Latte, Café latte, Café au Lait, Latte Macchiato, Capuccino… So many coffee drinks that are so similar and yet so distinctive. They use basically the same ingredients, but the difference is given by the quantity and the technique used to prepare them. Even more than that, they can also differ from one country to another. This way, if you are not familiar with their precise meaning from a certain culture, you might realize that you have ordered something completely different than what you had in mind.
As they are considered to be different drinks, their apparent points of origin are dissimilar as well. But first, let us try to understand what is the precise meaning of latte and what do we think of when saying this name. First of all, latte is the short form of café latte, which is a coffee drink made from espresso, heated milk and foam. The quantities may vary, but the ingredients always remain the same. In most parts of the U.S. there will be no difference between café latte and latte, but, if you go to Italy or to Europe in general and order a latte, you will be served a cup or glass with plain milk.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the first American person to use the term café latte (and the first one who used it in English) is William Dean Howells, the respected writer and literary critic, in his 1867 work. However, there are multiple artifacts showing that the drink made from coffee and milk characterized Europe from the early 17th century. Although it was a common breakfast drink in many parts of the old continent, no signs of public serving appear at this time. The only trace is that of the ancestor of the Italian cappuccino (kapuziner), which was served in many public places in different regions of Austria.
Three centuries later, the history faces a real boom in what concerns café latte drinking. All French coffee houses serve the drink that is now called café au lait, while the Italians promoted this term for the milk & coffee drink much later (in the second half of the century). In the meanwhile, the latte became popular in various parts of the USA, especially Washington or California, where the now famous Caffe Mediterranaeum promoted the idea that they invented the latte recipe. They might not have discovered it, but they certainly contributed to its wide distribution on the American continent.
Today, Starbucks offers one of the most popular types of café latte both in the USA and in many European countries, France and Italy included. In conclusion, more than one culture can claim the “invention” of this truly magical drink. If the common type prepared from coffee and milk has certainly appeared in Europe many centuries ago, the wide popularization of café latte or simple latte as we know it today was definitely realized during the last decades of the 20th century – the beginning of the 21st century by different American coffee chains.