Perhaps it's the fuel that drives your every being. Perhaps it's the nastiest liquid you've ever tasted. Maybe you like its smell, but would never drink it. Maybe it's the stuff that nobody can seem to make properly. However you feel about it, coffee is an important beverage from an economical standpoint, and awfully useful in a variety of culinary applications. How did we find it, and however did we do without it?
Frisky monks and friskier goats
You'll hardly come across a history or timeline of coffee that doesn't tell the following myth: Somewhere between 800 BCE and 500 CE, there was an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. If you know only one Ethiopian goat herder, incidentally, make it Kaldi. Cause, frankly, most of you won't need to remember any other goat herders, and even fewer of you will have to remember Ethiopian goat herders, so go ahead and make the effort.
Anyways, the life of a goat herder is not an exciting one, by and large. I imagine, presuming all the goats are in proper working order, your day-to-day actions are limited to making sure nobody wanders off or gets eaten. Granted, I'm sure it's more difficult than with sheep, but still, for the right herder, it's almost certainly a life of quiet contemplation and thinking of new ways of swearing at goats.
So in the midst of the contemplating and swearing, a few of the goats are noticeably friskier than the others. At first, Kaldi was planning on expressing his disapproval of the goat's actions by explaining the rather improbable mating habits of the goat's mother, but after a bit he noticed that all the frisky goats were in the same area, and eating the same plant. Well, whatever is good for the goat is good for the goat herder, obviously, so Kaldi popped the bright red berry into his mouth, and lo and behold, he got a bit friskier himself.
There's a second myth, or some say an extension to the first myth, that Monks thought perhaps the berries were Devil Berries, but realized that it couldn't possibly be so because consuming the coffee berries allowed them to stay up and finish their prayers. Some claim that Kaldi took the berries to the local monastery, but that would mean that the whole event likely happened between 330 and 500 CE, because before then no religions with monastic traditions were around in Ethiopia, but I suspect that the two myths were separate in any case.
At this point, there was still no coffee. People generally took the beans, ground them up, and mixed it up with tasty, tasty fat, then ate that as energy food. Obviously, this is well before cardiologists roamed the earth. Sometimes the berries were eaten alone, but that's not nearly as good of a story as the whole "ground up and mixed into fat" bit. That's pure gold.
Roundabouts 1100 CE, the Arabs boiled the beans in water, making the earliest known form of honest-to-goodness coffee. It's said that it wasn't until about 2 centuries later that the whole roasting thing caught on, which means that, as with most of the other food of the time, early coffee tasted nasty. They called it quahwa, but the idea is the same. The Turks called it kahveh, the Italians called it caffe, and it hit the English language as coffee.
Coffee trade spread like wildfire but with less property damage, coffee plants were restricted from export, battles were fought over coffee, and coffee shops were opened. Pope Clemente VII was planning to forbid Catholics from drinking the Devil's Beverage, as it was known, until he drank some. Apparently, he declared, "This beverage is so delicious that it would be a sin to let only misbelievers drink it! Let's defeat Satan by blessing this beverage, which contains nothing objectionable to a Christian!" One wonders what the Pope had been drinking before his first taste of coffee, as it is rare for anyone to really think coffee is delicious the first time they drink it. Perhaps they slipped him chocolate or something instead, fearing the loss of their favorite beverage.
Seriously, though, have you wondered about some of what people ate in the old days? By and large, anything that wasn't a basic recipe was pretty nasty, and then if you take into account how hard it was to get salt, well, it couldn't have been good. I'll probably do some historical food articles at some point, but if I don't get tasty recipes up first, people will never come back to the site.
The kooky Americans
My favorite coffee fact I've run across is that, in 1668, coffee replaced beer as New York City's breakfast drink of choice. Well, truth be told, that's my favorite beer fact I've run across researching the coffee story, but it's fun, nonetheless.
As you can imagine, coffee has been traditional in America for some time. It was terribly unpatriotic to drink tea in revolutionary times, so coffee was the natural replacement. Well, coffee or beer, I suppose. People may make analogies between that and the recent foolishness with "Freedom Fries," but there are a few differences. First, tea itself was highly taxed, which was one of the rallying cries for the war, especially with the symbolic acts of the various tea parties (Boston's being the most famous). Second, we were actually at war with the British, not just having a disagreement over foreign policy. Finally, the tea was coming to us by way of British companies, whereas French Fries are neither imported from France, nor even a French invention.
Anyways, political symbolism aside, what you want are recipes. Most of the historical coffee recipes are kinda nasty, and we'll get into making coffee proper in the next part of this article, but let's see if we can't make something analogous to the energy food of coffee mixed with fat. No, Really.
Recipe: Chocolate covered espresso beans.
Ah, not so scared any more, are you? Chocolate covered espresso beans are a delightful combination of bitter and sweet, crunchy and chewy, chocolate and coffee, and two sources of caffeine. And there's very little that people won't eat covered with chocolate, right?
For this, you'll need some coffee beans, some chocolate, some chile powder (not chili powder) or cayenne pepper, a small sauce pan, a metal bowl that fits in the sauce pan, and some water. The coffee beans should preferably be the darkest roast you can find, partially to stand up to the chocolate, but also to reduce the caffeine content. The longer the roast, the more the caffeine breaks down, so you can eat more beans without giving yourself a heart attack. Preferably, of course, you'll want to eat the same amount of beans without giving yourself a serious case of the jitters, but just try to control yourself.
The basic idea is pretty easy. Though working with chocolate has its various difficulties, we won't worry much about them until I do a proper candy article. In short, you temper the chocolate, throw in the beans, scoop them out, and let them cool.
First, tempering the chocolate. This is a two-step procedure, which you can either do the easy way or the hard way, and we're doing it the hard way this time so you can have some practice. However, that's a story for another time.
Take the small sauce pan and put about an inch of water into it. Heat the water on medium heat until some water vapor starts coming off of it, but before it gets to a simmer. Place your metal bowl into the sauce pan (which, incidentally, should not touch the water), and put about 2/3 of your chocolate into the bowl. The chocolate should melt slowly over the course of a few minutes.
After all the chocolate has melted, take the bowl off the double boiler and whisk in the rest of the chocolate and the cayenne pepper or chile poweder (Chile powder is a single pepper or blend of peppers with now other additives ground to a powder. Chili powder contains cumin, and would not work at all well with chocolate.). If you need to, you can add the bowl back to the double-boiler from time to time to add in some more heat, but by and large, residual heat should carry the bulk of the melting load.
Once the chocolate has all be incorporated, mixed, and molten, add in some beans. For coffee clusters, I recommend filling up about a 1:3 coffee bean to chocolate ratio. Next, spoon out the clusters using either a regular spoon or a small disher onto parchment paper, waxed paper, or a silicon baking mat, though I recommend a paper option from a clean-up perspective.. This will give you probably 5-10 beans per cluster. Let these cool in a reasonably chilly kitchen, or put in the fridge for 5 minutes or so to firm, but not much longer. After these have set, you can spoon some more chocolate over to your liking.