Mika xL Column 31, May
How A Dancing Goat Changed The World
Over the past few months I have been splitting my time between the USA, Montreal and Stockholm. I am now half way through making my new album, which will be my third. There are certain things which are almost unavoidable when working intensely in the studio. Firstly, you go slightly deaf, or in my case, even more deaf, and secondly you live at the mercy of a takeaway menu and most of all takeaway coffee. Coffee gives me a break from music and more importantly a break from the people I’m working with. We all have coffee ceremonies, and mine is a solitary one. I sit, drinking and bitching to myself about everyone around me, think about how everything going wrong is everyone else’s fault and list their never ending habits that drive me crazy. Once my cup is finished, I’m ok again and re-enter the studio in a much healthier state of mind with all my negativity thrown away with the paper cup.
All this coffee drinking has made me increasingly curious about how so many of us have ended up addicted to this black brew. Coffee is today the most traded agricultural commodity in the world and in 2004 the total value of retail coffee sales was over $80 billion. What do we really know about coffee?
It all started with a dancing goat apparently. Legend has it that in the 9th century, a goat herder in Ethiopia called Kaldi noticed his goats moving excitedly from one coffee shrub to another, grazing on the red berries containing the beans. Curious about the berries he tried it himself. The effects of the coffee beans on Kaldi were noticed by monks who also gave it a go. The buzz the coffee beans gave them made them feel more alert during their prayers and in short, closer to God.
What followed over the next 500 years was astonishing. Having made its way across the Red Sea to Arabia, coffee was being roasted and brewed, like we know it today, by the 9th century. It still had religious uses however, as the coffee aided religious worship. This important link tied coffee to Islam. So, where ever Islam went coffee went with it and this included Turkey. From Istanbul, coffee beans were imported into Venice and that was the first time coffee had travelled away from the Muslim world. The beans that were exported however were always sterilised and boiled, making them infertile. This protected the Arab coffee merchants who wanted to keep control of their valuable crop. Many tried and failed to smuggle out plants and beans, but it was not until an Indian smuggler called Baba Budan that anyone succeeded. Baba taped a few beans to his chest and got them to India where he immediately, under armed guard, set up plantations. From there the plant made its way to Holland and then to the Caribbean (via a theft in Paris) and only after that did it get to the Americas in the 1720s. Now, this was the result of a bouquet of roses apparently! Sent to French Guiana on a mission by the Brazilian government to smuggle out some fertile coffee beans, a Brazilian Lieutenant has a affair with the governor’s wife. She offers him a bouquet of roses with fertile coffee beans hidden inside the blooms, as a token of her affection. From these seeds, the largest coffee empire in the world would be built. Brazil is now the world’s largest producer of coffee, all thanks to a woman who thought she was in love.
Walking around in Venice Beach, in LA, I came across a coffee shop where a queue of people were standing in a calm line with numbered tickets in their hand. They were waiting for a cup of coffee at Intelligentsia Cafe and the waiting time was over 45 minutes. California saw the birth of the coffee shop chain. Way before Starbucks, there was Pete’s, a chain that started in 1966. In most European countries, you can not cross more than three street corners without stumbling into a Starbucks. How then has Italy managed to avoid this? Growing up in France we always thought Starbucks would never be able to compete against the cafe culture, but we were wrong. Italy should of course be proud of resisting Starbucks, but this new craze for gourmet responsible coffee drinking in the US has got me thinking. At Intelligentsia, people were not only queuing because the coffee was delicious, but because there was variety and a story behind every bean. Every cup served, has been made from beans that have been bought directly from the growers, on small independent plantations. The relationship between the coffee shop and the farmer is a direct one. That means that there is hardly anyone between us as the consumer and the farmer. The coffee shop doesn’t represent exploitation and price fixing, but shows how a partnership can benefit everyone. The emphasis on organic coffee also has environmental benefits. Just because Italy has resisted the Starbucks empire doesn’t mean it couldn’t learn something from the hip (and very patient!) coffee drinkers of Venice Beach.
When a bean has such an ancient story dating from the 9th century, and to this day 25 million families around the world are completely dependant on it, it’s worth having a little patience.
Here are some of the submissions we received for Mika’s illustration contest from last month’s blog. Thank you to all who entered.
by Mika on xL Repubblica
Firstly posted on Mikasounds