Coffee is one of the most important beverages in history. As a flavoring in desserts and sauces it is one of the most intriguing ingredients, along with vanilla and chocolate.
How was this little berry and its stimulating properties discovered? Supposedly by a herd of goats in Ethiopia in the 9th century. Their herder noticed they had become quite frisky after nibbling some off a bush. At first, humans ate the berries whole, then crushed and mixed with fat. Later the fermented pulp was made into a kind of wine. Around 1000 A.D. a concoction was created from the dried fruit, beans, and hull. Roasting began in Yemen in the 13th century and the beverage extracted from the roasted beans was called qahwah, originally a poetic name for wine.
Sufis enjoyed the stimulating effects as this energized them for hours and hours of prayer. Dervishes and Muslim pilgrims are responsible for spreading the use of coffee throughout the Middle and Near East and North Africa.
When did coffee arrive in Western Europe? It was introduced to France by the Turkish ambassador in 1688 but may have already been drunk in Venice. Apparently the Turkish ambassador gave exotic parties, one of which was floridly described by Isaac d’Israeli:
“On bended knee, the black slaves of the ambassador, arrayed in the most gorgeous Oriental costumes, served the choicest mocha coffee in tiny cups of egg-shell porcelain, hot, strong, and fragrant, poured out in saucers of gold and silver, placed on embroidered silk doylies fringed with gold bullion, to the grand dames, who fluttered their fans with many grimaces, bending their piquant faces — be-rouged, be-powdered, and be-patched — over the new and steaming beverage.”
At times coffee was seen as a subversive beverage. Islam perceived the conviviality of coffeehouses a threat to religious life. Authorities at the Vatican saw it as “Satan’s latest trap to catch Christian souls.” However, once Pope Clement VIII tried it, he deemed it okey dokey.
Coffee is, without a doubt, one of those drinks that people are extremely particular about. Just wait in line at any Starbucks or Jack’s Stir Brew in Amagansett and you will hear a litany of requests, requirements, and customizations for practically each and every person. I am proud that I “forced” my son to work as a barista at Jack’s as soon as he graduated from college. Nothing will give a young man incentive to get that big boy job more than waiting on fussy, impatient New Yorkers.
How we brew our own coffee at home is also almost as varied as the types of beans and grinds available to us. I like a dark roast in a French press. Starbucks brand will do just fine. The Nespresso and Keurig machines confuse me. How are we supposed to know or remember what Bukeela ka Ethiopia or Linzio Lungo taste like? Instant coffee is an abomination, although okay to use in a pinch for ice creams and cakes or as part of a dry rub for pork or chicken.
Coffee is the second most sold commodity in the world, after oil. New Yorkers consume seven times more coffee than people in any other U.S. city. There are about 50 species of coffee, a relative of the gardenia, and most are grown in Africa, Brazil, and Colombia. Hawaii is the only state in the United States to produce coffee commercially.
The caffeine in coffee is believed to be all right in small doses. If you attempt to drink 100 cups of coffee it could be fatal, although Teddy Roosevelt was known to drink a gallon a day . . . which explains the unfortunate color of his teeth. Light coffees, along with black and green teas, contain antioxidants, but espresso-type coffees can have an undesirable effect on blood cholesterol levels. So pay attention to the type of coffee you drink and how it is prepared. One or two cups a day should suffice.
The morning ritual of having a good, freshly brewed cup of coffee is a nice way to start the day. Meeting friends for a late afternoon latte is a pleasant pastime, catching up and winding down. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to sip an espresso in Milan, or thick, sweet Cuban coffee in Little Havana, or better yet, spend half your life staring at passers-by in a Paris cafe, you can appreciate this special drink’s long and interesting history, both cultural and culinary.
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