Coffee might be the one beverage that truly unites the world. There are literally hundreds of variations, each with its own unique evolutionary journey, style and taste; all making it even more intriguing to global travellers who covet a regular hit of caffeine.
I was raised In Switzerland, a country with the world’s heaviest per-capita consumption of coffee, and grew up drinking Café Crème, a wonderful espresso served with coffee cream, a mix of full cream milk with 26 per cent cream.
Yet I didn’t fully appreciate coffee until I spent six months in the late ‘60s walking with a tribe of Bedouins from Aleppo in the north of Syria, to the Sanaa in the south of Yemen.
Twice a year, these wonderful people travel across four countries on foot in search of pastures for their goats, chicken and camels, and for simple pleasures such as a swim in a hidden mountain pond deep in Wadi Rum in Jordan. And they know, and love, their coffee.
They most valued coffee beans from Yemen and as they were only in that country once a year, they always bought enough sacks of Yemeni beans to last them. I was allowed to watch the way they prepared their coffee, which started with dry roasting a handful of green beans in a frypan over a smouldering fire of camel dung. Once roasted to their liking, they either pounded them to a fine powder in a mortar, or used a hand-operated brass coffee mill.
The finely ground coffee was put into a coffee pot with white sugar and ‘hel’ (green cardamom), then filled up with water and brought to a simmer, five times, before leaving it to rest for five minutes and pouring it into tiny cups.
Strong, sweet, fragrant and incredibly addictive to an impressionable young lad – and, it seemed, to everyone else – it was one of the simple pleasures of that life. I was eventually promoted to ‘chief coffee maker’ for the tribe and this simple ceremony still stands as one of my most cherished experiences.
Needless to say, from then on I was hooked on coffee and couldn’t wait to explore as many variants as possible of the ‘bitter invention of Satan’, as the drink was dubbed when first it reached Europe.
So divisive was coffee that the clergy condemned it when it arrived in Venice in 1615. The controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII himself was asked to intervene. He found it so satisfying that he gave it Papal approval. From then on, coffee was unstoppable, and by the mid-1600s there were more than 300 coffee houses in London alone.
Let me share some of the best places to drink coffee I have found in my travels, since that formative experience with the Bedouins.
If you’ve landed in Zurich and you’re short on time, kill two birds with one stone with a visit to Café Confiserie Sprüngli in the centre of the city, with great coffee and the best Swiss chocolate selection. If you’re there for a few days, don't miss Café Henrici for what I consider the best straight coffee in Switzerland.
I wouldn’t do the Swiss culture justice if I didn't mention the most popular coffee in Switzerland: Kaffee Fertig, which is popular all over Switzerland. It's made like this: You put a couple of teaspoons of sugar in the bottom of a coffee glass. Add coffee until you can’t see the sugar any more, then add Kirsch or Dräsch (or any clear fruit eau de vie) until you can see the sugar again.
My favourite coffee place in Kuala Lumpur is Yut Kee, serving traditional Malaysian coffee. The beans are roasted in-house according to their own family recipe, then brewed inside a cotton bag in a jug and served in an old-fashioned white kopi tiam cup with a green floral motif. The coffee is thick and often served with condensed milk, unless you request 'kosong' which means black coffee with no sugar.
It’s one of the oldest Kopitiam (coffee shops) now owned by the third generation of the same family. They will also serve a fabulous Hainanese breakfast of coddled eggs and steamed bread. Open from 7am, but go as early as you can as it fills up quickly.
This place is such a contrast of old and new, so it’s only fair to mention both the modern and the traditional. For an authentic, non-pretentious, modern coffee shop, I like Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee at 170 Stirling Road, Singapore. It serves a superb cup. For the authentic Singaporean coffee house, I like to visit Tong Ah Eating House at 35 Keong Siak Road, in Chinatown. It’s one of the few nostalgic places left, and I suggest you try the Nasi Lemak as well.
Great coffee in China is not as easy to find as great tea, but there is one place in Shanghai that is outstanding: Manner Café, THE hole-in-the-wall coffee shop. This is a very cool place in the former French Concession with a great atmosphere. I suggest the iced latte on a hot day.
Café de L’ambre: to find such a beautiful, old-fashioned, stylish and comfortable kissaten (coffee house) in bustling Ginza amid the hubbub of Tokyo, is like finding a gold needle in a haystack. This is really special and, as I only realised later on, a legendary place for Tokyo coffee.
Try the Queen Ember, a coffee made with coarsely ground coffee, packed into a flannel filter, slowly infused with water and the tiny amount poured from a metal saucepan into a tiny cup. The coffee is rich and creamy with a strong chocolate note and fruit flavours typical of a Christmas fruit cake. High acidity balances the liquid and it has to be one of the most rewarding coffee experiences in the world.
The Italians have rested on the glory of producing the best coffee in the world for too long, and their standard has slipped. I tried to figure out why and eventually realised that due to the habits of the people and the financial hardship of the last couple of decades, coffee consumption has diminished. An underused coffee machine does not perform properly and this, in combination with cheaper coffee beans, led to the decline.
Your best chance of getting a great espresso or ristretto will be a high turnover place like the cafes on their autostradas, or at train stations or airports. You will invariably be disappointed off the beaten track. The best ones I found are called Autogrill, and I suggest you have a Fattoria with it, which is a speck & brie toasted sandwich.
Coffee in Sardinia suffers from the same problems as on the mainland, but there’s one wonderful exception: Antico Caffè in Cagliari. They serve superb coffee and pastries in an old-fashioned surround with waiters in starched white shirts and black vests. The owner, who must be in his 90s, still checks on his place every morning and shakes the hands of the regulars.
Istanbul is going through a coffee revolution led by Mehmet Gurs’ Kronotrop and fellow Aussie-Turk Sam Cevikoz’s Federal coffee company. There are many Aussie-style cafes dotted around Istanbul but to stay authentic, my favourite place to visit and savour Turkish coffee is the original Kronotrop in Cihangir.
Turkish coffee has had a bad rap, mainly due to the use of cheap beans and overcooking the coffee to give it a burnt taste that hides the beans’ deficiency. Mehmet’s Kronotrop tested modern ways of brewing Turkish coffee and once you try their version, cooked on sand or ashes, you would never go back to the tourist trap places.
Should your travels take you to Iran, I recommend the Dore Miz Café in downtown Tehran. It’s central, has outdoor seating and a great snack menu to boot. In beautiful Isfahan, try the Turkish-style coffee at one of the most beautiful hotels in the world, the Hotel Shah Abbasi. Have it in the inside courtyard amongst pomegranate trees and rows of scented roses. I should also mention Isfahan’s Chaaj Haj Mirza Tea House as the most beautiful tea house I have ever seen. It's an absolute must-see.
There’s great coffee all over the world but we do also make some of the best here at home and one out-of-the-way place in Sydney is especially worth a trip: Wylie’s Baths in Coogee. Located at the end of Neptune Street the glorious view and friendly, relaxed ambience are perfectly Sydney.
Melbourne prides itself as the coffee capital of Australia and many make the pilgrimage to Pellegrini’s, the family-run establishment at the top end of bustling Bourke Street that has been serving better Italian-style coffee than the Italians themselves since 1974.