Much more than caffeine culture

Nina Caplan explores our enduring fascination with the seductive and addictive taste of the best cof

At the Guildhall Library in London is a book that was given to the wine writer André Simon, called Cigars and the Man. It contains a 1939 letter from the cigar purveyor Martins of Piccadilly, encouraging Simon to purchase its wares, and maybe he did, because the aroma of cigars wafts out when you open it, even though Simon - a wonderful stylist - probably didn't linger long on a tome that seems to have been written by Yoda. (Sample sentence: "Secretly hurt will be your host if you puff fiercely as soon as you have lighted up.")

I'm not supposed to be reading about cigars. I am researching another sensuous consumable - coffee. So powerfully do I adore this "wakefull and civil drink" that I'm prepared to believe the 17th-century botanist Richard Bradley that it can cure the plague, though I'd rather not check; but
I have tested its uses in settling the heads of those so "drunk with Wine, Beer, Ale, or Brandy, that they are unfit to manage their Imployment". Trust me - it works.

Still, like alcohol in wine, caffeine is just a pleasing addition to coffee: the point is the taste. No sensible person would adulterate good Burgundy, so why pour milk and sugar into decent coffee? One miseryguts claimed that coffee does to the tongue what prostitutes do to the tail - give
it the clap. I'd say that this slander applies today to the cheap stuff made from robusta beans and mixed with cow juice and sweetener. As for instant coffee, that infernal stuff is neither instant nor coffee.

Yet good coffee, rich and subtle, is nectar, but with more variety. Excellent beans (which technically aren't beans: they're seeds, but never mind that) grow in South and central America, Asia and Africa - and sell, in an ever-changing range, in Monmouth Coffee's shops in Borough Market, Bermondsey and Covent Garden. Now and then I stray to other purveyors, but regret the infidelity. Monmouth shops, like Simon's book, emit the scent of luxury products formed using heat and impossible to consume without it. No wonder cigars and coffee warm us like an open fire.

Experiment with countries' styles as you would with wines: South American is often soft and chocolatey; African beans are often earthier and more powerful. But don't get adventurous with coffee machines. Fancy ones are expensive and impractical. I was once offered instant coffee at Gordon Ramsay's house because his super-posh device came with a DVD of instructions, and nobody had the time to watch it, least of all Gordon. Cafetières work well if you're generous with the grounds; so do stovetop espresso-makers. If you must add milk, ask a good coffee shop for advice - I am a purist and cannot help you.

Turkish fright

Even purer is the author of A Broad-side Against Coffee; Or, the Marriage of the Turk (1672). Coffee came here through Turkey, which is why he felt able to pun on the union of this "Turkish renegade" with Christian water, thus allowing for an amalgam of racism, sexism and taste snobbery. No wonder purveyors make claims for the health benefits of coffee, he says: it looks like medicine. It is too swarthy, this "bold Asian brat", for pale western water; it's a pervert, too, reversing the missionary position because water, the female element, must lie on top.

Anyway, coffee is an infidel, and we all know they cannot be trusted. Nowhere does this rancid individual write of a perfume that has the power to kindle warmth and joy. I wish his tract emitted the bouquet of coffee as Simon's does the scent of cigars. That lush aroma would be pure pleasure for me, and it would serve him right.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood