What do you do on a super hot day, after feasting on Ligurian seafood and there’s still an hour left before you can catch the train home?
I usually head over to the air conditioned supermarket. I know, the food is industrial but the air is cool.
Of course you can’t just stand in the middle of a supermarket rejoicing in the cool air without looking like a complete idiot. So I looked for something I could appear to be engrossed in. I decided to research coffee.
If you’ve ever purchased coffee in Italy, you know that it comes in quarter kilogram packages, roughly half pound bricks of finely ground, dark roast coffee beans. The bricks vary greatly in price, from an astonishing 0.98 € to over 5. In any given supermercato there are usually 3-5 different types of coffee available from each of 5 or 6 companies.
Why all the variety and price varience? Well, that’s what I wanted to find out. You see, just that morning I had come across a medium priced 2.35 € brick of coffee that I hated. It was called “familia,” a word that meant nothing to me in terms of quality. Perhaps Italian families are bitter these days. The coffee sure was. And it wasn’t cheap.
I have a machine with an electric pump that makes fairly decent coffee. Over the years I’ve found out that the taste really does vary with the type of coffee I use—but when faced with a quick decision, the array of coffees on the shelf is so daunting that I usually end up picking the one that has the best picture on the cover of the package.
So here I am with time to waste and a quest to find out what the difference is in all these coffees. So I read the packages carefully.
It turns out that much of the coffee on the shelves of a supermarket are comprised mainly of Robusta beans. Robusta, despite the name, isn’t really robust in taste. The best coffee for flavor is acknowledged to be Arabica. Gourmet coffee you spend 10 dollars a pound for should be 100% Arabica. Few of the available coffees in Italy are 100% Arabica. The few that are are given the designation “oro” or gold.
Then there’s the grind. Many coffees are made for the moka, those ubiquitous (in Italy) little stovetop aluminum pots that force hot steam up through the coffee into the top of the pot where it’s captured for you to pour into your cup. The coffee they produce is usually not all that yummy, and if you’ve ever looked into the bottom water reservoir after a couple weeks of use you’d probably swear off using such a method of making coffee. There are chemical reactions going on in there that will turn your stomach if you’re sensitive to that kinda thing.
My cheap electric espresso machine is probably not so ideal either. You need a pretty heavy (read expensive) pump to produce enough steam pressure to extract all the flavor out of the coffee you carefully measure and tamp into the filter basket. I don’t see any coffee that’s made for this kind of machine. Nothing on any of the packages says, “ideal for use in cheap espresso machines probably made in China.”
So it’s kinda hard to decide.
Eventually, about 15 minutes before my train to Aulla was about to depart, I selected a package labeled caffè motto qualità Arabica 100% ORO.
It has a really nice picture of a cup of coffee on the package. The cup has a nicely PhotoShopped wisp of aroma coming off it I can almost smell.
I’ll tell you if it is good in the morning. Right now, our neighbors have just invited us over for some wild boar. There is a law in Italy: If you have eaten so much for lunch that you are thinking of skipping dinner, you’ll get invited somewhere for an enormous dinner feast you can’t refuse.
You gotta love this country.