A coffee addict can hardly go and live in the spiritual homeland of espresso without making it to the museum.
This week marked the first full week of classes at Università Bocconi. We MAMBAs are each taking 6 classes, which is well above the average of 4 that most students here take. It makes for an intense schedule. I’m hoping that the hustle and bustle of the first week settles into a rhythm as things settle down.
It’s very exciting though. Our classes all look very interesting, and the quality of the lecturers is very high. Moreover, for two of my classes we get to go on field trips to Venice and Naples to visit organisations and see how they put the concepts of the courses into practice. Notably, all the classes are group project heavy, with an expectation that students form teams to tackle the assessment work. This will make time management critical. Good thing that I’ve been working on that.
Nonetheless, it has been a demanding week with many late nights and early mornings. As a result I am very grateful for coffee, be it the Bialetti Moka at the apartment, the countless bars that lie between my apartment and the university, or even the vending machines that brew espresso on demand for less than 50 cents (and still produce something of higher quality than any Starbucks).
Speaking of which, Friday morning was the first slice of free time I had all week, and so I chose to make the pilgrimage to MUMAC, the museum of espresso machines. It’s also the archive and library of Gruppo Cimbali, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of espresso machines, whose corporate headquarters and factory are next door. Milan and Turin are where espresso style coffee developed, so for someone like me with a three-shot-a-day habit it would be blasphemous not to visit.
The museum itself is in Binasco, a village just south of Milan. Getting there meant a metro ride to the outer edge of the suburbs, then finding the half-hourly regional bus that stopped in at Binasco. I arrived to find the bus about to leave, but then had to run back to the station to find the newsagency that sold tickets for the bus itself because they don’t sell tickets on board. I made it on with seconds to spare.
Barely twenty minutes later we turned off the freeway and stopped in a parking lot at the edge of the village. I walked over the shallow creek, down a laneway, and entered the main piazza bordered by shops and cafés on two sides, an ancient church on another, and on the final side, an imposing castle that marked the centre of the village. The castle also doubled as the town hall, with the rooms converted into offices. Workers filed in and out from the street.
You would hardly know from seeing it that the same castle held a dark history. It was within its walls that the torture and beheading of Beatrice di Tenda took place in 1418, an event that would form the basis for Bellini’s opera of the same name. How the affairs of history fade over time.
I paused to ponder this thought for a minute, before continuing to the outskirts of the village and to the museum itself. I arrived to find the gates firmly shut, despite the opening hours indicating that they were indeed open. After waiting a few minutes and asking passers-by to no avail, I pulled out my phone and called the museum. I was told to wait, and ten minutes later the gates opened and I headed in, none the wiser as to the cause of the delay.
That said, the two staff who ran the museum were very apologetic as they hurried about switching on lights and televisions. It appeared to me that despite its relative proximity to Milan, the niche nature of the museum meant that few made the trip out to see it, and most of those were corporate customers visiting the factory next door.
Which frankly is a shame, since the place is very well designed, providing a chronological journey through the development of espresso machines, linking it with artistic and social movements, and the historical development of Italy in the 20th century. There were over a hundred machines on full display, ranging from primitive boiler devices all the way to the cutting edge machines of today, each machine having a full explanation of its function and historical significance.
What was most impressive about seeing the machines was to observe the design and artistic value of the works. Early machines were expertly handcrafted, topped off by ornate sculptures. As Art Deco developed as a movement, the machines changed shape, material and form to reflect the style. The first “true” espresso machines of the 50s and 60s (that is, machines capable of high pressure extraction) were sleek and polished; some even celebrated the finest of Italian artistic heritage, incorporating Murano glass and solid marble into the design. To reinforce the point, many of the rooms also included furniture from the same era, reinforcing the parallel thread of design influencing the industry.
As I reached the end of the museum, we moved into the 21st century. The newest machines reflected the latest in technology, with touch screens, Bluetooth (to wirelessly communicate with the coffee grinder), and USB ports for software updates to ensure the perfect, computer controlled extraction. They were not far removed from being smartphones that make coffee. My mind buzzed with ideas of how this technology could be used to refine the espresso experience.
Speaking of buzzing, it wouldn’t have been right to visit a coffee museum without enjoying the product, and the museum staff brewed me an espresso in their education salon, a room used for teaching baristas the art of making the perfect cup. Unsurprisingly, it was a very fine espresso. From there it was a walk back through the village to the bus stop, and back to Milan. It had been a great morning, and a worthwhile trip.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
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