Let us not kid ourselves, your preferred drink during the morning or mid-afternoon pick-me-up can be very confusing. For better or worse, we are a long way from a cup of auto-drip coffee with a certain “number” of creams and sugars. Cultural interaction has yielded us many culinary benefits, but with regards to coffee, it’s opened up a Pandora’s box of confusion. For example, what makes a latte different from a cafe au lait, and why is macchiato different from either of these?
Anytime we are dealing with food, there always has to be some space given for variation within a recipe, so, in order to keep things simple and to reflect the regional variations, we are not going to differentiate between strong espresso coffee and regular, brewed coffee- we will just call it coffee, or, in the languages used, cafe. Beyond the coffee itself, the other words simply define either what is in the drink or how it is made.
Latte macchiato and more
Looking at the terms now, what does this mean? Since the outlier in all of these coffee terms is macchiato, let us examine it first: macchiato is the Italian word for “stained,” meaning that, when preparing the drink, the frothed milk has been “stained” by pouring the espresso through the foam of the milk. As for the other widely known drinks referenced- cafe latte, cafe au lait, and cafe con leche– the majority of the difference is based on location and the style of coffee used (the French prefer regular coffee, and the Italians and Spanish prefer espresso), not in the preparation of the drink itself. Though all 3 literally mean “coffee with milk” in Italian, French, and Spanish, respectively, the differences are minimal: all involve adding a form of warmed or steamed milk to a type of coffee.
Even with the aforementioned drink confusion, there is no doubting the popularity of these drinks in the UK. Though we are consuming less than 3kg per person and our consumption level is lower than it was in 2006, coffee chains such as Starbucks and Costa are continuing to expand in order to meet the needs of a population that is increasingly eschewing instant coffee in favour of designer drinks.
While it is difficult to try and determine when these words or drinks were actually created or first used in their native tongues, it is fairly easy to see when they first entered the English language. The first term used in English was, unsurprisingly, the French cafe au lait, mentioned in a letter from 1763 written by Horace Walpole, Earl of Oxford, who requests, “Pray send me some café au lait: the Duc de Picquigny..takes it for snuff.”
Nearly a century later, latte was first used in the February 1847 issue of The Cultivator, where it is said that, “He gets his caffe latte (coffee with milk), and a roll of brown bread for two cents.”
Finally, as the intricate complexities of the European espresso bar were beginning to disseminate, we see the first mention in English of the word macchiato, via the May 3rd, 1989 print of the New York Times, “A triple macchiato..can be either of two things: a triple espresso macchiato—three shots of espresso with very little foam and a little milk—or a triple latté macchiato—10 to 12 ounces of steamed milk with three shots of espresso poured through it.”
Hopefully, this has been an enlightening delve into some confusing coffee terms, but no matter what your options or choices are with regard to a coffee drink, just remember that the most important aspect is to enjoy yourself.