“A politician’s daughter/was accused of drinking water/and was fined a great big fifty dollar bill/they’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil”.
These immortal words are from a novelty song written by Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles and published by D. Davis & Co., in 1946 in Sydney, Australia. It was first recorded by … believe it or not … Frank Sinatra a year later, accompanied by an orchestra directed by Axel Stordahl, although the version I remember was by Edmundo Ros and his orchestra, who had been playing it for many years before they recorded it in 1980. Ah yes, gentle reader, I do enjoy a stroll down memory lane!
What brought this particular memory to mind was gazing at a decorative wall panel in the Forth Valley Royal Hospital while I was enjoying a welcome cup of the restorative liquid between participating in a physiotherapy class and visiting a friend who was then an in-patient. The theme of the wall panel was coffee, naturally enough; and it occurred to me that, although I am familiar with the brand names of a large number of producers, I don’t know much about coffee itself.
All coffee plants are classified in the large family Rubiaceae, which is a family of flowering plants known as the coffee family, the madder family, or the bedstraw family. As well as coffee, the Rubiaceae family includes quinine, Indian jasmine and gardenia. The family is the fourth-largest family of flowering plants by number of species, and fifth-largest by number of genera (a biological classification coming above species and below family) and all the members are happiest in the warmer parts of the world, including the tropics. The coffee plant, in common with many of its siblings, is an evergreen shrub which, when left to its own devices, may well grow to a height of 5 metres - say, 16 feet in old money. The fairly large leaves are a glossy dark green; and the flowers, which are white with an attractive sweet scent, are followed by oval berries of something of the order of half-an-inch long … between 10mm and 15mm … which are green initially, ripening to yellow and then crimson before turning black when they dry out. Each berry usually contains two seeds, the berries of the aromatic Arabica species ripening in six to eight months, while berries of the strongly flavoured robusta species take nine to eleven months.
It is thought that coffee plants are native to Ethiopia, with the first authenticated evidence of coffee drinking being in Yemen in the 15th century. The plants were being grown throughout the Middle East, Turkey, Iran … then called Persia … and the north and south of the African continent by the 16th century; and coffee bushes were soon being cultivated in the Balkan states, Italy and south-east Asia before they were taken to Brazil, possibly by Portuguese traders, at the beginning of the 18th century. By the middle of the 19th century, Brazil had become the world’s largest producer of the beans; and Brazil still produces about one quarter of all the world’s coffee. And if you are thinking, “I don’t often see Brazilian coffee on the shelves of my local supermarket,” the reason is that the greater amount of Brazilian coffee is used in blends with coffee from other countries.
We don’t often think of coffee farms being worked by slave labour, but during the first half of the 19th century a staggering one-and-a-half million mainly African slaves were imported to work the coffee plantations. Slavery was only abolished in Brazil in 1888: but I can drink my coffee with an easy conscience, for the many of the workers on Brazil’s 220,000 coffee farms today are descendants of late 19th century European immigrants.