The origins of coffee are steeped in legend and topped with a creamy dollop of speculation. What is certain is that the lush-leaved shrubs and their precious berries – bright red or green while fresh – originate in East Africa, most likely Ethiopia, where the Kaffa Kingdom may have baptized the bean with its name. It then spread across the Red Sea to Yemen, where the stimulating brew was used in local Sufi ceremonies; another etymology suggests that coffee comes from the Arabic root meaning ‘dark color’, originally used for strong wine.
From the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, coffee took some time to reach Istanbul, where Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent learned of the beverage from the Ottoman governor of Yemen in 1555. This was the birth of Turkish coffee – a particular preparation of the wondrous drink that involves roasting the fresh beans over a fire, grinding them finely, and then boiling the ground beans slowly over charcoal embers. Naturally, coffee became the shining star of the court’s social life, and the sultan appointed his own kahvecibaşı to prepare the imperial cup of Joe.
The Mediterranean has always been a melting pot of civilizations, so it’s no surprise that coffee soon made its debut in Europe. It may have entered through trade between Italy and North Africa, via the Ottoman ambassador in Paris, or during the Ottomans’ failed siege of Vienna, where it’s said they left sacks of coffee behind in the retreat. Whatever the true story, it’s clear that coffee took Europe by storm – perhaps the Ottomans’ greatest victory in the West.