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How (Not?) to drink Coffee in Spain

By Mr Grumpy - Thu 14th Oct 2010

Perhaps the differences between Spanish and British culture are more apparent in a Bar or Coffee shop than in any other situation and anywhere else in the world.

The English would generally 'have a cup tea', ( being a Northerner, personally I would 'mekkabrew' or 'mekkapotatea', but I digress... ) whilst the equivalent phrase in Spanish would be to 'take a coffee', or 'tomar un cafe, and straight away tells you that this has been elevated to an art form and is not something to be taken lightly.

How many bars or cafe's in Spain do you know that regularly serve a 'cafe para llevar' ? Sure, they might keep an odd one or two polystyrene cups by the till for such an event, but on the whole you would only expect to see a coffee-to-go in a shopping centre or a McDonalds etc... and even then I'm not sure that the majority of Spaniards would term the cup of wet brown grit that they serve coffee as such.

But what does make me laugh is that now I have been living in Spain for some years, whenever I nip back to the UK I seem to have become a total coffee snob. I can only ever drink tea when I am there because I'm always moaning about paying 3 Quid-odd for a cup of something that doesn't resemble coffee. If I'm lucky I may find some freeze dried ground coffee that has been run through a perculator – quite often I can swear to hearing a kettle boiling somewhere in the background.

However, when I'm back in Spain, like 99.9% of all the other Brits I take my coffee 'con leche' – it makes me laugh when the waiter knows full well that I am British but still bothers to ask how I take my coffee.

I was in my local bar the other night waiting to be served a couple of 'tanques' and was waiting patiently alongside four pensionistas who were all asked how they took their coffee. Now I'm an easy-going kind of guy and to me a cup of coffee is a cup of coffee (when it's the decent Spanish stuff), but I couldn't believe the order, and had to remind myself that Jeremy Beadle was no longer with us, or I would have been looking around trying to find the hidden camera....

- The first requested a Cafe bon-bon (a short espresso served with sweetened condensed milk), but she wanted it made with decaffinated coffee – 'de maquina' as opposed to ground decaf from a sachet.

- The second wanted a Cafe bon-bon (regular, not decaf) , but wished to pour the contents of the cup over a glass containing ice cubes.

The third demanded a 'cortado' – a small shot of strong coffee served with a just a drop of milk – with a nip of whisky on top.

- The fourth wanted a 'Carrajillo' – or a ground black coffee, served with flaming Cognac poured over the top of it.

Now, I don't profess to know how to run a cafe or bar, but that one order for four coffee's must only have come to maybe 6 Euros tops, but took the guy the best part of 10 minutes to get right. The process involved and all the messing about was probably more involved than any of the cocktails on the menu (Put together ?) , and more than likely with next to no profit it in for them.

But it is something that they just 'have to do' if they wish to remain in business. The act of taking a coffee is such an institution in Spain, that very few Cafe's or Bars – even those in the poshest or busiest of locations - seem reluctant to push their prices through the 2 Euro per cup ceiling. Even the grottiest and dingiest of backstreet bars can serve a decent cup of coffee – made with freshly ground beans and frothed milk from the machine.

Look at the price of kettles in the electrical stores ! - One of my Spanish mates said that this was because Kettles were considered luxury items. How many Spaniards need a Kettle ? - They rarely drink tea, and almost always go out for coffee. If they have coffee at home they wouldn't dream of cutting corners by popping on the kettle and opening a jar of instant.

Comment on this Blog

One of few things left in Spain that the Government isn't considering taxing (Yet.... ) !
Simon Parker - Fri, 24th Aug 2012
Nice little story. Para mi, cafe solo/café negro y estoy Inglés.
Ian - Mon, 26th Sep 2011

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