What have the Hapsburgs ever done for us?
OK, so the answer to that question is perhaps not quite as humourously self-evident as the list of Roman achievements summarily dismissed by John Cleese’s disgruntled leader of the “People’s Front of Judea” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”). But it is one which bears closer analysis – as, the chances are, evidence of it is sitting in front of you as you read this piece, its familiar aroma giving your nose a playful pinch.
The ruling family of Austria was Europe’s main power player for the best part of half a millennium – from 1438 to pretty much the final artillery blasts of the First World War. It was a dynasty which wielded emormous power, to the extent that, when the emperor coughed in Vienna, the effect was often felt not just in Hungary and Germany, but as far afield as Spain and Portugal. It was a protagonist in numerous wars, from its collisions with the Ottoman Empire on its eastern flank to the trenches of 1914-1918.
And yet, one of its biggest contributions to life on the continent generally comes with a cup, a dash (or deluge, depending on taste) of milk, and a teaspoonful or two of sugar.
And, just to be obtuse, its crucial moment took place in modern-day Italy, not Austria.
This year marks the 300th anniversary of a significant alteration in the status of Trieste, the port that long guarded the top end of that Mediterranean – maintaining a rivalry with Venice, and keeping one eye on the comings and goings in the Balkans directly to the south. In 2019, it is, of course, Italy’s northeasternmost city (almost on the border with Croatia) – but in 1719, it was very much tied to the House of Hapsburg.
It had been so aligned, on and off, since 1382 – when, under a treaty signed at Graz castle, it became part of the territories of Leopold III of Hapsburg, Duke of Austria. It would wax and wane in importance as the decades passed and the Hapsburgs sought to counter the reach of Venice and Dubrovnik – which, at that time, were two of the Mediterranean’s most potent trading forces. But it was not until the 18th century that Vienna granted Trieste a new liberty as a “free port” – with the capacity to set its own tariffs and taxes. This was a big promotion. It revolutionised the city’s finances and position on European trade routes. And it changed the game for one product. Coffee.
It sounds remarkable, now that the combination of roasted beans and hot water has become ubiquitous – a warming staple found on almost every street in every major city in the West – but until the 18th century, coffee was not part of everyday European thinking. It was an African drink, probably originating in Ethiopia. Or perhaps in the Middle East, maybe in Yemen. But either way, it did not exist as a beverage to be consumed before the 15th century, and even then, not in a way which crossed the sea.
In the 16th century, it spread to (what are now) Turkey and Iran, but it would not establish itself beyond the Mediterranean until the 17th. The first European coffee house was in Italy – perhaps in Venice as early as 1629 (due to the city’s strong trade links with the Ottomans). Queen’s Lane Coffee House, which opened its doors in Oxford in 1654, was one of the first such businesses in Britain (it still exists, there amid the colleges and courtyards of High Street – and may be the oldest continually working coffee shop in Europe; qlcoffeehouse.com). But the surge did not come until the 18th, when the Dutch East India Company began to ship in beans from the fertile soil of Indonesia, and coffee plantations in the Caribbean began to take hold. Trieste, freshly stripped of regulations in 1719, was in a prime position to benefit. And it did.
Trieste would only hold its free-port status until 1791, but these seven decades were enough to shape it as a major point of import for coffee in Europe. Endless bags of the stuff flooded into the city via ships coming north from the Middle and Far East, mooring at Trieste’s increasingly busy docks, their contents spilling across the quaysides.
These deliveries were soon fuelling a taste for this new drink within the Hapsburg kingdom – but the port was also a beneficiary, quickly developing the infrastructure to cater to the boom. There were warehouses. There were roasteries. There were glorious new buildings constructed on the proceeds – the pastel-pink neoclassical confection that is the Trieste Commodity Exchange on Piazza della Borsa dates to this period – it was founded in 1755 by Empress Maria Theresa in reflection of the financial importance of what was the Hapsburg’s only sea-port. Nearby on Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia, the Fontana Dei Quattro Continenti (Fountain of the Four Continents), crafted by the sculptor Giovanni Battista Mazzoleni between 1751 and 1754, acknowledges Trieste’s new success as a trade hub, its statues saluting Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
And there were cafes. The first is thought to have appeared as early as 1748, as the beans on the wharves became a delicacy to be consumed as much as a shipment to be moved on. This would set a precedent. Cafe Tommaseo (caffetommaseo.it) is the city’s oldest surviving such institution – proudly declaring that it was established in 1830. Caffè degli Specchi (caffespecchi.it) is barely much younger, having opened its doors in 1839. Both are still fine spots for a pungent latte on a cold Adriatic morning.
But then, Trieste’s coffee culture survives in more than its heritage cafes. It is still there too in the businesses which call it home. Hausbrandt Trieste 1892 (hausbrandt.it) wears its story – founded in the city’s Hapsburg era at the tail end of the 19th century – quite openly in its name. Illy, now Trieste’s biggest coffee producer, was set up in the city by the Hungarian businessman Francesco Illy in 1933. The port was in Italian hands by that point, a prize of conquest in the First World War – but that did not stop the company from thriving. Here in the caffeine-obsessed second decade of the 21st century, some two million coffee sacks arrive in Trieste every year – and Illy receives 350,000 of them, processing them at its colossal plant on the southern side of the city. It offers tastings and tuition too, via its Universita del Caffe facility (unicaffe.illy.com).
Trieste’s hard work was instrumental in Vienna becoming the coffee haven it is today. Popular legend has it that coffee had been introduced to Austria in 1683 following the Battle of Vienna – the turning point in history when Ottoman expansion into Europe was repelled – when sacks of beans were found in the enemy’s abandoned camps.
The story may be apocryphal – though the city’s first coffee house, The Blue Bottle, is thought to have been established shortly afterwardsw, in 1686. Yet it was Trieste which matched supply to demand. Enter one of Vienna’s many gilded salons today – such as Café Prückel (prueckel.at), with its polished mirrors, staff in formal attire and near-tangible sense of history – and you are sitting down at the heart of Austrian coffee culture. But when you tip the waiter, you should probably also tip your hat to Trieste – and to the Hapsburg ambition which helped to spread our favourite wake-up drink across Europe.
On the trail of the Hapsburgs
Inntravel (01653 617 007; inntravel.co.uk) offers “On the Trail of the Hapsburgs” – an eight-night self-guided rail tour which dissects the old Hapsburg realm and its coffee legacy via Vienna, (Austria’s second city) Graz, the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, and Trieste. From £995 a head, including all train transport (but not international flights).