Coffee break

17 May 2020

This blog post is dedicated to the skipper of our favourite coffee shop, our wonderful sailing friend, Michael, who died suddenly and way too soon a year ago. We miss drinking coffee him on the stern deck of SV Tama and putting the world to rights and we’d give anything for just one more coffee with him.

As we take an enforced break from our adventures with Pintail, it seems like as good a time as any to resume our Mediterranean food and drink series. Coffee breaks have become an obligatory part of our cruising routine and so as we take a rather extended coffee break of sorts from that life where better place to restart.

I came late to coffee. After nearly 40 years of hating the stuff I had a near spiritual moment of conversion at a traditional coffee ceremony in Lalibela in northern Ethiopia in 2011 and returned with a regular macchiato habit. Stefan on the other hand is content with one and a half spoonfuls of instant. Mention artisan coffee and he’ll start mumbling under his breath about wonky cups served by men with topknots. But whatever our preference, since we left on this journey, days on land invariably include at least one coffee stop.

Our early adventures with Pintail across the Channel taught us that French coffee isn’t up to all that much. So much so that “French” has become our code for bad coffee. We were therefore looking forward to what Europe’s other countries had to offer by way of a caffeine fix.

Meia de late in Portugal, cafe con leche in Spain, cappuccino in the morning and macchiato in the afternoon in Italy, freddo espresso in the heat of Greece. Learning to order our daily coffee was a priority in each new country we got to, providing us with an opportunity to sit and watch the world go by in whatever city, town or village we are in.

Only Turkey and Tunisia disappointed on the coffee front. Turkey’s treacle like, so thick you can stand your spoon up in it, offering is only for the most committed of coffee addicts and Tunisia’s is somewhat “French” on account of its colonial past. Happily both made up for it by supplying us with endless çay and mint tea.

Even the heat of Mediterranean summer did not stop our coffee habit. Arriving in Greece in August we were pleased to discover their very popular iced coffees. In a tiny corner coffee shop in Kalamata we were taught the difference between the frappe and the freddo espresso by a very enthusiastic barista.

Italy, though, is undoubtedly the most committed coffee nation and the one that serves the best. Not chianti, not prosecco, not limoncello, it is coffee that is the national drink. No day starts without a short cup of rich espresso drunk boiling hot at speed standing up at the counter and no day ends without another longer coffee break after the evening passeggiata. From groups of young people meeting in pavement cafes to the old men chairs pulled out into the piazza, all are united by a common drink. And there are very clear rules about drinking it. We learnt never to order a cappuccino in the afternoon and never to dare to ask for a decaff!

Italians take their coffee very seriously indeed and it is part of almost every social interaction. In Vibo Valentina we moored on a simple pontoon rather than in a big marina.  The Italian who owned the pontoon sat at the end under an umbrella next to a small filing cabinet.  When Stefan went to pay him, he opened the filing cabinet to reveal a receipt pad, credit card machine and a coffee machine for that emergency fix! In Catania we were offered a cup with every purchase in the chandlery and, as our Italian then stretched only to “yes, please” and “thank you“, stood awkwardly at the till in silence drinking it.

Far from the ubiquitous brands of coffee shops on every London street corner we have found wonderful independent spots to stop for a coffee, like the Cafe-Museum Komiteti in Tiranë, Albania stuffed full of communist era furniture and artefacts and serving great coffee

and the tiny coffee shop in the back streets of Kotor run by a lovely Japanese woman and to which Anna and I would escape for some girl time during our time with the Sissies in Montenegro.

Sometimes coffee is a reward for exercise and over winter in Agios Nikolaos our respective routines saw us become regulars at two coffee shops in particular. Stefan, Steve and Rene took a breather at Alyggos after their regular climb over the hill to Elounda. The raki chaser they were always given with their coffee was fed to the pot plant. And after my Friday walk and stretch on the beach with the girls we always found ourselves in To Votsalo for a more leisurely cappuccino and a view of the mountains.

But without doubt our favourite coffee shop in the entire Mediterranean was a floating one – the deck of SV Tama, moored in Licata, Sicily, where Nici and Michael welcomed us nearly every day and sometimes twice a day.

The coffee was always excellent and always free and the company so good that no photos exist of this very special little spot so here instead is the irreplaceable Michael with an altogether different kind of brew from our trip to Palermo.

Despite a love of tea being built into our British DNA, early on in our journey, just after we arrived in Spain, we upgraded our tiny stove top coffee pot for one big enough to satisfy our caffeine needs on board. More latterly we toyed with alternative espresso makers, borrowing a rather space age looking one from SV Tama and seriously considered buying an electric machine but in the end we decided that we would save our coffee breaks for our time on land and stick mostly to drinking tea on board.

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And thanks to 1000+ bags of our favourite brew we nearly never go short of that…

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