You would not want to be on the streets of Athens this last week, as the first heatwave of the summer reflected off the concrete and made the air thick and still.
Seeking relief from the heat, anyone visiting Athens during this summer of unabated crisis will doubtless have encountered the Greek national obsession with iced coffee. For someone weaned on Starbucks and other multinational coffee chains’ iced beverage offerings, there would seem to be nothing terribly interesting or controversial about choosing between a frappé and a freddo. The unsuspecting visitor may not realise that in making their choice they are – arguably – re-enacting the same fateful decisions that have led Greece down the path to fiscal ruin and social disjuncture. But I get ahead of myself.
The ubiquitous frappé (Φραπές, o, masculine), notwithstanding its foreign name, bears no relation or resemblance to any French beverage. Also asked for affectionately by its diminutive, φραπεδάκι (frapedáki), it is the ultimate quick refreshment borne out the marriage of the space age food technology of the 1950s and prosaic Greek necessity. Instant coffee, usually Nescafé, shaken with water and tooth-aching amounts of sugar over ice until frothy, then poured over more ice into a glass, is a standard ritual of Greeks during warmer months. A variation is to add NouNou (Greek tinned evaporated or condensed milk) to make a white version. While it can be made at home, it is traditionally enjoyed seated at a shaded outdoor table at a kafeneio. It is a simple pleasure. By its nature, there is no coffee snobbery implicated in this beverage. We are, after all, talking about instant coffee, tinned milk and sugar. A frappé is the polar opposite of a ‘prestige’ food item or a luxury. Or rather: it is an affordable luxury that can be enjoyed by worker and oligarch alike.
However since the turn of the Millennium, and coincidentally the arrival of the Euro, a new drink, or rather drinks, have found favour in the cafes lining parks throughout the city’s neighbourhoods, namely the ‘freddo’ and its manufactured commercial cousin, the ‘freddoccino’. Like the frappe, the name is foreign – it simply means ‘cold’ in Italian. Iced coffee, or more accurately cold coffee, is not unknown in Italy, although hardly common. However the Italian version of a caffé freddo is simply that: cold coffee served black or with milk in a glass, without any diluting ice. The Greek invention known as a freddo is much closer to any number of calorific Starbucks creations than to anything an actual Italian would consume. It is made with freshly brewed espresso, to which may be added milk, sugar and even vanilla ice cream, whipped together into a milkshake-like beverage. A garage mechanic can make a frappe. For a freddo, you need a barista.
When the freddo was born, the public’s optimism and self-image were at a peak. The Olympics were just around the corner, the Greek national football (soccer) team won the European cup. New banks opened and credit flowed. Cafes became stylish venues, exotic sports cars were to be seen on the streets and there was a feeling that appeared to emerge almost overnight of Greece having gained admission to a rather smart and exclusive club. It was seated at the big table with the grown-ups.
And so began the decline in popularity of the simple pleasure of the frappé. Greeks became consumers and connoisseurs; wine bars appeared and gourmet restaurants serving trendy foreign dishes of the moment opened with startling regularity. Lifestyle “lads’ mags” like the now-defunct Nitro had pages filled with watches, cars, motorcycles, the latest mobile phones and all sundry expensive toys for the status-obsessed male consumer. Television was lined from morning ‘til night with chat show clones, long sofas populated by vapid clothes-obsessed C-listers, debating for hours the dress / hair / handbag choices of their B-list superiors, with a final credit roll that name checked every designer shop in Athens. No self-respecting ambitious Greek went to the kafeneio and ordered a frappé unless you were poor, or old, or possibly both. You now had to have an opinion about coffee, and accordingly pay more dearly for it. Espresso over ice it must be. With a foreign name.
And yet the frappe endures, a pleasure accessible to nearly all, distinctly Greek, imitative of nothing. Borne out of necessity, it remains a reassuring ritual of summer. Perhaps a return to a ‘frappé mentality’ lies at the core of any future path forward out of the country’s troubles: ingenuity, frugality, creativity, and an appreciation for singularly Greek qualities and pleasures, rather than a backwards-looking obsession with status and respect for wounded pride, whether real or imagined.
Photo by koutofrangos. All rights reserved.