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A Cup by Any Other Name Would Taste as Sweet

[My old French press.]

The other night at Nopa, I had something listed on the menu as “wild mint tea — Greece” (at $3 a pot), which made me laugh a bit because in Greece? I never had tea, nor did I hear a word about it. What I did have, of course, was coffee in many variations.

(Greeks love their coffee.)

A good friend of mine swung by from Jerusalem, where he is working for the bureau there as a tv producer (we are old Reuters pals), to hang out with me. The afternoon he arrived, we popped into one of the little corner markets to pick up a few essentials. One of these was a jar of Nescafe, which I’d never had before except as shaken up into a frappe. I wasn’t sure I’d be OK with drinking it even for a week — but lo! I had no problem, even without sugar (I couldn’t bear to pay the 4 euros for a box when I knew I’d hardly make a dent in it). We got a small bottle of milk, some yogurt, cheese, already-made tziki, crackers … but the truly important thing for both of us was the coffee.

Which is why I had to stifle the giggles at seeing Greek mint tea on the menu. I have only observed one one Greek-American drinking tea, and even then it was tea made from strange dried herbs that looked like sticks; honestly, knowing him, it could have come from anywhere, possibly even his backyard in Rochester (sorry, Simos). The Greeks in Greece drank: Greek coffee, frappe, and ouzo, and that was pretty much it.

The thing about coffee is that it’s just so good. Sometimes I drink too much and get anxious, and then I have to stop for awhile, which is a shame, for I dearly love the taste of it. I mostly drink Peet’s, but as previously mentioned, I learned to stomach, and then embrace, the Nescafe instant. True coffee-philes might scoff at this penchant for what is an admittedly cheap brew, but I have to say it’s not bad. It’s even better iced, with a little sugar and milk. (Now that I’m back in the States, however, it’s Peet’s and Blue Bottle pretty much exclusively, for I’m a bit of a snob.)

Most mornings on Spetses went like this: rise late, have a Nescafe and a light breakfast, talk about what to do that day, meet up with Emily for an iced coffee downtown, or at the kafenio near to my brother’s shop. I don’t know exactly why I have such a thing for frappe, except that I do: really, it’s just Nescafe shaken up with cold water, and then poured into a glass with ice and milk, if you like, and as much or as little sugar as you wish. But it hits that dry, parched spot on the hottest of days. One of my favorite frappe-drinkings was on an afternoon after we’d settled on a little beach after driving halfway around the island on a mykanaki. We went into the restaurant and got tziki to eat with our bread, and frappes, then sat under an umbrella looking out at the sea. The tziki was garlicky, the bread very fresh, the frappes cold … All was right with the world for a few hours.

My second night on the island we went for dinner at a taverna downtown that Kurt liked, and it was, indeed, very good: I had roasted tomatoes stuffed with rice and baked white ‘elephant’ beans in an oniony tomato sauce. At a nearby table was a group of guys — presumably old friends, by the way they spoke to each other — who slowly worked through small bottle after bottle of ouzo; their table was littered with the detritus of their meal, people stopped by to say hello from time to time, and occasionally they ordered more ouzo. But they didn’t get drunk — it was just a way of savoring the evening. We didn’t stay long enough to see, but I’ll bet they capped off the meal with a cup of Greek coffee.

Coffee, for me, is meant to be savored and sipped slowly. It’s the gentle slide into waking up and facing the day. I like it strong (one of the best cups I’ve had was at the “Hard-Core Espresso” stand/strange roadside jumble that is the epitome of West County in Sebastopol), with just a teaspoon of sugar and half-and-half or soy creamer. I’ll do iced in the summer (the iced chicory coffee from the Italian coffee stand next door is delicious, and keeps one zinging along for hours), but mostly I like it hot — unless, of course, I’m in Greece and it’s 100 F every day — and brewed in the little French press that has served me faithfully and well for many years.

Today is the perfect coffee-day: drizzly as I left the house before 7.30 this morning, but not cold. Now the sun is pushing its way through, and I have a freshly-brewed cup to tide me along ’til lunch (couscous salad redux, if you must know). I do adore tea, but for the time being I’ve gone over to the darker side (or, really, slightly milky).

I don’t mind a bit.


  1. I’m not a huge coffee guy (I usually get my caffeine fix from soda or sometimes tea) but my parents gave us a Nespresso machine for Christmas and I must say that it makes some very tasty espresso (and it’s super easy to use). Next time you and Michael come over you’ll have to give it a try!

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