So, if like me you’re onto your N-th cup of coffee as your brain locks into focus around the tasks of the day, spare a thought for the rather fascinating history of this black elixir of the mind. And enjoy the fact you’re free to do so (assuming, that by reading this, you are).
Skip back through time a little over four centuries.
In the late 16th century, European travellers were taking note of coffee being served-up within the Ottoman Empire. Sailors too – although the price of the beverage when it finally became voguish within Europe was far beyond their purse.
However, before this became possible, coffee yet again had to “run the gauntlet” as the centuries-old controversy of its appeal over moral and religious standards reared its narrow-minded head.Was it acceptable for Catholics to drink coffee? It took the Pope of the time to resolve the issue.
Meanwhile Venice became fulcrum for the interchange of new goods coming from the markets of North Africa, Egypt and the East, and coffee was a part of this – with the first European coffee house opening in Venice in 1645. Five years later, in 1650, the Grand Cafe opened in Oxford – allegedly the first Coffee House in England, although this claim is also held by Pasqua Rosee’s establishment at Cornhill, in the City of London. Regardless, from this point forward Coffee Houses erupted across the country like a memetic virus, throughout Europe and then later into America.
Apart from religious outcry through the ages, the places where coffee was consumed… the Coffee Houses, have been seen by Kings and the Keepers of State Secrets (and spin) as nests of intrigue, plotters and scandal. This has never been better portrayed, perhaps, than in the Chestnut Tree cafe of George Orwell’s novel 1984. Although the silence of the patrons is rather telling: and so you do have to wonder how many Coffee Houses around the world and throughout history have been “bugged” either by spies of one kind or another, or even electronic eavesdropping? Call me paranoid – or perhaps just overly thoughtful.
The Chestnut Tree was almost empty. A ray of sunlight slanting through a window fell on dusty table-tops. It was the lonely hour of fifteen. A tinny music trickled from the telescreens.
Winston sat in his usual corner, gazing into an empty glass. Now and again he glanced up at a vast face which eyed him from the opposite wall. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said. Unbidden, a waiter came and filled his glass up with Victory Gin, shaking into it a few drops from another bottle with a quill through the cork. It was saccharine flavoured with cloves, the speciality of the cafe.
- 1984, George Orwell
So wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, brewing up your own grounds or supping something prepared for you, I hope you’re able to savour a little more flavour with this taste of history on your tongue. And pause for a moment to reflect on how lucky we are, I suppose, to be able to enjoy this moment free to think and express ourselves. For now.