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Coffee and Tea Culture in Slovakia: the Kaviaren versus the Čajovna

Before 1989, partaking of a good beverage was significantly more limited than it is today in Slovakia.

But particularly where coffee was concerned. Almost everyone drank the same brand, heralding from Poprad – an underwhelming and grainy affair by most accounts (and that is only to mention the best of them). No one thought to question its origin beyond that. It was there, and that was what counted. Better beans were available on a prestigious foreign market that you could buy with bonds – if you happened to have foreign currency to pay for them, which you could only really obtain if you had relatives living “in the west”.

A quality array of teas was more widespread. After all, tea could be made with the herbs and fruits that grew in the woods and hills looming large across Czechoslovakia (foraging is still a popular alternative to relying on what is offered in the supermarkets today). This is much more likely to explain why discerning tea culture continued to develop whilst coffee culture took a tumble (ironic, with Vienna so near and yet so far) than, for example, the age-old influence of the Turkish on the region.

Come the 1990s and tea in Slovakia was often a fine-tuned and sophisticated thing, enjoyed in a range of čajovny (teahouses) which were as often as not the hangouts of the Bohemian sect. Coffee – at least the half-decent varieties of coffee enjoyed in kaviarne, or cafes, continued to be at best what Slovaks know as presso, low-grade espresso made in a simple presso machine.

But Slovaks, since then, and in spite of the fact they are ultimately a home-loving people, began spending time away in other parts of Europe, North America and Australia. When they did, they often ended up working in catering. They got exotic ideas and brought them back to Slovakia.

Slovaks jump to adopt and embrace foreign trends if those trends seem like winners. Pizza and pasta caught on quickly. Craft beer is the latest craze. Good coffee came somewhere between the pasta and the craft beer. It seems to have been a learning curve, slow, but steadier and steadier and only really developing into a “scene” worth talking about in the last five or six years. And a scene it is. The likes of Bratislava’s Štúr (2010) and Bistro St Germain, plus perhaps Košice’s Caffe Trieste spearheaded it: good coffee in atmospheric surroundings, in these cases with cheap, healthy lunches on offer too.

A ton more places have followed suit. This new brand of cafes have several traits. They seem, like the čajovny have been for a while now, to be real “worlds” – autonomous provinces free from the regulations, realities and disappointments of external goings-on, or at least refuges from them. They are also uncrowded worlds, which renders them all the more inviting. They are generally owned/operated by young people who have a passion for stamping their own unique take on how things should be. In Bratislava and Košice, many inhabit Old Town buildings looking out on streets where aimless wandering is often a visitor’s main concern – and at a slow pace, because of the cobbles:) – it would not take too beguiling a pavement cafe table to waylay anyone here. And there is not just one or two – there are many. They veritably assail you from within 18th-century buildings (buildings which, it must be admitted, suit standing in as cafes very well). They invariably capitalise on one major Achilles heel of the average Slovak – an inability to think about going through the day without a hearty lunch – and do well from it. All told, it is no surprise why Slovakia, in 2013, were the world’s sixth-biggest per capita coffee drinkers.

If anything, in Slovakia it’s the quality čajovna that now seems underground (underground meaning the scene generally but sometimes, yes, literally underground) compared to the kaviareň / cafe. That said, more places serve up top-notch tea than they do top-notch espresso, so it seems to me. With the coffee, it’s a work in progress. But already a very good work.

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