Coffee, A Little History
“Coffea is a native of Abyssinia and is an evergreen shrub, growing to the height of twelve to fifteen feet. The flowers resemble jasmine, and diffuse a strong, balmy fragrance. When the flower droops, the fruit appears in its place. In the centre of this lies the bean, easily separated into halves." (*)
Myths and Legends
The story of coffee is long, rich and liberally sprinkled with myths and legends. It was reputedly first discovered quite by chance in what we now call Ethiopia in East Africa, by a goat herder surprised to see his animals become increasingly frolicsome after consuming some of the potent, bitter fruit. In its early stages as a beverage around the 11th century, it was crudely roasted, pulverised then boiled. Its wakeful properties were undeniable so it was soon introduced to Yemen (also called Arabian Peninsula) for cultivation.
In Africa, the beans were crushed and rolled with fat into balls for sustenance while in the mosques of Mecca and Medina, where wine was banned on religious grounds, the liquid from this “seditious berry” was eventually deemed an acceptable substitute to stir the pulse. Many believed it to possess medicinal qualities and its popularity grew.
The drink ‘du Jour’
By the 16th century it was the drink ‘du jour’ in the salons of Cairo, Damascus and eventually Constantinople, where it refreshed those indulging in pastimes such as chess, dancing and singing. It was Dutch and Italian merchants who brought the drink to Europe by the middle of the 17th century, and soon after, lively coffee houses sprang up from Rome to Paris and London.
The hot Dutch colonies of Java and Sumatra were the first major cultivation centres, and the Mocha-Java became the first authentic blend of coffee varieties. It remains one of the most popular blends to this day.
(*) From Coffee: Its history, culture, modes of preparation, chemical and medicinal properties and commercial statistics by Samuel Beckett, Tea and Coffee Dealer of Bath, 1845.