close encounters with a food culture: coffee

Steve tweets: Coffee today with friends just back from Italy. They were partly relieved to be back in SF where we have good coffee. #theworldhaschanged

It’s true. Italy (and Switzerland) was happy to provide all the espresso I might want to drink, and I drank plenty. More than I have since I was an affected teenager. But getting my morning cups was a challenge. It was a clash of two coffee cultures, both valid, but in which the other mightily inconvenienced the expectations of mine.

Our first morning in Lugano, we wandered down to a breakfast room equipped with a food buffet, two thermal coffee carafes, and two or three large, round tables, all partially occupied by elderly, German-speaking tourists. Both J-P and I figured that it was communal seating all around, so we gathered our food, pumped our coffee (maybe drip, maybe Americano, regardless a bit weak), and took our seats among the oldsters. Awkward to eat surrounded by strangers we couldn’t understand, but such are the ways of travel. We punctuated the experience with trips to the carafes; it was one of only two mornings either of us would get to refill our half-size cups more than once while at the breakfast table.

The next morning, the buffet was there but the urns were not. There was no one at the communal tables, but a few people seated singly or in pairs out on the patio. We gestured and grunted to the waiter about this possibility, and he showed us to a table. We already had inklings, I don’t remember how, that the day might be a holiday. (This was the day we would hike from Monte San Salvatore to Monte Arbostora and down into Morcote in a rainstorm, to find that the last ferry back to Lugano had left half an hour before, on its holiday schedule due to the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.) We chalked this otherwise inexplicable change of breakfast arrangements up to the suspected holiday.

Coffee came to the table in a small-ish silver urn, which yielded about eight ounces of coffee each. We drained our cups with hangdog expressions and stopped for espresso on our way out of town.

The next morning, both the carafes and the communal tables were back, but it was clear this time that there was seating on the patio. We sat outside again, and this time the coffee urn was a little bigger than before. Call it a 20-ouncer. (Our French press at home makes about a quart, and we still sometimes give each other dirty looks over it.) I broke and headed over to the communal carafes for a refill, but the waiter caught me. He inquired about my need for “un caffe di bon giorno,” and his colleague seemed to find this such a bon mot that they both caught the giggles. One of them did bring us another urn—a small one.

That was the most coffee we ever got in one sitting. I hoped that the waiters’ teasing would extend to them bringing us a yet larger urn the next day, but the staff changed with the weekend, and the new waiters neither joked about nor humored our American ways. Each subsequent morning brought one—and only one—little urn.

The Caffe Motta at Linate Airport was the final place we enacted this drama, drinking two six-ounce, two-Euro Americanos each. We were well resigned to the dearth of morning coffee by then, and instead we noticed how differently such a place used its space than it would if it were in an American airport. First, it was more than a kiosk or a counter; it occupied its own large room, part of which was roped off for table service later in the day. That said, the food displayed in the extensive display cases would hardly have filled those of a coffee kiosk in an American airport; the norm of display was sparse, where ours is heaping. The people behind the counter also seemed calmer than their American counterparts; in a similarly busy place here, there would have been a lot more bustle and yelling. Beyond the counter, partly visible, was a kitchen. Most of what we could see happening was assembly: taking pastries from a bag, arranging them on a tray, and dusting them with powdered sugar, for example. But it was clear from the lack of disposable plates, cups, and utensils (we saw very few during our stay) that the sink, at least, saw use.


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