WORLDFOOD – Coffee’s Round Trip

27 May 2003

The coffee plant originates from the Ethiopian region of Kaffa, whence it spread all over the Muslim world. The first reliable documentation of the consumption of coffee as a beverage dates from the fifteenth century. We know that coffee drinking was banned at the Mecca in 1511 and 1524, and documents record its presence in Cairo (1510) and Istanbul (1517). It soon ‘invaded’ the Ottoman Empire, too. In 1615, Pietro Della Valle, an Italian traveler in Constantinople wrote that, ‘The Turks have a black beverage they drink cold in summer and the contrary in winter’.

At the start of the seventeenth century, coffee reached Venice. Credit for its introduction into Italy is generally assigned to Prospero Alpino, a botanist at Padua University, who brought home sacks from a journey in the Middle East. He describes the coffee plant in his De Planctis Aegyptii et de Medicina Aegiptiorum (1591).

In 1625, the city of Naples imported a mindboggling 1,500 tonnes of sugar and 55 tonnes of honey, much of which, presumably, served to sweeten the fashionable new beverage, coffee.

In 1640, the first bottega del caffé opened in Venice. Others followed in other major Italian cities, such as Turin, Genoa, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples. By 1763, Venice alone boasted as many as 218 of these new coffee shops.

Coffee eventually reached Paris in the 1640s. In 1669, the Turkish ambassador to the French capital Soliman Mustafà Raca used to offer coffee to his visitors: ‘the embassy was a disaster, but the coffee was a success’ (Alfred Franklin, La vie privée d’autrefois, 1899).

A treatise entitled L’usage du caphé, du thé, et du chocolat, published in Lyon in 1671 exalted the virtues of the new beverage: ‘It dries every cold humor, it expels wind, it fortifies the liver … It offers extraordinary relief after wining and dining. There’s nothing better for those who eat too much fruit’ (Anonimo, De l’usage du caphé, du thé, et du chocolat, 1671).

At the end of the century, the streets of Paris were filled with turbaned Armenian vendors selling coffee from makeshift stalls complete with pot, stove and cups. It was also an Armenian, a certain Hatariun, who opened Paris’s first coffee shop, in 1670 at Saint-Germain. One of his waiters, Sicilian-born Procopio de’ Coltelli, Procope Couteau to the French, later set up business on his own. His third café, the Procope, opened in 1686 on the rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain, still stands today.

The new craze caught on all over western Europe with cafés supplanting traditional taverns from Italy to Portugal, from France to Germany. Then white coffee was invented. ‘[Workers] … find this foodstuff cheaper, more nutritious and tastier than any other. They consequently drink an enormous quantity of it …’ (Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, IV, 1781-88)

Until then, all the world’s coffee had come from plantations round Moka in Arabia, and only limited supplies reached Europe. At the start of the eighteenth century, however, with the planting of coffee in the east – Java (1712), the Réunion Islands (1716) – and across the Atlantic – Cayenne (1722), Martinique (1723), northern Brazil (1727), Jamaica (1730) and San Domingo (1731) – imports to Europe boomed; so much so that some countries actually began to export coffee to the very areas it had come from in the first place! Ships were soon setting out from Marseilles laden with cargoes of coffee from Martinique, which gradually replaced the Arabic variety in the Middle-East, while the Dutch East Indies Company began to sell coffee from Java to Indian Muslims and Persians. At which point, ‘ … there was a virtual market of 300 million people drinking or prone to drink coffee’. (Fernand Brunel, Civilization matérielle, economie et capitalisme, vol. 1)

On its incredible century-long round trip, coffee certainly left a mark, or rather a stain, on the social history of Europe!

John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food website

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