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Monday, June 18, 2007



Coffee is recognized all over the world as one of the greatest gifts to mankind. Spain isn’t too different from the United States in many respects but just like every other aspect of their daily lives, the Spanish bring a host of idiosyncrasies to the way that they choose to celebrate coffee. As a fairly heavy coffee drinker myself, I couldn’t help noticing the differences.

When I lived in south Florida I thought that the walk-up coffee window in restaurants was a Cuban thing. There was a place called La Habana Restaurant just down the road from my apartment with great food and the little coffee window that opened to the sidewalk on the side of the place. People would step up and order their little Cuban coffees, a cortado or a café con leche, and either knock them back immediately or take them to go, this was in America, after all, even though you couldn’t tell from the very Latin aspect of the neighborhood. I loved this place because it made me feel like I was living in some exotic locale.

I had been to Spain a couple of times before back then but I didn’t notice that this tradition was firmly in place in the mother country before being exported to the colonies. It certainly is something you notice if you live here. On the surface, Spanish life seems to consist of a succession of short coffee breaks, and the walk-up coffee window is right there on every corner to feed this coffee fixation.

Coffee usually takes one of three forms in Spain, the most popular being a cortado, a shot of espresso served in a small glass with a bit of hot milk poured on top. Café con leche is an espresso served in a coffee cup filled with hot milk. A café solo is an espresso. That’s about it, no flavors, no variations in size like the bewildering polyglot nature of American coffee shop sizes with their grandes, ventis, mediums, and talls (mustn’t say “small”).

Spaniards don’t usually sit around and savor a big cup of coffee; they prefer to take their caffeine in small, short doses. Most people take their coffee standing up at the bar or out in the street. In fact, in Madrid it’s almost impossible to find a café where you can sit down as is more the custom in France. Madrid was recently rated as being at near the top of the list of cities where people walk the fastest. Stopping in for a coffee doesn’t slow them down much and sometimes it seems that they barely miss a step.

Valencia is a little less frantic than Madrid but most people still choose to take their coffee standing up. They are usually pretty quick about it unless they are in a larger group, which is usually the case during the mid-morning coffee break. In my particular neighborhood the cafes are completely full at about 10:30 every weekday morning, weather permitting (which it does most days of the year).

I can hear the chatter from one café below my window and the raucous seems spirited, purposeful, and organized at times while often it is playful and anything but serious. This interruption in the day is a lot more social than a coffee break and would better be described as a mid-morning happy hour. This is also when a lot of people have their first glass of wine or beer of the day, just enough to hold them over until it’s time for lunch, usually after 2 p.m. and as late as 5 p.m. From five floors above this café I can tell a distinct difference in the noise of the conversations during the mid-morning breaks than the gatherings at other times in the day.

The mid-morning break is the most organized and busiest siege on the coffee bars. From then until closing, coffee drinkers wander in and out throughout the day, usually unaccompanied, or in pairs, ordering a cortado, reading a bit of the newspaper, and filing out again as quickly and as quietly as they came.

Coffee is every bit as important in the lives of many Americans but there are significant differences. Spain hasn’t taken to the idea of coffee to go. It’s possible but a fairly rare occurrence. Coffee is integrated into the bars and restaurants here with little reliance on coffee specialty shops, just as coffee itself is woven into the other beverages people order. I don’t think that Spaniards are as desperately addicted to caffeine as most Americans seem to be, myself included. I don’t think that I could ever get enough caffeine in my system if I relied on the tiny little cups they use here to ration out my favorite drug. I am one of the few customers that I notice who drinks a café Americano, an espresso which they allow at least double the amount of water to filter through the grounds. It’s a bit bitter for most people’s taste but it is as close as I can find to American coffee (thus the name).

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