Espresso Bongo by Own Rossan

Source - Guild of Food Writers E-Newsletter

Jan/Feb 2000 - Vol. 2 issue 1

A small but determined band of caffeine junkies assembled at the hissing, steaming, coffee bean-smelling class-room of the Urban Espresso Training School. Here Michael Fairholme and Victoria Reid served up a full cup of knowledge about espresso, its culture and why most Italians go out for their espresso fix. They explained why it is rather hard to get a great cup in Britain, and gave advice on how to try and achieve success at home.

Fifty per cent of the success of any cup is due to the skilled hand of the barista. The Italian barista (average age 47 years old) when he starts work is not allowed to touch the espresso machine for two years! And then the learning curve is two years. Only 2,000 have achieved the exalted title “Maestro del Espresso”.

In Italy there are 200,000 coffee bars where the average Italian gets six hits a day, usually standing at the bar, at about 60p each. As with most things in Italy, there is a north-south divide for coffee. In the south an espresso is one finger (horizontal) of coffee, about 20ml, of a darker roasted 70 per cent arabica and 30 per cent robusta blend, and which contains 180 mg of caffeine. Nor-therners prefer two fingers, about 35 ml, of a lighter roast and a higher percentage of arabica with "only" around 100 mg of caffeine. ( Note that the body starts feeling twitchy and nervous at about 220mg.) Arabica has a more delicate flavour, is three times more expensive and contains one-third the caffeine of robusta. Robusta is used both as a filler and to provide body. And in case you wondered, all arabica is grown at over 1,000 feet above sea level and all robusta at under 1,000 feet.

Most companies use a blend of between five and nine different coffees to achieve the right balance.

The recipe for the perfect cup is the same for all types of espresso machines. The first being invented by Signor Gaggia in 1946/47 when he transformed the process from steam to pressure. It is: exactly 7 gms of freshly and correctly ground coffee, tapped down in to the holder with 20 lbs of pressure, using water heated at between 88 degrees and 92 degrees F (90 degrees is perfect), and extracted at 9 bars of pressure, for 20-30 seconds from the time the machine button is pushed. Too hot and the coffee is “burned”, too cool and it doesn’t produce the right oils. The ideal drinking temperature is 76 degrees C.

Coffee, once roasted, has a “life” of hours (it loses 50 per cent of its flavour in the first two hours), and once ground has only minutes to live. Therefore the good barista only stores a small amount of beans, freshly opened from a vacuum pack, in the hopper, and only grinds them when needed. The grind must be such that the extraction takes the proper 20 to 30 seconds. Too coarse a grind and the water passes through the coffee too quickly, producing a thin watery liquid. Too fine a grind, and the water passes too slowly, also resulting in a bitter, “burnt” taste, which also contains more caffeine; the longer the extraction, the more caffeine produced.

Not only must the grind be correct, but the coffee should be pressed into the holder with the right force to ensure the optimal rate of extraction. If the grind and compression are wrong then the foamy “crema” which should float on top of each cup will be missing. A proper “crema” should last for three minutes before dissolving.

A way out for home brewers is to buy pre-ground pre-compacted coffee pods made by Illy to ensure at least 4 two criteria are met.

Needless to say, the machine must be spotless, with the filter and brewing head cleaned often. In Italy the water used is filtered twice and is one reason why coffee in Britain never quite achieves the Italian level. As well as heating the water to the correct degree, the handle holding the coffee must also be pre-warmed. A knowing barista always ensures the handles are locked into the machine to keep them warm. The cup should also be pre-heated. Cups warming on top of the machine underneath a towel are a sign of a caring barista.

A home espresso machine that met the criteria of temperature and pressure, and produced a good cup of coffee, was recommended. Its brand name is Magic, it is made in Spain and sells for about L150. Bodum and Gaggia make grinders which can achieve the proper grind for espresso.

But, ultimately, it is the magic hand of the barista who puts it all together and produces the perfect rich, hot, aromatic cup we all dream of obtaining – and when we do, we lie awake at night.

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