Australia now leads the world in making coffee, the drug that makes my mornings sing. Although New Zealand has claimed ownership, just as they have for our other culinary prize, the lamington, it was Sydney, Australia that introduced a new winner to the world in the eighties, the unceremoniously named flat white. New Zealand’s city of Wellington may have improved it (and renamed the lamington a wellington), but only an Australian would call something as romantic and electric as coffee a “flat” white and convince the world to embrace it.
Not for us something evocative like crème or café au lait or express, not latte, macchiato or ristretto. The flat white is already ubiquitous in the UK, and global chain Starbucks has recently it put it on the menu throughout the US and Canada. I’m having trouble with this. At Starbucks, the normal size is a tall, a cup and a half and then some. Then there’s the grande, which is just as it sounds, and the venti, nearly four cups of coffee in one. How you would ever make a flat white in a cup that could feed three elephants? And the options. Double whip, caramel, hazelnut and peppermint. So, on a long layover at Vancouver International Airport, instead of ordering a Starbucks filter coffee, which is not all bad when you're desperate, I ordered a Starbucks flat white, hold the peppermint and double whip. What I got was a very large paper cup full of warm sweet milk. It was possibly the worst coffee I have ever tasted.
So what exactly is a flat white? UK chain Costa, which has offered them since 2010, says it’s “a coffee without the volume of milk of a latte” – a latte being a coffee that includes the milk of two cow udders. But the coffee development and education team at Queensland’s Merlo, who know their stuff, say that what actually makes a flat white flat is a combination of silky smooth milk poured gently over a shot of espresso. It’s served in a ceramic cup and it’s the cup’s wide brim that allows the white to flatten.
In fairness, I should probably mention that there are countries other than Australia where coffee is made well, some claiming primacy, although they don’t do a flat white. In Italy, which sees itself as coffee’s home, I found Sant Eustachio – Il Caffé behind the Pantheon in Rome. I ordered un cappuccino, having read the guide book about what time of day to drink what coffee – milk in the morning, black for the rest of the day. They put sugar in my cappuccino, assuming I was American and all Americans have sugar, but it was so good I didn’t mind. In fact, my Italian cappuccino, no sprinkle of chocolate, was a close approximation of a flat white. Later I watched the beautifully aging Italians who sat at the bar throwing back espressos one after another like seasoned drinkers. I tried that too, but all I got was wired. In Canada, there are so many Australians now they've infiltrated many, many cafes. In France, everything is better because you're in France.
Coffee is thought to have originated not in Italy but in Ethiopia where the trees grew wild. A goatherd noticed his charges would be awake for hours into the night after eating the red berries. He passed the knowledge on to the local monastery, whose abbott was canny enough to realise he could make a bitter drink of the berries that would keep him awake through evening prayers. The beans were soon traded, smuggled, gifted and stolen so that coffee invaded the the world like the anti-zombie. It wasn’t all beer and skittles, especially among religious folk. When the beans did reach Italy in the 16th century, the Church declared coffee the bitter invention of Satan, imploring the Pope to intervene. He did. He tried un caffè, loved it, and coffee took off.
The flat white has continued to evolve, again thanks to Australia. In many places you can already order the piccolo, which at Merlo is called a mezzo mezzo. It’s a coffee shot with the same amount of steamed milk, served in a weeny glass, and a distinct improvement for any addict. I know these are Italian names but you won’t easily find them in Italy and perhaps we can dream up something more suitable for Australia, a weeny white, a flat bite. In some places, they call it a piccolo latte and put it in a larger cup so they can smother it with milk. I can imagine a Starbucks piccolo grande venti, and it makes me slightly ill. But we’ve arrived, Australia. We’ve given the world the flat white. The mezzo mezzo, by whatever name, can be next.