Lost treasures brewed fresh at Turkey's first coffee museum

An enchanting array of the classic Turkish and regional beverage is there for the tasting in a unique coffee museum that features antique implements and forgotten recipes of Anatolia.

al-monitor A picture taken Aug. 23, 2019, shows a painted Turkish coffee saucer by Turkey's micro artist Hasan Kale in Istanbul. Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images.

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turkish history, ottoman history, ottoman cuisine, turkish culture, museum, coffee

يول 1, 2020

Until March 2019, Turkey did not have a coffee museum. The drink that has been the most cherished in Anatolia, the Balkans and the Levant since the 16th century finally has a place of its own thanks to coffee lover Semih Yildirim.

Yildirim is the owner of Kahve Muzesi. In the last decade, Turkish coffee has made a comeback among young urbanites who have been yearning for more diverse tastes. Yildirim not only loves and knows his coffee but also works with some of the best names in the field. Atila Narin, one of the authors of the amazing book "Lost Coffees of Anatolia," is the coordinator of the museum in the magical town of Safranbolu

Turkish coffee assumes different names (Greek, Armenian, Syrian coffee) in the region and in restaurants outside the region. But regardless of the name, the meaning is the same. The coffee beans are roasted either dark or medium, then ground into a powder, is the finest grinder setting on professional machines. Then it is brewed with cold water with no filter in a small pot over the low fire. Brewing over hot coals or sand is praised for a smoky flavor. These brewing and grinding methods are what makes it Turkish coffee.

Yildirim explained that the reason they chose Safranbolu as the home of their museum was the historic spirit of this UNESCO-protected city and its Turkish delight, which pairs well with coffee.

The museum’s collection has been in the works for over a decade. Yildirim and his team traveled all over Anatolia looking for different recipes and artifacts at antique stores. After a while, word got around and coffee aficionados started sending in their family heirlooms for the museum. 

Yildirim kindly took Al-Monitor on a virtual tour of the amazing museum, while visitors took real tours and chatted with Yildirim and his colleagues. The Turkish saying, “The heart desires neither the coffee nor the coffeehouse, but just the company and interaction with others,” is alive in the warm welcome at the museum. The artifacts there help connect abstract tastes with historic figures.

On display are some amazing coffee grinders, cups, pots ("cezve," also known as Turkish "ibrik" in the United States) and roasters that belonged to prominent figures of Ottoman and Turkish history. Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk appears right next to 34th Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid, a favorite of Islamists and conservatives in Turkey. It might be one of the few places you will see their images right next to each other. Both men were said to love their coffee. 

The one image that struck me most was a piece of history I had experienced. It was a donated coffee pot of late Cemil Filik, known to Istanbul’s coffee lovers as the most impressive coffee master. Filik ran a small coffee shop on the busy Istiklal Avenue in Beyoglu district. Its coffee stood out even in the Turkish coffee world, where strong is the most frequent descriptor. Filik, who died in 2019, was known for his own blend of coffee and unique friendly service for his regular customers. 

The coffee museum offers artisanal trays with cold water, grape juice and a bit of desert to accompany the coffees served. Its menu is still evolving and it is the only location in the world where one can find so many different regional and historic types of coffee served in one location. Here are some examples:

Roasted chickpea (nohut kahvesi) coffee is what the name says. During World War II, as coffee imports were halted, aficionados had to find another way. Hence, they substituted roasted chickpeas to make a warm foamy drink. Once coffee imports resumed, most people quit this coffee. The museum pairs this one with raisins in its impressive service tray.

Ice cream (yandirma) coffee is a bit more than the name suggests. The medium roast coffee is made with no sugar added and it is served in a cup, with a scoop of Maras province ice cream floating on top. This ice cream is very thick due to high levels of sahlep, or powdered orchid root. Once the cold ice cream meets the warm coffee, it infuses its sugars and produces a delightful aroma and creamy drink.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the menu is the flirty Turkish coffee, served with crushed roasted almonds on top. Serving Turkish coffee is a tradition when the groom visits the bride’s family to ask for her hand. Brides-to-be are expected to make the coffee so that the crushed almonds will float atop of the coffee cup. The trick is to eat the crushed almond pieces without spilling the coffee or allowing them to sink. Legend says that if the crushed almonds are sweet, then the bride is happy to marry. If they are bitter, then it signals she is not interested. 

Saffron coffee is one that Yildirim himself blends at the museum by using local Safranbolu saffron. It is the most popular coffee at the museum and is praised for its smoothness and unique taste. Saffron’s health benefits as a strong antioxidant and aphrodisiac has made it a popular culinary product in recent years. Along with saffron, other spices such as ground cardamom, carob and chocolate are infused into the once-in-a-life-time taste. The museum pairs this coffee with handmade baklava, another specialty of Safranbolu. 

There are some things to be taken home or order online from this amazing museum, such as rare handmade coffee cups, coffee pots and chocolate bites to go with your coffee. But most important are the packaged coffee options. There are two main blends, one a standard Turkish coffee while the other is called Ottoman coffee. Yildirim said, “You brew it with just the same method, however Ottoman coffee is a blend that I mix on the premises. It has cardamom, sahlep, chocolate, saffron, carob and a special coffee cream.” In addition, the museum offers higher quality coffee options from Ethiopia, Guatemala and Honduras. 

“Most Turkish coffee beans are what is called ‘Rio Minas’ from Brazil. We are trying to offer more complex options. We buy the beans, roast and grind them for Turkish coffee,” he added.

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