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Jean Henri Fabre


"T HE plant that produces coffee is called the coffee-tree. This is in reality little more than a shrub, bearing some resemblance to a small pear-tree in its rounded top and bushy branches. Its leaves are oval and shiny; its blossoms, which resemble those of the jasmine and have a sweet smell, are grouped in small bunches in the axils of the leaves. These blossoms are succeeded by berries, first red and then black, having the appearance of our cherries, but with very short stems and crowded close together. Their pulp is insipid and sweetish, enclosing two hard seeds, round on one side, flat on the other, and united by their flat sides. These seeds are the so-called coffee-beans which we use after roasting them in a sheet-iron cylinder revolving over the fire. In color they are half-way between white and green, but turn to a chestnut hue in roasting.


Fruiting Branch of Coffee Plant

"The coffee-tree can thrive only in very warm countries. It is indigenous to Abyssinia, where it grows abundantly, especially in the province of Kaffa, from which it seems to have taken its name. In the fifteenth century the coffee-tree was introduced from Abyssinia into Arabia, and it is there that the plant has found a climate most favorable for the development of its peculiar properties. Indeed, the most highly prized coffee comes to us from the southern provinces of Arabia, especially from the neighborhood of Mocha."

"Then," said Marie, "when we speak of a coffee of superior quality as Mocha, we give it the name of the town that furnishes the best."

"Precisely. Look at the map and you will find Mocha very near the southern end of Arabia, at the entrance to the Red Sea. It is in this corner of the earth, under a burning sun, that the most highly esteemed coffee ripens.

"The Dutch were the first Europeans to turn their attention to coffee; they introduced it into their East Indian colonies, notably Batavia, whence a few young trees were sent to Amsterdam to be cultivated in hot-houses, as the climate of Holland would by no means ensure the thriving of this warmth-loving shrub in the open air.

"One of these young trees was given to the Botanical Garden of Paris, where care was taken to multiply it under glass, and one of the plants thus obtained was given to Déclieux, who started for one of our colonies, Martinique, with his little coffee-tree rooted in a pot. Never, perhaps, has the prosperity of a country had so humble a beginning: this feeble coffee-plant, which a sunbeam might have dried up on the way, was to be for Martinique and the other Antilles the source of incalculable riches.

"During the journey, which was prolonged and made difficult by contrary winds, fresh water ran short and the crew was put on the most meager rations. Déclieux, like the others, had only one glass of water a day, just enough to keep him from dying of thirst. The young coffee-tree, however, needed frequent watering in that extremely hot climate. But how water it when thirst devours you and every drop of water is counted? Déclieux did not hesitate to devote his own scanty allowance to the needs of his charge, one day giving the whole glass, and the next going shares with it, preferring to suffer the most painful of privations in order to reach his destination with the young coffee-tree in good condition. And this satisfaction was not denied him. Today Martinique, Guadeloupe, Santo Domingo, and most of the other Antilles are covered with rich coffee plantations, all owing their origin to the feeble plant imported by Déclieux."

"That plucky traveler is a man to be admired," declared Jules, "and every time I drink coffee I shall think of him and what he did."

"Nothing in our part of the world can compare in beauty with an orchard of coffee-trees bearing simultaneously as they do, throughout most of the year, leaves of a lustrous green, white blossoms, and red berries, vegetation in those sun-favored regions knowing scarcely a moment's repose. Over the perfumed tops of the trees hover butterflies whose wings, as large as both hands, astonish one with the magnificence of their coloring. In the forks of the topmost branches the humming-bird, a living jewel, builds its nest of cotton, half the size of an apricot. On the bark of old tree-trunks great beetles shine with more radiant splendor than the precious metals. In an atmosphere laden with sweet odors negroes carrying baskets on their arms go through the plantations from one coffee-tree to another, carefully gathering the ripe berries one by one so as not to disturb those that are still green. Scarcely is this harvest gathered when other berries redden, and then still others, while fresh buds form and new blossoms open.

"The coffee-berries, or cherries, as they are called, are passed through a kind of mill which crushes and removes the pulp without touching the seeds. Then these are exposed to the sun. Every evening, to protect them from the dew, they are piled in a heap and covered with large leaves, to be spread out again the next morning. When the drying process is finished they are winnowed, the spoiled seeds rejected, and the harvest is ready for export."

"After that," said Claire, "the coffee only has to be roasted and ground and it is ready for use. Does any one know who was the first to use it?"

"According to a tradition current in the East, the use of coffee goes back to a certain pious dervish who, wishing to prolong his meditations through the night, invoked Mohammed and prayed to be delivered from the need of sleep."

"A pious dervish, did you say?" Emile interposed. "I don't know what a dervish is."

"It is the name given in Oriental religions to certain men who renounce the world and devote themselves to prayer and contemplation."

"And Mohammed?"

"Mohammed is a celebrated character who about twelve centuries ago founded in Arabia a religion that has now spread over a great part of the world, especially in Asia and Africa. This religion is called Mohammedanism or Islamism, and Mohammed is often designated by the title of Prophet.

"To return to the dervish who wished not to sleep that he might have so much the more time for prayer and meditation, he addressed his petition to Mohammed, and the Prophet appeared to him in a dream, advising him to go in quest of a certain shepherd. This man told the dervish that his goats remained awake all night, leaping and capering like fools, after having browsed on the berries of a shrub that he pointed out to him. It was a coffee-tree, covered with its red fruit. The dervish hastened to try on himself the singular virtue of these berries. That very evening he drank a strong infusion of them, and, lo and behold! sleep did not once come to interrupt his pious exercises all night long.

"Rejoiced at procuring wakefulness whenever he desired it, he shared his discovery with other dervishes, who in their turn became addicted to the sleep-banishing drink. The example of these holy persons was followed by doctors of law. But before long it was discovered that there were stimulating properties in this infusion used for dispelling sleep, whereupon it began to find favor with those who had no desire to be kept awake, until finally the bean chanced upon by the goats came into general use throughout the East.

"I advise you not to yield a blind belief to this popular tradition, for in reality it is not known by whom or in what circumstances the properties of coffee were first discovered. One point only remains incontestable, and the story of the dervish brings it out well: it is the property coffee possesses of keeping the mind active and driving away sleep."

"Coffee, then, really prevents one's sleeping?" asked Marie.

"Yes, but not every one feels this singular influence in the same degree. There are some not affected by it at all, and others, of a delicate and nervous temperament, who cannot close their eyes all night long if they happen to take coffee in the evening."

"And how about taking it in the daytime?"

"In that case the same objection does not present itself; there is even an advantage in having the mind fully active, especially if one is engaged in mental work. But for the most part coffee is a simple stimulant that favors digestion and excites new vigor. Long habit makes it for many a drink of prime necessity.

"Prepared from the green berry just as it comes from the country that produces it, the infusion of coffee is a greenish liquid, odorless and tart, which acts powerfully on the nerves."

"Is that the way," asked Claire, "that the dervish, taught by the capering of the goats, took his first cup of coffee?"

"Probably. Nothing but the ardent desire to combat sleep could have induced him to continue the dose, for the drink prepared in this way is very far from being palatable. The qualities that make us desire coffee, especially its fragrant aroma, are developed only by roasting; hence this operation should be performed with a certain degree of care. If insufficiently roasted, the coffee-beans remain green inside; then they are hard to grind in the mill and give a greenish yellow infusion with no aroma. Roasted too much, they are reduced to charcoal on the outside; then the infusion is very dark, bitter-tasting, and without aroma. Coffee is roasted to a nicety when it gives out an agreeable odor and has taken on a dark chestnut color.

"Coffee should be ground fine so as to yield its soluble ingredients readily to the water; and, finally, the infusion should never be boiled, because then the aromatic principle is dissipated, being carried away by the steam. Coffee allowed to boil would soon be nothing but a bitter liquid bereft of the qualities that give it its value. The best temperature is the one that approaches the boiling point but never quite reaches it.

"The high price of coffee has given rise to many attempts to substitute cheaper home-grown products for the precious berry. It has become customary to roast chicory roots, chick-peas, and acorns, to mix with the ground coffee. The only resemblance to coffee possessed by these various substances lies in the burnt odor, the chestnut color, and the bitter taste, with none of coffee's efficacious properties. Allured by the hope of gain, the merchant may exalt in high-sounding terms of praise the virtues of these cheap substitutes, but you may be sure he never has any of them served at his own table."

"They say," Marie remarked, "that coffee sold already ground is sometimes mixed with one of those worthless powders you speak of."

"That is only too true. This fraud can be avoided by buying the coffee-beans either already roasted or green, and in the latter case roasting them oneself."