This is the story of how the word ‘cafe’ came to be used to mean a place where one could get a light meal.
It starts with coffee.
The coffee plant is native to the highlands of Ethiopia, far away from Europe, of course.
Over time it began to be grown and drunk throughout the Horn of Africa and into the Middle East and to Turkey.
Now fast forward to 1529, when the Turks roared across the Hungarian plain and threatened the heart of Europe when they besieged the city of Vienna.
They were beaten back and century and a half later, in 1683, the Turks besieged Vienna for the second time.
Yet, though over 200,000 men besieged the city, and though they bombarded it from above ground and tunnelled under it to plant mines below ground, the city did not fall.
For a second time, Vienna could breathe a sigh of relief.
When the Turks retreated and the battered Viennese citizens came out to survey the damage, legend has it that they found coffee beans in the baggage the Turks had left behind.
The Viennese worked out what to do with these beans and the taste caught on. It caught on so well that just two short years later, trade started between Europe and Turkey and Egypt and the first Viennese coffee house opened.
At the same time, and by a similar route, coffee arrived in Venice and Marseilles.
Coffee had arrived in Europe.
Of course, coffee was expensive and coffee drinking was only for the rich.
It was only for men because women were not allowed to be seen in a coffee house alone or even in the company of other women.
Then things progressed with the opening of the tea route from China, and for some strange reason it was alright for a respectable woman to be seen in a tea house as long as there was a man to accompany her.
Then it became acceptable for women to drink tea in a tea house together.
But that is tea, a quite different drink. So back to the world of coffee.
But it is remarkable, isn’t it, how coffee had a certain reputation and tea had a different one.
In any event – how times have changed and how coffee has become the drink of millions of men and woman who do not give a moment’s thought to who should or should not be seen drinking whatever and wherever they like.
The First Recorded Use Of The Word Cafe
The first recorded use of the word cafe in the coffee houses of Europe was in the 1770s.
It meant a light meal at which coffee was served.
Can you imagine sitting in a coffee house asking for a cafe, saying ‘We’d like a cafe for two, please’, and having the waiter bring you sandwiches and coffee?
Perhaps it was the coffee equivalent of High Tea?
As time and fashion progressed it was a short step from cafe meaning a light meal accompanied by drinking coffee to the name of the establishment itself.
Perhaps there was a crossover period when both were used, and you might hear someone say that they were going to a cafe for a cafe.
Be all that as it may, next time you are in a cafe, you can let your mind carry you back in time and wander down the years to the present day and think how the word cafe got its meaning.