History of Roasting - The Streets of Naples

You'd never guess it, but pre-roasted (and pre-ground) coffee only became available to consumers during the twentieth century. Before then, coffee drinkers had to roast their own coffee at home.

In his book Home Coffee Roasting: Romance and Revival, Kenneth Davids provides a vivid tale from an Italian man recounting his childhood in Naples. This was an era where it was normal to see and smell coffee being roasted every morning in the streets. I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and I could not find this text transcribed on the internet elsewhere, so I thought I would record it here. Hopefully Kenneth Davids won't mind :)



In 1908, in the streets and alleys of Naples, in the first hours of the morning, a very special ritual was celebrated, a ritual indispensable to less wealthy families as well as to better-off aficionados: the ceremony of coffee roasting. It saved money to buy raw coffee beans and then roast them at home, the only cost being personal skillfulness and patience. Every week (or every couple of weeks) a quantity of coffee was roasted, depending on the needs, finances, and appetites of each family.

And since these rituals were not simultaneous, every day somewhere in the neighborhood a woman or grandpa could be found sitting on the family balcony, turning the crank of the abbrustulaturo, or coffee roaster.

In the process of such roasting, the coffee beans, which are quite oily, release an intense smoke that could be quite unbearable in a closed space, yet no nuisance at all out-of-doors. Instead, dispersed in the air and transported by the wind, it was a source of great happiness for the entire neighborhood.

As the crank was turned the beans tossed up and down against the hot cylinder wall until they were roasted just right. Occasionally the cylinder has to be taken off the base and shaken a few times to check the sound the beans made, so as to judge their weight, since they became lighter as they roasted. But that was not enough... the color of the beans had to be checked through the small door in the side of the cylinder, and when they were the "color of a monk's tunic," as we said, the cylinder was quickly removed from the fire and the roasted beans poured onto a large tray or terra-cotta plate. They were carefully stirred with a wooden ladle until they cooled. With every stroke the roasting smoke would permeate the air with a delicious, intense, irresistable aroma.

As for me - lingering about in bed during those early hours, trying to delay the moment when I would have to get up and go to school - as soon as this seductive smell reached my nose (it even penetrated the closed windows!) I would jump out of bed full of energy, happy to begin the day. And so it was that, even before I was allowed to drink it, coffee became my wake-up call and symbol for the new day...

This freshly roasted coffee fragrance, one of the finest aromas, would follow me as I washed myself, as I dressed, as I devoured my milk soup, and as I descended the stairs... Down in the street the smell wouldn't be as strong... but I would still be made aware of it by the voices I heard. The comments crackled from window to window along my way from home to school. "Ah, what fragrance, what pleasure!" street vendors might shout.

One skinny old woman might ask another with a bun of black hair: "Have you roasted your cofee yet?" And the other would reply: "Of course! We roast it twice a week. Grandpa is so picky he has to do it himself." On the balcony of an elegant apartment a servant, who looked like a wasp with his black-yellow striped jacket and black greased whiskers, to an exquisite maid in the apartment next door: "I'll have to leave you shortly: the coffee must be removed." And she would reply: "Yes, of course... I roast it every Saturday; it is always a great responsibility, Ciro my dear..."

Also, quite often, just before being swallowed up by the school gate, my ear would intercept an "Ahhhh...!" from a shoemaker nearby. Sipping his cup of coffee before starting work, his "Ahhhh...!" was so expressive - you could feel pleasure, satisfaction, happiness, appetite, even surprise and wonder. Later, as an adult, I would discover all of those things in coffee myself.