I've always been suspicious of espresso machines. And so, in a completely different way, has Ben Phillips. Phillips, proprietor of the Sussex-based Steamer Trading cookware shops, trains his staff to remember a cardinal principle: no one needs an espresso machine. If customers persist with the purchase, they have to be shown how the machine works before they walk out with it.
I'd be a good customer at Steamer Trading, being as nervous about buying espresso machines as they are about selling them. Happy drinking coffee from a cafetière at home, I don't see the point in taking up counter space with a large, expensive gadget that I can't work or maintain properly. But millions disagree. That's one reason I recently found myself touring (with Phillips among others) the De'Longhi factory in Treviso, Italy, to inspect its new Magnifica machine. The other reason: I'd heard great things about it, and not just from De'Longhi.
I was not disappointed. While there are good espresso machines on the market - including the Internet-connectable, £950, Jura F90 that Phillips uses at home - the De'Longhi model satisfies my own criteria: idiot-proof simplicity, fantastic design and durability, and reasonable price (£299, for stockists, tel: 0845 600 6845).
When De'Longhi set about designing the Magnifica, it decided to rethink the machine from the ground up, maximising ease of use without sacrificing quality in the cup. Its designer came up with a computer-controlled "bean-to-cup" system which eliminates the guesswork. At its heart is a spring-mounted brewing unit, which travels up to receive the ground coffee (either pre-ground or ground by the integral burr grinder). When filled and tamped, the unit travels back to engage with the steam pump.
A particularly striking feature is the exceptional ease of use. Once you've learnt to adjust a couple of knobs to get the kind of cup you want, the machine obeys your command over and over again. My wife set up our sample machine in 26 minutes, including reading of manual, and it's been roughly flawless since. Most of the internal gubbins (drip tray, water tank, brewing unit, collector of used grounds) come out of the front of the machine, so it's easy to clean. And the footprint is smallish (around 27cm by 37cm) and the height modest (36cm), so it can sit beneath a low-flying cabinet. The machine is self-flushing, and tells you when you need to descale it. My only trouble was getting it to work with ground coffee. But for something this good, you should be buying whole beans.
Another important feature of the Magnifica is the ruthless quality control in manufacture, overseen by a fantastically rigorous manager named Roberto Pezzutto. Before it leaves the factory, each machine is tested for 100 different potential flaws. Three per cent of production is taken out and tested to destruction. Every machine's test results are recorded, so they can trace it back and check the numbers. Phillips, who has much more experience of these things than I, says the quality control here is the best he's seen. And the tests confirm the durability of the machine: you'll get a minimum of 11,000 cups from it. If you made two cups of espresso every day, Magnifica would last you at least 15 years.
I know people who get excellent results from other electrical coffee machines - Gaggia is often mentioned fondly - and others who swear by their stove-top espresso makers. So I am not telling you that you have to go and buy this machine, or any espresso machine. Remember, you don't need one. But if you want one, this machine will fulfil your dreams of at-home espresso glory. And if you don't believe me, ask my wife - the new espresso queen.
Top Corks: Three flowery whites
Alsace Gewürztraminer 2002, Rèserve de Baron de Turckheim £6.12, Asda From Gewürztraminer's natural home, an intro to the flowery, lychee wonders of an unmistakable varietal.
Etchart Privado Torrontés 2003 £4.99, Waitrose Argentina's great white grape produces a flowery nose reminiscent of Gewürztraminer, with a pop of apricots, tropical fruits and fine acidity.
Dr L Riesling 2003, Loosen £5.99, Sainsbury's Floral nose, light sweetness, grapey finish. An entry-level wine, but low-cost proof of why the Mosel is still the king of Riesling.Reuse content