Who first thought to pluck the coffee bean from a tree, dry it, do to it the complicated things that need attending to, and brewing a hot cup of the stuff? Like so many other human discoveries, the odds on this ever happening seem so remote as to defy imagining. I mean, why would anyone bother? And how many horrible concoctions did people try out before hitting on the right one? How many were fatal, and how many caused the ardent experimenter to call out ‘O God, why did I try to smoke/drink that?’ But there seems no lack of ingenuity in humans’ attempts to eat, drink, imbibe, smoke or snort just about every leaf, bean, bark or blossom under the sun. And why not.
I have just opened, and brewed a pot of the sample on the left of the picture, an espresso roast from Las Flores plantation, Nicaragua. It is delicious and strong, but unlike other dark roasts doesn’t leave any nasty metallic aftertaste. I wish I could share a cup with you, although rumour has it that Coffee a Go Go in Cardiff’s St Andrew’s Place have a small allocation, which is their guest bean today.
On my recent trip to VIII International Poetry Festival of Granada in Nicaragua, I retuned with my suitcase laden down (it hit 27 kilos so I had to plant some on Mrs Blanco – has anyone tampered with your luggage madam . . ) not with tomes of poetry (there was some of true value, and I think I got what I needed there) but with a selection of coffee beans. While there, we also enjoyed a tour of one plantation, where we learned, for example, that due to the delicacy of the small sprigs, the coffee beans have to be hand-picked with a gentle downward movement, because if the stems are bent back the wrong way, they will not produce fruit the next year. This is backbreaking and demanding labour, and cannot be carried out recklessly.
I spent several winters in my younger years picking olives, and (depending on the location, and the destination of the olive) this activity can be carried out with varying degrees of vigour, but none of them involve quite such a delicate technique as coffee-picking.
And then there’s the wages paid to the pickers. On most plantations this is minimal – and their living conditions appalling, which is why it is important to try and buy coffee from a responsible source – not easy when half the coffees in the supermarket are labelled under the ambiguous (and almost meaningless) ‘Fair Trade’ label.
A good cup of coffee is a priceless thing, and those beans have made quite a journey. It makes one wonder if there are any decent coffee poems. So I do a search, and am delighted to find there is an entire literature reflecting our love affair with the bean, notably in a site titled, usefully, a history of coffee in literature.
Here is an example, from the little known (early 19th century?) English poet Geoffrey Sephton, extolling the virtues of Kauhee (or coffee) as opposed to those nasty opiates that were all the rage at the time:
To The Mighty Monarch, King Kauhee
Away with opiates! Tantalising snares
To dull the brain with phantoms that are not.
Let no such drugs the subtle senses rot
With visions stealing softly unawares
Into the chambers of the soul. Nightmares
Ride in their wake, the spirits to besot.
Seek surer means to banish haunting cares:
Place on the board the steaming Coffee-pot!
O’er luscious fruit, dessert and sparkling flask,
Let proudly rule as King the Great Kauhee,
For he gives joy divine to all that ask,
Together with his spouse, sweet Eau de Vie.
Oh, let us ‘neath his sovran pleasure bask.
Come, raise the fragrant cup and bend the knee!
O great Kauhee, thou democratic Lord,
Born ‘neath the tropic sun and bronzed to
In lands of Wealth and Wisdom, who can render
Such service to the wandering Human Horde
As thou at every proud or humble board?
Beside the honest workman’s homely fender,
‘Mid dainty dames and damsels sweetly tender.
In china, gold and silver, have we poured
Thy praise and sweetness, Oriental King.
Oh, how we love to hear the kettle sing
In joy at thy approach, embodying
The bitter, sweet and creamy sides of life;
Friend of the People, Enemy of Strife,
Sons of the Earth have born thee labouring.