Gatherings & Celebrations: Meeting for Coffee in Europe and America - #111

Most of our gatherings and celebrations have their origins in things that go on in the heavens:  annual occurrences that alter our natural surroundings.  Often these cosmic events are coupled with a religious occasion -- Christmas, near the shortest day of the year... Easter, near the spring equinox.  Sometimes they are marked with the celebration of a specific activity -- Thanksgiving, and the completion of the fall harvest.  In almost every case, there are precise dates for the gathering and explicit foods and drinks that have become associated with the occasion.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The gatherings came first; the particular foods and drinks associated with them came afterwards.  There is, however, one very famous exception:  coffee. The drink came first; its association with a type of gathering came afterwards.

The most famous story about the discovery of coffee takes place in Ethiopia.  It tells of a goatherder who noticed that after eating the berries of a certain bush, his goats became happy and excited.  The berries had the same effect on him.  (Those are actually sheep, not goats, but the goats had too much of a caffeine buzz and we couldn’t work with them.)

A local monk joined in the experiment and found himself in the same elated state. The berries became a regular part of the diet at the local monastery and were considered almost as a gift from heaven because they helped keep the brothers awake during their evening prayers.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The word “coffee” comes from an Arabic phrase for wine.  Islamic law forbids the use of wine, so in many ways coffee has taken its place. Coffee started growing in Ethiopia, and Arab doctors have been using it as a form of medicine since the fifth century.  The first cash crop came out of Yemen in the 1400s.  Islamic pilgrims passing through Mecca heard about it and spread the word throughout the Arab world.   Eventually a coffee house became a basic part of every Islamic community.

A Dutch traveler described a typical Middle Eastern coffee house as follows: “Coffee houses are commonly large halls, with floors that are covered with straw mats. At night they are illuminated by many lamps.  The customers are served with smoking pipes and cups of coffee.  Scholars sit in these establishments and tell tales, deliver speeches on various subjects and receive small contributions from the audience for their efforts.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The caffeine in coffee is a stimulant and what it appears to have stimulated in these ancient Arab coffee houses was an interest in original ideas.  People began to talk about politics, about freedom, about -- social change!  Well!   The ruling class couldn’t tolerate that, and in 1656, The Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire outlawed the coffee house.  The idea that a coffee house was a gathering place for revolutionary ideas that had to be supressed, a place of social unrest, stayed with it for hundreds of years.

In 1674 a document titled A Woman’s Petition Against Coffee was published in London.  It claimed that coffee houses kept men from their homes and made them sexually impotent.  In the following year King Charles of England tried to close the coffee houses with a proclamation.  Not a chance. There was such an outcry from the public that within eleven days the proclamation was withdrawn.  Coffee and free speech had been protected.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In England, the coffee house was not only the place to introduce new political ideas, it was the ideal spot to present new business ideas. The first stock exchange in England got started in a coffee house, as did one of the world’s most famous insurance companies, Lloyds of London. People who were interested in a particular type of business would gather in a specific coffee house and the industry would grow up around them. By the middle of the 1700s there were tens of thousands of coffee houses in the great cities of Europe.  This unusual association between coffee drinking and gatherings that stimulated original thoughts continued for many years.  As a matter of fact, many of the meetings held by the people who started the French Revolution took place in coffee houses -- and that was equally true for the American Revolution.

The English brought coffee to the American colonies, but it was rather expensive in comparison to tea, which is the reason the early settlers were drinking tea.  And why King George’s tax on tea led the patriots to toss his tea into the Boston harbor, rather than pay the tax. The Boston Tea Party, as it has come to be known, was more about money than politics, and had nothing to do with gastronomy.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When we take a look at the history of how people really eat and drink, it becomes apparent that politics plays a very small role.  What usually drives our food selection is price.  Drinking coffee in the United States is a perfect example.  We started out as an English colony, drinking tea.  When the Revolutionary War came along, the English, who had been supplying the tea, raised the price and cut off the supply.  We went to drinking coffee.  But as soon as the Revolutionary War was over, we went right back to drinking tea, supplied to us by our old enemies.  We did that until the War of 1812 -- fighting with the English again.  Tea supply was cut off, price went up, we went to drinking coffee.  Only this time, instead of getting our coffee from Africa or Asia at a high price, it was coming up from Latin America.  The price was low and the quality was high.  We never went back to drinking tea.

And that’s how the United States of America became a nation of coffee drinkers... over half a billion cups a day.   Throughout most of America’s coffee-drinking history it was just a cup of Mocha or Java -- slang names for coffee that are also the names of two of the earliest places in the world from which coffee was exported to Europe and the Americas.  But since the 1950’s there has been a growing interest in more sophisticated coffee and of better quality.  Espresso and cappuccino have swept over North America like a dark and foamy wave... a wave that came off the shores of Italy.

Francesco Illy was one of the founding fathers of espresso.  In 1933 he founded the Illy Caffe company of Italy.  In 1935 he built and patented an apparatus which is considered to be the forerunner of most modern espresso machines.  Today the company is run by his son, Ernesto Illy, who is chemist by training but appears to have applied all of his skills to the technology involved in making a better cup of espresso.  And so has his family.  His wife Anna is involved in the business... his son Francesco is a creative director in charge of the corporate image... is daughter Anna is the purchasing manager... his son Andrea is the managing director... and his son Riccardo is a vice-president.  Riccardo, however, has been put out on loan for a few years to be the Mayor of Trieste -- a city of which he is very proud.

RICCARDO ILLY:  We have many richnesses, on the natural point of view, and on the cultural one.  For the natural, we have the sea, with very clean water, we have hundreds of kilometers of coast, and we are right in the middle.  The houses, all the architecture -- the old part of the city, which has been built by the Austro-Hungarians.  So the Austro-Hungarian style here is very well presented in the city.  So you really can spend some days looking around the city and visiting all these cultural richnesses.

This is the Illy roasting facility in Trieste.  The process begins with the arrival of sample coffee beans.  The Illys prefer nine different varieties of bean, which come most often from Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia and Brazil.  These areas are considered to produce coffee which is ideal for espresso.

The samples are brought into the lab for evaluation.  Espresso is made and discussed.  Now, usually a tasting area is a small booth where people sit all alone, taste their sample, and write down their reaction.  Not so at Illy.  Tasting is a family gathering where everybody expresses their opinion loudly and clearly.  The whole thing is very Italian.

The particular beans that are approved are then brought into the plant.  It’s virtually impossible to eliminate all of the defective beans that arrive at a roasting plant from the growing fields, so the job must be undertaken at the roasting company.  The most accurate and sophisticated technology for doing the job is based on photoelectric cells that use a set of color codes to spot a bean that is not up to standard.  If the bean is the wrong color it’s taken out of the stream, and at a rate that no human eye or hand could match.  This machine sorts four hundred beans per second; it’s an expensive process, but it’s important.  A single bad bean can affect the taste of hundreds of other beans.  It takes fifty beans to make a single cup of espresso.

Once the beans are sorted, it’s time to start the blending.  There are three major characteristics that must be balanced in order to have a great cup of espresso:  the taste, the aroma, and the body of the liquid.  It’s almost impossible to get this balance with only one shipment of coffee, and that’s where the nine varieties and the blender come in.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When you put a brand name on a coffee, or any other food product for that matter, people expect it to taste the same.  That’s the whole idea behind a brand -- consistency.  Unfortunately, the things that go into making up that brand are constantly changing; crops vary from year to year.  But people don’t want to know about that -- they want the taste of the brand to remain the same.  And that’s where the blenders come in.  They taste every batch of beans that come in from the growing countries, and constantly re-adjust the formula for the brand, so in the end you have the same taste, the same aroma, and the same body.

The most important stage in the production of coffee is the roasting.  It’s done in huge rotating cylinders.  The temperature inside goes up slowly.  The beans begin to give up their moisture.  They also begin to get bigger.  The cell walls, however, can only take so much pressure before they explode.  So there’s a delicate process going on.  The bean must be roasted but not blown up.  When the beans are properly roasted they must be cooled.  There are two different ways of cooling it.  Water is the fastest, but it reduces the quality of the product.  Streams of cool air are the preferred method for top-quality coffee.

You can buy your espresso coffee in the form of ground coffee or as a whole bean.  Dr. Illy feels that if the coffee is held under pressure, you can buy it in the ground form and it will be perfect.  If it’s not under pressure, you’re better off buying the whole bean and grinding it yourself.  Just make sure you grind it into a powder.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  At last we’re ready to make a cup of espresso.  The ever-precise Dr. Illy recommends seven grams of perfectly-roasted Arabica coffee.  Each grain is to be no smaller than one micron, but no larger than one millimeter.  Thirty cc’s of water at ninety degrees Centigrade pass through the grinds at nine atmospheres of pressure, and the passage takes twenty-five seconds.  But of course, you already knew that.  And now I’ve embarrased myself by stating the obvious...

Illy is clearly dedicated to what goes into a cup of espresso, but they have also become interested in the cup itself.  Since 1992 they have been commissioning artists to design espresso cups, and offering them in limited editions.

DR. ERNESTO ILLY:  And this idea has been making people really falling in love with our aesthetical focusing.  We focus on aesthetics -- in the container and in the contents.  A little caffe, a lot of flavor, a lot of taste, a beautiful cup -- this is the pleasure of the aesthetical enjoyment.

 And along with the espresso, how about some Tiramisu?  Tiramisu is the name of an Italian dessert that has become extremely popular in North America.  Tiramisu translates into English as "lift me up," and from an emotional point of view a few bites of this might just do that.  The chef is Andrea Gibson of Toronto.

Andrea starts the preparation by taking four egg yolks and two whole eggs and whisking them together while adding six tablespoons of sugar and one cup of Marsala, which is a sweet fortified wine, like a port or a sherry.  The bowl goes over a pot of simmering water and you heat and whisk the mixture for five minutes.  Then it goes into the bowl of an electric mixer, where it is beaten at a medium speed until it comes down to room temperature.  That takes about ten minutes.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The next ingredient is a pound of mascarpone cheese, which is a smooth, creamy Italian cheese.  If for some reason you can’t get mascarpone, an okay substitute is one cup of heavy cream blended together with a half pound of ricotta. Or just ricotta cheese that you’ve blended into a nice, smooth texture in a food processor.

When the egg and marsala mixture is cool, half of it gets blended into the mascarpone.  Then the other half.  Two cups of heavy cream are whisked until stiff, then folded into the mascarpone mixture.  The Italian version of a ladyfinger is called a Savoiardi; it’s dipped into a mixture of espresso coffee and brandy and then placed into the bottom of a deep serving bowl.  Andrea is using one that holds four quarts.  The coffee mixture is actually three parts espresso coffee and one part brandy.  When you have a flat layer, the mascarpone mixture goes on for the next layer.  Then a dusting of cocoa, a little cinnamon, another layer of moistened ladyfingers, more mascarpone.  Cocoa.  Cinnamon.  Ladyfingers.  And on and on until the bowl is full.  Using a see-through presentation bowl gives the dish a dramatic look.  The final touch is a decoration of whipped cream, cocoa, and chocolate shavings.  Then into the refrigerator until serving time.  It’ll even hold well overnight.

ANDREA GIBSON:  There is definitely a trend toward more “comfort desserts,” because people don’t feel special out there right now; it’s really tough.  And if you’re made to feel special by a special dessert or a place that treats you well, that’s good.

Monique Barbeau, of the famous coffee town of Seattle, is making our next dessert.  It’s a Lemon Curd Tart.  She starts by breaking seven eggs into a large mixing bowl.

MONIQUE BARBEAU:  You can reduce the number of egg yolks to three in this recipe in the event that you’re watching your dietary guidelines, or have a cholesterol problem.  It will still set up the same, as well as the butter at the end of the recipe.  You can eliminate that, also.  That just adds richness to the finished product.

BURT WOLF:   So I can do it with three yolks and seven whites --


BURT WOLF:   -- and skip the butter at the end.


BURT WOLF:   Great tip.

Then the juice of six lemons goes in, followed by two cups of sugar, and the zest of two lemons. All that gets mixed together.  While those ingredients are getting mixed, the bowl gets heated over a sauté pan of boiling water. The steam does a more even and gentle job of heating the bowl than direct flame.

MONIQUE BARBEAU:  What you want to look for is, you want to look for the change from a very liquid, water form to sort of a Hollandaise consistency.  You also want to be whisking in sort of a “crazy-eight” motion, so you incorporate a lot of air.  This dessert needs a lot of air so it’s not flat.  Then, as the eggs cook, you don’t want to overcook them, but as long as it’s just simmering under the bowl, they’re gonna cook slowly.  And as soon as it gets to Hollandaise temperature, that means the eggs have started to cook, and they’ve incorporated the liquid and they become thick.  And you’ll just know by, ummm...

BURT WOLF:   Looking!


BURT WOLF:   Looking is good!

MONIQUE BARBEAU:  Looking is good.

When the mixture has reached the thickness of a Hollandaise sauce, it's taken off the heat and the six optional tablespoons of butter are whisked in.  At that point it's poured into a pre-cooked 12-inch pie crust, and sent off to the refrigerator to solidify. It’ll take about 20 minutes for the lemon curd to set.  Then Monique adds a garnish of candied lemon zest and the tart’s ready to serve.

And finally, Genevieve Harris, at the Bathers Pavilion restaurant in Sydney, Australia is making a gingerbread loaf with carmelized apples to go with our coffee.  She starts by putting seven ounces of butter into a mixing bowl and whisking it together with one and a quarter cups of brown sugar.

When the mixture is smooth, in go two eggs, which are incorporated one at a time.  Then three-quarters of a cup of dark corn syrup is mixed with three-quarters of a cup of hot water.  Two teaspoons of ground ginger are mixed together with three and a half cups of all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 2 tablespoons of cinnamon.  Some of that mixture gets sifted right into the butter blend.  Then a little of the corn syrup is stirred in.  That process of alternately adding the dry flour and the moist corn syrup continues until all of them have been incorporated into the batter.

GENEVIEVE HARRIS:  If you put all the liquid in first and then add your dry ingredients, you’ll have a very wet batter and you’ll get large clumps of flour that won’t mix into your batter.  So when it’s cooked, and you slice the gingerbread, there’ll be large lumps of flour, white flour, through it.

A strip of parchment paper goes into the bottom of a lightly-buttered loaf pan. That strip of paper will be of enormous value when it is time to remove the cake from the pan. Then in goes the batter. The baking takes place in a preheated 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for 30 minutes. At which point it comes out of the oven to cool. A mixture of equal volumes of brown sugar and water is heated together until it comes to the boil. Genevieve used a half cup of water and a half cup of sugar. In go a few peeled, cored and sliced Granny Smith apples. They cook for 3 minutes.

BURT WOLF:   I should point out that Granny Smith was a real person, who lived here in Sydney, Australia -- and invented the Granny Smith apple.

Then the cake comes out of the pan.  See?  I told you that the paper would come in handy. One-inch-thick slices are cut, and placed onto a serving dish. The carmelized apple slices go on, and a few spoons of melted vanilla ice cream.

Any of those with a cup of coffee and you have a combination that leaves no “grounds” for appeal.  But if you are sitting at an Italian cafe, in or out of Italy, the accompaniment that you are likely to see with your espresso or cappuccino is a cookie with a two hundred year-old love story. 

This is what the Italian city of Saronno looked like in the old days.  It is a town that has become famous because of two lovers who lived here and memorialized their affection in the form of a cookie.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The year was 1789.  The lovers were Giuseppe and Osolina.  The Bishop of Milano had decided to pay a visit to the town of Saronno, but gave very little notice.  No one could prepare a suitable celebration.  Giuseppe, however, decided to mark the occasion by inventing a cookie.  He did not have very many ingredients -- egg whites, sugar, the kernels of apricots.  The result, however, were these extraordinary light, crisp confections.  Osolina decided to wrap them in pairs as a symbol of their love.

Today these cookies are still made in the same town in which they were originally baked.  They are called Amaretti di Saronno, and they are shipped all over the world.  Roberto Colombo shows us how they’re made.

ROBERTO COLOMBO:  Every year we produce here about 6,000 tons of biscuits. 

BURT WOLF:   So those are the pits of apricots, ground up.

ROBERTO COLOMBO:  Exactly.  Exactly.  We only use three ingredients for Amaretti production -- one is apricot kernels, the egg whites, and the last one, the most important one, is sugar.  After that, this machine, which is called the depositer --

BURT WOLF:   “Depositer?”

ROBERTO COLOMBO:  -- yes, the depositer will shape the dough in small pieces just by pressing the dough through the nozzles.  After the shaping of the dough, they will be covered with topping sugar.

BURT WOLF:   Topping sugar.  Is that a special kind --?

ROBERTO COLOMBO:  Yeah, it’s a special sugar; some granules combine together in order to obtain large particles of sugar.  The excess is removed, and after that the product is ready to go into the oven for the baking process.  After coming out of the oven, the Amaretti di Saronno need to be cooled down, so we go on this conveyor here, we put them in two rows in order to bring them to the packing lines.  So now we will go down there.  . . . After cooling, the Amaretti di Saronno are fitted [?] with this little conveyor to a wrapping machine.  This is quite a difficult operation to be done because, you know, you have to take two biscuits, put one upside-down on the other, and then put the little piece of paper around it and twist it.  It’s quite difficult.

To come back to the early part of this story... when the Bishop visited Saronno, he tasted the Amaretti and gave them his gastronomic blessing.  He also performed the marriage of Giuseppe and Osolina, who lived happily ever after.  And whose children and children’s children have continued to bake the Amaretti, making Lazzaroni the oldest still operating bakery in Italy.  And that’s True Love.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Coffee: the drink that appears to have created a gathering of its own.  A gathering that was often associated with creativity, and the exchange of new and sometimes revolutionary ideas -- all rather stimulating.  And for a little more stimulation, I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives. I’m Burt Wolf.