Kaffa is generally regarded to be the region where the Arabica strain of coffee originated, and it is also where this plant was first cultivated. A popular legend, said variously to date to between the 3rd and 10th centuries, claims that a young herdsman called Kaldi first observed the stimulating properties of wild coffee. When his goats became hyperactive after eating the leaves and berries, Kaldi swallowed some of the berries himself, found that he too became abnormally excited, and ran to a nearby monastery to share his discovery.
Initially, the monks didn’t share the young goatherd’s enthusiasm, but instead chastised him for bringing evil stimulants to their monastery and threw the offending berries into a fire. But then, seduced by the aromatic smell of the roasting berries, the monks decided to give them a go and found that they were unusually alert during their nocturnal prayers. Soon, it became accepted practice throughout Christian Ethiopia to chew coffee beans before lengthy prayer sessions, a custom that still persists in some parts of the country today. Later, it was discovered that the roasted berry could be ground to powder to produce a tasty and energising hot drink – one that still goes by a name derived from the Kaffa region in most places where it is drunk.
The drink of coffee probably remained an Ethiopian secret until the 16th century, when it was traded along the Indian Ocean spice route and cultivated in Yemen and other hilly parts of Arabia. The bean first arrived in Europe via Turkey in the 17th century, and it rapidly took off – more than 200 coffee shops reputedly traded in Venice alone by the early 18th century. Today, coffee exports typically account for up to 70% of Ethiopia’s annual foreign revenue. Of Ethiopia’s annual coffee crop of four million bags, 90% or more is grown on subsistence farms and smallholdings, and about 40% remains within this coffee-mad country.