On a snowy day Fred and I managed to navigate through the narrow flagstone streets of Sarajevo's Coppersmith district passing a variety of trinket-laden tourists vendors. We had been directed to a particular shop in the street of coppersmiths in Baščaršija, Sarajevo's Old Town.
The first word from shop owner Muhamed Husejnović is a hearty "Welcome” followed by possibly the four most important words in a Bosnian greeting to guests: “We must have coffee!"
Muhamed is different than most of the other traders we pass being one of only a handful of certified Coppersmith craftsman in the Baščaršija. He started learning his craft at age six from his father and is now passing on the tradition to this two sons.
After showing us numerous photographs of international dignitaries - "that's me with the former American ambassador" - we sat for coffee (in Fred’s case a rakjia) and reminisced about his life.
"By sharing coffee with friends, we are sharing our problems too. Talking helps."
Words and images by Fred Shively and Paul Kelly, the Balkan Caffeinators
Crucial, in fact indispensable, to the making of traditional Bosnian coffee is the djezve, the pot you see here.
Ranging in capacity up to 8 cups or more, the best djezves are hand-made of copper or brass lined with tin.
In the Bascarsija, old town of Sarajevo the centuries old craft of making these iconic vessels normally falls to men. Normally. Because the exception is Nermina Alic, the only woman coppersmith in town.
Working from her tiny workshop in ‘Blacksmith’ street just of Bascarsija’s main square, Nermina uses tools handed down from generations of her copper-smithing antecedents to make exquisite examples of these vessels. She also uses the only wood-fired smelter still operating in the old town. It’s located at the back of her shop behind an ancient creaky wooden door.
Let's have a coffee' has many meanings. Could mean lets meet as friends, lovers, family, for a business meeting. Let's have a coffee means 'let's socialise'. - Nermina Alic
"There is no one way to make traditional Bosnian Coffee. All ways are considered 'traditional'." - Nermina Alic
PS. One of these beautiful objects crafted by Nermina, the one you see above, will soon be in use by Fred’s Armenian wife Arpi whose mother taught her the Turkish variant of this venerable coffee ritual.
Nermina’s website can be found here: www.mangala.ba
Words and images by Fred and Paul, the Balkan Caffeinators
Half an hour into our scheduled 3 hour drive from Sarajevo to Loznica, Serbia we are stopped dead by a road blockade of striking loggers. There’s no alternative, says Goran Kombi our driver checking his phone’s satnav, but to return to Sarajevo and take another route. Which gives us plenty of time to chat with him about life, politics, war and, of course, coffee.
‘For as long as I can remember, my mother literally doesn’t talk before she has her first coffee. As for any question I might ask her before that first coffee, the answer was – and is – no’.
Words and images by Fred and Paul, the Balkan Caffeinators
In Denmark there’s a ritual, an attitude, of enjoying life's simple pleasures. It’s called hygge (pronounced “HUE-gah”). In Bosnia and Herzegovina they have a similar outlook, one that’s deep in their genetic code. One that says that a kind word or smile from a passing stranger, a pleasant thought or memory, a smell or colour, an encounter with the traditional may be enough to bring you a moment - or longer - of happiness.
This state of mind (and being) is also embodied in a word borrowed from the region’s Turkish Ottoman heritage: rahatluk (pronounced rah-HAHT-look). So when Snježana Nezirović decided to give up studying medicine and open her delightful jewel of a cafe/shop dispensing traditional Bosnian coffee, all manner of teas, hot chocolate, fruit juices and syrups, desserts and baked goods - and knowledge - she knew that whatever she called it to encapsulate rahatluk.
With a slight play on the word, Snježana had her name, logo and ethos: Rahatlook. Which also is slightly easier to pronounce for English speakers!
Not only does she brew a mighty fine and authentic Bosnian coffee, she also makes many of the syrups and juices on offer. And teaches the philosophy and technique of her crafts.
As a bonus, Snježana’s husband runs a bakery just around the corner that’s been in his family for over 100 years. Talk about marriages made in heaven!
"Women do all the work in the kitchen. Men can help by grinding the coffee." - Snježana Nezirović
"Coffee is medicine." - Snježana Nezirović
One final thought. Older people in Bosnia and Herzegovina say that there used to be much more rahatluk in the past. Snježana believes that one can feel rahat at any time. And at Rahatlook she practices what she preaches. Have a closer look at www.rahatlook.ba.
WE MEET A BOSNIAN COFFEE ROASTER, GRINDER, PHILOSOPHER AND TEACHER
Jaso Elezovic runs the Cafe de Alma in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a tiny temple to Bosnian coffee as it should be made and enjoyed. And he should know – generations of his family have been roasting, grinding and serving the real thing for decades.
Such is Jan’s passion, dedication and philosophy about this dark, heady brew (when made and savoured correctly) that we sat spellbound for half an hour listening, watching, learning.
What follows are some pearls of Bosnian coffee wisdom and insights.
'I'm very much interested in the old crafts. People used to do some things better in the past.'
'This process [of making coffee] is what I've been taught by my mother who was taught by my grandmother. So it's a family thing.'
'My dad taught me how to roast coffee. It's always about learning and then experiencing the knowledge.'
'I'm just a guy who graduated from college and went back to the past to find a profession.'
'The future is located in the past. We have to go back and take things that were good back then and put them into this world. Then we will be better able to define our own culture and identity.'
We'll sip a cup to that, Jan! Bosnian, of course.
'Drinking coffee is part of who we are.'
Mehorce Oik. Retired coffee house 'barista' - or whatever they were called in Sarajevo in the 60s!
Mission: TO EXPLORE WHY COFFEE AND CAFES ARE CENTRAL TO THE BALKAN WAY OF LIFE
Cafes in the major European conurbations - from Amsterdam to Budapest, Paris to Milan, Barcelona to Vienna - have been well celebrated and documented.
The Balkan countries, not so much.
So we're going to correct that by going off the beaten track to examine and document the cafe culture of the Balkan area countries. Particularly Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia. Why? Because probably nowhere else on earth is coffee and the cafe culture more important to everyday life than in this region. A region where coffee is more a ritual than a drink. Where it's invariably coffee first, business later. Where coffee is a social adhesive. And where taking coffee on the run is almost considered a crime against humanity.
Yes, we will visit and document what few ‘grand’ cafes still exist in the bigger cities - Bucharest, Belgrade, Zagreb, Sofia, Tirana. But our ultimate goal is to get under the skin of cafe culture in the Balkans through its neighbourhood joints and their denizens. To hear and retell stories from and of the people who dispense this fragrant dark potent liquid. And who drink it in vast quantities. People from the melting pot of ethnicities, religions, tribes, backgrounds that make this region so interesting and, let it be said, volatile.
We’ll also be looking at how the cafe in the Balkans has evolved, continues to evolve, into chic, sleek, new venues including the third wave artisanal coffee movement. How the culture normally associated with men only (the Ottoman legacy?) is now embracing both genders in its modern form.
As for the images, we will endeavour to capture what is real. Not just the art nouveau/art deco splendour of the grand cafes, not the usual sidewalk-umbrella-beautiful-people snaps, but telling portraits of human faces and interaction, faded signs and advertising, crumbling paintwork, rickety furniture. And full ashtrays (yes, like it or not, smoking is still a major feature of Balkan cafe culture!).
And let’s not forget that cafes in this area are not just about coffee (and tobacco). The cuisines of the Balkans embrace a huge range of roasted, baked and fried delicacies. As well as fresh vegetables and fruits rendered in everything from delicious pastries and soups and salads to eye-watering spirits. We will be sampling it all.
Not wishing to bite off more than we can chew we've decided to break our journey into three legs. First leg: Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our target launch date for the trip is April 2017. We'll be on the road for about 22 days which will give us time in each of our main 'target' towns and cities to hear and document cafe stories over many a cup and accompanying spirit.
What is Balkan Caffeination?
Our mission is to explore why coffee and cafés are central to the Balkan way of life.