One of the best things about living in London is that you don’t have to travel far to experience different snacks and cuisines from all over the world.
You can literally get a taste of the Mediterranean a short distance from the Thames, and that’s the case with one particular Greek café in Camden.
Mikel Coffee opened its first shop in London on Tottenham Court Road in 2018.
In three years, it has become popular with Londoners living and working in the area, especially with commuters using the nearby Goodge Street station in the morning rush, as well as those looking for a quick bite to eat on their lunch breaks.
It has also become a main point of congregation for Greeks living in London, who can often be seen sitting outside the café enjoying their coffee and pastries.
When walking past the shop, it’s almost impossible to ignore the reverberating sound of customers chit chatting in Greek. For a moment, you might forget that you’re in London and imagine you’re actually in downtown Athens.
Greek is the lingua franca in the café, which quickly becomes clear the moment you step into the shop and are greeted with a friendly ‘kali mera’ (good morning) or ‘yassas’ (hello) from the till staff.
They will only switch to English if they realise you can’t understand Greek, but they can’t hide their pleasure when you return the greeting in their language.
It might be helpful to drop a few simple Greek words here and there when interacting with staff and customers in the café, if only to feel part of the atmosphere.
You can ask ‘pos paeis? ’ for ‘how’s it going?’ or ‘isa kala?’ for ‘are you well?’
Other words to easily pick up are ‘nei’ for ‘yes’, ‘ohi’ for ‘no’ and ‘entaxei’ for ‘okay’.
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To say ‘thank you’, you would say ‘efkaristow’, and if you are thanked, the appropriate reply would be ‘parakalow’, which means ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘the same to you’.
These simple gestures count for a lot among Mikel Coffee staff, and they especially love it whenever a customer asks for a serving of ‘Greek coffee’.
There is a particular glare in their eyes if you ask for this special type of coffee, as it expresses a mixture of pride and confusion.
If you’re not Greek, their immediate assumption might be that you’re a lightweight when it comes to coffee, and they might ask you if you’re sure about your order as the coffee is usually a bit too strong for most.
The answer to this is always a nice, firm, confident ‘nei’, or ‘yes’. It’s at that moment when you will see one member of staff move away from the general coffee machine and reach under the till to take out a special copper pot, and pour into it coffee granules from a special packet.
You may also be asked if you want your coffee with sugar – only a true champion would say ‘ohi’, or ‘no’.
The coffee is then mixed with cold water and roasted on top of a gas lighter. The key is to not over-boil the coffee, and keep it on medium heat just long enough to get a thin layer of foam on the top. This foam is called ‘kaimaki’.
The granules sink to the bottom of the pot and form a kind of mud, which experienced drinkers would know not to drink. Newbies however tend to make the mistake of swallowing some of the mud and getting it stuck in their throat.
This coffee is consumed in Greece like water, and is a cornerstone of Greek cultural expression and lifestyle.
But even calling it ‘Greek coffee’ is enough to cause an international dispute.
The coffee is also consumed in Turkey, Cyprus, the Balkans, and the Levant.
In Turkish restaurants, you will come across the same coffee, except they would call it ‘Turkish coffee’. Likewise, when going to a Cypriot restaurant, you must be sure to check if the restaurant owners are Turkish or Greek Cypriot, because ordering the coffee with the wrong name could result in being thrown out of the restaurant.
It is a little easier to distinguish the coffee when going to a Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian or Iraqi restaurant as they tend to add a pinch of cardamom to the blend, but again, you must take care not to name the coffee incorrectly, because it won’t go down well with staff.
While it is fair to say that the coffee actually belongs to all people of south eastern Europe and the Levant, ownership of this coffee is a source of national pride for all countries in the region.
This is why in Mikel Coffee, a flagship business that originated in Thessaly, Greece in 2008 and has since spread to 15 countries around the world, having customers place an order for ‘Greek coffee’, is not the same as just asking for cappuccino at Starbucks.
Besides serving delicious pastries stuffed full of feta cheese, potato and spinach, Mikel Coffee is on the frontline of a cultural mission to assert Greek sovereignty over what is possibly the most argued about coffee in the world.
That probably explains why, when asking for a ‘Greek coffee’ at Mikel, staff stiffen up like soldiers giving a military salute while being awarded a medal of honour for their bravery.
Politics aside, it’s actually pretty good coffee, regardless of who owns it.
It is one of the many reasons why Mikel Coffee is rated 4.8 on Deliveroo, 4.5 on Google and 4 stars on TripAdvisor, with one reviewer calling in the ‘best coffee’ they’ve ‘ever tasted in London’.
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