Coffee is far from being the Uzbek national drink, but we met people who are working on changing all that.
In fact, for a nation that drinks almost as much tea as Turkey, it’s remarkable that within an hour of crossing the border from Turkmenistan, we were sitting down to a pretty decent cappuccino.
That coffee in Bukhara came thanks to German expat Gertrud, who opened up Wishbone Café a few years back to provide the sort of quality coffee she wanted herself and couldn’t find anywhere else in town. Gertrud gets her coffee from somewhere in Europe (she didn’t reveal her exact source). Wherever it comes from, it makes a good, smooth brew, so we returned to Wishbone about four times in our 2 day stay, and didn’t try any of the other coffee shops in Bukhara, all of which advertised well-known Italian coffee roasters that you can find on any high street anywhere else in Europe.
Wishbone Café also does great cakes, including a classic German baked cheesecake and a darned good apple strudel, all prepared – we assumed – with Gertrud’s Germanic touch. Apart from our brief success in Tehran, this was the first quality coffee and cake we’d had since Baku some 10 days earlier.
And the great thing about Wishbone’s position is that you can sit and watch the people of Bukhara walk by to and from the various bazaars and mosques. We loved this place and recommend it for anybody after good cake and coffee in Bukhara.
In Samarkand, we didn’t find anywhere for cappuccino or even espresso, but we did find the café with potentially the most beautiful views in the world. How many other coffee shops can lay claim to views like these from their terrace?
And if you stand up to leave the Art Café, make sure you turn around as you walk away because this is what stands just behind the café.
The coffee options here are fairly limited: it’s Nescafé or Arabica. It’s an obvious choice, but just a shame they didn’t have an espresso machine for the Arabica; that said, this too was a decent brew and we returned twice for morning coffee during our two days in Samarkand.
This was one of those cafés where the menu is a wish-list rather than reality, though (something we were to find more and more common as we made our way through Central Asia). I forget what cakes are on the menu, but whatever they were, they weren’t available either time we visited. We settled for a small Russian nut and cinnamon pastry, which actually went very well with the coffee (so why they don’t just adjust the menu to say ‘cake or pastry of the day’, I don’t know…)
Samarkand was also the place where we had perhaps our worst coffee on the whole journey so far. The train station served up a weak, watery black Nescafé that was virtually undrinkable, and reminded me of my childhood when coffee like this was the norm and almost put me off for life.
And so to Tashkent, where we were lucky enough to make the acquaintance of some local coffee lovers. Serj had contacted me via Twitter and wanted to show us some of his favourite coffee shops in Tashkent, with his girlfriend Zoya.
What a stroke of luck! It’s always useful when locals show you the best in their area (so anybody reading this from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand or Malaysia, let us know before we get to your patch).
Our first stop with Serj was called simply Coffee (Kofe). It’s a funky place, somewhere near the main university campus and some of the big hotels on Shahrisabz Kochasi.
There’s a nice mix of football (team scarves from many clubs, including Chelsea, Man U, Man City and Real Madrid, making me wish I’d brought along some Hull City memorabilia), poetry and art (scribbled on the walls all over the place) giving this a really good feel for hanging out and meeting friends over a good cuppa.
And yes, the coffee was good here at Kofe. In fact, we returned here a second time, too, and not just to sample a few different options from their excellent cake menu.
The coffee here was imported from Italy, but not one of the major corporate roasters and a smoother, lighter blend than many you get from Italy, so suited our palate well.
In the evening, we joined Serj and Zoya at Coffee Club.
I would never normally have something caffeinated so late in the day, but the cappuccino at Coffee Club looked irresistible. Beautifully-presented with a glass of water, this was indeed the best coffee in Tashkent – a really rich roast blended by Meinl from Austria, making it an interesting choice and marking different territory from the Italian style at Kofe.
Coffee Club also have a great range of teas (from Ronnefeldt), so although we will be writing a separate piece on tea in Tashkent, Coffee Club might well be the place to go if tea is your tipple.
Coffee Club was relaxed in a very different way from Kofe. Dimly-lit and a much larger space, it also allows smoking, the idea being that this should be a place to relax totally (smoking being linked to relaxing, that is…). And funnily enough, whereas before the smoking ban in the UK, this might have bothered us, in the context of our journey, and having seen the rest of Tashkent, we could understand the philosophy, and could relate (and unlike pre-ban pubs in the UK, our clothes didn’t end the evening stinking of old ashtrays, so it’s not that everybody smokes all evening – it’s an interesting idea, though).
Yes, we liked Coffee Club, and understood why it is also the favourite stop-off after work for people like Serj and Zoya. If we lived in Tashkent, we’d be joining them there regularly.
By Uzbek standards, coffee and cake is not cheap, so it may take time to become a massively popular thing to have, but there are the seeds of a genuine coffee scene in Tashkent, along with Wishbone in Bukhara.
But with people like Serj around (he’s nurturing a dream to one day open his own coffee shop/restaurant), we think coffee in Uzbekistan could be going places.
And for the purposes of our journey, it made a welcome change to have a choice of places for a good coffee.