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Meet My Moka

Espresso is for wannabes -- here's the real Italian coffee


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Italians abruptly awaken to the fundamental otherness of the rest of the world the first time they drink coffee abroad. All right, that was a big generalization, so I will narrow my scope: That's what happened to me the first time I left Italy on my own, taking a trip to London some 20 years ago. I ordered coffee and stared in disbelief at the unappealing -- to all the applicable senses -- brown liquid that was placed in front of me. A few seconds later, I consigned it to the perpetual oblivion of the drain. The lighter-than-expected color was due to the addition of milk or cream (I am not sure which) -- unasked for, but implied by my failure to specify that I wanted "black" coffee.

The immediate response to the adventure sketched above and subsequent stays abroad was a conversion to drinking tea, an activity often regarded as suspicious in Italy, especially in the summer, when the idea that someone wants to drink hot tea on a warm day is often beyond the imagination of the barista taking your order. As an aside, tea drinking has remained a daily habit of mine ever since, skeptical barista notwithstanding.

When people enter our kitchen for the first time, they are usually attracted to the gleaming espresso maker on the counter. They look at me, thinking that I am the reason for the machine's presence. I smile and shake my head slightly: La Pavoni is my husband's domain. I get my daily coffee from a stovetop coffee pot, called moka in Italy. The advent of espresso makers reduced to the size of a kitchen countertop appliance has engendered a belief that they occur commonly in Italian households. That is not the case, or at least not yet. According to a survey of coffee-related habits of adults (aged 15 and older) conducted in 2006, about three out of four Italians drinking coffee at home prepared it with a moka.

The Moka Express, made of aluminum with Bakelite handles, was created by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933. A household usually has more than one, of different sizes, made of aluminum or stainless steel, by Bialetti or other brands. The typical trio is of one, three and six cups (indicating Italian espresso cups). The single-cup coffee maker is my precious companion: I use it regularly, usually twice a day; I even take it along it when we go backpacking. I also have a three-cup moka, to make coffee for guests and for tiramisu.

The way the stovetop coffee pot works is quite simple. You fill the bottom container with water up to the safety valve, then put in place the funnel-shaped metal filter and fill it with freshly-ground coffee, ground somewhat coarser than for the espresso machine. The coffee should not be pressed, like it is done in the espresso machine, or the water will not be able to go through and infuse the coffee. You then screw in place the top chamber, which has another filter as its bottom, and set the coffee maker on a heat source. The valve ensures release of the steam, should the pressure get dangerously high inside the unit.

I start with medium-low heat, then lower it when the first drops of coffee appear in the upper chamber of the coffee pot, which has a central spout from whose tip the aromatic dark liquid emerges slowly. If the water is at a raging boil, it will zip through the ground coffee and will not have enough time to carry away with it the substances that give coffee its body and flavor. It is also better to remove the pot from the heat shortly before all the coffee has bubbled up, and let it rest a few seconds before pouring yourself the well-deserved drink. When using a pot bigger than a single-cup one, I gently stir the coffee before pouring it in the cups.

The subtle gurgling sound the coffee makes on its journey to light is the prelude that segues into the symphonic smell of coffee, which comes to a crescendo with the taste of coffee. The coda is the sense of well-being that floods the body after coffee is swallowed: Gratification is guaranteed.

The stovetop coffee pot makes good coffee with little fanfare and few maintenance requirements. Washing the pot is easy: After disposing of the dregs into the compost bin, you simply rinse it well under running water (without using soap or abrasive materials). The pot requires periodic replacement of the rubber gasket underneath the top chamber. The flavor of the coffee made with the stovetop coffee pot may not be as intense as that of an espresso, but it is smooth and clean. All right, the moka coffee does not have the layer of crema, the foam found on top of espresso.

Though I am attached to tradition, I am not totally averse to novelty. When I read about a stovetop coffee pot that produced coffee with crema, I decided to try it. I shared my desire with a dear Italian friend and the result was a gift of a two-cup Brikka pot. From the outside, the Brikka (made by Bialetti) does not look much different from its older relative, the moka. The most obvious difference is a sort of mad hatter hat over the spout that causes pressure to build up inside the water container. The experience of making coffee with the new pot the first few times was strange, because it was hard not to use the Brikka like a moka: I had to refer to the instructions constantly to prepare the coffee correctly and to make the pot interact with the heat source as required. Coffee made with Brikka does indeed have a layer of froth on the surface. The short-lived crema (adversely affected, in my experience, by the action of pouring the coffee into the cup) prompts immediate consumption -- a must for me anyway, since I abhor coffee that is not hot.

At the end, preparing coffee is a ritual, and mine (rooted in early life experiences) is just as good as yours and my husband's. His old La Pavoni workhorse hisses furiously to let him know it is ready, and in response he maneuvers the handle to direct the steam through the basket containing the freshly-ground coffee. As a traditionalist, I was not converted to Brikka; I still reach for my little moka, smiling at its familiar look and feel. Life's good, it tells me: Here's your coffee.



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