Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Central Coffeehoueses

When an article in The Guardian couple of years back said that the homogeneity of modern coffeehouses is stifling their traditional role as places of sedition, it was the writer’s take on the conflict between convenience and culture (or maybe the culture of convenience). This is a change with a global footprint - Starbucks in the US; Café Nero, Costa Coffee and Café Ritazza in Europe; Barista and Café Coffee Day in India having taken over the space occupied by the traditional coffeehouses. While the story of European cafes is well documented (even the early chapters of Harry Potter were written by JK Rowling in an Edinburgh Coffeehouse), what is lesser known that the traditional coffee houses in India, run by workers’ cooperatives, attracted a Nobel Laureate like Rabindra Nath Tagore and other famous writers; Life-time Oscar winner Satyajit Ray and many other film makers; and intellectuals from other walks of life. So it had been really some kind of a global cultural phenomenon even before globalization!

In this context it was an interesting experience to visit two legendary coffeehouses from the erstwhile Austro-Hungarian Empire, a region where the coffeehouse culture had seen its best days. Incidentally the two I visited, though in different cities on the banks of the Danube, even have a common name – Café Central in Vienna (Herrengasse 17) and Central Kávéház in Budapest (V. Károlyi Mihály u. 9).

Café Central has played host to legends like Goethe, Beethoven, and Lenin. But it’s patron who can be called its mascot (no surprise that they have his statue at the entrance, seated at a table) is Peter Altenberg, who had even his mails delivered to the café where he spent most of his time. There are many stories and legends about the place. Some time before the war the Austro-Hungarian government received a sharp note from St Petersburg, demanding that a stop be put to the activities of the Russian political emigrants in Vienna. The Minister of the Interior received the note and shook with laughter: 'Who do they think is going to start a revolution in Russia - perhaps that Herr Trotsky from the Café Central?'" (from Wit as a Weapon by Egon Larsen, 1980).

On my visit I found an elegant place with high vaulted ceilings and marble columns. While the pastry shop Demel and Hotel Sacher fight over who created the ‘original Sachertorte’, Café Central plays it safe with its own ‘orginal Café Central Torte’. So you can have the famed Viennese Apfelstrudel at the restaurant and get gift packed the Central Torte for those back home (presumably it doesn’t use fresh cream and hence lasts longer). While I was there only for breakfast, it has various options for a 3-course lunch or a dinner, including some Viennese specialties and mouth-watering desserts. But the place will always be more about the experience of an unhurried meal in the traditional settings rather than the food .

Quite distinct from my morning visit to Café Central on a crisp spring morning, was the dinner at Central Kavehaz in Budapest. We reached there as hungry souls, after having spent a few hours at the Gellert Thermal Baths, so no tradition or ambience would have mattered, had the food not been good. Thank God, we were not disappointed. As a typical coffeehouse it has a wide varieties of tarts and pastries, the more popular ones being Centrál's creamy coffee cake (with marzipan) and Flodni (layers of poppy seed, walnut, apple and plum marmalade). For the meal one can have traditional Hungarian meat dishes like Goulash or fresh fish from Lake Balaton. While ordering starters and the main course, one needs to budget appetite for the dessert, what with descriptions like ‘Mango parfait with pineapple carpaccio’!

It can be argued that both Café Central and Central Kavehaz are more of tourist traps now rather than intellectual hangouts. There maybe merit in the argument, but the alternative would the period when these both these places had fallen into disrepair and closed for almost four decades till they were reopened in the 80s. The Vienna Café project, is a praiseworthy attempt to understand the past and present of café better. As a glimpse into this unique cultural aspect of 19th and early 20th century, I would think even those part of this project appreciate the tourist-funded reopening of the traditional cafes.

For an interesting read on Central Kavehaz and a lovely photographs check out

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Andalucia Tapas Trail

Tapa is a small lid on the top of a drink. The bartender would traditionally place something complimentary, like olives or fried seafood (mariscoes), on top of it. This is the story about the origin of tapas that I knew until I read the entry on Wikipedia. It suggests so many possible alternatives that instead of being confused, I stick to my initial understanding – it helps that most people in Seville believe it as well.

I have eaten tapas in London, in Chennai and in Krakow with varying qualities and interpretations of tapas. Even within Spain, while Taller de Tapas chain is an easy way to introduce oneself to tapas in Barcelona with tasty food and efficient service, it is too sanitized for a real tapa experience. The picture completely changes in Andalucia. You realize that it is not really about the food and that nothing can come close to experience of tapas-hopping in Seville, Granada or cities of the southern Spain.

It is unlikely that a bartender in a bar in Madrid or Barcelona can so endearingly have a laugh at a tourists’ expense as they routinely do at Las Columnas (officially called Bodega Santa Cruz, cheapest tapas bar in the Santa Cruz district of Seville), a place full of character. You may not be offered an English Menu, but you will still find places where tapas are free with a drink (though unlikely in Seville). What Las Columnas is to the tourist heartland of Seville, Bodega Castaneda is to Granada. In both these places you will be lucky to have standing space in busy hours, and even luckier to have a waiter’s attention for more than a few seconds. But the waiters or the bartenders will always be nice to you while they take their order, even though it is a very brief interaction! The walls of Sol y Sombra reflect its great bullfighting tradition as does the menu (famous for its cola de toro or oxtail)! Continuing with bars that offer more than food, another interesting place is El Faro de Triana, a former lighthouse on the banks of Guadalquivir in Seville. It is more of a friduria (fried fish and seafood), but you are here for the view.

While jamon (cured ham), sausages and other pork and seafood items are integral to a bar menu, vegetarians need not lose heart. And I am not talking of surviving on queso manchego (cheese from La Mancha), patatas bravas (somewhere between chips and potato wedges) and tortilla (omlette with potatoes).

Though sceptical after reading the description, we fell in love with berenjas con miel (fried eggplant with honey). There was another cream and spinach tapas (can someone help me with the name?) at Las Columnas which was always an item for a repeat order. Espinacas con garbanzos (stew of chickpeas and spinach) is anyway popular even outside Spain. Something else that is popular beyond Spanish shores is Gazpacho. While Gazpacho is a nice cool drink for Spanish summer, its thicker form, Salmorejo (tomato

soup thickened with bread giving it a creamier texture) should be a not-to-miss item for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Better still if you try it at La Giganta on Plaza de los Terceros in Seville. Next door to La Giganta is Rinconcillo, arguably, the oldes tapas bar in Seville; also inarguably the one with grumpiest staff!

Each bar is famous for a few tapas, so sampling different things at different bars is the best idea. And if you are tired of walking, and want to make a meal of you tapas at a bar, then order a ración (plate) or media ración (half-plate) of the same dish. The best thing we did is that we shed our inhibitions, and in our completely inappropriate pronunciations started ordering from the items listed on the blackboard.

Chipirones (baby squid), gambas al ajillo (prawns sautéed withgarlic) and such items were figured out from the guide book, but the rest was a raffle – one in which you always won! Anyway with 2 – 4 Euros for a tapas, you cannot go wrong. While talking about the price of tapas, it is fun figuring out if the bartender at Las Columnas has got your bill right.(he tries recollecting all that you had ordered while he writes the amounts on bar counter using chalk, adds it up and you know the total amount – would you still want to crosscheck?)

For a detailed listing of tapas bars in Seville, visit

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