How many coffees a day do you drink? Hmm… Me too. I’m not surprised, as the entire modern world is addicted to coffee. There are many differing opinions about exactly how much coffee we need to consume before we become “addicts”. Most believe that an intake of 4 cups of coffee a day is sufficient.
What is caffeine?
I will quickly explain this in chemical terms before we move on to much more interesting stories about this magical substance. Caffeine is classified as 1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine. This is a compound that stimulates the central nervous system. It works as an analeptic, i.e. it blocks the adenosine receptors, which causes an increase in alertness, impaired motor coordination and insomnia. It can be physically addictive. Typical symptoms of withdrawal include hunger, fatigue and headaches and muscle pain.
Caffeine was isolated for the first time in 1819. It’s worth stressing at this juncture that coffee’s anti-alcohol effect is a myth. We may feel better for a while, but this is an illusion, because coffee slows down the tempo at which alcohol is eliminated from the bloodstream. Caffeine enters the body through our cell membranes and reaches the bloodstream 5 to 15 minutes after the moment of ingestion. Half a unit will be excreted from the body over the course of six hours. The extent to which you are stimulated depends on the kind of coffee you drink. The least processed coffee contains the most caffeine. It is also known that women absorb caffeine more quickly and easily than men.
What’s the link between coffee and goats?
There is a legend which says that a certain shepherd complained to the imam of a neighbouring mosque that his goats were behaving strangely. The animals were hyperactive and were not falling asleep at the usual times. When the imam came to investigate the goat’s strange behaviour, he discovered that they were eating strange purple berries from a bush growing near their pastureland. The curious imam collected a few of the mysterious fruit, boiled them in water and drank it. Shortly after drinking this, he heart started pounding like a drum, his thoughts were unusually lucid and he was unable to sleep for the whole night. For a long time, however, he did not betray his secret to anyone, so the faithful were surprised that he was never sleepy during his all-night prayer sessions. There is probably a grain of truth in this tale, because all the evidence points to the custom of drinking coffee having arisen in 15th-century Yemen, but no one knows how coffee reached the Arabian Gulf. It is possible that the Africans who migrated north from Ethiopia brought along the grains of the coffee plant, which they were already accustomed to using.
“The Wine of Arabia”
The marvellous beverage spread quite quickly across the whole Arab world. By the end of the 15th century, coffee had reached Mecca and Cairo. Drinking coffee lost its purely religious function. Sellers of the new beverage appeared on the streets and in the bazaars, followed shortly afterwards by the first coffee houses, known as kaveh kanes.
Coffee became an alternative option to wine, which was banned by Mohammed but illegally sold in taverns. Respected members of the community could meet over a coffee. However, some Islam clerics were unwilling to accept the new beverage. They claimed that anything which triggered physical or psychological changes in the person who consumed it should, on the strength of the teachings of the Koran, be proscribed. One of the governors of Mecca, Khair Beg, totally banned the drinking of coffee for some time. This caused a wave of public opposition, and Khair was executed shortly afterwards.
The coffee which was drunk in the 16th century was quite different from that which fills our cups today. The grains were thrown whole into boiling water and cooked for half an hour. The resultant strong dark liquid was preserved for later use. When demand for coffee grew, people started to grind the grains before throwing them into the boiling water and adding sugar and spices. In every home in Constantinople, guests were served coffee on arrival in small ceramic bowls without handles. The rich even had a servant – a kahveci – whose sole duty was to prepare and serve coffee.
The war over coffee and its arrival in Europe
In the 16th century, Marseilles was known as the “Gate to the Orient”. Merchants had their own factories or were brokering deals in nearly every port in the Mediterranean basin. The same applied to the Italian port in Venice. Families began to fraternize with each other, and it’s hardly surprising that this led to a fascination with anything that was oriental or foreign. Many travellers were extremely puzzled by the local phenomenon in Arab cities, the number of coffeehouses and the people sipping this mysterious fluid. One of them, a certain Mr Sandys, wrote: There sit they chatting most of the day; and sippe of a drinke called Coffa (of the berry that it is made of) in little China dishes as hot as they can suffer it: blacke as soote, and tasting not much unlike it.
In the beginning, coffee did not taste good to most people. The first commentators were either unable to describe it or simply wrote that it tasted like “freshly ground soot” or “an extract from old boots”. Yet the growth in coffee’s popularity was unstoppable.
The Arabs retained a monopoly on coffee provision and staunchly defended their “black gold”. Foreigners were denied access to the areas where it was cultivated and the grains were selected before sending to make sure that none of them were sprouting. The Dutch were the first to make off with the secret. They took seedlings cultivated in a greenhouse to Java. The plantations expanded and the concept of “Java Joe” became a synonym for coffee. This provided proof that coffee would grow wherever sugarcane could.
In 1714, the Dutch gave a coffee bush to the King of France, Louis XVI.
He gave orders for it to be planted in the Jardin des Plantes gardens. The king was not particularly interested in the seedling, but the gardens were well guarded. One young officer had a plan. A certain Monsieur Mathieu de Clieu found a way to get hold of the valuable coffee plant. He was convinced that Martinique, where he was stationed, would be Java’s French counterpart. One legend claims that he climbed over the gardens’ wall and stole the sapling, while another claims that he seduced a young aristocrat who was acquainted with one of the king’s medics. In any case, he placed the plant in a glass container and sailed to Martinique. We know from his diaries that he guarded it like a lion on the ship, first from the passengers and then from pirates and a storm. The ship was damaged and his water supplies began to run out. Monsieur Clieu shared his last drops of water with his coffee plant. In the end, he arrived in Martinique and planted his beloved plant. He stationed guards around it, in order to safely gather its yield after two years. Fifty years later, the whole of Martinique and its neighbouring islands were covered by coffee bushes.
Coffee also reached Brazil thanks to a woman’s moment of weakness. Renowned womaniser and Colonel Francisco de Mello Palheta was commissioned by the King of Portugal to ingratiate himself with the governor of French Guyana, well – if the truth be told – to have an affair with his wife. As a parting gift, the woman gave him a bouquet of flowers with coffee cutting concealed inside. It is from these very cuttings that Brazil’s coffee might grew.
Cappuccino appeared in the 16th century. The name came from the Italian religious order of Capuchins, who wore long pointed caps on their habits known as “cappuccios”. The Italians called coffee decorated with steamed-milk foam or cream “cappuccino”, because it reminded them of these monk’s habits.
The percolator was invented in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti. This is a pot for preparing coffee, which is comprised of three metal parts. The bottom is filled with cold water and a sieve and coffee container are placed on top. When heated, the water boiling under pressure in the bottom chamber passes through the coffee grains to the upper part and the drink is created.
The “French press” cafetière is comprised of a cylinder-shaped jug, a plunger with a tight fitting sieve and a cover. Ground coffee is poured into the jug. Boiling water is poured over it and it’s then left to stand for 5 minutes. Finally, the plunger is slowly pushed down to the bottom in order to separate the drink from the sediment.
The coffee machine/coffeemaker was invented in the 1960s in the USA. Coffee is poured into a (paper or plastic) filter. The water in the machine is heated automatically, flooding the ground coffee, which drips into a jug.
To conclude – 6 principles for making a good coffee:
- Grind the grains just before brewing.
- Use fresh spring or filtered water.
- Bring the water up to 97 degrees Celsius.
- Heat the cup.
- Serve in small quantities (50 ml).
- Never add sugar.