Tuesday, October 09, 2007

About those crocs ... plus a Middle Eastern cup of joe

So I'd better clear the air about my feelings on crocs ... love 'em, hate 'em ... love the sinner, hate the sin? I don't hate croc-wearers. I just think they make adults who wear them look ridiculous, except maybe at the beach.

Were there crocs everywhere in the Middle East? Or just the desert? (Isn't it all desert? No, actually, it isn't.) They are comfortable in the desert. They protect your feet against burning sand, while still "breathing." So it's natural the Beduin would want them. They do what a good pair of sandals do, only better. I saw them in Eilat, of course, especially on and near the beach. But I saw them even in Jerusalem, and there they seemed pretty out of place. Maybe crocs just aren't respectful enough for the Holy City.*

BTW, click here to see what Manolo of shoe blogs fame thinks of crocs. There's even a "I hate Crocs" website.

On a happier note, let's talk about coffee. It started in that part of the world. Europeans and then Americans changed it, but Middle Eastern coffee is still special.

It goes like this. The more you roast the beans, the less caffeine per pound. So American coffee, contrary to myth, is the most caffeinated. We just use less of it to make a cup of joe. That's why Italians call the lighter, clearer coffee (more water, less bean) "cafe Americano." As you move eastward, towards the dawn of civilization, the more roasted the beans. But then again, Italians, with their espresso, use more coffee to make a cup: the caffeine is more concentrated, and even a small cup can give you a real kick. Finally, at the center of coffee culture, the Middle East, the beans are the most roasted and the least caffeinated. But they use a lot of coffee to make even a small demitasse. It's so thick, it's almost like sludge. Turks and Israelis call it "Turkish coffee," Arabs call it "Arabic coffee," and Greeks, of course, refer to it as "Greek coffee" - and don't try to argue with them.

The best coffee experience on my trip: I got better-than-decent espresso and cappuccino in Erice (Sicily). But nothing can top the Beduin coffee at the Aqaba-Eilat border crossing. The shop owner obviously lucked out with an exclusive concession. He had the usual tourist stuff - postcards, film, batteries, T-shirts, plus more of that old Ottoman bric-a-brac (non-functional rifle, Turkish sword, narghila or hookah for flavored tobacco). But in the back was the classic Bedu brass coffee pot over an open fire. The coffee had a slight hint of mocha and, most critically, was continually stirred and swished around - that way, it ends up thick but not sludgy. Served with a slight touch of lemony essence, no other coffee touches it. And a demitasse of it is enough to keep you going all morning.

Even with globalization and Starbucks, coffee like that is not something that can be mass-produced or packaged. This is one of the reasons we travel.**
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* Although entering a mosque, you're required to remove your shoes.

** Not that I'm one of those snobs who hates Starbucks. I'm not a big coffee-drinker, but Starbucks coffee is fine and, more important, reliable.

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