Anywhere I have traveled or lived, sourcing the morning coffee has been a top priority, right after changing currency and finding my way to my place of residence. I have learnt the magic words “one coffee with milk please” in Dutch, Bulgarian, Turkish, Arabic, Italian, French and probably Swahili in my time. In Madagascar I knew my early-morning needs would be in safe hands: yes, we have cyclones, terrible roads and corrupt officials, but the place grows not only coffee but also cocoa, tea and vanilla. It seems a fair trade.
Finding the good stuff takes a little local knowledge. No familiar-branded signage, no stream of paper-cup-clutching customers to trace to their source, no hipster chalkboards with witty quotes to flag a supplier. Fortunately I have at least one Malagasy colleague with similar priorities, and she quickly inducted me into the local coffee scene. What you look for is a hole in the wall, a tiny shopfront in amongst the stalls selling reconditioned car parts and second-hand clothing, with a white-tiled counter top facing onto the street and a tell-tale glass case filled with the preferred breakfast items – moufgas (mushed-up rice fried in little round cakes) and menakely (deep-fried dough rings, something between a vetkoek and a pretzel).
The Malagasy favour a fine ground, brewed using a giant cotton sock suspended from a wire ring bolted into the wall, something between a low-tech filter machine and an oversized tea-bag. Cupping notes are earthy, with a sludgy texture reminiscent of moerkoffie and mud-puddles. The prepared brew stands in a large pot, kept hot on a charcoal stove, or by a smaller pot suspended inside and filled with glowing coals (the various arrangements are ingenious – the pavement version makes use of something like a 25-litre jerrycan wrapped in sacking, with a pouring spout and tin cans fastened on either side to hold sugar and condensed milk). Tiny enamel cups are filled with a practiced scoop by the dexterous barista, sugar is added as standard, milk generally in powdered or tinned & sweetened form only (given the legendary Malagasy microbiome, it’s better that way). If you can’t stay, takeaways can be mixed in a jug and funneled into plastic water-bottles (bring your own).
Like the Italians, the Malagasy drink their coffee on their feet. The interior of the coffee shop is seldom more than four or five meters square, kitchen included, and offers standing room only, especially during the morning commuter rush. At its rear, a partition of sacking usually separates the shop from a back room, which judging by the sound of children and chickens, I assume to be the private residence of the coffee makers. Fresh supplies of fried goods appear at regular intervals through the partition, with occasionally an extra family member to speed up the proceedings. The coffee-makers move quickly, filling cups, taking cash, shuffling fresh plates of menakely past empty ones and whisking used dishes through the wash-bucket and back into service. Their customers are everyone: office workers, vegetable sellers, teachers, cart-pushers and hawkers of cheap electronics. Children on their way to school buy moufgas wrapped in newspaper to go, or order hot cups of lemongrass tea or burnt-rice water (a very popular beverage, served standard with meals – in case you thought rooibos was a poor alternative).
So this is coffee culture, Malagasy style. So bare-bones and you-have-to-know-what-to-look-for, it would make a hipster weep. Even better, this is coffee for the people: a cup costs 200 ariary (about a rand), but if you can’t afford that you can buy a half. Having always rationed my coffee-buying for cost reasons, this makes me happy right down in my soul. I’m a firm believer in morning coffee as a basic human right, with public health benefits extending far beyond the individual drinker*. The Malagasy seem to feel the same. Here there is no “latte factor”, and also no disposable paper cups, packaged sugar or plastic stirrer-sticks. Unnecessary decisions are minimal, service is fast and cheerful. The coffee is locally grown, roasted and ground, the business is family-owned and all profits stay local. What more can one ask?
I know I’ll have a hard time converting the flat-white brigade to sludge-and-condensed-milk, and I doubt the health regulations of most countries would let any of this happen. But it makes me believe a better world is possible. Coffee as a human right, practically free at the point of care, sustainably produced and kind to the environment. It’s a dream to reach for…
*My friend Helen has immortalised this truth in the lesser-known tale of St Agatha of Peru, the Patron Saint of Bringing People Coffee in the Morning. Born into a wealthy family, St Agatha renounced her life of privilege and dedicated herself to serving morning coffee to all the poor and the street-people of Lima – reasoning that with such a beginning to the day, one is far less likely to be tempted into a life of crime.
One dark day a stranger passing through the city, who knew nothing of St Agatha and her good deeds, robbed and murdered her. The following morning he was awoken by a vision of the virgin martyr herself, offering him a steaming cup of the holy brew. Transformed in that moment by this deed of dazzling mercy, he turned from his former ways and dedicated himself to carrying on her noble mission.