Travel to Santa Helena Island with a cup of coffee – World Meanderings (n°103)
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
St. Helena Island is world famous for being Napoleon’s last residence and death place. But this tiny island lost in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean boasts producing one of the most exclusive Arabicas grown on earth. Thanks to a unique local coffee strain that today is listed as an endangered species, this coffee is a rarity that devoted producers try to bring back to life.
A history with highs and lows
The Green Tipped Bourbon Arabica is the coffee strain chosen in the 18th century to be planted on this small isolated island 4,700 miles away from England. This small subtropical heaven was and still is the perfect place to grow coffee plants with well-exposed hillside providing a wealth of natural advantages. At that time the island belonged to the East India Company. The coffee beans were imported from Mocha in Yemen and the coffee trees grew well. It was not until Napoleon himself sang the praises of this tasty beverage that it became fashionable to drink this rare coffee. It is said that Napoleon declared: “the only good thing in St Helena is its coffee”!
However, the coffee production remained small and very little of it was exported. It was an expensive produce and few shops sold it in Europe. In 1845 connoisseurs were able to buy it in London for 1d a pound making it the most expensive and exclusive coffee in the world. Although St Helena coffee has been awarded several times at international fairs during the 19th and 20th centuries its production went through ups and downs. Flax production was more profitable and it soon took over becoming St. Helena main source of export revenue.
As flax production declined and finally vanished away in the late 1950’s coffee was once again in the spotlight. In 1994 David Henry who was born on the island but lived in the UK came back to St. Helena to revive the coffee production. At first his work was successful and several other producers joined in. In total in the late 1990’s 20,000 coffee trees had been planted and a production of 12 tonnes of green bean was expected, including 3 tonnes for export. But all growers didn’t do well and when disputes with coffee pickers broke out in 2005 the production drastically declined. In 2006 David Henry left the island for good. At that time only 2 acres of productive cultivation remained. Today about 5 tonnes of coffee bean are produced each year.
A one-of-a-kind coffee
St. Helena coffee is absolutely outstanding. The Green Tipped Bourbon Arabica is not any Arabica. Subtle and delicate it requires a lot of care to be grown, harvested and roasted. The volcanic soil, the subtropical climate and the well-exposed low hillsides where the plantations are, provide unique growing conditions to the coffee trees. The beans are harvested during the austral summer from October till February. The beans are slowly dried in the sun for four weeks (it usually takes a few days to dry the beans in other coffee production areas). Then it is lightly roasted to preserve all its qualities. This rare coffee makes a cup of superb elegance with a floral bouquet and notes of citrus, honey, berry and stone fruits.
Today the Bamboo Hedge Estate is the main producer on the island and you can find their St. Helena Coffees at Harrod’s and at online shops specialised in rare and high-quality produce.
More about St. Helena at www.sthelenatourism.com/
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos courtesy of St Helena Tourism Board