It is night: a small group of men are gathered around a fire, surrounded by darkness and cold. Somebody takes out an instrument, a voice starts to sing and the others follow: “Oh my child, you who shines among the young like a torch, fill my …”. It is the 1840s. While they are singing, somebody is listening and noting down: “Oh my child, you who shines among the young like a torch, fill my pipe with pure Abrusor tobacco. For it is dearer to me than any maiden’s kiss, when its ivory stem drives away sleep at night, while sipping coffee flavoured with cardamom, coconut or spiced with twelve cloves”. Around ten years later this Arab desert song would be included in the notes taken by Yrjö Aukusti Wallin, a Finnish orientalist and explorer, during his journey in the Middle East and later in 1871 echoed in the work of a dynamic Italian doctor and proto-anthropologist, Paolo Mantegazza.
Although the music to the song has been lost, we still have the words. Arabia unites the aromas, flavours and fragrances of two apparently distant, yet close substances: tobacco and coffee. The former originates from the other side of the world, the latter’s origins and date are uncertain, somewhere in the sub-drenched regions between Africa and Asia, although more likely in Africa beyond the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, on the uplands of Ethiopia where a shrub has grown from time immemorial. A small, evergreen shrub that grows to a height of several metres, producing sweet, red fruit which is much appreciated by monkeys and goats who seem to be especially frisky after eating the berries. “Cherries” that were noticed by humans who initially ate the berries raw, then added them to other ingredients, producing infusions or fermented drinks, and finally discovered that the most important parts of the berries were the two seeds in the pulp that could be toasted in order to produce a mysterious and characteristic aroma.
How, where and when all this occurred is not clear, but leaving aside legends and dubious interpretations of ancient texts, if we wish to have a more reliable date, we may determine the origins of drinking coffee to around the year 1454, thanks to the endorsement of Sheikh Jamaluddin Abu Muhammad bin Said, the Grand Mufti of Aden, who crossed the straits to present-day Ethiopia where the dark brew made from the beans of the shrub was already well-known. On his return, the Grand Mufti verified the medicinal properties of the qahwah, and was immediately converted, sanctioning its use by the Dervishes, who needed to stay awake during their long, tiring religious practices at night. The Arabs were probably already familiar with the coffee beans in that period, but it was the Grand Mufti who started the coffee trend.
Coffee went from being drunk for religious purposes to being used by the population, especially by those working after sunset to escape the heat. It then swiftly spread from the tip of the Arabian peninsula to the north, transported by the Dervishes on their camels. By the late sixteenth century coffee had already reached Mecca and Medina, while Christopher Columbus was seeking his Indies. In 1510 it reached Cairo. In that city in the early 1500s there was a special atmosphere, strangely resembling London one hundred years later with the introduction of tobacco. Everyone liked this new substance, as it made people feel more alert and above all did not go against the laws of the Koran. Thus, local coffee houses (al-maqhah) began to flourish in Mecca, the leading sacred city teeming with pilgrims from everywhere. These were places where people gathered together to drink coffee, even amongst strangers, playing chess or other games, discussing the news, listening to songs and enjoying dances... Then coffee was banned by zealots and coffee drinkers were persecuted, but as would later happen with tobacco, this was short-lived and there was no turning back. The dark brew swept throughout Islamic countries and spread to Turkey during the Ottoman Empire, where the local coffee houses were called Kahvehane. Subsequently, it travelled northwards to the Balkans.
The first European scholar to come across coffee during his journey in the Middle East may have been Leonhard Rauwolf, a German doctor and botanist, who wrote about it on his return home in 1582. Others followed, not only scholars, but also sailors, and traders who were used to travelling to seek commodities, and they all praised the Islamic beverage, amazing their friends and drinking partners. The listeners were amazed, but not to the extent of trying this pitch-black, boiling liquid… It was only when somebody thought of bringing home a sample, probably the same sailors and traders, that coffee started to take root in the north of the Mediterranean. It began to be sold in Venice in 1640 and in Marseille, in 1644.
Meanwhile, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries tobacco was being transported on Venetian, English and Portuguese ships in the opposite direction. In the East it had a mixed reception, generating enthusiasm, suspicion and downright hostility, as in Europe, but then it started to become a familiar sight in the areas where coffee was served, in particular in the popular and widespread Kahvehane. The fragrant weed from the Americas thus encountered aromatic beans from Africa (via Arabia) in an incredible combination of aromas, sensations and civilization. Yet, there was still something missing from this union of two different practices and origins. Along with the beans, the coffee culture associated with the dense social life of the Kahvehane was to be brought to those countries where tobacco had originated, and in fact it is likely to have been Venice (1645) that was the first European city to have a coffee house, or something similar. It was called "Bottega del caffè" or simply "Caffè". In France, "Café", in Germany, " Kaffeehaus ", and in Anglo-Saxon countries, "Coffee house". These were elegant, European-style establishments, although sometimes there were also oriental furnishings, displaying different features, but sharing the same highly developed social conviviality. They were predominantly male meeting places, centres for discussing literature, art, politics, business, news and gossip, as well as for playing games, reading and smoking. There were often pipes available and candles ready to light them. They were also the places where two refined rituals were carried out. On the one hand, smoking pipes and their accessories, and on the other coffee, cups and saucers, and sugar. These rituals then gradually spread to the private houses. Indeed, the eighteenth century was the Golden Age of coffee houses, and the coffee’s properties to sharpen the mind were well suited to the intellectuals of the Age of Reason. Then these places underwent a decline, or rather the clientele became less intellectual and refined, and more inclined to drink alone or with a friend in a hurry, reflecting the pace of the Industrial Age.
These, with some exceptions, are the coffee houses or cafés of our era. Moreover, the ways to consume the tobacco and beverage have changed (often minimizing the ritual), both in public and in private, although in some small circles there are still people who are keen to share these rituals. Nevertheless, the fine art of combining a good smoke with a good cup of coffee has never really disappeared, still generating nowadays that unique, unrivalled emotion born out of the combination-contrast of sensations, flavours and fragrances originating in the East and West.
Yet, how to combine good tobacco with good coffee? First of all, you must know what you want from the various coffee and tobacco blends. Like all blends, this union may be based on affinity or contrast, as well as on proportions. Or else it can be based on the provenance. Indeed, more than one coffee/tobacco connoisseur recommends looking at the label, as the match of blends should come from the same country of production. There is also the subjective factor of course, as criteria is ultimately personal.
As we said before, smoking tobacco and drinking coffee is a fine art, which promises and fulfils our expectations, in which coffee enhances the fragrance of tobacco, and tobacco enhances the coffee flavour. However, this bond requires commitment and peace, concentration and moderation, as well as the choice of method. Which should come first – the drink, or the smoke? Or both together, first a sip and then a puff? In this case, again everything is personal and different for each person. There are those who prefer first to drink their coffee, which is dominant and persistent, remaining on the palate when smoking. Or there are those that prefer to savour their tobacco first, and then hit their palates with the coffee. As regards smoking and sipping together, the choice of the two products should be made carefully, because the taste of the coffee should not be overbearing and cover that of the tobacco.
However, let’s not go into too much technical detail. Let’s go back to that dynamic Italian mentioned at the beginning and see what else he said on the subject: “The only real and legitimate partner for coffee is nicotiana, and those sybaritic Turks are right when they say that tobacco is the salt of this heavenly drink. The smoke of pure, manila or real Turkish tobacco that lovingly passes through the sumptuous amber mouthpiece perfectly complements the austere flavour of the coffee, and the sensuality of the palate sways intoxicated between a caress and a reprimand”.
Thus, is tobacco “only” the salt of coffee? What would the Turks have thought of this at that time, being so fond of that dark beverage? What about smokers nowadays? We prefer this proverb, probably Persian in origin, which we have loosely translated from another eighteenth century work: “Meat without salt is like tobacco without coffee”.