In the early nineties, when I met the Slittis (see blog on chocolate making) I like most of the locals knew and appreciated the wonderful skills of Andrea’s father, Luciano Slitti, as a prominent coffee bean roaster and maker of custom coffee blends. Few knew that behind the scenes in the eighties, Luciano’s oldest son Andrea began specializing in making chocolates. At the same time his youngest son, Daniele began to take over in specializing and in perfecting his father’s skills in roasting coffee beans and making coffee. Our cooking classes at the time had the advantage of seeing the production of both operations in action at the Slitti Café.
Daniele, in our coffee bean toasting class, explained the two most popular kinds of beans, Arabica and the Robusta. The Slitti family favors the Arabica, which grows in high altitudes is less resistant to disease and has more complex flavors. A good coffee bean roaster must take into consideration: where the bean comes from, its soil, environment where it was harvested, the processing method, geographical climate, altitude and characteristics of the plant. Poor growing conditions, cultivation or harvest of the product can strip beans of their quality. Most people are very familiar with similar important factors and conditions necessary when making quality olive oil. To be considered is every aspect, the type of olive, its environment, climate, altitude, growing characteristics, how and when it was harvested and treated.
The first thing a coffee roaster takes into consideration is the quality of the bean. There are many varieties of raw coffee beans to select from. It is the skill of the trusted roaster that ultimately determines the aroma, taste, body and roast of the finished product. The bean before roasting has little inherent flavor. It begins its journey to coffee making with the simple heat stage when the bean absorbs heat, gives off excess water in the form of steam, and its dull green color begins to gain a yellowish tone. The coffee bean has great similarity to the olive, a bitter fruit before pressing, which releases its bitterness once it comes into contact with water and begins its journey towards becoming a great product.
The skill of the coffee grinder, like the skill of the olive presser, is important. They determine how to grind or press their product to its best advantage. Coffee, for many in America, is an afterthought, a generic commodity rather than a gastronomic event just as olive oil for many is nothing other than oil to cook with or dress a salad. For Italians, coffee is their national beverage and olive oil is their national fruit.
Every Italian seems to have their favorite bar in the neighborhood that makes what they consider to be the best coffee, requiring a lush consistent reddish brown cream, with the flavor and aroma balanced to be able to note the freshly roasted coffee been. For them, that one shot of espresso is not so much a stimulant but represents an experience.
I did not understand for a long time but since living in Italy I have learned to appreciate and understand the Italian’s national beverage. I never understood the countless variables involved in mastering and brewing a perfect coffee or cappuccino. Countless times when out with my Italian friends, I failed to understand how they could leave a cup of cappuccino after the first sip and politely leave the premise so that the coffee maker would get the unspoken message.
Most italians can tell just by looking at the coffee in the cup and the brownish cream topping that it should have, how well it was made. If it lacked the expected aroma they may leave espresso untouched and suggest we go elsewhere. For fifteen years, I have seen our employee leave our house every day to go for his cappuccino or morning coffee at a particular bar passing at least twenty other locations along the way. (blog on the Re of Cappuccino). This is typical of most Italians who appreciate and understand the making of a good espresso and cappuccino.