Moka: easy or difficult to use?
A recent article in a British national newspaper, said that coffee made in a traditional Italian moka ‘is often hugely bitter and over-extracted rocket fuel’. It goes on to say how ‘fiendishly difficult’ the moka is to use. I was so incensed by this that I felt I had to write an article. To quote a phrase of our time, what they said is fake news.
Easy, when you know how
It’s actually quite easy to make excellent coffee, just like you’d get in an Italian bar, using a moka. However, as with any machine or gadget, you have to know what you’re doing. So here is the instruction manual, containing the secrets that every Italian knows. (I’m exaggerating of course, not every Italian knows this. I’ve had some excellent, but also some pretty awful coffee in people’s homes.)
Bialetti’s Moka Express
The moka (officially known as Moka Express) was invented in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti, an engineer from Piemonte. He began to manufacture and sell them at his local market selling 70,000 of them before the advent of the Second World War. Production stopped during the war, since aluminium was needed for other purposes, but in 1946 Alfonso’s son Renato started manufacturing and marketing the moka all over Italy, and the rest as they say, is coffee history.
The Moka Express is considered one of the great icons of Italian design both from a functional and aesthetic point of view. Many attempts have been made, both by Bialetti and their competitors, to change the appearance, but the old, angular version is the one recognized the world over, and preferred by Italians. (It’s an interesting aside, that Carlo Alessi—head designer of the design company that bears his name and one of Bialetti’s rivals—was married to Germana Bialetti, the daughter of Renato.)
L’omino con i baffi
If Alfonso Bialetti was a design genius, Renato was a marketing genius. In 1958 he teamed up with his friend, cartoonist Paul Campani to produce the logo which has meant Bialetti ever since: the omino coi baffi (the little man with the moustache). Obviously based on Renato, who sported the same over-the-top moustache, the omino appeared in a series of infomercials on Carosello—a ten-minute advertising slot on Italian TV—to instant success.
How do you make the perfect moka coffee?
So without further ado, how do you make the perfect coffee using a moka? First of all, it’s important to choose a good quality coffee and one that has been ground especially for use in a moka. These are widely available and brand names such as Illy, Lavazza, and Segafredo come to mind. Many coffee roasteries will also grind the beans for you, I like to buy my coffee from Torrefazione Cannaregio in Venice. Just make sure you tell them that you want it for use in a moka.
The moka itself is in three pieces: the water reservoir, the coffee container, and the pot. You will notice that about three quarters of the way up the water reservoir, there’s a valve. Identify it as it’s very important.
Step one: fill the reservoir with water
Put cold water in the water reservoir up to the level of the valve. Do not cover the valve with water.
Step two: fill the coffee container with coffee
Gently spoon your coffee into the coffee container. Do not press it down with the spoon. It should sit in the container under its own weight. If you want your coffee to be regular strength, fill it to the top of the container. If you want your coffee to be strong, allow a heap of coffee to stick up out of the container, but again, do not press it down. When you put the coffee pot on it will do that for you.
Step three: place on the stove top
Screw the coffee pot back on top of the water reservoir and then place on the stove and turn on the gas.
Step four: turn the gas off
When the coffee has started entering the coffee pot at full flow—you will know when as the moka starts making a loud noise—turn the gas down to the lowest possible setting and when the pot is about half full turn it off completely. If you leave the gas on, you run the risk of burning the coffee and turn it into bitter, ‘over-extracted rocket fuel’. The resulting coffee will be at about 92°C (about 197°F).
Step five: serve
When the coffee has finished entering the coffee pot, mix it in the pot with a spoon, and serve in small espresso cups. The coffee will be strong, so you don’t want to drink too much. Mokas generally tell you how many cups they will make, so you can use this as a portion guide. As my friend Janys, who runs Creative Retreats in Italy, reminded me, Italian baristas always warm the cups before serving coffee. You can do this at home by filling the cups with boiling water while the coffee is brewing and then throwing it away before serving. Also, never wash your moka with detergent, only with hot water. The detergent can react with the aluminium and ruin the flavour of coffees to come.
It’s recently been announced the the Bialetti company is in financial trouble. Let’s hope that they are able to weather the storm and that the omino con i baffi continues to grace the next generation of Italian kitchens. If you don’t have a Moka Express, why not go out and buy one and help save an Italian institution?