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The Scrivener: Coffee With Convivial Companions

Brian Barratt, a most congenial coffee companion, tells of the development of the coffee drinking habit in England.

Samuel Pepys, a lover of wines and ales, recorded an apparently insignificant event in his remarkable diary, on 9 January 1660:

'Thence I went with Muddiman to the Coffee-House.'

It was actually a social event. Mr Muddiman was a successful writer and publisher. No doubt the two of them had a lot to discuss. A coffee house at that time was, as Dr Johnson later (1755) explained in his famous dictionary:

'A house of entertainment where coffee is sold, and the guests are supplied with news papers.'

Coffee reached Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The first coffee house in London was established less than ten years before Mr Pepys made his diary entry.

'Coffeehouse proprietors competed with each other for supplies of both Whig and Tory newspapers; during this time the business of buying and selling insurance, ships, stocks, commodities, and occasionally even slaves was disposed of in coffeehouses; a man of letters, an actor, or an artist might perform or declaim for his coterie in his favourite coffeehouse; and coffeehouses became informal stations for the collection and distribution of packets and letters. By the 19th century, the daily newspaper and the home post had displaced these functions.' (Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2012. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.)

In the 19th century — 1861 to be precise — Mrs Beeton published her massive 'Book of Household Management'. She gave instructions on how to make different kinds of coffee and also quoted Florence Nightingale on the subject:

'Our great nurse Miss Nightingale remarks, that "a great deal too much against tea is said by wise people, and a great deal too much of tea is given to the sick by foolish people. When you see the natural and almost universal craving in English sick for their 'tea', you cannot but feel that Nature knows what she is about. But a little tea or coffee restores them quite as much as a great deal; and a great deal of tea, and especially of coffee, impairs the little power of digestion they have. Yet a nurse, because she sees how one or two cups of tea or coffee restore her patient, thinks that three or four cups will do twice as much. This is not the case at all; it is, however, certain that there is nothing yet discovered which is a substitute to the English patient for his cup of tea; he can take it when he can take nothing else, and he often can't take anything else, if he has it not. In making coffee, it is absolutely necessary to buy it in the berry, and grind it at home; otherwise, you may reckon upon it containing a certain amount of Chicory, at least. This is not a question of the taste, or of the wholesomeness of Chicory; it is, that Chicory has nothing at all of the properties which you give coffee, and, therefore, you may as well not give it."'

If Florence Nightingale had such a low opinion of Chicory, perhaps we should have a look at the role of Chicory in the time of Pepys, when it was also called Succory. According to Nicholas Culpeper's 'Complete Herbal', published in 1653:

'An handful of the leaves, or roots boiled in wine or water, and a draught thereof drank fasting, drives forth choleric and phlegmatic humours, opens obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen; helps the yellow jaundice, the heat of the reins, and of the urine; the dropsy also; and those that have an evil disposition in their bodies, by reason of long sickness, evil diet... A decoction thereof made with wine, and drank, is very effectual against long lingering agues; and a dram of the seed in powder, drank in wine, before the fit of the ague, helps to drive it away. The distilled water of the herb and flowers (if you can take them in time) hath the like properties, and is especially good for hot stomachs, and in agues, either pestilential or of long continuance; for swoonings and passions of the heart, for the heat and headache in children, and for the blood and liver. The said water, or the juice, or the bruised leaves applied outwardly, allay swellings, inflammations, St. Anthony's fire, pushes, wheals, and pimples, especially used with a little vinegar; as also to wash pestiferous sores... is very effectual for sore eyes that are inflamed with redness, for nurses' breasts that are pained by the abundance of milk.'

The mind boggles.

Instant Chicory and a well know brand of Coffee and Chicory essence are still on sale in the 21st century. Whatever the wondrous properties of Chicory, I very much doubt that Samuel Pepys would prefer it to the coffee he enjoyed with his convivial companions 350 years ago with a newspaper and a spot of entertainment.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


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