THE BLOG
06/17/2013 06:29 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013

What Cup of Coffee?

The sun was rising over a crisp morning in Inner Mongolia, People's Republic of China. As an exchange student in Beijing, I was spending a weekend in Inner Mongolia with other foreign friends, not too far from the provincial capital, Huhehot. Although we considered ourselves quite adventurous and attuned to all kinds of hardships and unusual experiences, we opted for a "regular" tourist hotel -- a cluster of kitschy cement replicas of the traditional wood and felt Mongol yurts (with comfortable bathrooms).

Our hosts were waiting for us to go to breakfast. We were ready for the usual Chinese fare: rice porridge with pickled vegetables, warm soymilk, maybe a hard-boiled egg; something I was not particularly fond of, but had grown used to. Even after almost two years in China, the simple thought of a steaming cup of coffee was likely to make me salivate. As a matter of fact, I had brought a tiny coffee machine from Italy and I received the coffee grinds by mail . . . None of that here: we were served a hot, greasy boiled sheep knee, accompanied by hot tea mixed with melted rancid butter and fried millet. The meal ended with a tiny glass of an extremely strong spirit.

That morning, over 20 years ago, I realized how much coffee had become part not only of my morning routine, but also of my identity as an Italian living abroad. And it was not just any cup of coffee I was craving: I longed for the drink that many, if not most, Italians still make at home using a small stove top metal contraption we call caffettiera or moka, a commercial name that resonates of the long history of the coffee and its origins in the trade routes of the Indian Ocean. Mocha, in Yemen, just across from the Horn of Africa, was in fact one of the main markets for coffee when the drink started seeping from the Ottoman Empire and the Eastern Mediterranean into Christian Europe through the international diplomacy and the skilled merchants of Venice.

The caffettiera is made of three stainless steel pieces. The bottom one, which always includes a security pressure valve, holds the water. The second, a sort of funnel designed to contain the coffee grinds, is placed inside the bottom part. A third piece is then tightly secured on top on the water container. When the coffee maker is put on the stove and the water reaches the boiling point, pressure pushes the liquid through the coffee grounds in the funnel till it reaches the top piece. Many people never use soap to wash their moka caffettiera, just hot water and a rag, to avoid the taste of chemical detergents spoiling the coffee aroma.

Before this kind of appliance became popular after World War II, the so-called napoletana (Neapolitan) coffee maker was widespread, now considered quaint pieces for collectors. It was also composed of three pieces, like a moka, but the water never reached the pressure necessary to push it up through the grinds. When the water boiled, the whole appliance was removed from the flame and turned upside down, so that the hot water percolated through the grinds using the force of gravity and was gathered in the lower container.

Most people identify Italian coffee with espresso, often quickly drank while standing in establishment that Italians call "bars" and that most Americans would describe as crowded and hyperactive cafes. "American bars" had made their appearance in Italy in the late 1890s, where coffee was served at the counter by a barista. Espresso machines were first patented only in 1901 by Luigi Bezzera for restaurant use and operated by trained staff and later improved on by Francesco Illy with the use of compressed air. They rapidly become a fixture of Italian culinary culture, and their more technological descendants still provide Italians with their daily doses of caffeine. Nowadays, electrical machines for domestic use that make a beverage similar to the espresso have become extremely popular, to the point that a whole new market has developed for coffee pods. It's not the same as a bar espresso because coffee is not prepared by an expert barista, but it's the next best thing.

This brief notes about Italian coffee customs remind us that coffee has become an important aspect of consumer societies all over the world, including in places like Japan, as I discussed in a previous post.

If you are interested in coffee and caffeinated drinks (including Coca Cola), join us on June 19 at The New School for a presentation by author and coffee history expert Mark Pendergrast, "The Caffeinated World: Coca-Cola and Coffee in History, Culture, Politics, and Your Life."