The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Book Review - The Various Flavours of Coffee
Reviewer - Trevor Jenner
London 1897 in the era of Oscar Wilde. Robert Wallis, a 'dandy' and budding poet taken up with epigrams and whores, just 22 years of age, seeks a future. By chance he meets Samuel Pinker importer of coffee and accepts a job to compose a 'vocabulary of coffees'.
The story is a web of intrigue about coffee, Robert Wallis and the senses. It is the subtle-ties of aroma and taste that Robert Wallis unravels in the cocktail of essence and flavour that dwells in a cup of coffee. Wallis has a way of describing everything so perfectly not just coffee, but a simple walk through the streets of late Victorian London; a description that transports the reader there so effectively plus some other delights that readers will have to uncover for themselves. He works with Pinker's daughter Emily; he falls for Emily, however, as soon as he declares his love for her and his wish to marry her Pinker packs him off to Africa to discover the source of the fabulous mocca coffee. There Wallis meets with a coffee merchant and his slave girl Fikre. During the introductory coffee ceremony she places one coffee bean surreptitiously in his hand and with her dusky beauty captures Wallis's heart leading to a period in his life that shakes his very being to the roots. From that point his adventure turns into a trial of great contrast to his life in London. After 5 years he returns to London a changed man, links up with the Pinker family again and aids Pinker in his quest to become king of coffee.
So what of Abyssinia? Kaffa is mentioned as the birth place of coffee and according to the author quite close to Harar, which it isn't of course being to the west of the country. Interestingly Wallis meets Richard Burton the Victorian explorer, uses Marie Therese Thalers for payment, describes the smell of Ethiopia as "choking dry red dust - peppery and pun-gent, leathery and slightly rancid" very accurate in my experience and the more so the further south one goes. In addition the following are mentioned if not all wholly correctly: the Galla, coffee ceremony, berberi, ferengi, Arthur Rimbaud, chewing chat and Zeilah the main export and slave port of the time in Somalia.
An immensely enjoyable read, especially concerning the senses and holds one's interest throughout.
The Various Flavours of Coffee