The Bean,  Turkey

On the Coffee Trail to Constantinople

I like taking detours. It’s the liberating, unscripted sense of seizing the moment and flying in the face of a predetermined itinerary. After all, I’ve committed myself to follow the bean wherever it will take me and this was to be no exception…

So when I took the short boat trip from Europe (Lesvos, Greece) to Asia Minor (Ayvalik, Turkey), my original plan was to push on south to the Mediterranean coast; until I reached the historic town of Bergama – or Pergamon as it was known in Ancient Greece – that is. Waking up at daybreak in a campsite-come-car-park to the sound of the call to prayer rising from the ruins of the Basilica opposite, now a Mosque, the words ‘Coffee’ and ‘Constantinople’ drifted across my caffeine-starved brain. My decision was made. Soon after a timid attempt at preparing my first Turkish coffee (with dubious success) on the stove for the two helpful boys who ran the car wash opposite, I packed up the gear and turned my wheels in the opposite direction towards Istanbul, and back into Europe.

Three days later and 300 kms through rolling hills, pine forests, more dramatic electric storms, remote villages and the occasional feral dog giving a half-hearted chase, I made it to the harbour town of Bandirma. Acting on the advice of fellow cycle tourers not to enter Istanbul by bike unless you have a death wish, I opted to take the boat. Soon enough, the sight of the soaring 17th century spires of the imperial Sultenhamet Mosque – or the Blue Mosque as it is often referred to – emerged from the haze of the Marmara Denizi (Sea of Mamara) horizon. Hardly able to contain my excitement at reaching the shores of this thriving megalopolis that has been a geographical and cultural ‘bridge’ between the East and West for so long, I completely forgot my fear of the chaotic traffic and hopped onto the bike to join the cacophony of car horns. My mission? To better understand the introduction of coffee to the city and its ‘conquest’ of the Ottoman Empire, many centuries ago. Oh, and to learn how to make a decent cup of Turkish Coffee.

The Wine of the Islamic World

Istanbul – formerly Constantinople – can lay claim to some pretty special world firsts as far as coffee is concerned. Evidence suggests that coffee was first brought to the  city by the Arabs from Yemen around the 14th century where the coffee’s dried hulls and beans were roasted using metal or earthenware dishes heated over an open fire. By the 15th century, there were so many people drinking coffee in the city that the world’s first kahveh kane (coffee house), Kiva Han, opened its doors in 1475. In the same year, it was made legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily quota of coffee. In fact, Ottoman enthusiasm for the custom of drinking coffee was such that in 1511, Khair Bey, the corrupt governor of Mecca, prohibited coffee consumption fearing that its mysterious power might ferment public resistance to his rule. The fatwa effectively shut down the coffee trade in Constantinople. After a week-long ‘reign of terror’ by the merchants, the Sultan of Cairo decided that coffee was a blessed drink and had the governor subsequently executed. It seems that with the spread of Islam, the bean soon followed in hot pursuit and nothing – or nobody – could stand in its way.

Here’s an early account of coffee in Constantinople by Francis Bacon in 1627:

‘They have in Turkey, a Drinke called Coffa, made of a Berry of the same Name, as Blacke as Soot, and of a strong Sent, but not Aromaticall;
Which they take, beaten into Powder, in Water, as Hot as they can Drinke it;
And they take it, and sit in their Coffa-Houses, which are like our Tavernes.
This Drinke comforteth the Braine, and Heart, and helpeth Digestion’.

Coffee had indeed become the ‘wine’ of Islam.

A vital clue as to how much coffee is now ingrained in the life of Turkish culture can be found in the language. For example, the word for ‘breakfast’ (khvalti) literally means ‘before coffee’ whilst the word for ‘brown’ (kahverengi) refers to ‘the colour of coffee’. Even in matrimonial matters, the bride will prepare Turkish Coffee for her guests and will use salt instead of sugar to season the groom’s ceremonial beverage. If he drinks the coffee without sign of displeasure or complaint, then he is regarded as a husband of good nature and temperament. Husbands-to-be, beware!

Now herein lies the paradox: Whilst fresh coffee still holds an exceptional place in Turkish culture and custom, the reality is that instant coffee is fast becoming a popular caffeinated beverage of choice for the younger generation especially, after çay (tea). Looking to buy some Turkish Coffee for my newly purchased cesve (coffee pot), It’s not uncommon to see the instant variety (sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to call it coffee!) in pride-of-place next to the counter. Yet there is no ground coffee in sight. Scanning the shelves a little closer, I’ve even discovered it relegated to the bottom shelf next to the Ajax and toilet cleaner. It was such a sight for sore eyes that I almost wept. Sadly, convenience (and big marketing budgets) yet again triumphs over taste and tradition.

Keeping the Coffee House flame Alive

To find a good coffee house, you only have to follow your nose. My first lead was a recommendation from an American whom I had met whilst we enjoyed a tasty roadside kebap. Early next day, I headed across the Bosphorus in search of the one of the few speciality micro-roasters in town. Despite becoming hopelessly lost in the side streets and back alleys of the bohemian area around the Galata Tower and Taksim, it was actually the warm inviting smell of freshly roasted beans that eve ntually guided me in. Finally, my tired legs were at the threshold of Cherrybean Coffees. Inside, traditional cezves and other coffee-related paraphernalia were decoratively arranged along one side of the cafe. Behind the jelly beans, almond dragee, assorted chocolates and homemade cake-laden counter stood a gleaming 10kg Toper coffee roasting machine ready for the next batch. Rhythmic blues and rock n’roll was the soundtrack to two middle-aged women locked in a fierce game of Scrabble, whilst books and magazines were strewn across the small round tables. The atmosphere was relaxed and easy-going; the perfect setting to while away the time with a good novel or engage in conversation, and drink coffee. On the side of each cup is the motto ‘şehirde taze kahve var…’ (there’s fresh coffee in the city). This was my kind of place.

Ali and Efe were the two expert, friendly Baristas running the establishment, owned by Ali’s sister Sehriban. We soon struck up conversation after I had managed to fend off my fatigue with a slice of their delicious cinnamon and vanilla homemade cake washed down with a rich double macchiato of their ‘Fancy’ blend (South American and Kenyan AA). Having opened for busines two years ago, Cherrybean Coffees is at the vanguard of the fledgling speciality coffee scene in Istanbul and is one of the few independent coffee houses that roasts its beans on-site; according to demand so as to ensure it is always served fresh.

In addition to the variety of blends for filter coffee and espresso, they also prepare their own special blends of Turkish Coffee in two varieties: the Keyif (medium) and the full, high-octane, roasted Tiryaki – Turkish for ‘addictive’. Judging from the aroma alone, it’s easy to see why. Sworn to secrecy not to disclose the secret of the blend’s origins, Efe patiently went through the stages of how to make a good Turkish coffee with me before dashing behind the counter to prepare a brew of his own. Eager to taste, I reached straight for the coffee as soon as he had set the cup and saucer onto the table. This prompted both of them to cry out for me to ‘Stop!’ as if I was just about to commit a cardinal sin. Lesson number one: Turkish coffee is always taken with a glass of water and the first rite of coffee drinking in Turkey is to clear the palate with a small sip. Only then can the full and wholesome flavour of the bean be appreciated. It was accompanied with a piece of their own homemade pistachio double roasted Turkish Delight. The combination was an epiphany for the taste buds! But as the sun hung low over the Bosphorus it was time to reluctantly cross the choppy straights once more. Before saying our farewells, I stocked up on a fresh bag of the nutty ‘Fancy’ blend with which to prime the Bialetti. In a gesture of typical Turkish generosity that I’m starting to become humbly accustomed to, Ali offered me a gift of Keyif Turkish Coffee to savour and help hone my Turkish Coffee making skills on the road.

Turkish Coffee: From the Palace to the Bazaar

To fully appreciate the significance of coffee in Turkish culture, I think you would have to travel back in time to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Falling short of procuring a time machine or a chance encounter with The Doctor, the next best thing was to visit the Palace Collections Museum that houses historical items from the Dolmabahçe Palace. Like a jewel bestriding the Bosphorus rivaling Versailles for its opulence and fusion of Rococo, Baroque and Neoclassical styles blended with Ottoman architecture, the grande gates of the palace were firmly closed shut. Yet, despite all warnings to the contrary at the information desk, my luck held out and sure enough, the Art Gallery was not only open but did not charge a tourist tax in the form of an admission fee either. The exhibition, wistfully entitled, Sarayda Bir Fincan Kahve (A Cup of Coffee in the Palace in Memory of Old Times), displays objects that were used in coffee ceremonies during the reign of the Sultans until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924.

Studying the objects on display, it becomes clear that the Turks gave coffee a unique identity all of its own by their distinctive means of preparation, serving and the rituals surrounding the beverage’s consumption. Coffee culture had clearly reached a stage of supreme development during this era. In the palaces, harems and kiosks of the well healed, the experience of drinking coffee had evolved into a visual feast to complement and tantalize the rest of the senses. During the Ottoman period, coffee became one of the most important rituals in daily life and special occasions. The serving of coffee often started with sweets such as Turkish delight and sherbet. This was followed by the smoking of a water pipe with fragrant apple or cherry-infused tobacco. The beverage itself was served by the brazier (sili), cups and cup holders (zarl) which were some of the best works of art to survive from that period. The chief Coffee Master (khaveci başi) responsible for serving the coffee also had to take care of the ornate paraphernalia associated with the ceremony. This included the coffee cups, holders, sili sets, sumptuous ceremonial coffee clothes and ornate ibriks (vessels) for serving rosewater. The drink was served on an exquisitely embroided circular cloth (puşide) that was detailed with gold or silver flowers and pearls. The exhibition also displays some stunning sets of coffee cups and holders crafted from finely cut crystal that catch the eye with a bright sparkle under the dim glow of the halogen lights. Unfortunately, taking photographs in the exhibition was prohibited so you’ll just have to take my word for it!

For centuries, coffee was purchased as a green bean and taken home to be roasted in pans and grinded in mortars or hand-operated mills. It was not until 1871 when Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi (Kurukahveci means ‘dealer in roasted coffee beans and ground coffee’) first established his enterprise of commercially mass-producing ground, roasted coffee. The family business is now run by his grandsons and has become such a success that Mehmet Efendi is now synonymous with Turkish Coffee.

Egyptian Spice Market in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

A venture through the bustling labyrinth of streets in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is an unforgettable assault on the senses. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the vast, sprawling roofed complex provides shelter and storage for sellers of jewellery, antiquities, leather, clothes and spices amongst other goods. The persistence of the salesmen and their sales skills are such that I am seriously convinced they could sell ice to an Eskimo. Again, I only had to follow my nose though the spice market to find the historic Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi coffee shop. The establishment was obviously doing a roaring trade and the queue stretched far into the distant throng of shoppers. It is an incredible sight to behold. Nine or so teenaged young men form a conveyor belt along the window-fronted shop. From the weighing of the ground Brazilian (unwashed) Arabica bean, to the various stages of packing and final transaction with the customer, each is responsible for a specific task whilst the only legally aged adult in the shop keeps a watchful eye over the whole frantically paced process. The speed and dexterity in which the boys’ hands packaging the coffee into their respective weights (40g, 100g, 250, 500g and 1kg) is truly astonishing. You’ll see what I mean if you view the short clip here. Meanwhile, three large floor-mounted grinders hum continually in the background, fed by three large metal chutes from the ceiling above. The specialization, division of labour and industrial speed in which the coffee is packaged is a fascinating scene to watch. I am sure it would have made Adam Smith smile with pride if it were not for his concern with pins.

This, sadly, is where the coffee trail in Istanbul ends (for now) and I’m taking the detour back into Asia Minor once again. But the rich history of the city during the days of the Ottamans it has given me a richer, deeper understanding of the important role that coffee plays in establishing and strengthening the bonds of friendship in Turkish culture.

A paragraph from the exhibition’s brochure sums it up for me perfectly. It reads:

‘Coffee once shared has implications that outlive the coffee itself: its suggests peace, friendship, love and respect. This sentiment is crystallised in the Turkish expression which says ‘the memory of a single cup of coffee lasts forty years’.

I’ll drink (Turkish Coffee) to that.

One Comment

  • Robert

    Finally an explanation for the Great Glass of Water Mystery! In Chile and Argentina, when you order an espresso or cortado (but not a cafe con leche), you get a small glass of soda water to accompany it. Why they do that was always a complete mystery to me. None of the locals could explain it. I thought it might have something to do with cutting the strength of the coffee. But now I know, and of course it makes perfect sense. Thank you.

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