Friday, June 19, 2009

Turkish Coffee Tales

Turkish coffee is black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love. To make it, you need a brass or copper coffee pot, called ibrik or cezve. You can make decent Turkish coffee in a regular heavy-bottom small pot, but it won't impress anyone. Grind medium roast coffee beans into fine dust, place it in the pot with sugar, add hot water up to the neck of the pot, stir and heat slowly, constantly watching. As soon as a circle of foam begins to rise along the edge and to roll into the center, take the pot off the heat. If it boils, the foam will run over the edge, it will make a mess, burn, and the coffee will lose all the flavor. You can make it as strong as you like, stronger even than an espresso shot. Some people add cardamom, cinnamon, rose water, orange flower water, or use honey instead of sugar. Mine is plain.

Pour the coffee into cups, making sure that some of the foam from the top and some of the grounds (fine mud, actually) from the bottom gets into each cup.
I like the first cup of the day with a little half-and-half. My Israeli friends tell me that over there it’s a habit of the lowest classes and a sign of a poor taste to add milk to the coffee. I am glad I’m not in Israel. Drink slowly, being careful not to sip too much of the grounds – they will be used for divination later.

For some reason, probably because of the simplicity of preparation, Turkish coffee was very popular in Russia in the 80-ies. We called it Oriental-style coffee, and made all efforts to make the preparation a ritual and a show. The finest arrangement was to have a tray of washed river sand on top of an electric stove, and to move individual coffee pots around in the hot sand. The danger of this showy method was that if you got distracted for a moment and one of the pots ran over, the sand got mixed with the burning coffee grounds and had to be replaced. We didn’t see it as a problem.

Then, in the late eighties, as the 70 years old communist economy started to crumble, there were shortages of the most basic food stuffs. Various products disappeared and then reappeared in the retail in random order. First we got sugar rationing, then we had to forget about cheese, then the cheese came back but there were bread lines at 5 am waiting for the bakeries to open, then the tobacco rationing made my non-smoking parents, who hate our smoking, give their cigarette coupons to my brother and me, and finally – horror – there were no coffee beans! This is when one girl from our aerobics group discovered a wholesale source that sold green, unroasted coffee, by a 20-kilo bag. We all pitched in, bought a bag, divided it, and started to learn coffee roasting. We would heat a cast iron skillet over high heat, add one layer of green beans, and roast, constantly stirring. I never got my beans right. Some of them would burn while others stayed green. My best friend, N., got it right the first time. So from then on she would roast my coffee too, and bring it to our aerobics class. She got so good at it that when commercially roasted coffee reappeared on the market, it didn’t taste as well as the N.-roasted beans I was getting used to. But by that time our bag of green beans was almost finished.

In Greece this kind of coffee is called, surprisingly, Greek, and it is an essential part of the Greek lifestyle. On our Greek vacation, that few days when we were
not driving across the country or sailing between the Ionian islands, we stayed in a rental apartment with a balcony overlooking the sea. The landlady, who lived in an identical apartment upstairs, came from her jog along the beach around 7 am and shouted under our balcony:
- You lazy sleepy tourists, it’s coffee time, come up at once!
We would come up to her balcony and spend the next 5-6 hours making endless pots of Greek coffee over a small gas burner set in the middle of the balcony table, smoking, chatting, and watching the sea. The landlady (hello, Evelina!) worked for an all-inclusive resort in the evenings, so her mornings were free.

There was a woman I used to work for some years ago. She was kind, full of energy and music, absolutely 60-ies, long hair, flowery skirt, and everything, and totally charming. Despite her name, she was a very sunny person. Her name was Rain.

Rain parked her camper next to the Novato Renaissance Faire, put up a tent, got out a camping stove, a couple of huge stockpots, two amazing half-gallon brass cezves, and made Turkish coffee for the Faire participants and visitors.

I got a ticket to the Faire from a friend who is a fencing master and goes to Faires all over California as one of the Queen’s Guards, so I went to check it out. When I saw the Gypsy coffee shop, the wonderful coffee pots, and mentioned that this kind of coffee is what I make for myself in the morning, I was invited to come in, we discussed Turkish coffee making in detail, and we were friends right away. She said that she would get me a free pass if I could come help with the coffee the next morning. When I came, Rain handed me a contract that said that I will be working in the coffee shop on Saturdays and Sundays for the next three months, and I was getting paid for this (about twice the CA minimum rate at that time)! Guess what? I signed it. The shop owner and the coffee pots were so charismatic that I couldn’t bear the thought that I won’t see them again.

So for the next three months, I would drag myself to the dreary dark air-conditioned office at my high-tech company five days a week, then on a weekend I would happily jump out of bed, don my 16th century Gypsy outfit (lots of research and hand-sewing went into it), and rush to the Fair to open the coffee shop at 8 am and serve Turkish coffee, chai tea, and the mush (the English Renaissance version of a cereal, a slow-cooked oatmeal with dried fruits) to Shakespearean actors, musicians, artisans, the Royal Guard, and the nobility. I even once served chai to Her Majesty herself! Then the visitors would come, and I’d make them the coffee, and do a fortune reading afterwards. You turn the cup with the grounds over into a saucer, and then… No, I’m not disclosing any trade secrets here.

Then the summer was over, the Faire closed, Rain packed her tent, the stove, and the pots, in her camper, and went to see her daughter in Southern California.
I have moved, and then moved again, the winter rains began. Rain sent me a letter, and while the letter was chasing me to my new address, it somehow got wet.
I took it to bed to read, and then left it on the bedside table, and the wet letter got imprinted on the light wood of the table.

Over the years the old table was losing its warnish, and the transferred letter was disappearing with it. As I cleaned the table today, I saw the last traces of the letter disappear.

Hey, Rain, if you are out there somewhere, please send me another letter. And know that I would love to make Turkish coffee for you again, anywhere, anytime.
I now roast my own coffee using a neat programmable IRoast machine, not because of shortages, but because I find that the common expresso roast sold here is too dark for Turkish coffee, and I want some control over how my coffee is roasted and what goes into it. The machine roasts 5 oz. in about 15 minutes, and the proccess is so fascinating that I still watch it every time, after years of doing this. Pictured here is my 50/50 blend of medium-roast Yemen Mocha and Aged Java, and the raw ingredients.

1 comment:

Michael Walsh said...

I have seen a table top coffee bean roaster, they are really interesting. Roasted coffee beans is one of those things you just take for granted, untill you get a chance to see it happening.

I remember in college one day I was hanging out with these guys from Sri Lanka and Yeman, and they asked if I wanted some coffee, sure I did. So I watch them put milk, sugar, and coffee grounds in a pot over the stove, and just before it boiled over they cut the heat and poured into cups. I was eaget to taste this so of course I got to slurping up all the grounds that had not settle to the bottom, and everyone laughed at me histericly. Good times.