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Coffee: The Little Machine

Welcome to the second part of Dom’s treatise on coffee. Here he talks all things moka – the history, the design, and the reasons you should own one. Grab a coffee and get comfortable.

moka pots in a row

“Prodotto in Italia!”

The Italians have good reason to be proud of the contributions they’ve made to the world, which is good, because they are. We have them to thank for such essentials as the radio, eyeglasses, and the parachute. Perhaps even more important than the parachute, at least for me anyway, are prosecco, Campari and Cinzano – a trinity for which I will be eternally grateful to the region we have called Italy for the last 156 years. And while you could very well argue that there have been some missteps along the way (Fascism probably wasn’t the best of ideas), a significant portion those still managed to be incredibly stylish at the same time as being unreliable (except Fascism, that wasn’t even stylish).

But I’m here to talk about coffee. So onward towards my point. Modern coffee culture is an Italian invention. I’m not talking about the very American idea of ordering a coffee at Starbucks and then building a nest in one of their armchairs to start work on your screenplay for the next eight hours. I’m talking about espresso, and more specifically, the machinery needed to make it.

La Moka, la macchinetta, la caffettiera. It goes by many names, but one thing’s for certain: in Italy these little stovetop coffee makers are everywhere. I defy you to find an Italian household that doesn’t have at least one (read as three). And don’t be surprised if the ratio of mokas to humans in a given home is far greater than 1:1. Our apartment here in Venice came furnished with three in a variety of sizes.

moka pot and coffee

I can’t say for sure why they are ubiquitous in Italy. Apart from the fact that it’s an Italian machine designed to make coffee the way Italians like to drink it, the moka pot went some way towards the democratisation of coffee-making in Italy. Espresso machines prior to the Moka Express were large, expensive, and technically complicated. Few people kept them at home, so coffee-drinking was largely a public affair. Alfonso Bialetti’s “little machine”, while not the first stove top coffee maker, in many ways represents the perfection of the concept. Comparatively small, cheap, and easy to use, it brought espresso into the home.

Espresso machines – and I’m not talking about those horrendous pod coffee monstrosities (Nespresso and George Clooney have a lot to answer for in my opinion) – have reduced in complexity and cost over the last few years, and are increasingly finding a place in people’s homes. But I think that there’s still a spot for the now octogenarian piece of equipment. Here’s why.

It’s beautiful. It’s an iconic design that’s made its way into museum exhibits in Italy and beyond. A nostalgic feast for the eyes in aluminium and bakelite. Whether busy gurgling away on your stovetop or at rest on your shelf, the moka is always an aesthetic treat. Unlike most kitchen appliances, I don’t feel the need to hide this one away in a cupboard when I’m done using it. And as we acquire pots of various sizes, ages, and sometimes colours (the purist in me is more than a little conflicted about this), they all go on display. What else in your kitchen gadget inventory can function as art when it isn’t busy doing what it was designed to?

It makes espresso. Ok, so not quite espresso. The coffee wonks out there will already know that while both the moka pot and the traditional espresso machine brew under pressure, they don’t do it in quite the same way. It’s a question of pressure. Espresso is brewed by passing 25ml of water through a 7g puck of espresso at 9bar of pressure. The little moka can only manage about 2bar. This results in a less extracted, weaker tasting shot. So not quite espresso, but a perfectly close facsimile for home use.

Some models operate at a slightly higher pressure (look for “Brikka” if you’re interested) and are able get a little closer to that traditional espresso, even replicating the crema that you would expect when you visit an actual bar.

If you aren’t in the market for an all singing, all dancing espresso machine, a moka pot and a handheld milk frother (or even a french press) can open up the entire spectrum of coffee options. Espresso, right through to cappuccino – even an iced latte if you’re feeling fancy. It also has the advantage of being able to brew multiple shots of espresso at once. Making coffee for ten? There’s a pot for that.

It’s reliable. It has a something like eight parts, but only one or two of them move. A well cared for pot can make cup after cup of smashing coffee for decades, with only the rubber gasket ever needing to be replaced. I recently inspected one of the pots we inherited when we moved into our apartment here in Venice. It’s is from 1996, which means that when Bialetti made this particular Moka, I was just starting school. And yes, the coffee it makes is as good our one sitting in a box back in Blighty, even though it is technically old enough to be our pot’s dad. Not only is it cheap to run, but it’s s also cheap to buy. A six cup model will set you back £25 – not bad for a few decades worth of caffeination.

And most importantly, done right, it makes a damn fine cup of coffee. But that’s a story for next week.


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