Art in Paradise: Better Latte Than Never

Let’s get one thing out of the way: yes, I drive a Volvo. One with a Karl Marx autograph on the hood. When I drive, that is. I also have a manservant who hands me my eight iron and offers me chilled Chardonnay in the back of the limo.

So it won’t surprise you that my breakfast beverage of choice is also the stuff of liberal elitist watchwords. Give me latte or give me death.

I came to that milky party accidentally. Turns out that my coffee brewing method of choice and low-acid necessity—the Italian-style moka pot, or stovetop espresso maker—creates an intense brew that I find best when paired with a certain amount of milk. Latte is merely Italian for “milk,” and is short for “caffeelatte.” The moka pot is ubiquitous in Italy, and its output is indeed often mixed with milk. And that is, more or less, the nearest thing to a latte you can get at home unless you’ve spent hundreds on one of those Willy Wonka-esque espresso machines that even Republican elitists buy with their offshore accounts.

There’s a lot that goes into creating a real, proper latte, of course. No coffee shop I’ve seen anywhere makes coffee with a stovetop machine, and the output of a moka pot is, technically speaking, espresso-like, not espresso. A “real” latte means real espresso.

Engaging in such esoterica as what makes a real espresso might seem more along the lines of arts criticism than news reportage. And indeed, the proper place for such talk is a subject of recurrent conversation at the Advocate. Is food writing arts, or is it reporting? Something else? The clearer claim is that, yes, it’s a matter of artistic expression, if a sometimes technical one, and that’s a claim well staked by talking about the fine art of producing a latte.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried lattes at a good clip all over Northampton, pounding the things like some Fox News-styled liberati on a post-DNC bender. Maybe it’s a testament to just how blue a town it is, at least by reputation, that lattes are on offer at just about every place except the parking ticket office. I still haven’t tried every food spot that claims to make a latte.

The results from my survey so far are clear. Most of the time, a latte, even in Northampton, ends up being an espresso-flavored milkshake, so dairy-heavy that the espresso is diluted into submission, a taste so distant it might as well be instant coffee and milk—a drink also known as an abomination. It’s so prevalent that an across-the-board rule can be derived therefrom: if a latte comes in a 16-ounce cup, don’t waste your time. You might as well get your latte from Dairy Queen. Espresso comes in a demi-tasse, not a bucket.

A real latte is a bracing smack-in-the-face of a drink, one in which the milk only serves to create a touch of contrast, foregrounding the rich swell of good coffee. So far, I’ve only found two places that understand this: Rao’s, in the middle of Thornes Marketplace, and Northampton Coffee, on Pleasant Street. To my tastebuds, they’re all but tied in the latte race, though Northampton Coffee probably hits the tape first for the unmatched complexity of their espresso blend.

The real deal starts with a well-pulled shot of espresso. That narrows down the contenders pretty fast. A lot of places have espresso machines, but few are the baristas who really know their way around them. It’s an art that unfolds with deceptive speed; pulling a proper shot requires a specialized dance, a juggling of pressure, timing, coffee grind, tamping, even cleanliness.

Make it over that hurdle and you get to that second all-important ingredient: the milk. A quick glance behind the counters at Northampton Coffee and Rao’s reveals one of the secrets of a proper latte—both use milk from Mapleline Farms in Hadley, and it’s certainly not skim.

As a barista at Rao’s explained on a recent visit, the difference between a cappucino and a latte is slight—the steam nozzle goes further down for a latte, heating the milk without creating the light, frothy head of a cappucino. That heated, non-frothy milk gets poured over the espresso shot, often with a flourish that folds a leaf-like pattern into the top. If that’s missing, you’re probably at Dairy Queen again.

Somehow, a latte’s density seems to leave the espresso the star of the show. Don’t fear the propagandists decrying this humble Italian standard as some sort of left-wing affectation. A really proper one is enough to wake you up in the morning with plenty of time left to start the Volvo, inflate the size of government, and make it to the Noam Chomsky talk.

Just don’t get it half-caf with soy milk and you’ll be fine.

Author: James Heflin

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