Centuries before it spread to Europe, the use of coffee was virtually confined to the Arab and then the Ottoman Empires. The Arabs protected their control of the coffee industry fiercely, not allowing plants to leave the country, and par-boiling or roasting all beans to destroy their fertility. They were remarkably successful in maintaining their monopoly, and until the end of the sixteenth century very few Europeans had tasted coffee.
The first reports to reach Europe were from the few diplomats or merchants who were sent to the Arab or Ottoman lands, or the rare, adventurous independent traveller. First accounts described coffee simply as a curiosity, a strange black brew made from berries and drunk - very hot - as the Muslim alternative to wine or beer, or for its medicinal qualities. Most of these early reports also made specific mention of the consumption of coffee in public places.
Prosper Alpinus was a physician and botanist who observed its use in Egypt, and is credited with bringing coffee back to Venice in about 1570. He was primarily interested in coffee as a botanical specimen, and does not mention drinking it himself, but noted that “Among the Arabs and Egyptians there is made a kind of decoction which is heavily used, and which they drink in place of wine: it is likewise sold in public places, just as wine is sold among us”
In 1573 a Bavarian – also a physician and botanist - called Leonhard Rauwolf, went to Egypt. He was the first person to describe the preparation of the drink , from a “fruit” which he recognised as being similar to that described by the classical Arab physicians as “buncho”, the name given to the green coffee bean. He said “Among the rest they have a very good Drink, by them called Chaube, that is almost black as Ink, and very good in Illness, chiefly that of the Stomach; of this they drink in the Morning early in open places before everybody, without any fear or regard, out of China cups, as hot as they can; they put it often to their Lips, but drink but little at a Time, and let it go round as they sit”
Several of the English travellers who visited Turkey at the end of the first decade of the 17th century returned to write about their adventures, reviving the enormous fascination with the Orient which had really begun with the crusades. They had some comments on the strange black brew.
William Biddulph was an English clergyman who visited Turkey in 1609. His reaction to the use of coffee was similar to Rauwolf’s in Aleppo “Their most common drink is coffa, which is a black kind of drink made of a kind of pulse like pease, called coava; which being ground in the mill and boiled in water, they drink it as hot as they can suffer it; which they find to agree very well with them against their crudities and feeding on herbs and raw meats”
The British poet George Sandys also visited Turkey at about the same time. He was singularly unimpressed with the lack of provision of places for travellers to eat or stay in “inhospitalle Turkie” , but did sample coffee for himself. He was not impressed. "Although they be destitute of taverns, they have their coffa-houses, which something resemble them. They sit there chatting most of the day and sip a drink called 'coffa' in little china dishes as hot as they can suffer it: black as soot, and tasting not much unlike it." He also noted that coffee was not the only thing on offer at the coffee shops: “Many of the Coffamen [keep] beautifull boyes, who serve as stales [i.e lures] to procure them customers.”
In 1610 William Lithgow left Scotland to escape a scandal involving a young woman. He spent many years travelling Europe and the East and survived many adventures, including torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. He was impressed with the “delectable” sherberts in Constantinople, but noted that the drink given to honoured guests was “a cup of coffa, made of a kind of seed called coava, and of a blackish colour; which they drink so hot as possible they can”.
About ten years later, Sir Thomas Herbert visited Persia(Iran) and tasted coffee; he was definitely not impressed, calling it "a drink imitating that in the Stygian lake, black, thick, and bitter." The intrepid Robert Burton happened to be in Turkey at about the same time and was similarly unimpressed, saying “The Turks have a drink called Coffee (for they use no wine), so named of a berry as black as soot, and as bitter, (like that black drink which was in use among the Lacedæmonians, and perhaps the same), which they sip still off, and sup as warm as they can suffer” He added “they spend much time in those Coffee-houses, which are somewhat like our Ale-houses or Taverns, and there they sit chatting and drinking to drive away the time, and to be merry together, because they find by experience that kind of drink so used helpeth digestion, and procureth alacrity. Some of them take Opium to this purpose”
Within a few decades coffee went from being a talked about curiosity, to a popular if still controversial beverage in England and Europe. The first recorded instance of coffee being drunk in England was in 1637 in Oxford, where a Cretan scholar named Nathaniel Conopios “disseminated his grave learning and amused his colleagues by brewing a black drink from roasted coffee berries".
The coffee houses flourished and although much of the promotion was still related to its medicinal qualities, there is no doubt that simple enjoyment, particularly of its social aspects, was becoming its main attraction. The first treatise on coffee was published in 1657, by Walter Rumsey, and in the same year in London it was advertised as a drink which
"……closes the Orifice of the Stomack, fortifies the Heart within, helpeth Digestion, quickeneth the Spirits, maketh the Heart lightsom, is good against Eye-sores, Coughs or Colds, Rhumes, Consumptions, Head-ach, Dropsie, Gout, Scurvy, Kings Evil and many others."
Not everyone was pleased however, and also in that year, James Farr, the man who opened the second coffee house in London, the Rainbow, was taken to task “for making and selling a drink called coffee, whereby, in making the same, he annoyeth his neighboors by the evill smells, and for keeping of fire the most part night and day, whereby his chimney and chamber has been set on fire, to the great danger and affreightment of his neighboors.”
Recipe for the Day.
It is only relatively recently, historically, that coffee has been used as a cooking ingredient. May I refer you to the Coffee Recipes Archive for some early inspiration?
One thing that frustrates me is a recipe for ‘coffee cake’ that does not contain coffee. I know how this occurs (please don’t email me) – it often refers to cakes to have with coffee, which is not helpful as this includes all cakes, really.
Here, to redress the balance, is a true coffee cake:
5 cupfuls Flour
2 cupfuls Currants (or 1 ½ cupfuls stoned and chopped raisins)
2 cupfuls sultanas
1 cupful butter
1 cupful treacle
1 cupful brown sugar
1 small cupful Lemon Peel
2 cupfuls boiling coffee
2 teaspoons Carbonate of soda
1 dessertspoonful ginger
Mix the butter with the flour, then add the fruit, egg, sugar, lemon peel, ginger and treacle. Mix the soda into the boiling coffee, then stir the coffee, still boiling, into the mixture. Stir quickly and thoroughly , pour into buttered tims, and bake in a quick oven for about 2 hours.
New Standard Cookery Illustrated (London, 1933)
Quotation for the Day
Coffee is real good when you drink it it gives you time to think. It's a lot more than just a drink; it's something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.