Articles

mmm stories: ON COFFEE AND LIFE

The words "Shall we go for a coffee?" speak to the depths of our hearts and are inseparably intertwined with our coffee-drinking essence ...

Shall we go for a coffee?

These simple words are exchanged by the two ladies in hats who meet at the market after not seeing each other for a while; by the two youths on the threshold of adulthood – or the threshold of their school’s main entrance; by the two men with newspapers tucked under their arms who cross paths while strolling through their tower block neighbourhood; by the pair of colleagues waiting to go for lunch; and by the young couple who have had to summon up all their courage for this crucial moment. Perhaps the only question in our culture to bear a greater weight is “Shall I put some coffee on?” Those magical little words of domesticity. Pronounced by our grandmother – incidentally reminding us that we should visit her more often – or by a neighbour who fancies a chat, and instantly answered with the traditional “Yes please, but only if you’re having one.”

Coffee found its way to our part of the world in the seventeenth century. The first coffee house concession was granted to the Kazina social club in Ljubljana in the eighteenth century. Shortly after that, coffee houses began to spring up all over Ljubljana. In them, over time, the boundaries between the social classes began to blur. Not only that but gradually men and women were even permitted to take coffee at the same time. Coffee houses were places where people gathered to exchange opinions, hear the latest news, read newspapers, play dominos, chess and bridge, and above all to enjoy themselves. Following the model of the coffee houses of Vienna, which more than a decade ago were inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage and which were frequented by local notabilities such as Sigmund Freud and Gustav Klimt and, later, celebrity visitors such as Andy Warhol, Ljubljana’s coffee houses became popular gathering places for all manner of unusual characters, who would meet there and spin yarns or stir up quarrels or – with added milk or cream – perhaps even soothe them.

For more than 115 years the Union Café (Kavarna Union), recently restored to its former glory, has been a refined gathering place for the urban middle classes. With its wall paintings, lush greenery, a piano, newspaper holders, tables surrounded by Thonet-style bentwood chairs (as befits such an institution) and adorned by gilt porcelain coffee services and charming brass coffee pots, this Art Nouveau beauty wafts you back to a bygone age. The Turkish-style coffee pots are actually a clear sign of the charmingly confused coffee-drinking traditions in this country.

The turbulent history of our region, on which the great empires of the past left significant marks, have led us passionate coffee-drinkers (which we undoubtedly are, given that we consume more than six kilograms of coffee per person per year) to combine the best that Europe has to offer – from Istanbul via Sarajevo to Vienna, Milan and even Paris. By self-indulgently surrendering to the so-called third wave of coffee and the associated “speciality coffee” revolution, we have created the perfect conditions for a diverse fusion of customs and traditions. The result is that even along the banks of the Ljubljanica (if not indeed on a single café terrace), the Balkan tradition of gossiping over a coffee combines effortlessly with sipping an espresso made from beans roasted in the Triestine manner, while busy baristas are faced with the stern test of simultaneously preparing a cold brew coffee and the local variant of the Viennese Eiskaffee. But what else would we expect from a nation that carries in its soul Ivan Cankar’s memory of his dear mother, coffee cup in hand, lit by a slanting beam of morning sunlight, and also the Woman Drinking Coffee from Ivana Kobilca’s famous painting, inviting us with her roguish smile to partake of a stolen moment of pleasure?

This wonderful plurality of coffee-drinking traditions has been enabled, fortunately, by the recent growth of boutique micro-roasteries, which ensure the quality and traceability of coffee beans that are then appropriately grounded and used in countless ways. Two pioneers of this intoxicatingly fragrant activity in Slovenia are Katja and Omar of Escobar, speciality coffee roasters based in Vrhnika. Omar’s love of coffee dates from his childhood in Honduras, where he would watch his grandmother draw that true and unforgettable aroma out of the coffee beans by roasting them. He learnt the basics of coffee production on the plantation at home and later worked for a time at the Honduran National Coffee Institute. Escobar’s fundamental mission is to provide high-quality coffee from different parts of the world (but most of all from Honduras), supplied by small family-run plantations that change as the ripening season progresses. In ensuring the shortest possible supply chain from grower to consumer, Katja and Omar work with cooperatives and other collectives with organic certification, who connect growers together and offer them education, financial support and other assistance. Escobar’s range includes between 20 and 25 different types of coffee, most of which are speciality coffees. They also offer their own version of decaffeinated coffee, made in an entirely natural way, and nine flavoured coffees which would probably cause speciality purists to throw up their hands in horror but which have long been a hit with less demanding consumers. For a number of years they have been the promoters of the Vrhnika Coffee Festival, at which they present special flavours, methods and innovations such as pairing coffee with specific dishes. They also deliver coffee to numerous shops and cafés in Ljubljana and throughout Slovenia. One such café that coffee enthusiasts should certainly visit is the trendy Moderna, popular with lovers of modern art, excellent coffee and cocktails. A wide range of coffee (and other beverages) is on offer from early morning until late evening in the stylish surroundings of Neubar, where alongside Escobar’s classic blends you can sample coffee from a guest roastery – ideal for the more courageous connoisseur. Neubar also makes its own coffee liqueur – a key ingredient of their unforgettable espresso martini.

The principles of quality, traceability and sustainability are also adhered to by Marina and Klemen of Mariposa Coffee Roasters on Ljubljana’s Trubarjeva Ulica. Marina has memories of her grandmother bringing coffee beans home from the market and everyone joining in to roast and grind them in the kitchen at home. Today these two coffee experts and members of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) dedicate their days to researching coffee and educating those who drink it, convinced that high-quality coffee with notes of fruit, flowers, bread and nuts needs no additives. As well as espresso and cold brew coffee they sell a wide range of accessories and filters. They also offer a catering service and run courses – including one where they share their seriously impressive latte art skills.

The knights of the speciality revolution

Speciality coffees are all coffees that score 80 points or above on the 100-point sensory quality scale. Other characteristics include a high standard of quality control, traceability and elaborate preparation. Such coffee is of extremely high quality but it can also be “special”, “unconventional”, “acidic”, “funny”. Some people love it, others detest it. But each to his own: speciality coffee does not try to please. Thanks to the standard-bearers of Slovenia’s speciality coffee revolution, it is available to the many curious coffee-drinkers who are keen to discover a world beyond the famous purplish-red packaging of a well-known local coffee producer.

The last few years have seen a surge of interest in boutique high-quality coffee that is selected, roasted, ground, prepared and served in exactly the right way. One of the individuals who deserves credit for this growth in popularity is Tine Čokl, who enthusiastically presents a wide selection of coffees from different parts of the world to the patrons of Café Čokl on Krekov Trg. Interestingly, he too conserves a vivid memory of his grandmother’s brass coffee grinder and the fragrant smell of roasting coffee beans. He roasts his own coffee – sold under the BUNA brand, which is committed to fair trade principles – and grinds it as it is needed, since this is the only way to guarantee suitable freshness. He enthusiastically explains the characteristics of different types of coffee to his customers and is happy to discuss different methods of preparation such as the Chemex and the AeroPress. He struggles to hide his disappointment when someone wants to add water to coffee or “ruin” it by adding milk. He also supplies coffee to other customers, private and professional alike. It is not unusual to see a waiter from a nearby restaurant pop into Café Čokl for some beans or a jar of freshly ground coffee. At the other end of the Old Town, Alexander Niño Ruiz is waiting to serve you up a cup of the finest Colombian coffee at his establishment Črno Zrno (“Black Bean”), to explain its special properties and perhaps even persuade you to try something new – say a cold brew to go.

One name we cannot overlook when talking about speciality coffee is that of Peter Ševič. Convinced that we Slovenes are excellent connoisseurs of bad coffee, he’s taken upon himself the mission of serving people the finest coffee in his two cafés Stow and Stow2go and teaching them about the range of flavours that such coffee can offer. He and his team collaborate with some of the best-known experimental coffee producers, while also getting up close and personal with coffee in their own roastery, which is run by Aleš Turšič in Kamnik. Through the Stow Academy, they have trained the first generation of SCA-certified baristas in Slovenia. Visitors to the Stow café in Ljubljana can feast their eyes on a selection of the finest coffee machines and gadgets. They include the famous Gina coffee brewer, one of the flagship products from Ljubljana-based Goat Story, who have delighted coffee lovers all over the world with their horn-shaped coffee mug, the Arco coffee grinder, a cold brew coffee kit and coffee subscriptions for every taste.

Those looking for responsibly sourced coffee beans will feel right at home at Tozd on the Gallus Embankment. As well as their seasonal blends, it is worth trying their Ruster cold brew offering, which comes as a half-litre bottle of concentrate, the product of a local team of coffee enthusiasts. And if you make your way back to the other end of the same bank of the river, to the Krakovo Embankment, you will find a relative newcomer to the speciality scene in the form of Sabin-Alexandru Minea’s Mala Pražarna (“Little Roastery”), with a growing range of high-quality traceable-origin coffees.

So, let’s go for a coffee!

The two ladies from the market will perhaps make their way to the Tri Marije coffee trailer parked near the entrance, where coffee from the Stow roastery is prepared in a way that ensures its universal appeal. Our two youths might pop into Kana Bar before their classes start, thinking that they have discovered something brand-new on Ljubljana’s speciality scene. The talkative gentlemen outside their tower block will head to Kavarna Natura in the Zelena Jama district and perhaps choose a blend from the in-house grinding station to take home with them. The two colleagues will head off for a quick lunch and follow something from the grill with a cup of real Turkish coffee at the Istanbul Grill & Restaurant or round off a meal at Sarajevo 84 on Nazorjeva with a genuine Bosnian coffee. The young couple will meet at Cafetino on Stari Trg, where they will also buy each other little gifts of freshly ground coffee.

Because coffee is an essential part of our lives, no matter whether it is prepared in a Turkish-style coffee pot, a stove-top coffee maker, a cafetière, a coffee machine, a Chemex or a mug. Nursing our coffee cups, we chat, set the world to rights, plan our business empires, grumble, seek solutions, fall in love and live. And so it will always be.



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MMM stories is a series of online articles introducing unique local shops, small producers, farmers, and restaurants from Ljubljana and the surroundings.

Photos: Suzan Gabrijan

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