HOW TO: Drink Coffee In The Mediterranean

Madeline Blount
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Where is everyone? Wandering through the streets at one in the afternoon, I wonder if I’ve been transported to a ghost town. A plastic bag rolls by like tumbleweed; a cat picks its way through a garbage can. Is it possible that I have the capital of Cyprus all to myself?

I turn the corner into a tucked-away square, and there I find the Cypriots. Glasses clink on outdoor tables over the hubbub of afternoon conversation, and through the haze of smoke from dozens of cigarettes I can make out something else: the smell of fresh coffee.

On this Mediterranean island, whiling away a hot afternoon over a cup of coffee is a lazy, leisurely art. Here’s what you need to know to master it:

Step 1: Clear your afternoon.

There is no such thing as a quick coffee in Cyprus, and coffee-to-go is virtually unheard of. Be prepared to dedicate a good portion of your afternoon to the coffeehouse experience.

Step 2: Choose your vibe: lefty or conservative?

In Cyprus, people tend to choose favorite gathering places and stick to them. It might be because one coffeehouse does the perfect drink, but it’s more likely because of a deeper affiliation: Cafés are often tied to specific political parties. Are you a communist or a nationalist? If you look around and everyone is wearing dreadlocks and black T-shirts, you’ve stumbled into a leftist-friendly shop. If you see lots of flags and old men, Greek or Turkish, you’ve found a more right-wing watering hole. I’m virtually a resident at the Kala Kathoumena, a lefty shop with tables and painted cane chairs that take over an alleyway right along the UN border.

Step 3: Leave the laptop at home.

The coffeehouses aren’t places to get work done or read a book—they’re social spots. Cyprus is a small island, and you’re bound to see someone you know. If not, someone may very well offer you a seat at his or her table, and you should feel free to pull up a chair. I’ve given up on calling or texting my friends—I just head to a café, and chances are a group of them will be sharing a table there.

Step 4: Decide if you want frosty or steamy, hardcore or sweet.

If it’s warm (in Cyprus, March to November), chances are most people will be drinking frappe. The frappe is an icy survival tool for the Cyprus heat. It consists of instant coffee (literally, Nescafé) blended with cold water until inches of froth form at the top of the glass. It is frosty heaven. But if you just say, “I’d like a frappe,” the waiter will stare at you blankly: You have to specify how much sugar you want and if you want any milk.

You will also see plenty of people drinking traditional Cyprus coffee any time of year. This is deliciously dark stuff served in a little cup, slightly larger than espresso-sized, with the grounds left on the bottom. In a traditional place, someone might be able to read your fortunes from the pattern of the grinds. You can order traditional Cyprus coffee super-sweet, medium, or sugarless and bitter. I go for the hardcore: plain, just like an old Cypriot grandma. No matter your preferred sweetness, you never, I repeat never, get this with milk.

You may notice that the traditional coffee is just the same as Greek or Turkish coffee. Don’t mention it: Here it is called Cyprus coffee, neither Greek nor Turkish, and an island tradition.

Step 5: Don’t gulp.

Whatever drink you decide on, savor it. This is something I had to get used to, but after many an afternoon watching my Cypriot friends miraculously sip from the same cup of coffee throughout hours of conversation, I learned not to gulp. One guaranteed way to slow down is to order your drink without sugar. Another method is the “sip-and-stare.” In any lull in the gossip or the political buzz, take a cue from the old men here in Nicosia and just stare curiously, unapologetically at passersby. You’ll soon meet some recognizable characters: the one and only guy who plays guitar on the street, the woman who sells leftover pomegranates from the market and postcards of saints, and the shopping teenagers who seem to walk by in a new pair of shoes every day.

Step 6: Learn some backgammon, and be ruthless.

Most cafés in Cyprus have a stock of large wooden backgammon boards that you can take to your table and play. Like the coffeehouses themselves, backgammon (tavla in Greek or tavli in Turkish) used to be for men only, but now you’ll see everyone from teenaged girls to the ancient and the mustached, playing to win. I was a horrible player to start, but I learned strategy from Cypriots who showed me no mercy. Don’t hesitate to trounce your friends; victory will earn you coffeehouse respect.

Step 7: Brace yourself for the bill.

Ask for the check about an hour before you actually want to take off. The waiters will bring the bill or simply tell you how much it is, if you can catch them. If you ordered a traditional Cyprus coffee, you’ll only owe a euro or two. If you ordered anything more fancy, be prepared to pick your jaw up off the ground. Cyprus may be the most expensive place to get coffee in the world—a cappuccino can set you back six euros (eight dollars). I justify the exorbitant prices by reminding myself that I am essentially renting a space for a few hours. Fortunately, a tip is not expected. Just leave a few coins, if you have anything left.

Step 8: Head to the bar.

As the coffeehouses close, many Cypriots will move en masse to the same bar. Don’t be surprised by an invitation. There, you can counteract your caffeine buzz with zivania, a clear liquor made from pressed grapes that stings on the way down. Or you can sample one of the two island beers, KEO (owned and operated in part by the Cyprus Orthodox Church!), or Carlsberg, brewed in Cyprus but really from Denmark.

Step 9: Wake up and drink some coffee.

If you wake up slightly hung over from beers at the bar, there’s nothing like a hot cup of coffee to start off your morning. You will find that coffee is truly a way of life in Cyprus, where days meander as slowly as the stalled peace process between the Greek and Turkish sides of the island. You will find yourself taking time to smell the jasmine, wax poetic about the Sea, listen to long-winded stories from a Cypriot grandmother, or just stare at the mountains hugging the city—all the small but exceptional pleasures of Cyprus island life.


Posted on 10/27/2009 by

Ali Ahmed

Ali Ahmed

Hey, Brilliant stuff...I actually felt as if I was walking through those streets, and that photo makes me crave a cappuccino so badly, and this is coming from a tea-person so it's saying something. I see you are/were at Yale, if you don't mind my asking, what program were you in?

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