Thursday, May 21, 2009
Guayoyo o tetero, flaco? - Venezuelan coffee glossary
You can credit Starbucks for the annoying coffee snobbery that turns seemingly normal people into seething wrecks of a morning if they can't get hold of their usual "grande, half-caf, non-fat, sugar-free, double-shot, extra-foam, no-whip, pumpkin-spice latte - with extra cinnamon", or whatever over-frothed, over-priced muck they drink in place of regular java.
But all the Starbucks snobbery in the world will cut no ice in Venezuela, where the usual coffee rules don't apply and the etiquette of ordering is as important as knowing the subtle differences between a con leche grande and a marron claro grande.
Where to buy?
The best place to get a caffeine fix in Venezuela is definitely at your local panaderia. Literally translated as "bakery", a panaderia is much more than a place to buy bread and cakes.
Panaderias also sell tasty savoury delights such as empanadas (cornmeal or pastry pasties filled with cheese, chicken or beef) and cachitos (crescent-moon-shaped pastries stuffed with chopped ham).
But it's the coffee that pulls the customers in, and panaderia coffee is worth standing in line for.
The quality of Venezuela's locally-grown coffee is excellent - mainly because the export market is so small that the best quality beans are consumed in the country, unlike neighbouring Colombia where all you can get most places is lukewarm Nescafe from a thermos.
The great coffee experience to be had in Venezuela is also due to the huge influx of Italian immigrants - both before and after the Second World War - who not only brought with them Gaggia coffee machines but also the methods of dark-roasting the beans that gives them such a strong flavour.
No matter where you go, from the biggest city to the smallest village, every panaderia worthy of its name will have a Gaggia machine pumping out strong black coffee and steam to froth the milk.
What to order?
Ordering coffee can be complicated for first-timers in Venezuela. Asking for "un cafe por favor" won't get you very far.
Basically there are two sizes available in most places: the larger cafe grande, which isn't that big by Starbucks standards and the smaller cafe pequeno, which is equivalent to a small expresso.
A large black coffee, or cafe negro grande, is strong enough to give some people the caffeine shakes, so one solution is the oddly-named guayoyo, a black coffee that has been slightly watered down.
If you're looking for a latte equivalent order a con leche grande. If you want it extra milky order a tetero grande. A tetero is a baby's bottle in Spanish so don't expect much of a caffeine kick.
For a darker, stronger coffee ask for a marron grande. I like it strong and dark so I always ask for a marron oscuro grande.
If you like it extra strong remember to add the word fuerte at the end of your order.
Some people complicate the issue even further by ordering odd combinations like a marron claro grande, which is so close to a con leche grande that I can't see any difference.
The only other coffee you might want to order is the carajillo, a black coffee with a shot of rum or Brandy. The drink has its roots in the Spanish ocupation of Cuba, when the troops would get a little courage, or corajillo before a battle by adding rum to their coffee.
How to order?
Don't expect the staff to fall over themselves to take your order. Most panaderias will a have signs up on the wall saying you have to buy a ticket from the cashier before ordering your coffee or snacks, so simply asking for stuff without a ticket to wave can result in a complete blank.
Even when you do get the ticket you still have to expect the sometimes overfamiliar interaction between staff and customers that is typical in Venezuela.
The first time I walked into my local panaderia, the girl who sold the empanadas and cachitos greeted me with a big smile and a cheeky: "Hola, ojos del mar, que quieres hoy?" ("Hi, blue eyes, what do you want today").
The serious looking kid with the moustache, meanwhile, would rarely utter anything more than: "Dime flaco!" ("Tell me, skinny!").
Any hesitation in giving my order would result in a lengthy wait while he served everybody else in the store, spoke to the empanada girl and swept up a bit, before finally coming back round to me with another: "Dime flaco!"
I guess I'm lucky, because I always liked the instant familiarity you get wherever you go in Venezuela. A lady friend of mine with a healthy, fuller figure was not so impressed. She never got used to people in stores saying things to her like: "Dime gorda!" ("Tell me, fatty!").
It was in my local panaderia that I made my worst ever Spanish error. Sent down by my mother-in-law to buy pan sobado , or soda bread, I made the mistake of asking for pan sobaco.
The girls behind the counter scrunched up their noses with that quizzical look that says "What?", looked at each other and then burst into fits of giggles.
Before I could reflect on my mistake they started shouting across the panaderia what the crazy gringo had just asked for, causing even more merriment from staff and customers alike.
"Que quieres flaco?" asked the coffee guy, cracking the first smile I'd ever seen on him and adding: "Ese pan que tu quieres no sabe nada bien" ("That bread you want doesn't taste nice at all").
In my confusion I had asked for "armpit bread".