…but this night is a ground coffee and alligator pepper night… Bí ọmọ atare bíi mẹwa tí tó. Coffee náà yóò gbá yáá lọ́fun yóò sì jẹ́ kí ara yá gágá. Ọmọ tó ní ìyá òun ò ní sùn ni, òun náà kò ní ‘fojú b’ oorun… The child who says his mother will not sleep will not touch sleep with his eyes …no not with one solitary eyelash.
Though the condensed recipe above for God-punish-sleep coffee comes from my essay For the Love of Peppers, the intuitive Yoruba transliteration of it, the ideological fleshing-out and nourishing three-dimensionality of the words—the end-brew—belongs to a prize-winning Nigerian poet called Tade Ipadeola. He ventured a dive beneath the now-now roasted, brewed, mined beverage powered with ten volatile grains of paradise (we call them alligator peppers in Nigeria), to bring up a wonderful annotation for a per-diem juice of rebellion. He came up for air with mutiny in his hand. The man gets it!
He discerned that it is a potion for willfulness that I am concocting. If it seems that I am getting overexcited for nothing at all, let me interrupt all skepticism this very minute by saying that I am a 46 year old Nigerian woman who has never been made coffee in my own home by a man. Never ever… There is something unnerving for many Nigerian men about a woman who drinks her coffee black and strong with a firm kick to the backside: A little milk makes you more palatable.
The sentiment of black coffee black heart might have an equivalent in the Northern hemisphere, where people say that those who drink their coffee black are psychopaths. Because Tade Ipadeola understands and agrees to make potent coffee—agrees to drink it with rebellious women—I would gladly make breakfast for him any morning he chooses.
Most people who have visited me and were offered my brew (without pepper) have declared it too too strong, or else bravely acquiesced to a mug only to call me up days later and scold me for stealing their sleep. “I haven’t slept in days,” they protest. That is the point isn’t it, I want to say. Not to sleep. Not to kowtow. To stay up late to handpick your own taboos. Why whine prematurely about a few sips from the black bog when you have not swilled the whole cafetière, not swum the depths of black water peppered with alligators. Coffee is an aid to vigilance: That is the point, to blow a blood vessel, to rebel and set fire to neurotransmitters, to stop and arrest slinking contempt in its hot tracks. Coffee is a drug, it is not Kombucha, and if you can abuse it, why be coy about the abuse?
My favourite rationale for the necessity of bespoke coffee is from the Polish entrepreneur Marek ‘Chinedu’ Zmyslowski—that charmer recently accused of defrauding Nigerian investors and landing on Interpol’s most wanted list. He said a Nigerian businessman had come for a meeting with his own coffee. “Having a taste of that one special blend?” he asked.
“Not really, I was just poisoned by my business partner once,” the man replied.
I can tell you where I was when it made the news that a cup of coffee was one million bolivars in Venezuela. It was June 2018. I was standing in an unfamiliar kitchen in London, my fingers wrapped around a mug of some nondescript blend from some beautiful package, brewed as dark as possible. I hadn’t bought a cafetière yet. Everything was on the ship. We were a few days from our move from Somerset West, Western Cape. My nose was high up in attitude because I am spoilt. Because I have not let slip the privilege of making my own coffee in years now. Freshly roasted in a popcorn maker, brewed glossy black at my own pace in my own space, to my own satisfaction, drunk with the full-bodied pleasure of making something for myself alone, that only my constitution can stand without going into prima facie shock. There are exquisite experiential aspects of making coffee lost in buying a packet of pre-roasted, pre-ground beans, no matter how wonderfully packaged, presented and lauded the coffee—the pleasure of the song and dance, the vigilance over gradual progression of heat in the pot, the patient easygoing posture over the hob, nose suspended over the enterprise, waiting to ride the sensory nuances of aromatics from fresh artichoke-green to fully roasted loam-brown. The contemplative rocking of the pot from side to side, the popping sound and thick coffee smoke that intoxicates and requires a wide open window or strong electrical hood to clear the air.
In Somerset West, I had a hoard of green beans bought from Snob’s coffee at the Somerset West Mall. When you walked into Snob’s coffee, there were open bags of green beans from different countries everywhere. There was a giant roaster humming away at the extreme left hand corner of the shop and cafe. There were first grade green beans in burlap sacks on the floor that they refused to sell to you with great fanfare, but they let you see the beans so that you could salivate and yearn in vain. I refused their offers to help me roast my coffee. I refused to buy a R3000 copper roaster from them. I went to the popular South African pharmacy, Clicks, and bought a R200 popcorn maker. I later relented and bought an electric grinder, only as a time-saving device.
So in June 2018, I was being churlish because I had developed a finicky palate in the Western Cape, where green coffee beans were freely available and significantly cheaper than highfaluting over-marketed “believe what we ramble on the back of the packet” coffee. I could smell the difference. Taste the difference. I was being asked to pay for a process the difficulty of which had been exaggerated, and portrayed as above the competence of the man on the street, just for the purpose of getting me to pay more for less. Making coffee from scratch is not some expert skill. The brazenness of the ruse bothered me, all the extravagant language employed in peddling a product that was originally home brewed in some Ethiopian woman’s simple kitchen made me inordinately depressed about buying and drinking packaged coffee.
Whenever I put my mug of home brewed coffee down in some part of the house, forgot completely where I had left it, and that happened often, it was interesting to discover the coffee the next day, unchanged, fit to drink, refreshed perfectly by adding boiled water to the mug. Not so the brew from the packaged coffee that went stale from the afternoon of the day you brewed it.
Worst still, if the roasted and ground Yirgacheffe said on the packet that the notes of the coffee were floral and fruity, I sniffed to make sure, and smelled nothing like that. I smelled hazelnuts when it said chocolates for goodness sake. How could there be an argument about what I was smelling. No. I am the official Homefront coffee maker. I determine all the parameters of sensory pleasure. There are no fancy pants coffee-making paraphernalia in this house, even if there is a lot of song and dance.
There is a brutalized milk pan, a rarely washed cafetière, a kilo of washed green Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans, sometimes I keep some Colombian, or Ethiopian Sidamo, or Guatemalan, or nosebleed strength Kenyan. There is an overworked Hunt Brothers ceramic burr mill, a variety of dried peppers: Black, pink, alligator, cubeb, Cameroonian, cayenne etc. There are coffee accompaniments like coconut sugar, Minor Figures oat milk, Ceylon cinnamon, cassia pretending to be Ceylon-cinnamon, cinnamon and cassia mixed together to stabilize blood sugar, creamed buckwheat honey, ceremonial grade green Matcha, organic Spirulina, Greek saffron as expensive as gold. There are beloved props to invoke the spirit of coffee-making: A happy yellow moka pot now resigned to its second-class fate of brewing stout soporific Roiboos. Frankincense resin on the side of the stove, mixed with rose pink coarse salt in an oil burner for old-world Ethiopian coffee aromatics.
A few weeks ago, I went against my ‘no redundant equipment’ policy and bought an eco-ceramic hand roaster…well, because I have near destroyed the milk pan with coffee roasting (the rest of its natural life must be preserved for porridge oats). And because the ceramic roaster was an aesthetically pleasing bauble—a spherical spaceship with a hole in the head and a cowhide protected handle for therapeutic rocking and resting of beans over a hob fire, while thinking about one’s life. There is instant coffee in the kitchen cupboard, above the stove of course. That is, a jar of broken up sludge under the feet after muggy rain that has about it something-like-the-aroma-of-something-like-coffee… Instant-grunge for guests welcome or otherwise who want no better; for days when I can’t be bothered to persuade a friend to live and drink dangerously. There is Muscovado and Demerara sugar for milksops and milquetoasts, and disgusting Coffee-mate for philistines.
Long black Nigerian was the sleight of hand coffee that rescued me from the bone-deep exhaustion that couldn’t be shaken nor medicated with sleep or good nutrition, the kind that went on for a decade and a half. I was overwhelmed with the mothering of two children under the age of 3, then 3 children under the age of ten. Sleep deprived, words deprived, stunned by the realisation that I could not return the small people at the bottom of the matter back to the shop, with rigorous substantiated complaints, and get a refund. Could not switch off for crucial split-second daydreams and refreshing gazing out of windows—someone would set fire to the cushions. How was it that the cult of motherhood had kept such crucial evidence of the state of the afterlife so successfully classified… so that billions and billions of women of every grade of intelligence agreed to shed their blood and bare their privates in front of a roomful of people to further its goals?
I was so tired I could feel my brain cells crawling on their knees on the floor. I was so combustible, all I needed was a stray spark of wrong word, or right word with the wrong lilt. I was dumbfounded and inarticulate. I needed something strong and opinionated, just bordering on illegal, homebrewed, at hand, all caps and swear words, glock and samsonitic reservoir that I was in full control of, that never ran out, that powered and stimulated and knocked the bolts violently into place. I needed Popeye’s Palaak Neer, Asterix’s hot water, four-leaved clover of the tamarind tree, rock oil, mistletoe… etc… potion…
When you come from a country that doesn’t grow its own coffee, the advantages outweigh the disadvantage. Falling off the radar of the global trendy why-tos of drinking coffee is a good thing: The naiveté promotes innovation. The why-tos of coffee have been an obsession for so long in significant tracts of the globe, nobody in London or New York or Cape Town remembers when coffee wasn’t as necessary as clean air. Maybe this even holds true in Ethiopia, where 60% of their foreign income is generated from coffee, or in Marrakech, Kenya, Burundi, Madagascar, in Venezuela where a cup of coffee is an economic indicator, but in Nigeria, till today, it is easy to ignore coffee, to slip off the marketing baits—to be aloof and above the the trendy manifestations of Northern-hemispherical coffee. Incidentally we are unaffected by our neighbour, Cameroon, whence it makes the most sense to import coffee. Their Café Moulu is decent, even if tired in the way many packaged coffees are. Coffee bought in a supermarket in Nigeria is most likely imported—American Folgers in a plastic bucket or Nescafe ‘gold’ granules in a glass bottle—from across some major body of water.
I remember the first time I stood in front of a Starbucks coffee blackboard in London. I was not excited; I was confused and pressured by the telepathic prodding of the people in the queue behind me. I just wanted coffee joo and I was being made to wade through the illegible scrawls in different coloured chalk on a big black board just to get one. I didn’t understand three quarters of the words I was reading. How hard was it to write coffee in English? I just wanted a coffee. Black. Strong. Big aboki cup. Hot for the cold in my Nigerian bones.
The posh cultural marker coffees that Americans and British live by, define themselves and others by; classify psychopaths and pussycats by, preen by… the daily rehashed coffee culture worship; all the synergistic connections to literary and artistic endeavours, book readings, beauty salons, the stock market, the supreme court, church foyer hospitality, hospitals, all those institutions and human accomplishments oiled by floods of hot water infused with roasted beans: The utter pervasiveness of this brew and its sale, and its firing of realms on a day to day basis, has no Nigerian parallel. Not the chewing of Kolanut or the drinking of tea comes anywhere close. There is nothing like the potion that human machines self-consciously drink. Social petrol that one also invests one’s vanities in, an opaque mirror in which to see one’s image. If it were possible to remove every cup of coffee from London with a snap of the fingers, everything and everyone would wilt; markets, air traffic controllers, intellectuals would nod off in the middle of the day, causing outright chaos.
In Nigeria, the masses drink tea or pure water, or Kunu… and tea is not a do or die matter. It is not a ‘statement’. It is sustenance, a sweetened, laid-back puddle for dunking Agege bread. It is breakfast, ‘Milo’, Lipton or Highland tea or homage to the 5:00am muezzin.
The minute percentage of hoitytoities who can go to some café on Lagos Island and order a macchiato, who know what a cappuccino is… is statistically invisible. They don’t count abeg. There is no Lagos Lungo. No long black Nigerian or flat white Southerner. There are imported unaffordable vacuum secured packets in supermarkets like Goodies, Park and Shop, and Daytona that say “Arabica” on them. I can’t read the Arabic writing on these blue and white packages and would not know if the coffee was infused with cloves or cardamom. The weight of the word Arabica never added any value whatsoever.
No matter how bad and tired and rancid it is, coffee is always too expensive in Nigeria. There are places like Cactus Restaurant or Nok by Alara, where you can get the same coffee that you would get in a café in London. We have fallen like most of the world for that global lie that coffee is this rarified drink that someone must roast and blend for you, must bottle and package for you. Must smell and elevate aromatics with the bewitchment of words for you. I suppose that is why I keep my frankincense resin burning near the hob, to remind myself where the brew originated, and how the best coffee at heart is an intimate ritual, a bespoke potion and a symbol of personal identity. Something Ethiopian housewifes meditated on with the aroma of burning frankincense in the air. It is of course a social drink as well but like most introverts, I don’t care.
My Uncle, Femi Aribisala, taught me how to drink coffee. He will unequivocally deny this and say Yemisi I don’t even drink coffee so how on earth did I teach you to drink it. He is right. He introduced me to chicken Kiev and New York pizza and liquor filled chocolates, and muesli, and the power of a hand written letter, yet he also introduced me to that living thing called ‘my own opinion’; that spirit that flew out of the virus in my brain, out of mouth and head and body language, scandalizing and terrifying my family. While the women in my family were obsessed with my marriageability, and knew instinctively that things like coffee and strong opinions were not the Nigerian ideal, my Uncle asked for my opinion. So I knew I needed to give it and I needed something that was strong enough to keep me awake to make it. His favouritism saved my life and my opinions. Like the one that says any man who friend-zones you because your shade of coffee is too black is a sap, and you need to unfriend him with immediate effect. My Uncle taught me that a woman cannot be too intense for this intense world, I believed him, so I brew my coffee for utmost intensity.
Long black Nigerian. You need 100g of roasted green beans for about two to three days’ brew—that is, approximately two and a half strongly brewed cafetières. I call the black Nigerian ‘long’ becase I am constantly refreshing my mugs with hot water. You only really need to roast beans every three or so days.
Put the beans in a battered pan over the smallest hob and let it sit until the heat builds appropriately in the pan; once you hear the first pop, move the pan around frequently.
Don’t leave the room.
The popping sounds will build and from that point you need to move the beans around constantly, without a break. If your hands get tired, take the pan off the fire. The heat retained in the pan will cover the work for that period. Move the beans back and forth until they are evenly roasted. Watching that all your beans are the same colour. Long black Nigerian needs dark brown beans with oily complexions as if they are sweating into the pan. As dark as possible without burning.
Empty the roasted beans once evenly browned onto brown paper, spreading them out to cool completely. They need about thirty minutes of rest. This is a flavour building stage so don’t mess with it.
When the beans are cool, grind them up coarsely for cafetière. Use two large scooped tablespoons for each cafetière. I only grind my beans as I need them; I store the roasted beans whole and take just the quantity I need for each day.
Pour boiled water over the ground beans and let brew for 4 – 5 minutes. Push down the plunger and choose your accompaniments – pepper, saffron, coconut sugar, cinnamon…
My usual is a teaspoon of a mixture of cassia and cinnamon and one teaspoon of green Matcha. Or drink black, with nothing at all added.