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Volume 18, Number 3May/June 1967

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On Coffee

A digression

Written by William Gifford Palgrave
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

From the Classics  # 2

The men who wrote the classic accounts of life in Arabia were, by and large, unusual men and William Gifford Palgrave was no exception. A brilliant student, he completed his studies at Oxford in two and a half years, but instead of accepting the honors London was willing to award him, he went to India to serve with the Eighth Bombay Regiment. Later he became a missionary, and after that a diplomat. From 1862 to 1863, he explored central and eastern Arabia, in which time he gathered the material for "A Year's Journey Through Central and Eastern Arabia," a book that was, for its time, a scholarly, if informal, picture of life in Arabia. Today its appeal lies primarily in the dated yet still charming whimsy of such passages as this brief amusing essay on coffee.

I must here beg my reader's permission for a brief episode or digression on the subject of the above-mentioned beverage (coffee). In my quality of an Oriental of many years' standing, I am annoyed at the ignorance yet prevailing on so important a matter in the enlightened West; and as a doctor (at least in Arabia), I cannot see with silent indifference the nervous systems of my fellow-men so rudely tampered with, or their mucous membranes so unseasonably drenched, as is too often the case to the west of the Bosporus.

Be it then known, by way of prelude, that coffee though one in name is manifold in fact; nor is every kind of berry entitled to the high qualifications too indiscriminately bestowed on the comprehensive genus. The best coffee, let cavillers say what they will, is that of the Yemen, commonly entitled "Mokha," from the main place of exportation. Now I should be sorry to incur a lawsuit for libel or defamation from our wholesale or retail salesmen; but were the particle NOT prefixed to the countless labels in London shop-windows that bear the name of the Red Sea haven, they would have a more truthy import than what at present they convey. Very little, so little indeed as to be quite inappreciable, of the Mokha or Yemen berry ever finds its way westward of Constantinople. Arabia itself, Syria and Egypt consume fully two-thirds, and the remainder is almost exclusively absorbed by Turkish and Armenian oesophagi. Nor do these last get for their limited share the best or the purest. Before reaching the harbours of Alexandria, Jaffa, Beyrouth, etc., for further exportation, the Mokhan bales have been, while yet on their way, sifted and resitted, grain by grain, and whatever they may have contained of the hard, rounded, half-transparent, greenish-brown berry, the only one really worth roasting and pounding, has been carefully picked out by experienced fingers; and it is the less generous residue of flattened, opaque, and whitish grains which alone, or almost alone, goes on board the shipping. So constant is this selecting process that a gradation regular as the degrees on a map may be observed in the quality of Mokha, that is Yemen, coffee even within the limits of Arabia itself, in proportion as one approaches to or recedes from Wadi Nejran and the neighbourhood of Mecca, the first stages of the radiating mart. I have myself been times out of number an eyewitness of this sifting; the operation is performed with the utmost seriousness and scrupulous exactness, reminding me of the diligence ascribed to American diamond-searchers when scrutinising the torrent sands for their minute but precious treasure.

The berry, thus qualified for foreign use, quits its native land on three main lines of export—that of the Red Sea. that of the Inner Hejaz, and that of Kaseem. The terminus of the first line is Egypt, of the second Syria, of the third Nejed and Shomer. Hence Egypt and Syria are, of all countries without the frontiers of Arabia, the best supplied with its specific produce, though under the restrictions already stated; and through Alexandria or the Syrian seaports Constantinople and the North obtain their diminished share. But this last stage of transport seldom conveys the genuine article, except by the intervention of private arrangements and personal friendship or interest. Where mere sale and traffic are concerned, substitution of an inferior quality, or an adulteration almost equivalent to substitution, frequently takes place in the different storehouses of the coast, till whatever Mokha-marked coffee leaves them for Europe and the West is often no more like the real offspring of the Yemen plant than the logwood preparations of a London fourth-rate retail wine-seiler resemble the pure libations of an Oporto vineyard.

The second species of coffee, by some preferred to that of Yemen, but in my poor opinion inferior to it, is the growth of Abyssinia; its berry is larger, and of a somewhat different and a less heating flavour. It is, however, an excellent species; and whenever the rich land that bears it shall be permitted by man to enjoy the benefits of her natural fertility, it will probably become an object of extensive cultivation and commerce. With this stops, at least in European opinion and taste, the list of coffee, and begins the list of beans.

Here first and foremost stands the produce of India, with a little, similar to it in every respect, from the plantations of Oman. This class supplies almost all coffee-drinkers, from the neighbourhood of Dafar to Basrah, and thence up to Baghdad and Mosoul; Arabs, Persians, Turks, Curdes, be they who they may, have there no other beverage. To one unaccustomed to what Yemen supplies, the Indian variety may seem tolerable, or even agreeable. But without any affectation of virtuoso nicety, I must say that for one fresh arrived from Nejed and Kaseem it is hardly potable. The distorted and irregular form of the berry, its blackish stain, and above all the absence of the semi-transparent alabaster-like appearance peculiar to the good Yemanite variety, renders the difference between the two kinds appreciable to the unassisted eye, not only to the palate.

It is possible that time and care may eventually render Indian coffee almost a rival of the Yemen, or at least of the Abyssinian. Hitherto it certainly is not, though it might be hard to say to what particular causes, inherent in soil, climate, or cultivation, its inferiority is ascribable.

American coffee holds, in the judgment of all Orientals, the very last rank; and the deterioration of this product in the New World from what it is in the Old, is no less remarkable than that observed in rice, tea, etc., and is of an analogous character.

Of Batavian coffee I purposely say nothing, having never to my knowledge tasted it. I hear it sometimes praised, but by Europeans; Orientals never mentioned it before me; perhaps they confounded it with the Indian.

While we were yet in the Djowf, I described with sufficient minuteness how the berry is prepared for actual use; nor is the process any way varied in Nejed or other Arab lands. But in Nejed an additional spicing of saffron, cloves, and the like, is still more common; a fact which is easily explained by the want of what stimulus tobacco affords elsewhere. A second consequence of nonsmoking among the Arabs is the increased strength of their coffee decoctions in Nejed, and the prodigious frequency of their use; to which we must add the larger "finjans," or coffee-cups, here in fashion. So sure are men, when debarred of one pleasure or excitement, to make it up by another.

Reprinted from "A Year's Journey Through Central and Eastern Arabia," Maorntllan and Company, London, 1877.

This article appeared on pages 10-11 of the May/June 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: COFFEE

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