Saturday, May 17, 2008

Strong black coffee

One morning back in January I was dropping my kids, Sammy and Carmela, off at school. Coming out of the school was the mother of Ismael, one of Carmela’s classmates, together with a man who I assumed was Ismael’s dad. (I knew that Ismael’s dad was Italian, from the Calabria region where I spent a year just after leaving university, but I had never met him.) As I was looking at him, I realised that it was Pierluigi, a very close friend from my time in Castrovillari from 1987 to 1988. We had last seen each other in Edinburgh in 1996, but had completely lost touch since then (before the days of email and mobile phones).

After getting over the shock, we went for a coffee and caught up. Pierluigi explained that he was over visiting his best friend from back home, Francesco, who had married a woman from Seville, called Monica, and was now living in Cadiz. (Pictured below.)

I decided to go over to Castrovillari for a visit at the end of April (as it turned out, the weekend after Berlusconi and his unsavoury friends had been swept back into power), although I admit I was also a little wary of taking such an obvious trip back in time. I flew from Seville to Rome and had a few hours to kill before catching the night bus down to Castrovillari, but to be honest I was itching to be back in Calabria, and after a couple of hours of aimless sightseeing I took refuge in a slightly touristy bar with live jazz, until it was time to head over to the rather ramshackle Tiburtina bus station, which was full of Romanians waiting for long-distance buses back to Bucharest. I found my bus and settled down for the night, expecting to arrive at half past four the next morning. I’d set my alarm to make sure I didn’t sleep through my stop, but when I woke up I realized that we had been delayed and were still high in the mountains of Basilicata, the region which borders Calabria to the north. As dawn broke, I made out out a huge illuminated cross on a hilltop, and as we got closer to Castrovillari was surprised at how familiar the landscape felt after a 20-year absence.

I had to rouse Pierluigi from his bed with a quick phone call, and within ten minutes I was drinking strong black coffee with Pierluigi and his mum. I’d been a frequent visitor to the house when I lived in Castrovillari, but I’m fairly sure his mum didn’t really remember me. I think I’d just merged in with the procession of assorted foreigners Pierluigi had dragged in over the years, and it took a while to establish I was Scottish rather than Spanish or Norwegian.

I had forgotten how strong the coffee is in southern Italy. Although I drink coffee all the time, my first cup of Calabrian in twenty years was distinctive enough to give me one of those ‘taste memories’. (Not exactly a Proustian memory, rather a vague feeling of forgotten familiarity.)

When made at home, the sugar is often added in the top of the espresso pot, and you can then add more to the cup if you need it. I was shown the following method by a friend, but have no idea whether it is typical, or something he had just made up to while away the time. Maybe I was even the victim of a practical joke.

  1. Put 3 teaspoons of white sugar into a glass.
  2. Use a small stovetop espresso maker. (The big ones tend to produce watery coffee.) Make the coffee in the usual way, making sure you fill the coffee holder to the very top with coffee, and being careful not to overfill the water compartment.
  3. As soon as the first, creamy portion of the coffee starts to come out, pour a very small amount into the glass with the sugar in it.
  4. While the rest of the coffee is filtering into the top of the espresso maker, stir the coffee and sugar mixture, until the sugar dissolves to form a thick, light brown syrup.
  5. Pour the coffee into small cups, and sweeten with the syrup.

Different countries have very different ways of dealing with coffee. In Britain, it is treated in a similar way to tea: plenty of hot water, and with cold milk and sugar being optional. In Spain, it is typically mixed with hot milk, in varying quantities depending on preference and time of the day. So the coffee ranges from a very milky manchado (which is really just hot milk flavoured with a bit of coffee), through café con leche, to cortado (black coffee, with a little hot milk added to make it smoother). The milk, of course, is always hot. In southern Italy, coffee is served very strong and is as much a vehicle for sugar as a drink in its own right.