TURN off bustling Calle Elvira into the cobbled street-alleys of Caldereria Vieja or Nueva and you have left Europe behind. The Albaicín has maintained its identity as Granada’s Muslim quarter since the Christian reconquest in 1492, and long before. Today, alongside small open shopfronts festooned with jewel fabrics, odorous leather goods and eager proprietors, the fragrant darkness of the traditional Arab teahouses or teterías beckons you in for refreshment from the inexorable Andalucian sun.
By Arpi Shively
Since its introduction in the late 18th century, consumption has risen to make Morocco the world’s largest importer of Chinese green tea, the base for a rainbow of subtly scented varieties. Throughout North Africa and other Arab regions, drinking sweetened mint tea is an all-day habit, and offering it to guests the first act of hospitality (you are generally offered tea three times and should accept twice).
Though they reflect an established Arab tradition, most of the teterías in Granada today were opened in the past 30 years by homesick Moroccan immigrants working in the city who wanted familiar – and alcohol-free – venues to meet their friends or relax after a hard day. Today they also host a mixture of newspaper-rustling locals, tranquility-seeking tourists and students deep in textbooks.
The tetería is an oasis of quiet in a noisy city. Modern North African background music provides soothing drum and guitar rhythms, a continent away from the typical Spanish sound cocktail of television, coffeemaker and fruit machines all talking at once. Something – the absence of alcohol perhaps or the delicate fabrics and furnishings – particularly welcomes women, who seem comfortable whether reading alone or devouring gossip and sweet pastries together around a traditional three-legged sinya table.
Strolling through Caldereria Vieja on a bright winter afternoon, you are as likely to hear “Salaam Aleikoum” shouted in greeting as “Hola!” From the open doorway of Al-Andalus tetería a soundtrack plays: the Arab singer bends the notes until they break, chomping the ends off his words. Chalked menus offer couscous with everything, and tajines, meat, vegetable and rice combinations cooked in the traditional dome-lidded earthenware pots, make a guest appearance in the faded colour photographs on display.
Nearly all the teterías in Granada are concentrated in Caldereria Vieja and Caldereria Nueva. Opening times vary considerably, from 12 noon to the more usual 3.00 pm or even later, and most stay open beyond midnight. Kasbah, at Calle Caldereria Nueva 4, makes poetry even out of its opening hours, “from three in the afternoon until the last candle burns out.”
Nazari, Pervane, Meknes Rahma or Dar Ziryab. The names of teterías taste exotic on your tongue, all the more beautiful for not being understood. Pervane at the top of Calle Nueva is all hidden corners and tables for two, while Meknes Rahma, also in Calle Nueva, groups seating around the walls for a more spacious, less private ambience. And it has the most over-the-top lighting. Pick any one you like and leave the glaring sunshine behind as you step into the restful gloom.
Though each tetería is subtly different, the décor is emphatically oriental, with long benches cushioned in rich velvet and often draped with rugs, facing low carved stools and tables. Light from extravagant lamps in pierced and coloured metal throws shadows over lacy carved archways and wall reliefs. The tea service is no less a feast for the eyes. Small drinking glasses are frosted with gold and the chased metal teapot has a graceful curved spout for greater accuracy – tea is traditionally poured into the glass from a great height to create a frothy surface.
Teterías serve a range of herb, spice and fruit teas. Even reading the menu at Kasbah seems to have a cooling effect: “The Last Sigh of the Moor,” “Tarrying in the Desert” and “Flor de Sherezade” are listed next to Egyptian Rose-mint-cinnamon, violet and bergamot teas.
For more substantial refreshment choose from a long list of batidos, delicious blends of milk with fruit, less cloyingly sweet than many commercial shakes. Avocado, banana and coconut or almond, date and honey are just two of the unusual flavours on offer at Kasbah.
Cloyingly sweet indeed but heavenly in small doses are the typical Arab pastries such as baklava and khadaifi that seem made to accompany the delicate teas and shakes. If you are hungry, try pastela, a rich filo pastry filled with spicy chicken and egg.
By now you may be quite carried away by the whole Moorish experience. If so, end your meal with some leisurely puffs of a hookah or narguile. This traditional Arab smoking apparatus is filled with tobacco, often perfumed with mint, rose, apple or banana. A hookah costs between eight and ten euros and sharing is thrifty and fun.
Finally, exercise caution when you leave a tetería, or you may experience culture shock when you find yourself too swiftly back in Europe. So stop and bargain for a pierced leather lamp, stroke a silk scarf or two and pop in to Pasteleria Nujaila to buy some shimmering almond tarts. Then stroll back to Calle Elvira and the brave EU world of modern day Granada. The shadowy charms of the city’s teterias will be waiting patiently just around the corner, ready to welcome your return with a gilded glass of sweetly minty té marroqui.