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In Search of a Perfect Cappuccino

January 4, 2014
A cappuccino at Taylor St Baristas, Richmond

A cappuccino at Taylor St Baristas, Richmond

I clearly remember my first cappuccino experience. And it was nowhere as romantic as Rome and the famous Caffe San’Eustachio. I was still at school, in my teens, and a family friend had told my parents about finding a cafe where you could have an authentic Italian cappuccino. The cafe turned out to be right by Waterloo station in central London. It looked more like what we Brits would call a ‘caff’ – the kind of place workmen hang out eating egg and chips with a large mug of strong tea. However, the coffee was so amazing I can recall it to this day and for me, it was love at first sip. Of course it says a lot about my family that we would make a special trip to London from Kent to sample a good coffee and goes some way to explaining why I spend a lot of time searching out good food and drink and writing the blog. At home, it has to be said, we generally drank instant as that was what people thought coffee was in those days (though it’s many years since a cup of instant has passed my lips; I’d rather go without). We did however have a percolator and would sometimes make ‘real’ coffee from ground coffee beans.

‘Real’ Italian coffee did in fact come to London some time earlier than this but it was a rare thing indeed. Bar Italia opened in Soho’s Frith Street in 1949 and is still run by the third generation of the same Italian family, serving excellent coffee. It was about this time that cappuccinos, as we know them, became popular after Achille Gaggia invented his espresso machine with a steam nozzle in 1948. But it was in Milan in 1901 that the modern cappuccino could be said to have been born when Luigi Bezzera invented an espresso machine. The origin of the cappuccino is however steeped in myths and controversy, so I by no means claim to have the definitive information – though I have done some research!

We think of cappuccinos being Italian but the first coffee approaching ‘cappuccino’ originated in Viennese coffee houses in the 18th century, after the Ottoman Turks brought coffee to Europe, and was known as ‘Kapuziner’. The Austrians topped it with whipped cream, a common addition in Europe till this day, so you have to remember to say ‘without cream’ in places like France, Spain and the Netherlands, though not in Italy where I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t dream of adding cream.

In London in 1978, Monmouth Coffee opened their first coffee house in Covent Garden, roasting beans from single farms, estates and cooperatives on site. It was a mecca for coffee lovers and for a long time one of the few places in London to experience a really good coffee. It’s still a great place for coffee (click here for review). Costa coffee, also selling good coffee and roasting their own beans, opened in 1973 and I consider it the best of the chains. In fact, I’ll now only stop at motorway service stations with a Costa cafe. Though my usual choice there is a cortado, which has become a trendy coffee of late. I first experienced it in Spain, introduced to it by my friends Linda and George who like it because it’s a white coffee with only a very little milk and thus quite strong, and comes in a small glass.

photo

Coffee hit a disastrously bad and rather long phase when Starbucks arrived in UK in 1998. Suddenly cappuccinos became huge monstrosities and more akin to a hot coffee-flavoured milkshake than real coffee. Unfortunately too many cafes and restaurants took up the Starbucks baton and it became almost impossible to find a good cappuccino, other than searching out rare specialist places like Monmouth. I was in Rome in 2001 and ordered a cappuccino in a cafe in Piazza Navona and was brought what I’d call a ‘Starbucks cappuccino’. No, I said in my best Italian, I didn’t want an American cappuccino, I wanted an Italian one and pointed to another table. They took the huge glass mug away and came back with the real thing. In Rome again a couple of years ago, with my friends Robert and Jenny, we could go into almost any cafe and get a good cappuccino of a proper cup size for breakfast in their local, non-touristy area.

Breakfast in Rome, 2012

Breakfast in Rome, 2012

I went through a few years of asking cafes to define their cappuccinos to me before I would order. I wanted to know the size cup they used (please never a mug!); I would often have to ask for an extra shot unless I was to suffer an insipid milky brew; I would say I didn’t want half a cup of froth because a cappuccino isn’t meant to be like that – it should be approximately half coffee, half hot milk and a little foam on top. And neither should it be scalding hot. Heat destroys the true coffee flavour and makes the drink bitter. If you can’t comfortably sip your cappuccino immediately it’s put before you, it’s too hot.

Then, back in 2010 I discovered Taylor St Baristas (click here for review). And the Flat White. The cafe had been voted best coffee in west London by Time Out and it didn’t take me too many sips to understand why. It’s still my regular coffee haunt and to be honest, until I’ve had one of their coffees, I don’t feel I’ve had a true coffee hit for the day – unless I head into central London where my other favourite coffee house is found: the brilliant New Row Coffee (click here) or their sister cafe, Freestate Coffee (click here).

Flat White at Freestate Coffee

Flat White at Freestate Coffee

Thus I deserted the Italian cappuccino for the Australian Flat White as my regular daily caffeine fix. However, yesterday morning in Taylor St Richmond, I asked for a cappuccino. It was so good – though to be honest, very similar to a Flat White – that I ordered another one this morning. The owner and head barista, Alese, was at their Marzzocco machine and thought there’d been some mistake with the order, knowing my coffee habits, and made me a Flat White. I laughed and said that actually I had ordered a cappuccino, but I wasn’t about to waste a good coffee when she offered to take it away and make me a cappuccino, so I waited until the afternoon for another ‘Italian’ coffee. I can also get a good, very Italian style cappuccino at the wonderful Ruben’s Bakehouse just down the road from me, if I fancy breakfast Italian style.

Breakfast at Ruben's Bakehouse

Breakfast at Ruben’s Bakehouse

The word cappuccino comes from the Italian ‘cappuccio‘ meaning ‘hood’; the ‘ino‘ ending makes it ‘little’ – thus, little hood. It’s said to be named after Capuchin monks, though the reference is more to the coffee colour of their habits than anything. Although some say that a good cappuccino, with its circle of white encircled by a darker coffee crema resembles a monk’s head. Crema is the key to a good coffee. You will see a wonderful circle of crema round the edge of a good espresso. It looks creamy even though there’s no milk in it.

Espresso in Venice, 2013

Espresso in Venice, 2013

This crema will still be visible on a good cappuccino too. The Italians generally don’t put chocolate on top; it would be a very unusual thing to order a cappuccino in a cafe in Italy and it come with a chocolate topping. I like to be asked if I want chocolate and often say no, depending on my mood, and where I am. But I know if I say Yes in somewhere like Taylor St, as today, then it will be just a little good quality chocolate round the edge. What I hate is when I forget to ask in a cafe and a coffee comes with a huge thick shower of chocolate smothering the froth. Ah yes, the froth. In Italy it’s not so much ‘froth’ as a fairly thin layer of ‘foam’. You shouldn’t have to dig down deep to find your coffee. Also when in Italy, it’s not the done thing to order a cappuccino after 11.00 a.m. It’s a sure way of embarrassing my half-Roman friend Robert if I do! For Italians, coffee with milk is for breakfast: the milk makes it a kind of food and it’s not considered good for the digestion to drink a milky coffee after a meal. The Italians I know are more addicted to their espressos than cappuccinos. And they often like to leave a restaurant after a meal and have a little gap before coffee, going on to a bar where it’s more usual to stand up and drink your mouthful of strong espresso. It’s also worth remembering when in Italy that you pay more to sit down for your coffee, which is why you’ll see, particularly in the morning, Italians rushing in for their cappuccinos and espressos and drinking them quickly standing up at the bar before they head off to work.

Things have changed a lot over the past four or five years with artisan coffee houses opening up all over the place and tasting coffee has become as fine an art as tasting wine. In my view, it’s now properly revered. A good coffee is a very fine thing. A bad coffee is pretty horrid! And for me there’s no going back. In this respect it’s a bit like wine too: once you’ve tasted a really good wine then a very cheap bottle won’t taste good at all; once you’ve tasted a really good coffee then many others pale into ‘not good enough’ and I for one would rather go without. But fortunately, with Taylor St Baristas in my local area; with New Row Coffee often on my mapped route when I go into central London (I actually often make extra time to go there!), sourcing a fine coffee is not a hard thing for me.

17 Comments
  1. Now if someone will serve up an espresso (doppio), a good grappa and a few chunks of Pecorino – on a sun dappled piazza – in Richmond – I may never leave…

    • That’s sounds excellent – especially at the moment with such terrible weather. Am planning a whole Twickenham-Italy post as a lot of Italian places around and some serving aperitivo. Masaniello always give a glass of limoncello or grappa at end of meal 🙂

  2. What a wonderful post – coffee around the world.

  3. I feel like I am always searching for the perfect cappuccino. One of the best I had was at caravan in Exmouth Market http://www.caravanonexmouth.co.uk

  4. What a great post!

  5. Perhaps we can meet at new row coffee in April? Or any pub…

  6. My favorite place to enjoy a cup of cappuccino is in the famous lobby of the Vier Jahreszeiten hotel in Munich. It is served on a silver tray with a little pastry and a glass of water that you can enjoy while people watching. 🙂

    • That sounds perfect! In Belgium and Switzerland they always give you a little chocolate with coffee. Some Italian restaurants here will give you a little cantuccini. Cafes and people watching is a great way to pass some relaxing time 🙂

  7. I enjoyed your post very much. Very interesting and very well written. I agree: making a good coffee is a form of art and find one is a never ending quest!
    Sadly, I must concede that to find a good coffee or cappuccino in Rome is getting harder and harder. I have more chances to find a good coffee in NYC than in my hometown! Thank goodness, you can still find a good quality in most of the bars in the north of Italy.

    • Thank you Francesca for your kind comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Sad about Rome but when I’m there I tend to stay in some friends’ apartment away from the touristy centre where it’s still possible to find a good cappuccino – as in photo on post – or was a couple of years ago!

  8. lovely….even keep searching for a perfect cappuccino….! 🙂

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