Saturday, August 31, 2013

London's Long Tradition With CoffeHouses

Public Discussion


Inside of a 17th Century Coffee-House: “A small body-colour drawing of the interior of a
London coffeehouse from c. 1705. Everything about this oozes warmth and welcome from
the bubbling coffee cauldron right down to the flickering candles and kind eyes of the coffee
drinkers,” Green points out.
Source: Wikimedia

An article, by Mathew Green, in the Public Domain Review says that London has had a long tradition with coffee and the coffee-houses where men congregated and discussed and vigorously debated the issues of the day.  It is interesting to note that while England is often associated with tea drinking (introduced around 1658), coffee gained a loyal clientele a decade or so before tea did—both replacing gin and ale as the public’s favourite beverages.

Coffee has been available on the European island since the mid-17th century, Green writes:
London’s coffee craze began in 1652 when Pasqua Rosée, the Greek servant of a coffee-loving British Levant merchant, opened London’s first coffeehouse (or rather, coffee shack) against the stone wall of St Michael’s churchyard in a labyrinth of alleys off Cornhill. Coffee was a smash hit; within a couple of years, Pasqua was selling over 600 dishes of coffee a day to the horror of the local tavern keepers. For anyone who’s ever tried seventeenth-century style coffee, this can come as something of a shock — unless, that is, you like your brew “black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit. It’s not just that our tastebuds have grown more discerning accustomed as we are to silky-smooth Flat Whites; contemporaries found it disgusting too. 
One early sampler likened it to a “syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes” while others were reminded of oil, ink, soot, mud, damp and shit. Nonetheless, people loved how the “bitter Mohammedan gruel”, as The London Spy described it in 1701, kindled conversations, fired debates, sparked ideas and, as Pasqua himself pointed out in his handbill The Virtue of the Coffee Drink (1652), made one “fit for business” — his stall was a stone’s throw from that great entrepôt of international commerce, the Royal Exchange. 
Remember — until the mid-seventeenth century, most people in England were either slightly — or very — drunk all of the time. Drink London’s fetid river water at your own peril; most people wisely favoured watered-down ale or beer (“small beer”). The arrival of coffee, then, triggered a dawn of sobriety that laid the foundations for truly spectacular economic growth in the decades that followed as people thought clearly for the first time. The stock exchange, insurance industry, and auctioneering: all burst into life in 17th-century coffeehouses — in Jonathan’s, Lloyd’s, and Garraway’s — spawning the credit, security, and markets that facilitated the dramatic expansion of Britain’s network of global trade in Asia, Africa and America.
That coffee has contributed to political debate and to the increase of democracy and commerce seems like a natural fit when examining its stimulating influence more than 200 years later. Today, coffee is everywhere, so fitted to our culture that it is almost not noticeable. It’s true that every so often a researcher publishes a scientific or medical study looking at coffee’s less than desirable benefits, but most people ignore them. The evidence is all around us; if you look you can see people today taking their morning coffee to work, and then there’s, of course, the ritualized coffee break.

Coffee-houses might still be the place to meet, but not in the same way; today’s places of a million kinds of coffees are clean, comfortable and often decorated without a sense of originality or individuality. But you know what to expect, and for many this is good. At the large, well-known coffee chains, for example, servers are young and keen to please. You get a decent cup of coffee and the freedom to sit ignored and unnoticed. The sounds and sights differ, as well—there’s less rowdy or spirited discussion, less of a diverse crowd and more the sound of tapping keyboards and glowing screens associated with the younger generation. So be it; it’s their world.

Sometimes a story can tell a tale. More than a decade ago, a friend of mine and I went to a café in Montreal’s Little Italy district; I believe it was called Café Dante and it was on the corner of that self-named street; how poetic, how perfect. We were there on a Saturday morning, where we were the only non-Italians in the place, and the only patrons under the age of 65. We were served by a charming middle-aged Italian woman, who I would guess was the owner.

In the midst of our speaking English and the men speaking Italian—discussing and debating and gesticulating with their hands—we spent an enjoyable few hours. We drank three cups of the finest cappuccino I have ever tasted, and at cost much cheaper than can be found at those well-known chains; I have not had as good a cup since then.

It’s not hard to say why.

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You can read the rest of the article at [Public Domain Review]

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