Café v Çay

You cannot, I repeat cannot, get a bad cup of coffee in Spain. Bianco and I spent 20 days traveling from Madrid, down through Andalusia and then on to Turkey.

You cannot, I repeat cannot, get a bad cup of coffee in Spain. Bianco and I spent 20 days traveling from Madrid, down through Andalusia and then on to Turkey. Nothing like getting out of your daily rut and your home country to get perspective on things. So before I go on and on about the historic and artistic sites, sometimes the most memorable things are found in the mundane, like your morning brew.

Whether its in a corner bar/deli joint, a five star restaurant, or a deserted rest stop on the A4. Coffee is Spain is excellent. Consistently excellent. How is quality control maintained across an entire country, I do not know. But it is. My perception of Spain had been somewhat skewed in that a couple of friends who had traveled there complained at how bad the food was (compared to Italy or France) as well as the European financial crisis with Spain perched on ruin I was expecting a country in an economic and culinary mess. However, none of this was evident to us. Whether walking in crowded cities, touring historical sites, or driving the highways, everything seemed immaculate and organized. And while we didn’t get to explore many nuevo restaurants run by hot young chefs touted by Anthony Bourdain and trained under Ferran Adrià, we did manage to eat very well off the beaten path.

Spain like Italy is a coffee culture, where a shot of espresso (with or without milk) is enjoyed in a ceramic cup—at the bar. A strong tasteful brew is sipped in one sitting and within 15 minutes you are on your way. A leisure yet efficient method of caffination to start your day that doesn’t have you running to the toilet to alleviant that 18 oz of Starbucks you nursed on your way to work.

Its kind of ironic that the founder of Starbucks, who was originally inspired by the small cafes of Italy, created the “Big Gulp” of coffee. American coffee culture is designed to amp us up on an absurd amount of caffeine while we are on the run. I don’t actually blame Starbucks for the supersizing of coffee, its part of our fast-food overindulgence in things in general, Starbucks wouldn’t have succeeded as an Italian cafe. And to be honest, Starbucks is still the go-to for free wifi, a clean toilet, and filtered water… anywhere in the world. I admit we did stop into a Starbucks several times on our travels for the reasons mentioned above, as well as an experience in unfortunate watery cups of coffee.

You cannot, I repeat, you cannot get a bad cup of tea in Turkey. Çay (pronounced chai) is the national drink of Turkey. It is served at every meal and drunk throughout the day. Despite its name and its presence on every menu, the Turks do not drink Turkish Coffee, at least as far as we could observe. And between the two, its pretty obvious why. Turkish coffee is a tiny gritty bitter espresso-like shot, replete with grind scum. While that grind scum can tell your fortune, we never came across anyone who could render that service—unless you count the carpet salesmen who saw our fortune as theirs (a story for another time.) If you are dying for coffee in Turkey, then your other option is instant Nescafe, which is why in Turkey you drink the tea.

Çay is carefully brewed on a double boiler, and takes almost 20 – 30 minutes to make. The top pot holds the tea leaves, and while the water boils in the bottom pot the tea leaves slowly open. Then the leaves are steeped in the boiled water for about 10 minutes. Why don’t the Turks throw tea directly into hot water like the rest of the world does? My hunch is that it is a way to brew an incredibly strong tea without the bitterness. If you are a tea drinker you know the stronger the tea the more bitter it becomes and if you over boil, the tea is undrinkable.

I’ve thought, about why the Turks favor tea over coffee. In my guess-timation—not based on scholarly facts, or real research—it is because the Turks were originally an Asiatic people sharing much more with the peoples of Mongolia than their current Arabic and Persian neighbors. Their original home lands were along the silk routes, the oldest trade routes between East Asia and the Mediterranean, which would have made them a tea drinking culture well before they left central asia for the Arabic world. Turks were enslaved as solider by the Arabs during the first Centuries of Islamic expansion throughout Arabia, North Africa and Europe from the 7th to 9th C .

The first recorded consumption of tea goes back to China in the 10 th C. BCE. While Coffee doesn’t appear in history until the 15th C CE, where it is recorded to have been drunk in a sufi monastery in Yemen. Coffee traveled from the middle east to Europe by way of Turkey, and in fact the European word cafe is derived from the Turkish, Khave. Meanwhile tea reached Europe through the Portuguese merchants in Macau in the 16th C.  Tea (Cha) in China is also consumed at every meal and at anytime of day. Like Turkish tea, cha is drunk out of small cups, without milk. Unlike the cha of China, Çay is served in small pot-belly glass cups accompanied by two cubes of sugar (use both cubes for the total taste experience.)

Like you, I am a paper cup, filtered coffee or milky tea drinker who likes to nurse all 16 fluid ounces mindlessly on my way to work in the mornings. But that all feels so overindulgent and brutish to me now and I have been wondering if a Spanish Café/Turkish Çay style coffee shop could fly in Bushwick. Would hipsters find dainty yet powerful cups of caffeine more pleasurable, smart and trendy than the Big Gulp counterparts?  Probably not, and maybe this is what tourists to America find exotic, our oversized coffee and weak tea.

When in Rome… as the saying goes.