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The Moka coffee maker

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"Bialetti’s Moka pot didn’t just revolutionise the preparation of coffee, it revolutionised a ritual and precipitated a social shift." Rachel Roddy

This article, was not what actually what I set about to write this morning. It arises from one of those small coincidences of life.

I was going to write about ricotta. It's been on my 'to do' list for a while, and so I started looking for inspirational words and recipes and found this very tempting sounding Coffee and ricotta cream, by Rachel Roddy The Guardian's Italian food columnist. She calls it A Kitchen in Rome. Rachel Roddy also has her own website called rachel eats, which is also worth a look if you want to know more about life in Rome that is centred around food.

Anyway, I thought the main written part of the column would be about ricotta, but no it was about the classic Moka coffee machine. You know the one. And as I had written about the social mores around coffee in cafés I felt that this was sort of serendipity and I should go with it.

It was invented back in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti, a Piedmontese engineer. The design is influenced by both Art Deco and Futurism and although the materials may have changed a bit, and doubtless there have been some tiny tweaks here and there, fundamentally the machine you can buy now is still exactly the same.

I have never owned one myself and I have owned just about every other kind of coffee making apparatus that exists, including a small enamel Turkish coffee pot. But never this one. For some reason I thought it was too complicated. Having now read Rachel Roddy's article I wonder why. I guess it was just that I didn't understand what to do when faced with one - as we sometimes were in our rented French and Italian homes. Not knowing what to do we would resort to just pouring boiling water over coffee grounds in a jug, leaving to infuse for a bit, and then straining through a sieve. Not a super wonderful way to make coffee, but it will just about suffice. That said I have some old friends who are very gourmet, and who will only make their espresso coffee in one of these machines.

Rachel Roddy's Italian partner gives her these instructions on making the coffee:

"Don’t fill the water beyond the valve on the inside of the bottom chamber; fill the basket with coffee grounds, allowing them to rise beyond the sides into a small, loose hill (not a mountain), but don’t press them down – screwing on the top half will do that. Screw the top on carefully, then put the pot on a medium-low flame, so it comes to a boil slowly. When the coffee starts erupting, pull it from the heat. Oh, and position the pot so the handle is not licked by the flame, otherwise it will melt."

It actually doesn't sound that hard.

Now the Italians drink espresso coffee and back in the thirties the only way to get espresso coffee was to go to a bar - you get coffee from a bar in Italy - if you're only after coffee that is. Which meant that only men drank espresso because women didn't go to bars. They must have gone there for their breakfast coffee on the way to work. So there's another coincidence, given what I was writing about yesterday. There is your social revolution. I guess if you were poor and male you might not have had access to espresso coffee either, but chiefly it meant that women could now partake, and that you could now have that early morning shot at home.

"This small, affordable, eight-sided household object brought the ritual of coffee making into homes, and into everyone’s hands."

The coffee in those coffee shops was, of course, made in one of those wonderful old coffee machines, like the one on display in the University café in Lygon Street. You would definitely not have had one of those at home, although these days most people have some kind of espresso machine, even if it is just an Aldi Expressi capsule machine. Don't knock the coffee from those - it's pretty good. But those capsules are definitely not good for the environment.

But, as usual I digress. Back to Alfonso Bialetti in Piedmont. Just before I was going to publish this I found another article by Adele Barattelli on the website Owlcation in which she tells how Alfonso got the idea:

"The idea of how to build a coffee pot came from Alfonso watching his busy wife doing the laundry. At that time, to wash clothes, an appliance called a "Lessiveuse" was used. This machine resembled a metal bucket with a hollow tube with a perforated top. Water was put in the bucket with the laundry and soap and a small flame appliance at the bottom boiled the liquid, this then passed upwards through the central metal tube passing out of small slotted outlets at the top back over the laundry and rotating the washing clothes with the detergent. This basic boiler and funnel would be the basis of Alfonso's design."

He may have had a really good design, but he wasn't a great businessman. He was a craftsman and not that interested in selling, and so it was made in limited quantities and just sold locally from the family iron foundry. However his son, Renato took it in hand in the 50s and turned it into the mass-produced ubiquitous machine that is today. Renato is the man in this cartoon by Paul Campani which is found on two of the eight sides of the Moka machine. Now I'm pretty sure that you would find one of these coffee machines in many European homes. I'm pretty sure that Aldi would have a knock-off version of the machine every now and then - sans cartoon. Well I don't think I really remember seeing one there. Maybe there are really tough copyright/patent restrictions on it.

So how does the machine work? And yes it is an engineered machine even though it does look like a coffee pot.

"The principle is steam pressure. By heating the water until it boils in a contained space, it becomes steam-driven and is forced up the funnel, through the coffee grounds and into the middle column, from which it pours, like lava from a volcano, into the upper pot. It’s the best sound in the world at 6.45am, 9am, 11am, after lunch, on the tail of an afternoon slump, a full-stop after a big meal – but it has to be big, otherwise it stops being a digestive and returns to being a shot." Rachel Roddy

Now you see the similarity with Alfonso Bialetti's wife's washing machine.

The size of the cup though is an interesting comment because one of the problems we always found on our European holidays, was that this kind of coffee maker was not big enough to provide coffee for six or eight people - even four actually - in the morning. Well not large cups anyway. Ok for the Italians perhaps who do indeed prefer the shots of really dark espresso.

And the last piece of information that I gleaned from Rachel Roddy's very informative article? The machine was called Moka after the town of Mocha in the Yemen. However, very frustratingly she doesn't explain why. So I looked it up and it's because the port of Mocha was the centre of the coffee trade from the 15th to the 18th century. The coffee was grown inland, and sent to the port for export. Mocha coffee beans were/are "prized for their distinctive flavor". So that's that question answered.

And last fact. Alfonso Biatalli's grandson is Alberto Alessi - son of Alfonso's daughter - and now head of the Italian design company Alessi, which makes beautiful things that are often copied by others and have become classics in themselves. Alberto Alessi is the third generation of the Alessi family - so there is another story there.

One of their products is this espresso machine, the first designed by the German Richard Sapper - in 1978. Alberto Alessi sees it as a homage to his grandfather, and you can see why. You can find a little more about it in an article by Benedict Hobson in the online magazine De Zeen. It's a beautiful thing and is just one of the many Alessi designs now in museums around the world.

I don't think I shall be going out to buy one - either the Alessi or the Moka as we have a pretty good Jura espresso machine at home, but if by chance I am ever confronted with one of them in a rental home, at least now I shall know what to do and where it comes from.

Ricotta coming soon. Will be using some tonight in my spinach quiche.


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