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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 favourite brew, 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.

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

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

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.

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.

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

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 in 2021 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.

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”.

Italy’s UNESCO committee told the two groups it was disallowing both their candidacies, and to apply again as a united front next year – which they did, after somehow resolving their differences – perhaps over an espresso or two.

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Beyond Venice: Seven of Italy’s most magical carnivals

Italy's carnival season brings colour and fun to the grey month of February, and Venice is far from the only place putting on a show.

Beyond Venice: Seven of Italy's most magical carnivals

Transforming the Serenissima into a Rococo wonderland for a packed two weeks, Venice’s carnival is rightly renowned as one of the highlights in Italy’s cultural calendar.

But when it comes to carnival celebrations, the country’s offerings extend far beyond Venice’s waters.

READ ALSO: Venice Carnival: What to expect if you’re attending in 2023

From three-day food fights to sky-high floats and masked revelries, here are some of Italy’s most spectacular carnivals to look out for.

Putignano – February 12th, 19th, 21st, 25th

Putignano’s carnival is one of Europe’s oldest, dating back to 1394 when the relics of Saint Stephen were transported to the town to protect them from Saracen raids, and locals downed tools to join the procession and celebrate.

This is also one of the longest-running carnivals in Europe, starting on Boxing Day and traditionally ending on Shrove Tuesday, when a papier-mâché pig is carried through the streets and then burned. Concerts, shows, and various parades all feature.

More information here.

Viareggio – February 12th, 16th, 19th, 21st, 25th

In Viareggio’s masked parade, hundreds of colourful papier-mâché floats up to 70 feet high are carried along the Tuscan seafront to music and dancing.

It started out in 1873 as a protest at the upper classes not having to pay taxes and continues to provide political and social commentary today – expect to see papier-mâché caricatures of politicians and celebrities atop the carnival floats.

More information here.

One of Viareggio's 2017 carnival floats.

One of Viareggio’s 2017 carnival floats. Photo by Claudio GIOVANNINI / AFP.

Fano – February 12th, 19th

Fano’s is the sweetest of all the festivals, as chocolates, sweets and sugared almonds are thrown from the float wagons into the crowds of spectators.

It dates all the way back to 1347, making it one of Italy’s oldest carnivals, and is thought to have originated as a celebration of a reconciliation between two warring local families.

If you prefer sweet spectacles to tastes, in the last parade the floats are lit up with luminarie, making them particularly impressive to look at.

More information here.

Ivrea – February 12th, 16th, 18th-21st

Looking for something more exciting than your average parade? In Ivrea, the highlight of the festivities is the annual orange fight – a rather messy way of commemorating the local people’s struggle against the city’s tyrant and, later, against Napoleonic troops.

READ ALSO: What changes about life in Italy in February 2023

Those on foot represent the townspeople while those on carts play the part of the troops, all throwing oranges at each other. The epic battle lasts three days – this year, the 19th to the 21st – at the end of which awards are bestowed on the winning teams.

More information here.

Members of orange battle teams throw oranges at each other during the traditional "Battle of the Oranges" festival held during the carnival in Ivrea, near Turin, on March 3, 2019.

Members of orange battle teams throw oranges at each other during Ivrea’s 2019 “Battle of the Oranges”. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP.

Acireale – February 11th-21st

Acireale’s festivities once involved locals throwing rotten eggs, oranges and lemons at each other in the street – but luckily for 21st century visitors, the custom was banned in 1612.

These days it’s a much more respectable affair: as well as papier-mâché caricatures of public figures, you can expect to see elaborate flower and light displays.

If you miss the February festivities, Acireale’s carnival is so popular it usually returns for a few weeks in July and August.

More information here.

Mamoiada – February 11th, 16th, 18th-21st, 25th

This carnival is one of Sardinia’s oldest folk festivals, drawing on ancient traditions. Instead of papier-mâché floats, expect to see Mamuthones and Issohadores.

The former parade in groups of 12, dressed in black masks and dark sheep skins; the latter, dressed in red with white masks, lead the Mamuthones with complex dance steps. At a certain point the Issohadores ‘catch’ onlookers with a rope, who then free themselves by offering food or wine.

Festivities end with feasting on pork and beans, while wine and local sweets are traditionally offered to visitors throughout the carnival.

More information here.

'Mamuthones' join other revellers in Mamoiada's carnival celebrations. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.

‘Mamuthones’ join other revellers in Mamoiada’s carnival celebrations. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
Cento – February 12th, 19th, 26th, March 5th

This quiet medieval town in the Emilia Romagna countryside comes to life in February when it puts on its ‘Carnival of Europe’ festival. Since the early 90s it’s been twinned with Rio de Janeiro’s carnival, with the winning floats getting to appear in the Rio parade.

Watch out for flying objects – part of Cento’s tradition is the gettito, where toys and inflatable objects are thrown from the floats into the crowd. The end of the festival is marked with an unmissable fireworks show.

More information here.

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