Coffee is more than a beverage in the Italian city of Trieste. Over centuries, the commodity enriched the port, where cafés are ‘places of the soul.’
Examining coffee beans at Caffè San Marco in Trieste, Italy (photo by Tira Shubart)
Grabbing a coffee is something many of us take for granted. Coffee is now a commonplace commodity, but it was not always the case.
The origins of coffee are shrouded in mystery, but legend has it that coffee originated in Ethiopia. According to one tale, a goat herder named Kaldi first discovered the potential of coffee beans when he noticed how his goats were full of energy after nibbling on coffee berries.
Whatever the origins, coffee cultivation and trade spread through the Arabian peninsula before arriving in Italy in the 16th century via Mediterranean routes — an object lesson in the globalisation of trade.
Western travellers returning from the Middle East and Africa spoke with wonder of the invigorating effects of coffee. The beverage became a desirable drink for the wealthy and privileged in Italy.
Today, drink a cup of coffee in Trieste and you will be part of a 300-year journey back to when the city, at the top of the Adriatic Sea, was declared a free port in 1719 by the Hapsburg Emperor Carlo VI.
Trieste became one of the richest ports in Europe.
Trieste is situated on a narrow strip of what is now Italy, at the furthest northeastern ruff of the Italian boot where it curves around and reaches south to Slovenia. It’s a corner of Europe that has seen many rulers. The longest in power were the Hapsburgs, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire for hundreds of years and dominated Central Europe until the empire was dissolved in 1918 after World War One.
As the only port in the Hapsburg lands, Trieste became one the richest ports in Europe, and much of its wealth was thanks to coffee. Even the tumultuous events that followed the end of empire, World War Two and occupying armies did not erode the economic importance of coffee.
The first, small coffee shops in the 18th century nurtured a supply chain that grew rapidly. Coffee import businesses, roasting companies and a Coffee Stock Market helped build Trieste’s prosperity. Which is why Trieste is called the City of Coffee.
The passion that Triestinis have for coffee is as strong as its economic importance. Although Italy is a nation of coffee drinkers, in Trieste, annual coffee consumption per capita — 10 kilograms — is double the national average.
At Trieste’s Coffee University, more than 200,000 students have learned to select, roast and serve coffee since it was founded in 2000.
Alexandros Delithanassis, manager of Caffè San Marco in Trieste, is passionate as he explains the process that starts with the blend of eight coffee beans from Africa, the Caribbean and South America.
“Coffee changes from solid to liquid and is transformed by air and water,” Delithanassis said against the café’s backdrop of dark brown, burnished wood, with golden fittings and carvings of coffee leaves.
“There are precise rules. The temperature must be 92 degrees Celsius, and the roasting exactly 22 seconds, not more, not less. Then, when you grind the roasted beans, they must be used within 20 minutes. Like great cooking, it is an art but with two chefs. First, the chef who roasts the bean. Then, the second chef is the barman.”
Caffè San Marco (photo by Tira Shubart)
Coffee houses were part of women’s liberation.
Together, we examine trays of coffee beans — first, the light coloured raw beans, then the roasted product, which is a rich dark brown.
The choice of coffee bean is vital. The more delicate, sweeter and expensive Arabica bean typically makes up 90% of a blend, while the remaining 10% will be the cheaper Robusta bean, with more caffeine and a bitter taste.
International coffee brands born in Trieste include Hausbrandt, founded in 1892, and Illy, which dates to 1933. But you won’t find chains that serve takeaway coffee in paper cups. No Triestini would consider that; only porcelain cups are acceptable.
Trieste’s cafés, called “places of the soul,” are beloved by students, intellectuals and artists. Caffè Pasticceria Pirona, which dates to 1900, was a favoured haunt of writer James Joyce during his many years in Trieste. Like many coffee houses, Caffè Tommaseo, founded in 1830, hosted political dissidents who gathered to plan the overthrow the established order. For some, cafés serve as a second living room for reading the newspaper, playing chess or staying silent among a crowd.
In Trieste and other European cities, coffee houses were among the first places where women could go by themselves, part of the history of female liberation.
Whether you are drinking an espresso, known locally as un nero, a macchiato called un capo, a caffèlatte known elsewhere in Italy as un cappuccino, or a goccia with a single drop of milk, in Trieste, a history lesson comes free with every cup.
Three questions to consider:
- How much of your daily consumption of food and drink is made possible by international transport?
- Do you use coffee shops as a “second living room” for more considered social interactions, or simply grab and go?
- Takeaway coffee cups produce litter, use resources and are often not recycled. Should we return in all instances to drinking coffee from cups that are washed and reused?
Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist and media trainer based in London. She has produced television news and trained journalists across four continents for international broadcasters, including BBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera, over several decades. She is chair of The Rory Peck Trust and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society as well as Ambassador for the Science Museum in London.