This Magic Potion was Discovered in Ethiopia 1000 Years Ago.

“It could alleviate hunger, make you more alert, improve mental acuity and stave off the overpowering need for sleep.”

About 1000 years ago Arabs from what is now called Yemen became aware of a magical plant being used in Abyssinia, a land just 60 miles across the Red Sea. There, highland natives collected the fruit of this special plant, pounded them into a mush and mixed them with other nutritional ingredients to produce a kind of gorp or trail mix to sustain them on long hunting excursions.

Arabs were fascinated to hear about the effects of this product but were turned off to the idea of eating such a crude substance. Yet, somehow seeds of this plant made their way to Yemen, brought either by traders or slaves and the coffee tree found a new home in Arabian gardens.

Arabs have long enjoyed mint tea as a beverage of choice. Experimentation in making tea from all parts of the coffee plant proved that the magical ingredient (caffeine) was to be found in the leaves and fruit skins as well as in the seeds. Such experiments showed the fruit skins with their residual pulp were more appetizing as a tea than were the leaves. Just as well because coffee tree leaves do not regenerate and after a few harvests nothing would be left to the tree. The coffee cherries were dried in the sun so that the skin could be easily separated from the beans in order to make the tea.

So where did the practice of roasting coffee beans come from? A likely scenario is that someone too impatient to dry the seeds in the sun before separating the skin from the seeds, tried drying them on a stove and accidentally toasted them by leaving them on the heat too long or possibly forgetting them altogether. Should this have been the case the hapless person have had the good fortune of being the first to roast coffee beans. The toasted skins would not be easily separated from the seeds because the coffee beans would fracture in the process and the tea would have to be made from the skins and broken coffee beans together. It would have been a revelation to taste roasted coffee for the first time. Crushing the seeds by mortar and pestle would yield an even stronger brew. Toasting longer made for better aroma and an even stronger taste.

Roasting and pounding the seeds to powder became the Arabian way of coffee preparation long before the fashion made its way to Turkey. Neighboring Syrians had invented a small hand-held spice grinder that was easily adapted to grinding coffee beans. When Europeans discovered the pleasures of drinking coffee they wisely took to the hand-crank grinder over the mortar and pestle.

Strangely enough, in ancient times most coffee shop proprietors boiled coffee for an hour or more in large ewers (Ibriks) or cauldrons. On the other hand Bedouin nomads in Arabia’s empty-quarter who had little fuel but that of dried camel dung, scaled down the coffee roasting and preparation process to make only four to ten small cups at a time. They roasted a handful of beans in a ten-inch metal pan and brewed their coffee in long handled pots called a cezvas. Their brewing time was three minutes or so, like ours today. Just a couple of decades ago and likely before your time, many people used percolators that emulated the ancient method of boiling and re-boiling coffee for an extended time.

Today it is recommended to brew coffee within four minuets just like the Bedouin. Espresso is brewed in only fifteen to twenty seconds. Coffee probably tastes better today than it ever did in the past.

The century that changed breakfast forever.

1500AD to 1600AD Events leading up to the Caffe Mocha 1

About 1500AD, sugar cane cultivation and cane sugar production was imported to Egypt from Indonesia and soon sugar replaced honey, dates and other naturally sweet fruits as a sweetener throughout the Mediterranean. Indian seafaring traders brought cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves from the Spice Islands to India where in turn they were exported to Arabia where in turn they were shipped on camel caravans to the Levant and out to Mediterranean ports. Imagine the cost of a product that was re-exported so many times. It was worth its weight in gold. Nevertheless Europeans now have sugar and spices.

At this time in history coffee was also worth it weight in gold as it had to be shipped up the Red Sea and overland to Cairo and out the Nile or caravanned by camel to the Middle East before reaching Europe in the 1500s.

Now we come to another big player in the Caffe Mocha story, Christopher Columbus, an Italian who had the ambitious idea to break the Arab monopoly in the spice trade. Being able and confident under sail, Columbus sold the idea to his backers that he could sail West to the East and directly import spices from India and the Indonesian Archipelago.

Imagine the fortune that could be made. His three-ship flotilla made it half way there before he encountered Mexico where he thought India should be. He was to find no way around the New Continent yet not to be discouraged he scouted this new territory for trade goods and found that the local Aztecs (whom he referred to as Indians) were much enjoying a drink called chocolate and a spice called vanilla. Both quickly became trade goods to be exported to Europe.

By 1600AD Europeans had all the ingredients for a Cioccolata Mocha including the local dairy components. By the way chocolate flavored coffee would become Voltaire’s favorite beverage.

It took another 350 years to produce commercial steam, harness electricity and invent the “espresso machine.” Ironically espresso would come from the home country of Columbus. Furthermore it not surprising that it was his countrymen, the Italians who perfected the chocolate flavored Caffe Latte as a flourish to the Cappuccino.

In San Francisco in 1960 you could enjoy the ”Cioccolata Mocha” in a coffee shop in North Beach called the Caffe Trieste. Italian coffee shops still used Italian names back then.

  1. The term Caffe Mocha is actually a misnomer coined by Americans who shortened the original Italian name for the drink that Italians referred to as “Cioccolata Mocha”, meaning chocolate flavored Mocha, “Mocha” being the traditional and historic name for Arabian Coffee shipped out of the port of “Al Mocha” on Yemen’s Red Sea coast. Literally Caffe/Mocha means Coffee/Coffee. Now the term Mocha is commonly associated with or actually meaning chocolate.

A nice variation can be had by adding a small shot of almond syrup.

From Ptolemy to Columbus,

Sometime s a bad map is better than no map.

(Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, fl.127-151 last of the great Greek astronomers.)

In the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy directed his attention to geography as well as astronomy. There are historical records indicating that he produced a series of maps representing the whole known world of his time. None of Ptolemy’s original manuscripts have come down to us, but there is an alleged fifth-century copy of a manuscript attributed to Agathodaemon of Alexandria who lived in the second century contemporary with Ptolemy. This manuscript is of peculiar interest because it contains a series of twenty-seven elaborately colored maps that are supposedly derived from maps drawn up by Ptolemy himself.

In these maps, the sea is colored green, the mountains red or dark yellow and the land white. Another feature of these maps, that may not have been obvious at the time, is that the draftsman assumed that a degree at the equator is 500 stadia in length instead of the correct value of 604 stadia. We are not informed how this erroneous assumption was made nor whether anyone using the maps in that time had ever noticed the error.

On close inspection one can see that by taking the parallel of Rhodes he calculated the longitudes from the Fortunate Islands to Cattigara or the west coast of Borneo at 180 degrees, conceiving this to be one-half the circumstance of the globe. The real distance is between 125 degrees to 127 degrees, so that his measurement was wrong by one-third of the whole, one-sixth for the error on measurement of a degree and one-sixth for the error in measuring the distance geometrically.

These errors, owing to the authority attributed to the geography of Ptolemy in the middle ages, produced a consequence of the greatest importance. It may have led to the discovery of America.

The design of Columbus, to sail from the West of Europe to the East of Asia was founded on the supposition that the distance was less by one-third than it really was.

We do not know what map or authority Columbus used to argue his point but it is known that about 1470 Nicolaus Doris, a Benedictine monk, brought out a revised edition of the same maps with the names translated into Latin, from the Greek.

It is likely that a copy of this map or one similar to it was in he possession of Columbus. There is nothing to suggest that the courageous Columbus would have balked at the greater distance. We know the protests of the sailors were made long before the shorter distance as estimated by Ptolemy had been covered and the protest was more likely due to the hardship, duration and uncertainty of success of the trip.

The “Age of Discovery” marked a revival in astronomical interests and cartography. The West was dedicated and excited over the new activity of world exploration.

With good maps or bad maps a number of intrepid navigators set sail into parts unknown in the sixteenth century.

Navigation is essentially an astronomical science. The navigator is and always has been a practical astronomer. Of course, the 15th century navigator had far less adequate astronomical equipment that would be developed in the following century. Naturally he had no elaborate tables of ephemeredes and no telescopic sextant or an accurate clock. All standard fare before GPS.

But he did have star-charts of a kind, notably those of Hipparchus, as preserved by Ptolemy, showing the thousand most conspicuous stars visible from the Northern Hemisphere. He had only a primitive astrolabe and a simple cross-staff, the latter of which was the prototype of the quadrant and sextant of later times. These were adequate for navigating the familiar Mediterranean, which Columbus had some experience.

Lacking the most basic of modern instruments of navigation and having only a good practical knowledge of astronomy in its simpler aspects, any man would have been mad to put to sea on a voyage designed to take him so far out of sight of land not to mention half way around the world. Even with the compass, however indispensable it might be in cloudy weather, it could by no means take the place of observations of the sun, moon and stars, in charting a course.

For Columbus, charting the discovery of land was no more important than charting the “ocean currents” and “trade winds” along the way. That is what gave him confidence for his return trips.

What was Magellan thinking?

Bicerin and Bavareisa

Bicerin (pronounced [bitʃeˈriŋ] in Piedmontese) is a traditional hot drink native to Turin, Italy, made of espresso, drinking chocolate and whole milk served layered in a small rounded glass. The word bicerin is Piedmontese for “small glass”. The beverage has been known since the eighteenth-century and was famously praised by Alexandre Dumas in 1852. It is believed to be based on the seventeenth-century drink “Bavareisa”: the key distinction being that in a bicerin the three components are carefully layered in the glass rather than being mixed together.

The Caffè Al Bicerin has been serving the drink in Torino’s Piazza della Consolata since the eighteenth century, and some authorities believe that the drink was invented there. Others believe that it originated around 1704 in the Caffè Fiorio which still stands on what is now Via Po.