Greek cafe culture a sweet taste of life

Cafe freddo capuccino, Santorini
G
reek cafe culture is at the heart of summer in my adopted homeland. Everybody is outdoors to eat, drink, socialise. Iced coffee is often the drink of choice, cafe freddo cappuccino or a frappé, whether you’re on the beach (Kamari Beach on Santorini, pictured above) or in a city cafe. Cafe culture is all year round, but it’s definitely bigger in summer.

Greeks have always been serious coffee drinkers, changing from hot coffee in winter to iced coffee when the weather warms up. Although old men hanging out in their local cafenion will probably always drink the tiny servings of strong, Greek coffee boiled in a traditional brass briki, which produces a thick layer of sediment at the bottom of the cup. The word frappé is French, from the verb frapper which means to “hit”, because the coffee is shaken in a glass-shaped container or whipped up in a milkshake-style maker.

If you drink decaf, many cafes also now offer this option.

Greek cafe culture prices drop

Greek frappé is said to have been invented in 1957, when the Greek representative of Nestle was looking for a way to have his coffee break at an international trade fair in Thessaloniki, but was unable to find hot water. So he mixed coffee in a shaker with cold water and ice. It’s served like this:

  • skétos (σκέτος) (plain)
  • métrios (μέτριος) (1-2 teaspoons of sugar)
  • and glykós (γλυκός)  (3 teaspoons of sugar…).
  • You have to ask for milk: the word is gala (γάλα).
  • Canned milk always used for frappés. It’s a Greek thing.

Prices of Greek cafe culture were alarming when I visited in 2009  – I paid 5 euros for a mediocre latte in the upmarket Athens coastal suburb of Voula. But the malingering economic crisis then forced prices down, as Greeks protested and the government reasoned it was too expensive for cash-strapped Greeks to enjoy their favourite social outing. Coffee is the prop for hours of people-watching,  a good gossip and debates over politics and football. Cafes and eateries were going bust. Greek cafe culture was at risk.

The heart-starter

Now I can get a frappé (instant coffee whipped up and poured over ice), a cheese pie and a bottle of water for under 2 euros total, at chain store Everest. It’s a bit of a heart-starter, and way too strong for me, although Greeks may swear it’s the breakfast of champions. I prefer freddo cappuccino, where an espresso is poured over ice and then generously topped with chilled whipped milk and dusted with cinnamon or chocolate, which costs about 2 euros or more. Freddo without milk is slightly cheaper. Water always accompanies coffee. I often ask for a glass. Those plastic bottles are an environmental catastrophe.

Cafe freddo cappuccino, Pireaus
I recently paid 3.5 euros for a breakfast of bougatsa (a sweet flakey pastry filled with semolina custard and dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar) and a freddo cappuccino at Piccole Delicatezze Cafe, on the corner of Tzamadou and Kolokotroni in the back streets of Pireaus.

Cafe freddo cappuccino, Notos Cafe, Voula

Cafe sweetener

You will pay 3.5 euros just for the coffee in a swanky beachside cafe, such as Notos Cafe in Voula, on Leoforos Karamanli (pictured above). The stretch of beachside tables and chairs is shaded by trees and umbrellas, and has a wonderful view. It’s also far enough from the roaring traffic on the coast road so you can hear languid waves of the Saronic Gulf slap against the stony beach. Which is excellent for swimming.

Added treat at Notos: Slices of revani, a sponge/semolina cake with a hint of delicately-flavoured syrup. A cake sweetener is a recent addition in some cafes – again to draw people back who would otherwise baulk at paying more than about 2 euros for coffee. Some tavernas offer it too.
Free cafe wifi in Mykonos, Greece
Another cafe bonus is free wifi. Every cafe has it. It’s a customer service no place can be without. Tourists in Mykonos might be looking at the priceless view, but they’re never far from looking at their phones either. Greek donuts are highly recommended. Dusted with sugar, and often filled with lemon curd or praline.
Beachfront cafe on Mykonos

Donut and frappe breakfast on Mykonos
Yes, that’s my bag, hat and phone (pictured below). My freddo cappuccino cost only 2 euros. I was taking a breather at a back street cafe in the main town of Mykonos, also known as Hora by the locals. The island has about 10,000 full-time residents, most of whom live in the town. This swells to who knows how many thousands over summer, and there’s a plethora of cafes to choose from. The coffee, everywhere, is good.
Cafe freddo cappuccino, back street cafe, Mykonos

4 thoughts on “Greek cafe culture a sweet taste of life

  1. Thanks Heather, I needed that! Just finished up a work day of altering clothes for a friend. Your tour through the morning and afternoon coffees there is wonderful! Felt like I was there — and now feel refreshed.
    You’re so fortunate to live in such a gorgeous land.
    Josie

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  2. Thank you for writing such nice things about drinking coffee in Greece. Our social lives would be very poor without our cafes, because many of us cannot afford to eat at tavernas any more.

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    1. Hi Sophie, Thanks for your comment. I bought a freddo cappuccino in Sydney at Cafe Espresso in Brighton-le-Sands today and it was $6. Too expensive! I’m glad Greece is cheaper for coffee – Cafes need to be affordable. I’m sorry that eating out, except for souvlaki, is unaffordable for many Greeks now.

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