Order a macchiato from any café in Singapore or Thailand and 9 times out of 10 you will be met with masked panic. You mean the small one, right, the barista would ask, because some people –having been misled by Starbucks’ caramel macchiato, I suppose –really mean a different thing. Yes, I’d say, confirming their worst fear; but I’d smile nicely at them to put them at ease, so that hopefully a calm hand and heart would make for milk well-foamed and poured, even if it doesn’t come with a cute mini-rosetta, an added bonus which I’d long learned not to expect.
So what’s a macchiato? To avoid confusion I’d better explain: while Starbucks’ macchiato is steamed milk ‘marked’ with an espresso shot, the macchiato proper is an espresso shot marked with a dollop of cream (but I’d like my latte art, too, please!). If I’m lucky the barista would with a quick tilt or flick of the wrist pour just a trace of that lovely steamed milk into my espresso shot. That little dash of steamed milk, the kind that gives lattes its especially smooth and velvety texture, would sink and blend with the thick burnt umber of the coffee below, leaving on top a little round circle of foam, which is the ‘mark’ or ‘stain’ that gives the macchiato its name. Only a whisper of that milky sweetness is needed, to smooth the sharp or bitter edges of the espresso (a macchiato tastes best, to me, with a dark roast). Neither as bitter nor as thin as the long black, the macchiato retains the thick, natural sweetness of the espresso while keeping just enough of its arresting intensity, that acid bite which, while lost with the mellower, milk-rich lattes and cappuccinos, gives the macchiato just that edge of excitement it needs to seduce.
But if I am not so lucky, the barista, too afraid perhaps to give the dreaded pour a try, would use a spoon to scoop the steamed milk into the coffee. When that happens only the foam ends up in the cup, the white drop floating like a bewildered island lost atop the dark elixir with which it cannot blend. And when the coffee is drunk, more espresso than macchiato, the lonely dollop of foam would remain, stuck and bubbling sadly, at the bottom of the cup –awaiting its sad fate in the rubbish bin.
So if the perfect macchiato is so hard to come by, you may ask, why order it at all?
Yeah. I don’t. At least not here. These days I’ve taken to ordering a piccolo, double shot, which some places call the cortado, and other places like Costa Coffee call it the corto. I’ve grown to like this too, and it seems more baristas here get this right. But it’s so confusing, all these fancy terms. No one knows what anything is anymore. Really, someone should publish a definitive list of terms and cafés should stop coming up with pretentious names to make us think your shit is better than it is.