November 14, 2012
What do goats in Ethiopia have in common with Community Coffee?
Many historians believe there is some truth to a legend that coffee was discovered around 850 A.D. by an Ethiopian herder named Kaldi, who noticed that his goats became hyper after they ate red berries from the bush we now call coffee.
Kaldi allegedly tried the berries himself and got a caffeine high. He then passed them on to monks, who, after eating the berries whole, were able to stay up all night for prayers.
Goats and monks aside, we’re pretty sure that the coffee plant did originate in Ethiopia. And we do know for certain that long ago, Africans ate coffee berries wrapped in animal fat, and they drank wine made from coffee-berry pulp.
The coffee drink we’re addicted to today began around the year 1000 in the Arabian Peninsula, where it was first roasted and brewed.
Because it was nonalcoholic, the beverage became an extremely important part of Islamic culture, with coffeehouses serving as hubs for social activities. The first coffee shop was in Turkey, and that country actually had a law making divorce legal if a husband could not provide enough coffee to his wife to last throughout the day.
Traders from the Middle East became so covetous of what Europeans called the “wine of Araby” that they formed a monopoly. And for hundreds of years, Muslim countries allowed only boiled or roasted, and, therefore, sterile seeds out of their borders.
Despite Arab attempts to keep coffee-growing all to themselves, in the 17th century, a religious pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled a few fertile seeds back to his home in Mysore, India, where he cultivated coffee plants that flourished. Around the same time, the Dutch did a little pilfering of their own, and smuggled coffee into Europe.
There, the stimulating drink had its enemies, who took their case all the way up to Pope Clement VIII.
But before condemning the “bitter invention of Satan,” His Holiness took a sip and liked it. He then declared that it “would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”
This dubious blessing opened the doors for church-approved coffee drinking throughout Europe.
The Dutch began cultivating coffee in Java (hence coffee’s nickname), and they eventually had their own near-monopoly. Their domination began to end, however, when the mayor of Amsterdam gifted a coffee plant to France’s King Louis XIV, who immediately began propagation.
In 1723, a French naval officer took one of the king’s seedlings and sailed it to Martinique, where, over the next 50 years, the plant proliferated into more than 18 million coffee trees, and was directly linked to 90 percent of the world’s commercial coffee.
A tryst supposedly led to the introduction of coffee to Brazil, the modern world’s largest coffee producer. The story goes that in 1727, that country sent Lt. Col. Francisco de Mello Palheta to ostensibly arbitrate a border dispute between French and Dutch colonies in French Guiana.
In reality, Palheta was a spy, who was charged with stealing coffee plants.
In the end, the handsome officer was unsuccessful at thievery. But he did get lucky with the governor’s wife, who sent her lover away with a bouquet of flowers that had coffee seeds tucked inside.
In the American colonies, coffee came to Jamestown with Capt. John Smith. It became wildly popular after the Boston Tea Party and in the U.S. was extremely coveted during the alcohol-free years of Prohibition.
Louisiana’s obsession with coffee was fueled by our state’s location. In the early 1800s, New Orleans was named the “logical port” for coffee imports to the U.S., and was second only to New York in volume.
Right before the Civil War, when coffeehouses abounded throughout the U.S., more than 500 were listed in New Orleans alone.
But Civil War blockades caused coffee shortages, and those hard times sparked the south Louisiana affection for coffee with chicory.
Roasted and ground chicory root had been used extensively as a coffee extender during the time of Napoleon, when Britain’s Lord Nelson blocked the importation of coffee into France.
When coffee became scarce during the Civil War, the French in New Orleans used their knowledge of the caffeine-free herb to make a coffee substitute. The rest, as we in south Louisiana know, is coffee history.
Today, coffee is second only to oil in world trading markets. The U.S. imports 2 billion pounds of coffee annually, with 25 percent of it coming in through New Orleans and about 40 percent of that roasted in the city. Baton Rouge produces its share of excellent coffee, too, with beans roasted locally by River Road Coffees and by Community Coffee, the largest family-owned retail coffee brand in the U.S.
So next time you pull into your favorite coffeehouse, remember all the twists and turns coffee had to make before getting into your cup.
And take a few seconds to thank the goats of Ethiopia. If the little critters hadn’t dared eat coffee berries in the first place, many of us might not ever be able to get out of bed in the morning.
Sources: www.nationalgeographic.com; www.nutrias.org; www.talkaboutcoffee.com; www.ncausa.org; New Orleans Cuisine (Tucker, 2008); Visual Food Encyclopedia (Fortin, 1996).
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.