Ethiopia, it’s generally assumed, is the birthplace of coffee. This, however, is not the view taken by Ethiopians themselves — at least those who live on the shores of Lake Tana within sight of the islands where much of the coffee is grown, as I learned on a recent visit to the region at a time when neither war nor famine threatened.
Coffee, say the inhabitants of the lakeside township of Tana, is a Muslim drink imported by nomadic herdsmen. These followers of Muhammad taught the Christian monks — secluded in their magnificently-frescoed monasteries on the islands — to plant and tend the bushes as a cash-crop. Ethiopian Orthodoxy, a venerable form of evangelized Christianity derived from an even more ancient form of Judaism, does not permit intoxicating drinks, so the monks, in time, allowed the fishermen of Tana to gather firewood on the islands in exchange for trading their crop.
Exploring the culture of coffee
For the duration of my visit, my guide was a young government employee with a degree in anthropology who taught at Addis Ababa University. Knowing my interest in food, he had arranged a visit to the coffee-growing monks on Lake Tana some 600 miles distant from the capital but just an hour away by plane.
Once we had found our way to the crumbling hotel (a resort for visiting Russians built in communist times), we made our way along the lakeshore toward the town center. Approaching across the water was a flotilla of papyrus dhows piled high with firewood, the slender two-man canoes propelled with remarkable speed by double-ended paddles. As soon as the boats nosed into the jetty to discharge their cargo, heaps of small scarlet berries began to appear on sheets of sacking on the ground, attracting a noisy crowd of housewives with plastic buckets.
This was the new harvest of coffee-cherries, explained my guide, ready to be stripped and dried for storage. Coffee, he continued, as prepared in rural areas was nothing like the excellent coffee I had just experienced, prepared with choice beans roasted to order at Mocha, the most famous coffee shop in Addis.
Was there a coffee shop in town where I might taste the more rustic brew?
There wasn’t, though you could take American coffee at the hotel — an experience best avoided. There was also a restaurant in town where you might eat Ethiopia’s national dish: injera, a spongy griddle-bread eaten with little dabs of curry, but such a place wouldn’t serve coffee. So where did the natives take their morning coffee? That was easy. They took it at home. And if you were in the area, you could always find a cousin, however distant, to offer you hospitality.
Bearing witness to a traditional coffee ceremony
So was there any way that a cousin-less farange — foreigner — such as myself might share the coffee-experience in its land of origin? Indeed there might. The coffee-ceremony was performed daily after the midday meal. Next day we set off to find an unmarked house in an unmarked street in an unmarked suburb of the town. Fortunately word of our arrival had preceded us and the cousins had sent runners to guide us safely to our destination.
The cousins, a multigenerational family living in separate dwellings around three sides of a courtyard, entertained visitors on the fourth side, a single large white-washed room, high-ceilinged with a beaten-earth floor leading directly into the street. Arranged against the walls was a line of rickety chairs and tattered sofas.
It was here that the day’s designated coffeemaker, a tall young beauty in snow-white floor-length linen, indicated that the ceremony was about to begin.
Settling herself gracefully on a low stool in front of a small table, she began to unpack the contents of a large wooden box. First to arrive on the table was a small dish of pale green coffee beans, a double-handled copper pan and a wire coat hanger. Next, a round-bellied pot with a handle and spout, a pestle and an olive-wood mortar. After packing a handful of charcoal into an earthenware brazier balanced on a tripod, she added a small bundle of feathery grass and ignited it with a single spark from a flintstone.
By this time the room was beginning to fill with silent observers, children among them. “For the children, it’s the only time they’re allowed to address their elders or talk to their grandparents,” whispered my guide, “but the main purpose of the discussions is for people to discuss changes in the environment which might affect the family.”
I kept notes, of course.
To make coffee as demonstrated in that particular place on that particular day — I can’t vouch for what happens elsewhere — the beans were roasted in a copper pan by stirring them with a metal instrument (in this case the hanger) over a gentle heat till they were dark enough to suit one’s palate. They are then tipped into a mortar and pounded with a pestle till well-powdered. Meanwhile, water is poured into a pot and set over the brazier. Once the water bubbles, the coffee is added, two handfuls to a pint, and returned to the boil while the serving tray is arranged by laying out the sugar bowl and salt cellar and as many handle-less cups as there are participants.
Now the coffee is ready for pouring.
There are always, explains my guide, three washings of the grounds. The first brewing is strong and good. The second is less good and the third is only drunk out of politeness. And one last thing, the guide says: “You may add more sugar if you wish, or you might prefer salt. Sugar is expensive, so the poor take salt. No one will think less of you if you take salt, but they might think there’s been a time when you couldn’t afford the sugar. Who knows if that is good or bad? This is Ethiopia. We are as old as the mountains, but we live like birds, never knowing what might happen tomorrow.”
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.