All the world’s a cafe [Archives:2004/726/Education]

April 5 2004

By Ms. Amrita Satapathy
M. Phil, Utkal University
Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India

The 'syrup of soot or essence of old shoes', the 'new ambrosia of life', or the 'elixirs of liberation'! Does it tickle the brain cells? Well these are neither brain- teasers nor parts of a riddle; but the various labels attached to that much adored, chic and consumerist drink-coffee. So, how about a 'coffee break' while we excursion through the aromatic alleys, and take a peak into the coffee houses?
One of the several legends about the discovery of coffee dates as far back as 850 AD. It is about Kaldi, an Arab goatherd. Puzzled by the odd antics of his flock, he is believed to have sampled the berries of the evergreen bush on which the goats were feeding. On experiencing a sense of exhilaration, just like, his goats he proclaimed his discovery of the coffee plant to the world. Another version goes to say that the coffee was first found in Ethiopia and was known as Kefa or Kaffa. And history points towards Constantinople as the place where we come across our first ever coffee house. The year was 1550 AD. The 17th century witnessed the burgeoning of coffee clubs or houses better known as cafe (The English term cafe, borrowed from the French, derives ultimately from the Turkish 'kahve', meaning coffee.) in London, France and Vienna. In France, cafes became the inventive crucible of artistic brilliance and literary movements. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they were the centre of cultural life as well as the hatching-ground of Machiavellian plots. A Turkish merchant first introduced coffee into England in the year 1610 in Lombard Street. By 1670 the coffee house movement had burst onto the London scene with such vim and vigor that hardly a city lane could be negotiated without coming across the inimitable sign – a fine glass lantern of a certain shape indicating that somewhere at the end of the dark road you could pay a penny at the bar and enter into a world of art and intrigue, often boisterous and effervescent but hardly dry.
17th century Europe boasts of a cosmetically spruced metropolis and a dazzlingly debonair populace. Those were the elegant and well-groomed days of London too; the heydays of suave and dapper dandies, stylish ladies, darling coquettes and fashionable fops. So it was essential to introduce into the urban milieu a sophisticated drink that would shake the brain into action and animate conversations- a drink, unlike the insipid tea, that would add a punch to the long verbal fencing matches between the lovers and their paramours. By 1670, coffee had acquired the character of a 'cult-drink' and the coffee houses became local shrines giving an aura to English feudal and aristocratic life. If you thought that coffee was only a kind of favoured brew with the chatterati and the glitterati, then you are mistaken! Because it was the magic potion for the wits and the tonic of the literati.
A single sip would make them prove it easily that , after all, the pen was mightier than the sword. Coffee houses became the places where plots were discussed and characters were born. The lovable Sir Richard de Coverely must have been a creation out of a happy coming together between a cup of coffee and the thoughts generated by the drink. The coffee was an extremely congenial drink with a tang of the colloquial. Thus the houses that served it became in turn more intimate, and welcoming towards its multi-faceted clientele. Intellectuals, denizens from every possible walk of life patronized Cafes. Coffee-house proprietors competed with each other for supplies of both Whig and Tory newspapers to cater to the needs of their customers with diverse political allegiances. During this time the business of buying and selling insurance, ships, stocks, commodities, and occasionally even slaves was disposed of in coffee-houses. A man of letters, an actor, or an artist might perform or recite for his coterie of admirers and followers in his favourite coffee-house. Coffee-houses became informal stations for the collection and distribution of packets and letters. Creating an ambience of camaraderie and breathing a sparkle and fusing a verve into the atmosphere, the cafes embraced the elite, the conformist, the bohemian and the maverick as well. Restoration England boasted of some of the most in-style, exclusive and classy coffee shops.
Standing on the riverfront right behind Charring Cross, Man's was the resort of place-hunters, bribe-lovers and Puritan-haters. French agents and mysterious messengers frequented it. Set up by Dr. Alexander Man, it was considered to have set 'the standard of taste' for others to emulate. And like all coffee- houses of the day, none but the most obnoxious were refused entry.
Then we have The Puritan's Coffee House, located in Aldergate Street. The conversation here was purely political as the faithful dwelt on the days of Cromwell and dreamed of insurgency.
The London apprentices frequented the Widow's Coffee House thereby fostering the spirit of union and Freemasonry. Set in suburban Islington the cafe was looked after by a widow Nell Gwynne.
Jonathan, Lloyds and the Jamaica were the centres of London finance and were described as places of commercial gambling. This is because coffee drinking as an activity was considered to be very business-like and reasonable; not frivolous and reckless.
Located in Change Alley and St. Paul's Churchyard respectively, Garraways and Child's was the favourite of doctors and those connected to the medical profession. The walls of this unusual cafe were hung with the advertisements of new pills, drops, lozenges and dentifrices. There was also the provision for private consultations and interviews.
Standing at No. 1, Great Russell Street Wills was the best known coffee house of its day. Under Dryden's patronage it became noted for its 'wits' and 'critics'. A contemporary satirist stated that second-rate writers who came there felt puffed if 'they had the honour to dip a finger or a thumb in Mr. Dryden's snuff box.' This was the place around which radiated the intelligentsia. The Wills was the school of wit and dialectic.
Close to Wills, on Devereux Street was The Grecian. This was the sanctuary of philosophers, scholars and scientists like Newton, Halley and Sloane, who gathered to discuss the latest meeting of the Royal Society.
These 'wonders of sobriety' faced a stiff competition from the rustic gin mills and beer bars patronized by the laity. Because they conformed to a set of rules and followed a set pattern of decorum, it enabled them to survive the onslaught of the bucolic flotsam. These prim and proper centres of etiquettes and manners were the asylum of health, the nursery of temperance, the delight of economy, the conservatory of civility and the free school of creative vision. The coffee-house radicalized English prose style. Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Laurence Sterne, were coffee-house enthusiasts. And with their ears attuned to the speech of the cafes, wrote dialogue that differed strikingly from the stiltedness so much a characteristic of the popular pre-coffee era writers like Thomas Nashe. They wrote in the rhythms and speech of spoken English, i.e. the conversational and relaxed English of the coffee-house. It was, after all, reputable and decent. In poetry, it appears, coffee-house culture took a natural turn into the domain of satire. Pope was a coffee man. The coffee was a great binding factor too as it infused into 17th century sophistry the crucial element of egalitarianism. No tradesman was expected to stand and give up his chair to a gentleman; all were to sit together.
Parlour coffee drinking broke new grounds by challenging the monopoly of male coffee drinking. It aligned itself more with the feminine refinement. The female species belonging to bluebloods and the middle classes acknowledged coffee as an item of discretion, propriety and good breeding. The early 1700s in England saw women's coffee circles, held in private homes, become a social ritual. The serious business and political talk of the coffee-house was contrasted by gossips as ladies cracked jokes on their male counterparts. This domesticated the coffee-house culture. At the famous Cafe Foy in Paris, a journalist named Camille Desmoulins who had drank a large quantity of coffee climbed onto a table and delivered a passionate and articulate speech on freedom and the evils of monarchy. A crowd gathered. The words were repeated and the speech was paraphrased. It was July, 1789. Two days later the Bastille fell. Thus coffee-houses became accelerators of democracy.
In spite of fostering a feeling of common brotherhood, social stratification was one element that couldn't be done away with totally. Cafes lost out to the coffee-houses, which in turn became selective and privatized. Once again the fissures between the bourgeois and the nobles became apparent. The working class confined itself to the pub and their respective work places – the press-bureaus, the houses of finance, the surgery or the universities. With tea as East India Company's new invigorating weapon, the coffee became a victim of the political game. They lost their English flavour and became cosmopolitan in character. But the cafes didn't die out. They now came to be managed by Arabs, Greeks, Turks, and Sicilians. It became a resort for the foreigner and the occasional rover. The 1880s saw a little change in the scene. Once again the need arose for the coffee to outdo the cheap and lowly beverage i.e. the beer in all respects. The late Victorian 'coffee-tavern' was a rather artificial attempt at recreating the coffee-house atmosphere, inorder to lure the working men away from the ills of the 'demon gin'.
The corner stone of Edwardian coffee-house culture was the inimitable Soho with its Italian essence. It had an air of sleazy appeal about it. Thus it had become the haunt of the arty. A typical Soho coffee-house, known as The Moorish Cafe encouraged a colourful collage of customers – dark hair, dark eyes, sallow-skinned faces everywhere, here and there a low-caste Englishman, and sometimes a freethinker in emerald corduroy, lolling broadly on his chair and puffing at a porcelain pipe. It wasn't until the mid 1900s that coffee-houses became identified with the new-fangled juveniles brought up on dollops of pop and rock and rebelling against parental and societal restrictions. Coffee-houses underwent a paradigm shift – from edifying institutes of high society intellectuals to havens for the mentally sapped flower people and bands of raucous dissenters. Replete with a vivaciousness, they seemed to conform to a universal pattern – a coffee bar, behind which steamed a feeble prototype of an ersatz espresso machine, little round tables upon which you balanced tiny clear-glass cups, a juke box playing the latest rock and roll album, a central area for illegal dancing, and a space for a singer or a small band to be crammed in at night. These were run by expatriate Italians. In the 60s the coffee culture was kept burning through bistros that encouraged CND activists and shameless poetic junks. The swinging 60s changed into swanky 70s; placid 80s vanished into naughty 90s and the end of the century saw the Phoenix rising from the ashes; the return of coffee-houses.
So where can the now-so-hip-and-happening cafes be traced? Well, the answer is written in the fragranced air of Cafe Coffee Day, Barista and Starbucks. Forget the old world charm. Enter generation Y2K cafes. Gone are those days of the cream-of-the-crop whose scintillating conversations electrified the atmosphere and stimulated the litterateur to fashion literary piece de resistance. It is now the house that caters to the autocrats, technocrats and bureaucrats. Cafes are places where prospective clients are entertained and million dollar deals are clinched. Business histories are made and broken in coffee-houses in the present day. The bistros of the present age are a happy amalgam of goodwill and professionalism. This is the era of the Gen-Cafe that wanders along rows of books in an up market bookstore with a mug of cappuccino, discusses the political maneuvers of the day over a latte or shops around a mall with a cup of espresso. Mornings are now greeted with a steaming cup of coffee; it is the 'taste that gets you started' as a popular ad promises. It is the magic potion for the cyber couples. Tea is passe; one has to drink with the times. We have lost the 'Penny Universities' in the haze of urbanization and the coming of the metrosexual man. It is indeed strange that once upon a time it was these universities that mothered and fostered 'modernism' in its entirety. Call it mocha, latte, americano, cappuccino, espresso or just plain simple coffee. It is the beverage that has revolutionized world economy, politics and ethics; it has rewritten the mores and manners of the new age and its fast-paced generation. The coffee is now interminably linked with a host of modern day jargons – haute couture, media gimmicks, MNCs, cross-cultural trends. Thus the idea of 'cafe' has long since undergone a transformation. It is now a public institution, epitomising the cosmopolitan pleasures of contemporary urban life.
Whatever the development, coffee as a reviving drink has still not lost its charisma. You may be in any part of the world but you will be sure to find a 'Central Perk' where six 'Friends' will be busy drowning their blues away in a cup. Let's hope that reading this article will allure you to the aromatic and mellow world of this good old beverage. Always remember- a lot can happen over a cup of coffee!