For Yr. Humble Chronicler’s money, the finest coffee in London is to be found at the Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant in Kentish Town. The coffee is roasted right there in front of you, and the freshness imparts a slight citrus flavour to the resulting brew. The waitress when I first visited explained that coffee is in fact an Ethiopian invention. There’s some debate over this, and quite a lot of historians who take an interest in this sort of thing disagree, favouring Yemen as the birthplace of this delightful beverage.
Regardless of the truth of its origins, these days coffee is everywhere. On every major road in London you can find at least one representative of the major coffee chains, and often more than one. They like to project an air of sophistication. Starbucks is particularly guilty of this, and to be honest I find the bought-in refinement a little tacky. Particularly when it’s busy and no one’s cleaned up the crap from the last people at your table.
Despite Starbucks’ best efforts, though, they can’t hold a candle to the coffee houses of London in the seventeenth century. The first of these was opened in 1652 on St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill – an alley that appears to have come straight out of a Dickens novel.
[PARENTHESIS: Looking at this book here, it really is straight out of a Dickens novel. In The Pickwick Papers, Mr Pickwick and Samuel Weller stop at the George and Vulture public house on this very alley]
The coffee house in question was opened by Pasqua Rosee, an Armenian gent, formally the servant of one George Edwards. Edwards traded in the Middle East, and while there had developed a taste for this exciting Arabic drink. He assisted his Rosee both financially and practically in setting up the business. The first coffee house in London (the first in Britain had opened two years previously in Oxford) was an instant success. Firstly, because this was Cromwell’s Britain, where boozing was strongly discouraged – coffee was seen as a more respectable alternative and therefore to be encouraged. And secondly, because unlike the standard breakfast drinks at the time (wine and small beer), coffee would actually wake you up. By the end of the century, literally hundreds of coffee houses had sprung up across the city.
The mild mind-sharpening buzz of coffee meant that it was favoured as a drink for intellectuals, as it had been in the Middle East. It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that coffee houses became known as hotbeds of debate and discussion. The Restoration of Charles II was plotted in coffee houses, and Charles II would later attempt to ban the coffee house in case someone else was plotting against him. Newspapers were available, as in the modern Starbucks, and often news would be displayed on the walls. Some customers even had their favourite coffee house as their postal address. And, of course, they were a great way to spread underground news without discovery. For this reason, foreign visitors were often astonished by how freely subversive information could be exchanged. Indeed, when Voltaire was exiled from France, he wrote a series of letters praising this freedom – the ideas he developed during his time in Britain would later influence the French and American Revolutions.
Voltaire was far from being the only notable to frequent the coffee houses. Samuel Pepys, Robert Hooke, John Locke, Christopher Wren and Edmund Halley were among the many notables seen enjoying a dish of java. Anyone who was anyone in London had a favourite house. Both the Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London were founded in coffee shops. Isaac Newton’s Principia arose from an argument between Halley and Hooke – you might say that the fruit that inspired Newton wasn’t an apple, but a coffee bean.
Different coffee houses attracted different clientele. Garraway’s was the haunt of scientists and natural philosophers. St James’ was favoured by traders and mariners. Will’s was for poets and White’s for actors and musicians. The mark of a true Renaissance Man in those days was to regularly patronise as many different houses as possible.
But not only were great ideas formulated in such places, they were freely disseminated. As anyone (provided they were male) could sit in a coffee house for the price of a single dish of joe, one could spend a highly intellectual day listening to new concepts being bandied about, refined and disputed. If one was feeling particularly confident, one might even join in.
In short, the modern descendent of the 17th century coffee house is not Starbucks, but the whole of the modern world. Over a couple of caffeinated beverages, the ideas that shaped the Age of Enlightenment and finally dragged Britain out of the medieval era were discussed. The impact of such places, both in London and elsewhere, is hard to overestimate.
Ironically, though, the coffee itself would have tasted pretty awful. Coffee was taxed by the barrel, i.e. it had to be made up long before it was served. As a result, what you’d be buying would have to be reheated. And filtering wouldn’t be invented for three hundred years.
And what of old Pasqua Rosee, the man who started all this? Well, sadly, being a pioneer isn’t always as rewarding as you’d hope. He was persecuted for much of his career by tavern owners who didn’t much care for the competition, especially not from a foreigner, and drove him out of the country. Alas.