What is an Italian Latte ?

First up, I must announce on my blog, for all those non-coffee geeks, who don’t know already, that the World Barista Champion is Mike Phillips of Intelligentsia Coffee. Intelligentsia Coffee is actually becoming world famous amongst the coffee world and so it won’t be that much of a surprise that they are able to churn out a world class barista. You can view more about Intelligentsia on my blog roll, or follow mike phillips on twitter on 1shotfortheroad – cool name.

OK ! so as we’ve just been elongated with the technical terms of coffee at the WBC, I thought it apt to tackle the technicalities of the so called “what is an Italian Latte ?” debate. It’s actually a very contentious issue and on many forums, pages and pages have been written about what exactly is a latte. Let’s start from the basics. Caffe is Italian for coffee and Latte is Italian for… wait for it…. MILK. So strictly speaking, a caffe latte is coffee with milk. BUT, what sort of milk and what sort of coffee. Have a I lost you ? Stay with me. OK ! we know that most coffee drank in Italy, is espresso based, so that was easy wasn’t it ? We’ve got the coffee out of the way and now for the difficult bit, what sort of milk. We now have 3 types of milk, (i) heated milk, which you can just pour into a small pot and take of the heat when steam appears, or if you have a microwave, pop in for between 30-60 seconds, (ii) steamed milk, which ideally should display lots of steam when heated or if you are lucky enough to have a proper espresso machine, one in which you steam before it froths or if we are going to be technical place the steam wand right into the milk jug as far as it will go, and steam – it will heat up very quickly and you shouldn’t see any bubbles at all. (iii) frothed milk – what we all crave, because if done properly, it should be silky smooth and sweetish, with a wrap around your mouth texture – if you have never had this experience, then the barista that is making your drink, needs to be re-trained or you need to practice more, but this post isn’t about frothing milk, sorry !

So for Italian Latte, I have to be the bearer of bad news and commit myself to say, there should be no frothed milk, boo hoo ! The pic at the top of this post is one made using frothed milk and so it is an imposter. So, that’s right, what a great majority of cafes serve as a caffe latte isn’t a caffe latte, because it is covered with frothed milk. If you have time and money to waste, but are passionate about not getting conned, order a large cappuccino and a caffe latte at your “regular” coffee shop and try and tell what the difference is – good luck and let me know.

OK ! Back to the milk stuff. The first type of milk, heated, is what you should really have in the French version, cafe au lait – OK ! for those who don’t know French and coffee terms, coffee (using the French Press) with milk. So, the second version, steamed milk, should ideally be used for the Italian caffe latte. How do you know if it is steamed and not heated ? Steamed milk should have a trickle of “body”. See below, that little white line on the top.

If you are really passionate, after your drink, check out the inside. It should look a bit like this, Why ?

Well ! that bit of dark cream, is the crema from a well prepared espresso, a double in this case, which interacted with the steamed milk, giving it a bit of a “body” or thick skin. If there was frothed milk, it will still be there, thick as ever. If it was just heated milk, it would wash away your crema and hence the evidence. I’m not mad, but just so you know, this is how the Italian measure their coffees afterwards, by looking inside after it has been drunk. All together now, mad coffee freak….. Hope you learned something, Take care and check those caffe lattes.

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