Dolce Fare Niente (The sweetness of doing nothing)

How to make coffee in Sicily

Italians, and therefore Italy, are synonymous with coffee. They drink it often and they drink it quick. Outside of home, it will take the form of an espresso (un caffè), ordered at a cafe or bar and knocked back in a maximum of two mouthfuls. The majority of those I had in Sicily taste very bitter and very burnt.

But to judge this coffee based on taste alone would be a mistake. The context in which it is enjoyed is also very important. In Sicily, it serves as a little pause in the day or something to do while waiting for the rest of the group to re-join. The taste, I’d dare to say, in the majority of the cases, are not paramount.

At home, coffee is made using a Moka pot with pre-ground coffee bought at the supermarket. I recently spent just short of two weeks with my girlfriend’s parents in the Agrigento province of Sicily. Armed with some fresh samples I received the day before leaving, two aeropresses, a scale (which made the border control guard look twice), a hand grinder and a thermometer nestled in between two pairs of newly acquired snorkeling gear, I set off.

On the first morning, like any other morning at home, I got up and started preparing coffee. I decided to make both an aeropress (mainly for Alessandra who is now hooked on it to a worrying degree) and a moka pot. As I very often say, stereotypes don’t fall out of the air so there are a couple of things about making anything edible of drinkable in a Sicilian’s “casa” that you better be very sure of and prepared for.

  • You will be watched. Every. Single. Move. When I broke out the scale and the hand grinder, I could feel a friendly curiosity as all eyes were on what was going on in the kitchen. By the time I stuck a thermometer in the kettle, set up an aeropress and put a damp cloth in the freezer I might as well have been on a stage.
  • It will be discussed. At length. Italians have this beautiful habit that I have witnessed time and time again. It is not that they necessarily only discuss food. It is the WAY in which they do so. You’ll have strong disagreement between two siblings, who grew up in the same house, about whether or not a Carbonara can have both onion and garlic  and heated discussions and opinions about what makes the perfect Melanzane. What I admire about these discussions is that normally it would be equal parts pride of the defender of a recipe and a curiosity about what the other party proposes – within reason of course.
Insalata di polipo (Octopus salad)
Insalata di polipo (Octopus salad)

Slightly nervous I served a Hankute in the Aeropress and the Espresso 6 Blend by James Gourmet in the Moka pot. I waited. The aeropress, as I suspected was not to everyone’s taste. It was just too far away from what people are used to.

The moka pot was a winner though. The chocolatety touch without that “amaro”(bitter) taste served in the majority of the bars, won over everyone on the day as it did the extended family and friends over the course of the holiday.

So how is this morning ritual of coffee making important to the larger vision of the speciality coffee establishment to get individuals to drink better coffee at home? I think the home is the most relevant place. It is also the most difficult to influence as what and how people eat or drink is largely determined by habit.

This is how I think one can make a start in introducing a better cup of coffee to people at home.

  • Go with an open attitude, not a patronising one – I’d like to think that I introduced those I did to different coffee this holiday in the spirit of the Italian dinner table. Ready to defend the way I make it, but not coming across as an annoying know-it-all to the sceptic or the first time taster.
  • More showing, less talking – Ok, given my very limited command of Italian, this was more a case of default than design. I enjoy making coffee. There is as much ritual to it than there is to lighting a cigarette (oh how I misseth thee), double checking the bridle and saddle on a horse before you set out, or any of the sounds, textures and smells we associate with whatever habitual treats we enjoy. It is this enjoyment that is infectious – not merely telling people it is.
  • When someone asks you for advice, concentrate on the 20% of the effort that will make 80% of the difference – To make a cup of coffee that will win you the Barista World Championship is extremely difficult. To make a cup of coffee where someone goes “wow”, especially if they are not making it in that way themselves is much less so. For the Moka it boils down (sorry) to three things; Buy fresh coffee, ground it yourself just before you use it (slightly coarser than for an Espresso) and take the moka off the stove IMMEDIATELY when you start hearing the faintest start of the hissing sound. Wrapping the moka in an iced towel will do wonders for getting people interested in what you are doing but in selling it as just as important as grinding, you run the risk of potential converts writing it off as too much hassle to begin with.
  • Play down technical necessities – Grinding and weighing IS important, but can put newbies off. Making grinding fun (kids love getting involved in this), focusing on the smell it produces and explaining that you are actually saving on washing up by weighing instead of measuring, lends an air of “it is actually not that hard” – because it isn’t.
  • Consider what people know and work from there – Had I decided to make only an Aeropress in Sicily, even those few that did enjoy the taste, wouldn’t continue to make it themselves. Why? The method is too far removed from the habit.
Caffè a casa
Caffè a casa

So, what happened at the end of the holiday? I left my hand grinder as a gift to Alessandra’s mother, along with two, half bags of beans in Licata.

By all accounts a week after, it seems that a happy habit-seed has been planted.

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