Ouzo, feta, tzatziki, souvlaki, loukoumades. Even for non-Greeks, these words have been synonymous with Greekness, and it’s true that Melbourne offers many opportunities for nostalgic migrants’ stomachs and palates to feel at home. A cornucopia of Greek food in all its different incarnations is on offer − from Kathy Tsaples’ spanakopita to George Calombaris’ experiments on Greek cuisine, to Kalimera’s near-perfect souvlaki, not to mention all the imported delicacies one can find in the Oakleigh groceries.
But food alone is not enough. The Greek experience is a combination of different things − which is what makes the collaboration of the Hellenic Museum with the Benaki so successful. The fact that both museums share a similar ambience, given that they’re both hosted at elegant 19th-century buildings, one being the Royal Mint and the other the residency of one of Athens’ oldest upper-class families, both monuments to their respective cities’ history.
There is nothing monumental in Elwood’s Ormond Esplanade, neither any trait that can be believed to be a reminder of Greece (and let’s not argue here about how different Greek beaches are from those found in Victoria). Yet, it was there that I’ve had my ‘Greekest’ experience since moving to Melbourne.
Because I can think of nothing more Greek than relaxing at the beach, sipping on an ice-cold coffee − and this is exactly what Point Ormond Cafe offers to its patrons. That, and the opportunity to have an ice-cream or snack al fresco, by the beach, on one of the tables surrounding the kiosk.
“This place is 100 years old,” says the owner, Stelios Simatis, explaining that the kiosk has been a Greek-owned business since the ’70s. That was many years before he started working there, in the ’90s, eventually buying it in 2006. It was then that he introduced Greek coffee to the patrons.
“I started making the frappé and the freddo cappuccino and freddo espresso,” he says, which he perfected after many stages of trial and error. He even made an attempt to make traditional hot Greek coffee, “but it’s hard to make the kaimaki on an electric pot,” he laughs. Instead, he opted for the modern versions of Greek coffee: frappé and freddo. Both beverages are actually examples of Greek innovation, one introduced in the ’60s and the other in the early ’90s.
The story of frappé is pretty much common knowledge by now, how it was invented by necessity, when Dimitris Vakondios, an employee of the company importing Nestle products in Greece, tried to make his fix of instant coffee, but had neither hot water nor a spoon at hand. So he used cold water and a shaker, and the rest is history. The story of ‘freddo’ is not that well documented.
In Italy, when you asked for ‘freddo espresso’, you got a shot of coffee kept in the fridge, usually with lots of sugar to eliminate the metallic taste that was the inevitable after-effect. ‘Shakerato’ was developed later, and brought to Italy by Greek baristas. The usually smug Italians were impressed. “You made it, because your bars used thick icecubes that don’t dissolve easily, so they don’t dilute the coffee,” I had a barista instructor explain to me, at Trieste’s Academy of Coffee, the learning annex of one of Italy’s biggest coffee brewers. (The same person described his bafflement when introduced to Turkish coffee: “You take a sip and then there’s mud; what am I supposed to do with it?”)
Stelios’ patrons are equally impressed. Word of mouth has made Point Ormond a favourite among Greeks, naturally, but for Stelios the challenge has been to make his non-Greek clientele forget the Australian version of ‘iced coffee’ (the one with a scoop of ice cream), and switch to ‘the real thing’.
“You have to know how to explain it to them,” he says, describing how most of them are willing to try it and, once they do, they end up coming back for more.
“They seem to love it. We have a lot of returned business,” he says, proudly accepting the title of ‘champion of Greek coffee culture’ that I bestow upon him. He deserves it.