Europe. One continent that makes me excited beyond words. I’ve lived in Europe and have travelled through it extensively since an early age, yet I’ve never grown tired of it. So many countries packed together nice and tight; so many languages, cultures, and so much history mere hours away from each other. It’s what every traveller thinks about visiting, but it’s also what every foodie has wet dreams about.
Each region of Europe has food to offer that distinguishes it from the rest. So unique is the food and so varied the ingredients that as you move around from one country to another, nay one part of the country to another, you find a distinct change in cooking techniques and of course tastes. The Swiss do their fondue and the Germans are big on bratwursts whereas the Belgians are famous for their chocolate and Italy for the two Ps; Pizza and Pasta. Who can forget French crepes or the Spanish paella and head over to the seaside of any of the Mediterranean countries and the array of available fresh seafood is mind boggling.
But, there is one thing you’re likely to find common across Europe and that’s their love for cafes. Cafes can be found by the sea in Spain or the small lanes of Amsterdam. There are tiny family run cafes on the smallest of the Greek Isles and nice big ones in something as central as Grand Place of Belgium. The cafe culture is something unique to most of Europe or if not that then at least it’s most visible there. What makes cafes tick in Europe? What’s the secret behind its longevity and success? Is this the equivalent of street food that is so common in Asia? I honestly don’t know, except for maybe vaguely putting it on the culture, but the fact remains that part of the charm of travelling through Europe is experiencing its cafes as they are dotted throughout the continent in their various avatars.
I did see you raise an eyebrow when I mentioned that cafes might be equivalent to street-side joints that can be found across Asia, so just imagine having a conversation about the latest cricket match that just ended or the latest political scandal with a stranger as you have Gol Gappas at the nearby Chaat Shop, it’s pretty much the same except you’re most likely to get into a debate about which football team is going to win the year’s European Cup. If you ever want to witness mass jubilation, just hope and pray you are in a European country as they play and win any major football tournament. The entire nation is out, mostly in cafes as they plant TVs all around, even in the open, and it is simply a sight to see and music for the ears as the crowd goes on about with their “Oooos” and “Aaaaas” with every kick of the ball.
Cafe culture has been prominent in Europe for decades. It has evolved over the years and consists of every food and drink option you can imagine. No longer is it just about coffee and a quick bite as you can eat a breakfast fit for kings in one place and have an almost fine dining experience in another. Often the joy of truly enjoying a cafe is being there first thing in the morning to experience that fresh pot of coffee or the new batch of croissants while they prepare your eggs to order. Or if the weather is nice, sip a glass of wine in the afternoon with some cheese. I especially love the smaller cafes by the sea that serve the catch-of-the-day, octopus maybe, that you can treat yourself along with olives and sundried tomatoes. Then there is ice-cream; who can resist a lovely scoop of ice-cream made with local flavours.
I do often wonder why it is then that cafe-culture hasn’t caught up in India? Granted we have the hot sun shining on our heads for a good three to four months and another month and half of rains but there seem to be a lack of options in general. Europe too has extreme temperatures with snow and wind and heat too, but that doesn’t seem to deter them from being out and about in the open. We do have our beachside shacks that everyone raves about after visiting Goa that are the Asian-ized version of cafes, but with the food in general becoming more experimental across India there sadly seems to be no real movement in setting up cafes except for the branded coffee-shops that have popped up in mass numbers over the last decade. We also do have our Dhabas, but again, their locations, mostly by the road, aren’t that scenic (unless you’re up in the mountains), although the food is quite exemplary and does change from region to region. Before you jump on top of me and state that there are many cafes in India so much so that it even says so in the name of these establishments, think, do they really fit the conventional notions of a cafe or are they just restaurants masquerading as cafes by serving cafe-like food? Some of these places have got their food perfect and there is no denying that cafes do exist at home, but the “cafe culture” is a long way from gaining strength.
Could this be because of the inherent nature of a true-blue cafe? In my experience, when travelling, I’ve found that there is a certain intimacy in the closeness of the seating at these cafes. Space is a luxury and thus most of the European cafes are packed together where you are privy to your neighbour’s conversation. I’ve heard lovers fight, or it seemed like they were fighting, and business deals being struck, and seen people engrossed in their laptops or talk away to oblivion with their friends who I fantasize they are meeting after years. There’s a certain voyeuristic pleasure to it all that isn’t just limited to conversations. Part of the charm of cafe culture is watching the world go by as you take a step back, relax, and take a sip of the local beer. Mind you the voyeurism aspect to it all is available should you want it for its equally easy to go through an entire meal completely clueless about what was happening right next or in-front of you. That’s the magic of a cafe. Another prime example of this closeness is when people smile with a nod as you take a seat on the table next to them and don’t be surprised if you hear a “Bon Apatite” from them either as your food arrives.
My love for cafes has long lasted since my college days. I’ve found cafes to be great places for a meet-up with friends or when alone simply sit and take in the rays (who am I kidding, I get tanned way too quick to sit in the sun, but a nice shaded seating is always appreciated) as I charge up on coffee and cake. It so happened that my love for cafes was rejuvenated last month as I travelled across Europe on work. Be it the Grand Place in Brussels, the small side streets of Lille in France or Leidseplein in Amsterdam, the idea of tasting local beer, having some freshly made chips, and watching people move about had a great nostalgic feel to it all and not to forget the perfect relaxer after a morning of business meetings.
Often when travelling abroad we are so engulfed in finding the next restaurant to eat at, that we miss out on these usually smaller establishments. Cafes are a great source for experimenting local foods and those that are especially family-run can be a charming experience as they prove to be an encyclopaedia of local knowledge, should you choose to interact with the owners. So, promise yourself that the next time you’re out there exploring the world, take out a little time, be it 15 minutes for a coffee or a good couple of hours to contemplate on the mysteries of life, but you’ll have a seat at a cafe and give it a try. In fact go right ahead, smile and greet the person next to you; who knows what you’ll discover as a result.