Espresso coffee is one of those things you either like or you don’t. We particularly enjoy coffee, in part because we’ve never drunk tea. Thus we’ve never got into Lapsang Souchong or Gunpowder Green Formosa, or whatever tea geeks drink. But we’re not particularly geeky about coffee and haven't (yet) put to the test whether we would prefer, for example, a Guatemala Nueva Granada + El Salvador Santa Barbara espresso blend [expensive] to Sainsbury’s 85% Arabica + 15% Robusta espresso blend [inexpensive, but very good].
What we do know is that there are some fundamental principles for enjoying good coffee: it should ideally be freshly roasted, freshly ground and freshly made. Some vile brown liquid made from ground coffee that was bought months ago, in a machine that then stews it to death, is light years away from what you would drink standing up at the bar in Palermo. Incidentally, some think that the word espresso describes coffee made and served quickly; for us an equally convincing definition is caffè espresso: literally ‘pressed out’ (coffee), from the Italian verb esprimere.
Even if you prefer cappuccino (or latte or macchiato or whatever) to espresso, the espresso shot lies at the heart of all of these. A 30ml (single) shot is the result of forcing water at about 95°C through seven grams of ground coffee under nine bar of pressure for about 20-25 seconds, while the hallmark of a proper espresso is its ‘crema’ — the dense golden foam of emulsified coffee oils that captures the essence of the coffee flavour.
To create the perfect espresso the Italians believe you need the four Ms:
Over the 1980s and 1990s we owned a couple of cheap Gaggia machines, but these always eventually went wonky a year or so after you bought them by which time you could no longer get the spare parts. Then in 2005 we bought a Magimix Nespresso™ machine, which had a steam wand for cappuccinos and which produced fairly good espresso (with good crema). After five years however the steam wand gave up** but we had in any event come to the conclusion that if you’re serious about coffee and don’t mind investing a bit of time and energy to get it right, you’ll always end up using a manual machine, if for no other reason than you are no longer locked-in to the cost and limited range of Nespresso capsules. So in the autumn of 2010 we bought a Kitchenaid Artisan espresso machine (plus matching burr grinder, both in red) — a gorgeous piece of Italian design. This is a fairly serious piece of kit, with twin boilers (one for espresso, one for steam) and some Heath Robinson dials. To recreate the sense of propping up the aforementioned bar in Palermo we got hold of some heavy espresso shot glasses, while a nice heavy tamper (from Bella Barista) completes the ensemble.
**Nestlé seems to have decided that frothing milk using steam means there’s too much to go wrong, thus Nespresso machines no longer have this feature. Instead they will sell you a gizmo that whisks (rather than steams) your milk, which is OK except that the resultant froth tastes like cardboard.