Depiction of a coffee house in the 1600's

Venice (Mother of Cafes):

Although coffee had been consumed in so-called “coffeehouses” by many different peoples across Africa and the Middle East for decades, the first Italian cafe did not arrive on the scene until 1645 with the opening of the Cafe Florian in Venice. Although initially coffee was greeted in Venice with a great degree of skepticism, the people soon fell in love with the “Turk’s brew”. The Florian was spacious, ornately decorated with gold leaf and watercolor paintings on the walls, and in other words strictly forbidden to those of the lower classes (although they had their own cafes). But especially unwanted were the Turks and any other foreigners, because at that time the Venetians did not like foreigners and didn’t even want to associate with them. So, they too had their own separate cafes. The most notable of which being the Cafe Lavena which opened up in the year 1750 (albeit under a different name) by Carlo Lavena. Cafe Lavena had it’s fair share of famous customers, but Richard Wagner, who would visit daily with his family to write music and converse with Carlo Lavena himself would eventually become such a fixture at the cafe that it earned the nickname of “Wagner’s cafe”. Amusingly, at the same time that the German Richard Wagner was composing music and socializing at the Lavena, the Italian Giuseppe Verdi was doing the same at the Florian. Neither ever thought to cross the dividing wall and meet the other.


Although today the French are renowned for their corner cafes attended by philosophers, writers, politicians and film stars alike, coffee did not catch on in France until the late 1684, well after the opening of the Florian. But suddenly in Paris (thanks partly to Soleiman Agha, Ambassador from Sultan Mehmed IV), there was a craze for all things Arab. Their clothing, their sofas and especially their coffee. The French were eager to make up for lost time when it came to coffee, but there was a problem: They didn’t know how to make it. so, It was up to an Italian named Procopio del Cortel who saw the profit to be made in Paris to open the first “french cafe”. In France, just like everywhere else, coffee came to be associated with sex. It was reputed to be an aphrodisiac for men and thus became very popular among women in opposition to wine which was seen as harmful to a man’s “performance”. And also just like everywhere else, along with cafes came the cafe culture, because when coffee replaces wine and other alcohols, suddenly people can have long, coherent conversation, something which can prove not only to be informative, but seditious and even outright treasonous.


Oddly enough the first coffeehouse in Europe was opened in Oxford, England, by a Jewish immigrant from Lebanon in 1650. Of course initially British coffee merchants sold coffee to the gullible citizens as a cure for dyspepsia, eye-sores, coughs, colds, rheumatism, consumption, head-aches, gout, scurvy, etc. Ironically, they fail to mention the one thing that coffee is believed to be good for today. As Reay Tannahill mentions in her book Food in History, “Modern research does, in fact, suggest coffee may be good for…Asthma. It is also thought to reduce the chance of developing cancer of the colon.”

Coffee took England by storm. By 1700 there were 2,000 coffeehouses in London alone. The English introduced coffee to the East Indies where they brought thousands of Tamil laborers from South india to work on their coffee plantations in Sri Lanka. The repercussions of this can still be seen in Sri Lankan politics to this day. Coffee houses became known as “Penny Universities” in reference to the price of the coffee as well as the stimulating conversation. However, in England, women were strictly forbidden from coffeehouses unless they worked there (in which case they were probably one of the many prostitutes who earned their living there.), thus coffeehouses became more like gentleman’s clubs. But, once again coffee became associated with sex, but this time to it’s detriment. The women of England noticed that their husbands after coming home from a coffeehouse would tend to be less than responsive to their advances in the bedroom. So, since women had no idea that some of those men had already gotten their fill at the coffeehouse, the women assumed that there must be something about the coffee itself which inhibits the man’s libido. The ladies of London even went so far as to publish a pamphlet called the “Maiden’s Complaint” which among other things accused coffee of causing their men to “…have nothing moist but their noses, nothing stiff but their joints, and nothing standing but their ears”.

The Women's Petition Against Coffee (aka the "Maiden's Complaint")

The men then wrote a response stating that it was in fact the complete opposite and that coffee actually made them better lovers. However, regardless of how popular coffee was with the men, the ladies and the children were becoming more and more hooked on a new brew called tea. Suddenly, by the 1800’s tea houses were sprouting up everywhere and  partially because of it’s refined simplicity and partly because of it’s family-friendly atmosphere the tea house would come to completely replace coffee in English culture.


Hello again! Well, after a relatively long hiatus I have returned to brighten up your collective days with more information on our very favorite bean (well, actually it’s a the pit of a cherry, but “coffee pit” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). On today’s menu is a bit of the history behind this “magic” brew:


A landlocked country (since the independence of Eritrea) in the Eastern part of Africa, this country is considered the birthplace of coffee. Aside from the legends of Kaldi the goatherder who found that his goats became excited after eating the berries of the coffee trees, the exact discoverer of coffee’s stimulating properties is unknown. However, it is generally accepted that Ethiopians were cultivating and using the coffee berry as far back as the 9th Century AD. Even to this day coffee trees grow wild in the Kaffa highlands where they were first discovered. For Ethiopians, coffee not only provides around 2/3 of the total exports for the entire country but it is also a source of heartfelt pride. The Ethiopian people have developed an elaborate ceremony for coffee preparation and consumption (which can sometimes take as long as a few hours to complete) and they perform it at least three times a day. This ceremony is considered to foster strong familial bonds as the entire family is gathered together during this ritual. Only the youngest female of the household is allowed to roast and brew the coffee and the eldest member of the family is always served first. The beverage is poured from a height of approxamitely a foot to allow the aroma to permeate the room, and then flavored with sugar or salt. If a guest is invited to coffee in an Ethiopian household, it is considered an insult if the guest does not drink at least three cups as the third cup is considered to bestow blessing.


By the 10th Century, coffee had spread to Sudan and across the Red Sea to Yemen where it was called “qahhwat al-bun” (wine of the bean), or qahwa for short. The first coffee trees cultivated in Yemen are believed to have been of the Arabica species, one of the oldest and most respected for it’s flavor and aroma. Coffee was welcomed by Yemeni authorities because it was seen as a better alternative to Qhat. Qhat is a slow-growing shrub, who’s leaves were actively consumed by residents of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as a narcotic. The leaves contain the alkaloid Cathinone which, when chewed, produce an amphetamine-like response lasting for around an hour followed by a nauseating “come-down” . Qhat was widely considered to cause lethargy, aggression, various stomach problems, tooth decay, as well as sexual impotence. Coffee however was associated with religious devotion as it was important to the Sufis (aka the whirling dervishes) for them to stay awake during their long nighttime ceremonies where they hoped that by spinning rapidly for hours they could enter a trance-like state and make contact with the divine. The sufis, after gathering in Yemen for their devotions, would return to their homes and they would bring the knowledge of coffee back with them, thus spreading coffee farther to the Middle East, Persia and Turkey.


It was in Turkey that coffee was raised from just  a mere stimulant to a passion. As the Arab Empire was expanding in the Middle East, Turkey became the epicenter for the coffeehouse and coffee culture. According to the historian Ibrahim Peçevi Efendi, the first coffeehouse in the world was built in the Tahtalkala district of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in the Ottoman Empire (Modern-day Turkey) around 1554 AD. The importance of the coffeehouse to the history of the world can not be exxagerated. The coffeehouse represented something that had never been seen anywhere before; it was a place where men (women were strictly prohibited due to segregation of the sexes), nobles and commoners alike, could gather and play games, hear the latest gossip, and most importantly they could have educated discussions. This fact would later give coffeehouses a reputation as a den of dissidence and revolution. Coffee in Turkey was never to be questioned until Sultan Murat III who, after hearing about people in coffeehouses drawing lewd and humorous pictures of him, placed a ban on coffee. Murat’s justification for the ban was that Turkey is a muslim state, and alcohol  as well as all stimulants (i.e. coffee) are strictly forbidden according to the Qur’an. The punishment for using stimulants is immediate execution. Murat III’s ban would be in effect until 1595 when he died and the following sultan reversed it, and coffee has thrived in Turkey ever since. The Turks prepare coffee over an open flame in a long-handled pot called an Ibrik. The coffee is finely ground and put in the Ibrik along with water and a healthy dose of sugar and heated repeatedly before being poured, grounds and all, into cups. The result, aptly named Turkish Coffee, is thick, strong, sweet and complex. Turkish Coffee was popular in its homeland as a dessert drink.  It was not until 1573 (when the German Physician and botanist Leonhard Rauwolf made note of a “noxious” drink which he called Chaub) that Europe would be introduced to this intoxictating beverage.

Well, here we go:

October 31, 2009

Welcome to “Boutades, Babeldom & badinage”. This where I’ll be sharing with you my insights, thoughts and discoveries on…well, just about anything. I hope you leave here having found what you were looking for, or maybe even something you weren’t.

All ado aside, the topic of this essay will be a small turkey leg-shaped country in central Asia called Tuva.

Political map of Asia showing Tuva.

Sometime in late 2007, a copy of Ralph Leighton’s “Tuva or Bust!” cam into my possession. It’s a fabulous account of how he and his close friend, physicist Richard Feynman, tried valiantly to travel to Tuva, which was then a part of the USSR. It’s a very heart-breaking book because just as you feel that Ralph and Richard have finally jumped every political/beaurocratic hurdle, Richard Feynman is diagnosed with cancer and, sadly, dies before ever setting foot on the country of his dreams. These days, travel to Tuva is still difficult, but much easier than when Richard Feynman made the attempt. This has resulted in a massive influx of Tuvan culture and people and the country is gaining a lot of recognition here in the states.

A little history:

From 1207 to 1757, Tuva was a part of the Mongolian empire and was known as Tannu Uriankhai. It was then brought under the control of the Qing Dynasty in China and remained that way until 1911. Soon, Russians began to immigrate in to the area and a treaty was struck between Russia and China allowing the migrants to stay provided they live in boats or tents. Later on the Russians where allowed to live in buildings and finally in 1911, tsar Nicholas II took advantage of the Xinhai Revolution to claim Tuva as a protectorate. During the 1920’s Tuva was an essentially independent republic called Tannu-Tuva, but by the end of WWII, a Kremlin-orchestrated coup would distance the country from Mongolia, eventually annexing it into the USSR in 1944, there it remained until the early 1990’s when it signed on to a treaty of federation allowing Tuva to have an autonomous government with a constitution and a parliament of it’s own and the ability to lobby for independence.

Tuvans in traditional garb.

Tuvan music:

Tuvan music is among the most fascinating folk musics of the world, mainly because of it’s “throat singing” or, as they call it, khoomei (translated means whistle). In order for a singer to sing khoomei, he (traditionally only males sing khoomei as it’s believed it can lead to infertility in women) must be able to sing a note, then by manipulating the position of his tongue, jaws and lips, increase the volume of the resonant pitch. The result is a sweet, whistle-like (hence the name) sound along with a lower droning sound that is quite entrancing.

Interesting (yet useless) facts:

– Tuvan stamps from the 20’s and 30’s are highly decorative and collectible.

Tuvan stamp.

– Nomadic Tuvans recognize no national borders which has led to quite a few of them to reside outside the republic’s borders in China, Mongolia and Russia.

– Kyzyl is the capital city of Tuva and lies at the exact geographic center of Asia. There is a stone monument there which says so.

– An annual festival is held in Kyzyl in memory of Richard Feynman.

I could go into the folklore and geography of Tuva and a million different other things here, but that’d just ruin you’re own process of discovery. A great resource for anyone interested is, a site run by Ralph Leighton with “Richard Feynman as it’s patron saint”. Well, that’s about all for now. Till next time,

– Jordan