Object lesson No9

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
A cup of coffee, please. With oatmeal, ale and ginger. Easy on the honey, but make sure it's been boiled with egg shells and mixed with mustard.

No, it's not the latest offering from Cafe Nervosa, haunt of the psychiatrist Crane brothers in Frasier. This concoction would have been drunk by the likes of Samuel Pepys and his contemporaries in the 1660s.

For more than 100 years coffee houses were the centre of London's social and business life. Mixing caffeine and capitalism gave men such a buzz that many City institutions, including Lloyd's of London and the Stock Exchange, began life as caffs.

But trouble was brewing. In the Women's Petition Against Coffee prepared for Charles II, City wives claimed that the drink was making their menfolk "as unfruitful as the sandy deserts from where that unhappy berry is said to be brought". They were also never home.

The king gave the men a roasting, but the coffee houses stayed open. The drink was the cause of rows down the centuries, its appeal so strong that it prospered despite the displeasure of monarchs, the anger of women, and, later, the pain of the slaves forced to cultivate it by their colonial masters.

Humans first sampled coffee in bout ad 600. Ethiopians mixed the berries of the wild Arabica plant with fat and chewed the energising food balls during their long walks in the desert.

The beans, which are inside the berries, were not roasted until the 13th century when Muslim pilgrims spread the drink to Mecca and Medina. Muhammad had earlier helped coffee gain ground by decreeing that his followers should not drink alcohol.

By the end of the 15th century coffee had filtered through to all parts of the Islamic world and extensive cultivation was well established in the Yemen using seedlings from Ethiopia. The beans were exported from the Red Sea port of Mocha (Al Mukha), a name that resonates 600 years on. Mocha Valencia is this month's hot tip from the Starbucks chain. It's chocolate orange coffee topped with whipped cream - surely as strange as anything Pepys drank.

Not a single bean was cultivated outside Africa and Arabia before the 17th century. The Arabs were determined to preserve their monopoly on growing the plants, so the beans were exported only after they had been roasted and could not be used as seeds.

But eventually coffee made it to Europe. It was an instant success.

Stephanie Northen

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