Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Coffee in the desert


SOUTHERN ISRAEL | As night deepened, the breeze blowing down the desert hillside behind us cooled. The stars sparkled in a moonless sky through the open sides of the tent. I pulled my light blanket up to my chin. The sound of dogs barking in a distant Bedouin village faded into dreamless sleep.

Dawn in the Negev Desert in southern Israel is spectacularly beautiful. The slanting morning light paints the hills reddish gold and the midday sun's sledgehammer heat is temporarily at bay. For an hour or two, you can walk about without the unpleasant feeling that the landscape is set to smite you dead with its heat and aridity.

As we made our beds on the carpeted, cushioned floor of the big Bedouin tent the night before, our hostess had asked what time we expected to rise in the morning. About an hour before our TV crew rolled out of our blankets, she started preparing coffee.

Coffee drinking is thought to have begun among the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Arabian peninsula more than 12 centuries ago. Who knows? Perhaps the ancestors of the El-Mazhuzhe tribe with whom we were staying outside the Arab-Israeli village of Lagiya were the first to enjoy this now universal ritual.

The thunk of a hatchet chopping firewood woke me. The woman of the house (or tent) stirred up some embers in a stone-lined pit in front of the tent and coaxed a fire to life with the kindling she had prepared. She then placed a blackened metal pot, a foot and a half tall with a dramatic arching spout to one side, on the edge of the fire. She filled the pot with water from a white plastic bucket.

Our tent was divided into men's and women's sections by a large curtain of canvas draped with woolen rugs. She disappeared behind the curtain and emerged again carrying two small tin canisters in one hand and a shallow, long-handled pan in the other. She sat down and smoked a cigarette, waiting for the fire to burn down to embers.

From one canister, she poured green unroasted coffee beans into the pan. For the next several minutes, she roasted them over the embers, flipping them like a flamboyant pancake chef whenever they started to burn, turning them brown and then almost black. The smell of coffee grew strong.

The roasted beans were swirled carefully into a brass mortar standing on the sand at her side. She began to grind them into a coarse powder with a heavy metal pestle. The mortar rang like a bell whenever the pestle struck its rim.

The powdery coffee was spooned into the now steaming water in the tall, elegant pot. While it steeped, the woman ground up a bit of cardamom seed from the second tin canister and added a pinch of it to the pot.

With large iron tongs, several glowing coals were carried to a small fire pit at the centre of the tent. The coffeepot was then set in the pit with the embers banked on one side of it. A silver tray carrying four china cups not much bigger than thimbles was placed on the carpet between our bedrolls and the fire. Our hostess settled comfortably into a half-lotus position.

Coffee was served.

Part 2: Invading a little Eden

Royal Orr of Hatley, Quebec, moves around some these days.

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