This story was first published in ‘Italianicious’ magazine (Jan/Feb 2012). Click on image to enlarge or read the full story below.
Whenever I think about doing my civic duty of donating blood, I stop and realise I’d be rejected as surely I must have coffee, not blood, coursing through my veins. As a young child in 1960s Sydney, my regular afternoon treat was not the glass of full-cream milk my friends drank after school, but a caffè latte. And it’s all been uphill from there.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mother making coffee after a special family lunch. The friendly chatter was interrupted by an explosion, followed by a waterspout coating the walls of the eat-in kitchen and our guests with a fetching shade of brown. A clogged valve on the stovetop “Moka” pot was responsible and luckily no-one was hurt, but the force was so strong that damage to the stove’s metal warming shelf was alarming. I have never used a pressure coffeemaker since, preferring a stovetop Napoletana – a “flip and drip” coffee pot – which in the right hands and with a good grind, produces a strong but smooth espresso.
I was born, surrounded by coffee aroma, in Trieste, on Italy’s Adriatic coast about 120 kms north-east of Venice. The city has a rich and unique history including a coffee importing and roasting tradition dating back more than 250 years. Today it is the Mediterranean’s main coffee port, supplying over 40% of Italy’s coffee and prides itself in being the “undisputed coffee-roasting capital of the world”. It produces many fine coffee brands including the internationally renowned ILLY Caffe, and takes its coffee so seriously that Illy family member Riccardo was the city’s mayor in the 1990s.
Trieste is dotted with Viennese-style coffee-houses from the mid 19th century (an influence from its time as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Five of the historically significant cafes remain, including the Tommaseo with showoff walls of rich stuccos and bas-reliefs; the Caffè degli Specchi (Café of Mirrors) facing the grand Piazza dell’Unità and the Caffè San Marco, boasting not only original frescoes, but a loyal clientele consisting of Trieste’s respected literary and artistic community.
These cafes have all undergone renovations over the years, but retain their character. In her book ‘Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere’ celebrated British travel writer Jan Morris thinks the San Marco is the most suggestive of the old cafes and when she enters its doors feels she’s “among just the same customers as would have been there a century ago: the students …professors…authors…flaky philosophers and a scattering of ladies enjoying their daily coffee-talk”. Missing however is James Joyce who frequented the San Marco while he lived in the city from 1904-20.
Spoilt for choice, is it any wonder Trieste locals consume twice as much coffee as the Italian average? This kind of statistic is not to be taken lightly, so whenever I visit I help the numbers by drinking copious macchiati on my personal café crawls.
My maternal grandparents lived in a centrally-located apartment on top of a cafe in Trieste: I now live in a centrally-located apartment on top of a café in Sydney. My mother is the only odd one out: she just has a coffee tree in her garden.