The island of St. Helena is in the middle of the Atlantic between Africa and South America. It has been at the crossroads of the shipping routes of the colonial empires of past centuries. It is also the island where a vacant Emperor took a taste for the very local flavor of a coffee grown there.
The island was discovered in 1502 and its location long kept secret by the Portuguese. The British eventually found it around the year 1580. Then the Dutch arrived and tried to take possession of the island. The Spaniards are not far off and mingle. Like some other islands in the middle of the Oceans, St. Helena is a strategic supply point and indispensable to the navigation of the time. The competition between the colonial empires is intense for possession of these petrol stations. Eventually it was the British who became their masters in the late 17th century and since that time God Save the Queen.
The island of volcanic origin of 50 square miles (128 kms) has a subtropical climate and is mountainous, the summit (Diana's Peak) culminates at more than 800 meters. The place is actually excellent for growing coffee. According to the East India Company records, coffee beans were reported in 1732 and planted here. The seeds came from Mocha (Moka) in Yemen on the Red Sea. The variety in question is Green tipped Bourbon Arabica. Yemen is the source of the many varieties of coffee grown all over the world, but ultimately, it is from southwestern Ethiopia that the small Coffea arabica tree will give the type of coffee called Arabica in Trade. The recent study of genetic sequences still supports the fact that this species is itself a hybrid of C. canephora and C. eugenioides, two African species. The C. canephora is what is called the Robusta type coffee.
The peculiarity of the café of Sainte-Hélène is that it comes from the old Yemenite varieties cultivated for several centuries. It is closer to the origins of coffee therefore. The isolation of this coffee variety on an island so far from everything has apparently preserved its genetic integrity. The many contemporary varieties are the result of mutations, selections or recent hybridizations of Arabica exported and planted all over the planet. Drinking this coffee today is the chance to make a real journey back in time. And we're in good company.
The popularity of the cafe of Saint Helena has had its ups and downs and it has enjoyed a great reputation, especially in France, at the time when Napoleon lived there his exile from 1815 until his death in 1821. Bonaparte was not the only Great Chief exiled here: King Zulu Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, who had led an army against the British in South Africa, was also entitled to an all inclusive stay here. If it is known that Napoleon greatly appreciated coffee, history does not tell us what the beautiful Zulu thought.
In time, however, the few coffee plantations were abandoned and the forest resumed its rights. Until David Henry began farming and trees in the 1990s, clearing, transplanting wild animals and sowing again, forgetting the unconscious culture of coffee on the island. The Island of St. Helena Coffee Company now produces only about 12 tons of coffee, the grains being chosen one by one according to their maturity when the cherry is very red. The only fertilizer used is the abundant guano on the island and the pure water that descends from the mountains.
These unproductive methods combined with large distances and transport limitations explain the high price of convenience. With 2.44 million metric tons in 2009 Brazil's coffee output is slightly ahead of that of St. Helena. The Brazilian coffee is also a little cheaper ...
As we all know, geopolitics has an impact on our table. With the reactivation of the Falklands record between the Brits and Argentina an unexpected effect will be the construction of an airport on Île Sainte-Hélène. I do not know very well where they will manage to install this but the long and deep isolation of the island will be slightly modified. Let's bet that the coffee will fly from now on. Perhaps it will be cheaper? God Save the Queen ...
The cafe of Sainte-Hélène may not be the Kopi Luwak but to taste it is a bit like being on a terrace of the island overlooking the large Atlantic emptiness. Sitting we contemplate and humor travels and wars, shipwrecks and discoveries, imperial fortunes or the terrible collapses of the rich history behind every flavor that makes our daily life.
Lest we forget.