What my first few Summers in London, in my teenage years, taught me was that I had landed in a coffee wasteland. At least, coffee as I intended it.
I believe it was Italians who introduced the idea of coffee shops to the world. In a country where an 8-year-old routinely adding espresso to her milk is not frowned upon, we take our coffee very seriously, treasuring old mocha machines, arguing over which beans are better and patronizing coffee shops where our favourite brands are served.
Curiously, for such coffee obsessed people, we tend to consume our espresso in one or two gulps, standing at the counter, and our cappuccino is strictly limited to breakfast, with or without a croissant, but also rigorously standing. Until the age of 15, I assumed the rest of the world abided by the same coffee rules, until I found myself in London and had to start appreciating the healing properties of tea.
The coffee landscape has dramatically changed since those days, with coffee poised to take over tea consumption even in countries where tea always ruled, like India. Such transformation, in large part, and certainly in this country (another coffee wasteland until a couple of decades ago) was instigated and helped along by the mighty Starbucks which, for a long time, was the coffee chain to imitate.
As a coffee snob, I always abhorred Starbucks, their silly lingo and, above all, their trademark roast that leaves a burnt and unpleasant aftertaste on your tongue. Apparently, I am not alone – after polling many would be customers who wouldn’t drink Starbucks coffee for just that reason, the company introduced a “blonde” blend that is supposed to be gentler on the palate.
I am wondering if it might have something to do with Starbucks’ expansion in Europe. Quietly, the green mermaid is making its appearance in Italy, in main cities like Rome, Milan and Venice which, with a heavy foreign tourist presence, might keep the chain afloat and even profitable. But will Italians go for it? A Venti decaf macchiato with a shot of hazelnut? Not quite sure. Have we fallen in love so much with everything American to settle for inferior coffee too? We wholeheartedly embraced fast food so the gulf between what we once favoured and what we have become might not be that wide any longer.
One thing is for sure. I do hope their food offerings will be better quality than what is currently sold in their American outlets: stony muffins and scones, dreadful croissants and unremarkable coffee cakes. It will take a while for Italians to open up to the concept of lingering over coffee or sipping extra-large sizes of cappuccinos but I pray that, once the novelty wears out, we just go back to our trusted baristas and to sipping espresso the way its meant to: in one big gulp.