I thought Ethiopian coffee ceremonies were strictly confined to the country of Ethiopia, until I saw a sign in a downtown USA shop window proclaiming that ceremonies could be arranged on request.
I first encountered the ceremony – and discovered that coffee meant so much more than espresso or macchiato at the end of a meal – after supper in Axum in the far north of Ethiopia. The woman of the house roasted coffee beans in a metal tray, then pounded them with a pestle and mortar. Water was boiled in a bulbous pot, the coffee grounds were added and a delicious aroma permeated the room. Handle-less cups had been set out and the coffee was poured.
Now, except for once in a blue moon I don’t drink leaded coffee. Only the decaffeinated variety touches my lips. The first hint of caffeine and I’m wired. Sleep is out of the question for the next 24 hrs. And this coffee was strong enough for the spoon to stand up in it. But I was a guest in someone’s home and good manners required this coffee be drunk.
I smiled, took a cup and braced myself for a night or two without sleep. And then the cup was snatched from my hands. Something had been forgotten.
A small block of salt – from Danakil in north-eastern Ethiopia I was told – was dunked into the coffee three times and the cup was handed back. I drank every delicious drop. I have no idea what was in that salt, but I slept like a baby that night.
It was the first – and the most memorable – of many other coffee ceremonies. After watching hyenas feeding. After exploring an island in Lake Tana. After lunch in a restaurant where the coffee was presented with popcorn – apparently, a variant tradition. And all the ceremonies followed the same steps, except for the salt block at the end, which I never saw again.
Coffee originates from Ethiopia and it’s one of the country’s many gifts to the world. Ethiopians are justifiably proud of their coffee. But the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had was the one with the merest hint of salt – and it’s the only cup of coffee that’s sent me to sleep.