Ethiopian homage to coffee is sometimes ornate, and always beautifully ceremonial. The ceremony is usually conducted by one young woman, dressed in the traditional Ethiopian costume of a white dress with coloured woven borders. The long involved process starts with the ceremonial apparatus being arranged upon a bed of long scented grasses. The roasting of the coffee beans is done in a flat pan over a tiny charcoal stove, the pungent smell mingling with the heady scent of incense that is always burned during the ceremony. The lady who is conducting the ceremony gently washes a handful of coffee beans on the heated pan, then stirs and shakes the husks away. When the coffee beans have turned black and shining and the aromatic oil is coaxed out of them, they are ground by a pestle and a long handled mortar. The ground coffee is slowly stirred into the black clay coffee pot locally known as 'jebena', which is round at the bottom with a straw lid. Due to the archaic method used by Ethiopians, the ground result can be called anything but even, so the coffee is strained through a fine sieve several times. The youngest child is then sent out to announce when it is to be served and stands ready to bring a cup of coffee first to the eldest in the room and then to the others, connecting all the generations. The lady finally serves the coffee in tiny china cups to her family, friends and neighbours who have waited and watched the procedure for the past half-hour. Gracefully pouring a thin golden stream of coffee into each little cup from a height of one foot without an interruption requires years of practice
Coffee is taken with plenty of sugar (or in the countryside, salt) but no milk and is generally accompanied by lavish praise for its flavour and skilful preparation. Often it is complemented by a traditional snack food, such as popcorn, peanuts or cooked barley. In most parts of Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony takes place three times a day - in the morning, at noon and in the evening. It is the main social event within the village and a time to discuss the community, politics, life and about who did what with whom. If invited into a home to take part, remember - it is impolite to retire until you have consumed at least three cups, as the third round is considered to bestow a blessing. Transformation of the spirit is said to take place during the coffee ceremony through the completion of 'Abol' (the first round), 'Tona' (second round) and 'Baraka' (third round).
You'll find that each region's coffee will taste slightly different, according to the growing conditions. Kaffa's forested hillsides, at 1,500 feet, provide larger trees to protect the coffee plants from the harsh sun. Harar is renowned for its longberry variety with its distinctive wine-like flavour and sharp acidic edge. And Sidamo's beans, known as Yirgacheffes, have an unusual flavour. The coffee Arabica strain is Ethiopia's original bean and the only one still grown and drunk there today. It does not have the excessive pungency or acidity of the neighbouring Kenyan brands and is much closer in character to the related Mocha variety of Yemen. The composition of its delicate and strong flavour can be lost if it is high roasted.
According to national folklore, the origin of coffee is firmly rooted in Ethiopia's history. Their most popular legend concerns the goat herder from Kaffa, where the plants still grow wild in the forest hills. After discovering his goats to be excited, almost dancing on their hind legs, he noticed a few mangled branches of the coffee plant which was hung with bright red berries. He tried the berries himself and rushed home to his wife who told him that he must tell the monks. The monks tossed the sinful drug into the flames, an action soon to be followed by the smell we are all so familiar with now. They crushed the beans, raked them out of the fire, and distilled the stimulating substance in boiling water. Within minutes the monastery filled with the heavenly aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. After sitting up all night, they found a renewed energy to their holy devotions. The rest, as they say, is history.
Coffee holds a sacred place in their country -just the growing and picking process of coffee involves over 12 million Ethiopians and produces over two-thirds of the country's earnings. The best Ethiopian coffee may be compared with the finest coffee in the world, and premium washed Arabica beans fetch some of the highest prices on the world market. In a world where time has long become a commodity, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony takes us back to a time when value was given to conversation and human relations. Perhaps an ancient proverb best describes the place of coffee in Ethiopian life, "Buna dabo naw", which when translated means "Coffee is our bread!"