Coffee is the roasted and ground product of the seeds found within the fruit of a tree, the Coffea Arabica. Originally a native of Abyssinia, it was transported into Arabia at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Since then it has been widely cultivated in the West Indies, in Ceylon, and in other warm countries. The fruit itself much resembles a small cherry in size and appearance, and usually contains two small seeds - the coffee beans themselves. The choicest coffee is the Mocha or Arabian coffee, and the bean is very small. Of the "West Indian varieties, the Jamaica and the Martinique coffee are the best. The exhilarating and agreeable properties of coffee are dependent in great part upon three active principles which it contains. The first of these is caffeine, which is almost identical in composition with, and practically the same as, the theine present in tea. Next there are the volatile oils, developed by roasting, from which coffee derives its aroma. Indeed, as far as they are concerned, there are many who believe that these ethereal oils have more to do with the characteristic properties of coffee than even the caffeine itself. And, lastly, there are the acids known as caffeo-tannic and caffeic acids, which are modified forms of tea tannin. They exist to a far less extent, however, than does the tannin in tea.
Coffee has a decidedly stimulating effect upon the nervous system; so much so that in France it has been called une boisson intellectuelle (an intellectual beverage), from its stimulating all the functions of the brain. Not so long ago a writer, Dr. J. N. Lane, in the British Medical Journal gave some interesting information with respect to coffee and brain work. As the result of his own experience he recommended "a cup of strong coffee, without cream or sugar, preceded "and followed by a glass of hot water every morning before "breakfast. The various secretions are thus stimulated, "the nerve force aroused, no matter how the duties of the "preceding day and night may have drawn upon the sys-"tem. Another cup at four in the afternoon is sufficient to "sustain the energies for many hours." It is only fair to add, however, that the Journal went on to remark that in this way some 50 grains of caffeine would be taken each week, and that very little more might develop injurious symptoms, so that the power of doing an illimitable amount of work would be obtained under somewhat risky conditions.
One of its most remarkable effects is that of relieving the feeling of fatigue or exhaustion, whether this be produced by brain work or bodily labour. It enables the system also to bear up under an empty stomach and when the supply of food is shortened. In this way it is of signal value to the soldier in the field. Professor E. A. Parkes, an admitted authority on these matters, bears testimony to the fact that in military service it invigorates the system and is almost equally useful against both cold and heat - against cold by reason of its warmth, and against heat by its action on the skin. It appears, also, to do away with the need for sleep, probably from its arousing the mental faculties, and the effect of a strong cup of coffee in inducing wakefulness is well known. Coffee has, moreover, a distinct action on the heart, and tends to strengthen it. The Germans are great believers in its virtues, and Vogel, one of the principal authorities on diseases of children, recommends it for them, mixed with cream, both as a food and as a tonic.
In addition to the foregoing, coffee is also employed by reason of its important medicinal virtues. In malarious countries a cup of hot strong coffee, in the early morning, is regarded as a preventive against fever and ague. It is a valuable agent in many cases of heart disease, particularly when associated with dropsy. In Bright's disease of the kidneys, where dropsy is present, it is likewise given with benefit. Strong coffee is also a well-known remedy in asthma, both in relieving the actual attack and in acting as a restorative after it is over. It frequently gives great relief in many forms of nervous headache, particularly in that variety known as migraine, in which the pain is generally limited to one side of the head. And, lastly, coffee is a valuable remedy in opium poisoning, where there is such a tendency to a fatal coma.
From the foregoing it must be evident that coffee occupies a very high position as a beverage. All that concerns its preparation, therefore, is of undoubted interest. In the first place, to obtain coffee in perfection it is indispensable that the beans be roasted at home, and not only should the roasting be done in the house, but the operation ought really to be performed immediately before the coffee is made, and the reasons thereof I shall give in speaking of the process of roasting. Many people do not care sufficiently about the perfection of coffee to go to this trouble, and are content with having their roasted coffee beans sent to them daily from their grocer. The leading establishments roast their coffee beans daily, and from them the latter may be obtained and ground in the mill at home. This, of course, though not giving the real thing, is an immense improvement on the hallowed tradition, so dear to some, of purchasing their weekly supply of ground coffee at a time and keeping it in a tin or vessel for use as required. But, as I said before, if perfection is aimed at, the roasting must be done at home.
In the selection of the green beans care should be taken to see that they are nearly all of the same size, for if some are small and others large, when it comes to roasting it will be found that the small ones are done to a cinder, while the larger beans are hardly touched. The beans, too, should be perfectly dry; if moist, they should be dried in a dish by the fire or in the oven before going into the roaster. On the coffee plantations the drying of the bean is considered a most important matter when preparing them for export.
In the process of roasting, a volatile oil which gives to coffee its unique fragrance is developed. It is somewhat curious that no amount of boiling could educe this from the raw bean. This oil is exceedingly volatile, and begins to disperse and evaporate the very moment it is born. Hence, to obtain the perfection of coffee, no time should be lost in grinding and making it directly it is roasted. "When the fragrant vapour of the roasted bean is first given off, it is soon followed by a peculiar noise, caused by the splitting and crackling of the external silvery greenish covering of the raw beans. At this time, or very shortly afterwards, the latter are of a yellowish hue, but before long they change into that desirable lightish brown colour, when the peculiar volatile coffee oils are at their best.
The best mill for grinding the coffee, and one which may be obtained from any ironmonger, is that which can be screwed on the edge of the kitchen table or dresser. It has a little contrivance to regulate the size of the grains. and care must be taken not to grind the coffee too fine; it should be in minute crumbs rather than in powder.
As I have already said, the perfection of coffee is only to be obtained under three conditions. These are, first, that the beans should be roasted at home; that they should be ground without much delay; and, thirdly, made into coffee as soon as possible. Many people are, however, unable to carry out the first of these three requirements. The next best substitute is to have the roasted coffee beans sent daily to them by their grocer. This is a practice which might be followed more frequently with a great deal of advantage, for all are able, at least, to possess a mill and grind their own coffee at home.
The making of the coffee is quite as important as the preceding, and the number of different models of coffee-makers is almost perplexing. But of them all, the one which is simplest, and perhaps most effective, is the ordinary cqfetiere, or French coffee-pot. This has the advantage of costing only a few shillings, and is readily obtainable from any ironmonger. It consists of an upper compartment in which the coffee is made, and a lower part - the coffee-pot itself - into which the coffee descends. These two portions are quite separate, although the upper fits on the lower. The floor - on which the coffee is placed - of the upper part is perforated by a number of minute holes. There is also a movable strainer about an inch in depth, which fits on top of the upper part; and a presser, consisting of a long rod with a circular plate at its end, which for convenience passes through the centre of the strainer, and rests on the perforated floor of the upper part.
There are one or two points to be borne in mind in the making of coffee. As a rule English-speaking people do not allow enough coffee to each cup. The almost universal fault of coffee, made elsewhere than on the Continent, is its want of strength and flavour. With regard to the admixture of chicory, this is largely a question of taste, and the palate must be consulted in the matter. The great majority of people, however, cannot do without it, and it is quite (when genuine) a harmless addition. Madame Lebour-Fawssett recommends the following proportions : For making cafe noir, or coffee after meals, there should be six teaspoonsful of coffee, heaped up, and a very small teaspoonful of chicory, or none at all, for one pint of water. The chicory must be left out altogether, and another teaspoonful of coffee substituted for those who object to chicory with their cafe noir. For morning coffee or cafe au lait there should be ten or twelve teaspoonsful of coffee, with a sixth part of chicory, for each pint of water. As Madame Lebour-Fawssett remarks, cafe au lait is never complete without chicory, but care should be taken not to overdo it, since too much chicory renders the coffee quite undrinkable. Of course, if you do not require as much as a pint of coffee, the quantities may be reduced, still observing the same proportions. Before pouring out the coffee, the cup should first be half filled with hot milk, and then the coffee added.
Now, having seen what proportions of coffee and chicory are to be employed for cafe noir and cafe au lait respectively, it will be better to describe the actual making of the coffee, since the cafetiere will then be more easily understood. We will suppose its upper part is fitted into its place on the top of the lower portion, and that the strainer and presser have been removed for the time being. Enough boiling water should first of all be poured in to fill both the upper and lower compartments, allowed to stand for a couple of minutes, and then poured away. This brings everything to a proper heat for receiving the coffee.
Next put the amount of coffee necessary upon the perforated floor of the upper part. The coffee should then be well pressed down with the presser, and the latter instrument next laid aside. After this the strainer should be replaced on top of the upper compartment, and the required amount of boiling water, a little at a time, poured in through it (the strainer). The object of pouring in the boiling water slowly is to give it time to percolate through the densely pressed coffee lying on the floor of the upper part. There is a little tin cover fitting over the spout of the lower compartment, which should be adjusted to keep in the steam. The whole may then be set aside for a few minutes, and when the coffee has passed into the lower part, it is ready for use. With a little practice, and by paying attention to these details, the most perfect coffee may be made.