September 21, 2012
I realised what it meant to live on the other side of the world, alone, when at 21 I found myself in Perth, 15,000km from home.
I landed in the Western Australian capital at the end of July 2010 and Manuel Goria, my soon-to-be boss, picked me up at the airport.
We had met a month before in Italy.
Over a glass of white wine in San Secondo’s square, in my hometown of Asti, Goria had started talking about his new adventure in the hospitality industry.
He told me that he and his partner, Aleks Kesic, had opened an espresso deli in Perth and had started to import coffee from Italy.
Goria explained that the coffee was roasted in Asti by the Ponchione family with seven of the best arabica bean types in the world.
He said he wanted to offer the coffee to his Australian customers who were getting more and more interested in the world of coffee.
I decided on the spot to fly to Australia for a working holiday.
About 12 hours after my arrival, I found myself washing dishes and cups like crazy in a little coffee shop in Subiaco called The Little Pantry.
I would go on to work 55 hours a week, five days a week, for $350 – plus food and accomodation.
Not much, but for me it was more than enough.
I was a kitchen hand, an immigrant and a pauper.
It was the feeling of having nothing that made me want to achieve, create and accomplish something.
I became interested in the way the shop was run.
After being a dish washer, the next step was food preparer, but I found that to be a monotonous and boring job.
The days were long and the fatigue was great.
My English was not terrible, but I found I was not able to take orders and to have a proper conversation with customers.
It was all very frustrating.
However, I did not want to give up. I was determined to succeed.
And so, I began to take orders.
I knew that if I managed to stay at the front where the shop was busiest, I would learn a lot more than I would have been able to in the kitchen, on my own.
I was particularly interested in coffee preparation.
In Italy there is a strong coffee culture.
The Ponchione coffee that The Little Pantry now imports has featured in the authoritative food and wine magazine Gambero Rosso (literally ‘red prawn’) that features the best produce the world has to offer.
In its guide for 2009, Ponchione was the only coffee to achieve five stars.
This Italian company offers four coffees recognised among the best in the world: Jamaica Blue Mountain, Hawaii Captain Cook Extra Fancy, Puerto Rico Yauco Selecto Up and Ethiopia Harrar – plus their own blend.
The accolades are down to meticulous selection by the Ponchione family, which imports beans from their countries of origin.
The family roasts the coffee then provides the final product in the cup or packaged for retail sale.
Goria sources his beans directly from the Italian micro-roaster in Asti.
“I am a close family friend of the people who run the business, which is why The Little Pantry is the only cafe to serve Ponchione in Australia and in the whole Southern Hemisphere,” he says.
Ponchione specially roasts the coffee for Goria and the same day FedEx picks it up.
Within three days the coffee arrives, via air freight, in Perth.
It is not just the quality of the beans that makes the coffee exceptional.
“Ponchione Coffee is also part of the Italian Slow Food Organisation, which means the production of food and coffee is done in a good, fair way, and is sustainable, healthy, and harvested in good working conditions,” Goria says.
“My coffee has a dense, brown color, and is dark, smokey, and full of body.
“The aroma is earthy and the coffee leaves a strong, lingering bitterness on the back of my tongue.”
Working in an environment where everyone gives their best had a marked influence on my decision to become a barista.
I was not moved by the desire to make money, but by the desire to offer an exceptional product.
Day after day I learned more and more.
Thus I began, very slowly, to get closer to the coffee machine.
Carefully, I watched the preparation procedure: the right amount of coffee to be introduced in the basket, the number of shots used (long or short, single or double) depending on the coffee requested, and milk heating.
Coffee is not a problem when you get the right grinder setting.
One of the biggest issues I encountered at the beginning concerned the preparation of the milk.
Depending on the milk that is used: soy, skim, full cream or oats (which I didn’t know existed) the heating methods are different. Soy milk, for example, heats up more quickly.
One of the most difficult skills for a barista is to hit the right temperature without burning the coffee.
At training, Goria suggested that I practice by putting a drop of detergent with a little water in the milk jug and heat as if it were milk.
I do not know what strange chemical process occured, but eventually the water and detergent took roughly the same characteristics as milk.
Thus, I spent several afternoons, during periods of calm, practicing with jugs of warm water and detergent.
And it worked!
Little by little I tried real milk. The results were hilarious failures but the determination and the desire to succeed grew stronger.
I love dealing with customers, selling the product and delivering good cups of coffee with the typical Italian style.
The quality of Italian products seems to be positively accepted by Australian customers.
Mirko Silvestri, a young Roman bartender with eight years’ experience as a bar manager at La Sapienza University in Rome, arrived in Australia two-and-a-half years ago.
After working for several bars in Perth, he now plays the role of a manager in one of the most popular coffee shops in Leederville.
Silvestri is planning to start his own business.
I spoke to him just before he left for Rome to negotiate a partnership with Circi coffee.
The well-known Roman coffee house, considered among the top 10 in Italy, regularly exports to Australia, particulary New South Wales.
Further south, in Melbourne, Circi is highly regarded as synonymous with Italian quality.
“I am [going to] Rome to talk with Circi’s CEO,” Silvestri says.
“It bodes well and the company seems to be seriously interested in expanding the business even on the west coast.”
The young bartender, in his late 20s, has approached a bar in North Perth to start supplying the coffee.
“My dream would be to create a true Italian bar, where people can enjoy a good espresso with a cornetto (croissant) for breakfast,” he says.
“I wish I could convey to the customer the feeling of being in Italy, with all the features that make it so popular and well liked.”
The coffee world is getting vibrant and exciting and Perth is changing its habits toward this new culture.
During the past two years I have made thousands of coffees, talked with lots of people, and learnt many interesting things.
I hope I will be able to enjoy this great job for a while longer.