North Ethiopia: Coffee and the Coffee Ceremony

A Tall Story

Once upon a time, in the golden mountains of Ethiopia, there lived a goat-herd by the name of Kaldi.

Every day, Kaldi left his wife and children and led his beloved goats up the mountainside so that they would eat and grow strong and provide milk for his family.

One day, Kaldi noticed something peculiar.  His goats were chewing on red berries that they found high up on a bush.  The kids tasted the berries but promptly spat them out.  The nanny goats and the billy goats enjoyed these red berries and Kaldi observed that they had more energy during the day. 

Each morning the goats raced up the mountainside to find more of these strange red berries.  It seemed to Kaldi that the goats preferred these berries to any of the other normal food.  So Kaldi decided to taste the berries himself. 

And lo and behold!  Kaldi’s body also reacted with renewed energy and exhilaration.  

That night Kaldi told his wife about this unusual occurrence.  He asked her, “What can this be?  What does this mean?  Are the berries a gift from G-d or are they an enticement from the Devil? “ <--break->

Kaldi’s wife suggested that he seek advice from a Muslim holy man in a nearby monastery.

So the very next day Kaldi took some red berries to the monastery.  Kaldi told the holy man about the effects of the berries on the goats and even himself.  Reluctantly, the holy man tasted the berries and just like the kids, he spat them out!  “These berries are surely the work of the Devil,” he exclaimed.    He told Kaldi to never, ever chew on these berries again!

When Kaldi returned home he told his wife about the meeting with the holy man.  To assuage Kaldi’s disappointment, Kaldi’s wife prepared a special dinner. 

That night, Kaldi slept very well but had a mysterious dream.  He dreamed about a man much like himself.  The man had a large white hat and a handsome black mustache.  The man was walking down a mountainside with his donkey.  The donkey was carrying two large, heavy sacks. But the sacks were closed and the contents were invisible.

When Kaldi awoke the next morning, he was very frightened.  He thought the man in his dream must be the Devil himself.   And who knows what was in those sacks?  So until his dying day, Kaldi never told anyone about his dream.   And of course, he obeyed the edict of the holy man.

Meanwhile, back at the monastery, the holy man decided to throw the Devil’s beans into the fire.  And lo and behold!  What a pleasant aroma!  “Surely, these berries must be a gift from G-d.”

The holy man raked the cooked berries from the embers of the fire and tasted them.  “Slightly bitter,” he thought. 

“What if I grind up the roasted berries and dissolve the grinds in some hot water?”

And so the holy man, in his great wisdom, added the grinds to the boiling water.

 Et viola!

 Maxwell House!!

 Nescafe!!!    

There are as many tall stories, legends, myths, fables and folkloric tales of the origin of the first cup of coffee as there are Frappuccino combinations at your local Starbucks.  Yet, everyone agrees, the coffee bean plant originated in Ethiopia.  It spread to Egypt and Yemen, and the rest is history.

What is truly amazing is that in this land of the origin of coffee and where coffee is a significant export product, and even in the capital city with several millions of people, there is not one Starbucks to be found. Not one!

What I found was a chain of more than a dozen coffee shops that served delicious coffee, sandwiches, snacks and fabulous pastries.  (I must be the only coffee drinker in the known universe who finds Starbucks coffee undrinkable.)  Each shop is spacious with both indoor and outdoor tables.  Folks just sip a cup and chat with friends.   No one is in any particular hurry.

Here’s a review I found on tripadvisor:

   “Ok first things first. I have had every kind of coffee you could imagine but this stuff takes the grand prize.  I have never tasted coffee this addictive anywhere I have visited in Europe, America or Asia. This is the definitive place to go for a great Macchiato and some cookies…and most pastries are awesome.”

Here’s another:

“This place is a kick. It's a Starbucks knockoff right down to the logo. It has great coffee drinks. I especially liked their cold frappes. This is a must do in Addis and it's a great place to take a break from the day.

In case you haven’t already guessed, the name of the coffee shop chain is Kaldi’s!

All of the above is just Prologue.  Prologue to two of my favorite moments in Ethiopia.  I am speaking, of course, of “The Coffee Ceremony.”

Each day families in Ethiopia gather for the Coffee Ceremony.  It is a time to discuss the issues of the day, but mostly just to be together and relax at home. Germay, my driver in Axum, invited me to join his family one afternoon.

I sit with Germay and his mother, sister and brother in their warm and humble home.  His sister Birkte first takes a handful of ripe but unroasted beans from a can and places them in a small pot.  She shakes the pot over a charcoal fire to roast the beans. Then she grinds the beans in a mortar and pestle. 

Germay’s mother Yahdeda spoons the grinds into a large pot with hot water.  When, after a few tastes she deems the coffee worthy, she pours the freshly brewed coffee into a small earthenware serving pitcher.  She places her left hand under her right arm as a sign of respect as she gently pours the hot black coffee into demitasse cups. After just one sip, everyone agrees, “This surely is heavenly coffee.”

This sequence of coffee preparation and drinking is repeated three times.  The first cup is strong.  The second is a little weaker.  The third is weak and appropriate for young children.  Some kids take a sip and others just run in and out of the house, holding a handful of popcorn. Popcorn, sprinkled with sugar, is the snack of choice with the coffee. 

After the third cup, Germay and I are off again into the mountains of Tigray.

A week later, in the mountains of Lalibela, Abebe invited me to his home for Coffee Ceremony.  Abebe works at the Asheton Hotel where I stayed for four nights.  We walked up the hills to his village to meet his sister Sinke as she prepared the coffee in their one-room, dirt floor home. 

As the smoke from the small fire drifted up into the room and across Sinke’s face, once again I felt quite at home at this humble, yet potent ceremony.  I felt so fortunate to be immersed in this ancient African tradition. 

Coffee drinkers of the world, unite!  We are one intimate family.  From black Ethiopia to white New England, and all points and colors in between, let us remember our old friend Kaldi as I remember my new friends Germay and Abebe and, oh, oh, oh so beautiful, Sinke.  As we partake of a cup, let us forgo our fears and suspicions, and partake of our common origin, our humanity, our humility.   

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