When I arrived in Marseille almost a decade ago now (cripes) I came to a somewhat startling realisation: my path through life seemed to be leading inexorably towards better and better coffee. Now the coffee — espresso — in Marseille is nothing special, but it is infinitely better than what was available in England. And only two years after that, I found myself in Bologna, Italy, and once you have lived in Italy your appreciation of espresso and coffee is changed for life, irrevocably.
I admit to having erred for many years, to having prepared coffee by many different methods. In Canada, I amused myself making large drinks composed primarily of frothy milk with a minute quantity of espresso, prepared in a cheap steam-powered espresso machine. The kind that after only a few months starts to leak dangerously. This kind of beverage is very much the tradition in the pacific north-west, and it was only later I realised that the gallons of milk were necessary to hide the terrible burnt taste of the espresso they have over there (try drinking just the espresso and you will see). That was the beginning of my habit of preparing coffee at work. In Durham, England, I fought a losing battle with overzealous health and safety officials, who cut off the power cable for my coffee machine whilst I was away observing in Hawaii. They were also worried that my office would become infested by coffee-drinking mice, attracted by the coffee grains. So I switched to what they call in England a “french press” or a “bodum”. A fine way making strong coffee, but it’s not espresso. In Marseille, I found out about the ‘moka’, the Italian coffee-making hand-grenade, and I installed a hot-plate in my office and it became my preferred way of making coffee until I bought a slightly more expensive coffee machine, a krups nova. Then I moved to Bologna.
At which point all coffee preparation stopped. I found that even coffee which came from the departmental coffee machine produced superior espresso to my krups, something which I very soon realised actually made very bad espresso. It amazed me, wandering around Bologna and Italy how good the espresso actually was in almost every bar you went to. On the internet one can find long and painful stories of uber-geeks striving to make the perfect espresso, roasting grinds in their garden sheds, carrying out complicated electro-mechanical modifications to espresso machines costing perhaps thousands of dollars when….in Italy, you wander into a random bar lost in the outskirts of a nondescript town run by an elderly couple who haven’t changed the decor since 1970s and you find … they make perfect espresso.
But only in Italy. I was amazed, driving across to France in my old Ascona, that the minute you cross the border, the espresso quality immediately drops. You can go into an Autogrill / Autostop on either side of the border, and on one side, you will get Italian espresso, on the other side what passes for espresso here in France. That’s another the paradox, incidentally: in France, we have wonderful cafes, but the coffee is of mediocre quality. In Italy, no-one spends more than about fifteen seconds drinking their espressos. Their cafes are places to spend very little time in at all.
How is espresso different between France and Italy? It is kind of remarkable that this difference even exists, because if you go into any bar in Paris you will see that they have the same machines that one finds in a bar in Italy. But here in France the espresso is thin, watery, and bitter, with very little crema. The amount of espresso served too is a lot larger — I would say that it is about twice as large as you might find it standard Italian measure (I’m not talking about Naples, of course, because that is another extreme). The unfortunate difference seems to stem from a combination of inferior coffee beans and preparation, as far as I can tell. So, returning to France, to Paris, from my two years in Italy I knew that if I wanted real espresso I would have to prepare it myself…