Francis Mallmann Is Playing With Fire
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Unpacking the history, allure, and ways to use the humble Moka pot.
In early 2022, Italy nominated its espresso culture to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But its under-sung, zero-waste Moka pot is the real working hero of Italian coffee culture.
A HISSING, RATTLING, and gurgling on my stovetop penetrates the still air in my kitchen. The reassuring sound — which physicists have dubbed the Strombolian phase of brewing — is gently comforting but also gets my bones moving each morning. Even more comforting and bone-activating are the steamy caffeinated vapors of roasted beans, which I deeply inhale while getting ready to start my day. But the real business of waking up begins when I pour the hot, brown elixir into a cup, usually with a splash of cream to mellow it out. Only then does the day really begin.
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If you use a Moka pot, you might recognize these morning rituals. You may also wonder, as I have, about the hype over third-wave coffee makers. Gooseneck kettles, Chemex flasks, vacuum siphons, and designer presses seem fussy and unnecessarily alchemical. Don’t even talk to me if you use a plastic-dependent Nescafé or a similar cartridge coffeemaker. None of these devices make as good or strong a cup as the humble stovetop espresso maker. Of course, tastes vary, and coffee aficionados, baristas, and even your Aunt Judy will go to battle for their preferred methods. But it seems that I have one noteworthy heavyweight on my side of the fight: Italy.
In early 2022, Italy nominated its espresso culture to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, which currently awaits approval. Visitors to the boot may pick up a boastworthy knowledge of its coffee rules (of which there are annoyingly many). However, it’s the ubiquitous stovetop Moka pot — not pressurized espresso machines — that is found in nearly every Italian home and typically the only way Italians make coffee themselves. In fact, market research suggests that a whopping nine out of 10 Italian homes have a Moka pot.
The origins of the Moka pot — also called a caffettiera in Italy — are almost as murky and dark as the brew it produces. While it eventually became one of the beloved staples of la cucina Italiana, the original and patented Bialetti Moka Express was designed by Luigi di Ponti and manufactured by aluminum maker Alfonso Bialetti in 1933 during the height of Benito Mussolini’s power. At that time, militarized Italy tightly controlled its imports and exports and relied solely on its rich sources of bauxite ore (necessary for aluminum), favored by the fascist regime over imported metals. This dovetailed nicely with Italy’s 1935 invasion and subsequent occupation of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) in 1935, which gave the regime unlimited access to coffee plantations, ensuring the caffeine-obsessed country an ample supply of cheap beans and labor. This new patriotic pot was named after the Yemeni port city of Mocha, coffee’s cultural capital from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. And by the late 1940s, it could be found everywhere.
But as often is the case, there are several uncredited female inspirations behind this machismo history. The Moka’s octagonal, hourglass design is modeled after pleated skirts, popularized at the 1925 International Exposition in Paris, which birthed the term “art deco” and many of its associated styles. And the engineering inspiration came from Bialetti’s wife, who washed the laundry in an old-fashioned basin called a lessiveuse, where soapy water is heated below before traveling through a soap chamber and distributed to an upper basin via a central pipe. Watching her scrub clothes, Bialetti adapted this technology for the Moka pot, creating a pressurized style of extraction where both steam and hot water in the Moka’s lower chamber pushes upward through the grounds-filled filter, extracting desired flavors and aromas. The resulting liquid rises into the pot’s upper chamber, where it’s protected from the flavonoid- and polyphenol-killing heat below.
Since coffee has been consumed for millennia, several coffee makers preceded the Moka pot, including the Turkish Ibrik, a small copper or brass pot with a wooden handle dating back to the sixteenth century, if not earlier. Silver pots and linen sacks were used frequently in the eighteenth century. The enamel double-decker Mr. Biggin Pot was first designed in France in 1780. But it really rose to prominence when Britain began taxing tea, kickstarting the American Revolution, and inadvertently creating what would become the world’s largest coffee-consumption market. Meanwhile, in Italy, caffettiere culture started heating up. The Neapolitan flip coffee pot, locally called the cuccumella, is believed by both coffee purveyors Lavazza and the Slow Food organization to come not from Naples at all but, rather, to have been invented and patented in 1819 by Frenchman Jean-Louis Morize. It was called Neapolitan because he was in love with a Neapolitan woman. However, naysayers, including coffee roaster Illy, assert it was invented two centuries earlier in Naples in 1691 by Jean Baptiste de Belloy. While the nineteenth century brought reunification in Italy, it did the opposite for coffee making, with the invention of the percolator and the French press. Drip-style coffee makers, paper coffee filters, and other brewing machines didn’t appear until the twentieth century, long after the Moka pot claimed its dominance.
Today there are several kinds of Moka pots on the market. Bialetti’s original Moka Express model still dominates and still sports the l’omino coi baffi or “the mustachioed little man” logo, designed by comic artist Paul Campani in 1958 and emblazoned on the side of every model. Bialetti Industries, based in Brescia at the foot of the Alps, produces several models and sizes. These include the Tricolore edition with the Italian flag’s colors and the green aluminum Break Alpina, paying homage to Alpini, the Italian Army’s mountain infantry, with a steep-roofed lid resembling a feathered cap. In 2019, Italian design brand Alessi — run by Alfonso Bialetti’s maternal grandson Alberto Alessi and based in Piemonte — revealed a svelte Moka pot designed by David Chipperfield at Paris’ Maison&Objet fair. They have also commissioned numerous designers including Richard Sapper, Piero Lissoni, and Michael Graves, to reinterpret the classic.
Even coffee roasters have developed their own line of Moka pots. Illy, based in Italy’s coffee capital of Trieste, where coffee consumption is double that of the rest of the country, produced the Pulcina. Architect and designer Michele de Lucchi designed this plump, bulbous Moka pot with a red handle to resemble the beak of a chick. Architect Aldo Rossi’s iconic 1983 La Conica and 1990 La Cupola models are especially striking and sought out by collectors. In 1979, Turin-based Lavazza hired architect Marco Zanuso to design a side-handled model dubbed Carmencita. At the Italian Pavilion of the Expo 2020 Dubai, they debuted the Solar Moka. This 8-foot-tall solar-powered Moka pot, suspended above the ground, doubled as the sustainable engine to power a waste-free Solar Coffee Garden.
A bold new generation of Moka pots has shown up in recent years, using new and often sustainably sourced materials. Luxurious Lunika models feature grained ash, mahogany, or walnut pots with steel chambers. E&B Lab’s Globe Mokas are constructed from Borosilicate glass. And Miyaya’s elegant white Jarra de café/tetera is made of pinewood and earthenware ceramics, entirely sourced in Madrid, Spain.
It's the ubiquitous stovetop Moka pot — not pressurized espresso machines — that is found in nearly every Italian home and typically the only way Italians make coffee themselves.
Anyone who perceives Italy as easygoing with its food and drink culture is remiss. Italian rules about coffee are seemingly never-ending and run the gamut from helpful to annoying. The helpful part of the scale includes when to drink your coffee: within two minutes of brewing to capture the most flavors. And how to stir it (even without milk or sugar): vertically from bottom to top to maximize flavor. The annoying side of the scale includes rules like not clinking your spoon against the cup when mixing, never licking your spoon, and never ever ordering a cappuccino after breakfast because “milk after breakfast is too heavy.” (Yet gelato, salami, and pasta is okay any time of the day?!) Contrary to popular belief, Italians love rules, even if they seem pointless, so if you want to do coffee “your own way” be prepared for an inevitable comment.
One thing all Moka pot users can probably agree on is the amount of conflicting information concerning the proper way to make coffee with Moka pots. While some methods vary, there are a few key tips. So I asked experts from Lavazza and Illy to chime in on how to best brew a pot.
“It is important to always go slow and low when heating a Moka pot,” says Davide Vidoz, director of training for Lavazza North America, a company that’s worked closely with renowned chefs like Ferran Adrià and Massimo Bottura to test and develop coffee recipes. “Higher heat levels will cause both the handle and the coffee to burn, damaging the machine and ruining the flavor.” Illy’s director of the University of Coffee, Moreno Faina, agrees. “From the moment the first drop of coffee appears, the flame should be reduced as low as possible. The longer it takes to reach a boil, the better the coffee. To obtain the best flavor, stop the Moka pot from boiling right before it starts “gurgling.”
Water is another factor. The minerality of the water can affect the pot’s maintenance and the coffee’s flavor. “The harder the water, the likelier it is for lime scales to develop and cause malfunctioning,” continues Faina. “Bicarbonate and chlorine can also make the coffee bitter. The optimal water quality has calcium 50-60 mg per liter, magnesium 10-15 mg per liter, bicarbonate 200 mg per liter, and not more than chlorine .10 mg per liter.”
How much coffee grounds to use is typically decided by the size of the filter chamber. Use medium-to-fairly-fine grounds and place them into the filter loosely; never stamp or tap them like you would for an espresso machine. “Despite widespread belief, the coffee in the filter isn’t pressed or punched,” reminds Faina. “Pressing it creates a compactness that obstructs the water from going back up and reduces the influx of the less pleasant substances; punching it creates some preferential tracks for the water which will unbalance the result.”
How to clean the pot is another stubborn issue surrounding Mokas. Due to aluminum construction, most are not dishwasher safe and need to be cleaned by hand without soap or detergents, much like you might cast iron pans. “We recommend rinsing the machine under running water, filling the boiler with three parts water and one part vinegar,” says Vidoz. “Put the cooker on a low flame, and let the liquid come out as if making coffee. Let it cool and repeat the process twice with just water.” Faina suggests another method. “Scented detergents should never be used to clean, but do wash daily with hot water and a soft cloth to remove the most stubborn coffee residues. Dry the components separately so that residual moisture does not generate condensation and bad smells. The Moka must be considered and treated like a precious tool so that it can always transform coffee under the best technical conditions.”
Adam H. Graham is an American food and travel journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. He typically spends a few months every year in Japan, and recently spent several weeks visiting Japanese vineyards in several different prefectures.
Mari Fouz lives in Barcelona, where she studied graphic design and illustration. She has worked for Barcelona newspaper Ara as an art director. As an illustrator, she uses both collage and traditional drawing techniques. She works primarily in print, collaborating with newspapers and magazines such as the New Yorker, the Washington Post, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, WIRED, and the Guardian. She has also worked on children’s books and book covers. She teaches illustration and design at two Catalonian universities (Idep and UOC) and recently received the “American Illustration 40” and “41” awards.
During a stay at his Patagonian hideaway, the iconic chef shares his singular philosophies on life and love.
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