Tea, or ... Nescafe?
has a near-monopoly on the instant coffee market in Europe. Even
in stores, there are no alternatives -- no Maxwell House, Folgers,
or whatever. But more than that, Nescafe is considered to be a premium
drink. In cafes all around the Mediterranean, coffee from the machine
costs less than a dollar, while Nescafe is proudly offered for over
$2.00. When we go to a cafe to order coffee, waiters (identifying
us as obvious foreigners) immediately offer, with obvious pride,
"Nescafe?" They always seem surprised by our vehement refusals and
vaguely puzzled at our preference for "machine" coffee. It must
be viewed as the poor man's drink, while we rich foreigners can
afford, and clearly ought to prefer, the superior Nescafe. By machine
coffee, we mean espresso/cappuccino made on those enormous elaborate
hissing and gurgling devices. They may have been (until recently)
the exclusive province of Starbucks and Fine Eating Establishments
in the US, but they are ubiquitous in Spain, France and Italy.
In Spain, coffee is
an aural as well as a taste experience. The sound of the machinas,
punctuated with the clinking of heavy china cups being rinsed out,
accompanies any stroll on any city street at almost any time of
day. The Spaniards love their coffee, which is basically espresso
served in tiny cups. Spaniards were quite nonplussed to learn that
Americans drink coffee in large or even enormous cups, and have
cup holders in their cars. Coffee is for cafes. And there's not
much Nescafe in Spain.
In France and Italy,
as in Spain, espresso is king. We were surprised to learn that there
is a huge price differential between coffee taken standing at the
coffee bar and the same coffee taken sitting at a table in the cafe
-- in many places, the price more than doubles if you sit down to
order. We've bought coffee at the bar and then sat down with it,
but we're not really sure this is polite; in any case we've never
had to pay more than the counter price when we've done this.
In Italy, the coffee
shop process is complex. To drink coffee at the stand-up coffee
bar, one pays first, then takes the receipt to the coffee server.
If one wants pastry with the coffee, one goes first to the coffee
bar to see what's available, then over to the teller to pay, then
back to the coffee bar to place the order itself. Mercifully, the
coffee is delivered at the coffee bar, so there's no more walking
to do. Of course, this system causes a problem for those who don't
speak the language, as it requires stating the order to the teller.
We solve this problem by always ordering café and croissants, the
same in any language. As a result, of course, there's a lot of pastry
we never get to try. Oh yes, another factoid: Italians drink their
coffee "tepido" or warm; you have to specify if you want it hot.
Unlike the Spaniards who linger over coffee, Italians bolt it and
run, so they need it tepido. Take-out hasn't hit the Mediterranean
Many years ago when
we lived in Zagreb, we enjoyed passing long hours in cafes sipping
"Turkish coffee," the standard cafe drink. This was a thick sweet
drink made by boiling equal amounts of finely powdered coffee and
sugar in a special pot. The pot was generally copper or brass, shaped
like a truncated cone with a long, often fancy, handle. (Legend
had it that these were made from shell casings, but there have to
have been a real stockpile of such casings to account for all of
these little pots.) The coffee/sugar/water was brought to a boil
3 times, then the coffee was served out into tiny cups. A bit of
the crusty sugary foam was added for a special treat. You didn't
stir it, and you sipped only about half of it before you encountered
the "mud" at the bottom. It's admittedly an acquired taste, but
holds fond memories for us.
Turkish coffee is no
longer widely available in Croatia. "You want that, go to Turkey,"
said one offended cafe waiter, offering us Nescafe with pride. We
ordered machine coffee. We found "Turkish coffee" in Greece, where
it is called Greek coffee, available only at Fine Eating Establishments,
and served to us foreigners with some amusement. We enjoyed it in
Cyprus this summer, while visiting with our friend George's family.
When George's mother, the perfect hostess, learned that we didn't
like Nescafe, she offered, then insisted on making us a special
treat of "Greek" coffee. It was great!
So what about Turkey?
The Turks don't normally drink any kind of coffee; they drink tea
(chai). And they drink it endlessly. It's made from loose tea leaves
in a special two-lobed kettle with hot water in one chamber and
tea, brewing increasingly strong, in the other. You make the tea
way too strong and mix the water and tea to taste. Or it's brought
to you, already mixed, in a clear glass tulip-shaped glass, on a
saucer with a tiny spoon and 2 lumps of sugar. Here, similar to
the coffee sounds of Spain, France and Italy, the sound of the tea
ritual is omnipresent: spoons clinking the sides of the glass as
working men enjoy their chai accompanies any walk on any street
anywhere. (The clinking is vigorous and seems obligatory. One could
stir quietly, but it just isn't done.)
Chai is more than tea,
though. It's part of the social fabric and it's impolite to refuse
it. (Probably totally offensive in a home; mildly rude in a shop.)
Shopkeepers routinely invite patrons to have a cup of tea. They
offer chai or "apple tea" which has developed in Turkey for the
benefit of tourists. Most Turks don't drink it, and we question
whether any apples ever figured in its creation. Naturally, the
shops don't generally have a tea-making facility, so the shopkeeper
goes to what we call the "tea hotline." This is an intercom system
with a terminal somewhere on a wall of the shop. Having offered
tea (and having been accepted), the shopkeeper pushes a button and
says "X number of teas" and goes about his business (selling you
rugs, or discussing repairs to your boat's engine's exhaust pipe).
A few minutes later a young man appears, carrying a tray which is
suspended from a 3-armed handle, on which are X number of teas.
Careful inspection of the area above the street near the shops will
reveal a tangled maze of intercom wires overhead, and, in hidden
doorways tucked behind steps to the upper floors, tiny tea kitchens
that brew tea to serve the various shops. We've seldom seen money
pass hands, so there must be "subscriptions" to various tea hotlines.
And, of course, as guests we never pay -- regardless of whether
we buy a rug or get our exhaust pipe fixed.