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Coffee

( Originally Published 1900 )



" Coffee — which makes the politician wise

And see through all things with half-closed eyes."

-POPE,

THE popularity of coffee needs no emphasizing, and yet it is only during the last 250 years that this beverage has come to be generally used in the civilised countries of Western Europe. How it came by that popularity and whether it is as popular as it was in years gone by are questions which might make us think. That it is not as popular is apparent when we realise that to-day the consumption per head of population is less than it was even fifty years ago, and if reports are at all true—alas ! it must be admitted that statistics of what was done before that time and certainly 200 years gone by are hardly to be relied upon—if such reports are true, then 200 years ago it was four times greater than it is to-day ! It has been stated that during the reign of Charles II, there were no less than 3,000 houses in London opened for the sale and consumption of coffee ! These houses became the haunts of political intriguers and many had to be suppressed. Tempora mutantur—times have changed—we do not see political and other clubs or societies for the propagation of all the fads and eccentricities that are talked of at the present day meeting in coffee-houses, though as the one exception to the rule, perhaps, the humble Chess Club mostly makes such its home.

But the popularity of this still most delicious of beverages, has not been lost by the suppression of the houses where it was obtainable, for it is an evident fact, patent to all who have eyes to see, that the facilities for obtaining a cup of coffee at all hours of the business day, and of many of the hours which might be described as night, are far greater to-day than they were even twenty years ago ; while the dividends paid by those companies formed for the supply of light refreshments (and coffee is no small part of those refreshments) testify to the lucrative nature of the business attached to the retailing of this stimulating and refreshing beverage. It is with the idea that all know-, ledge is power and with the hope that some of the facts and information given may lead to a larger consumption and more general distribution of coffee in the United Kingdom that the following pages are written. One other statement it would perhaps be well to make at this early stage, though it may be emphasized later on, namely, that coffee is not only a stimulant but a food. The Arab of the desert will travel for miles and for days with nothing in his wallet but a few dates and coffee, while one of our greatest food specialists, Sir James Crichton Browne, has said :—" Concerning coffee, I believe it has not yet attained the popularity in this country to which its many merits entitle it. I hope to see a largely increased consumption of it. It is an aid to digestion. In moderate doses it stimulates the heart's action, and raises the arterial pressure. It quickens the circulation of the blood, and thus ridding the muscles of their waste products, it increases their energy, and during their exercise diminishes their sense of fatigue. Messo has shown that under its influence the work of the first hour may be quadrupled. In coffee, and its gentle stimulating action, we possess one of the most efficacious means of contending with alcoholism. Coffee, too, supports under mental labour, and the delicious aroma of its essential oil, caffoel, has subtle physical effects that still await analysis."

Coffee is now one of the important plants of tropical agriculture, and the annual value of the product is enormous. It has been estimated that there are some 50,000 coffee estates in the world, and that they annually produce coffee to the value of over 50,000,000 pounds.

To a greater degree than most other agricultural industries, coffee cultivation has been subject to strange vicissitudes. Though, as we shall see later, coffee of one kind or another, is indigenous to many countries, it is generally conceded that the coffee of commerce was first used as a beverage, and was first exported, and the seed procured, from Abyssinia. Perhaps it would not be out of place to mention an old story which gives the tradition of how its wonderful effects were first discovered. It is extracted from that very interesting book, Folk Lore of the Holy Land

The origin of coffee-drinking is connected with various legends and superstitious ideas. The shrub on which the coffee-berry grows is said to be indigenous to Abyssinia, and the story runs that the virtues of the plant were discovered by accident. Fleeing from prosecution, towards the end of the third century, a party of monks from Egypt found refuge in the Abyssinian highlands, where they settled and supported themselves by agriculture and the care of the flocks, which were entrusted in turn to the pastoral care of different brethren. One of these came to the prior one night with the strange tale that the sheep and goats would not go to rest in their fold, but were frisking and lively to such a degree that he feared that they had been bewitched. This state of things continued, in spite of prayers and exorcisms, for several days, till at last the prior resolved himself to herd the animals. Leading them out to pasture he observed what plants they browsed on, and thus discovered that their sleeplessness was the effect of the leaves of a certain shrub. Experimenting on himself by chewing some buds of the same plant, he found that he was easily able to keep awake during the long night-services which his form of religion prescribed. Thus was coffee discovered.

It was not at first used as a beverage, but eaten in the form of a paste, something like chocolate. It was introduced into Arabia in pre-Islamic times, probably not later than the time of the famous Crusade under-taken by Elesbaan, or Caleb Negus, the Nagash of Arab authors, in order to punish the Himyaritic Jewish ruler, Yusif Yarush, surnamed, " Dhu Nowas," who had been persecuting the Christians. When Mohammedans were prohibited the use of wine, its place was taken by decoctions of coffee-berries. The name " coffee " is derived from the Arabic Kahweh (pronounced Kahveh by the Turks), and in its primary sense, denoted wine or other intoxicating liquors. " The City of Aden," says Crichton, " is the first on record that set the example of drinking it as a common refreshment, about the middle of the fifteenth century. A drowsy mufti, called Jemaleddin, had discovered that it disposed him to keep awake, as well as to a more lively exercise of his spiritual duties." This is clearly a version of the story of the Abyssinian monks above given. Jemal-ed-din, according to Crichton, died A.D. 1470, " and such was the reputation which his experience had given to the virtues of coffee, that in a short time it was introduced by Fakreddin at Mecca and Medina." It seems, however, that it was not till the commencement of the sixteenth century that it was introduced to Cairo.

Its introduction caused a bitter theological controversy among the Moslems. In A.D. 1511, it was publicly condemned at Mecca by a conclave of the 'ulema, who declared its use contrary to Islam and hurtful both to body and soul. This decision of the learned was echoed at Cairo. All the warehouses where the " seditious berry " (bunn) was stored were purposely burnt down, the coffee-houses closed, and their keepers pelted with the sherds of their pots and cups. This was in 1524, but by an order of Selim I the decrees of the learned were reversed, the disturbances in Egypt quieted, the drinking of coffee declared perfectly orthodox ; and when two Persian doctors, who had asserted it to be injurious to health, had been hanged by the Sultan's orders, the coffee-cup began its undisturbed reign. It now rules supreme in the East. If you want anyone, to whom it would be an insult to offer backshish, to do you a favour, you find that " a cup of coffee " renders him gracious and open to persuasion ; and in the same way, if you want to get rid of an enemy, all you have to do is to get someone to administer " a cup of coffee " to him. This double usefulness of " a cup of coffee " is proverbial. Coffee-making and drinking among the desert Arabs are associated with observances which make it a quasi-religious ceremony. Only a man is allowed to prepare the beverage, and he must do it with the greatest care. The berries are roasted in a shallow ladle or pan (mahmaseh), and when half-roasted they are pounded in a stone or wooden mortar with a great pestle (mahbash). Whilst the pounding is proceeding a coffee-pot (bukraj) is placed on the fire. When the water boils the pot is taken off the fire and the coffee-meal is put into the hot water. It is then placed on the fire again, and when it has boiled up, the pot is again taken off, and then allowed to boil again a second and a third time. The coffee-maker, holding in his left hand a row of small cups placed one inside the other, then pours a little coffee into the topmost and rinses it with the liquid, which he then pours into the second and others in turn, rinsing them all in turn with the coffee he poured into the first cup. When he has rinsed the last cup he pours its contents into the fire as a libation to the Sheykh esh Shadhilly, the patron of coffee drinkers. Then, and not till then, the drinking begins. Half a cupful is handed to the eldest and most honoured guest, and then a second cup, and so on to all others in turn. To offer a full cup is considered a studied insult, and so also is the offer of a third cup. The saying is, " The first cup for the guest ; the second for enjoyment, and the third for the sword."

Wherever a party of coffee-drinkers assemble, there the spirit of esh Shadhilly is present to keep them from harm, and in like manner when a bride is leaving her parents' house in order to be taken to that of her bride-groom, the keeper of a neighbouring coffee-house will show his goodwill by rushing out of his place of business and pouring a cup of coffee on the ground on the pathway at her feet in order to propitiate his patron saint and dispose him in her favour.

A large number of people were assembled in a village guest-house. Coffee was being prepared for them. Beside the fire stood a very large stock-pot, out of which the person who made the coffee replenished a smaller pot in which he boiled the liquor after adding fresh coffee-meal. He then, after the libation above described, handed a cup of coffee to the man nearest him, who out of politeness handed it to the one next him, and he in his turn gave it to the next, and so on, till it had passed all round the company untasted. The coffee-maker was surprised when the cup was returned to him untasted. Somebody suggested that esh Shadhilly must have had some hand in the matter, and had purposely prevented those present from tasting the coffee. Hereupon the coffee-pots were emptied out, when to the horror of all beholders the dead body of a venomous serpent (according to one version of this story, of a toad) fell out of the stock-pot. How it got in no one ever knew, but it was seen how Sheykh esh Shadhilly had protected his votaries.

Besides the large stock-pot it is no uncommon thing to have little brass or tinned copper pots standing near the fire ready to be filled from the larger vessel and set to boil. It is not always safe to partake of coffee made in such vessels, as they are not always kept clean and freshly-tinned, and sad cases of poisoning by copper oxide have happened through their use.

The proverbial saying above quoted, concerning the third cup, is illustrated by the following story :—" During a famine in the early part of last century, a Bedawi skeykh left his encampment somewhere in the Gaza district, and went down to Egypt with men and camels to buy corn. Night came on after he had crossed the frontier, and about midnight, seeing a light in the distance, the sheykh, who had never before visited that part of the country, thought that some village must be near. He left his men and camels where they were and went to reconnoitre. The light proceeded from a house, the door of which was ajar. As he smelt coffee-berries roasting, he concluded it was a guest-house, and boldly entered. But he was mistaken. The only persons in the lighted chamber were an unveiled woman and a Memluk—her husband. The woman screamed and hid her face at sight of a man in the doorway, but her husband rebuked her fears and asked the stranger what he wanted. The sheykh replied that he had thought the place was a guest-house, but, since he was mistaken, would go away again. The Memluk, however, insisted on his remaining, and gave him a cup of coffee. When he had drunk this, his host offered him a second cup, which he accepted. A third cup he declined, although pressed to take it. Finding his solicitations useless, the Memluk drew his sword and threatened to kill the Bedawi unless he took the third cup. The man still refused, saying that he preferred being killed. ` Why ? ' asked his grim host. ' Because,' answered the sheykh, ` the first cup is for the guest, the second for enjoyment, and the third for the sword. Though, indeed, I am a warrior, even as thou art, yet at present I am unarmed, seeing that I am here on business connected with peace and not with war.' ` Well,' answered the Memluk, sheathing his weapon ; `thy answer shows thee to be a true man. I took thee to be a skulking thief, but I see that I was mistaken. Remain under my roof as my guest.' The sheykh accepted the invitation, and when he told his host the purpose of his visit to Egypt, the latter, who had a great deal of corn for sale, transacted business with him, and for several years in succession supplied him and his tribe with grain. In the year 1811, however, the massacre of the Memluks, by the orders of Mohammed Ali, took place, and it so happened that the only person to escape was the one who figures in this story. He, it is said, managed to make his escape to the tents of his Bedawi friend, and was protected and harboured by him, till the time came when he could return home without fear."

Though only tradition, the above shows that coffee was first used in the country from which to-day much of the so-called Mocha comes, and which must be counted as the cradle of the coffee trade. The seed was first taken to Arabia and so originally all the coffee consumed in Europe came from that country, then the West Indies, and, later, Java became pre-eminent, to be in turn absolutely beaten by Brazil, which at the present time produces some three-quarters of the world's total supply, and controls the market.

The history of coffee cultivation in Ceylon, to which we shall refer again later, affords a good illustration of these variations in fortune. In 1880 coffee was the principal crop of the colony, and worth some 3,000,000 pounds annually. The attacks of a microscopic fungus ruined the plants, and the industry within a comparatively few years became of quite minor importance, and the annual crop is now worth only about 25,000 pounds-a drop in value of 2,975,000 in less than thirty years.



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