Greeks and the Story of the Introduction of Coffee to the Western World

During the 1600s, coffee as a beverage and the coffeehouse as a location to gather for avid conversation were gradually introduced to Europe from the Middle East. Various Greeks living in the diaspora during this period are credited with being among those individuals who first brought coffee and coffeehouses to Western Europe. While on the surface a trivial seeming matter, cultural historians have long recognized the enduring social significance of both coffee and coffeehouses to Western civilization. And if they ever forgot this fact, there have been Greeks, since the 1600s, who have never tired of reminding them of these lone individuals.
We can easily trace three Hellenes in four European locations as being credited with being the first individuals to offer their newly acquired European friends some coffee. To be sure, given the dates involved, some controversy still revolves around some of these persons and events. Other Greek travelers could have brewed their coffee in as yet to be recognized places in Europe. But overall the names of Nathaniel Conopios, Nicola della Maddalena and Pasqua Rosee appear again and again as brewers, drinkers and proprietors of coffeehouses.
The first person recorded in history to brew coffee in England was an international student named Nathaniel Conopios from Crete, who was studying at Balliol College, Oxford. This simple act, which happened in May 1637, was recorded by both scholar John Evelyn and historian Anthony Wood. In an article entitled simply ‘Coffee,’ in The Plough, the Loom and the Anvil, a journal devoted to the history of various commercial industries and products we read this quote: “As Evelyn says in his Diary, 1637, “There came in my tyme to the Coll: one Nathaniel Conopios out of Greece, from Cyrill the Patriarch of Constantinople, who, returning many years after, was made (as I understand) Bishop of Smyrna: he was the first I ever saw drink coffee, which custom came not to England till 30 years after (Volume 1, 1848: 135-139).”
As to who first opened a coffeehouse in England we immediately enter into a controversy. Many assert that it was in Oxford that the first English coffeehouse was opened in 1650 by Jacob, a Lebanese Jew. Even though Jacob moved to London a few years later to repeat his success, he had begun a trend that saw many more coffeehouses open in Oxford during that decade.
Most writers credit a Greek, Pasque Rosee, in 1652, as being the first to open a coffeehouse in London. Rosee opened his establishment in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill which featured an outside sign showing his portrait with a coffee pot sitting on top. This sign is the reason that many in London referred to this coffeehouse as ‘The Turk’s Head.’ Today, the Jamaica Wine House reputedly occupies the same space as Rosee’s coffeehouse. A historic plaque can be seen there reading: “Here Stood the First London Coffee House at the sign of Pasqua Rosee’s head.”
As far as can be determined Rosée was probably born into the ethnic Greek community in Ragusa in Sicily in the early seventeenth century. In 1651 a merchant named Daniel Edwards, a member of the Levant Company and a trader in Turkish goods, encountered Rosée at Smyrna in Anatolia, employed him as a manservant and brought him back to Britain. What happened next is told in a handwritten note by William Oldys (1696-1761), a celebrated English antiquarian:
‘Mr. Edwards, a Turkey merchant, brought from Smyrna to London one Pasqua Rosee, a Ragusan youth, who prepared this drink for him every morning. But the novelty thereof drawing too much company to him, he allowed his said servant, with another his son-in-law, to sell it publicly, and they set up the first coffeehouse in London, in St. Michael’s alley, in Cornhill. The sign was Pasqua Rosee’s own head.” At a penny a cup Pasqua was soon selling an average of 600 cups of coffee a day.
Now before anyone sees in their mind’s eye an elaborate coffeehouse of the first order it seems that Rosee’s first place of business was nothing more than a shack set against the stone wall of St. Michael’s churchyard which is most often described as little more than a labyrinth of alleys off Cornhill. Still, from this humble beginning Rosee changed the very nature of British culture.
“Soon intellectuals, professionals and merchants thronged to the coffeehouses to debate, distribute pamphlets, do deals, smoke clay pipes and, of course, consume a drink said to resemble ‘syrup of soot and essence of old shoes.’ Newsletters and gazettes (the precursors of newspapers) were distributed in coffeehouses and most functioned as reading rooms and notice boards announcing sales, sailings, and auctions to the businessmen who frequented them (”
Rosee clearly knew something of human nature since he was the first to freely issue broadsides to advertise his establishment and his product. The British Museum holds one copy of a broadside issued by Rosee, entitled ‘The Vertue of the Coffee Drink,’ and as far as can be determined it is the first advertisement for this beverage in the Western world. Other coffeehouses soon sprang up all across London and in time all of England. While Pasque Rosee fades from view in London it is reported that in 1664 he sold coffee publicly in Holland.
The next coffeehouse established by a Greek, which is still in daily operation, is ‘The Antico Caffè Greco,’ which means ‘The Ancient Greek Café’ is sometimes also referred to simply as Caffè Greco, ‘The Greek Café!’ This coffeehouse is an historic landmark which opened in 1760 on 86 Via dei Condotti in Rome, Italy and todays still serves the public as a café/bar. It is perhaps the best known and oldest bar in Rome and within Italy only the Caffè Florian in Venice, established in 1720, is older.
The acknowledged founder of the Caffè Greco was Nicholas Greek della Maddalena. Described always as a Levantine the accepted belief is that Nicholas came from one of the Greek islands held by Italy during the 1700s. Over the decades the Caffè Greco became recognized for the flavor of their coffee served in small cups. As with the English coffeehouses this Roman establishment soon became the haunt of intellectuals, scholars, writers, artists and political radicals of all stripes.
Historic figures including Stendhal, Goethe, Bertel Thorvaldsen, Mariano Fortuny, Lord Byron, Franz Liszt, John Keats, Henrik Ibsen, Hans Christian Andersen, Felix Mendelssohn, Wagner, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and even Casanova have had coffee there. In the 18th and 19th centuries Caffè Greco became a renowned center of literary and philosophical life. To this day Caffè Greco remains a haven for writers, politicians, artists and notable people in Rome. Unexpectedly, this café is decorated with paintings and other objects donated to it by not only painters but sculptors and writers such that it is the largest private collection of art open to the public in the world.
From 1600 onward, Greeks, Jews, Turks and others from the eastern Mediterranean brought coffee, coffee brewing and coffeehouses to Europe. Our continuing mission is to locate those Greeks who took part in this most unusual cultural and culinary innovations and learn more of their individual actions.