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Aroma therapy

From a snack mixed with animal fat to a worldwide drink of choice, coffee has been keeping us going for centuries. Victoria Neumark takes a look at its colourful and contentious history

Type "coffee" into Google and you get as the first entry.

Walk along any high street and chances are you'll find a Starbucks chain.

Coffee today very nearly is Starbucks - but it's also big bucks (see page 10). Coffee is disputed, at the heart of debates about globalisation, fairtrade, health, lifestyle. Are developing countries exploited? Is too much coffee bad for the heart, blood sugar, stress? Have mushrooming coffee bars replaced indigenous catering with soulless chains? But coffee is also romantic and exciting, the story of its usage mirroring advances in hospitality, cuisine, technology. And as much as some people now see it as a sign of capitalist hegemony and homogenisation, it has been seen as a fomenter of subversion. It's a biz with buzz. Some even speculate that the coffee bush, with its shiny green leaves, perfumed white flowers and seductive red cherries, within which nestle the more caffeinated beans, was a prototype for the Tree of Knowledge in the biblical Garden of Eden.

Way back before the last millennium, say ad800, herdsmen in the Horn of Africa rolled the red coffee cherries with a little animal fat to make a snack that kept them going without the need for food or sleep. More adventurous farmers tried to make a fermented drink by soaking the beans in water, but around ad1100, some Arabs, perhaps in the Yemen, perhaps in Ethiopia, experimented with a hot drink made at first simply from ground-up beans. It was thought to have mystical properties, with a legend about a young dervish (mystic) abandoned in the desert. He heard a voice telling him to eat the fruit from a coffee tree. When he got no nourishment from softening the beans in water, he drank the liquid. Interpreting his survival and energy as a sign of God, he returned to his people, spreading faith and the recipe.

In a bedouin tent in the Yemen, medieval shepherds sit on a richly woven carpet sipping a bitter brew out of chased bronze cups. Refreshed, energised, the talk turns to the origins of qahwa - "that which prevents sleep" - how the tale tells of an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi, who saw his flock playing the "giddy goat" after chewing the red berries of the coffee plant (coffea arabica), and how he decided to see what felt so good.

Enslaved Sudanese and Ethiopians took their habit with them (it made them more productive, their masters soon found out) to Yemen and Arabia, through the port of Mocha (as in Mochacino). By the 15th century, coffee was being grown in Yemen, where it is still reputed to be the best in the world. Long before anyone thought of adding sugar, a cup of coffee (the "wine of Islam") was the seal of a business deal or a friendship, especially in the non-alcohol drinking Muslim world. For Sufis, Muslim mystics, communal coffee-drinking was well nigh sacramental, with the beverage ladled from a central pot. From those ladles, the espresso-style coffee cups developed.

In 1475, the world's first coffee shop, Kiva Han, opened in Constantinople.

Turkish law soon made it legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily quota of coffee. In 1529, the Turkish army fleeing Vienna left behind bags of coffee. Franz Georg Kolshitzky, so the legend goes, was responsible for Vienna's victory. He claimed the coffee as his reward and set up central Europe's first coffee house. Even today, inhabitants of Vienna consume twice as much coffee as beer.

Over to Europe, in the early part of the 20th century, where languid intellectuals and demi-mondaine darlings sip coffee from exquisite porcelain cups and smoke coloured Turkish cigarettes. Sugar has become part of the after-dinner ritual, but only exquisite dark crystals in tiny filigree silver spoons, immortalised by TS Eliot in the lines from "The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock" (1917): "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons."

Take a look at city life in the late 20th century. "A cup of instant?" Busy mothers rush in and out of each other's houses, dolloping out instant coffee for coffee mornings; jumble sales run on it; cheap cafes buy huge tins of it; students going off to university buy jars which quickly have the lids left off and grow rock hard with moisture absorbed from the air; a successful series of advertisements trades on its brand of instant coffee supposedly being identical in taste to "the real thing".

Now Starbucks has paper mugs you can carry without burning your fingers; a choice of milk and sugar and flavourings; serve people with exotic titles ("baristas"); provide papers to read on comfortable seats; and "buy our brands". The exciting noise of the frothing coffee machine was heard in more and more kitchens; beans and roasts and grinds became an area of knowledge - or boredom. In the UK, the humble cup of tea retreated, until Tazo(r) gave it its very own Starbucks moment. A coffee or going for a coffee is universally recognised as a break which, unlike cigarettes or alcohol, leaves one still eager and functioning.

Yet it has not always seen as so benevolent. In 1511, the governor of Mecca banned coffee, disliking its role in keeping disputatious citizens up all night in "kaveh khanas" and wondering if it could be said to be "intoxicating" in the same way as alcohol, banned in the Qu'ran. Gossip and politics are a marriage like coffee and Hob-Nobs (derived from Middle English, to hob or nob, "to drink together, taking turns toasting one another"). The governor was over-ruled - and ultimately executed. By 1554, coffee houses had spread to Constantinople. From time to time they were closed by religious riots (at one point vendors were sewn into leather bags and thrown into the Bosphorus); nonetheless, their luxurious interiors became legendary throughout the Middle East as a nursery for radical political thought and dissent, not to mention chess-playing, singing, dancing and music. A tax on selling coffee was partially successful in reducing the number of houses, but the houses remained hotbeds.

In 1600, Pope Clemente VIII was asked to place a ban on coffee drinking, suspected of exciting evil passions. He refused, saying: "This beverage is so delicious it would be a sin to let only misbelievers drink it!" His subsequent "baptism" of coffee put the issue to rest for the Church but not for the State. Sedition and coffee go together like milk and sugar. In 1675, King Charles II shut down all London coffee houses; protests forced him to rescind the ban after a few days. Coffee has had the ascendancy over tea in the US since citizens of Boston in 1773 used their local coffee house, The Green Dragon, to plot the Boston Tea Party. In Prussia, in 1777, Frederick the Great declared that coffee be banned in favour of local beer because the profits from it went to foreigners; the Berliners refused to give up their kleine tasse. In 1789, French intellectuals at Cafe Foy led and incited the Revolutionary mob.

No wonder the Arabs tried to hold on to their monopoly of coffee and prevent the export of fertile beans ... but all in vain. In 1616, the Dutch sneaked some back to Holland to cultivate in greenhouses. They began to grow the plants at Malabar in India, and in 1699 took some to Batavia in Java, in what is now Indonesia. So favourable were the conditions there that within a few years the Dutch colonies had become the main suppliers of coffee to Europe. Today, Indonesia is the fourth largest exporter of coffee in the world. In Central and South America, it is the main continental cash crop, having spread from the ex-Dutch colony of Surinam (introduced in 1718) to ex-Portuguese colony of Brazil (1720), to ex-British colony of Jamaica (1730). Meanwhile, the Venetians had also traded coffee to Europe in 1615, joining chocolate (1528) and tea (1610) in the commodity market.

At first coffee was believed to have medicinal qualities and was sold by the city's lemonade vendors. In 1650, the first British coffee house, Angel, opened in Oxford. Due to the shortages of coins in England, coffee house owners issued their own coins, as was done by many tradesmen in the 17th century, and many coffee houses became known as penny universities. In London, Edward Lloyd opened his coffee house in about 1688, just in time for the Glorious Revolution, which kicked off King James II and the largest insurance market in the world, Lloyd's of London (canny Lloyd made lists of his customers' interests in shipping). By 1715, there were as many as 2,000 coffee houses in London alone. Across the Atlantic, a Puritan legacy scorned alcohol, but embraced coffee: both the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York started in coffee houses, in what is today the financial district known as Wall Street.

Fired by the Dutch example, French naval lieutenant Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, on leave in Paris in 1720, blagged a coffee bush which he shipped back to Martinique. He had to keep it in a glass case on deck to protect it from heat and salt water. According to his journal, the poor plant survived a storm (during which it had to be tied down), a saboteur (only intercepted when he had ripped a branch off) and a drought (when de Clieu gave it all his drinking water). It survived and reproduced to such effect that by 1777 there were between 18 and 19 million coffee trees on Martinique, and the model for a new cash crop was in place.

By the mid 19th century, coffee was part of world culture, an accompaniment to social encounters and even romantic ones (the satirist Jonathan Swift, for instance, uses "a cup of coffea" as a euphemism for intimacy with his mistress). When a plant disease spread through the coffee fields of south-east Asia in the mid 19th century Brazil emerged as the world's foremost coffee producer, as it still is today.

Coffee for a long time has been traded up a chain from fairly small farmers through to local traders and exporters to international traders, roasters and retailers. Most of the retail value is added during the second stage of processing, which takes place outside the coffee-producing countries. Not more than 30 per cent of the profit goes to the producing countries, far less to the actual growers; the rest is shared among multinational processing companies such as Nestle and major coffee retailers like Starbucks. The four major coffee roasting companies - Nestle, Kraft, Sara Lee and Proctor Gamble - have historically always paid low prices for the coffee beans, even though their brands are currently worth more than $1 billion per annum. Recently, a crash in coffee prices once more looks set to alter the demographic of the coffee story. Small producers may no longer be able to cover their costs, with many having sold the rest of their assets to gamble on prices rising, while retailers add ever more "value" (in new coffee-based products like Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino from Starbucks).

Coffee remains a political drink, one which excites strong feelings, particularly among the many coffee farmers who can no longer afford to drink their own produce. Organic shade-grown skinny decaf Mexican, anyone?

* Black Gold: The Dark History of Coffee by Antony Wild (Perennial pound;8.99)




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