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Spilling the beans; As well as being renowned for their cuisine, we have the Italians to thank for the coffee house culture that has taken hot drinks to a new level. Alison Jones reports.

rson Welles was not a film-maker to do things by halves, particularly when it came to Citizen Kane.

He performed triple duties as writer, director and actor on what is widely regarded to be the finest movie ever made.

And if he didn't quite stoop to making the coffee he certainly drank enough of it to put himself into hospital through over-consumption.

He was not the only intellectual to fall for the addictive, stimulating effects of a 'cup of joe'.

Voltaire had a 50 a day habit (and presumably permanent insomnia).

The composer Bach got such a buzz from hanging around in cafes, jamming with his musical contemporaries, that he wrote a Coffee Cantata, about a woman who defied her father and scandalised society by wanting to drink coffee.

Though the plants were first discovered in Kaffa, the region in North Africa now known as Ethiopia, the modern espresso bar has its roots in Italy.

Historically speaking, reports of a stimulating, bitter black beverage began appearing as far back as the time of Homer.

There is also a popular legend about a goatherd named Kaldi who noticed one of his charges becoming unusually frisky after eating red berries from a bush.

The news of this strange phenomenon reached the ears of an inventive monk, who experimented with boiling the berries to produce a drink to help keep his brother monks awake during their devotions.

From there coffee consumption spread rapidly through the Yemen, Arabia and Egypt.

In Turkey the beans were roasted over open fires before being crushed and then boiled in water. Through Venetian trading links with Turkey coffee arrived in Europe.

In the beginning prices were high and it was sold exclusively through chemist shops. In 1582 reports filtered back from the Venetian ambassador to the Sultan in Constantinople that businessman were meeting several times a day to talk over a cup of strong hot coffee. The fashion started to spread swiftly throughout Venice. In 1640 the first official coffee bar opened, followed swiftly by others in Milan, Turin, Genoa, Florence, Rome and Naples. By 1763 here were 218 outlets in Venice alone.

In spite of the fact that it had originally been used by monks to pray harder and longer, by the 18th century fanatical Christians had started objecting to its stimulating properties, condemning it as 'the devil's beverage'. They urged Pope Clemente VII to ban its consumption. Wisely the pontiff decided to try it before passing judgement.

To the annoyance of the abstainers he was an instant Java junkie, crying: 'This beverage is so delicious that it would be a sin to let only misbelievers drink it! Let us defeat Satan by blessing this beverage which contains nothing objectionable to a Christian.'

As well as the esteem coffee was held in as an aid to conversation (it was often called an 'intellectual beverage' by 18th century men of culture) it was also considered to have healing properties. In a leaflet printed in Milan in 1801, physicians credited it with being a great 'cure-all'.

Although Italy is commonly considered the home of espresso, the original crude prototype was made in France in 1822. The Italians perfected it and were the first to manufacture it.

It has now become such an integral part of Italian society that there are more than 200,000 espresso bars across the country.

The cappuccino cafes that are currently thriving in Birmingham are actually a hybrid of Italian and American coffee cultures.

Amy Robinson of Lavazza UK, the largest family owned purchaser of green coffee in Europe said: 'The difference between them is that in Italy you stand up to drink it at a bar because it is twice as much if you sit down. It is only meant to be a short break while you are on the go.

'It is part of life rather than a break from life, which is what the coffee houses where people come in to sit down are about.'

Even the names of the frothy coffee drinks she claims are an American attempt to add pedigree by Italianising them.

'The basis of all these coffees is the espresso. In a typical Italian household you will usually find a stove-top mocha pot which they make it in.

'This forces water through the ground coffee in the form of steam so it only has limited contact, just long enough to extract the full flavour and aroma.

'It is actually a lot healthier than American filter coffee or cafetieres because it contains less caffeine. You hardly ever find kettles in Italian kitchens. They rarely drink tea, except for herbal or mint tea and then they would just boil up a pan of water.

'Italians are beginning to appreciate good coffee in the same way as they appreciate fine wine. Coffee drinkers are becoming gourmets and are actually quite snobbish about the quality and which brand they will drink.'

Cappuccino: One third espresso, one third hot milk, one third froth.

Latte: One third espresso, two thirds steamed milk.

Americano: One third espresso, two thirds hot water.

Mocha: One third espresso, shot of chocolate, two thirds steamed milk.

(For more information consult


Presentation is as important as taste for Italian coffee makers such as Costa CoffeePictures/Simon Hadley Far left, whole coffee beans will be ground down to achieve a rich, fresh flavour; Middle, Jo Cooper enjoys a cappuccino at Costa Coffee in Birmingham; Left, hot milk is frothed to make lattes and cappuccinos
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 13, 2001
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