It seemed natural that my father, an import/export coffee merchant would share stories about coffee and its background that slow Sunday afternoon. We sat on our sunny balcony in Greece, sipping cups of aromatic Turkish coffee. He told me about the 11th century Ethiopians who called coffee a “magical fruit.”
My favorite story was about Kaldi, the goatherder, who noticed how excited his goats became at night after munching on the coffee plant. Kaldi was losing sleep and confided his problem to the abbot of a nearby monastery, who brewed some berries and found that the drink helped him stay awake for the evening prayers. Soon the other monks were drinking it, too; and the word spread beyond the confines of the monastery, in time conquering the globe. My father enjoyed the brew in the middle of his workday and often treated his customers to a cup. The coffee trade was well established in Turkey by the early 1900s, when my father was born. He was a Greek boy born in Cappadocia and raised in Istanbul.
When he was 15, he arrived in Greece with his parents and siblings and the family settled in Thessaloniki. With him, he brought the knowledge of coffee and his gift for commerce. Fortunately for him, the Greeks from Turkey who had left that country in masses for fear of genocide brought their love of coffee to Thessaloniki, and faster than anyone would have guessed, his business was booming, and the family prospered. The company was based in the central wholesale market of the city.
The coffee beans that came to the Port of Thessaloniki in the 1950s had been collected by hardworking berry pickers off the tall, prickly bushes in Latin American, African and West Asian plantations. Picked ripe, washed and dried in the sun, the beans were poured into hefty hemp bags. Merchant ships carried the cargo to the Port of Thessaloniki where it cleared customs. Then, hammals (porters) loaded it onto arabas (horse-drawn, four-wheel, flat carriages) and stacked the precious cargo in my father’s warehouse.
Perennial traffic congestion and noise reigned around the warehouse. It was the world of Hermes, God of Commerce: a world of hard labor and sweat. Father answered phones, took orders, and arranged deliveries to customers. I loved the adrenaline of the wholesale market and the constant activity of the street: donkeys and horses pulled long beds and carts, hauling in and taking away sacks of coffee. Motorcycles, their sidecars loaded to overflowing, crowded in, and our “jalopy,” the company truck, was often parked next to the warehouse, waiting to distribute orders to the city and provinces. It barely fit in the narrow cobblestone street.
In our home, we drank the freshest Turkish coffee in town, freshly roasted, aromatic, and finely ground. My connoisseur father selected the blends of beans, some for strength, others for their strong flavor that released powerful tannins, the key to the brew’s special properties.
As a young girl, I watched my knowing grandmother set the special coffee pot she called brique on the primus to heat measured amounts of water, coffee and sugar. She taught me the art of preparing it, hovering over me at the primus. I would lift the brique from the source of heat when the water came near boiling and watch the liquid rise up. Allowing it to boil hard would ruin the desired effect, producing a plain dark liquid. I learned to remove it from the heat at the critical moment and decant it into ornate, demitasse cups, watching for rich light brown film to form over the dark brew in each cup. Then, I would serve it together with a tall glass of water.
After his retirement, my father came to see me in Seattle, where I had settled in the early 1970s and we visited one of the first Starbucks coffee shops. He shook hands with the store manager (one of the company founders), and returned to Greece, with one white mug marked with the store brand, gifted him that day. He used that mug for years.
Today, in Greece and the world over, people enjoy the many faces of coffee in their homes and in public places in endless varieties of preparation: Americano, espresso, Frappuccino, latte, café au lait, decaf, flavored, hot and cold, bitter and sweetened—all made from a prickly plant and its red berries. A coffee drinker myself, I often think of my father, now gone from life but very much alive with me, when I engage in the culture of coffee: taking breaks from work and starting friendly conversations in coffee shops wherever I am. With each sip, hurried humanity slows down to enjoy a pause to the day in the company of others.
Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Greece, resides in the USA. Her work has appeared in Voices, Persimmon Tree, Assay, The Raven’s Perch and The Time Collection. Her poetry chapbook is Transitions and Passages. Her memoir, Return to Thessaloniki, written in Greek and forthcoming in English is published by She Writes Press.