Illy University

“I don’t drink coffee, I take tea my dear”

Like Sting’s Englishman in New York, I see away 4 or 5 cups of tea every day (earl grey, splash of milk, no sugar – thanks). While I love coffee, I don’t drink it regularly and usually only indulge in this most seductive of caffeine hits when it’s made for me by a proper barista with a good machine.

Recently I discovered that there is a middle ground between the dirty dishwater style coffee that dribbles out of the worst vending machines and the multi-thousand pound professional kit. The lovely people at the Illy University (yes, there is such a thing – this is where budding baristas come for training) invited me over for a demonstration of their at-home machines, which they promised would give me the high-quality java I craved in my own flat.

First, the drawbacks of the bulky, heavy professional machines were explained. Marco Arrigo, Head of Quality for Illy Coffee in the UK, is deeply fond of his Faema coffee machine from the 1960s, but it needs constant maintenance to be kept running smoothly.

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Marco and his team have to pull hundreds of espressos every day to ensure it stays in good nick: obviously hugely impractical for a household that requires just a handful of cups per day.

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Marco said he “fights against” the vintage, clanking machinery every day and let me have a go at grappling myself.

One of my first ever teenage jobs was at a well-known high street coffee chain, which I won’t name, but they’re known for their green aprons… There, you were taught to use spoons to control your steamed and foamed milk but Marco is a purist: it’s all in the wrist, no spoons allowed. With Marco’s help I completed a couple of shaky hearts and leaves.

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While the “third wave” coffee movement comprising independent roasteries believe freshly roasted green beans are the best, Illy prefers to let the roasted coffee beans mellow over 21 days in pressurised cans. Illy sources beans from nine different countries and has to produce a consistent, familiar Illy taste each time, so the blend has to be just right.

The capsules used in Illy’s at-home machines are similarly pressurised.

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Comparing coffees from the professional and at-home machines was a revelation: both had a lingering viscosity, a sign of high quality. Thin, watery mouthfeel is often a bad or poorly made coffee. The proper, thick stuff should be powerful enough so the flavour coats the tongue long after you sip. Sure enough, it was impossible to detect the difference between the coffee from the professional machine and the coffee from the at-home machine.

After a few more lessons (such as how to store coffee beans or grounds – NEVER in the fridge or freezer), class was dismissed at Illy University.

Which meant it was booze o’clock! We were treated to espresso martinis made by Bea Bradsell, whose father Dick invented the espresso martini in the 1980s at the Soho Brasserie, after a supermodel demanded “a drink that will wake me up and then fuck me up”.

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Bea Bradsell’s perfect espresso martini recipe:

50ml vodka
25ml good espresso, chilled (never use freshly pulled espresso because it will melt the ice and give you a watery drink)
10ml Tia Maria
15ml Kahlua
Dash simple syrup

Shake vigorously with ice and strain into chilled glass. Decorate with three coffee beans for luck. Bottoms up!

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The fun didn’t stop there: Illy let me take my very own machine home to practice my new-found latte art skills.

Say hello to the Illy Francis Francis X7.1!

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This baby is a cinch to use, looks great in my kitchen and produces excellent espresso at the touch of a button. It would be good to see Illy use more recyclable materials in the future.

As an early Christmas present I have a nifty promo code to share, which gives you 20% off new machines and coffee until 10th January 2014 (maximum of 3 items per order):

http://www.espressocrazy.com/promo/ILLYSCHOOL

What’s your perfect brew?

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