It's a classic sight: A tiny cup of dark, bittersweet espresso with a fragrant shave of lemon peel on the saucer. Squeezed, sucked, or dropped into the coffee, there are innumerable ways to use the sour strip—but is the garnish authentic?
Though there doesn't seem to be any definitive historical source one way or the other, there are a few plausible origin stories for the shot with a twist. One suggests that the practical lemon came alongside demitasse in Italian cafes during WW II: Water being scarce, barmen sometimes resorted to "cleaning" espresso cups with a swipe of lemon peel, which does impart a certain, well, freshness. (Ick.)
Another myth is that the garnish is an American invention, designed to mask a less-than-perfect coffee: The sour lemon oil—either rubbed on cup's lip or spritzed into the brew itself—cut through the bitter, brackish flavor imparted by badly roasted coffee carelessly brewed, enhancing any sweetness that might be hidden deep below.
Over the years, the misconception that a strip of lemon is a Roman tradition has spread, and repeated in cafes and restaurants everywhere. But should you have a piece of peel alongside your next shot, remember this: If the coffee is well made from fresh, quality beans, its natural sweetness should shine without any help (or harm) imparted by the tart lemon.
What's your take on the lemon peel? Is it to an espresso as an olive is to a martini, or should it be left out of the equation?
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.