Greek coffee

Coffee in Greece is a big deal.  If you believe in the culture dichotomy of ‘beer cultures’ and ‘coffee cultures,’ Greece is very definitely a coffee culture.  Cafes take two major forms in Greece:  the kafeneio, or traditional coffee house, and the kafeteria, or the modern cafe.

Greece is full of both.  The kafeneio has traditionally been the haunt of Greek men, and lately, older Greek men, but you will often find women working there.  Despite new legislation that makes smoking illegal in all indoor public use spaces, including cafes, most kafeneia are smoky.  They usually have minimal decoration, simple tables and chairs, and sometimes a stack of backgammon boards.  This is where retired men retreat to read the newspaper, drink their coffee, and talk about whatever it is that retired men talk about.  The menu is usually made up of various kinds of coffee, soft drinks, some alcoholic drinks, and you can usually get something to eat as well (along the lines of some toasted bread with cheese).

The kafeteria is a cafe with comfortable chairs, a menu with usually a variety of coffees, sweets, often ice cream, sometimes food like club sandwiches, soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, and so on.  Everyone goes to kafeterias.

Both types are ubiquitous in Greece.  A popular coffee to order at either place, or to make yourself at home, is Greek coffee, or ellinikos kafes in Greek.  In Turkey, the exact same coffee is called Turkish coffee; in Cyprus, Cypriot coffee; in Bulgaria, Bulgarian coffee.  I haven’t been to any other countries in the area, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this is a trend.  The good thing about this coffee is that it takes very little in the way of equipment to make.  No need for a source of electricity, a filter coffee maker (or filters for that matter), a percolator, or an espresso maker.

All you need is some source of heat (fire, cooking gas, electricity, etc.), a pot to cook it in, some clean water, and a cup.

I don’t drink Greek coffee but S does.  There are several ways to make the coffee.  The most ‘authentic’ way is probably the method called hovoli.  Hovoli uses a tray with sand set over hot coals.  The sand is hot from the coals; the coffee pot is set well into the sand.  This is hard to pull off at home, but many cafes do it this way.

I make it using cooking gas.

The coffee pot I use is made of copper and is specifically intended for this purpose.  The small coffee pot is called a briki.  You can find them for sale all over this part of the world, and at all Mediterranean and Middle Eastern markets in the rest of the world.  This one is from a copper worker in the city of Xanthi.

It comes with a special stirrer which is made in such a way that the coffee can be stirred into the water without spilling.

I suppose many parts of Greece claim to have the best Greek coffee; S is lucky because he prefers the coffee from right here in our town.  There are several kinds available; this is the standard type.  There is also a twice-roasted type which is black as ink, and which has a very strong flavor.

You can make Greek coffee in two sizes:  single (monos) and double (diplos).  S always drinks a double unless using the black type.  A single uses one spoonful of coffee; a double two.

Put good filtered water in the briki a little below the rim.  Turn on the gas (or whatever you’re using) and set the briki on the heat source.  Spoon the coffee into the briki and stir with the special stirrer until it’s completely incorporated.

If you will want your coffee with sugar, add the sugar at the same time that you add the coffee.  Sugar is not added to this coffee at the table!

Leave it alone for a few minutes – but don’t leave the room.  It needs to be babysat carefully because when it’s ready, it must be removed immediately from the heat; otherwise, it will basically explode all over the place, and that is a major pain (I know, it’s happened to me three times).

When it is ready, you will see the coffee at the edges of the pot, usually on one side (in the photos, note the difference in the upper left side of the second photo), start to swell, and this swollen coffee will start to advance toward the center of the briki.  Once this starts to happen, you have only a few seconds to remove the briki from the flame and pour it into the coffee cup.  If you take it off too soon, the coffee won’t have the nice foamy top, but if you wait too long, you’ll be scrubbing your kitchen for a while.

To drink the coffee, let it sit on the table for several minutes – usually around ten minutes – to allow it both to cool and for the coffee grounds, which are floating in the coffee, to settle to the bottom of the cup.  When you drink it, take small sips and don’t tip the cup back, in order to keep the coffee grounds at the bottom.  Never drink the whole thing, and never stir the coffee.  The grounds are not meant to be drunk.  When you have drunk your coffee, there will be a sediment of coffee sludge at the bottom.  Discard that when you wash the cup.

Some people believe that they can ‘tell the future’ based on these coffee grounds.  The way it works – as far as I know, I’ve never done it – you drink your coffee, and then turn it upside down on the saucer.  Then the ‘kafedzou’ (coffee reader) ‘reads’ the way the grounds look inside the cup.  I suppose it’s in the same tradition as reading the internal organs of a sacrificial goat.

Enjoy your coffee!

Note:  the ceramic coffee cup and saucer were handcrafted by Lizbet Giouri, artist.  Her pieces are available on the island of Folegandros at the restaurant ‘Pounda,’ in Chora.

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21 thoughts on “Greek coffee

  1. You never cease to surprise me! Great article as always 🙂 Very thorough yet entertaining plus informative. I love coffee. And so is this one 🙂 I don’t know if I can get some Greek coffee here, but I’ll start searching. That fortune telling part, I am buying it, read some interpretation on certain symbols formed by the left over coffee beans. I know someone who’s good at reading them 😉

  2. Very interesting! I don’t drink coffee myself, but I love reading all your stories. You have a wonderful flair for writing!

    • Nina, why am I not surprised that in Lebanon, it’s called Lebanese coffee? 😀 This makes me want to research how many countries make the same coffee and claim it as their own 😀 Coffee originally comes from Arabia, right? So you’re a bit closer than we are up here!

  3. I love the little whisk stirrer. I’ve not seen one of those before. Must try to find one! As in the Lesvos kafeneia we go to, I just use a teaspoon to gently stir in the grounds. I was once told to bring the coffee to boil, take it off to let it settle then bring it back up to boil again before serving. This is supposed to help the grounds settle better after you pour it in the cup. It seems to work so I always do it that way now.

    • Sylvia that’s an interesting method – I’d never heard of it and I just asked S and he’s never heard of it either. He almost never makes coffee anymore (since he taught me to haha) because when he was in the army, he had the honorable job of making coffee for the whole army camp – made hundreds/day 😛 So if he’s never heard of that method… I wonder if it’s local to Lesvos?

  4. I love, love, love reading your blog. It’s giving me an insight into a life in Greece that I will never find anywhere else. Thank you so much for your detailed, descriptive posts about your love for your life there.

  5. I’m not a coffee drinker… Love my tea. But, I always enjoy your pictures and blog entries! Love it when I get an email about a new post!

  6. Hi,
    My DH Is a Greek American and he always brings Greek coffee to a boil twice. We do not drink Greek coffee often, but it good after a dinner party where there is a lot of
    wine. Great blog sie.


  7. I learned to make this as a little girl for my grandfather. We used a taller briki and I loved to watch the coffee boil and start to come up the sides. When my aunt visits the US we always fool my friends by telling them she’s a very good fortune teller and can read their grounds. It always makes for some laughs cause she embelishes some very good fortunes!

  8. Greek coffee, I always bring some home with me. My mother used to read our fortunes in the cup afterwards…..of course they were always good!

  9. This is how we make the coffee in Bosnia too. It is Turkish coffe, althogh some call it Bosnian coffee. 🙂 It is a ritual and it is so very important for some reason. I don’t make it at home, but when I travel to Bosnia I have it every day – first thing before breakfast and then afternoon after ‘siesta’. We usually drink it with a bit of cream, then we dip a sugar cube in it, take a little bite of it and then a small sip of coffee. I just love the whole process! 🙂

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