Greek Coffee, Or How I Survive Daylight Savings

5 Nov

I walked home from work the other day, enjoying a sky streaked with clouds tinted a pale pink-blue by the setting sun.  A few leaves still clung to their branches, rustling defiantly in the breeze.

Next week, when we turn our clocks back for daylight savings time, I will be walking home in the black of night, the trees laid bare, their branches clawing at the darkened sky.

That’s when I hope my Italian friend Eleonora will stop by my office late in the afternoon and invite me to join her in the student Brewhaus, where she will down a shot of espresso, and I will sip a warm cup of something else, both of us bracing in our own way for the early and lingering night.

Italians and Greeks have often faced each other as enemies, especially when meddling forces of politics have intervened. But more often than not, we have sat down as friends. “Una fatza, una ratza,” Yiayia used to say, using the Italian expression that, loosely translated, means that we Greeks and Italians are siblings, we come from the same roots.

This generous familial feeling between our peoples runs deep and true.  Except when it comes to the matter of coffee.

Italians enjoy espresso, a smooth, finely-ground coffee brewed under pressure, with a layer of golden cream (“crema”) on top.  It’s served in a small cup, and usually drunk quickly.

Greeks also enjoy a finely ground coffee with a layer of cream on top, served in a small cup. But the coffee is brewed in a small pot called a Briki, and it is sipped rather than gulped.  Unlike espresso, Greek coffee (Elliniko cafe) has a bitter edge, or so my espresso-drinking friends tell me.  And, in truth, I must agree.

When I was a kid, Yiayia and her friends would sit in the back yard in the late afternoons, which came to the sun-drenched country around 7:30 or 8:00 p.m.  They gathered around the table, coffee cups before them, needlework in their laps.

Yiayia would remember to set a small cup before me so that I could dunk my Koulourakia – little braided butter cookies– into the brew. The little bit of caffeine never hurt, and I always felt included in the company of adults.

Even now, this is the only way I enjoy Greek coffee.  It’s still too strong for my taste, but its flavor mellows when absorbed by a sweet, moist butter cookie.

So perhaps next week I will walk down the hall to Eleonora’s office and invite her over to my house. On the way, we will pick up a shot of espresso and some butter cookies. I will dust off the Briki I brought back from Athens and make a cup of Elliniko cafe. Then we can sit down, “Una fatza, una ratza,” and be ready for the coming night.

How to Order or Make a Cup of Greek Coffee (Koulourakia I will save for a later post!)

Greece still enjoys a very social, public coffee culture.  Older women still gather in their back yards or balconies in the company of friends ; older men gather at the traditional cafes, sitting at small outdoor tables on wooden chairs talking politics and playing backgammon; younger, working men and women gather at stylish coffee bars, with their intentional, sleek decor and sometimes loud music.

An impromptu cafe set up outside a shop in Crete. The owner sometimes joins customers for a cup of coffee, which she brews in her store.

If you find yourself taking a table at a Greek cafe, you can order your coffee in one of the three most popular ways: sketos (no sugar), metrios (1 teaspoon sugar), glykos (2 teaspoons sugar).

If you wish to make Greek coffee at home, you will need small demitasse-size coffee cups and a Briki (or other small pot; however the shape of the Briki is wonderful for creating the layer of foam on top and, with its spout, makes pouring easy.  You can order these online and they are not very expensive — unless you buy a copper one, but those are for show.  Greeks use the regular stainless steel kind).

A cup and a Briki, ready for brewing.

For each serving:

Fill your demitasse cup with cold water and pour it in the Briki.

Take a heaping teaspoon of Greek coffee and add it to the Briki.

Then, add as much sugar as you like  (see above.)

Turn the heat on to medium/low and stir a few times until the coffee and sugar have dissolved.

When the coffee heats up, foam will begin to rise up to the top of the Briki.  Keep a careful eye because this can happen quickly.

As soon as the foam rises, pull the Briki off the heat.  Do NOT let the coffee boil.

Pour into your demitasse cup.  If you are making more than one serving, first pour the foam equally between the two (or three) cups, and then pour in the remaining coffee.

Serve with Koulourakia, or other sweet, plain cookies.

You can find Greek coffee in stores in cities with large Greek populations like Chicago, Astoria or Tarpon Springs.  You can also easily order it online.  One source: the Greek Internet Market.

And if you want a durable, ceramic version of the New York Greek “to-go” cup seen all over the city and on shows like “Law Order,” visit Uncommon Goods.  Known as the “Anthora,” it was designed in the 1960s by Leslie Buck and quickly became the world’s most recognizable cup.  Mr. Buck died last year, and his fame and contribution to the city’s popular culture merited him an obituary in the New York Times, which you can read in tribute over your next cup of coffee.

The world's most famous coffee cup, designed by the late Mr. Leslie Buck

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