The History of Coffee in Malta
The coffee plant knows its origins in Ethiopia. During the fifteenth century, the plant began to be cultivated in Yemen and Saudi Arabia where coffee was roasted and served as a beverage that soon became very popular. From then on, coffee spread to Egypt and Turkey and the rest of the Middle East and eventually became also popular in Europe. It seems that Venice, the Netherlands and England were amongst the first to appreciate this new beverage. In France and Italy, coffee took much longer to become a commodity. It is even possible that this drink became known in Paris after Malta, and that it was probably the French Knights of the Order of St. John who introduced coffee in Paris, (N. Buttigieg and K. Gambin, 2003).
Historical documents show that in 1633, coffee was consumed in Malta and was a popular drink especially in taverns at the maritime town of Birgu. In 1671, the Maltese scholar Domenico Magri (1605-1672), published a treatise in Rome called Della Virtù del Caffè. This priest tells us that in his time, the ‘Turkish’ slaves in the Valletta prisons were renowned for the good coffee they brewed. These not only drank coffee, but also sold it, in order to earn some modest cash. Even the Knights used to go to the slaves’ prisons, located as they were near where today stands the Lower Barrakka Garden, to buy coffee beans, roasted and ground, to consume at home. Other Maltese families belonging to the upper class did the same.
In the treatise, Magri gives his opinion on the unique taste as well as the health benefits of coffee. He claimed that drinking coffee helped against constipation and catarrh as well as to relieve migraine. He also claimed that coffee acted as a good digestive when taken after meals. Apart from that, Magri observed that coffee acted as a stimulant that kept one going with his work. It is clear from the title and contents of the essay that coffee was hitherto unknown in Rome. God only knows what Magri would have thought nowadays, as the Italians have become so passionate about coffee and experts in preparing it as a beverage. The same author was of the opinion that the low consumption of coffee in Italy was due to its high duty fees imposed when imported. At the same time, he claimed that in Malta coffee was a common drink – in his words, ‘[…] molto practicata […]’. The same writer explains in detail what it entailed to brew coffee. The ground coffee was to be boiled in a pot ‘[…] vaso stagnato di rame […]’ – then some time is allowed to let the coffee grains to sink to the bottom of the kettle. Then a small amount of sugar was to be added to the beverage and preferably, some cloves too; then served hot in a porcelain bowl, (D. Magri, 1671). [A recipe which is still followed meticulously by some Maltese to this day – MM].
In 1773, the Order of the Knights of St John, then ruling Malta, began to tax various goods that were imported, to raise funds in order to build more fortifications on the islands. Among the items that were taxed were soap, tobacco, playing cards, leather as well as coffee, (A. Hoppen, 1993).
But where did this coffee come from? In a late 18th century document of the Order of the Knights of St John, we find a list of imported goods that were taxed, amongst which, the Caffè di Levante and the Caffè di Ponente. However, no specific country is mentioned by name. (V. Mallia Milanes.) In another source we learn that in 1776, coffee was also exported from Malta to Sicily (Debono 1988 / Vassallo 1998).
The British Period – The 19th Century
During the nineteenth century, therefore, in the early years of British rule in Malta, coffee remained the most popular beverage, whereas tea imported from England was practically unknown, at least among the Maltese. This was because tea was consumed only by British soldiers and other British residents who at the time did not mix socially with the Maltese.
William Domeier, an English physician who visited Malta in the early nineteenth century, published a book, Observations on the Climate, Manners and Amusements of Malta (1810). He claimed that in Malta, both Maltese and British wholesalers were well stocked with such beverages as cocoa, beer, and coffee. Tea is not mentioned.
Just about a decade or so later, John Hennen, another medical doctor, who between 1821 and 1824, was purposely stationed in Malta to check on health matters, states that iced water and coffee were ‘common luxuries’. In the same paragraph he informs us that for breakfast the Maltese normally had bread or fruit, washed down with either coffee or cocoa. Hennen cites the prices of some common beverages that were consumed. This time tea is included. While a pint of wine or milk (English pint = 0.568 litres) were priced at 1¾d each, (one penny and three grains); tea sold at 2s. 5d (two shillings, five pence) a pound. Coffee was sold at 1s. 10d (one shilling, ten pence) a pound.
At home, coffee continued to be brewed in kettles (stanjata) then copiously poured into a small hand held ceramic bowl. One could drink the beverage at leisure while dunking small chunks of bread or local type rusks, or Maltese crackers (Maltese: biskuttelli or galletti) into the bowl. With coffee one could also add a few drops of rosewater, especially when attempting to recover from an upset stomach. Sometimes drops of aniseed were also poured in for good measure for the coffee to acquire a spicy taste. Over time, coffee grains were even mixed with chicory.
Meantime, the so called wine taverns (Malt. ħwienet tax-xorb) as well as the then emerging feast band clubs were serving coffee more than any other beverage. Even more so in Valletta. Many who commuted to Valletta would often take a moment of respite from their errands by stopping at one of the small beverage shops to refresh themselves with a cup – actually a small glass tumbler of coffee.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Valletta had its fair share of well established coffee shops. To name a few of the more popular ones, there was the Cafè de la Reine, in Piazza della Tesoreria – later popularly known as Queen’s Square (Malt. Pjazza Reġina). Right opposite, in Strade Reale, there was the Cafè dell’ Commercio, which after the Second World War, became known as Cafè Cordina. This had its ceiling painted with frescoes by the renowned artist Giuseppe Calì (1846 – 1930). There was also L’Europa Cafè in Strada Teatro Antico, while in Valletta’s Strada Reale, or as it was to be later known, Kings Way, at a short distance from Porta Reale, was the Royal Opera House, which of course served patrons entering or exiting the homonymous theatre, built in 1866. Apart from these there were also L’Internazionale, located next door to the Law Courts and D. Buhagiar – better known as, Dimitri, midway in Strada Reale. The latter displayed a sign in Italian, saying that the shop was open practically all hours, (aperto prima e dopo la mezzanotte) (E.R. Leopardi, 1966).
From the twentieth century to the present day
In the early decades of the twentieth century, other coffee shops were opened, such as, Cadena in Strada dei Mercanti, corner with Strada Santa Lucia, and Gambrinus, in Melita Street (then named Strada Britannia) corner with Strada Zaccharia. Others had changed ownership and also their name. These included the Cafè dell’ Commercio, already mentioned above, which became the famous Café Cordina, as well as the Cafè de la Reine, which changed its name to Café Premier. Throughout the day, most of the regular clients were lawyers who, just like today, buzzed in and out of the Law Courts, located a stone’s throw away. In the evening, and especially during weekends, the clientele changed as gradually Valletta became a popular haunt among young couples (and their chaperone), when going there to watch a movie, or to stroll up and down along the main street of the capital. There were others patronising the coffee shops. These were the zitelle – unmarried women – seeking to maintain their social communication with their female friends on a weekly basis. Back then, it was not proper for women to venture into a coffee shop unaccompanied. In The Premier there was a small musical bandstand purposely built, to offer some musical entertainment, thus enticing those intending to enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of cake seated al fresco.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, instant coffee, that is, coffee granules, dried and frozen, was invented in America. Soon after, it was being packed and sold in large quantities, both in the States as well as in Europe. The famous Nescafè brand started selling this kind of coffee as from 1939 onwards, (M. Cremona, 2010). This soon reached Malta too, thanks to the British military presence and proved to be very popular, mainly because it was so easy and quick to prepare and serve. Up to this day this type of coffee has remained the most common beverage, both at home and at work.
Nevertheless, in Malta, the old style brewed coffee, still remains the number one choice with many, especially among those accustomed to drinking coffee a l’italiana. Until the middle of the twentieth century, when few families had a coffee roaster at home, some would do a favour to their neighbours who wished to have their coffee roasted and ground. This process was often done outside in the street, in front of the residence of whoever owned the roaster or grinder, on a stone stove (Malt. kenur). Some would opt to do the same at the local bakery where they were charged a few pennies. Throughout the twentieth century, there were large department stores that imported raw coffee beans and had them roasted in bulk at their own establishment. One such place was Calafato at Hamrun. The aroma of the roasting coffee would fill the air in the street for many blocks away for many hours.
Nowadays, there are those afficionados of coffee who simply cannot do their chores at home or at work in the office without a cup full of coffee standing close by. For such people coffee is the comfort drink that allows them to set a tempo to the task at hand. The phrase, ‘Coffee Break’ has become a sine qua non, that allows for a pause during important meetings and conferences, whereat delegates can indulge in small talk or business matters. Others working late at home, guzzle one cup of coffee after another in order to carry on with their work through the small hours of the night.
One may say that coffee has become one of the most popular drinks at social gatherings. No wonder so many cafeterias have sprouted everywhere, but especially in commercial areas. Whereas in the Maltese villages and towns, the local ‘tea shops’ serve instant coffee in a glass tumbler with a teaspoon of sugar served according to the liking of the individual customer, in most of the coffee shops in Valletta and Sliema, coffee is prepared by a coffee machine according to ‘Italian’ standards. Such are the cappuccino, espresso (corto or lungo) and the macchiato, the latter served like a mini cappuccino, while in truth the name implies that it should only contain a few drops of milk. There is also the Americano which in Malta at least, refers usually to cupful of strong black coffee.
It is nowadays the trend for many to invite friends to meet in a coffee shop. This custom is prevalent amongst all social strata whether young or old, friends or businessmen. Of course with coffee there are often some eats on the table to go with the beverage, a croissant or sandwich maybe – amongst the Maltese gluttons, what better than half a dozen pastizzi, containing a filling of ricotta or peas?
July 7, 2022
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