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Coffee Shot GlassesA true Italian espresso cup is made from thick porcelain with a narrow curved bottom. This is not just because it looks stylish, like something Sophia Loren might have drunk from in Rome in the 1970s. The shape helps the crema, the velvety top layer, to rise, giving the espresso a more satisfying texture.

In many modern coffee shops "espresso" is served in straight-sided cups with a wide base. Hopeless! This is just one of many grievous errors being perpetrated against Italian coffee, as I learnt at the Espresso Italiano barista championships, which for the first time were being held outside Italy, at the grand Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall. Three hefty coffee machines – each weighing 80kg to 90kg – had been shipped from Italy for the occasion, because – obviously – there was no machine in London authentic enough.

The competition was hosted by the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano (INEI), whose mission is to "protect" true Italian espresso against imposters. Espresso, explained Carlo Odello, its communications manager, has "mathematical parameters". The beans are a careful blend – never the single-estate roasts favoured by hipster cafés. The coffee must be ground to a certain fineness. It is "extracted in so many seconds" to yield a potion that is neither too acid nor too bitter but redolent of citrus and almond: Italy in a cup.

Most of the so-called espresso drunk around the world is nothing like as purist as this. Either it is drowned in milk or served as a double – which doesn't exist in Italy – or experimented upon by "tattooed bearded artisans", as one Italian at the event complained to me. The INEI offers certification to cafés that still make the "original" espresso. But how can you "protect" something as universal as espresso? It's like trying to recork a bottle of champagne.

I like "bearded artisan" coffee, myself. And yet the INEI is surely right that there is something lacking in the paper buckets sold by the chains. I've noticed that in Britain, ordering a single espresso and a glass of tap water often provokes raised eyebrows, even though it's a far more controlled way to ingest caffeine than a giant mug of latte.

Author:  Bee Wilson



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