Israel's cafe society

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Israel's cafe society

Postby Anthony Silverbrow » Wed May 26, 2010 4:48 am

On my recent trip to Israel I've been trying to figure out why Israel gets the cafe lifestyle so right. No doubt the weather plays a part so it's possible and desirable to while away hours watching the world go by.

But more than that the cafes themselves, even chains like Roladin or Rimon, seem to get it right. Service is friendly. The food is generally good and quite interesting and the coffees themselves are excellent. I drank only espresso based drinks so can only comment on that. Everywhere seemed to pull good espressos, properly froth the milk - which was always fresh - and know how to pour a good drink.

The question is why? Is it a hangover of Mittel-European immigrants yearning for their cafes of yesteryear and sowing the seeds for this current profusion or is there another driver.

As a related issue I was discussing with my wife why portion sizes in Israel tend to be so big. Could it be as a result of the American influence? Or is it something similar to the supposed reason for portion sizes in American delis: Immigrants wanted to pile on the plate as a way of showing how their situations had improved and now food is in abundance.
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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Trevor F » Wed May 26, 2010 2:13 pm

You're right, cakes are nice as well. Just a shame about the Goldstar beer.... tinny taste, full of chemicals. What's the name of that place with 70 foreign beers that Rogov was on about a few weeks back ?
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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Daniel Rogov » Wed May 26, 2010 2:35 pm

Anthony, Hi....

I think it important to realize that the history of coffee as the most popular beverage of the Arabian Penninsula, the Middle-East and North Africa goes back to the 16th century (the tale about the shepherd who discovered it in the 9th century is almost surely nothing more than a charming myth), the first coffee houses having opened in Persia as early as 1540. True, the coffee served during those days was not espresso, having far more in common with what people today refer to as "Turkish" or "Greek" coffee, depending on which side of the borders they were raised. Even espresso in the Middle-East pre-dates its existence even in Italy, cafe owners in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia and parts of what were then Palestine, were using macchineto like machines as early as 1855.

Truth be told, however, until the late 1960's most Israeli coffee was pretty poor, only the very wealthy being able to afford imported coffee, not many of them having espresso machines at home, and the cafes relying on little more than the stuff put out by Elite and said to be coffee. Came the 1970's however, and there was a revolution, that starting interestingly enough not in cafes but in the fine restaurants when restaurateurs started importing both coffee and espresso machines from Italy. And since then, indeed Israeli cafes have served up coffee as fine as any you will find in Italy.

Italian is definitely the style of choice for Israeli espresso lovers.

As to cafe sitting as an art-form of its own, that began in Israel with the Arab and Bedouin population long before the first aliya. When Jews did come to Israel, whether from North Africa or from Europe, they simply moved their own habits to their new local setting and took on a great love for the cafe.

On one point I must differ with Trevor. In my own experience, most Israeli cafes serve cakes and breads that border on the abysmal, sandwiches that are overpriced and under-stuffed and too often with mediocre ingredients. None of which matters however, for cafe-sitting is most surely the national sport and so long as the coffee itself is good no one dares insult your "local cafe".

For a more detailed overview of the local cafe scene and its history and realities I recommend the little book put out by the art school "Ascola" in 1995 (to which I contributed two articles but those, alas no longer on my computer).
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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Daniel Rogov » Wed May 26, 2010 2:39 pm

Trevor, Hi.....

The place with the many imported beers is Porter and Sons and my review of the place can be found at http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1161633.html

As to Goldstar, worth keeping in mind that while Goldstar in bottles and tins may be justifiably avoided, their draft beer (draught to you on the Sceptered Isles) is quite pleasant and often my choice when it is a light blonde that will accompany my meal nicely.

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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Daniel Rogov » Wed May 26, 2010 6:40 pm

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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Bobby S » Sat May 29, 2010 11:30 am

While not taking anything away from the Arab influence on Israeli cafe culture, I do think Andrew has a point about the influence of mitteleuropa on Israel. It seems to me many Jews, especially secular ones, look back to Europe before 1933 as a golden age. More so, I think many of these Jews viewed themselves as integral to that culture and possessing a strong sense of ownership. Yet it went horribly wrong, and Israel was a place to remake that ideal world without the "brutes" who seemed to have ruined it.

In fact, though, some have argued that anti-semitism was integral to that world, making it inherently unstable. The reason is: Jews were largely blocked out of the academy, so many people who would have become academics and intellectuals instead went into business, exploring their intellectual pursuits on the side and using their money to fund artists, writers, salons, etc. Had history gone differently and antisemitism began to disappear after 1933, the number of intellectual-slash-wealthy businessmen would have dwindled.

I don't know if that's true, but I do know for sure that historical moments are fleeting, the only consolation is new ones spring up somewhere else. For me, it is a struggle to unmoor myself from the nostalgia and comfort sufficiently to enjoy that new moment.
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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby MarkC » Mon May 31, 2010 3:18 am

In my opinion, the Israeli chain Arcaffe deserves a lot of the credit for the high quality of Israeli cafes. I met the owner once, who described his passion for coffee, and how he travelled to Italy to learn the proper method of preparing espresso, and then to France to learn how to bake croissants. Arcaffe really set the standard for Israel, and any new chain had to more or less meet the standard. And Arcaffe heroically beat the pants off of Starbucks, who set out to destroy them by opening branches right next to Arcaffe, only to watch as their business failed to take off, while people lined up for Arcaffe.

Add to that that Israelis a very sociable people who like to meet and talk, as opposed to the Starbucks model of grabbing a takeaway coffee to sip in your cubicle.
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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Trevor F » Mon May 31, 2010 2:10 pm

MarkC wrote:Add to that that Israelis a very sociable people who like to meet and talk, as opposed to the Starbucks model of grabbing a takeaway coffee to sip in your cubicle.

............among themselves. At parties or dinners they generally can't do small talk to strangers.
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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Daniel Rogov » Mon May 31, 2010 2:51 pm

Trevor F wrote:(Israelis are open and talk freely)............among themselves. At parties or dinners they generally can't do small talk to strangers.



Oy Trevor, you have had some bad experiences, perhaps partying or dining with the wrong people. At various levels, from farmers and vintners and winemakers to professors of oenology and on to the bohema and within the circles of journalists, teachers, taxi-drivers, owners of flower shops, and on and on, I have met few people who are more expert at doing small talk with strangers, quite often showing a thirst for learning about and exchanging ideas with others.

True, I do not tend to socialize with dentists, accountants or garage mechanics, so I am taking care not to overgeneralize. 8)

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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Daniel Rogov » Mon May 31, 2010 3:32 pm

MarkC wrote:In my opinion, the Israeli chain Arcaffe deserves a lot of the credit for the high quality of Israeli cafes.



Mark, Hi....

I'll agree and disagree with you on this one. Playing on the biblical theme for a moment: In the beginning there were Kassit, Cafe Tamar and dozens of small, often family run and neighborhood oriented cafes, where although the coffee, cakes and sandwiches were pretty abysmal, they attracted a loyal crowd of followers, each claiming that his or her cafe was the best.

Kassit and Tamar begat The Coffee Nazi (not to take offense, a most affectionate term) on Tel Aviv's Shenkin Street and there, perhaps for the first time someone in Israel who knew how to how an espresso machine works. The Coffee Nazi in his turn begat Ilan's and Cuppa Joe, indeed the first places in the country where the roasting, blending and making of coffee became the art-form of which coffee is capable.

Keeping in mind that Ilan's was founded in 1990 and that Cuppa Joe opened in 1992, both with single cafes at the time (Ilan's on Rehov Ibn Gvirol and Cuppa Joe on Carlibach), it is important to remember that Arcaffe's first branch (in Herziliya Pituach) opened only in 1995 and by that time a host of small but fine cafes were making admirable cups of espresso and having their regulars who came to call on a thoroughly regular schedule. So devoted were those regulars that some Tel Avivians made the round of two, three or even four cafes every Friday, at each to sit with friends and to discuss the national and international politics, cinema, literary efforts and, of course, the men and women they had conquered during the last week.

As to chains I suppose I have a problem, for the more they grow, the more standardized they become and places that are standarized just don't cut it for me. Whether here in Israel, in the USA and indeed even in parts of France, Italy and Spain, I generally avoid the chains, seeking out instead those places that are individualistic enough to allow me to feel my own individuality. And of course, despite or perhaps because of that individuality, to fit in comfortably without feeling that I am simply "another customer".

Kassit is long gone, Tamar will soon have vanished; and the Coffee Nazi is no longer on the premises most of the time. Not a problem though. Indeed Israeli cafe sitting remains among my most favored activities and there remain dozens yet to be explored and dozens to which I look forward to returning.

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P.S. And yes, when I am in Akko, Uhm Al Fahm, Jish or parts of Haifa, I continue to thoroughly enjoy the old-time, old-fashioned Arab cafes. And who, after all, am I to deny they joy of the narghila?


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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Jenise » Tue Jun 08, 2010 12:57 pm

Daniel Rogov wrote:As to chains I suppose I have a problem, for the more they grow, the more standardized they become and places that are standarized just don't cut it for me. Whether here in Israel, in the USA and indeed even in parts of France, Italy and Spain, I generally avoid the chains, seeking out instead those places that are individualistic enough to allow me to feel my own individuality. And of course, despite or perhaps because of that individuality, to fit in comfortably without feeling that I am simply "another customer".


Perhaps I don't belong in this conversation, not having experienced Israeli cafe life, but Bobby's comments about middle Europe brought back sharp memories of travelling to Hungary in early 1989 with dear Jewish-Hungarian friends. They were much older than us, and both fled in 1957--he hiked to Austria with friends, where she was small enough to fit into a steamer trunk and be snuck out by a sympathizer. They met as refugees in Montreal. As we pulled into Budapest, the Russians were pulling out--literally, we passed the trains carrying the tanks--and so before any reconstruction began, we got to see lovely remnants of the old Budapest as she had been, even if seriously tattered, through the eyes of people who knew her heydey. It was to the salons and cafes they took us, and these were my first coffee house experiences, I who had yet to even step foot into a Starbucks. And while there we were instructed to talk, expound and debate, as was done in the old days, about politics, literature and travel, in such a way that others could overhear us and join our conversation. Which, us being the rare English speakers in a country weary from the sound of Russian, they did.

I'll treasure those memories always, and I envy all of you who live in a place where that kind of experience is easily available. Alas, in America, we just drink our coffee and get onto the next thing that demands our time.
My wine shopping and I have never had a problem. Just a perpetual race between the bankruptcy court and Hell.--Rogov
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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Trevor F » Wed Jun 09, 2010 12:17 pm

Jenise wrote:Perhaps I don't belong in this conversation, not having experienced Israeli cafe life, but Bobby's comments about middle Europe brought back sharp memories of travelling to Hungary in early 1989 with dear Jewish-Hungarian friends.


I'm clearly older than you as I first went to Budapest in the long hot summer of 1976 when it was still Communist. Arriving by overnight train from Krakow I went into a restaurant and was given a menu in Hungarian which is totally incomprehensible to non-Hungarians. So I looked around and pointed to what someone else was eating. I was told that it was 'solet' , with beans. Years later I found out that 'solet' was cholent. So I had cholent without even knowing it.
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Re: Israel's cafe society

Postby Daniel Rogov » Wed Jun 09, 2010 12:40 pm

Because the dish known as cholent is uniquely Jewish in its roots and because most of the population of the planet is not Jewish, a few words about that exquisite dish.

First of all let it be known that cholent is no ordinary stew but is a dish that was devised for the Sabbath. Because orthodox Jews cannot make a flame on the Sabbath cooking would be very difficult, so cholent is a dish meant for cooking some 24 hours, that is to say from before the onset of the Sabbath until the dinner celebrating the end of that day. More than that, unlike most stews, there is nothing delicate about cholent which is so dense that it does not slide down the gullet but rather falls and makes its way to the stomach with a resounding boom. Better yet, the dish is almost impervious to the human digestive system and has been known to have been found in the stomach at least three days after it was consumed. Because cholent invariably has beans in it, it causes a bit of flatulence. And, despite all, in not a few it causes severe constipation.

Now - ye non-Jews who chance upon these words, beware and never, never dare thee to belittle anyone's cholent, for despite its distinct peasant nature and potential side effects, this is one of the most beloved aspects of being Jewish. It has even been suggested that he or she who loves not cholent loves not his or her fellows on the planet. That might be a bit unfair to vegetarians but in the name of 5,000 years of Jewish morality, there is even a well known version of vegetarian cholent.

And, in the name of good clean fun (for indeed well made cholent is a treat), should anyone want a recipe please start a separate thread and call that "Cholent - For Heaven's Sake". I will then gladly provide a recipe. And yes, I shall even include a recipe and a few possibly amusing comments about kishke.

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