The Café au Lait
In this article, we’ll walk you through a timeless classic in the coffee world, café au lait. Transport yourself to a Parisian cafe without ever leaving the house.
One of the most wonderful ways to travel is through our senses. There are smells, flavors, and sounds that can take us back to faraway corners of our memories, to places we have visited before, and whose magic we store in our minds.
The smell of freshly brewed Turkish coffee is one of those smells that can immediately transport us. It takes us from wherever we are and puts us in a small café by the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or overlooking the Bosphorus.
Drinking Turkish coffee in its country of origin is, like many culinary adventures, difficult to forget. So many people are eager to recreate the experience when they get back home. And for those who haven’t tried it yet, it can conjure up tales of a different land while they make their travel plan bucket-list!
Ironically, although Turkey is famous for coffee, it doesn’t actually grow any beans. So the name of Turkish coffee is given both to a method of brewing and also to a specific way of serving it.
Coffee was first introduced to Turkey around 1550, but there are several stories about how it arrived. One story says that it was the Turkish governor of Yemen, Ozdemir Pasha, that discovered the drink. He loved it so much that he decided to bring it back to his home country and gift it to the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.
Another story tells of two Syrian traders that, around the same time, first introduced coffee to the Ottoman Court. The drink was so popular that it soon became an essential part of the court ceremonies.
Whichever story is true, what is undeniable is that coffee quickly became an essential part of life in the Ottoman Empire, spreading to every corner of the land to be consumed by the masses.
And it was Turkey that exported the love of coffee to many other countries. By the 17th Century, it had reached France and the UK through the Turkish ambassadors.
Coffee has also traditionally played a role in Turkish marriage customs. Women in the harem in the Ottoman court were trained to brew the perfect cup of coffee, and brewing skills are transmitted from mother to daughter.
Even today, when a Turkish couple wants to marry, the future bride must host her potential in-laws when they come to ask for her hand in marriage. She must serve them the best cup of Turkish coffee she has ever made in her life.
But the would-be-brides sometimes put salt in the potential suitor’s cup. Some say that it’s a test to see if the man is patient and mild-mannered or not, and others that it’s a non-verbal form of rejection to weed out the suitors in which she has no interest. In any case, it’s an essential part of hospitality and rituals.
Coffee houses have also been a central element of Turkish social life for the past 500 years. They were a place where men gathered to socialize and where cultural exchanges would take place. Political discussions, poetry recitals, and all sorts of talks and performances would take place there.
That tradition still carries on to this day, and we can often see groups of men playing backgammon or chatting over their cups of coffee in every street.
It is such an integral part of the cultural and social life of the country that Turkish coffee is recognized as part of the country’s Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. It invites socialization and intimate talks and is a symbol of hospitality and friendship that permeates all walks of life.
To make Turkish coffee, we use a cezve. It is a small, narrow pot with a very long handle and a pouring lip, traditionally made of brass or copper (and occasionally of gold or silver). The coffee is brewed inside it over a coal fire or a stove and then poured into the coffee cup. The cezve is also known as ibrik outside Turkey, but they are essentially the same.
The key to an excellent Turkish coffee is that the grind has to be very fine, as it is brewed by immersion, which is not the most efficient way to brew coffee. A fine grind will give the coffee its rich, distinctive flavor full of body.
Turkish coffee was traditionally served in a small white cup, called “fincan,” but many parts of the country have their special traditions in making coffee cups. We can find cups made of gold or silver in some areas, or in others they might be engraved or painted with different motifs.
Turkish coffee is traditionally served sweet. One cup of coffee typically has one cube of sugar for normal sweetness. Those that like it extra sweet would serve it with two sugars, and for a more bitter coffee, we can omit it altogether.
Turkish coffee is traditionally served without milk. But in some Middle Eastern countries, they do like to add some spices. The most common one is cardamom, and it is generally added in powdered form or as a whole pod into the kezve before brewing. Or others will add a little bit of cinnamon for a fancier flavor.
Before we make the coffee, we measure out the components. We can measure out the water we will need by using the fincan or coffee cup that we’ll drink from. For every cup of water, we add two teaspoons of coffee.
If we are to add any sugar, it has to be added now with the coffee. That’s because once we’ve brewed and served it, we cannot stir it, or we will disturb the grounds.
We put the coffee and the sugar into the cezve, add the water, and put it on the stove or fire. Turkish coffee traditionally has a nice amount of foam. The way to achieve that is to heat the coffee slowly, watching constantly. Once it comes to a boil and the foam rises, we take the coffee off the heat and serve.
This way, we will make sure that the coffee has plenty of foam, as, without it, it’s not considered a proper Turkish coffee.
Once we’ve brewed the Turkish coffee, it is poured into the fincan cup and served. The grounds are left in the coffee when we pour it, settling in the cup.
A glass of water always accompanies a cup of Turkish coffee to cleanse the palate, along with a piece or two of Turkish delight.
But once we’ve poured it, the coffee must not be stirred, as that would disturb the grounds and make it unpleasant to drink.
And talking of grounds, did you know that Turkish fortune tellers read a person’s future by interpreting the patterns in the leftover coffee grounds in their cup?
Turkish coffee is so much more than a drink, it is an experience. And as one of the coffee variants that doesn’t need an espresso machine or any expensive gear, it’s simple and quick to make it at home.
So if you haven’t tried it already, why not make yourself a Turkish coffee today? Or best of all, enjoy it the Turkish way, surrounded by friends as you chat about the events of the day, read books, or watch the world go by together.