Friday, January 27, 2012


It isn’t until you get up one morning dying for that first cup of coffee, only to find there is none and that there is no hidden back-up, that you come to realize what coffee means to you.

I hated it when I was young, but then espresso and cappuccino and dashing Italian waiters arrived in London and I was converted.
Now I live in a coffee-drinking country where tea is generally considered to be a health option rather than a pleasure per se. The Greeks have been drinking herbal teas for thousands of years, and recent discoveries about the properties of such teas have simply reinforced their conviction that they were always right!

My mother-in-law’s remedy for an upset stomach was of course chamomile tea, but she also recommended it for eye infections, in kittens as well as humans, and as a hair rinse. It has cosmetic and therapeutic qualities and makes a wonderfully relaxing bath – but you need an awful of teabags for that.
Chamomile deserves a blog of its own – but there are plenty of those out there in cyberspace already. I like this quote from one such blog, regarding the magical properties of chamomile:
‘ Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs states: “Chamomile is used to attract money and a hand wash of the infusion is sometimes used by gamblers to ensure winnings. It is used in sleep and meditation incenses, and the infusion is also added to the bath to attract love.”
Even the most modern Greeks believe in the curative properties of what they call ‘tsai tou vounou ‘ (mountain tea) – the stalks, leaves and flowers of ironwort. This, as well as  sage (faskomilo), mint (menta), lemon verbena (louisa) and linden (tilio) are sold everywhere, but Greek people, with their passion for freshly gathered food, prefer to find and pick their own.

Olive leaves are so full of healthy properties that they too could almost be considered magical – read this quote:
‘This herbal tea is most commonly used to fight colds, flu, yeast infection, shingles and herpes. The leaves are also said to have anti-inflammatory, anti fungal and antibacterial properties. It may also help ward against premature aging and other diseases. It is also good for the heart. It has shown to reduce cholesterol. Olive leaves are especially potent when used in combination with other antioxidants.’ It was also used as a cure for malaria!
I should point out here that some herbal teas have side effects and may not be suitable for everyone, for example for people taking medication for high blood pressure, or for pregnant women. You should always check with a doctor first.

Back to coffee – a coffee break would be nice right now, but I am out of the stuff as I said at the start of this blog! Too early for a g and t substitute I’m afraid…
Coffee may not be able to claim the medicinal properties of herbal teas. But living in Corfu teaches you that it makes an excellent wasp-deterrent (burn the coffee on a small dish and place it somewhere close to where you want to sit).

In the sixties, when I first came to Greece (you’d better get used to hearing that phrase on this blog!), everyone drank Greek coffee. It was called tourkiko, a name which for political reasons became unpopular and is now rarely used. In fact, this type of coffee, very finely ground, brewed in a special pot called a briki and served in tiny cups, is common to all countries at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

No other kind of coffee was served in Greek households in those days, but at cafes such as those on the Liston in Corfu, where foreigners had to be catered for, Nescafe was available. Curiously, the waiter would bring a tray to your table, bearing a cup filled with rapidly cooling hot water and a small, opened tin of Nescafe with a spoon in it, plus the obligatory glass of cold water. You were expected to heap the required amount of coffee into your cup and then the waiter would remove the tin with a small bow.
There was also another unusual way of making a cup of Nescafe, one that had such delicious results that people started copying it at home. A teaspoonful of coffee and one of sugar was added to your cup by the waiter, at the table, and then a tiny amount of hot water. Very vigorously, the waiter would then beat the coffee and water to a mocha-coloured paste, to which hot water was slowly added. The result looked like cappuccino and had a different and rather subtle flavour. With the passage of time, this little service disappeared – too labour-intensive to be profitable.
Nescafe was also served sprinkled over vanilla ice cream, in yet another of the Liston specialities.
Nowadays it is always referred to as ‘Nes’ and few Greeks could survive the heat of summer without frequent shots of ‘frappe’, something to which foreign visitors soon become addicted. So much so, that it comes as a bitter shock to find that frappe is not known in other hot countries, as my friend Julie has found to her sorrow in the Maldives.

Everyone has heard of the Japanese tea-making ceremony, but fewer people, perhaps, realize that there is a very precise Greek coffee-making ritual. Special equipment is required, in the form of a particularly finely ground coffee, a briki in which to brew it and something with which to stir it. The briki was originally made of copper or brass, with a tin lining, but is now to be found in more modern metals, though as far as I know no-one has yet invented a Greek coffee making machine. Making a good Greek coffee requires a delicacy of touch and an ability to judge appearance accurately that no machine could equal. (Having said this, a chance google informed me that there is indeed a Greek coffee-making machine on the market, but I remain unconvinced about its efficacy). A particularly small hob is also a necessity – Greek cookers, gas or electric, usually have a tiny hob specifically for making coffee that has often confused foreigners coming to live in Greece as to its function. Small camping gas units are also popular, for Greek coffee needs the control of heat that only gas can provide.
It’s all about the bubbles you see – the froth, or lack of it, on top. This froth is called kaimaki – not to be confused with kamaki which is an entirely different ballgame. My Greek brother-in-law used to tease me by asking me to make him a coffee ‘poli gleeko me theeo fooskes’ which means ‘very sweet with two bubbles’. No, I am not joking. Such precision can only be achieved with practice.
Eventually my kind-hearted sister-in-law showed me how to make coffee the Greek way. The crucial moment comes when the froth begins to rise up the sides of the briki. If you want a thick froth on top of your coffee, you remove the briki from the heat there and then, if you do not want any froth at all you let it boil. And yes – you can control how many bubbles of froth are left.

 * * * * *
I spent a great deal of time in Athens in those far-off days – an Athens very different from what it has now become. It was still a small city, its way of life poised between pre-war Europe and the Middle East. I had been ‘adopted’ by a sophisticated group of people whose conversations were carried out in a seamless mix of Greek, Arabic and French, with – as a polite concession to me – some English. On mornings when I was actually in the city, I seemed to be part of a crowd that moved from one office, cafe or bar to the other, engaged in a mysterious occupation called ‘business’, but as I had never seen it conducted in Britain. In those days, you would see men with briefcases sitting at a café table for hours on end, apparently interviewing a succession of people – always other men, of varying ages and types. They were lawyers, who conducted their legal practice at a café, rather than pay rent for an office. This was something which had probably been going on since the days of Ancient Greece, when business of all kinds would have been conducted in the Agora.

We sat at elegant café tables in Syntagma, drinking something you could only find in Athens at that time, called French coffee. We moved to one of the small coffee shops in the surrounding streets, where the clientele was expected to stand up and lean on a counter, sipping from a tiny cup of very strong Brazilian coffee, brewed in fizzing, bubbling contraptions not unlike espresso machines. If you told a friend then that you were going for a Brazilian, believe me – it had nothing whatever to do with depilation!
(Most of the coffee consumed in Greece at that time came from Brazil, and indeed many Greeks had made fortunes growing and processing it.)
Greek offices could not function without coffee. While automatic coffee machines are popular now, and many people have adopted the American habit of buying a coffee ‘to go’ on the way into work, the sight of a waiter dodging traffic and pedestrians, gracefully and with effortless confidence swinging a tray with long handles, filled with small cups, a briki of coffee and glasses of water, is still to be seen.

The subject of coffee is endlessly interesting – it has been around a lot longer than you may realize, and over the centuries has brought people together for pleasure and for profit. You can drink a coffee in Greece indoors or outdoors. You may be seated on an uncomfortable wooden chair outside a traditional cafeneion, listening to the clatter of backgammon counters, or you could be sprawled on a low sofa in swish contemporary comfort. Once there was a very restricted choice – Greek coffee or Nes? Today you have to choose between espresso, cappuccino, freddo, fredocini, latte, frappuccino, mocha, macchiata and many more including for all I know machiavelli.
Perhaps my favourite used to be served up to me on chilly days by my friendly neighbourhood cafeneion proprietor, Dina. It earned me startled looks from my friends, and approval from the locals who admired my spirit. It was strong Greek coffee to which a slug of ouzo or tsipouro had been added. Guaranteed to warm your cockles as my mother used to say.

Coffee mornings are one of the pleasures of winter in Corfu – and thank goodness an invitation to one has turned up just in time. I can hardly wait!


  1. I remember the days of making nescafe "frothy" by mixing the coffee powder with sugar! I was taught by the cleaning lady (Antonia)in the American bank in Kolonaki where I used to work. Thank you for bringing back the memory.

  2. I am so glad you mentioned the coffee and ouzo that Dina use to bring.. I had to see it to believe back then and if I remember rightly, it usually came at around 11am !!!Love the blog Ange, well done on another great piece of writing, XX

  3. love the blog! always a pleasure to read something of yours keep it up xx

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