Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Wines of Araby by Carol Wallwork first published online May 7, 2009

Homemade Latte in a Sam Taylor mug

What’s the most valuable (legal) commodity, besides oil?  Right---coffee.  Discovered in Ethiopia in the 9th century, transported to Yemen and Egypt, eventually it made it’s way to Italy. European traders were great disseminators of the coffee tree (they stole the beans to plant in various colonies).  “The vast  majority of growers of coffee,” explains Mark Pendergrast in Uncommon Grounds, “live in  the most beautiful places on earth, with tropical volcanic peaks, in climate -controlled heavens that rarely dips below 70 F or tops 80 F.”  The downside is they earn on average $3/day,receive scant medical care, have no running water, electricity or decent food.  If you buy a Starbucks coffee today, you’ve just spent the average daily wage of a worker on a coffee plantation.*
Two of my favorite novels are about failed coffee plantations:  Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen and The Flame Trees of Thika by Elsbeth Huxley.  It is a complicated, multi-layered substance with an equally complicated history, fraught with betrayal and intrigue. One of the more stimulating tidbits about coffee is it made it’s debut in Europe not long before the start of the Industrial Revolution.  The English at that time drank beer or gin, when they woke in the morning until they dropped off at night.  Everyone was sloshed. Brewing neutralizing the deadly water. Had coffee not percolated down to the masses by the early 1800s the Industrial Revolution would not have occurred.  Powerful stuff.
There are two types of coffee.  Robusta beans, hardier,more resistant to disease but bitter--the cheaper grade.  The refined bean is Arabica, harder to grow but the nectar of coffee lovers everywhere. Helped along by the invention of the espresso machine in 1950s Italy and the 1970s incorporation of Starbucks, which has grown into the largest coffee company in the  world.  *A way to help neutralize the bitterness of the coffee business inequity is to buy fair trade beans.

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