From this book I learnt that my method of consuming a Vienna coffee – drinking the coffee through the cream – is apparently a terrible faux pas. The correct method involves piling the cream on the coffee (it should be served on a separate dish – attention Starbucks!) sprinkling chocolate shavings on top, eating the cream and chocolate with a spoon, and then finally drinking the coffee. This book is full of such hints and tips, focusing on one item: coffee.
Stewart Lee Allan begins his journey in Ethiopia and reports his travels from the birthplace of coffee drinking to the coffeehouses of Europe and the jungles of Brazil.
With a ready wit and self-deprecating style, Allan is an engaging guide for this whistlestop tour of the world over the last 1000 years, with breaks for a quick cup of java. All this is part of the ride as Allan attempts to find someone who can serve him an authentic cup of traditional coffee.
Most intriguing are the accounts of beer consumption in Western Europe before the arrival of the saviour: according to Allan, the average Northern European in the 17th century drank three litres of beer a day – and this includes women and children! It was coffee (although it must be said that in the UK, tea has been far more important) which dragged our ancestors out of a perpetual alcoholic stupor and into a race to colonise the rest of the world (in order, of course, to plant coffee). This is an interesting view to consider along with the theory that the reason Britain – and later Japan – industrialised so quickly in comparison with other countries is that they both had tea-drinking populations. In order to industrialise, large numbers of people living in cities are required to man the factories. Unfortunately, large numbers of people living in close proximity tends to result in epidemics. For this reason tea was the hero of the Industrial Revolution, helping to reduce disease by making people boil water before they drank it and because of tea’s own antibacterial properties.
In this book, however, coffee is the hero. Coffee and the culture it brought with it, of sobriety and coffeehouses as centres of political fervour. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened had someone in Africa not discovered what could be done with this amazing plant! More interesting is the fact that the original coffee drinkers made a brew from the leaves, not the beans.
This is an entertaining ride through the history of coffee and its influences on the societies that drink it. If you are one of those people who can’t wake up without a steaming cup of mojo, or feel their nose twitching as the smell of espresso wafts by on the street, this is the book for you.