Café Cortado

Cafe Cortado

I’m not a fancy guy. I don’t insist on expensive clothes, I don’t drive a car, my hair is such a disaster I take the clippers to it once a month just to so I don’t have to deal with the unruly mess, nor do I give a hoot about sitting in a suit in a 3-star restaurant, with a tie closing up my throat while I try to pretend I’m enjoying a fancy meal. To me, one of the great joys in life is simply a good cup of coffee.

Over the years, I’ve whittled my tastes down to espresso, which is the true essence of the bean. While I like café au lait for breakfast, probably because it encourages the lingering that I need in order to gather up the courage to face yet another day. But in Spain, however, no matter what time of day it is, I always order a café cortado. Even though it’d described as a similar riff on the caffè macchiato in Italy, or the café noisette in France, which gets its name from having just a noisette (hazelnut) of foamed milk on top (although another description says that it’s because it turns the coffee the color of hazelnuts), to me, it tastes like a very different drink altogether.

Cafe Cortado

Café cortado – perhaps it has something to do with the name, the alliteration with those two Cs in a row that roll off your tongue, helping it sound so resolutely Spanish. Or the tiny glasses they serve it in, which the vested waiters with black ties set down before you with one hand, and a moment later, the other hand swoops down with a pitcher of steamy milk, to create a frothy, yet strong, coffee drink. And whatever they do to the milk, it’s especially velvety. They just seem to get the foam right. There’s nothing worse than having a coffee drink with a crown of airy foam on top – who wants to dive into that first anticipatory sip of coffee, but instead end up with a mouthful of air? Pas moi. And the café cortado combines the soothing creaminess of steamed milk with a reasonable jolt of a café solo.

I also like the glass. An Italian friend told me never to order espresso in a cup in Italy – to ask for it in a glass – because the porcelain retains some of the flavors of the dishwashing detergent. (Unfortunately my Italian isn’t very good and I always forget the phrase I’ve tried to memorize, to ask for it in a glass.) That may be one reason the café cortado alway tastes so good to me. It’s the glass. Or maybe it’s the sharp waiters with their slicked back hair and dark Spanish features, accompanied by the smell of sugary pastries in the fluorescent-lit showcases? I don’t know, but standing at a stainless-steel counter watching them pour the milk into the darkly extracted coffee in the glass while the milk foams up around it, but making sure it’s not too airy so you can enjoy the coffee that it’s mingling with, is one of the great joys in life. And one of the joys of visiting Spain.

Cafe Cortado

62 comments

  • Cafe cortados are also very popular in South America. Years ago, when I was studying abroad in Chile, I’d often meet friends or my host mom for them in the afternoon. It’s such a leisurely treat. Many thanks for the nostalgic reminder :)

  • I like caffe coretto, any of that in France?

  • I haven’t spent much time in Spain, but this sounds perfect. Is the expectation that you sit in the cafe and slowly enjoy your cafe cortado, or that you down it at the counter as you would in Italy?

  • What would you say the difference is between a cafe cortado and a cafe noisette? More milk?

  • your posts always make me smile, giggle or outright laugh! love it!

  • I always thought the flavor of the coffee itself was different in Spain, too — more chocolatey. When we were there for a month, it was the highlight of each day.

    • Yes, it is. It seems richer than just regular roasted coffee. I’ve read somewhere that sometimes it’s roasted with a little sugar, but not sure for a fact. But it is certainly one of the best parts of the day…for sure!

  • We, Cubans, call it a Cortadito. Nothing better.

  • I love Spanish coffee! It seems to be impossible to get a bad cup of coffee there. It’s cafe solo for me (in summer, order a cafe solo and a glass full of ice cubes, sweeten the coffee to taste, pour it over the ice cubes).

    Yes, if you look at packs of coffee in supermarkets, the ones labelled “mezcla” have been roasted with a little sugar — it gives it a beautifully caramelised edge. Your posts and tweets make me long to be back there!

  • You make the experience of drinking cafe cortado sound downright poetic! It’s a good reminder of the richness of life’s simple pleasures.

  • Café cortado is ABSOLUTELY my fav coffee in the world. I’ve travelled/lived many places through the world, and there is nothing that comes close. Here in the states the closest I can come is espresso with half a shot of steamed milk. As you say, it’s not foam, it’s silky smooth milk. I’ve quested for a Spanish coffee here. Alas, between the café cortado and freshly squeezed orange juice I’m a happy gal. Peet’s here in northern CA has a couple of Indo-Pacific blends that, rather surprisingly, remind me of Spanish coffee boldness married to smoothness.

  • I’ve been following you for a couple of years now, after a friend recommended your blog. I love reading your posts and seeing all the gorgeous photography. In fact, your post on your equipment has inspired me, a beginner Paleo blogger, to buy that camera and the lens! But I’m here today to say that this post is brilliant. I am from the south of Spain, and I’ve been seeing your pictures on Instagram and “travelling with you” on your trip… Spain is much more than food, but food for us is such an important part of our lives that we make sure we spend plenty of time around the table to enjoy it and a good conversation. And of course, there’s our coffee. I personally am biased and find Spain has the best coffee in the world (although Vietnamese coffee does have quite a unique flavour)! By the way, we simply call it “un cortado”. Enjoy the rest of your trip! ;)

  • I love this post as it brings back my own memories of cafes and cafe bars in Italy, France and Spain. I grew up drinking caffe macchiato but learned to love this amazing Spanish version too.

    I think the glass is better so next time you visit Italy ask for ” il caffè in un bicchiere, per favore”

    I am a firm believer that the environment, sounds and aromas make drinking coffee in Europe the most amazing experience every time. The best quality coffee brand and freshest natural water helps too.

  • This past February my new husband and I traveled to Spain on our honeymoon and the lasting legacy of the cortado has stayed with me all these months later. It was so remarkable, I believe it will last a lifetime. There truly is something special in that glass and I will search for a cortado every where I go even though I know it won’t be as good as I had it in the little cafe in Sevilla.

    Thank you for bringing back the memories of my favorite coffee.

  • For the person asking what the difference is in Spanish coffee, I invite you to check out this article: The Curious Case of Spanish Coffee (or how I learned to stop drinking café torrefacto)—http://www.madridchow.com/the-curious-case-of-spanish-coffee-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-drinking-cafe-torrefacto/

  • I’m afraid I find milk of any kind in either coffee or tea is revolting, so I’ll pass on this one. But I do like espresso coffee on occasion. Last time we were in Paris, I was “caught short”, and we went into a random café in the 15ème to get comfortable, so my husband ordered an espresso for me and a grande crême for himself, and my goodness, it is a long time since I have had such a delicious cup of coffee!

  • caffe’ al vetro, for coffee in a glass; I did not know the reason why. what a sorry excuse for an Italian I am!

  • Even my husband, not usually a coffee drinker, fell for the cafe cortado, when we were in Spain.

  • A sip, please. ;)

  • It’s times like these that I wish I liked coffee. But then there are other times when I’m happy, if not proud not to drink it. It’s almost a moral dilemma!

  • I barely made it to the end of your post on Seville before I had to click on cafe coronado – I wanted to see how it was different from a cafe con leche (the amount of milk it seems). My husband and I took a 25th wedding anniversary trip to Barcelona by way of Paris (in no small part thanks to your blog) – and as much as we loved the tiny coffee cremes with those cute little sugars in Paris, your post yesterday made me want to head back to Spain asap for more coffee – this time heading straight to Seville. Thank you David Lebovitz!

  • Interesting, I live in Spain and I much prefer French coffee to Spanish coffee. On occasion I have been know to bring home French coffee from Paris, just to taste the difference with Spanish coffee. What is the difference between a noisette and a cortado? I think they are the same, its the coffee that is different. .

  • Having returned (to Australia) home from a trip which took me through Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain the one thing that really disappointed me was the use of Long Life milk in coffee. I enjoy a short macchiato in the afternoon and a cafe latte in the morning, but the milk tasted so foul that it was expressi all the way. The Spanish barista told me it used be not like that and that fresh milk was always used. The Italian barista in Germany told me that it was against the law to use fresh milk!
    Love your articles.

  • If I could have a buck for every cortado I’ve drank in my life… And the beans are roasted with some sugar sometimes, though true coffee drinkers would say that is heresy. But the glass does make a difference. It used to be very common here years ago, now not all places have small glasses for coffee. A new generation appeared and started drinking it in plastic cups…the horror

  • Aw, man! I could tell from the photo that that had to be from Spain. How I crave a real Cafe con Leche!

    I’ve never had a Cafe Cortado, but next time I’m in Spain, I’ll make a point of trying one. :)

  • Mmmm, that sounds delightful. Please have another cortado for me!

    One of my favorite drinks is the Africano at Guerilla Cafe in Berkeley. It’s a bit of condensed milk and espresso in the perfect proportions, and while the bottom gets crazy sweet, I love the texture and creaminess. It’s a perfect coffee treat to linger over.

  • just added cafe cortado to my bucket list.

  • Lovely bit of writing. I’ve never had a cafe cortado, but this sounds like a most harmonious compromise between the too-milky latte and the over-too-soon espresso.

  • Cortados are my drink of choice after a big meal…not as bitter as pure espresso, but without all the filling milk of a café con leche to put my stomach over the edge.

    Have you ever tried a café bombon? It’s like a cortado, but with sweetened condensed milk. It’s pretty sweet but it’s a nice change of pace every once in a while.

    And of course there’s my favorite, café de pota. It’s hard to find, and I’m not sure if it’s a Spanish thing or just a Galician thing, but it’s delicious!

  • @Kaley: that article about “torrefacto” was really interesting, and explains why the mezcla in supermarkets never tastes quite as good as what you get in bars. I’m not a coffee snob and I still like the flavour, whatever purists might say. I have noticed an increasing number of bars in Spain using Italian coffee (usually Illy). Combination of Spanish expertise + Italian coffee = bliss!

  • Spanish coffee is the best! Have you tried it as afogato, the Italian dessert, poured over ice cream? SD

  • I can’t speak for the coffees of Spain, never having been, but in Rome, Tazo d’Oro near the Pantheon has the absolute best coffee in Rome!! And they make an iced coffee –nothing like anything in the states, that is consumed with a spoon!! We were there last November and I was utterly “blown” away by this treat.
    So I hope that the cafe cortado is as good–hot!!

  • What a wonderful post, an “Ode to Cafe Cortado”. My first taste was in 1995, and I still remember the thrill. It’s time to go back soon, I think- it’s been far too long. Your article on tapas bars in Seville also reminded me of my time in Granada tapas-hopping. Andalusia is an amazing, colourful, vibrant place, describing the people, the food, and the building. Thank you for sharing!

  • First had one of those in a Kiwi coffee place in Brixton Village, London. They are lovely.

  • I don’t drink much coffee, but love affogato, in a glass of course! Cafe Cortado looks amazing; the color alone is irresistible.

  • David, spot on! There is something magic about Spanish coffee. Cafe con leche (my fave) shouldn’t be any different from a latte, but it really, really is. Maybe the glass?

    Question: Which Spanish pastries truly knock your socks off?

    I’ve tried stuff from mountain village cake shops as well as fancy places in Seville, but always come away slightly disappointed and I have a huge and very accommodating sweet tooth. Interested to hear any recommendations.

    • Although a lot of the pastries are pretty, most are overly sweet. The yemas, made primarily of egg yolks and sugar, are quite rich (and sweet) and the polvorón that I had had quite of bit of baking powder in it, leaving a tinny taste in my mouth. Most of the pastries in this area are rich in egg yolks (the whites were used to clarify the sherries, so they gave the nuns yolks to use for desserts) – and I can’t say any quite knocked my socks off.

  • What a perfect ode to the bean on our first cool day in Texas. I can finally imagine hot drinks again, and I’ve had my eye on our new coffee shop’s latest offering–the cortado. Definitely going to be trying that–and asking for it in a glass! Thanks for the post!

  • While a cortado is something you drink on the run or after lunch (Spaniards don’t husband their coffee or have philosophical conversations over any size cup or glass of the stuff), a cafe con leche with what is now so popular: pan con tomate and a couple of slices of very good jamon serrano, is as good as it gets when as you say, David, you need to face the rest of the day.

  • Thank you for transporting me back to Barcelona!

  • This article was simply wonderful. Keep enjoying life!

  • In the north of Portugal we call it “pingo” and it is so good. And Portuguese coffee is… well you’ll let me know when you taste it :)

  • I’m very happy to hear that you are enjoying your time here in Spain.

  • Cortado is also popular in coffee bars in Oslo (great coffee culture here) – for me the perfect cortado is a double – equal parts double espresso and steamed whole milk :)

  • i have been living in Barcelona a while and yes- cortado IS the best way to have coffee! (so sad it is really hard to come by in my home town. unless u make your own. but it never is the same is it..)

  • Hey David, great post! On a completely unrelated note, what is your opinion on room-temperature butter? It tastes so much better than when it’s cold but people seem to get very concerned about it. Do you think it’s safe to leave butter out for extened periods – if yes, how long; if no, why not? Do you need one of those special water containers they’re always selling in SkyMall magazine or is it okay to just leave it covered? Fyi I’m an American living in Scotland, if you know anything in particular about UK butter.

  • Just lovely!

  • Did anyone notice that Marcella Hazan passed away last weekend? Many people referred to her as the Julia Child of Italian cooking. Of all the cookbooks I own, her’s are still my favorites. And I’ve noticed over the years that many Italian recipes seem to be versions from her original two cookbooks, Classic Italian Cooking 1 and 2. She taught me how to make and cook pasta and all about Italian food before ingredients like quality olive oil and parmigiano-reggiano were easily available in grocery stores. Just when I thought I’d made everything fabulous from her Essentials cookbook, I made a zucchini gratin this week that knocked my socks off. Zucchini gratin with tomato and marjoram is a wonderful dish that seems to caramelize all the ingredients together effortlessly. I could eat it every day. Marcella, you will be missed but will live in our hearts forever.

  • thanks Julie — I found it on his facebook page! What a funny story about her fur coat, David — only you…. I loved the Ruth Reichl tribute — I’ve heard tales of Marcella’s feistiness and wish I could have met her.

  • About the comment by David on October 6, 2013 2:26 PM, whites were used to clarify wine and for ironing clothes on monasteries too, so there remained lots of yolks…

  • Cafe Carajillo sounds nice as well…

  • @David: are you going to do a post on Spanish pastries/desserts? Because Spanish people generally seem to have a really sweet tooth, but I find pastries and restaurant desserts are uniformly disappointing compared to French ones — often because, as you say, they are too sweet, but also because they are boring! Or, in the case of polvorones, inedible.

    • As you mentioned (as I mentioned!) Spain isn’t really know for its desserts, so I don’t know what I could add. In Seville there were mostly yemas and polvorónes, as well as the flan-like tocino de cielo which I showed in the previous post (cut into square), although those use a boatload of yolks and sugar as well : )

  • I’ve just come back from Spain. I wish I’d known to order this, it looks amazing.

  • Your post makes me miss Spain and really good coffee.

  • I love how you share your experiences with coffee. Hope we can have cafe cortado sometime :) You’re such a funny person, David. All the best!

  • I’ve never tried a cafe cortado, but if you ever come to New Zealand, you must get a flat white. It is the best coffee drink I have ever had. Mind you, NZ milk is also the best milk I have ever had due to the cows roaming lush pastures all year round. They scrape the foam from the top before pouring the milk and again you are left with the most wonderful velvety texture and amazing flavour. I can tell you that a trip is nearly worth it for the dairy alone. And the pasture raised beef!

    • In Australia we also have a coffee called a Flat White (as in New Zealand) usually served in a cappuccino cup. The milk does make an enormous difference I’ve found, and organic is the best way to go, although sometimes it can be too creamy and seems to upset the balance of coffee to milk.
      I think I mentioned earlier that the use of UHT milk through Germany, Italy and Spain was a dreadful disappointment, the flavour is awful, and overpowers the warm taste of coffee.

  • There is something unheard of out of Trieste (where the best or at least most popular these days brand of italian coffee comes from) … it’s called capo in b
    ie cappuccino in bicchierri
    The best espresso on this sorrow valley of tears…not Illy, another company from the same place, actually invented packing Illy is so famous for, just google it, though if one likes more punch than cafe as locals would call it (not coffee) from the south is more appreciated.