Coffee – The Great Soberer

How do you like your coffee ? A scalding hot espresso, a frothy latte or a Turkish coffee with just a tad of sugar.

When you prefer it to your exact liking, you hold the cup to your nose, inhaled its wonderful aroma and took a sip. You suddenly felt more alert, more in-tune and ready to face whatever the day might throw at you. That’s the small magic that I, together with billions of other people, enjoy every morning.

Recently I was doing a bit of a reading on the French Revolution and what striked me most was the importance of coffee (or the coffee-house culture to be precise) in the years leading to the revolution.

Coffee was introduced to Europe in the early 17th century. Europe had massive pandemic outbreaks and horrible sanitation at the time. Think Yellow Fever and Black Death. Most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak ‘small beer’ and wine. Both were far safer to drink than water , which was liable to be contaminated, particularly in squalid and crowded cities. Coffee was made using boiled water, therefore, provided a safer alternative. What’s more, those who drank coffee instead of alcohol to begin the day were alert & simulated and the quality & quantity of their work improved. It first became the drink of clerks and lawyers; people who had to sit for long hours and had to keep their wits.

Europe’s first coffeehouse opened in Italy in 1645 but was very short-lived, for the Pope proclaimed that the coffee was a Muslim invention and those who drank it would be ex-communicated. He wasn’t successful in his efforts; just as the chief Imam of Mecca who declared coffee as sinful a drink as alcohol a century ago and tried to ban the coffeehouses in the Arab world. Soon it became obvious that these esteemed gentlemen were not opposing the drink itself, but to the coffeehouses which were fast becoming places of information sharing and political discussions; therefore harder to control and dangerous.

East or West, Muslim, Christian or Jew, one thing was universal. Rulers were not fans of free speech.

Coffeehouses popped up in Britain in the 1650s and in Amsterdam and Paris during the 1660s and spreaded to the continent from there. For the price of a penny or a cent , a gentleman could meet with like-minded peers, drank coffee, learned the news of the day and discussed politics, current events and even the latest scandals. In England, they were dubbed as ‘penny universities’ referring both the first ever coffeehouse opened at Oxford and the admission price.

There’s a story about how coffee became popular in Paris. While records show that coffee had already been enjoyed in France by a few lucky , the brew would not befriend the public at large until an Ottoman ambassador named Süleyman Ağa arrived to Paris.  Representing Sultan Mehmed IV, Süleyman and his retinue set up lavish residence in central Paris while awaiting an appointment to hold audience with the French King Louis XIV.  Wasting no time, Süleyman converted a grand Parisian town house into a palatial Turkish abode befitted with gilt fountains, the finest carpets and emerald encrusted tiling where guests could indulge in Oriental delicacies such as tobacco and a rich brew called coffee.  It was here that Süleyman is credited with introducing the drink – and the manner in which it was traditionally served – to many of the cities elite of the time.  One such visitor best describes the occasion;

On bended knee, the black slaves of the Ambassador, arrayed in the most gorgeous Oriental costumes, served the choicest Mocha in tiny cups of egg-shell porcelain, hot, strong and fragrant, poured out in saucers of gold and silver, placed on embroidered silk dollies fringed with gold bullion, to the grand dames, who fluttered their fans with many grimaces, bending their piquant faces—be-rouged, be-powdered and be-patched—over the new and steaming beverage.

My real favourite

Western Europe was finally emerging from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries. Coffee was the great soberer, the drink of the modern clear headed intellectual, the epitome of modernity and progress – the ideal beverage, in short, for the Age of Reason.

From the late 17th century on, political and cultural debate became part of wider European society, rather than being confined to small groups of royals, clerics and the ruling class. Transnational elites who shared ideas and styles were not new; what changed was their extent and the numbers involved. These shifts in the public sphere decreased the importance of the ruling elite in Europe and shaped the world.

A lovely cup of Mocha – delicious and oh-so Insta friendly

In fact, coffee’s unique taste and stimulating effects had been known for some time in the Islamic World where coffee originated. There are various legends of its dicovery; an imam discoved it to stay alert for the morning prayer; a goatherd noticed his flock became more animated after eating the berries of a particular tree and decided to try it himself etc etc. The practice of turning coffee into a drink seems to be a Yemeni innovation, in a town called Mocha (rings a bell ?). By the mid 16th century, despite various efforts of the religious leaders, there was a coffeehouse in almost every village or town.

Guess who else was against the coffeehouses ? The women. The 16th & 17th cc coffeehouses were domains of Men with a capital M. Women were not invited, because the topics discussed were deemed not lady-like.

So the women launched a campaign. Their argument was simple but effective. They were saying that too much coffee effects a man’s sex impulses and fertility. Needless to say, no men could entertain such doubts on their masculinity, so they did the only logical thing and invited the ladies to their sacred coffeehouses.

Coffee came to Ottoman Empire in 1554. A small coffeehouse was opened in İstanbul and immediately became popular, despite the efforts of the Şeyhulislam. The habit of drinking coffee and smoking tobacco created a virtual aristocracy of pleasure, and the clientele of this first coffeehouse hailed accordingly from the respectable classes of the society. Soon they spread to the most remote corners of the Empire.

The original coffeehouses were venues for conversation, fostered by the mahalle culture whose customers therefore consisted of the local residents. As they function as hubs of social interaction and public opinion, they became principle centers of political debate and even rebellions.

As the coffee drinking spread in Ottoman Empire, a complex ritual arose. Coffee was soon acknowledged as a ceremonial beverage, especially in the palace and at the mansions of the prominent Pashas. The Ottoman Sultans had Chief Coffeemakers to oversee the preparation and presentation of this wonderful drink.

Until the end of the 17th century, Arabia was the unchallenged supplier of coffee. It was thanks to the Dutch merchants that this monopoly was broken, when they took coffee branches to Java, Indonesia at first and then to Suriname, another colony in South America. The French followed. A naval French officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu who was recently appointed to the French Island of Martinique took upon himself to obtain a branch of a coffee tree from Louis XIV’s Jardin des Plantes and took it to his new posting. (In case you are wondering, the Sun King was not a coffee aficionado, he preferred to drink champagne and only champagne. )

It is said that the descendants of de Clieu’s original plant began to proliferate in the region, in Haiti, Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama and Venezuela. Ultimately, Brazil became the world’s dominant supplier, leaving Arabia far behind.

Coffee and coffeehouses continue to be as important in our busy and over-connected lives. In addition to the original coffeehouses, we now have espresso bars, multinational chains and third-generation coffee shops. They now come with comfortable sofas, huge cups and internet. Even if you are not in the mood for socializing, you can do your work there or kill the time until your next appointment.

Friends at Central Perk

There’s no country on earth that you can’t find a coffeehouse and you can even sip your coffee aboard the International Space Station.

When astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti half-jokingly requested real espresso in space, Lavazzo strated to work on a zero-gravity coffee machine and she became the first person to sip a fresh cup of coffee in space on 3 May 2015.

In Turkish there is a word that I like a lot, tiryaki, reserved to describe the coffee and tea drinkers and tobacco smokers. It’s different than addiction; an addict has to fill a need, whereas a tiryaki is looking for the perfect balance to enrich the senses. A tiryaki is a pleasure seeker, a rebel and the original universal citizen. An Italian gulping his espresso standing in a bar can get the same pleasure as the person sipping his tea in a ceremonial Japanese teahouse.

The coffeehouses still shape the culture and come with their own jargon. We now have different Blends, French or Austrian Roasts , Skinny Lattes and can order an Affogato from our favorite barrista. Just the simple act of choosing your beverage can be a part of your identity, ordering the latest coffee-craze can mean you are a part of the it-crowd. There are TV shows that centers around coffee shops and commercials starring Hollywood A-Listers.

In a sense, we all become tiryakis of the coffee shops.

I started this post with the French Revolution, let me end it with it.

Under Louis XIV, the Court at Versailles was the centre of culture, fashion and political power.However, the coffeehouses were fast becoming the centers of Enlightenment. The emergence of this so-called “public sphere” led to Paris to replace Versailles as the cultural and intellectual center, leaving the Court isolated and less able to influence opinion.

Diderot actually compiled his Encyclopédie in a Paris coffeehouse, the Café de la Régence. He recalled in his memoires that his wife used to give him nine sous each morning to pay for a day’s worth of coffee.

The Encyclopédie came to be the definitive summary of the Enlightenment ideals. Its contributors included Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau and influenced by the English philosopher Locke, who was arguing that all man were born equal and were entitled to the pursuit of happiness.

In addition to these social changes, it was a time of wide-spread poverty, major food shortages, unemployment and high taxes. Failing to recognize and address these problems, the court became the target of popular anger, especially Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was viewed as a spendthrift Austrian spy. For the revolutionaries, Enlightenment ideals on equality and democracy provided an intellectual framework for dealing with these issues.

Ultimately it was at the Café de Foy, on the afternoon of July 12,1789, that a young lawyer named Camille Desmoulins set the French Revolution in motion. He leaped onto a table shouting ‘To arms, citizens ! To arms !’ Paris swiftly descended to chaos and two days later, Bastille, where some of the leaders of the Enlightment were prisoned, was stormed.

Many historians still regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in recent history. Its key principles Liberté, égalité, fraternité  would inspire campaigns such as the abolition of slavery and women’s rights and became the cornerstones of Western democracies.

And all was started with a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Which one is yours ?

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