A long way from Starbucks

Coffee: a dark history

Antony Wild <em>Fourth Estate, 323pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0007182740

When coffee was first introduced to English society it was considered correct to take it using a provang. This was a three-foot-long section of pliable whalebone which, as Antony Wild tells us, was "inserted into the stomach sword-swallower fashion, via the throat" after the victim had drunk a mixture of butter, honey, sallet oil and coffee grounds. If this sounds a long way from Starbucks, it is because coffee was then considered a powerful drug that should be administered only by doctors.

Along with the provang, coffee proved an effective emetic - and you can see why. Wild's thoroughly researched book is full of such detail; I particularly liked his observation that caffeine, a bitter alkaloid, is actually an insecticide that gives beetles and ants stomach-ache and brings them to the point of nervous collapse. In a notorious experiment by Nasa, common house spiders were fed a choice of caffeine, Benzedrine, marijuana or a sedative. The poor spider that was fed caffeine produced the most hopeless web - something to consider when next tempted to drink coffee to see you through a late night of work.

Wild is good on practical subjects, such as how coffee should be packaged (a valve, not a seal, will keep it fresh for longer), and the rise of Vietnam as a coffee producer in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. He rejects the common theory that coffee was discovered by a goatherd on seeing his flock cavorting energetically after eating coffee cherries. Instead, he suggests that it was introduced to the world by a Sufi called Gemaleddin who lived in Aden and died in 1470.

On a pilgrimage to Mecca, Gemaleddin heard that Sufis in China drank an infusion of tea leaves to help them stay awake through their night prayers. On his return home, he sought a native replacement. Coffee grows on trees that produce tiny white, jasmine-scented flowers and tempting red cherries, each of which yields two green beans. The leaves can be used to make a tea-like drink, but the flesh of the cherry works far better. Qish'r, made from an infusion of the cherry and flavoured with ginger, is still drunk in the Yemen.

Gemaleddin was also interested in alchemy and found that when the discarded beans are roasted, an amazing change occurs. According to Wild, the stimulating properties of the bean and its value on the worship night shift were "proof of its spiritual properties". The drink became known as the Wine of Araby. Considering how addicted we have all become to our morning fix, this remains an appropriate name today.

There has been a recent glut of books narrating the story of one commodity, from cod through nutmeg to gin. The danger of this approach is that the writer distorts history, as happens here when Wild suggests the coffee cherry is more likely to have been the fruit of the biblical Tree of Knowledge than the apple. Another problem is that even someone who takes an obsessive interest in coffee may need a few cups to stay awake over the 300 pages the book takes to divulge its secrets.

Victoria Moore writes a drinks column for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The power of martyrdom