Drop me down in a coffeehouse somewhere in the world, and if I have ever visited that country the native rituals will tell me where I am before I’ve heard a single “sucre”, “glyko”, “milchcafe”, or “café negro.”
In Europe and the Americas, coffee is the upstart, edging out the earlier communal drinks of hot chocolate and hot tea. I have learned from impeccable sources that coffee was first discovered by goats. That legend somehow makes me feel better about the fact that although I love coffee houses and their ritual, I really can’t stand coffee. With a few slight exceptions, I drink tea—or hot chocolate.
In Greece, my husband and I acquired a taste for Greek coffee, in defense against the alternative to American coffee. The waiter inevitably served a small shiny packet of powdery brown stuff, which would perhaps dissolve if the water in the cup were hot enough. From the prevalence of this powdery stuff throughout southern Europe, we figured that some Swiss Nescafé guy was one heck of a salesman.
To ease into drinking Greek coffee, served in a small cup that holds strong black liquid on top of a spoonful of black sludge, and makes you grateful it comes in a tiny cup, we took it sweet. This coffee, we decided, explains the hairy chests on Greek fishermen. It helps to drink it down after a glass (or between glasses) of ouzo, the licorice-flavored, clear firewater of Greece. While ouzo is getting you drunk, the strong coffee is sobering you up. I could keep that routine going for quite a while.
I had first discovered that trick in Switzerland, where I found I could indeed tolerate a cup of coffee livened with a lot of plumkirsche or orange or pear-flavored liquer, or best of all, cheri-suise. Yum!
In Greece, the real coffee houses occupy the central location in every village. Rarely does anybody sit inside. Instead, men of various ages, coffee cups on the table, lean back in their wooden chairs on the sidewalk and carefully watch every woman who walks by. Women do not sit in these tavernas, but look around and you’ll find a taverna in a scenic spot that welcomes both sexes. In a Greek taverna, a tiny cup of Greek coffee, a glass of wine or an ouzo buys you space at a table for hours. Not so in other Mediterranean countries.
Italy has developed a ritual best dubbed “gulp and run.” Of course they don’t mind selling you a cup of coffee, or a thimble of espresso—but DO NOT SIT to drink it. We saw an unwitting tourist buy a coffe at the bar and happily saunter over to a table by the canal in Venice. A waiter came flying out from behind the counter yelling and waving arms. You would have thought the tourist had left without paying. Well, in a sense, he had. He did not pay extra for the use of a chair.
The same rules apply in Spain. When our feet were tired after a long trek through Seville, we stopped at a small tapas bar for refueling. We noticed there was a big crowd standing around the bar, but nobody sitting at the tables inside or outside. How lucky, we thought. A place to sit and relax. We paid double for the privilege of taking our tapas to a table with a chair.
We were also surprised in Spain and Italy to see small children wandering in and out of these establishments that in America would be neighborhood bars. Plenty of people gulp a glass of wine at the counter instead of espresso. But the bar doubled and tripled as coffee shop and pastry shop and sometimes sold a bit of groceries as well.
In is way, they are similar to Ireland, where you can get a cuppa (more likely tea than coffee) in the pub. The whole family might congregate in the Irish version of a coffee house. As I chatted with the barkeep in a pub on the Dingle Peninsula, I noticed that the shelves behind him held an array of goods that a street kiosk might stock: small bags of potato chips, boxes of crackers, cans of Campbell soup, toothpaste and toothbrushes, packs of tissues. Coffee houses as opposed to pubs that sell coffee do exist in Ireland, but in the bigger towns. And you probably can’t get your toothpaste there.
Sweden takes it coffee seriously, and you may see coffee shops anywhere. We found one mixed in with the sleek aluminum and white leather and teak of Scandinavian furniture. Not just a counter in the showroom that served complementary coffee to buyers of sculptured chairs—a whole, complete coffee shop. It was certainly a better atmosphere than the Internet coffee shop a few streets over, whose black walls attracted a whole crowd of purple and green-haired goths in clothing matching the walls.
When we planned a trip to Austria and Hungary, I was very concerned about being an outcast, since coffee houses are a Big Deal in those countries. Surely they did not serve tea, I thought. Imagine my delight, when we first entered an 18th century coffee house with polished wood everywhere and racks of newspapers hanging in neat rows, available for anyone’s perusing. The menu included not just tea, but Earl Gray, Camomile, Mint and other choices.
Despite the nice choices of tea, when we dropped into the Mozart Coffee House in Salzburg, which sits next door to a restored apartment where Mozart’s family once lived, I had to drink coffee. It wasn’t so much the coffee that lured me, but the fact that the Mozart Melange, served in a delicate white china cup edged in gold, was half hot choclate, piled mit schlag (whipped cream) and accompanied by a chocolate truffle. It is easy to forgive the bitter flavor of coffee when it comes wrapped in all that chocolate. Another lovely tradition of the venerable coffee houses in the Austrian-Hungarian territory—they serve a glass of water along with the coffe or chocolate.
Of course the first challenge in a Austrian coffee shop is picking (or trying to avoid) a pastry. The glass pastry case is front and center. We waddled from coffee shop to coffee shop appreciating the historic ambiance, the background music, the cultivated conversation buzzing around us, and the whipped cream. In truth the cities of Vienna and Salzburg and Budapest gather their historic sites in a small enough area that you can walk and walk and walk, so we really did not gain weight, despite mit schlag.
I thought I had seen some pretty interesting coffee experiences.Then I talked on line to Nancy Sathre-Vogel, who blogs at http://familyonbikes.com . She says of her experience in Ethiopia, “The ceremony starts out by spreading petals on the ground, then carefully arranging a three-legged stool, a small charcoal brazier, a tray for the cups and other odds and ends on the grass.”
The long ceremony includes roasting the coffee beans, walking around gently waving the aroma toward each person, and then grinding the beans into a pot of boiling water. If you want strong coffee, be sure to get yours from the first pot, because three pots are made from the same beans, so each is a bit weaker.
Nancy, like me, is not a coffee drinker, but she converted while in Ehtiopia, just to see the ceremony. “Although it seems formal, it really isn’t—it is happening at all times, everywhere,” Nancy says.
And that is completely fitting, since the goat nibbling on berries was discovered by an Ethiopian farmer.
Vera Marie Badertscher blogs about books and movies that influence travel, and about her own travels at A Travelers Library (http://atravelerslibrary.com)
photo by uteart
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