Saturday, August 15, 2009

Another Coffee. Another History Lesson


Anthony Capella, The Various Flavors of Coffee, 2008.

I have just read this delightful book. Seemingly light-weight at the outset, perhaps, it gives the reader a colorful peep into the late 19th century coffee trade between London and East Africa, the source of the word kaffe. And there is a parallel plot revealing the struggles toward women's suffrage in England. Over all this, the author gives us a steady stream of clever humor, sexually explicit adventure, cut-throat enterprise, and keen insight into the matter of coffee blending and the resultant tastes.

The main character is Robert Wallis, at twenty-two years of age a bit of a fop and a sort of poet. The kind of guy who would turn first to the New York Times Styles section and be there all morning; by the conclusion, he is Indiana Jones.

Through a lovely lass and some hope of marriage (and a life of luxury), he becomes involved with a coffee entrepreneur and the European military and economic intrusion upon Africa. The management of geographic place names is often a challenge.

The coffee magnate, a diabolical schemer working toward "free market capitalism" named Pinker,
sends Wallis to Zeila (or, Zeilah) on the Gulf of Aden, to Harar (just east of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia or Abyssinia, the birthplace of arabica coffee), and well beyond.

En route, he experiences the magnificent Egyptian dawn and Cairo's scented whorehouses, the highly sophisticated and meaningful Ethiopian three-course coffee ceremony, the realities of East African slavery, and a sharp introduction to the culture and values that continue today in East Africa and the challenges that defeat attempts at nationhood, sustainable economic balance, and peace.

Ethiopian Longberry or Yirgacheffe, anyone?

Setting forth in such a place toward establishing a profitable coffee plantation is potentially dangerous work and Wallis makes keeps us on our toes by dallying with forbidden women and not only learning how to cope, but also to appreciate life in the bush. There are few amenities and the wily Bedouins, marauding tribes and leopards to contend with. As the novel goes on, the intrigue tightens, the characters take firm shape and the plot becomes more saturated, more sophisticated in its cultural details.

Coffee in Ethiopia, it becomes clear, is very old and quite sacred.

Later, back in London, our intrepid poet succumbs to more involvement in coffee
"development" and the now-violent suffragist movement. For those of fus who remember, the women's actions resemble the left-wing's frustrated public appearances and trashing in the Vietnam era. A woman's right to be recognized as an equal human being, a fully-franchised citizen is eventually blunted and set aside. Our poet loses his single-minded sexual vigor in exchange for maturity and depth. Subtly, the various flavors of coffee serve as metaphor for the various flavors of love, and the exclusivity of quality coffee in a world of cheap blends become a standard for true individuals.

One recalls Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world , which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Anthony Capella,
The Various Flavors of Coffee. Bantum-Dell, New York, 2008). I recommend it. Capella is British and is the author of the previous book, The Food of Love (2004). Culinary and sexual epiphanies in Rome.

Today, coffee drinkers live in a world of rubbish, blends and subtly disguised mixes. Starbucks, Folgers, even Peets are mere brands. What would it take to find a true mocha, a pure Java? Think on it.

A fascinating sidelight to all this is that coffee roaster and experienced coffee cupper Norman Killmon has traced the origins of coffee cupping to 1890s San Francisco. Just Google him.

Finally, I should add that much of the technical detail in this work of fiction
can be found in Ted R. Lingle's The Coffee Cupper's Handbook (Complete and revised edition, ASIN B001 DLQ CCA, 2008), Paul Katzeff's The Coffee Cupper's Manifesto and other references in this field. One may also purchase the researched materials in the novel as Le Nez du Cafe, a standard set of 36 aromas presented in a protective wooden case.

For more about
coffee in the arts, see my earlier blog entry on this subject.

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