It’s breakfast: a busy day awaits. You have to remember to send this to soandso, you need to tell that to other soandso. Calls need to be answered, tasks must be completed and you have to transition from activity to activity without the slightest hesitation. Your head begins to swirl as you whisk through the never ending list of ‘To Do’s’ and you seriously question whether or not you will make it to lunch without collapsing.
But then salvation comes. Sleek and round, you see it gradually emerge in the distance. A distinct aroma fills the air and in some way your racing mind comes to a halt. Gradually coming closer, you are mesmerised by the soft, white shroud. You reach out to greet your saviour at last filled with warmth, hope, serenity.
“So, who’s having the cappuccino?”
Perfectly sized yet indulgent, simple but sophisticated, the cappuccino remains a cherished emblem of post-war Italy and her so-called ‘Dolce Vita’ or ‘Sweet Life’ in cafés and restaurants throughout the globe.
At least it should. Just last year, Starbucks announced that they were beginning to phase out cappuccinos in certain branches by replacing them with the more contemporary and stylish flat white. Staff complained that cappuccinos were too onerous to make in comparison to the more efficient and succinct preparation of the flat white, given that both taste virtually the same. But since when was coffee solely about taste? Surely a drink as classic as the cappuccino should symbolise something greater than just momentary pleasure?
Peter Thomson, owner of the Coffee Hunter blog, openly gushed over the popularity of the trendy flat whites, claiming they represent a “new wave of independent, hipster-style craft coffee.” When asked about the consequent cappuccino apocalypse, he struggled to hide the disdain in his voice when he said, “The cappuccino is a relic of when the whole world aspired to drink coffee Italian style.”
Aspired?! Who says we don’t continue to dream of discovering a modest little café which serves the most ‘belissimo’ cappuccino, tucked away down a side street in the Eternal City or elsewhere in Italy? Perhaps cappuccinos are indeed remnants of simpler times yet this does not mean that they should be forgotten or neglected by your local barista and left to collect dust. They should be preserved.
The humble origins of this frothy masterpiece date back to as early as the 16th century. The Capuchin Friars, an order of the Franciscans, were widely celebrated for their incredible service to the underprivileged and destitute while adopting a lifestyle of poverty themselves. The mere image of the Friars indicated this devotion to simplicity, opting to wear brown robes with long pointed hoods. It was from this distinctive hood, known as “cuppuccio” in Italian, that the Capuchins were named. Little did these modest monks know that they were to serve as the unique inspiration for possibly the most elegant hot drink in history four centuries later.
Picture 1930’s Italy. Amidst the economic turmoil following the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the oppressive fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, society sought for some form of escape. A small symbol of hope. At this very time, a mixture of coffee and milk topped with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles began to emerge in Trieste. It became fashionable and the trend soon flourished throughout Italy. Many began to remark that the unusual light brown colour of the mixture resembled the habits of the Capuchin Friars: the early cappuccino was born.
However, the coming years were no less chaotic for the Italian people- the horrors of further global conflict shattered national morale, citizens witnessed the tumultuous destruction of Mussolini’s government and the economy was in a perilous state. Just when Italy seemed to be peering into a dark abyss, a miracle occurred. The Italian Economic Miracle of 1950-60, to be precise. Not only did economy and society undergo momentous recovery, but Italian culture began to evolve with the improving times. Italians were now smiling at the sun.
This, though, was not the only miracle that occurred during this period. One equally as significant cannot be ignored: ‘The Age of Crema.’ This mass development of highly sophisticated coffee machines, capable of preparing pristine coffee to utter perfection revolutionised Italy. This single event ingrained the techniques and prestige of Italian coffee making all over the world, defining their culture and country.
Yet it was the humble cappuccino which captured the essence of revolution. These machines were especially designed to heat and steam milk, refining the original cappuccinos into the modern concoction we drink today. One half made of aromatic double espresso, the other of hot milk completed by steamed milk foam with a light dusting of chocolate. As Italian morale was rebuilt at the core of society’s new ‘Dolce Vita’, so too was the cappuccino.
Soon after its spectacular debut in Italy, the allure of cappuccinos spread throughout Western society. Europe, Australia and America all caught onto this trend in rapid succession by the early 1990’s, and it was due to the coffee craze that shops such as Starbucks were founded. While these were not meant to replicate traditional, family-run Italian cafés, they served to bring the flavour of Italy to a diversity of cultures.
Of course, as their success became unprecedented such American companies began to see the incredible gain of drinks like cappuccinos. They quickly began to neglect the precision and care Italian craftsmen dedicated to the cappuccino evolution. Thought turned to hastiness. Perfection became sloppiness. A symbol of new life was now no more than a poorly made drink. They cared little for the ‘Dolce Vita’ it epitomised.
But this casual disregard of past heritage and ‘relics’ has become increasingly common in our modern society. In our desperation to constantly evolve and move forward, we forget to find value in looking back in our fear of becoming cemented in the past. It is absolutely necessary to cling on to the most stylish and trendy thing at the current moment, yet we feel no remorse once we desire to toss it aside upon the discovery of something new. The flat white may be ‘in’ right now, but in a few years time this too will be shoved from the shelves like the cappuccino.
We must keep advancing, yes, but not to the detriment of everything that has brought us to where we stand today. We must learn to do one simple thing from time to time- pause.
When I have a cappuccino with my breakfast (never after 11am- that would be sacrilegious to Italians!) I’m able to stop for a while. Pondering over the brim of my coffee cup, I begin to feel more revived. After all, the cappuccino emerged in the wake of the very revival of the Italian people. I realise that although I’m anxious to get on with my day and complete the endless tasks that I have, I should make time appreciate my past and present. From there I can gradually evaluate the future. It is vital that we find some way to feel relaxed or comforted, and for me it’s by having a cappuccino.
The cappuccino first defined the sophistication of coffee, and it always will. Starbucks can change their menu as much as they like, but they can never re-write history. The cappuccino represents renewal, hope and happiness. It is imbedded in Italian culture and cuisine. It may not be as new as the flat white and other such trendy coffees, but they posses a timeless style that can’t be poured away down the kitchen sink, no matter how much Starbucks may try.
So have your frappuccinos, toffee lattes or caffè mochas. Pompously order your deconstructed coffees, skinny cortados and soy gibraltars. Rave about your pumpkin-spice lattes, caramel macchiatos and flat whites. I’ll stick to my cappuccino, per favore.