Last night I couldn’t sleep until 5 am. I hope you can hear the outrage in that sentence. My insomnia was so dire that I finally got right to the end of The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, which I’ve been pretending to read for about six months. Ordinarily sleep visits me a couple of sentences into this paragraph:
“From the time of Edward’s own betrothal in 1326 to Philippa, daughter of William III, count of Hainault, rather than a princess of the house of France, English policy abroad had begun to change. Alliances were sought, as Edward I had sought them in 1294-7, with the princes of the Low Countries and north Germany, but these were to be based upon Edward III’s claim to the French throne rather than on his position as a wronged vassal of Philip IV. The means of attack were very similar, but the pretext was different. By claiming the French crown, Edward effectively removed one source of Anglo-French tension at a stroke. Appeals from his subjects in Aquitaine to the Paris parlement (the supreme appellate jurisdiction of the French crown) were outlawed, because any such appeal would be to seek justice from a usurper. No longer–“
That’s less than half of the paragraph and I can’t even make myself type it all out. But last night I read pages and pages of dynastic marriages, emergent art movements, and academic rebuttals and sleep hung back.
Why? Because of this execration:
Two spoonfuls of this concoction (well, four spoonfuls if you count John’s portion, which I ate) were enough to send me into eight-hour tearful, hypervigilant brain jag. This gelato is not just coffee flavored, it is 33% strong Brazilian coffee. Moral of the story: just because something has ingredients ‘di origine naturale’ doesn’t mean you should ingest them willy-nilly.
I’m not ordinarily a big coffee drinker but there is something about coffee here that I can’t resist. Maybe it’s because we’re only two blocks away from the LaVazza Temple of Doom, or maybe it’s because of the adorable little cups, but Italian espresso is like a bracing snort of jet-engine fuel. I don’t know why, but I do know that every morning (and some afternoons) it is necessary to go to ‘al bar’.
In 1895, businessman Luigi Lavazza (1859-1949) opened a little grocery store in Turin. He gradually turned his interest to coffee roasting and production and more than 120 years later the business has an annual revenue of nearly 1.5 million euros. Now, in a district where nearly every other building is a beige three-storied apartment block, there is this:
In Italy the bar is not just a place where you go to macerate the liver (though it is also that). Mainly, it’s a kind of café/cafeteria/community center. At some bars it is not possible to drink at the table. You have to stand at the bar. For an anglo with inadequate Italian and Finnish levels of social anxiety, this can be a challenge. Trial and error has taught me to break it down into simple steps:
Al Bar per Idioti
1. Say ‘Buongiorno’ and smile (convincingly) as soon as you walk in.
2. Figure out where to order. There may be two or more humans behind the bar—select the one who makes eye-contact with you (Note: this means you have to actually look at their faces).
3. Order very politely. This will make it clear that you’re a) a foreigner, b) peaceful, c) not a snob, just not good enough at Italian to make small talk
4. Stand and wait. (This is the awkward part, but you’ve already made it clear that, like a beast of the field, you are incapable of small talk. You can scrutinize the menu or the sweetener selection if you get stuck for a place to look. Put your hands in your pockets.)
5. The coffee is presented to you. Don’t pay yet.
6. Drink the coffee. Do it fairly quickly and try not to burn your mouth. Drink the tiny glass of water to help with the not-burning.
7. Put down the payment (usually about 1.50 euros)
8. Say ‘Buona giornata’
9. Leave calmly.
Yesterday the routine was enlivened by a conversation between bar patrons. A dignified matron quizzed two blue-collar guys about a recent accident. They replied to her respectfully and in great detail, illustrating everything with elaborate hand gestures. I gathered that a motorcyclist had been skittled at a roundabout. The speakers didn’t mind everyone else looking on. In fact, they seemed to enjoy having an audience.
Incidentally, another one of Piedmont’s famous coffee-making sons was engineer Alfonso Bialetti who acquired and patented ‘la macchinetta’ the moka pot, which was designed by Luigi De Ponti. The moka pot brews coffee by passing boiling water pressurized by steam through ground coffee. Alfonso’s son Renato carried the business on. Renato died in 2016 at the age of 93 and had his ashes put in a large moka.
The last important coffee/Turin fact that you don’t need to know but that I’m going to tell you anyway is that the famous local drink is called ‘bicerin’ (the word is Piedmontese and means ‘little glass’). The drink is served hot and consists of three unmixed layers: espresso, drinking chocolate and whole milk (or heavy cream).