Do you like coffee?
I adore it – short, strong, black and with thick, golden coffee-only foam.
I think I take my coffee as plain as possible – no sugar, no milk/cream, no additives of any kind.
Still, as barebones as my coffee taste is, I suspect it is a product of the modern coffee culture, because, as a coffee variant, the espresso ristretto did not originate in Bulgaria and was virtually unknown here until some 20 to 30 years ago, except probably at the best hotels accommodating foreigners during Communism.
I am not sure when exactly Bulgarians got acquainted with coffee but it probably was around the times coffee started spreading outside the palace of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. By the second half of the 19th century coffee was available to all – to men in the men-only coffee shops and to women – in the privacy of their homes and at those of friends and relatives.
The predominant type of coffee in Bulgaria in the period, logically enough, was the Turkish coffee, brewed on the fire or on embers in that tiny Turkish coffee pot, called a cezve, pronounced dzhezve or gezve, the G being as in General and the accent on the final E.
For decades now we Bulgarians have been globalised. We take our coffee in huge American-style mugs, we have special froth-makers for cappuccino at our homes and offices and we also have our favourite brands and tastes of coffee capsules. We have our favourite coffee shops and baristas who make the best teddy bear face out of the foam of our latte.
The Bulgarians of the past may have been less advanced compared to us in many ways, but they certainly had a coffee culture of their own too.
- In the late 19th and the early 20th century shopowners in Bulgaria used to open their shops really early in the morning, like at about 5 or 6 am. They started their day with a coffee, sipping it seated in front of their shops with rosaries in their hands. The coffee was distributed by a waiter from the street coffee shop on credit and the bill was footed at the end of the month.
- As late as during World War I, people used to go to public baths once per month or hopefully each Sunday. There, after all the hygiene procedures had been completed, they sipped Turkish coffee with a glass of icy cold water and a few bites of rose-flavoured Turkish delight, known here as lokum, локум, accent on the U.
- Another traditional sweet complement for coffee was the white jam (бяло сладко), which is a thick sugar syrup, obtained through boiling, and scented with vanilla or something else. In the past it was served exactly as shown in the picture, one teaspoon only, plunged in a glass of water. Pastries and cakes were made only on holidays or when visiting a woman who had just given birth, so at other times the white jam, Turkish delight and other jams produced by the household, were the only sweets available to Bulgarians.
- Some of the coffee shops sold freshly roasted coffee, but most women baked their beans at home, at the fire, in a special tin contraption. The aroma was so strong that all the neighbourhood understood where coffee was being roasted. The grinding was done manually in a brass grinder that, through quite a slow and laborious work, produced very finely ground coffee, optimal for brewing in a cezve.
- National poet Ivan Vazov was known to have said he liked his coffee thick, sweet and very hot and could only take pleasure in it if he sipped it noisily. And he was known for doing that, even when abroad. 🙂
- The page facsimile pasted above tells of the three types of coffee, known in Bulgaria in 1942 – thick and sweet coffee, made with more sugar than coffee; double-boiled coffee and bitter coffee, which has twice as more coffee compared to sugar, but is still sugared. A fourth hinted option is to mix the coffee with cocoa. Do you see in the photo how the coffee is brewed in a cezve on a movable hot plate? And the small saucer of jam already prepared? 🙂
- Some 17 years later, in 1959, the above cookbook, called The Modern Cuisine, claimed Bulgarians were acquainted not only with Turkish coffee but also with European coffee (French press coffee), coffee melange (coffee blended with other stuff like chicory, ground chick-peas or rye), and coffee melange with whipped cream. If you knew of the food shortages experienced at the time and of the blatant arrogance of the communist chiefs receiving top quality food directly in their homes, delivered by the Special Supply service they had established, you’d blink incredulously at this book. Maybe some people consumed the haute French cuisine presented there, complete with whipped cream in their coffee melange, but I can assure you, dear Reader, that those were not the average Bulgarians.
- Probably from the mid-1960s onwards, what the average Bulgarian used to brew his daily coffee, both at home and at the office, was a pot like the one pictured below. In Bulgaria, this is known as a Cuban coffee pot, or simply a кубинка. 🙂 It makes coffee nice and strong and gurgles very pleasantly when the coffee passes from the bottom part of the pot to the top one, releasing a wonderful aroma. In Communism coffee was sold as whole beans only, so it was freshly ground with a special electrical grinder every morning. The sound of that grinder and the coffee smell released during the grinding and the brewing, are one of the pleasantest culinary memories of my childhood.
- An even later cookbook, dating from 1975, adds to the coffee varieties listed above drip coffee, which we call schwarz coffee; instant coffee which we call simply nescafe; drip coffee with fruit-based liquor added; and ice-coffee , which is drip coffee served cold with ice cream or whipped cream inside. So – coffee culture has been evolving.
- Another type of “coffee” that we had in Communism was inka coffe from Poland. Inka is not coffee at all actually, it is some sort of an instant drink made of powdered rye, barley and chicory, mixed with sugar. The best way to drink inka is to dissolve it in milk. I remember it formed a terrific foam. Inka was a great complement to cakes and given that it did not contain caffeine, was considered a children’s drink. Cookbooks of the time said it was an alternative to coffee, but it has calories, while pure coffee does not. On the other hand, I have read that some similar roasted grain beverage was part of the war-time rations of U.S. soldiers during World War II, passing for a coffee substitute. I have a hunch they also thought that calling that a coffee substitute was a bit of a stretch…:)
- One of my favourite Bulgarian poets, Hristo Smirnenski (Христо Смирненски), who died aged only 24 of tuberculosis, had written a great poem called Bitter Coffee or Горчиво кафе. It is a call on a lonely drunkard, who gets home after a night out and muses on his dreary lot, to brew himself some bitter coffee in a cezve on his rickety spirit lamp and forget. Smirnenski was a very prolific poet and journalist, whose verse flowed fluently and powerfully. I tell you he died at 24 but I remember, when I was a child, that we had seven tomes of his collected works in our living room library.
Anyway, what I wanted to say is that drinking coffee is a cultural attainment that I respect and cherish. I like having coffee in pleasurable company but I also enjoy, like the Smirnenski protagonist, having bitter coffee in moments of gloom and confiding in its fragrant warmth.
As a silly quote out of the many on the Internet says: