Tradition: An Armenian flavour
Our first stop in Bucharest was a small everything-and-anything indoor market in the Piata Gemeni just north of the 500 year old Cartierul Armenesca (Armenian Quarter). Festoons of dried herbs overhung tables of fruit and vegetables. Cheeses, cured meats and familiar soft drinks vied with household cleaning items for the attention of grocery-grazing housewives.
The market’s long central tables are flanked by two aisles lined with semi-enclosed stalls. As we make our way down one of these aisles, dodging teetering trolleys of UHT milk, cola and cauliflowers, a piercing aroma draws us irresistibly towards a tiny shop bearing an imposing name: Sarkis M. Sarkissian.
This story starts with the Turkish Genocide against the Armenians in the early 1900s. Survivors of the Sarkissian and Macighian families, coffee shop proprietors from the old empire, take to the road and arrive in Romania where in 1912, at Ramnicu-Valcea, Bucharest, they set up two shops.
Click the button below for a fascinating if quirkily translated back-story.
Today, Sarkis Cafe still thrives. Its customers are die-hard aficionados of the robust Turko-Armenian style of coffee roasting, grinding and brewing. And, indeed, dispensing. Market stall holders and shoppers alike stop by for a heart-racing shot or two of the Sarkis black nectar. We join them.
Mihai Honcivc current owner of Sarkis Café
Nor is Sarkissian the only vestige of the Armenian coffee tradition in Bucharest. Next stop: the ramshackle hut of 80 something year old Haig Keskerian, on Grigore Manolescu Street. Soon to retire, this grand old man – some say the king – of Armenian coffee purveyors, says he will be passing on his modest business to an old friend. He looks wistful as he surveys his tiny coffee empire.
Keskerian’s modest kiosk is a riot of anomalies: antique grinding and roasting machinery, rusting signs and pulsating neon lights. But the proof of its popularity is the steady stream of customers who demand Haig’s traditional Armenian style grind.
Our final foray into the darkish world of Armenian coffee tradition in Bucharest pitches us into a reunion. Greeted with much bonhomie and shots of fabled Ararat Armenian brandy, we join a table in an alleyway off Strada Radu Cristian at the renowned Delicatese Florescu.
Gheorge Florescu extends his one good arm to welcome us (his other is in a sling from a recent fall) and introduces us to his mentor Avedis Carabelaian who is visiting from his home in New York City. Avedis, a former supplier of coffee to the Royal House of Romania, turned his family business over to his protégé Florescu some years before, and the business has continued to flourish.
It’s easy to see why. After several cups of their rich Armenian coffee chased with nips of Ararat and stories of past exploits, we sadly take our leave, wishing there was a similar establishment in our own neighbourhoods back home.
Avedis Carabelaian and Gheorge Florescu
Sarkissian, Keskerian, Florescu (via Carabelaian); each is keeping an Armenian coffee tradition going in Bucharest that stretches all the way back to its Ottoman Empire origins. The techniques and end result are very much an acquired taste for those not familiar with a Turkish/Armenian style brew. Strong, very strong, gritty but with an inimitable punch and depth of flavour.
Not everybody’s cup, to be sure. Which is why Bucharest – along with its neighbours – is seeing a proliferation of new wave brewsters.
Third waving at the traditional
Perhaps the biggest difference between the traditional and the new – or third - wave is where coffee is consumed. When communism swept through the Balkans, socializing over a cup of coffee in a cafe or coffee house dwindled. Particularly in Bulgaria where that legacy can still be witnessed today. If people drank coffee it tended to be in the home.
What seems to be happening now is that socializing over coffee is on the up. And nowhere more so than in Bucharest. Romania is unquestionably a country of enthusiastic coffee drinkers. Changing a long tradition of coffee consumption has been challenging, but in just a few years, specialty coffee has burst on to the scene all over the country. More and more entrepreneurs are opening speciality shops and introducing high quality beans and coffee-making methods to eager consumers. For now, specialty coffee is a relatively small niche, but all that is beginning to change. As we were to discover at our first third wave cafe.
Origo at Strada Lipscani 9 is credited with being Bucharest’s first specialty café and the place where the city’s growing coffee scene took off. Origo’s head barista Victor told us that the new Third Wave of cafés is all about socialising with the customer and supplying them with a quality cup of coffee.
Victor Head Barista at Origo
‘We don’t have waiters, everyone who works here is a certified barista,’ he explained. ‘Third Wave cafes now require more interaction and being a barista isn't just about making good coffee you must be something of a showman as well’.
Sitting outside at a ‘community table’, Victor reiterated what we heard throughout Bulgaria about how Communism all but destroyed the café culture. ‘But here in Romania we are changing all of that, it’s coming back and it will be stronger than it ever was.’
Community also figures strongly at our next stop – Orygyns - which has a curiously similar name to our previous encounter.
This charming little coffee shop just metres from the British Embassy (Strada Jules Michelet 12) prides itself on constantly rotating its coffee supply, so the coffee rarely stays the same. When we visited, they had just had a power cut so were unable to provide any of their extensive range. As it happens, three women were sat at a window table busily trying to choose wedding hats. One, the hat designer, offered her coffee so that we could at least sample one of Orygyn’s fine brews. It was delicious.
Orygyns’ barista Sînziana Perțea describes how ‘people come in here to learn about coffee, to taste something new, they are really open to learning’. ‘Starbucks coffee is a dessert...it has its place, but we represent the third wave of cafés. We are about building a community and educating our customers’.
Orygyns’ barista Sînziana Perțea
‘Tradition for the sake of tradition isn’t right,’ Razvan Crisan says as we settle at our Ikea-like table at the spacious and busy M60 Café he co-founded nearly three years ago. ‘Tradition is important as long as you don’t gamble on value’.
Razvan Crisan, co-founder of M60 Café
M60 sits comfortably in an up-and-coming area of central Bucharest (Strada D. I. Mendeleev 2), nestled equally between urban neglect and urban renewal. With plenty of electrical sockets and understated, Nordic design office seating, M60 seems to cater to students and remote workers. M60 represents the new age cafés, it’s hip and unpretentious, Razvan doesn’t even bother using a logo, ‘because we want customers to want to find us.’
Try as we might, we couldn’t connect with Cosmin Mihailov, the founder/owner of Bloom Speciality Coffee. In his stead barista Adrian crafted us a smooth and creamy café latte at the tiny bar of this unassuming little venue in Strada George Vraca 7.
Adrian working hard behind the bar.
When asked what makes Bloom stand out from the other speciality cafés that have sprouted up over Bucharest in the last few years, Adrian responds with PowerPoint-like accuracy, ‘first it’s the where and how the coffee is harvested; then the varietal and finally the process of roasting. And, of course, we grind all our own coffee’. The mostly young clientele filter in and out of the café. There is a large water bowl for dogs and the Wi-Fi is free and fast.
As with Sarajevo, Belgrade and, to a lesser extent, Sofia, we found the coffee culture of Bucharest divided between the traditional and new wave. But without doubt, the new breed of coffee lovers and providers is prevailing.
The siren call (and smell and taste) of coffee venues designed for communing, working, socializing and hedonism is appealing exponentially to primarily a younger audience. But it would be a shame if the traditional were to be totally subsumed, or, as in the case of several venues we visited in Serbia and Bulgaria, consigned to become museums instead of working, thriving houses of coffee and conversation.
Words and images by Fred Shively and Paul Kelly, the Balkan Caffeinators
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