Putting the pot on the stove seems futile. Nothing will come of it. Or rather, nothing should come of it. What’s a little octagonal aluminium pot with a black plastic handle going to do other than burn or emit noxious smells? But, as long as you’re vigilant about turning off the flame, no fires or fumes will come forth.
This is the moka pot. This is the coffee pot you reach for when your shelves are stocked with Illy, Lavazza, or Caffè Kimbo. This is the coffee pot you reach for when you want your coffee to brew itself while you do something better. Need to take a break? Want to wrap yourself in tradition? Reach for the moka and the familiar sensation of toasty Italian coffee.
Like the perfectly pressed Milanese, the moka pot makes a good impression, though it’s not immediately evident how its presentation will lead to good coffee. So first you must dissemble the pot by unscrewing the large top half from the compact bottom. You’re left with three pieces: the heavy, hollow bottom, a funnel-like middle, and large top with a hinged lid with a tall spout in the centre. Remove the rubber gasket, la guarnizione, and you get another, fourth piece. Without instructions, you feel as if each piece is imbued with a special coffee-creating power. But the pot is simply the pot, just like the Milanese is simply from Milan.
Begin by pouring water into the hollow base until it reaches the valve. Then grab the piece that looks like a funnel with a flat, holey filter. Pile your finely ground coffee here. You can make a little mountain or level it off, but don’t tamp it down. The pot, they say, whoever they are, will provide all the pressure needed for a densely flavoured coffee. Next, screw on the big, unwieldy top. The hinged cover will hit you in the wrist once or twice. Place the readied moka on the stove — gas, induction, hot plate, what have you — and let it simmer over a low flame for a little while.
By this point of the coffee ritual you’ve entered into the Italian mindset. Rather than performing a routine dictated by modern coffee culture’s mathematical measurements, your movements reflect the person who taught you to make Italian coffee. The pot sits on the stove. It doesn’t rush. The water will boil and the coffee will arrive at some point, who knows when. Read the moka’s box, gaze at your coffee canister, boil some water to warm your espresso cup, heat some milk. Do what you like. This is your time.
Then there’s a gurgling that sounds like a gargoyle slurping foam off a cappuccino. The water is boiling. The pausa caffè is imminent. Rush to the stove, stick your face over the coffee pot. Is the lid up? It should be up. Open it if it fell down. Ever so slowly, frothy bubbles of coffee trickle out. For a moment you despair. That’s it? But that’s not it. Seconds later, the coffee flows more forcefully. The dark liquid streams into the base of the upper chamber. Now it’s a third of full, now half. All of a sudden the procession switches from hypnotic smoothness to jagged, quick spurts that jeopardize your white shirt and countertops. So you put the lid down, turn off the heat and place the pot on a trivet. The coffee continues bubbling out for a few moments, then stops. You reach for your cup, you pour the coffee.
At this point, Italians would reach for the sugar, il dolcificante, or just guzzle. What will you do? The Italians might drink from coloured tazzine or sip on a cappuccino from a larger mug. Italians drink coffee together. It’s a social action that joins communities and unites disparate regional identities, at least to a certain degree. Whether drunk alongside a pastry at breakfast or chugged for an afternoon pick-me-up, coffee bonds an individual with their social environment and cultural practices. That moka pot you put on your stove? It might be Italian, but you integrated it into your cultural dialogue. This is your kitchen. You make the routine, you craft the rituals and you can throw out everything above if you want.