Travel and coffee are un-separable to me. When I curl my toes over the precipice of some pending travel, one of my key companions and anticipated “to-do” items on my agenda is a cup of coffee and checking out the local cafe scene. My most recent trip was to be no different.
Ethiopia and coffee? Are you kidding me? Not only is it considered the birthplace of coffee, they consume close to half of what they actually produce. Obviously my kind of people and so the table was set for modest but hopeful expectations.
Drinking coffee for the sake of drinking coffee, be it in Ethiopia or at a diner in Northern Ontario, is not exactly my kind of thing. I don’t mind a mediocre cup every once in awhile if only to act as a reminder of how incredibly spoiled I am by the coffee I regularly drink, but it’s hardly the foundation of a fondly recalled travel memory.
We must also speak to the “Honeymoon Principle” (not that one the other one) that states that conditions surrounding your cup of coffee can often make that cup taste better than it really is. I know, I know, that might be veering dangerously close to “if a tree falls in a forest…” territory but stay with me.
Imagine you’re on vacation in Hawaii. It’s gorgeous; it’s nurturing warmth you haven’t felt since you left the womb. The sunlight is topping up your Vitamin D quotient and causing a serotonin parade in your Corpus Callosum. Guess what? The cup of Kona coffee is the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had*. The fact that no cup since can measure up suggests that there is often so much more going on than what’s in the cup. (*Insider tip: many coffee people see Kona and it’s ilk-low grown, well marketed coffee, Puerto Rico anyone? – as Baby Duck is to a nice Veuve Clicquot.)
Ethiopia has its own intensely rich coffee culture that is a bit of a conundrum. Despite the ravenous appetite for coffee and an Italian legacy (and their ubiquitous gift of the espresso machine) woven in, Addis Ababa is not like Vancouver where you can’t flap your arms without hitting a barista.
The traditional Ethiopian Coffee ceremony isn’t taking place on every street corner and the handful of more recognizable cafes to my eyes are variations on what I remember from the early ‘90s. A formulaic recipe of a cold case with butter cream sweets sweating away, an espresso machine, bored staff all draped in a stylish interior. I went on dates in places like this once upon a time. Trippy in a Dr. Who, time travel kind of way but hardly a candidate to feature as a high water mark on this adventure.
The lead with me on this trip had been to Ethiopia before and mentioned that there was this bakery he had tried to get to on a number of occasions but found it either closed or out of baked goods every single time he’d tried to visit.
A bakery that runs out of baked goods? A bakery that closes with total disregard for regular retail hours? That is a-w-e-s-o-m-e.
I hold an endearing and probably wrong notion of the Europeans and their work/life balance. It always seems that they hit the perfect chord to my North American ear. Restaurants and stores that open and close when they want, seemingly with neither rhyme nor reason.
Have you been to Italy?
Try buying something, anything, at 2:30 in the afternoon on what always seems to be the wrong Wednesday. You can’t.
Restaurants that close when the kitchen runs out of food? Yes.
Sandwich shops that shut down for the entire month of August because the family is taking a vacation? Definitely.
Be still my beating heart.
In this day of 24/7 hours, with a customer service specialist growing paler by the minute under the fluorescent lights at your local Piggly Wiggly all so that at I can get my Gulf Island Goat’s milk ice cream, some fresh raspberries and a current copy of People magazine anytime of the day…. being a little less available is a little punk rock, if you know what I mean.
Intentionally forgoing sales? Saying “no” to more money because…geez, I don’t even know, but damn if it doesn’t shoot an arrow through this hopeless romantic’s heart.
I do know that if a place is operating like that I want some of what they’re selling.
So when I’m hearing the words, “we’ve got to get there early because otherwise they’ll sell out and….” I’ll be at the taxi stand when dawn breaks.
Addis is busy, but people coming and going out of a store in a residential neighbourhood at 8am on a Sunday morning? That’s unusual.
Inside the room is large, dark…and absolutely jamming.
I can see to my left a long glass countered display cabinet, mostly obscured by customers, ducking and bobbing as they point and gesture to what they would like.
To the right, in the far corner is an espresso machine, driven by one man. A maestro if you will – conducting things. He is in perpetual motion with a fluid routine, the fruit from which produces drink after drink shuttled away to guests a moment after it is clanked onto the counter. Flanking him are two women who alternately survey the room, wash dishes, or are lost in their own conversation.
Threading through the tables and from behind the counters, deftly pulling selected pastries from the case and boxing them up are people in white lab coats acting as facilitators – serving, busing, directing traffic – roaming with an attentive eye.
The café had a derelict feel to it, what with only daylight barely eking into the corners through dirty windows. The walls displayed faded Italian posters, while the shelves on the wall remained un-stocked.
It looked as if the Italians left and new ownership simply took up shop changing nothing – simply using the space exactly as is. Letting time pass and allowing it to apply a charming patina to this little time capsule.
Memories of Italy swirled in my head. Somehow this was even better.
It was not immediately obvious what I needed to do in order to get service, but eventually money was exchanged for a chit that entitled you to pastries or a coffee when presented to one of the floating lab coats.
Despite the initial confusion and frenetic swirl of the environment we managed to secure a couple of macchiatos and a couple of cornetti, accompanied by some light as air, custard filled, icing sugar dusted, squares.
We blended into the scene as best we could and let it fold around us going largely ignored as the people of Addis gathered, drank coffee and left Enrico with neatly tied boxes of fresh baking brought home, no doubt, to the delight of family members still waking up at home.
The machiattos were fantastic, pre-sweetened and with a distinctive twang that I associate with Robusta. Although I doubt it was imported coffee, the taste was pure Italy.
The cornetti were lightly warm, lightly sweet and became more flavourful the more you chewed.
The baking on display was all there was. There were no additional trays being prepared to replenish the fast emptying display case. I was told the cupboard would be bare within an hour or two of their opening.
We poached in the hubbub.
We reluctantly left, leaving our liberated table to the next wave of clients coming through the door.
It was without a doubt one of the most cherished memories of the trip. One of the coolest cafes I’ve ever been too (remember the “Honeymoon Principle”) and I wish I was there right now.