As Spain’s iconic cafe Central located in its southern province Malaga closes down, it seemed a personal loss. The cafe that opened its doors in 1920s, introduced terms like ‘Grande’ that no coffee lover across the world would dare not know has finally bid adios!
Credited for a continuous brew story of more than a hundred years, cafe Central served 1500 cups on an average day.
Fascinatingly beyond the café’s prolific churn out in a given day, this was also about being captivated by coffee, a hearty surrender like no other. No other commodity on earth has such a history of entice than coffee; checkered and complex, sprightly and invigorating.
How had coffee become such essential to human existence, creating distinct cultures and subcultures, even more determining global economies as the second most traded commodity in the world.
Answers are planted in the meandered history of the beans!
The Red Cherry Beans
Coffee’s birth is well documented.
Its roots lie in the cradle of civilisation; in Abyssinian Africa of 9th century when an accidental encounter lead to the discovery of coffee. A local goatherd named Kaldi found some of his goats, some say donkeys rather trippy. Upon further probe Kaldi noticed the animals had consumed red cherries hitherto unfamiliar. It is fabled that he munched on some and to his surprise felt unusually agile.
Plucking a handful, Kaldi took them to local monastery, where his story was dismissed instantly. As the monks threw the fruits in the fire believing it evil of some sort, the perfumed smoke filled the air gripping its destroyer. And there was no looking back.
By 11th century Yemini merchants ferried coffee beans across the Red Sea, back to their homeland Arabia Felix, starting large scale cultivation in the highlands.
Records reveal that the word ‘qahwa’ which would over time transform into ‘kahveh’ in Turkish, then koffie in Dutch and later the ubiquitous word ‘coffee’ was used to indicate ‘sweet wine’ by the locals. Soon the word’s usage extended to the dark, sprightly beverage. Yemeni Sufis were drawn to coffee, it became instrumental to their long meditative spiritual practice of chanting God’s name.
The coffee maker
Beans produced in Yemen were called ‘sanani’ beans named after the capital city of Sana or Mocha named after the port of Al Mukha or Mocha. The latter had transcended test of time, adding itself to ever popular cafe mocha or mocha latte and even lending itself to Moka Pot — the coffee maker.
Yemen was gaining importance in Muslim world abound by traders, pilgrims, Sufis, travellers, many of them on their way to the holy city of Mecca and Medina.
Al Jazziri, the 12th century polymath describes coffee’s movement thus from Yemen to Mecca, Media, Bagdad, Cairo and Damascus. By early 15th century Mecca was introduced to coffee. Its popularity looking back seems meteoric as it spread through the entire Mamlūk Sultanate and its prominent centres particularly to Cairo and Damascus, Aleppo.
Coffeehouses dotted the culturalscape of these cities. Students of religion, philosophy found solace in coffee. Factually real, Egypt’s innumerable coffeehouses had Sufi connoisseurs, many of whom were affiliated to the University of Azhar.
Interestingly coffee’s popularity would hit a stumble in next 100 years compelling ban against coffee. One of the first of the bans was implemented by Mecca
during the rule of Khā’ir Beg the last Mamlūk governor in 1511. Predictable as it may be in the modern world, overturning of bans was neither easy nor a simple affair then. Potently such reversals would mean change in regimes.
The Ottoman conquest of Mamlūk Sultanate in 1517 did the same. By 1524 new theological orders issued by Grand Mufti restored coffee back in Mecca supported Ottoman emperor Sultan Suleiman-I. Needless to say Sultan was a coffee lover.
Just within a decade after ‘30s of 16th century, coffee spread across the Middle East, Ottoman Empire and crossed over the sea reaching Venice in Italy.
Economic history scholarship often credit traders for such massive movements of commodities including success of coffee often sidelining credits of cities and travellers who remain instrumental catalytic in carrying coffee to other parts of the world.
The case in point are references made about coffee in travelogues — the earliest European one was of Leonhard Rauwolf, a German botanist who travelled to the land where the sun rises — Al Mashriq in search of herbs. Leonhard who had studied botany and medicine took a trip to Lebanon in 1573, from there to Aleppo.
As much as he was fascinated by various cultures away from his home Augsburg, he was equally enamoured by coffee, the first cup that he had in the cosmopolitan capital of Syria; Aleppo.
On return, he published an account in German Aigentliche Beschreibung der Raiß inn die Morgenländerin in 1582. Another Austrian traveller to Isfahan Pietro Dela Velle mentions of a prohibitive concoction made of water and other herbs, spices referring it as ‘cahue’ in early 17thcentury.
However, in all of this no city created the biggest noise in history of coffee other than Istanbul. In many ways Istanbul is coffee and coffee is Istanbul. Ask any discerning coffee lover who had visited the city, all will be in unison of their amazing experiences of Turkish coffee.
Many may share their adventurous tale in the back lanes of Kadikoy, the spice bazar finding the oldest outlet of Turkish coffee in the world; Kurukehveci Mehmet Effendi (1871).
The Ottomans had made consumption of coffee a part of their social fabric, a lifestyle. Through their burgeoning coffee culture they conceived newer forms of consumption and social engagements. Intriguingly Ottoman coffee houses never included women or allowed men below a certain age, yet between 1568 and 1750s controversy marred coffee was charged infamously for fostering vice.
Sometimes high tax were levied as official pushback to deter coffee businesses, but coffee was unputdownable. Upper class elite Turkish men made kahvehkhanas their second home; reading books, playing chess, discussing poetry, art and politics in the same breath.
Coffee became the social symbol of fine taste or even better indicated willingness to experiment with ways of leisure, giving rise to certain sociability and intellectualism. In all earnest, kahvehkhanas were predecessors of Penny Universities; a term for European coffeehouses, mainly the English ones in late 17thcentury.
A lifestyle in rise
Like a wildfire coffeeshops flooded Europe. By 1638 Venetian merchants made sure they had more than one coffeehouse in Venice. London’s first coffee shop opened its doors in 1652. The name of the owner was Pasqua Roseé, a Greek employee in a Levant Company dealing with Turkish good owned by one Daniel Edwards.
Later Roseé would open his first independent coffee house in Paris in 1672. Meanwhile, Amsterdam had its early coffeehouses in 1660s while Vienna had its in 1680.
From Molière to Balzac, Beethoven to Monet to Kant to Byron and many nameless young authors, poets, singers and artists, there were many who surrendered to coffee as did the court men of the Ottoman and Safavid regimes and the spiritual torchbearers the Sufis.
Added to the coffee love, like the bitterness of a strong espresso unforgettable is coffee slavery and colonialism, the sweat and blood of thousands who have toiled to make what coffee means today. Closing down of manually managed cafe in southern Spain does leave an impact therefore!
Nilosree is a filmmaker, author most recently Banaras Of Gods, Humans And Stories