I just finished reading the book “The Devil’s Cup-Travel Around the World on the Coffee Routes” by Stewart Lee Allen, a kind of collection of all the legends and stories about the birth, development and spread of coffee around the world.
Fascinating anecdotes about what coffee meant to different peoples and countries, the symbolism behind a cup or ritual, and the magic of different methods of preparation.
We don’t often think about it, but coffee as we know it is just one of the latest methods of preparation. Previously, in fact, the kernel was directly chewed, or the leaves of the plant were used in infusion, taking a cue from the preparation of tea.
Instead, in Yemen they were customary in the preparation of two different cups of coffee: shatter and qisher.
The first, shatter, is made by putting “a heaped tablespoon of ground, spiced coffee in hot water. It is a strong coffee, but without residue, with a taste that reflects a fine mixture of cloves, cardamom, sugar and water. It is a light, imaginative and deliciously sweet brew, except for funerals, to which the addition of sugar is forbidden.”
The second, qisher, is instead prepared from the skins of drupes, the berries containing the coffee beans, left to steep in hot water.
We now land in Istanbul.
Preparers of the beloved beverage in coffee shops hundreds of years ago, to enhance their customers’ pleasure, “offered ‘special’ coffees containing faz’abbas: a mixture of seven drugs and spices, including pepper, opium and saffron. Other delicacies were honey hascisc balls and sheera, hascisc or marijuana mixed with tobacco, which could be mixed with coffee, creating a kind of Islamic speed,” i.e., amphetamine.
Another curiosity: in the past the Turks held a large share of the coffee market, controlling the entire port of Mocha.
The drink they most loved was prepared with a special pot called an ibrick, then also leaving the coffee grounds in the cup.
The first to interrupt this custom were the Viennese. They again created the custom of adding milk or cream to coffee. Previously, Turks like Hindus believed that adding milk to coffee caused leprosy.
Instead, in Brazil they make cafezinho, their version of espresso. The drink is made by “pouring hot water through a sock-shaped bag containing ground coffee. Then the resulting liquid is taken and poured back over the coffee grounds, repeating the operation up to ten times, until the desired intensity is achieved. The result is a pleasantly bitter drink, which is then sweetened by a considerable dose of sugar.”
Finally, do you know how the first instant coffee was born?
It is a military invention: “the Civil War proved that coffee improved soldiers’ physical performance. The army thus began to develop coffee for military use in the 1800s according to three requirements: light, long shelf life, and easy to swallow. the first version was an extract that was in the form of a firm, compact lump, just mixed with cold water to produce the psychological effect.”
Sometimes we don’t think about it, but it is fascinating to find out how coffee was treated and served, according to what rituals and customs. And these are only very few of the hundreds of variations that exist.
We take the cup of espresso or mocha for granted, because that’s what coffee is. But coffee has a thousand faces based on the culture, traditions and history of the person handling it.