MILAN – When one sees Italy for the first time, it is difficult to remain immune to its charm: living proof of this is Wendy Pojmann, author of the book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy, who, after an experience in the capital, decided she could no longer do without the cup, the bar, the third place between home and office, and the ritual of espresso that characterizes a certain way of understanding life.
The point of view of an American in our country and her perspective on the deep-rooted culture of espresso is interesting to be able to understand how it is in all intents and purposes a symbol to be protected and enhanced.
Pojmann, what is the path that brought you to Italy to talk about coffee?
‘The university I attended had a branch in Rome and so I was able to spend a year studying in the capital: it was then that I fell in love with Italy and decided to try to make a career that would allow me to return as often as possible. With this in mind I pursued my doctorate at Boston College, where I finished writing my thesis on the women’s movement in Italy. As fate would have it, I got married to a Roman, with whom I moved to the United States almost immediately – I did not manage to enter Italian academia.
I began working at Siena College in the state capital of New York, and there I was able to continue my research on Italian women. One day when I was on my way to the State Archives in Rome, I stopped for an espresso as I often did: hearing my accent, the bartender asked me “are you sure you don’t want an Americano (an espresso with more water)?”. And I preferred espresso.
It was not the first time I had been asked this question, so a discussion started with the bartender about the drink. I wondered at that point, why not write a book about it.
Besides, even in the writings I had developed earlier on women, I noticed that coffee was somehow always present. This reinforced my curiosity: why do Italians drink espresso? Why did I like it better than Starbucks coffee, which often gave me an upset stomach?
I started to read more, to learn more about espresso, about its origins, and this is how I structured a serious project. I decided to develop a chapter on machines, one on coffee roasters – I visited Vergnano, Moreno, Trombetta – and learned a lot about roasting and distribution. Another chapter focused on the role of coffee in art, films, music, and advertising. And finally I added Turin and Naples as cities linked to espresso. ”
How would you define espresso from your point of view?
“A drink that is very much rooted in Italian culture. It is part of its life rhythm. It is not just a commodity. For Americans it is often something you buy and consume alone, at work in front of your desk. Coffee houses are certainly present, but they are also used as a kind of office. In Italy, on the other hand, coffee is a moment of sociability, of meeting. And that is something I miss here in the US: there is no soul. The blend, the machines, the people chatting, the aroma, the hustle and bustle at the counter and the barista who can handle a thousand orders at once: this experience does not exist in America. ”
Pojmann, what do you think of the espresso ritual’s push for Unesco candidacy?
“In my opinion, it is right that espresso should be recognised for its intangible heritage. No other place in the world has a coffee culture like the one in Italy. Certainly Americans already love Italy and want to go there and coffee is part of the charm that attracts tourism, even more than wine. – Pojmann jokes – you can drink it at any time of day”.
What did he find most interesting in the research for this book?
“Some coffee-related superstitions. For example: adding a drop of blood in the coffee of someone you love makes them fall in love with you. Or the legend that you will remain single if you add sugar before milk. I was also amazed by the impressive number of songs that mention coffee. And then it was very nice to visit the roasting plants and learn about their operations. I was also particularly interested in understanding the historical reasons behind the one Euro price of coffee in Italy, why it remains low and fixed despite all the steps required to prepare one cup; it should cost more.”
Can specialty coffee and espresso coexist together culturally?
“I think so. Even in Rome there are many places that make the two things coexist, at a higher price. Among young people the novelty of specialty coffee will grow. I also see more media attention on coffee, so consumers might start asking questions about espresso and later want to taste something new, such as single-origins. I know Italians who put milk in their coffee and drink filtered coffee: it is possible, but it will certainly never replace espresso. And it is also right that it should not.”
More espresso chapters on Pojmann’s agenda?
“I would like to write an article dedicated to the coffee flagship stores in Milan, such as Lavazza or Faema. It’s a subject that fascinates me and I think it’s a good way to better understand made in Italy and the way the Milanese interpret coffee. Because it is a way of drinking that is open to the international scene but always with an eye on the Italian character of the products. Another aspect that interests me is how barista fashion has changed over the years: in an article I have already partly analysed the image of the American hipster specialty barista and compared it with the Italian aesthetic. Caffè Vergnano for example has changed its image a great deal, with a logo that echoes the style of young people around the world, changing the look of its baristas. I tried to understand how this has evolved in the world.”
The book is available on Paris Books Espresso: The Art and Soul of Italy. Signed by the Author | Wendy Pojmann | First Edition (parigibooks.com)
The link to the article is View of Barista Cool: Espresso Fashion Transformed | ZoneModa Journal (unibo.it)