Çiğdem Pastanesi

Istanbul, Turkey

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Ever since I was exiled to the continent (and, currently, to the ‘sub’-continent) nearly six months ago, I have been at a loss to find cafes that fall within the narrow guidelines deemed appropriate for tableaux by some of my colleagues on this site. So what is one to do if soymilk and vegan cookies are not offered on the menu? Or, if one is more likely to hear Journey or Michael Jackson piped through some kluged together sound system, than Cat Power or your local mason-jar-toting friends’ band? Should the fact that ‘pastanesi’ (Turk. ‘patisserie’) is in the establishment’s name disqualify it from receiving mention here?

Istanbul, Turkey
If some of you should think that to be the case, I offer you these counterpoints as fodder to sway you from your North American-slanted positions: First and foremost, the Hagia Sophia—undeniably the most awesome domed church-cum-mosque-cum-museum in existence—is located a mere 200 meters from Çiğdem Pastanesi. Forget the textbook trivia you learned in grade school. The Hagia Sophia is more than just a flexing of political power; it also stands as a striking palimpsest, its surfaces marked by the traces of Byzantine might, Islamic iconoclasm, and Viking graffiti. After etching your own name into one of the building’s massive piers, wouldn’t you want to go grab a French press at a local coffee haunt?

Istanbul, Turkey

Viking graffiti

Second, the first coffeehouse in Istanbul opened in 1554. That’s more than four hundred years before the first grungy, bagel-serving, hipster cafe was established in the United States! I understand there is some current debate over the possibility of the existence of a coffeehouse at the fledgling English settlement of Jamestown. It seems John Smith hoped to improve conditions — as well as boost the morale — of the disease-ridden community by serving chicory-and-coffee-berry brews and vegan scones to malnourished members of the colony. According to one source, Smith and Pocahontas decorated the coffee shop with various found objects: synthetic furs, grass figurines, and an eclectic assortment of pressed-flower/bark compositions. Discounts were offered to those who brought their own clay pots, and there was allegedly much experimentation with alternative ‘milk’ options, using such unorthodox ingredients as tobacco, mulch, and snow. Of course, until archaeological evidence proves unequivocally that this lore is indeed historical fact, the story of Jamestown’s ‘Indie Coffee Cafe’ will have to be accepted as mere conjecture. In any case, assuming its existence is indeed proved, it will still postdate Istanbul’s first cafe by more than sixty years. Consider this: would you rather drink espresso in a mosquito-infested swamp, or sip kahve—yes, amidst a slew of pastries—on the literal foundations of cafe culture?

Istanbul, Turkey

Third, there is an abundance of red stumpy-tailed manx tabbies that can be found on the grounds of the Hagia Sophia and in the vicinity, hanging out on door stoops near Çiğdem Pastanesi, for example.

Çiğdem Pastanesi

Finally, the coffee at Çiğdem Pastanesi is quite good. Contrary to popular belief, Turks generally don’t drink ‘Turkish coffee’. Rather, you are more likely to be offered tea or Nescafe in most eating establishments. It is for this reason that the French press option at Çiğdem Pastanesi is such a treat. Enjoy your fresh coffee whilst examining the café’s curious interior. The condition of its bricked-up windows, wood paneling, and hand-glazed tile floor suggests a date of circa 1590. Clearly Çiğdem Pastanesi has seen much change—no doubt its ownership has passed through many hands, from pashas and Venetian merchants to sheikhs and possibly Atatürk himself—and its antiquated d?cor reflects this. Fine, there is no wireless internet access available, and the number of sweet and savory foods on the menu outnumbers the items on the beverage list. But this is where history happens, where the wheels of civilization grind away. On cold winter eves, the bards string together tales of distant places; they sing of dairy-free doughnuts and French Peruvian roasts. They know what’s out there, but this is Istanbul: why should they do things differently?

Istanbul, Turkey

Incidentally, for those of you curious about the prevalence of the ‘croissant’ in the old Ottoman capital, this pastry, whose (apocryphal?) history relates that its origins were born from anti-Turk sentiment in Viennese culinary circles (thus its ‘crescent’ shape) during the 1680s, does not appear to be popular in Istanbuli cafes. If you have a hankering for one, however, there is a small restaurant at the international airport in Istanbul, where you can enjoy—in all its irony—a fresh croissant stuffed with traditional Turkish food bits.


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Çiğdem Pastanesi

Divanyolu Caddasi Alemdar Mh. 62/A
Sultanahmet
Istanbul,
Turkey


soymilk: not available

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CAFE TABLEAUX
is a compendium of literary, anecdotal musings on coffeeshop and cafe culture.
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