You know the feeling . . . every morning. “Na poume kafe gia na anixi to mati mas,” (Let’s drink coffee so our eyes open) goes the saying. Indeed, there is no better wake-me up than Greek coffee. Once you start on that briki road, there is no turning back, Why? Because American coffee is watered down crap. It has no mojo. It might as well be made like tea—you dunk a coffee bag into hot water and get the watery flavored beverage. Due to the prominence it plays in our culture, this short feature is all about coffee, Greek coffee specifically, and how it got that way.
Greek coffee, despite its name, really comes from the Arabs. In fact, if you go way back, it comes from the Ethiopians. The legend has it that a goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his goats could not sleep at night and became extra energetic (as if goats aren’t hyper enough) after munching some reddish-brown berries on the Ethiopian plateau. Kaldi brought these beans to the abbot of a local monastery. It was the monk that purportedly ground the beans and made them into a beverage to keep him awake for the long evening vigils at the monastery. He taught other monks how to concoct this brew and slowly the word spread to the Arabian peninsula. Once the Arabs got a hold of the dark brew, they brought it along with their caravans throughout their trade routes. (www.ncausa.org).
Coffee cultivation proper, however, is credited to Yemen in the 15th century. An Ottoman governor stationed in Yemen in the 16th century fell in love with it and introduced it to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who popularized coffee in Istanbul and beyond.
Historically, all the nations under the Ottoman Empire have a form of this thick frothy coffee made from a special copper pot, cezve in Turkish, briki in Greek. An NPR article by our Greek American reporter Joanna Kikissis mentions: “But ordering Turkish coffee today doesn’t go over well in some Balkan or eastern Mediterranean countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire — even if their preparation of the coffee is remarkably similar.
In Armenia, where the Ottomans led a genocide against more than a million people between 1915 and 1923, it’s Armenian coffee. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I once ordered a “Turkish coffee” only to be corrected by the irritated waiter: “You mean a Bosanska kafa” — a Bosnian coffee. In Cyprus, which the Turks invaded in 1974, it’s akypriakos kafes — Cypriot coffee. (Except in the northern third of the island, which Turkey has occupied since 1974.)
In Greece, you order an elliniko — a Greek coffee.” (www.npr.org).
In fact, all those coffees were once Turkish coffees but became “Greek” or “Cypriot” to nationalize it. After the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, people started calling it “Greek coffee.” No patrioti would be caught dead referring to the brew as “Turkish” coffee. No way! Greeks invented everything, remember? Including Greek coffee.
COFFEE CULTURE: SONGS
Greek culture is coffee culture. Look at all the references to Greek coffee in songs:
Nikolopoulo “ti’nai arage o kafes Tourkikos Ellinas ah vres”
“ftiaxe mou enan kafe” Stratos Dionysiou
“Molis xypnhsw to prwi ta vlepw olla mavra, “thelw mia koupa me kafe kai tessera tsigara” Nikos Papazoglou.
“O Kafes” Vicky Moscholiou
(I’m sure I have left many more out).
Offering of Hospitality
A Greek house would be unorganized if there was not a green and silver foiled package of fine ground coffee in the fridge either with a parrot on it or lettering of Loumidis or Bravo. That’s because offering Greek coffee to guests is a way to solidify relationships and extend hospitality. It is a rite of passage for a young girl in the family to be entrusted with making each guest’s kafe according to his/her specifications. And God help you, kakomira mou, if you didn’t get it right or worst of all, you weren’t paying attention to the froth as it inched its way up the briki’s mouth, you turned away or were on your phone, and the coffee spilled over, hissing all over the stovetop. You have to start all over again. And the preparation for it is so individualized, Greek elliniko barristas tell me there are 40 different ways to make it—metrio, gliko and sketo are just skimming the surface.
Have you noticed the ubiquitous “kafenia” in every corner of every neighborhood in Greece? Coffee is a national pastime. What with frappe and “ellinikos”—it is no wonder the entire country and its exports are hyper. I remember drinking my first diplos of the thick foamy drug in the central square on the island of Mykonos. I spent the entire night staring through the window of the room I had rented from Kiria Vasiliki decked with crocheted dollies smelling of moth balls thinking that someone was going to come in and kill me. That stuff can make you crazy, until you get used to it.
The kafenio typically is a male-only establishment heralding back to Ottoman days when men and women were rigidly separated in public (but I have barged through a room full of old men and boys just to make a statement.) Pensioners haunt the local kafenio and engage by:
- Reading newspapers.
- Discussing (loudly most of the times) about current country’s or local events. (Politics and soccer are the most favorable topics).
- Playing cards or backgammon
When my father passed away in Greece, our relatives gathered after the burial at the coffee house across the municipal cemetery. A clean but sparsely decorated hall consisted of long tables with dry paximadia in bowls, small shot glasses of Metaxa brandy, and demitasse coffee cups of the bitterest coffee. Coffee is always served at funerals and consolatory events, without sugar. It symbolizes that death is always bitter no matter when and who.
While men can cluster at the kafenio, drink their elliniko from white cups, dangle their koboloi and yell about the latest political “lopoditi,” the women have a different take on the brew. They cluster at a hostess’ home usually in the late afternoon for a coffee break to talk about what has been happening in their lives and at the end to have their coffee grinds read. Some dames have become experts at reading the future as revealed in a coffee cup. There are several ways to read a cup.
Here’s a short primer thanks to fellow blogger Mario Baker:
Most of the Greek coffee readers follow this cup division pattern:
–HANDLE AREA = Events that are happening right now.
–FRONT RIM AREA = Future or sudden events that are not related to the home environment.
Rim area = Positive meaning.
–LEFT handle area = Past.
–RIGHT handle area = Today or near future (tomorrow up to a week).
Sides of the cup = Present or near future events (up to 2 week time).
Bottom of the cup = Long future events (up to 1 month time).
Bottom area=negative meaning
Check out the more extensive article about coffee reading at http://www.turkishstylegroundcoffee.com/turkish-coffee-reading/
Ellinikos is so central to our culture, you would do well to learn how to make it. Here are a few of the very best YouTube spots that demonstrate the beauty that is Greek coffee.