The Italian Job

The joy of having a café all to myself goes back to my very first caféjob in the mid first decade of the 2000’s, when I was working at a seaside tourist spot, and made horrible “espresso” from pre ground coffee put in the chamber to look good. I used to listen to Milosh albums while smelling the soft sea breeze and preparing the café for the day and its first customers. This I recognize in getting up in the morning at Espressino, the bar I now reside in. In fact, I still play Milosh in the morning, while preparing a shitload of sandwiches. It’s meditative and peaceful actually, and the fact that it is still summer in the air, makes it all even more familiar in that sense. The seagulls are still crying, but more distant.

This post will deal with some of the issues I have, not with the café itself but with the “Italian” concept. To put it simple: it is rather limiting, I find. Then again, people are habitual, they are having a breakfast they are familiar with day after day after day. Some crave their macchiato with a plain croissant, others must have a tall latte with a ham and cheese sandwich. I get this, since I am very much so myself (though, I have tried to swap sandwich for raw food, but the principle is the same). My biggest issue with the offerings at the café is actually my own bad character and lack of moral fibre to say no to all the sweets offered. This job doesn’t grow on me, it grows in me…

But the food side of things are not my expertise (if I would be to call myself an expert at anything, really..) but the coffee. That’s where my experience, knowledge and passion lies.

The chosen machine for this space is a five group La Marzocco (not that many around in the world, that I know of). Needless to say, its focus on Italian espresso culture and such a machine doesn’t really give much room for brewed coffee. The black coffee served can basically be of two kinds; espresso or americano/long black. There are two grinders, one for the everyday blend “Passagen” from my other employer, da Matteo, which is a rather traditional espresso that can be both recognized amongst regular espresso drinkers and speciality coffee people as something generic but ok. Maybe it’s habit, but I tend to really enjoy a double shot of this in the morning over any other acidic “die neue stijl of Scandi spro” that can still be detected in these neighbourhoods.

The other grinder has had some guest appearances by various roasters, ironically blends similar to the Passagen, from micro roasters like Sthlm Roast and Select Origin, and I could possibly see the benefit of this if we were educating the customer about micro roasteries. But in terms of variety in flavor, I think it adds little or nothing to the customers wider understanding of coffee if there are similar generic blends of espresso. Still, a lot of people tend to look at labels rather than taste.

But the real challenge, in my opinion, is actually breaking the culture that comes with an “Italian style” café. As mentioned, a lot of people crave the same treat every morning as part of their own ritual. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really like getting to know regulars and their preferences, not only to connect with them but also to ease up on the workflow as regulars tend to opt for the same thing each day and you can basically prepare their drink once you see them in the door, and still have full focus on the current customer.

The issue I have is more with the faux-Italian culture, or the pseudo ritual which is more important than the actual coffee that seems almost narcissistic at times. For example; there is a regular who demands his macchiato in a very specific way. Well, that sounds fair to me, however it has nothing to do with the flavor or the way it is done, but in what cup it’s served. Another example where there is a difficulty in having a traditional Italian style bar in a street full of tourists, mostly from the country side of Sweden, is that they stare blindly on the menu. The “what is a ….” questions are to me what builds up the line (and it’s the same with the food and sweets on display). That’s actually what I like about the Italian tourists that comes in. They want their espresso or cappuccino with a croissant, and they know it. I know, I know, you can put up signs, but it all comes down to a fact that Swedes aren’t very well trained in a café environment.

One element I have tried to implement is brewed coffee, which tends to be served to industry people swinging by for a chat. The ritual that has become somewhat an everyday routine, is passing out the handgrinder to them, and giving them an option of coffees that have been brought to Espressino from friends (so far we’ve had coffees from Tim Wendelboe, Heart, Intelligentsia, Espresso Lab and Black & Bloom as well as the filter roasted coffees Da Matteo offers). The Kenyans have all at one point found themselves turned into iced coffee, simply by being cooled down in the vessel, ice and raw sugar added before being put in a fridge.

Ironically, people who are more attuned to the Italian espresso style, seems more open minded to iced coffee than they seem to brewed coffee. But then again, the kind of swag some of its representatives have, they are also attuned to other kind of cold coffee drinks, such as the hideous “frappe“, made from a Nestlé formula these people crave (and which most actually prefer). As a response to this, Alex, the owner, made a wonderful rather sweet iced tea. That is something I will probably will look more into for next season.

To summon things up, I’d say the Italian style bar offers a concept very few people grasp really (they don’t have coffee culture, and they imitate poses from their weekend in Rome earlier in the decade rather than looking at the actual flavor of the cup), and the mission to actually try to educate the customer (if such a term should be used) or rather challenge their palates, is a failure when the customers isn’t really sure what they like (they tend to have made the move from bad office coffee to Italian espresso culture, for the caffeine fix/break from work).

Then again, I really enjoy other things beside the coffee in the daily work. Music is a crucial part to endure your long hours. And a good ice breaker as well! And that goes a long way, since working with people is what I enjoy most!

NP: Milosh Remember The Good Things

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2 thoughts on “The Italian Job

  1. Reggie says:

    Jesper, you and I are in the exact same spot. More or less. Actually, I’d venture to sa it’s worse over here because at least you’re in a better position to share and prepare specialty coffee when, as you say, your friends stop by or what have you.

    I would love for all of us in the industry here in Sweden to put our feet down and start trying to define a new generation of Swedish cafe culture. The Italian thing has its place but if what is being sacrificed is an opportunity for brilliant Swedish roasters such as DaMatteo, J&N, Koppi, Love, Åre, etc. to be presented on a regular basis to customers then it’s time to make a definitive step AWAY from the Italian café thing.

  2. jesperbood says:

    I couldn’t agree more. However, it is a concept that probably has its place in the heart of the Swedes, more so than the Speciality Coffee movement. And it doesn’t come down to personal preference of flavors, but opportunity of experience. I’ll elaborate:

    When it comes to wine, a lot of Joe Public likes for instance French or Italian wine, alright. How many of these people knows what grapes are in them? How many of them knows anything about flavor? The buy French wine cause they are used to it, like the taste and it goes well with a steak on a Saturday night.

    The wine culture in Sweden does not lack opportunity to learn. The Systembolaget has for many years educated the public about their wines, yet still most people are probably rather ignorant about the details. And they can be, since they can buy wine basically on preference of two things; “Hey, what wine should I buy that is French, tastes good with a steak, and costs 100SEK?”

    But also, the difference is; wine snobs have probably travelled to various “origins” in both France, Italy and Australia or America. They don’t have to go to Ethiopia, Guatemala or Sumatra in order to experience “origin” and shake the hand of a producer. And believe me, most baristi haven’t either, but they tend to sound as if they have shaken the hand of each farmer they serve coffee from at times. The customer cannot relate to this. But they can relate to the Italian experience, because for them, that is their coffee origin!

    And people love to be particular about their coffee (and food). Most ridiculous question up to date I’ve had was if there was genuine buffalo mozzarella in those sandwiches we grill. At a price of 45SEK. Well, what do you think?

    To put it simple; the Italian concept works, but it caters to a completely different public than ours.

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