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Returning to Bologna

Returning to Bologna

This week I flew to Bologna, Italy with two colleagues for a Euclid meeting. It was a meeting to plan Euclid instrument operations, so there was a lot of technical discussions, very close to the metal, but it was a lot more interesting that I had expected it to be. It is the first time I have visited Bologna for more than two years, a city I know very well as I was a postdoc there from 2001 to 2003. I realise too that this is the first time I have written anything in this blog about Bologna, which is surely a serious error, given how much I appreciate this city.

We arrived there in the middle of the afternoon last Wednesday. Our aeroplane banked low as we approached the city and there was a wonderful evening light shining on colli bolognesi. There, on a hill by itself I could see the San Luca church, together with the two towers one of the symbols of the city. From the airport we took a taxi, and in a few minutes we were at the hotel, the hotel “Universita” where I stayed during my very first visit to Bologna. A few minutes afterwards, we were in the streets of Bologna. We were very hungry, Air France these days practice starvation diets even on flights leaving around lunchtime. So, we ate some piadini in a cafe underneath the arcades on the via independezia before heading out to visit the city. Our meeting would not start until the next day, and we had a few hours of shopping before the evening meal. I knew exactly where I wanted to go.

To me, at first glance, the city does not seem to have changed at all. There are still the same narrow streets, the same brick-red buildings. The same movement, even late at night. We visited a few sights of the city, and I went to all the shops that I liked when I lived there. I bought all the things that I like: coffee, chocolate, a good bottle of wine, grappa, some cheese and prosciutto. In almost all the shops, everyone remembered me, and I was treated with great courtesy (as I would say, Italian spoken with an Irish accent is unforgettable). Heavily laden down, I made my way back to the hotel at around 6pm. Only thanks to my colleague Olivier H. was I able to bring everything that I had bought back to Paris: he had some extra space in his bag.

At Bruno e Franco, via Oberdan.

Afterwards, we went to eat at Tony’s, the trattoria on the ground floor of the building I used to live in, on via Augusto Righi. This restaurant had great importance for me when I lived in Bologna. I waited there in Tony’s with my cordless telephone that evening in June 2003 for the call from Emmanuel B. to find out if I had been recruited or not for the post of “assistant astronomer” at the Obs. de Paris (it came; I had). The day that I left Bologna, towards mid-day I took down my very last possessions that I had in my apartment and put them in my white Ascona parked in front of Trattoria Tony. At that moment, the waiters came out from the restaurant (they were just preparing the tables for the Sunday mid-day meal) to bid farewell.

At Tony’s we were five at our table. The restaurant was full. Tony’s has that direct, unforgiving light so typical of Italian trattorias: you can see exactly what you are eating. I had the meal that I often ate many years ago, tagliatelle al ragu, followed by the the fileto con aceto balsamico. It’s been a while since I was hungry enough to eat all that, but during all that walking in the afternoon I had worked up a strong appetite. At the end of the meal, I talked to Stefano, the son of Tony. I found out that Tony was no longer alive: he had had an accident and died two years ago. I talked to them about my father and what happened this year: I can understand this kind of thing now. Leaving the restaurant I felt a bit weighed down by all these thoughts of mortality but hey, that could have also been the two bottles of Sangiovese that I had drunk. Later, after a nice ice-cream at Gelateria della Moline I met my friend Tommasso. It was great to see him again and we talked for a while in the cold metal chairs in front of the gelateria before I returned to the hotel Universita .

The next day, a full day of meetings, followed by a meal at a nice restaurant on the via san petronio vecchio. There was another friend I wanted to see, but she was not arriving in Bologna that night until after 11PM. I thought, we will never be that long at the restaurant…but we were. So we met, and I walked back to my hotel through the somewhat slightly more silent streets of Bologna around two in the morning, and the next day we left.

On that distant summer’s evening  while I was sitting in Tony’s and the phone rang to tell me that I had a permanent job in Paris,  I said to myself: well,  there are not so many places in the world that I would be happy to go to after living here in Bologna…but probably Paris is one of them. So I said to myself, do not be sad to leave Bologna. There is certainly however something special about this city. I am looking forward to returning there before too long.

Some nice portici in Bologna
Visiting Illycaffe, Trieste

Visiting Illycaffe, Trieste

In December I made a short visit to Trieste, Italy, where I was invited to give a seminar at the Trieste Observatory. Fantastic hospitality! I ate extremely well and was excellently looked after. Here’s a short account of what happened….

For espresso drinkers, Trieste is indelibly associated with the name of Illy. It was in Trieste that Illy created the first espresso machine, the Iletta, and Illy coffee beans is the only Italian espresso of high quality that is available throughout the world, thanks to the Illy method of packing the coffee beans with a neutral atmosphere under pressure. So I was amazed to discover, a few months previously, that the brother of my host was highly placed in the Illy coffee hierarchy and a seminar in Trieste seemed an ideal occasion to arrange for a visit to the Illy factory.

After my arrival, and an excellent meal near the observatory, at 3pm we drove to the Illy factory near the Trieste docks. It’s there, for almost a hundred years, that green beans have arrived from remote corners of the world to Illy’s factory. Crossing the port of Trieste we could see in the middle distance, on the hillside, a very tall chimney. This, I was told, was the chimney of the Illy coffee factory. The chimney is of such a great height so that only the freshest possible air is used in the roasting process; it’s actually an air intake, rather than an exhaust.

At Illy we were outfitted with visitor tags and of course the tour started with an excellent espresso! At the centre of the reception area is a gleaming bar where free cups of excellent espresso are served to anyone who asks. Here, where espresso was invented, one might regard this cup as the definitive version. I took an espresso with my friends and we talked to the bartender. It was indeed an excellent espresso; I realised now to what level I have to strive each afternoon at the IAP when I prepare espresso for my friends.


Our tour of the factory lasted over two hours, in the main part because myself and my colleagues were very inquisitive. Our tour started with the coffee bean selection process. We were led into a narrow glass-fronted room which overlooked what I can only describe as a waterfall of green coffee beans, a vast avalanche of coffee grains. Here the crucial selection process took place: the reflected light from each coffee bean is carefully examined and if it does not fall within a carefully pre-determined spectrum pffttt! it is ejected with a blast of compressed air. A few other coffee beans are naturally taken out with it but no matter: one bad coffee bean, we are told, is enough to spoil an entire cup of espresso.

After selection, the coffee beans are roasted and then travel in pipes propelled by compressed air to the packaging plant. Walking over there I stood amidst countless machines that relentlessly filled one coffee tin after another with Illy coffee beans and then carefully pressurised the tin with neutral gases. I realised that every single tin of Illy coffee in the entire world came from this factory: there is no other production facility. Illy also make their own tins, which are tested to make sure they don’t explode under pressure an automated process which which we witnessed (and were I nervously awaited an extremely large bang.) Throughout the shop floor I saw espresso machine after espresso machine: at each stage of the packaging process espresso coffee is regularly brewed and tasted (how do these people sleep at night?) to make sure that only the highest-quality product is shipped.

The most wondrous place, however, was the Illy coffee laboratory. Here it was explained to us how Illy selects the coffee beans which will be used in their espresso blend. When a sample of coffee beans arrive at the factory, they are first examined under the microscope, to make certain they have the correct colour and shape. Okay. But the next step I found quite amazing. Illy scientists make measurements of each coffee bean using a near-infrared spectrometer. Our guide pulled out a thick binder showing the results of such tests. I was amazed. These plots were what I as an astronomer would recognise as a colour-colour diagram; each axis shows the difference between two adjacent spectral filters. If an astronomer wants to find a distant galaxy, he looks for objects which fall into a particular region of colour-colour space. Galaxies at redshift of around three are here, lower-redshift galaxies are there. But at Illy, they carried out exactly the same experiment! Good coffee beans lurked in this region of colour-colour space, bad coffee beans in this one! I had always suspected that astronomy and espresso were intimately connected, but now I had proof.

We left the factory and returned to the observatory just as the winter light was fading. I worked for further hour or two at the observatory before leaving to eat an evening meal with my colleagues. The next morning, climbing up the hillside to the observatory before my talk, I made an interesting discovery…. I knew that Jimmy Joyce had lived in Trieste but I had not realised it was so close to the observatory…and, wasn’t that someone’s washing hanging out just next door?


I remembered Flan O’Brien’s hilarious Dalkey Archive, in which James Joyce has a double career stitching Jesuit underwear…

On the preparation of espresso… (part 1)

On the preparation of espresso… (part 1)

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…