Peter Carty

Fit for the gods

Revered as gods, its rulers would never touch food with their own hands, while their subjects prostrated themselves in the dust — and ate it

For many of us, coffee is the lift that eases the load of our working day. Yet the sharpened mental focus it offers is rarely directed towards its origins. Coffee’s birthplace is Ethiopia and its beans remain high on caffeine aficionados’ hit lists. They produce smooth brews that carry an extraordinary range of tastes — variously, chocolate, wine, floral, spice and fruit. They have an extraordinary history too.

Jeff Koehler travelled extensively in Ethiopia and other coffee producing countries to research Where the Wild Coffee Grows. The arabica species of coffee tree, which yields the finest coffee, first appeared in Ethiopia’s south-western mountain rainforests. Brilliant red coffee cherries are still gathered by hand there from spindly trees scattered through the dank forests.

Most likely the cherries were first eaten, before the secret of roasting and crushing their beans was discovered. The rainforests were once part of the long lost kingdom of Kafa, where coffee drinking became prominent in local culture. And what a culture it was. Koehler’s account of Kafa’s history is a yarn to rival anything from H. Rider Haggard. For 400 years, right up to the late 19th century, Kafa’s rulers were revered as gods. The king never ate or drank with his own hands and, as an additional safeguard for his health, a young boy was selected annually for sacrifice. When the king passed by, his subjects prostrated themselves in fealty, while the lowest caste, the Manjo, ate the soil where they lay. Whether such practices assisted the kingdom’s legendary prowess in trade is unclear — there are limited pointers here for Brexit strategies — but there is no denying that Kafa grew rich off the back of slaving
and coffee.

The kingdom all but vanished after being bloodily annexed by Ethiopia in 1897, but by this time neighbouring countries had acquired the coffee habit and its cultivation had spread widely.

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