The long and the short of coffee
By Harry Eyres
Published: May 21 2011 00:05 | Last updated: May 21 2011 00:05
On a recent trip to Italy I heard a man order an espresso “un po’ lungo” (a little bit long). I was expecting he would receive the Italian version of a caffè Americano; a strongish coffee but served in a decent-sized cup and long enough to provide a few minutes of meditative sipping. Not a bit of it: when the coffee arrived, it was to my eyes indistinguishable from a normal espresso or even what in London coffee houses is called a ristretto (not a term I have ever heard anyone use in Italy). In other words, it consisted of about a teaspoon and a half of incredibly strong black coffee, concentrated to the point of viscousness, topped with that tawny foam that is the good espresso’s equivalent of the creamy head on a pint of Guinness.
Perhaps it took him 45, rather than 30 seconds, to knock it back. That, for him, was un po’ lungo.
Back in London, I attended the opening of the Southbank Centre’s 60th anniversary celebrations of the Festival of Britain (on which more later). Trying to wake myself up, I had one cup of so-called coffee and then another. Each contained at least five times the liquid volume of the espresso un po’ lungo but nothing of that beverage’s intensity, flavour or drama. Eventually, arriving back home, I had to make myself a proper cup. By this time I had had far too much coffee, yet not enough.
All this prompted wider-ranging reflections on length and shortness, not just as they affect coffee. Although many chains of coffee bars in the UK and in the US claim to be Italian either in origin or inspiration – Caffè Nero promises “the best espresso this side of Milan” – in fact, the coffee experience and philosophy they offer is a pale shadow of the Italian one. The fact is that English and American people, on the whole, cannot and do not want to drink coffee in the way Italians do. For Italians, coffee is something very short, very intense and done standing up – a sort of gastronomic knee-trembler. Even an Italian cappuccino is not much longer than an espresso – it is beautiful, served in a small cup, and designed to be dispatched swiftly. Hardly anyone sits down at a table to drink one; not least because they know they will be charged three times as much.
The success of Starbucks is based on an entirely opposing philosophy. Everything is predicated on size. Even the smallest Starbucks coffee is called “Tall”, and if it consisted of coffee as Italians understand it, it would be enough to send three human beings into orbit. Thank goodness it consists mostly of water, or some watery perversion of milk.
Many Starbucks customers like to sit on their own, often with a computer, less frequently, alas, with a book or notebook, slowly sipping their hot coffee-based beverage while dealing with e-mails. Italians, on the other hand, intensely social creatures, nearly always drink their coffees in company, conversing with someone, a friend, colleague or the barista (who is never called a barista).
Length as opposed to intensity, volume rather than flavour: here we have not just two ways of making coffee but two philosophies of life. Is it better to draw something out as long as possible, or, as the poet Andrew Marvell put it in another, erotic, context, to “roll all [its] strength and all [its] sweetness up into one ball” so that we can “tear our pleasures ... thorough the iron gates of life”?
While these reflections on the length of a cup of coffee were unfolding, I was reading and listening to the news from government statisticians that one in four of today’s under-16s “can expect to live to be 100 years old”. Apart from the fact that extreme longevity sounds like something to appeal more to the Starbucks habitué than the espresso drinker, I wondered about both the claim and the use of “expect” and “expectancy”, which have become normal parlance in discussions of lifespan.
The fact that, statistically, the mean of lifespan is 80 or 82 or 102 does not mean that any individual can expect to live that long, in the way that a Starbucks customer can expect to receive a cup with 12 or 20 fluid ounces of coffee. For a single individual, for all sorts of obvious reasons, there is absolutely no way of knowing how long he or she will live.
Presumably, “life expectancy” depends to some extent on how one chooses to live one’s life. Someone as brave as Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist and documentary-maker killed recently in Misrata in Libya, was less likely to comb grey hair than an employee of the Inland Revenue living in suburbia. But then, as the great cartoon by HM Bateman shows, and as Italian coffee drinkers instinctively know, the roof can fall on the head of the most cautious and risk-averse of human mice.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.