Chicco Doro packetIt’s been too long since I last reviewed some coffee. This time we pause, teetering on the edge of the Plateau of Trickle-Down Wealth, before tumbling precipitously into the Chasm of the Great Unwashed, where they roam around in rags of sack-cloth, mumbling incoherently to themselves and openly purchasing no-brand products. Let’s go and see what kind of espresso poor people drink!

Delta Chicco D’oro is that rare gem in modern life, a consumer product that bites the invisible hand and leaves marks. Instead of abiding by the scripture of the Cult of the Perfect Marketplace, where the sludgy leavin’s don’t cost much, and the miraculous symphonies of flavour command a premium entrance fee, and everything else arranges itself neatly on the slope between those two points, it BASE-jumps off the side and ends up having a delicious picnic on a cliff ledge, gazing upward at the other poor sods standing in line on that graph.

Ahem. At this point, I’d like to apologise for several transgressions: the ludicrous length of that last sentence; the metaphor smoothie with three too many ingredients (sorry, did it again!); and the plummeting chance, as the sentence rolled on with the inertia of a Russian truck with no handbrake (sorry! sorry!), of you extracting any meaning from it at all.

Cough. What I’m trying to say is: it’s just about the cheapest ground coffee you can find. And yet it’s drinkable.

Not that it’s the pinnacle of roasted-and-ground-bean quality: there are plenty that outclass it. But the price, the price! This is value with a capital C. Here in Canberra I paid less than $2 for a standard 200-gram pack. And its quality is comparable with plenty of coffees three or four times the price.

The Chicco D’oro website seems initially quite middle-of-the-road, but becomes stranger as you immerse yourself. Perhaps this is to be expected, since Chicco D’oro shares the free trade zone (formerly known as a town) of Balerna (which you would think Italy would have politely stolen from Switzerland long ago, given that it’s so far south they speak Italian and probably shop in Milano) with some pretty strange outfits, such as a bunch of appropriately ethnically diverse people playing Earth Ball who claim to smelt precious metals, an importer of hair dryers and DVD recorders (with the delightful slogan “The Trendy Company”), and a very curious producer of tobacco products.

So curious, in fact, that I promptly forgot about the coffee and took a closer look. The Polus society, formed in 1912, used to do a fine line in radium-enhanced cigars, before shutting down their venerable cigar factory in 1992. I’d hazard a guess that it’s their not-at-all-radium-affected progeny who are now behind a truly impressive attempt, also based in Balerna, to win market share via the anti-Big Tobacco angle. The Yesmoke and Born to Smoke brands of death stick are touted with such lines as “PHILIP MORRIS VS YESMOKE” and “WITH YESMOKE, YOU TAKE ON BIG TOBACCO AND ITS ARMY OF MIDDLEMAN” (sic). Alpine ingenuity at its most charming. But there’s more! It turns out that they had their first big shipment to the US impounded, and have managed to spin that into a most compelling Nasty American Megacorporations vs Friendly Hip/Organic European Startup story. Well done. And, it has to be said, they are unusually honest about the effects of tobacco: there’s a page where they explain how to quit smoking, succinctly and with good information. Follow the “CONTINUE SMOKING” link from there, and… well, see for yourself.

‘Mazing what you find on the Innernet, innit? Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Chicco D’oro (pronounced “kick-o door-o”). After the introductory screen, featuring various shots of breathtakingly ugly industrial buildings, we pass through a mysteriously throbbing message that claims that coffee is “one of the very few natural products left to us” (perhaps to encourage you to forget the factory pictures), to the “i prodotti” (Products) page, which features what may be the single most irritating sound in the history of computing. Pass your mouse over any packet of coffee to experience its delights. Unfortunately, as the site is constructed with (snarl, froth, gnash) Flash, I can’t give you a direct link – you’ll have to find your way there yourself.

But what’s this? The sea-green Delta pack is nowhere to be found. Is this an older line that has been given the sentence of death by the marketing department? A below-the-radar variety that’s too embarrassingly cheap to be shown on the site? Or… could it be the work of counterfeiters? Perhaps some sweatshop in Burma is even now churning out fake Chicco D’oro, undercutting the real thing in as many growth markets as possible?

A quick glance at the back of the pack reveals a claim that it is “roasted, blended and packed in Australia from imported raw coffees” by Cosmo Foods of Sydney (though they don’t admit to it on their website). And it’s apparently unheard-of outside Australia. So this looks like some kind of weird licencing arrangement, where Cosmo pays the real Chicco D’oro some tribute money to slap the premium label onto some very, very cheap coffee. Perhaps the prepended “Delta” is a nod in this direction, giving a subtle indication of its place in the official scheme of things.

[Postscript: Carlo Vassalli, in the comments, advises that Delta Chicco D’oro is completely unrelated to the original Swiss product… no licensing at all, just a “borrowing” of the brand name; but then Daniel da Graça weighs in with information about the Portuguese company Delta which may well be the original producer.]

The fine folk at Choice conducted a blind taste test of plunger coffees a couple of years ago, and they came up with some interesting results. Crunching their numbers (using a simple quality-divided-by-price formula), Delta Chicco D’oro actually comes out as the best value of the lot. And a couple of side notes: best quality, regardless of price, was Andronicus Espresso (about two-and-a-half times the price of Delta Chicco D’oro); and the worst value, by a huge margin, was Illy Espresso. As anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the ground coffee market would know, Illy is spectacularly overpriced – according to the Choice survey, it’s about as good as Delta Chicco D’oro – yet it costs nearly seven times the price.

My quality rating for Delta Chicco D’oro: 2.5 out of 5 (a “value” rating would have to be 5 out of 5).