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.