Black Gold: Types of coffee around the Mediterranean

Once upon a time, there were no franchise coffee shops. If you asked for a latte in Spain or a café solo in Athens, you would be met with a blank stare. It’s not so long ago that in England, coffee for most people came in one form – freeze-dried, and accompanied by the silent question: why don’t you want a cup of tea?

So yes, thanks to the big boys, you can walk into most bars in most big cities in Europe and get something that vaguely resembles what you ask for. But is this a good thing? Or are you missing out on the joy of asking for one thing and ending up with something completely unexpected? Of exploring the different ways people ‘do’ coffee? Here is the Gusto Guides roundup of coffee culture around the Mediterranean, and all of the things you miss out on by visiting a multinational.

Spanish coffee

Although one of life’s greatest pleasures is lingering over a coffee on a shady terrace, Spanish coffee can be mind-bogglingly fast. Walk in, say the word, down it at la barra and pay. It’s not uncommon to see bartenders laying out cups and saucers on the countertop to speed things up for the next day. Here, if you order un café, you will get just that: a shot of strong, black coffee known as café solo.

Staples of Spanish coffee include the café solo, Spain’s answer to the espresso, and the café con leche (coffee with hot milk). In hot weather, it’s common to order your coffee ‘con un vaso de hielo‘, over which you can pour it.

More interesting variants include the super-sweet café bombón (coffee with condensed milk) and café carajillo (coffee with a dash of spirits – often brandy, but local firewaters are often used too). For those who are caffeine-shy, try ordering a leche manchada – milk with just a drop of coffee.

French coffe

In France, coffee is something to be lingered over and enjoyed. From Paris to Nice, one of the most pleasant ways to take in a slice of French life is to order a brew and watch the world go by from a terrasse.

As in Spain, ordering un café will get you a shot of the strong stuff. For an extra strong French coffee, go for a café serré – the same amount of coffee in half the water. If you like your espresso with a drop of milk in it, go for une noisette – so named for the drink’s lovely hazelnut colour.

If you like a more milky coffee, go for a café crème (aka café au lait) – and don’t be surprised if it’s served in a bowl, ideal for dipping croissants into. In France, the convention is that café crème is strictly an early-morning drink – ordering one after about 11am is seen as either sort of eccentric, or as the kind of behaviour that could only come from a foreigner.

Italian coffee

There’s a reason why Italian has long been the language of coffee, and all it takes to see why is a visit to a neighbourhood coffee spot (our favourite so far is Terzi, in Bologna).  Italian coffee is prepared with a real flair for detail, from the dusting atop a cappuccino (all the better if it’s real chocolate grated before your eyes) to beans ground with lemon peel, for extra flavour.

Cappuccino at Caffe Terzi, Bologna

Cappuccino at Caffe Terzi, Bologna

Of course, you will already be familiar with cappuccino, latte and espresso (aka – you guessed it – just ‘caffè‘ to the average thirsty Italian).  Local takes on Italian coffee include the Neapolitan caffè alla nocciola (espresso with hazelnut cream) and the Piedmontese marrocchino, which begins and ends with chocolate powder and has espresso and frothy milk sandwiched in between.

Greek coffee

Once we asked for a decaf coffee in Greece.  The look on the waiter’s face was a mixture of confusion and disgust.  ‘But we’re Greeks!’ he said.

That pretty well sums up how the Greeks feel about coffee.  It can come any which way – but it has to be strong and is usually taken black.  You can order it sketos (bitter and short), metrios (medium – with just a hint of sugar), glikos (sweet) or variglikos (very sweet – about 3 spoons of sugar in each short brew).  In summer you can order your coffee frappe – iced, and sometimes served with frothy milk.

In any town, the local kafeinon will be full of locals playing chess, drinking the dark stuff and whiling away the afternoon hours.  This is a good representation of the Greek attitude to coffee – if you’re going to enjoy it, you’d better do it slow.  Even the drink itself forces you to slow down and take a minute – Greek coffee is thick with grounds and you need to let it settle for a minute or two before drinking it.

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