Orígens
Origins
Historia del café
Historia del café

Behind this cup of stimulating black liquid that, taken on its own or mixed with milk, we drink every morning, and which we call coffee, lies a fascinating history. This is a tale that takes us to exotic lands, a story full of both light and darkness, one unknown to the vast majority of the millions who perk up their organisms every day with the help of this delicate infusion made from ground, toasted beans.

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The coffee tree, the plant which gives us the coffee bean, is originally from Ethiopia where, according to a popular legend, a goatherd called Kaldi was amazed to see the uplifting effect caused on his herd when they ate the leaves and fruit of some bushes that grew wild in the undergrowth. Somewhat apprehensively, he placed some of the fruit—tiny, bright red cherries—in his mouth. The taste was slightly sweet and refreshing, pleasant, but the seeds, two small beans covered in a thick mucilage coating, were too hard, impossible to chew. He spat them out, and continued to eat the leaves that sprouted so abundantly from the bushes until—once again, according to the legend—he started dancing and leaping about with his goats, infused with a powerful energy that ran through his body, and which he could not explain. Caffeine, the chemical product found in large quantities in the coffee plant, had found its natural destination: the human body.

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The unlikely veracity of this legend, scientifically speaking, takes away none of its value; on the contrary, it serves to further underline the important role played by chance in discoveries to do with food. What is certain is that when, in the mid-10th century, an Arabic doctor called Rhazes mentioned coffee for the first time in writing, coffee plants had been grown for consumption for many, many years. When the Ethiopians, a Christian people descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, crossed the Red Sea in the 6th century to invade Yemen, they brought coffee trees and their stimulating fruit with them. The plant quickly adapted to its new home. The Arabs took to the stimulating drink just as quickly, calling it “qahwa”, meaning “wine”. Our word, “coffee”, also derives phonetically from the Arabic. By the late-15th century, Moorish merchants had made coffee a profitable trading product throughout the Islamic world. Caravans loaded with sacks full of this precious and addictive grain plied the great routes from Northern Africa to Turkey.

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historia del café
Historia del café
Historia del café

In 1536, the Turks invaded Yemen and began to export coffee from the seaport of Moka to points all over the immense Ottoman Empire, which reached as far as the gates of that Christian stronghold, Vienna. Taken across seas on board ships and over deserts on camel-back, coffee was brought to Mediterranean shores to be purchased by European merchants. The Turks were well aware of the value of the precious treasure they possessed and, to make sure that they remained the exclusive producers, allowed not one fertile seed to leave their domains. Only dry grain, toasted or soaked in boiling water to prevent germination, was allowed outside the Ottoman Empire; severe punishments, including death as a lesser evil, were established in order to discourage anyone that might be tempted to break this law.

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Needless to say, however, it all turned out to be useless and, in 1605, a Moorish traveller called Baba Budan managed to carry seven seeds from the precious plant, hidden in the folds of his clothes, beyond the Turkish border. After many efforts, he finally managed to get these seeds to acclimatise and multiply on the slopes of the Mysore mountains in southern India. Soon after this, in 1630, the Dutch, a great naval and trading power at the time, obtained a large number of shoots from a small, living coffee tree transplanted in a Rotterdam greenhouse. Thanks to these shoots, large-scale cultivation began in Ceylon, Java, Sumatra, Timor and practically throughout the East Indies in 1650.

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In 1715, the French received a coffee tree in perfect state from the Dutch government, and this plant was reproduced in Le Jardín des Plantes in Paris. A specimen from amongst this crop was taken to the American colony of Martinique by a young mariner named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, surviving a pirate attack, violent storms and even shipwreck along the way. Overcoming all adversities, the plant became acclimatised in the New World and, according to legend, all the coffee trees on the American continent are derived from this original exemplar. At around the same time, the French also introduced coffee seeds from the Yemeni port of Moka on their Reunion Island colony in the Indian Ocean. Little by little, parallel with constantly rising consumption, coffee began to occupy the new territories.

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In the mid-18th century, a Brazilian civil servant called Francisco de Melho Palheta acted as a neutral arbiter in a border conflict between French and Dutch Guyana. Having fulfilled his mission, he smuggled out a small bag of seeds, which he planted in his house in Para, northeast Brazil. The coffee trees quickly spread southwards until the country was the world’s biggest producer.

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Historia del café

By the 19th century, coffee had become a product of mass consumption. Producing it required vast areas of land, and forests were cleared, only to succumb to desertification over the years, whilst the need for hands to pick the beans helped to spur on the slave trade to the highest peaks of its infamy and the great land-owners installed and deposed governments at will, subjugating ethnic minorities…

This is the shadowy side to the story of a product for which demand was constantly rising.

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Nowadays, coffee is, after oil, the most-exported raw material in the world, and the coffee trade provides jobs for more than twenty million people.

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