort of their own homes.

A bialetti moka caffetiera.
A Bialetti moka caffetiera. Photo by Sten Ritterfeld on Unsplash

With these inventions, Italy developed a reputation for being Europe’s, if not the world’s, coffee capital – a recognition it guards fiercely today.

The question of who ‘owns’ Italy’s coffee culture was raised earlier this year, when it transpired that the Consortium for the Protection of Traditional Italian Espresso Coffee in Treviso and the Region of Campania had separately sought UNESCO recognition for the espresso coffee tradition; the consortium representing all of Italy and Campania representing Naples, which is particularly proud of its coffee culture.

READ ALSO: Guardia di Finanza to Carabinieri – who does what in the Italian police force?

One academic who worked on Campania’s bid decried the Treviso consortium’s application as “an act of war by the north against the south”, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, while the consortium’s founder Giorgio Caballini described Naples’ attempt to assert ownership over Italian espresso as “unacceptable”.

In the end, neither won: Italy’s UNESCO committee told the two groups it was disallowing both their candidacies, and to apply again as a united front next year.

Hopefully, they can resolve their differences – perhaps over an espresso or two.

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ITALY EXPLAINED

Why the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

Some of Italy’s foreign residents may still be wearing t-shirts, but Italians are preparing for the most stressful style-related event of the year: the summer-to-autumn wardrobe switch. Silvia Marchetti explains what it’s all about.

Why the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

People have always said to me that Italians stand out (particularly abroad) because of the way they dress, the style of their clothes, the designer labels, the gorgeous bags and shoes. 

But it’s not because they really do dress better than others, rather they are extremely picky about what they wear, and when they wear it, at which precise time of the year. 

Italians are dead serious about adapting their dress code to the different seasons in response to dropping or rising temperatures. The ‘wardrobe switch’ is a major event that consumes entire days of a family’s weekends or spare time. From the kids to granny, all must change their apparel. I remember my grandparents used to mark it on their calendar, a bit like when you have to take the car for the annual check called the tagliando

There are four major wardrobe switches, as many as the seasons. The most tiring is the summer-to-autumn one, which usually occurs mid-September when the summer heat abates. 

Summer clothes are taken out of the closet and laid on the bed, then autumn apparel is plucked out from an upper closet space and neatly laid on the other side of the bed to be scrutinized. 

READ ALSO: Pumpkin risotto and the great wardrobe switch: How life in Italy changes when autumn arrives

It’s then time to do some clearing out: the switch is the time to try on autumn clothes and see if they still fit or are no longer wanted or liked (meaning you’ll be shopping for new ones). 

This stage can take hours, if not days. Jackets, which usually take up more space and are kept in the cellar or attic, are also cleaned of dust and tried on. 

Photo: Dan Gold/Unsplash

The summer apparel is then packed away and replaced by the autumn clothes, which are laid out in the same spot where the t-shirts and shorts once were. The same goes for shoe switches. Back in the box with those flip-flops, which are a major no-no after September 20th, and back on the shelves for boots and sneakers. 

When an Italian decides that summer is over, summer is over even if it’s still 25 degrees outside. My boyfriend just switched from shorts to trousers, even though he’s sweating most of the time. 

And it may seem that there’s a particular dress code that everyone follows. Autumn calls for ‘camicette’ shirts, light leather jackets, jeans, and bright little stylish scarves in silk or cotton to protect against the first potential cold air. Rain coats and casual jackets dubbed spolverini (dusters) are also taken out of storage.

The motto is ‘vestirsi a cipolla’, meaning ‘to dress like an onion’, with layers of shirts and sweaters that can be peeled off throughout the day depending on temperature swings. 

READ ALSO: Ten Italian lifestyle habits to adopt immediately

It’s a way to avoid sweating at noon or getting too cold in the evenings. But it’s also a stylish dressing habit to show that we are fully equipped, including financially, to cope with the changing seasons. If you don’t buy at least one new item of clothing per season, that’s just ‘not cool’.

A ‘booster’ wardrobe switch happens again in December, when the piumini, or hardcore winter ‘duvet’ coats, and knitted wool sweaters are taken out to reinforce the autumn apparel. 

Even if it never gets that cold in Italy compared to some countries, Italians still like to wear wool hats, gloves and some even wear furs, heavy boots and mountain-climbing uniforms – perhaps just for the sake of showing off some of their cool skiing apparel. 

Whether in autumn, winter, spring, or summer, the wardrobe switch is also an excuse to go shopping. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Then when spring arrives, winter clothes disappear and autumn attire starts mixing with some t-shirts, sleeveless jackets, and lighter cotton pants. 

But it’s still too early to wear shorts for men or skirts without stockings for women: showing off white bare legs is so unstylish.

Alas, when it’s finally summer, flip flops and sandals pop out again and the switch is an occasion to throw away unwanted summer clothes from the previous year and buy new bikinis, skirts, tank tops and fancy colorful shirts. This can be quite painful if you happen to have gained weight during the cold months. 

Italians are serious about wardrobe changes given their reaction even to just slight temperature drops or hikes.

I know that for foreigners seeing Italians wearing coats now in September even if it’s not yet so cold can be quite shocking in the same way it is for Italians to see Americans or Germans wearing t-shirts in December. 

READ ALSO: ‘Five ways a decade of living in Italy has changed me’

But climate change is disrupting the traditional wardrobe switch. My granny used to say that the so-called ‘middle seasons’ in Italy which are those between summer and winter (she meant autumn and spring) were luckily very long and pleasant. But nowadays even Italy has very short springs and autumns. In recent years there’s been a sudden jump from hot summers to half-winter seasons. 

This affects the way Italians are dressing, as I see fewer leather jackets around or raincoats unless it’s actually raining. The other day I was swimming in a pool and in the afternoon when I came back home there was a strong wind and I had to put on my piumino (long duvet coat) plus a hat. 

Luckily I have a huge walk-in closet so the left part is for winter, the right part is for summer and in between are all those items that used to fall within my granny’s ‘middle seasons’. So I always have everything at hand to cope even with the uncontrolled effects of climate change.

Friends of mine are already going into depression because they’re planning the wardrobe switch for next weekend – but they already miss the summer and don’t want to give up on the sexy shorts and elegant sandals. 

There’s no doubt about it: when it comes to clothes, most Italians can be very fussy indeed.

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