The charm of coffee is very different from the lightly blurred warmth of wine: coffee is the sharpener, the aromatic shove that starts the day or the sharp black point that puts a full stop to the evening’s flow. It honed political discourse in the 17th and 18th centuries, when different social groups first met as equals in coffee houses. And some would argue that our democracy now sloshes forward on a river of milky, often sweetened or even flavoured Starbucks (although I would not be among them).
I grew up in a household that awoke to the comforting burr of the coffee grinder. Disturbing my father as he sipped, hovering above his outspread newspaper, was not advisable. Actually, it was not possible: as a psychiatrist, Dad listened for a living. Between morning patients, he turned that facility off.
When I left for university, he gave me the filter machine from his consulting rooms. The coffee dripped into a sealable thermos: I’d make ten cups and power through my day. I was the only student I knew who didn’t make instant and I have fond memories of friends zigzagging off on their bicycles, caffeinated to the eyeballs after a Caplan breakfast.
When I met my future spouse, I noticed his knowledge of wine first. Of course I did – it was evening. But the first time I visited his house, I did not miss the coffee grinder beside the kettle. Just so do we look for clues to compatibility. If I had found a jar of Nescafé, the relationship might well have ended there.
I have floated through adult life on a river of coffee and wine: why do I talk so much about one at the expense of the other? They have so much more in common than my devotion. Both are fruits. (The coffee bean is actually no bean but a seed.) The word for coffee is said to come from qahwah, originally a poetic Arabic word for wine, and for a religion that shuns alcohol, coffee is the ideal beverage, with the bonus option, for overstimulated believers, of prolonged prayer.
Actually, all the Abrahamic religions believe in coffee. The notion that it was purely a drink for infidels was reportedly quashed by the 16th-century Pope Clement VIII; the first British coffee house was opened in 1650 by a Turkish Jew. How miraculous the heavy perfume of roasted beans must have been to those early adopters! Nearly as miraculous as the effects of the brew on their hitherto uncaffeinated brains.
I caught a whiff of that miracle recently, when Sage lent me an Oracle Touch fully automated coffee machine. A beautiful monolith in brushed steel, it takes up half my kitchen counter but the little tune it plays when I turn it on is now the only alarm clock I want or need. The grind is adjustable, the milk foamer self-cleaning. The coffee it makes is so good I no longer go out for breakfast meetings. My sister, staying over, wondered aloud why life couldn’t be like this coffee machine. But life is. Our glimpses of perfection are fleeting.
I will have to return the Sage and I will weep when it goes. I used to believe myself indifferent to the more expensive accoutrements of late-stage capitalism but I’m surprised at the strength of my feelings. This fragrant brew has helped remake the world – the religious, the political and the overworked have all drawn sustenance from its sepia depths – and now, it is remaking my assumptions. Not for the first time, coffee has opened my eyes.
Next week: Felicity Cloake on food
This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong