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By John Helmer, Moscow

Sisto Malaspina was killed on Friday outside his Pellegrinis coffee bar in Melbourne, Australia. The police are calling it a terrorist incident related to the war in Syria.

More than fifty years ago, Sisto taught me why nobody in Italy, or in the rest of the world, could make espresso and long black coffee as he could. His secret, he said, was to ask the coffee-drinker what taste between bitter and sweet, strong or weak, he wanted, and then brew it. 

In Australia espresso comes in short water and long water forms, but only a small part of the difference is the water. The name for the long form invented in Australia is Long Black. “Lungo e nero” is an impossible  term  for it in Italy so instead the Italians called it caffè Americano.  Diluted as Americano is, the Australian Long Black has nothing in common. It is (was) as robust and full in its flavour as espresso. Making it that way was Sisto’s achievement.

The secret of the taste is to maximize the steam pressure through the ground beans without burning the coffee and causing the bitter taste everyone understands, who has been victimized by people calling themselves baristas. The history and pneumatics of the espresso coffee machine in Italy explain the problem.

It was the Gaggia company of Milan which in the 1960s patented the machine which  mass-produced the consistently flavourful coffee drinks I first tasted.  Pellegrinis was one of the first coffee-bars to install the Gaggia in Melbourne, where there was a large Italian community from before the war and after it.  

Sisto started to work at Pellegrinis in the 1960s. He studied coffee-making; I studied politics. In 1974 he became the co-owner of Pellegrinis. The kin of the owners were the cooks. The bill of fare was basic and cheap; also quick, no matter that there were four ranks of customers jostling the bar to overflow as the plates of food and glasses of coffee flew above their heads.  

The coffee was what made Pellegrinis very special. Memory sweetens the taste so that nothing later has matched it. I never drink a Long Black without remembering Sisto showing me how he converted my sweet-strong preference into his manipulation of the levers and buttons of his Gaggia. Remarkably, no matter how long the intervals turned out to be between visits to Pellegrinis,  the taste of Sisto’s Long Black remained the same. He also had a talent for remembering old faces, and for sweetening time thereby.

Sisto’s life ended in the street outside the bar when he was stabbed by a man whom the Australian intelligence services now admit they had marked as an ISIS suspect. The man’s attempt to fly to Syria to join the Australian-backed side in the war was prevented because the Australian Government cancelled his passport.  Had the Australian Government allowed him to do what the Australian military was doing in Syria, Sisto’s murderer might have met the Russian forces.




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