People are invariably surprised to see me ask for a double espresso after dinner. Their look asks the question even before they can articulate it: “How do you expect to sleep after this caffeine overdose?”
All these years, I have been informing all inquisitive souls that the Italians insist of having espresso at night (in fact, they don’t drink cappuccino after 11am), so there must be a logic to it. They have been drinking espresso ever since the machine that produces the coffee was developed (in France and not in Italy) in 1822. Today, Italy has more than 200,000 espresso bars, but the Italians don’t appear to be sleep deprived. At least not to me!
Well, now that I have met Esther Maasdam, the four-time Dutch latte art champion and Le Meridien’s global latte artist, I have a more reasoned answer for this perennial question. But first, let me explain to you what latte art is. It is the design made with foam and cream on most commonly a cappuccino.
Aficionados have taken this art to another level, following in the footsteps of Luigi Lupi, a barman and sommelier who was born and lives in Placenza, a nice little town in the north of Italy. Rotterdam-born Maasdam, who was here during the India Art Fair, has spent ten years mastering the art. “Whenever I would get a break, I would spend eight hours a day learning more and more about latte art. I would end up wasting 16 litres of milk a day in my quest for perfection,” says the young artist who hated science in school but ended up studying dairy chemistry to understand the science behind latte art. So, her knowledge is not drawn entirely on borrowed wisdom.
“There’s more caffeine in filter coffee and in light roasted coffee than in anything else,” Maasdam said, moving on to the chemistry of the contention. To make an espresso (“a good expresso is the base of all good coffee,” our young barista reminded me), you pass hot water under high pressure through finely ground coffee beans to extract the 2.5 ounces of double espresso that people like me seek after dinner. The extraction time is 20-25 seconds, not enough for a whole lot of caffeine to be drawn out of the beans, but good enough for us to savour an aromatic drink topped up with a seductive cream (foam), the hallmark of a good espresso.
So, relax, having an espresso after dinner won’t deny you your right to sleep; it will instead, if you believe the Italians, do wonders to your digestion. No wonder, the Italians take their usually long and celebratory dinners in their stride. They know an espresso awaits them at the end of dinner.
What other bits of wisdom did the visiting latte artist leave behind? When you buy a machine, make sure it sets the water at nine bars of pressure. Water pressure is the important element in the making of the perfect espresso. The best flavours are extracted when you maintain the water temperature at 92 to 96 degrees Celsius — if it goes up to 100 degrees Celsius and beyond, the coffee will turn bitter.
The temperature of the milk too is critical in this jigsaw puzzle. It’s best kept at 55-60 degrees Celsius. “If the temperature gets any higher, the milk will turn sweet because of a kind of caramelisation that starts taking place,” Maasdam warned us. Even the cup has to be presented at the right temperature. Pre-heat it before serving coffee. That way, you’ll ensure your guest never gets cold coffee.
When I met her, Maasdam was training the Le Meridien staff how to get the perfect work of art on a cappuccino. Normally, she picks up one motif from each country she visits to include in her destination-inspired latte art portfolio. But India is different – it has given her the lotus, the saffron flower, the peacock, Lord Ganesh and the Taj Mahal.