28. January 2018

The Story of the Cosmic Cappuccino

The Case of the Cosmic Cappuccino

What colour is the universe? What does this question even mean? The other day I was sipping a cappuccino in a coffee bar downtown when I chanced upon a newspaper article. A team of astronomers from the John Hopkin’s University, Maryland, USA investigating star formation claimed to have identified the colour of the universe! Taking the light frequencies of stars in 400,000 galaxies into account, they had calculated the average baseline colour of the Cosmos and suggested a great name for it – Cappuccino Cosmica!

Cosmic Cappuccino! I glanced down at my very own Mundane Cappuccino with its frothy topping and pondered the origin of its name. My first thought was that the „cap“ in cappuccino must surely refer to the white cap of steamed milk foam sitting atop the espresso. Or was this just a red herring? I flipped open my phone to check my hunch, calling up the literal translation on my favourite translation app. Sure enough, cappuccino does derive from the Italian noun cappuccio meaning hood (related to English cap and German Kappe) plus the diminutive suffix – (c)ino , indicating a smaller or lesser form of the original noun, in this case, a „small hood“.

Staring at the „tiny cap“ on my cappuccino, I wondered if this was the whole story? I had sometimes heard Americans refer to the steamed foam as a „monk’s head“. I googled „monk’s head“ and learnt that baristas from around the world regularly take part in latte art competitions, in which the object is to pour and design the perfect monk’s head, i.e. artistic foam cap. It was time to do a little sleuthing and track down the monk in question!

It turns out that in the 12th century in Assisi, a province of northern Italy a son was born into the family of a wealthy cloth merchant who had made his fortune in France. The boy‘ was christened Giovanni ( Johann in German, and plain John in English). At the time, there were two clearly defined social classes in Italy; the majors (nobility) and the minores (peasants). Giovanni’s family belonged to a third, as yet unnamed, but growing class – the merchants. Due to his love of all things French, no doubt nurtured by his commercial success in that country, Giovanni’s father soon started calling his son Francesco ( the Frenchman). When he grew up, Francesco rejected his life of privilege and expressed a wish to live in poverty. The years passed, and he became ever more devout, deciding to dedicate his life to God. As a symbol of his intention to stay humble, he adopted the common dress of the peasants, a simple tunic of unbleached and un-dyed wool, tied around the waist with a rope. Other men followed his example and the Franciscan order of friars was born with St Francis of Assisi as their founder.

If St Francis‘ father had not given him the nickname Francesco (The Frenchman) due to his commercial success in France, the Saint would have become known by his birth name, Giovanni, and San Francisco, a city named after a nearby mission dedicated to St. Francis, would today be called San Giovanni, and the tech company Cisco, a truncated imitation of its home town, would be known as Vanni!

Time flew by, and St. Francis‘ order of friars evolved and grew. They branched out and founded other orders, such as the Benedictines and Augustines. The new orders differentiated themselves by the style and colour of their habits, which varied from hooded, to unhooded and nearly black to grey to light brown – an early form of branding, perhaps? By 1520, some of these orders had become quite wealthy and developed practices that struck a young Franciscan friar Matteo de Bascio as being very far removed from the principles of the original founder St Francis. Matteo’s wish for a return to poverty, penance and solitude led to a bitter conflict with his superiors. He and his followers went into hiding, finding refuge with a group of hermit monks who wore a distinctive caputium or hood, attached to their gowns.

caputium – the Latin word signifying an ecclesiastical or academic hood goes back to caput meaning head and is related to the German word kaputt!

Filled with gratitude for the safe haven, Matteo’s small group imitated their rescuers, and The pious friars patiently sewed hermetic hoods into their own habits. So far, so good, but then Matteo had an idea destined to revolutionize the coffee world; he dyed the order’s robes a rich, reddish brown colour, a peculiar shade that had never been seen before. Donning their distinctive habits and calling themselves Hermit Friars, they roamed the country barefoot. Due to their distinctive head covering, however, they soon became known as the Capuchins – the hood-wearers. But as early as the 17th century capuchin also came to designate the particular shade of reddish brown that Matteo had selected for their habits.

Flash forward to the 18th century. Capuchin became a loanword in German/ Austrian and appeared as Kapuziner on coffee house menus in Vienna in 1853. Coffee preparation and consumption had evolved into an art form in the Austrian capital and a variety of coffee drinks had been created, inspired apparently by shades of monastic habits; pale brown Franziskaner and darker Benedikter were served, as well as the Kapuziner named for its distinctive reddish- brown capuchin colour, which veteran Kaffeesieder attained by adding a few drops of cream to a mixture of sugar, coffee, eggs and secret spice recipes.

The Viennese Kapuziner, however, had no foam cap – latte artists would have to wait at least until the early 20th century for refrigeration and milk-foaming techniques for this to become a feasible option. In Italy the word cappuccino for a coffee beverage wasn’t coined until the 1930s after the Italians had borrowed it from the Austrian Kapuziner. So the cappuccino was named for the colour of the Capuchins‘ habits, namely capuchin. So the cappuccino was named for the colour of the Capuchins‘ habits, namely capuchin. And a less literal translation of cappuccino might be „little capuchin“, or „little friar“. Which reminds me – at least I have identified the monk (who is actually a friar) – Matteo de Bascio. Suffice it to say, the coffee beverage bearing his imprint has truly conquered the world.

But not the Cosmos! In the end, you see, capuchin narrowly missed out. A competition was run to choose the perfect name for the average colour of the universe, and the term Cappuccino Cosmico was initially the hottest contender and slated to win. Unfortunately for the Capuchin order and Matteo in particular, something unexpected happened. Drumroll! Days before the official naming ceremony, Peter Drum, a leading scientist on the project was drinking a latte at his local Starbucks. He was startled to notice that the colour of his latte was identical to the beigeish-white his team had identified, and so, at the last moment, the name Cosmic Latte was chosen instead of Cappuccino Cosmico as the official colour of the universe. Thus the winner turns out to be St Francis himself, a man whose humble habit of unbleached wool is probably a good match for Cosmic Latte – a cosmic victory, indeed, for the humble Francesco!

Cosmic Latte – the average colour of the universe.

© Carole Eilertson

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