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The cuccuma: the ancient Neapolitan coffee maker

A machinètta or ”filtre reversible” (‘the coffee maker or  the reversible filter’): the story of a fatherhood fought over by Naples and Paris

The reversible coffee maker that uses the system of the upside-down percolation is now known with a precise name, even outside the Italian borders: Napoletana.

This term identifies all devices that use the coffee preparation system by tipping.

Naples is so closely and historically linked to coffee for its passion and the meticulousness that is dedicated to its domestic preparation and to the ritual of tasting, that it is no surprise it has given name, paternity and fame to a coffee maker of its own: the so-called ‘a machinétta’.

Since the Crusades, in fact, the South of Italy was a transit zone for pilgrims and crusaders heading for or returning from the Holy Land, who certainly came into contact with Eastern customs and products.

Furthermore, in the years around 1450 in Naples resided the court of Alfonso of Aragon, king of a vast empire whose numerous ships plied the Mediterranean establishing intense trading with the East. It is therefore very likely that coffee and the way to prepare it had already arrived in Neapolitan by that time from the ports of the Levant.

It was, however, only during the nineteenth century that the aromatic drink conquered the Neapolitan capital. The figure of the travelling coffee seller appeared in its streets, a man equipped with two atremmons (containers), one for coffee, one for milk, and a basket containing cups and sugar. When the darkness of the night had not yet completely faded, in the silence of the still sleeping alleys echoed his voice inviting to a sweet wake up with a cup of smoking coffee.

In 1845 coffee was so closely linked to Neapolitan culture that Neapolitan citizen and doctor Gaetano Picardi, a passionate consumer of the infusion, published the volume ‘Del caffè. Historical-Medical Tale’, more than a hundred pages full of information ranging from the discovery of coffee to methods of home preparation. Preparation is to be understood as the roasting of the beans, their grinding and the final infusion with a description of the tools and equipment on the market accompanied by advice and recommendations.

Picardi, having just declared his preference for the preparation by infusion  rather than the decoction by boiling, on page 102 of his work,continues stating that: ‘Generally the infusion is prepared in two ways, either by immersing the powder in the boiling water of the coffee maker, or by pouring boiling water over it in containers in different constructions, and which are called coffee makers’. Picardi concludes stating that: ‘At the moment the appliances that are most commonly in vogue are those that called Beloy, Laurens, and Morize; they were named after their inventors and are based on the simplest laws of physics’.

The third one is the subject of our attention.

In an essay of 1845 on the theme of coffee and coffee makers printed in Naples and written by a Neapolitan author who was a passionate consumer of the drink, the coffee maker ‘alla Napoletana’ is defined as ‘fairly well known’ and marked with the trade name ‘alla Morize’ which seems to refer to its Parisian inventor owner of the patent. It is, therefore, a question of whether ‘a machinètta was borne in Naples or whether it came here from the Ville Lumiere, adopted and loved as a daughter.

There is no doubt that the Morize appliance mentioned by Picardi is actually the same coffee maker that was designed, described and registered in Paris, whose patent was filed in 1819. Other essays published in Italy at the same time mention and describe it in detail.

A glimmer of hope about the recognition of Italian paternity appears thanks to the fundamental book written by Ian Bersten, ‘Coffee Floats, Tea Skins’ which on page 70 reads: ‘An Italian book published in Verona in 1751 described a coffee maker that had the features of a reversible filter and claimed that the appliance was very widespread in Italy’.

The book quoted is the one written by Dr. Giovanni Dalla Bona, entitled ‘Of the use and abuse of coffee, historical-physical-medical dissertation’, published for the first time in Verona in 1751. The year is far before that of any known French patent and, regardless of the official nature of the invention, this would tip the balance, i.e. the natural paternity of the coffee maker, towards the lands south of the Alps.

It should also be considered that in France at the beginning of the nineteenth-century patents used to be issued for an actual invention, for its improvement and also for the import of an invention from another country.

At this point, for the final judgment, we rely on the deus ex machina that has resolved every dispute whether the Napoletana is Neapolitan: the name and surname of the inventor revealed in the pages of the most popular and authoritative Neapolitan periodical of the mid-nineteenth century, ‘Poliorama Pittoresco’.

Since 17 August 1840, Mr Antonino Mariani, a mechanic living in Naples, officially became, through the word of mouth and perhaps even without his knowledge, the man behind the Neapolitan coffee maker.

In 1819, only twenty-one years before the article was published, while in Paris Morize, a tinsmith, filed his patent, in Naples Mr. Antonino, a mechanic, manufactured without filing any patent a similar tinplate appliance that he put up for sale simply calling it “A Machinetta” (the coffee maker).

Poliorama’s article reads: ‘It (the coffee infusion) can take place with hot or cold water; and in the latter case, you have a sweet essence, but slow and not perfect. The easiest way to make a hot infusion is to pour boiling water on the coffee that is placed in a closed container, or rather in the coffee maker Dubelloy; This coffeemaker is composed with two containers, an upper one – where the powdered coffee and boiling water are stored – and a lower one – where the water drips down after having soaked in coffee, crossing its powder and the sort of sieve that contains it.

In a note it is written: ‘To those of our readers who like to drink good coffee, we recommend using the simple and as much ingenious and comfortable appliance of our mechanic Antonino Mariani’.

According to many contemporaries, the flaw of the Morize coffee maker was that the coffee powder descended to its sides, preventing the water from filtering properly. In addition, due to the limitations of the probably unsatisfactory technology, the seam at the bottom would easily desolder.

It was in Naples that, around the second half of the 20th century, this type of coffee maker was improved in its internal components and built in aluminium without seams at its base in order to become the original Napoletana we know today.

(by Coffee Makers, by Enrico Maltoni and Mauro Carli, 2013)