Aindrea White ventures to Ethiopia to learn about a traditional coffee ceremony
ccording to legend, an Ethiopian goat farmer named Kaldi discovered coffee when he noticed his herd was unusually energetic after eating cherries that contained beans. As a result, Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of what is now one of the world’s most popular beverages.
While most caffeine fiends are undoubtedly familiar with Ethiopian coffee, few can truly appreciate the way the coffee plant beats at the heart of Ethiopian culture. It’s a place where more than 15 million people depend on coffee to support their livelihood, and the industry accounts for 28 per cent of the country’s total exports. Half of the produce is consumed by the local population, who live and breathe the phrase, “buna dabo naw; coffee is our bread.”
Factors such as ideal weather conditions and high altitude contribute to the crop’s unmatched quality and flavour, as well as the staggering variety of beans grown. Coffee is grown all over the country, but the main regions are Harrar, Ghimbi and Yirgacheffe. The differing weather conditions, growing and processing methods used in each area affect the flavour of the bean. Coffee made from Harrar beans is bold and pungent, with a fruity acidity and is often used for espresso. Ghimbi brews tend to be more balanced, with sweet fruit and chocolate tones, while Yirgacheffe blends are light-bodied and flowery.
Chain and boutique shops all over the world offer a selection of Ethiopian beans, yet it is difficult to replicate the experience of drinking it at source. In Ethiopian homes coffee ceremonies are a slow and spiritual affair, accompanied by friends, family, timeless rituals and the burning of incense.
A woman – typically the matriarch of the home – leads the occasion, washing and roasting green coffee beans over charcoal in a flat pan. When the beans have darkened, they release a fragrant and intoxicating oil, which intertwines with the incense, creating an almost sacramental atmosphere. The beans are then ground with a mortar and pestle, and mixed with heated water in a jebena, a traditional pot with a round base and elegant tapered neck.
After the mixture has been brought to a boil, it is sieved before being gracefully poured in a single stream from the vessel, held a foot above a small cup. Sugar or salt is often added, and sometimes butter, but rarely milk, and snacks such as roasted barley, popcorn or peanuts are served. The coffee ceremony comprises three rounds: abol (first), tona (second) and baraka (blessing), during which transformation of the spirit is said to occur.
The presence of a new friend or visitor is always the perfect excuse for gathering, gossiping and preparing the coffee in this traditional way. Throughout Western culture, we are reminded to stop and smell the coffee – to appreciate the simple things and take our time. But perhaps this is understood by no one better than the people of Ethiopia.
Aindrea White writes on behalf of tailor-made travel specialists Pettitts. Click here to learn more about travelling to Ethiopia.