Greek coffee culture is one of the oldest in the world, cultivated on the mainland as well as on the islands.
The fish market is bustling with people, chatter and activity. Fishmongers are touting common dentex, cuttlefish and prawns; customers are squeezing their way through the narrow passageways between the market stalls; suppliers are shifting crates and boxes from one side to the other. A direct view of the comings and goings of Athens’ central market is to be had from behind the window of the Mokka coffee house where a wonderful scent of freshly brewed coffee permeates the air.
Coffee as a daily break
The average Greek will spend forty minutes a day in a café, where he or she will sit at a bistro table and take the time to enjoy a coffee. Truth be told: the Greeks drink more coffee than the Italians. On this sunny Monday morning, the Mokka coffee house is attesting to this survey result: three elderly gentlemen seated at a corner table are deep in discussion, another has his head buried in a newspaper, whilst yet another is busy working on his laptop; outside the coffee house, women greet each other before chin-wagging over coffee. Next to them, people are queuing from the pavement right up to the counter. Barista Nikoletta Ntaletsou shows no signs of being flustered as she brews coffee. Because preparing coffee takes time. She adds a spoonful of sugar to the small pot, fills it half with water and then adds a few spoonfuls of coffee powder until the mixture almost spills over the edge of the pot. Then she puts the pot in a tray of sand making sure it is covered all round. “The burying in the sand takes a bit of practice,” Ntaletsou explains, “as no sand must end up in the pot.”
The small, long-handled bronze-coloured pots are called briki. In keeping with the traditional Greek way, the coffee inside the briki is heated slowly in the sand. The origins of this go back to Arab coffee history, according to which coffee was prepared in the desert. Since the period of Ottoman rule in Greece in the fifteenth century, this Turkish method of preparing coffee has been used in Greece too. The Sultan having made his way right to the borders of today’s Austria, coffee also conquered the rest of Europe.
High sugar content
Five minutes later, Ntaletsou stirs the coffee powder into the water. Then she lifts the briki with the still cool handle from the sand and pours the coffee into a cup. But only half full: “That is how to make the thickest coffee foam,” she says. The coffee tastes stronger than I am used to, and it is thicker. Its consistency resembles hot chocolate, presumably because of the high sugar content. Even many an espresso aficionado is likely to be convinced by the taste of it. Greek-style coffee continues to be widely consumed on the Greek mainland and on the islands, a fact made evident not least by the multi-facetted choice of coffees available in cafés and restaurants.
Growing up with coffee
Yiannis Taloumis knows everything about coffee. He is the owner of Taf Coffee located in an industrial building on the outskirts of Athens. Taloumis is standing next to the five man-sized roasting machines on the bright and modern ground floor. He is surrounded by piles of waist-high sacks, filled with unroasted, light green beans. “I grew up with coffee so to speak,” Taloumis explains. His grandfather started importing beans which he roasted and then sold. The business was passed on from generation to generation until it was Yiannis Taloumis’ turn who now strives to transform coffee from an everyday item to a gourmet product. He sources the best beans for this endeavour in South America and Ethiopia, to where he travels on a regular basis.
Parallels between coffee and wine
Taloumis climbs the stairs to the upper floor and opens the door to his lab. This is where he tests, blends and tastes until he has achieved a flavour that is particularly to his liking. Which coffee blend tolerates which roasting? Which roast blends go well together? “There are parallels between coffee and wine,” Taloumis says. “You assess it by its aroma, its taste after pouring and its taste after stirring.” So far, Taloumis has proved to have an excellent coffee instinct: his roasting house has won numerous international coffee awards for his espresso roast, which is sold in various parts of Europe and throughout Greece. Because in recent years, espresso from Italy, situated some 200 miles from Greece, has presented competition to Greek coffee.
Competition or complementary?
Whereas Taloumis sells his Greek coffee in powder form, his Italian espresso is sold as beans. The Greek coffee powder is, indeed, much finer and has a lighter colour. “A bit like icing sugar.” But Taloumis does not feel he is betraying his country’s tradition. As he sees it, espresso complements Greek coffee in the best possible way and won’t force the latter off the market. “Our coffee has a very different and special flavour: sharp, bitter, lemony.”
Taloumis believes in the tradition of Greek culture: “We take our time for coffee. It is a ritual.” Gulping down an espresso on the go is not something the Greeks do. “We sit down, for five minutes, ten minutes, an hour, to drink our coffee,” Taloumis explains. If someone suggests going for a coffee, it can mean anything - from a morning coffee to a sumptuous dinner. “The decisive point is that, for us, coffee is the epitome of calm and relaxation.”
Enjoyment in traditional fashion
A great place to relax is Kostas Rekoumis’ “O Glykys”. This little gem of a café is tucked away in a side street in the heart of Plaka, Athens’ historical neighbourhood. Inside, the café is packed with small, old tables and the red walls are covered in pictures. The garden features shade-giving trees, and the outdoor tables are exposed to a pleasant breeze. Rekoumis serves his coffee with walnuts and cherries marinated in wine, the traditional Greek sweets.
The future in the beans
“Glykys” is a kafenio, a traditional Greek café typically found in the Greek villages of Corfu, Mykonos, Rhodes or Santorini. Kafenia serve as meeting points for socialising, similar to a village pub. “It just so happens,” says Rekoumis, “that we Greeks excel at coffee ground reading.” For this purpose, the coffee must be swirled around several times clockwise first, and subsequently poured out. A few minutes later, the cup is turned upside down and the shapes that have formed are read. That is what Rekoumis is doing now. He looks sternly at the cup and then says with a mischievous laugh: “I can see a white ring. That means Greece can look forward to some happy months.”
Nine times clockwise and nineteen times anticlockwise – that is how Greek coffee should be stirred so that it can develop its aroma. That is, if tradition is to be believed.