Coffee has been part of Greek culture for hundreds of years, and stepping into a modern-day kafenio, or coffee house, anywhere in Greece, will transport you back in time. Most towns and villages still have one or more kafenes, consisting of a single large room with chairs and a fireplace for winter, and exterior seating for summer, and the atmosphere there is the same as it’s been for generations. The coffee houses still form the hub of local life, as villagers meet not only to drink coffee but also to chat, exchange news and views and play Tavli, the Greek equivalent of backgammon.
Although the casual visitor might be surprised that tiny villages can sometimes support several kafenes, there’s a good reason – the men of the village often form small groups with different political allegiances, and each group takes care to frequent a different coffee shop. This restriction only applies to the ‘men’ of the village, as the kafenes are still considered to be a purely male domain, with women allowed inside only on special occasions. The female population generally compensate by holding informal ‘coffee mornings’ at each other’s houses rather than congregating at a specific meeting point.
The Greek coffee served by the kafenes is generally strong, black, sweet and served in small cups, although each establishment will have its own house style. Although similar in style to Turkish coffee, Greek coffee’s not as strong or syrupy. The coffee’s traditionally made by boiling ground coffee beans with water in a saucepan rather than a coffee machine, straining the liquid then adding various amounts of sugar, according to taste. For the authentic kafenio experience, serve the finished drink with a glass of cold water and kourabiedes (traditional almond biscuits dusted with sugar), loukoumades (fried doughnuts with honey) or a couple of sticky squares of Cyprus Delight.