Coffee passion

In one way or another, coffee has played quite a significant and symbolic role in my life. My first memory of coffee is the aroma. My mother would take me outside John Watt and Son in Carlisle and encourage me to take in the smell of coffee beans being slowly roasted in a shop where they have been roasting beans since 1865. I always make a point of stopping back there on my visits back to my home region in the north of England and there is something very reassuring about the pedigree of this coffeehouse. I took the photograph below when I popped in last July, three days after my mother had passed away and a day during which I had been sorting out legal and administrative paperwork and it was very appropriate to gravitate back towards this place that held so many positive memories and smells. It is  popular haven for serious shoppers who like serious coffee peppered with serious gossip.

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The ritualistic standing in front of the store and breathing in the inebriating odours of roasting coffee beans marked me for life. There was simply no way that I could ever treat something possessing such an incredible scent with anything other than reverence and, most of all, desire. I have, I will confess now in the interests of full disclosure, been serially unfaithful to coffee over the years. Yet, while the charms of tea, juices, and sparkling water have lured me away at many points, I always return to coffee’s embrace and my heart will steadfastly be hers. Not only is coffee a factor in my drinking habits but it has also become part of my research. The book I’m currently working on concerns unlikely avenues of subversion in France during the 17th and 18th centuries that contributed towards and signalled the French Revolution. Michel Foucault observed “where there is power, there is resistance”, and I find it fascinating -and comforting- that resistance can take unexpected forms.

And this is where coffee comes in. In 1669, the Ottoman Empire sent an embassy to Paris in what was supposed to foster and herald a new relationship and exciting opportunities between the Turks and French. Unfortunately, it all went very wrong. The French mistook one of the servants in the Turkish group for the ambassador; he was, in fact, a gardener. Then, when this faux pas was resolved, Louis XIV received the ambassadorial mission with lavish ceremony and honour, wearing a luxurious specially commissioned suit for the occasion that was liberally encrusted with precious, large diamonds. Rather than being impressed by the Sun King’s efforts, the ambassador, Suleiman Aga, declared that even the most lowly of his Sultan’s horses wore more magnificent outfits that the one that the monarch was sporting. Louis was, not unreasonably given the circumstances, vexed and immediately banished the undiplomatic diplomat from Versailles. Suleiman Aga spent several weeks thereafter in Paris, entertaining visitors and offering them the exotic drink of coffee. Despite the sovereign’s displeasure with this man and notwithstanding his having declared his dislike of coffee, the beverage became a way to assert, albeit subtly, a certain individualism within the context of an increasingly centralized -and controlling- government. Coffeeshops took off, though in the 1670s it was extremely expensive. Joan DeJean in the extremely readable The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour points out that a pound of coffee beans cost the equivalent of $6000 in today’s money. Fortunately, prices fell and coffeehouses became popular throughout Europe. Since they would usually have a library of books for patrons to read, censored books could easily be left there and these places became hothouses of political discussion during the eighteenth century. The Café Procope, the world’s oldest coffeeshop, has had many famous clients since it opened its doors in 1686, including Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.

ImageThere has been an academy of coffee meeting within the historic walls of the Procope (where, incidentally, the owner Procoppio, created the first ice-cream in the 1690s as an alternative to his native gelato) every month for well over a decade now. One of the founders of this academy is a wonderful, energetic woman pictured above, Gloria Montenegro de Chirouze, who opened La Caféothèque near the Hôtel de Ville six years ago and revitalized the dire state of coffee in the capital. Gloria was Guatemalan ambassador to France before then, and decided to stay on and do something she loved. Gloria is very passionate about coffee and the process that goes into creating the end product, sourcing beans from plantations that she has visited. Finding that the vocabulary to describe coffee was inadequate and neglected, she created and developed the science of caféologie or coffeeology (it sounds better in French) which treats the drink much as oenology does wine. Her philosophy can be summed in her defiant motto of “no blends”, which can lead, in Gloria’s opinion, to some unhappy marriages.

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I’ve been working on an article on coffee history on and off over the years and I decided that I needed to have greater technical insight into what goes into making the drink. So, during the summer of 2009, I followed a barista training course under Gloria’s direction involving roasting, drink preparation, knowledge about every part of the process, and finally being examined. The photograph above was taken by Yadh Elyes, who also instructed me. Yadh was one of the judges in the French national barista competitions. What I took away from this apprenticeship was more than a formal qualification; Gloria taught me to see coffee differently and afresh and, more than anything, to respect it and the people involved in its production. I’ll never forget the day when I saw her cry because she’d over-roasted a batch of beans. It was the fact that she knew what had gone into making those beans -she had been to the plantation they came from- and felt she had disappointed them, and the beans. She is an amazing person. When my mother died this summer and I returned to Paris, where I’d been during that period, one of my first port of calls was the Caféothèque. I wanted and needed a hug from Gloria as I knew it would help me. And it did. We all need people with passion in our lives.

ImageI’ve been reminded of Gloria’s singular passion for coffee here in Lawrence, Kansas. A coffeeshop opened a week ago, intriguingly called Alchemy. Benjamin Farmer, a history graduate, founded the business with the support of his family and it’s taken off briskly. There are no espresso drinks but rather pour overs and chemex, drinks that take time to prepare. Benjamin’s enthusiasm and devotion to coffee is absolutely contagious, as can be seen above, with Benjamin in the foreground with his apprentice, Nathan, behind him. What I like about people like Benjamin is that their commitment to their art commands our compliance, invites us to pause, and lures us from banality.

In our lives, we always have a choice. We can swing by Starbucks and engage in a version of caffeine prostitution, prepared by non-baristas, with over-roasted beans, in a poor semblance and pale imitation of real coffee. Or, we can have good beans, roasted by artisans, and prepared for us, with care, by professionals. In a sense, the kind of decision we have to make is a metaphor. The true alchemy of spots like Alchemy, and they are to be found if we seek them, is that they transform a caffeine fix into a moment of reflection over a cup of something that is very good. Johann Sebastian Bach understood this. Amidst his output of sacred music and haunting airs is a whimsical, non-religious piece, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211, otherwise known as the Coffee Cantata. This is one of only four secular compositions by Bach and is a mini-opera about a young woman who is addicted to coffee and is refusing her father’s overtures to marry her off since she is worried that a new husband will forbid the beverage to her. She sings “If I can’t drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment, I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat”, and there is an absolutely delightful aria in which a soprano sings:

Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse,
Milder als Muskatenwein.
Coffee, Coffee muss ich haben,
Und wenn jemand mich will laben,
Ach, so schenkt mir Coffee ein!

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

This aria is available on YouTube, here. It is incredibly beautiful and I find it reassuring that the sombre and sometimes melancholic composer -his Matthew Passion is surely one of the most sublime musical works in existence- devoted his art to the beverage. This should, surely, tell us something.

ImageToday’s cufflinks remind me of coffee beans. Their shape is approximate, but it’s also the hue that evokes the bean. They are made by the Copenhagen jewellers Anton Michelsen, bearing their maker’s mark, and most probably date from the mid- to late 1960s. I’ve also featured another pair by the same company, here. They are crafted out of sterling silver but with a gold wash, giving an absolutely lovely and subtle surface. Their slightly bent shape invites us to see something mysterious and inviting in what some treat as a pedestrian object, much like the allures of coffee.

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