The Curious Conundrum Of Catalan Vs. Castilian Coffee

I’ve recently returned from spending the holidays in Spain, which began with Christmas in Barcelona followed by New Year’s in Madrid. I also spent my summer vacation visiting both cities, enjoying time with family, great art/architecture, music, and of course, food. Yet a curious aspect of both trips was something which confused me and my traveling companions on both occasions: why was the coffee in Barcelona so good, and the coffee in Madrid so terrible?

Back in May/June, when traveling with an American friend with ancestors from Catalonia, I introduced him to what is called a “tallat” in Catalan, and a “cortado” in Spanish, which is essentially espresso that has a shot of steamed milk mixed in with it. It’s similar to the Italian “macchiato”, although in Italy they use milk foam rather than warm milk. [NOTE: the flavored “macchiato” that you order in Starbucks bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.] We began at Francesco, my favorite local café on the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, where we went for breakfast every morning, but we also ordered it in many places around town. It was always hot, creamy, sweet, and delicious, no matter where we drank it.

When we got to Madrid, it was as if we had moved to another country where the same word meant something completely different, like how in Spain a “tortilla” is an omelet, whereas in Mexico it is a flat disc usually made of corn. During our entire time in Madrid, every cortado that we ordered was terrible: tepid, thin, watery, and bitter, whether it was in a corner bar or in a swanky restaurant. I was genuinely confused and apologetic, and wondered whether we were just having bad luck, but this seemed improbable given the wide variety of places where we drank it.

Over Christmas break the situation repeated itself. We drank cortados at Francesco every morning for breakfast, but we also drank them elsewhere. We had cortados for elevenses or after a meal at various restaurants and cafes in Barcelona, and we had them at the seaside in the resort town of Sitges, about a half hour south of the city. While Francesco is unquestionably the best, even at these other establishments, the coffee was always good.

In Madrid, the cortados were once again a serious disappointment. We tried corner bars, nice restaurants, and even the café at The Prado, but the only place where we were able to get a good cortado was at an Illy café located across from the Mercado de San Miguel in Old Madrid. The fact that this was an Italian establishment was not insignificant, because unlike virtually every coffee chain in this country that claims to make espresso-based drinks – which in fact taste like burnt worm excrement soaked in muddy water masked by large quantities of corn syrup – Italians do it better, as the saying goes.

While café society in Madrid looked to France for inspiration, coffee culture in Barcelona was heavily influenced by the coffee culture in Northern Italy, Sardinia, and the Italian cantons of Switzerland. Although the French originally invented the espresso machine, Italians bring the hot water in their espresso machines up to about 195 degrees Fahrenheit, so that espresso drinks prepared in this way arrive at your table nice and hot. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that the inevitably tepid coffee in Madrid is at least partially the result of not getting the water in their espresso machines hot enough.

Many Italian restauranteurs opened restaurants and cafes for the Barcelona bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The now-gone Torino, for example, was an opulent establishment opened by the equally opulently-named Flaminio Mezzalama of Turin in 1902. It marked the only architectural and design collaboration between two of the greatest rivals for Art Nouveau outlandishness in Barcelona at the time, Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch. As you can see here, it was quite a magnificent building.

And then there is the problem of the coffee roasting itself.

During the period of austerity which followed the Spanish Civil War, Spanish coffee importers began using a processing method called torrefacto, in which the beans are roasted with large quantities of sugar. This helps the beans to keep longer in storage, by coating them in a black film of burnt sugar. This coating comes off when the beans are ground for making coffee, and the result is the bitter, nasty aftertaste that we were experiencing. Even though the lean years of the Civil War era are long over, at least some Spaniards developed a taste for this abomination, I suppose in the way that many American GI’s during World War II developed a taste for spam, which is why you can still find this product on just about every grocery store shelf in America.

As a result, torrefacto-processed coffee is still widely and commonly used throughout Spain, either on its own or blended with other beans. You can even buy it from Spanish food importers in the U.S. (dear Lord, why would you do this?) However it turns out that Barcelona has long been in the vanguard of finally casting off this dark shadow. For years now, Catalan coffee importers and roasters have been rejecting the torrefacto process, in favor of single-source beans and bean blends roasted in the traditional way. This, in combination with the Italian coffee preparation methods that are a long-standing part of coffee culture in places like Barcelona, explains why the same drink tastes so much better in Barcelona, than it does in Madrid.

If you ever get the chance to visit both Barcelona and Madrid, visit any corner bar in the morning, and you will quite literally be able to taste the difference between the coffee cultures of these two cities. Taste is largely individual, of course, so it may be that you prefer the inky, oily taste of Castilian coffee. But for my money, when I’m back in Madrid this summer I’m sticking to the Italian coffee shops – or ordering a cup of tea.

Caffe Francesco, Barcelona

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