13 April 2010

Coffee: The Wander Years

Well, hello there!  From time to time, I like to indulge my interest in natural history and psycho-botany by sharing the story of a particular species of flora.  Longtime readers will fondly recall my posts penned in loving tribute to the eccentricities and practical uses of the Jerusalem Artichoke (better known as  "sunflower's ugly cousin") and the Agave plant (better known as la madre hermosa de la tequilla).  Now I turn my razor-sharp skills of botanical wit and floral observation to everyone's favorite member of the Bedstraw family, the coffee plant, genus Coffea.  

Coffee, the beverage, though perhaps now best known as the scrip required for entry into "internet shoppes," was once drunk for its supposedly beneficial properties.  No one knows exactly when in the misty past man discovered the possibilities held within the coffee bean.  Probably because most people don't care.

Coffee is not directly tapped from the trunk of the plant, despite what Kentuckians might tell you.  It is, in fact,   made from something called "beans."  You won't find any leaf-covered titan canning these brown beauties, though!  Coffee beans are no legumes at all -- they are actually fleshy seeds, often called in "the fair trade" berries or cherries.  Coffee beans contain everyone's favorite white crystalline xanthine alkaloid (no, not theobromide!), caffeine, as a natural defense against non-human predators.    

The coffee plant is native to the Horn of Africa and southern Arabian peninsula.  Legend has it that a nomadic-shepherd-type, in need of entertainment, as shepherds are wont to be, forcibly fed the berries to the goat wards of one of his herding rivals, hoping they would cause inebriation, or at least death by poisoning.  The animals, though famous for their indiscriminate tastes, bristled at the bitter fruit, but "Akbar," as we shall call our shepherd, successfully concluded his high-jinx.  It was only later that he learned the outcome of his prank.  The infected goats had produced a delicious flavored milk that became renowned in the valley for its energy- and calcium-giving properties.  And the rest, as they say, is now only popular in Rhode Island.

But I digress!  How came coffee from the barren oases of darkest Africa to Europe, Great Imperial Arbiter of World Taste?  It started--as it always does--with some Turks.  Forbidden from drinking intoxicating beverages by their Islamic faith, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire scoured the known world for a beverage that would please there brains without offending their God.  Coffee, called qahwah in Arabic, was their answer.  Soon, coffeehouses rivaled tulips and eunuchs in popularity in the capital of Istanbul.

Fig. 1: Estate in the Lake District where the fortunately-named Wordsworth stayed when he wrote "Lines Composed a Few Miles above a Coffee Plantation" (1798)

In their oriental travels, savvy Europeans backpackers and greedy merchants soon discovered the Turkish drink.  An English trader for the Royal Levant Company, a certain man Edwards, made friends with an Ottoman Greek named Pasqua Rosee (perhaps a nomme de cafe, since an -opolous in strangely absent).  Rosee was a whiz with preparing the bitter brew and a crack marketer to boot.  Edwards thought that these newfangled coffeehouses would be a hit on his home island, so he decided to bring Rosee back to England and start up his own establishment.

Rosee and Edwards opened up their coffeehouse in London in 1652.  As an early modern person, Rosee lacked a sense of the unintentionally absurd, so the sign above the door of his shop was emblazoned with a   likeness of his own head.  Despite this faux pas, his store was a hit with the businessmen of London, and soon every empty lot and basement hovel in London had a coffeehouse that catered to a specific clientele.  Some of the stranger niche establishments included "Coffee-house for Unwigged Gentlemen" (for wig-abstainers), "At the Sign of the Beelzebub" (for Satanists), "Symmes' Inner Coffee-house" (for hollow earth enthusiasts), "The Chicory-House" (which did not actually sell coffee), and "The Amsterdamned Coffee-House" (for Dutch-haters).  (Believe or not, the last one of those was real!)  All raked in the pounds.

Coffeehouse enthusiasts promoted the drink, as the Turks had done, as a sober alternative to alcohol.  Before long, however, coffeehouses began selling other drinks -- tea, hot chocolate....and beer.  Tobacco, scourge of Biblical author James the VI and I, was also popular at coffeehouses, perhaps because smoking the dried leaves was also thought to be an antidote for dread malaria.

Fig. 2: Self-explanatory.

Coffee and coffeehouses were soon popular in the cities of the Old and New Worlds, including Boston, New York, Paris, Amsterdamn, and Vienna.  But it still had to be imported, at great cost, from the domain of the Great Turk.  Sounds like a job for those ruthless traders and still life lovers, the Batavians!  Although I know that you are curious to learn more of the nascent global coffee trade, I regret to say that this terribly over-involved story will not fit into the Cabinet or I won't be able to shut its doors.

Stay tuned for the cleverly-named second chapter, entitled "Coffee: Years of Change." Until then, the Cabinet is closed...

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