How Italy introduced the world to espresso – archive, 29 October 1953

For half a century Neapolitans have been making the best black coffee in Europe and for nearly as long the rest of Italy has also been making and drinking it with a frequency and fervour that almost amounts to addiction. As a nation we grouse over our rheumatism; Italians are always complaining of their nerves or their livers and when asked why these disorders are so common they respond instantly, invariably, and with pride – “Too much espresso …”

Espresso is the name by this Neopolitan invention in coffee brewing is known. A cup of piping fresh coffee can be produced from scratch in 30 seconds. But the speed of infusion is not the significant thing – rather it is that espresso coffee is so superlatively good. It arrives very strong, very smooth, very hot in a very small cup and is normally drunk very much sweetened (to take off some of its edge). It is perhaps a measure of its stimulating and aromatic qualities to say that although the usual small cup holds barely more than two mouthfuls it is uncommon to drink – or want – more than one cup at a time.

Espresso is by far the most successful attempt that has yet been found in coffee-making to gain the essence and eliminate the bean: the claim to be “the cream of coffee” (made by the manufacturers of the most modern brand of espresso machine) may well be thought justified.

There is really very little to the espresso coffee secret beyond a great deal of piping and the pressure that can be produced in this. The finely ground coffee is essentially pressure-cooked. It is said that an espresso machine produces roughly double the number of cups of coffee that an English-type coffee-machine makes from the same amount of coffee.

What is more a cup of espresso is not merely one of those home thoughts of abroad that tend to occur to English travellers during the onset of winter murk. During the last few months a little team of espresso bars has taken Soho by storm. They have a mild Continental atmosphere, wide awake decor, and – to be sure – delicious coffee. The invasion should give a jolt to the unbelievably dreary cups of coffee of the average London snack-bar and the uncomfortable smudginess of the surroundings in which these are drunk. Not before it was time. I would think.

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