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The Little Pot That Can
Many years ago, when I visited the Italy Insider in Bologna, she was sharing an apartment with three Italian women who all worked in the city. I remember two things about the apartment: a chandelier made from a bicycle wheel hung from the ceiling in one of the bedrooms, and four tiny Bialetti Moka coffee pots perched gingerly on the prongs of the grates covering the hobs of their stove.
I noticed in the Bialetti store on Via di Indepenenza that they sold much larger versions besides the tiny ones. Being an American who thinks bigger is always better and more economical, I asked why they didn’t get a large one and make a pot for all. I was sternly told that the coffee would not be the same as when made in each tiny pot. And you know, they were right! I bought a large one when we carried several sizes of the Bialetti Moka pots in the shop, and the coffee was better in the the smaller sizes than in the large one. I use this one pictured here only to make coffee for Espresso Granita or a couple of espresso-based cakes – which I will include in a future post.
Brave New World
I recently learned in one of my online Italian modules from Italiano Per La Vita (an ingenious platform to improve your Italian, by the way), the most intriguing history behind the design and popularity of this unusual coffee maker. It played a role in a uniquely Italian social and artistic movement in the early part of twentieth century called Futurism. Its proponents designed, painted and wrote about the dawn of the modern age, which would break away from the ornate and elitist past. It included bold thinking in architecture, in political philosophy including Fascism, and in the design of household objects.
At this time, Alfonso Bialetti, an Italian engineer, worked in the French aluminum industry for a decade before returning to Italy to set up his own aluminum workshop in Crusinallo, Piedmont and later in Conchiglia. Aluminum was viewed as a 20th century metal that would be in the vanguard of design. A hotbed of Futurist artists and metal smiths such as Jean Puiforcat in France and Luigi Gennazzi in Italy certainly influenced him in his design of the now famous octagonal Moka Pot.
The idea for the inner workings of these little pots came from Bialetti’s observation of his wife’s washing machine – the French lessiveuse. This contraption sat on a stand heated by fire. The clothes, water and lye (the laundry detergent of the day) were inserted in the container. The heat of the fire forced the water through the central column, perforated at the bottom and top, and created a hot, sudsy, agitating water bath for the clothes. Now lessiveuses are sold at high prices as planters and patio furniture stands by antique dealers.
With the design of Luigi De Ponti (the partner in Bialetti’s little company), the studio produced its first series of Moka coffee makers, named after the Yemeni city of Mokha – the country revered by Italians as the birthplace of the coffee bean. This little pot made an intense coffee not normally available to Italian households, outside of going to cafés that had ornate machines manufactured by La Pavoni and could produce a deep, strong flavored coffee.
The proliferation of the Moka coffee maker went hand in hand with the great immigration waves of poverty-stricken Italians throughout the world – and the marketing genius of Alfonso’s son, Renato. He returned home, freed as a World War II prisoner of war in Germany, and took over the reins at Bialetti. An incredible marketer, Renato commissioned the now famous “omino coi baffi” caricature of his father that is imprinted on many of the coffee pots produced by Bialetti. He also utililzed radio and TV advertising with the unending and teeth-grinding jingle si, si sembra facile (fare un buon caffe) – yes, yes, it seems simple (to make a good coffee). I loved that Renato, who died in 2016 at the age of 93, insisted that his ashes be put into a Bialetti Moka Pot instead of the standard funereal urn.
Yes, It’s Simple But…
Currently, the company, which has undergone several mergers, produces stainless steel versions of the Moka, with the advantage of not getting pock marked from detergents the way aluminum does. But this iteration lacks the iconic octagonal shape, alas. The Moka principle is still a great way to make a quick cup of coffee that is not watery and weak-flavored. In the wrong hands (mine) it’s possible to make mistakes with these lovely little pots, and I’m guilty of making many of them.
First of all, you should replace the gasket every three months if you use your coffee maker every day. Second, do not try to speed up the process by using high heat. Lower heat, which takes a bit longer, produces a better cup. Use a coffee ground not for espresso machines, which is almost like powder, but one designed for stovetop coffee makers – the grind will be more like fine sea salt. And, loosely pack and level off the ground coffee in the filter cup, but don’t tamp it. If you pre-boil the water (as for tea) and then use that water in your Moka, you will get a more aromatic cup of coffee, as the pot will not be on the burner as long. Fill the bottom chamber up to the bottom of the safety valve; don’t cover it and leave its lid up while the pot heats up. Finally, once the coffee has finished dribbling out, don’t let the steam (which will give a gurgling sound) continue to push through the filter; it will only add an unwanted bitterness to your brew. It is even advised to pick up the pot and quickly run the base under some cold water to stop the heating process. Or use a very cold cloth as shown in this snappy little tutorial.
Bialetti coffee makers are sold in the US in many stores, and of course the evil retail overlord, Amazon, has a selection of most of their coffee makers, gaskets and replacement parts. In the past I have been desperate enough about coffee to put a small pot in my suitcase since most hotel rooms only had instant coffee. Does it produce the same “espresso” as a $$$$ machine? No. the truth is that commercial espresso machines produce a little cup of coffee with nine bars of pressure while a Moka pot reaches 1.5 bars. And commercial machines regulate the water to be around 96 degrees Fahrenheit when forced over the grounds, rather than a bit over 100 degrees in the little pot. And you won’t get the desired crema. But a Moka does give you a deeper, more aromatic cup of coffee than many drip or percolator versions do and, actually, once you are in sync with the prep, it’s a lot easier. With coffee, as with pizza, less is more.
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.
Nancy, I loved this post! (and last week’s on the Mary Rose). My parents had one of the 1950s aluminum versions, from my father’s Air Force days based in England, and I still am distraught that it somehow escaped my clutches when they downsized 20 years ago. He also picked up a coffee pot from Morocco that he used as a pencil/pen cup on his desk. I only realized what it was ten years ago. That one I have. Anyway, you’ve inspired me to buy a Bialetti (where is La Cuisine when I need her???!!!) because I only ever want… Read more »
I used to have, I think, the same style of Moroccan coffee pot which I tried using, but found after a few tries, that I really don’t like coffee with the fine grounds sitting at the bottom of the pot. I used mine to melt butter! And thank you again for being such a complimentary reader of KD!
I enjoyed your article. We are in Europe and recently were in Amalfi where we rented an Air bnb that came with a small Moka pot. We mentioned to the rental agent that our preference was for a nespresso style maker and she laughed at us (in a nice way) and said that on the Amalfi coast everyone uses the Moka. So we were “stuck”. I did some research on line to learn how to use it (basically what your advice counseled – with one addition) and it turned out fine. The addition being adding a paper filter on top… Read more »