Saturday, April 4, 2015

D is for Dark Roast: Drinking Coffee in the 17th Century

A Midnight Modern Conversation. Hogarth.
In The Southwark Saga, the coffee is terrible. Sally regards it with suspicion in Tyburn, and it’s one of the first bad things Jane smells as she arrives in Southwark in Virtue’s Lady. But how bad could it have been?

Pretty bad. Here are the instructions they were using: 

“Take a gallon of faire water & boyle it until halfe be wasted, and then take that water one pint, and make it boyle, & then put in one spoonful of the Powder of Coffee and let it boyle one quarter of an hour, stiring of it two or three times, for fear of it running over, and drink it as hot as you can, every morning, and fast an houre or two after it.” (1)

Although the coffee was powdered, it would have been likely to leave a thick sludge at the bottom of a cup (if not in the rest of it). When Jane says that she could have stood a spoon up in it, she isn’t exaggerating. Drinking it very hot would go a ways to disguise the burnt taste of coffee powder and well water left to boil too long in a pot over a fire. It would have been rare to add milk to it. People did not commonly drink milk because it was thought to be unsafe, and they were probably right. As for sugar, it was sold in loaves that had to be broken up and pounded before it could be added to anything, let alone coffee.

It was a far cry from Starbucks, but they were lucky to have it. 

Coffee was a luxury drink like tea or chocolate, but became popular in England before either of the others. Coffee houses were a predecessor to the men’s clubs of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, frequented primarily by men (and perhaps women of ill-repute). The first coffee house in England was opened in 1650 in Holborn, and by 1663, there were 82 of them in London alone. 

Now when we think of Britain, we think of tea. Samuel Pepys mentioned drinking it as early as 1660, but it wasn’t until after Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in 1662 that tea came into its own. Her affection for the drink from her native Portugal started a trend among the wealthy that only intensified as tea became more readily available with the founding of the East India Company. (2)

When Jane returns to drinking tea after trying Mark’s coffee, she can barely taste it. For a truly interactive experience, try boiling up some coffee powder when you’re reading The Southwark Saga. Your taste buds will never be the same again.*

(1) Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997. P. 158
(2) UK Tea & Infusions Association: Catherine of Braganza. 

*Or go to your coffee house of choice. I hear they admit women now. 

3 comments:

  1. This is really cool. I love finding out little tid-bits like this.

    Also, it sounds nasty. I would have probably switched to tea as well.

    --j--

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  2. That was fascinating. And I had no idea coffee predated tea in England.

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  3. Glad you guys enjoyed! I would have switched to tea, too! The methods of preparing coffee actually varied hugely between England and what became the U.S. -- in the colonies, they would roast the beans fresh, grind them, and prepare individual pots in a matter of minutes over the fire, much closer to what we do today! In London and Southwark at this time, though, it was just big bags of coffee powder...

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