In a culture that eschews alcohol, caffeine is the Islamic stimulant of choice. Turks, like most Middle Eastern cultures, love to while away the days with conversation, tobacco, backgammon and lots of hot sweet coffee so, while in Istanbul, Michael Travers gets a taste for this very agreeable form of time management.
Having misspent a lot of my youth drinking coffee with friends and cigarettes and strengthening my caffeine resistance to the point where six cups by lunchtime was a normal state of affairs, I thought I knew much about strong coffee. That was until I went to Turkey. Two hours after arriving in Istanbul I was sitting in a rooftop café overlooking the Bosphorus and the city’s minarets talking to the owner Mehmet, the owner and Istanbul native, who offered to not only get me a cup of coffee, but take me to the kitchen to show me how it was done.
The Turks don’t go in for big and shiny espresso machines or Italian-style mocha pots. They prefer to use a teaspoon, sugar, a naked flame and a narrow-topped, copper or tin pot called a cezve, into which Mehmet added extremely fine coffee powder and two teaspoons of sugar. “ I make it for you very sweet and strong,” he said as he stirred it slowly over the cooker. “This gets all the sugar dissolving and the good flavours to come out.”
Getting the thickest possible layer of foam is considered the peak of the coffee maker’s art so when it got close to the boil and froth started to form on top, he took out the spoon. “Now we stop stirring,” he said. “If we don’t there will be no foam and it will be no good.” He let it bubble for the shortest of times before taking it off the boil and poured it into two small cups, while lifting the pot higher and higher to maximize the creamy layer on top.
Mehmet prepared a plate of sweet sticky baklava, some mineral water and two glasses of bitter cherry juice, another Turkish delicacy, and brought them out to the table along with the coffee, a deep, rich, sweet and earthy brew that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The spoon did the same. This was one hell of a cup of coffee. “We play backgammon,” he said as he reached over to grab a spare board while barking something in Turkish to one of his waiters. Ten minutes later there were two fresh cups of coffee and a fresh bottle of water on the table. Twenty minutes later, two more. “The water is important,” he told me. “Otherwise it’s too strong and you will not be able to think straight.”
By the way my game was going it was already too late. We sat there for the better part of a morning throwing dice, drinking coffee and getting more and more wired with each passing cup. “I win again”, Mehmet cried at throwing a double four and moving his last pieces off. I reset the board and ordered another cup as I handed Mehmet the dice. My game was suffering, but I was beyond caring.