Chapter V: THE BEGINNINGS OF COFFEE IN FRANCE -- All About Coffee, by William H. Ukers

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Chapter V


What French travelers did for coffee—The introduction of coffee by P. de la Roque into Marseilles in 1644—The first commercial importation of coffee from Egypt—The first French coffee house—Failure of the attempt by physicians of Marseilles to discredit coffee—Soliman Aga introduces coffee into Paris—Cabarets à caffè—Celebrated works on coffee by French writers

We are indebted to three great French travelers for much valuable knowledge about coffee; and these gallant gentlemen first fired the imagination of the French people in regard to the beverage that was destined to play so important a part in the French revolution. They are Tavernier (1605–89), Thévenot (1633–67), and Bernier (1625–88).

Then there is Jean La Roque (1661–1745), who made a famous "Voyage to Arabia the Happy" (Voyage de l'Arabie Heureuse) in 1708–13 and to whose father, P. de la Roque, is due the honor of having brought the first coffee into France in 1644. Also, there is Antoine Galland (1646–1715), the French Orientalist, first translator of the Arabian Nights and antiquary to the king, who, in 1699, published an analysis and translation from the Arabic of the Abd-al-Kâdir manuscript (1587), giving the first authentic account of the origin of coffee.

Probably the earliest reference to coffee in France is to be found in the simple statement that Onorio Belli (Bellus), the Italian botanist and author, in 1596 sent to Charles de l'Écluse (1526–1609), a French physician, botanist and traveler, "seeds used by the Egyptians to make a liquid they call cave.[44]"

P. de la Roque accompanied M. de la Haye, the French ambassador, to Constantinople; and afterward traveled into the Levant. Upon his return to Marseilles in 1644, he brought with him not only some coffee, but "all the little implements used about it in Turkey, which were then looked upon as great curiosities in France." There were included in the coffee service some findjans, or china dishes, and small pieces of muslin embroidered with gold, silver, and silk, which the Turks used as napkins.

Jean La Roque gives credit to Jean de Thévenot for introducing coffee privately into Paris in 1657, and for teaching the French how to use coffee.

De Thévenot writes in this entertaining fashion concerning the use of the drink in Turkey in the middle of the seventeenth century:

They have another drink in ordinary use. They call it cahve and take it all hours of the day. This drink is made from a berry roasted in a pan or other utensil over the fire. They pound it into a very fine powder.

When they wish to drink it, they take a boiler made expressly for the purpose, which they call an ibrik; and having filled it with water, they let it boil. When it boils, they add to about three cups of water a heaping spoonful of the powder; and when it boils, they remove it quickly from the fire, or sometimes they stir it, otherwise it would boil over, as it rises very quickly. When it has boiled up thus ten or twelve times, they pour it into porcelain cups, which they place upon a platter of painted wood and bring it to you thus boiling.

One must drink it hot, but in several instalments, otherwise it is not good. One takes it in[Pg 32] little swallows[45] for fear of burning one's self—in such fashion that in a cavekane (so they call the places where it is sold ready prepared), one hears a pleasant little musical sucking sound.... There are some who mix with it a small quantity of cloves and cardamom seeds; others add sugar.

Title Page of La Roque's Work, 1716 Title Page of La Roque's Work, 1716

It was really out of curiosity that the people of France took to coffee, says Jardin; "they wanted to know this Oriental beverage, so much vaunted, although its blackness at first sight was far from attractive."

About the year 1660 several merchants of Marseilles, who had lived for a time in the Levant and felt they were not able to do without coffee, brought some coffee beans home with them; and later, a group of apothecaries and other merchants brought in the first commercial importation of coffee in bales from Egypt. The Lyons merchants soon followed suit, and the use of coffee became general in those parts. In 1671 certain private persons opened a coffee house in Marseilles, near the Exchange, which at once became popular with merchants and travelers. Others started up, and all were crowded. The people did not, however, drink any the less at home. "In fine," says La Roque, "the use of the beverage increased so amazingly that, as was inevitable, the physicians became alarmed, thinking it would not agree with the inhabitants of a country hot and extremely dry."

The Coffee Tree as Pictured by La Roque in His "Voyage de
l'Arabie Heureuse" The Coffee Tree as Pictured by La Roque in His "Voyage de l'Arabie Heureuse"

The age-old controversy was on. Some sided with the physicians, others opposed them, as at Mecca, Cairo, and Constantinople; only here the argument turned mainly on the medicinal question, the Church this time having no part in the dispute. "The lovers of coffee used the physicians very ill when they met together, and the physicians on their side threatened the coffee drinkers with all sorts of diseases."


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Matters came to a head in 1679, when an ingenious attempt by the physicians of Marseilles to discredit coffee took the form of having a young student, about to be admitted to the College of Physicians, dispute before the magistrate in the town hall, a question proposed by two physicians of the Faculty of Aix, as to whether coffee was or was not prejudicial to the inhabitants of Marseilles.

The thesis recited that coffee had won the approval of all nations, had almost wholly put down the use of wine, although it was not to be compared even with the lees of that excellent beverage; that it was a vile and worthless foreign novelty; that its claim to be a remedy against distempers was ridiculous, because it was not a bean but the fruit of a tree discovered by goats and camels; that it was hot and not cold, as alleged; that it burned up the blood, and so induced palsies, impotence, and leanness; "from all of which we must necessarily conclude that coffee is hurtful to the greater part of the inhabitants of Marseilles."

Thus did the good doctors of the Faculty of Aix set forth their prejudices, and this was their final decision upon coffee. Many thought they overreached themselves in their misguided zeal. They were handled somewhat roughly in the disputation, which disclosed many false reasonings, to say nothing of blunders as to matters of fact. The world had already advanced too far to have another decision against coffee count for much, and this latest effort to stop its onward march was of even less force than the diatribes of the Mohammedan priests. The coffee houses continued to be as much frequented as before, and the people drank no less coffee in their homes. Indeed, the indictment proved a boomerang, for consumption received such an impetus that the merchants of Lyons and Marseilles, for the first time in history, began to import green coffee from the Levant by the ship-load in order to meet the increased demand.

Meanwhile, in 1669, Soliman Aga, the Turkish ambassador from Mohammed IV to the court of Louis XIV, had arrived in Paris. He brought with him a considerable quantity of coffee, and introduced the coffee drink, made in Turkish style, to the French capital.

A Coffee Branch With Flowers and Fruit as Illustrated in
La Roque's "Voyage de l'Arabie Heureuse" A Coffee Branch With Flowers and Fruit as Illustrated in La Roque's "Voyage de l'Arabie Heureuse"

The ambassador remained in Paris only from July, 1669, to May, 1670, but long enough firmly to establish the custom he had introduced. Two years later, Pascal, an Armenian, opened his coffee-drinking booth at the fair of St.-Germain, and this event marked the beginning of the Parisian coffee houses. The story is told in detail in chapter XI.

The custom of drinking coffee having become general in the capital, as well as in Marseilles and Lyons, the example was followed in all the provinces. Every city soon had its coffee houses, and the beverage was largely consumed in private homes. La Roque writes: "None, from the meanest citizen to the persons of the highest quality, failed to use it every morning or at least soon after dinner, it being the custom likewise to offer it in all visits."

"The persons of highest quality" encouraged the fashion of having cabaréts à caffé; and soon it was said that there could be seen in France all that the East could furnish of magnificence in coffee houses, "the china jars and other Indian furniture[Pg 34] being richer and more valuable than the gold and silver with which they were lavishly adorned."

In 1671 there appeared in Lyons a book entitled The Most Excellent Virtues of the Mulberry, Called Coffee, showing the need for an authoritative work on the subject—a need that was ably filled that same year and in Lyons by the publication of Philippe Sylvestre Dufour's admirable treatise, Concerning the Use of Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate. Again at Lyons, Dufour published (1684) his more complete work on The Manner of Making Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate. This was followed (1715) by the publication in Paris of Jean La Roque's Voyage de l'Arabie Heureuse, containing the story of the author's journey to the court of the king of Yemen in 1711, a description of the coffee tree and its fruit, and a critical and historical treatise on its first use and introduction to France.

La Roque's description of his visit to the king's gardens is interesting because it shows the Arabs still held to the belief that coffee grew only in Arabia. Here it is:

There was nothing remarkable in the King's Gardens, except the great pains taken to furnish it with all the kinds of trees that are common in the country; amongst which there were the coffee trees, the finest that could be had. When the deputies represented to the King how much that was contrary to the custom of the Princes of Europe (who endeavor to stock their gardens chiefly with the rarest and most uncommon plants that can be found) the King returned them this answer: That he valued himself as much upon his good taste and generosity as any Prince in Europe; the coffee tree, he told them, was indeed common in his country, but it was not the less dear to him upon that account; the perpetual verdure of it pleased him extremely; and also the thoughts of its producing a fruit which was nowhere else to be met with; and when he made a present of that that came from his own Gardens, it was a great satisfaction to him to be able to say that he had planted the trees that produced it with his own hands.

The first merchant licensed to sell coffee in France was one Damame François, a bourgeois of Paris, who secured the privilege through an edict of 1692. He was given the sole right for ten years to sell coffees and teas in all the provinces and towns of the kingdom, and in all territories under the sovereignty of the king, and received also authority to maintain a warehouse.

To Santo Domingo (1738) and other French colonies the café was soon transported from the homeland, and thrived under special license from the king.

In 1858 there appeared in France a leaflet-periodical, entitled The Café, Literary, Artistic, and Commercial. Ch. Woinez, the editor, said in announcing it: "The Salon stood for privilege, the Café stands for equality." Its publication was of short duration.

Coffee Pot

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Chapter V: THE BEGINNINGS OF COFFEE IN FRANCE -- All About Coffee, by William H. Ukers

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