It’s partly down to the quality of the beans and the grind. You can judge an espresso by the crema… I am a barista - well, of sorts. When I moved from London to Scotland, I took a break from journalism and spent one sultry summer running a tiny clapboard tearoom in a Perthshire glen. Which served illy coffee.
Anyone serving illy coffee has to be illy-trained. So the illy man came in his van to teach us aboutItalian coffees: from how fine to grind the beans to how to clean the coffee machine each night - and, of course, how to make a cappuccino, latte, espresso, macchiato and Americano. He had props too: a tray of beans.
The illy beans, 100 per cent Arabica, were dark and shiny and uniform. He caressed them, sniffed them, sprinkled them lovingly back into the tray. The ‘other’ high street brands looked like a motley bunch; mismatched colours, strange shapes and sizes; mostly a mix of Arabica and Robusta beans. One reason coffee can sometimes taste burnt, apparently, is that the beans have been roasted too long to mask the fact that they are ‘inferior’.
Then for the fun part: frothing the milk for the cappuccino. You have to get the angle just right, cupping the stainless steel jug so you can also gauge the temperature. Burnt milk? Illy man sucked air through his teeth. Start again. Suddenly something clicked and I had a jug of thick, frothy - perfect - milk.
Lattes: less froth, long glass. Macchiato: an espresso with a dash of milk. Americano? Basically a watered down espresso.
The story goes that the Americans GIs during the Second World War, used to a weak drip-filter brew at home, couldn’t handle strong Italian coffee so always added water: the Americano was born. We’re laughed at too, of course, for ordering milky coffees in the afternoon. After breakfast an Italian will only ever drink espresso.
So how do you make the perfect espresso? Illy (www.illy.com) says with water at 194 degrees F and the powder of 50 beans. The grind is key: too fine and the water can’t seep through the puck, too coarse and the water will flow through too quickly. A good espresso shouldn’t taste bitter or burnt and shouldn’t be watery. You should wind up with a 25ml syrupy shot, topped with a layer of perfect golden crema or foam - thick enough for a spoonful of sugar to balance on top before sinking slowly into the inky darkness below.
An espresso on the go, at the café counter, is an intrinsic part of the Italian day – a smooth, velvety, aromatic moment of perfection.
Lucy Gillmore was the Deputy Travel Editor at The Independent and is now a freelance writer based in Edinburgh.