Coffee, Coffea arabica, comes from Ethiopia and its first records can be found as early as the 9th century in the Oromia region, more exactly in the former Keffa province (1).
In Bedele, located in the Ilubabor province next door, we were able to see ancient coffee plantations under flat top acacias from where coffee was harvested and sold locally and to stockers that would come to buy and take it to processing plants. To see these bushes covered with white flowers so close to the laboratory invited us to often walk through the plantations to enjoy the view and their amazing scent.
In 2006 it was estimated that Ethiopia produced a substantial amount of coffee (estimated at 260,000 metric tonnes) of which one half was consumed in the country, a lot of coffee! So, as expected, coffee drinking was a daily habit with most Ethiopians and we often drove out of the laboratory for coffee breaks. I must say that my Ethiopian colleagues always insisted in paying the bill! Although Italian-style coffee machines existed at the Bedele coffee shops, the coffee we drank was made following the traditional style.
In Addis we saw the traditional and colourful coffee ceremony being performed for tourists by beautifully dressed and nice-looking ladies seating on loose reeds or grass spread on the floor, often adorned with yellow flowers (probably Meskel flowers –Bidens macroptera– when available) while frankincense smoke rose from a small burner while the coffee was roasted on a larger one and then grounded and boiled. We made a point to return to the hotel to participate more closely in this lovely tradition.
We did not need to do this as, luckily, our good neighbour and friend Wolete (Lete) invited us to her house one afternoon with the purpose of having a cup of coffee! We immediately accepted and we were at her house (about forty metres away) on the dot. As soon as we left our house, we smelled the frankincense that reminded us of the catholic church ceremonies of our Uruguayan childhood, and we followed it to Lete’s house. Frankincense is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia.
Lete and her husband were waiting for us wearing traditional white garments from Tigray, both looking very handsome. Lete had put on a long dress and she was wearing her massive gold earrings and pendants. They were really pleased and honoured by our coming. On the veranda and inside the house, the floor had been covered with reeds and a small burner was already releasing the frankincense fumes that were quite dense and strongly aromatic.
We sat around on low chairs or on cushions on the floor while Lete, as expected, performed the ceremony. She sat down after we had done so and started to thoroughly wash the green coffee beans that she then dried over the charcoal burner. She then proceeded to roast the beans over the while explaining the procedure to us.
The smell of coffee slowly started to break through the frankincense to create a unique combination until it became the dominant aroma. Lete stood up and walked around the room with the coffee so that we could smell it and apprecite its quality. She then moved the grains to a mortar and started to grind the beans very gently. I could not help noticing that she was using an exploded mortar bomb as a mortar! “How appropriate”, I thought while pointing it to Mabel. “This one comes from the war in the north” she explained, “and it is really useful” said Lete smiling.
While the grinding was taking place a coffee pot –known as “jebena”- was put to heat up and the ground up coffee placed inside for boiling. After a while Lete proudly announced that the brew was ready and proceeded to pour the dark brown liquid into small handless cups called “si’ni” placed on a tray. She poured the coffee from some height filling each cup while announcing “this is the first coffee, and we call it “awel”. It was strong and dense and it left a thick deposit behind, similar to the better known Turkish version of coffee.
While we drank the awel Lete refilled the jebena and put it to the boil again. Once we finished, Lete offered the second coffee called “kale’i”, a lighter version, more to our taste. The process was repeated a third time and the “baraka” (to be blessed), the third and thinner brew, was produced.
We had our coffee with sugar and eating popcorn, but it could also be drinking while eating a flat bread called “ambasha” or peanuts.
Luckily, we established good relations with Lete and her husband and we were lucky to be invited a few times to enjoy coffee with them and to admire her performing this ritualized form of drinking coffee that had been developed in the area we were staying, by the south western Ethiopian people, a real treat!
(1) For more info, see http://www.ethiopianspecialtycoffee.com/history.htm