Black coffee, white devil

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Paulo Rebêlo ( email )
The Budapest Sun – 11 .April. 2007
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Those that say there is a coffee tradition in Budapest are not telling the truth. At least not exactly. That does not mean to say they are lying. Most probably they just do not appreciate coffee enough to realize how difficult it is to find good coffee around here. Or maybe they are not as addicted as the average Latin American.

The number of so-called cafés in Budapest is high, and rising. In my neighborhood alone, I have seen two new cafés opening in the past three months – and none of the older ones has gone out of business. What I have noticed, however, is that quantity is not a synonym for quality. Also, size does not matter, but content does.

In Budapest, finding good coffee is an adventure, and not always a pleasant one. There are some places that sell a really good cup, but only a few, and they are the exception that proves the rule.

A similar oddity happens in the United States, when you see so many people carrying huge beakers of coffee. There are even plastic “cups” for almost one liter of coffee over there, amazing! At some coffee places in the States, you can have a very big coffee for a curiously cheap price. But does it taste good? Not really.

Unless, of course, that is the only kind of coffee you drink, which is the case of a lot of people I know. Those big coffees have only a slight taste of real coffee, the rest is water, and perhaps some other stuff to simulate the taste that I have no idea of, and don’t even want to think about.

In Budapest, the high number of cafés is a threat and an invitation. A threat to your caffeine addiction and an invitation to adventure around the city in search of a good cup of beans. Sometimes you give up and ask a Hungarian friend what he considers to be a good coffee place. The result is usually disappointing.

The thing is, a good coffee place around here does not mean good coffee. Instead, it usually means a good atmosphere, good service and, most notably, good desserts. In this sense, there is a coffee tradition in Budapest, a coffee atmosphere. But no coffee quality.

And they are cold! Oh my sweet devil, they are cold. How is it that people from this part of the world that do not have a problem in drinking cold coffee? In Brazil, cold coffee is a sin. You just don’t drink it. If the cup is bigger than you expected, you either drink it quickly (before it cools down) or throw away the rest if you see you won’t make it in time.

That’s why non-addicted people go for the small coffee in the first place. Cold coffee does not fit. Ever. Even in the summer (or now, with this amazing weather we’re having), the coffee cools down very quickly.

And it is expensive here as well. I do not mind paying a little more for a good coffee, but paying an over-valued price for bad coffee – which will get cold in seconds – is not really a clever thing to do. Coming from Brazil, which is one of the leading exporters of coffee in the world, I have realized that I will not survive in Hungary on these cold and weak coffees.

It is one of our sacred things, that we keep close to us during breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and at work time. For me, survival in Hungary also depends on the caffeine level in my blood. With this kind of coffee, I would probably be arrested for rioting, demanding quality control.

I can already picture myself carrying a huge sign in Deák Ferénc tér: “Gyurscsány, listen to us, we don’t only want coffee, we want good coffee,” Well, I guess I’ll go entirely for Pepsi for now.

Quick note: the headline for this column was inspired by one of Brazil’s most important movies, Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol), a Glauber Rocha masterpiece, filmed in 1964. It addresses the socio-political problems of 1960s Brazil, although it was set in the ’40s, and is considered by international critics to be one of the best Brazilian movies of all time.