Weasel Coffee

July 11, 2009 at 5:51 pm (Animals, Asia, Botany, Food) (, , , , , , )

Known as Kopi Luwak throughout much of Southeast Asia and popularly translated to English as weasel or civet coffee, this gourmet beverage is brewed from beans that have been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet.

The Asiam palm civet is not a member of the weasel family, but is commonly referred to by the Vietnamese word meaning weasel.

The Asiam palm civet is not a member of the weasel family, but is commonly referred to by the Vietnamese word meaning weasel.

Palm civets have a taste for the ripe fruit of the coffee plant, known as coffee cherries. While the flesh of the fruit is broken down by the civets’ digestive tracts, the beans contained within the berries pass through the animals intact.

Clumps of coffee beans that have passed through civets.

Clumps of coffee beans that have passed through civets.

The civets’ contribution to the palatability of the resulting beans is twofold. Since these animals are drawn to the ripest and most healthy coffee berries, their excrement is filled with the choicest beans. Secondly, the unique combination of digestive enzymes that the coffee beans are exposed to inside the civets reduces their natural bitterness. Washed thoroughly and then brewed as a light roast, these beans are said to produce some of the most delicious coffee in the world. The flavor is widely described as “sweet and smooth”.

Due to the scarcity and desirability of the beans, Kopi Luwak is often sold for several hundreds of dollars a pound, making it the world’s most expensive coffee.

Due to the scarcity and desirability of the beans, Kopi Luwak is often sold for several hundreds of dollars a pound, making it the world’s most expensive coffee.

Connoisseurs point out that, in addition to possessing a notably reduced bitterness, Kopi Luwak displays a complex bouquet of flavors not found in any other type of coffee. This is caused by the civets’ digestive enzymes penetrating the coffee beans and interacting with certain proteins contained within. The resulting palatability is a serendipitous side effect.

The use of animals to identify, gather, or alter morsels of food that are subsequently considered gourmet is seen in several other modern practices. Pigs used to locate truffles, hounds that aid bird hunters, and bees that convert flower nectar into honey all play an important role in human culinary tradition. But none aside from Asian palm civets can brag that gastronomes pay hundreds of dollars for sacks of their scrumptious shit.

Some Further Reading:

An article about the coffee from a Vietnam travel guide

An online shop selling weasel coffee beans, for those curious enough to try it for themselves

A look at the Asian pal civet

An article about an Australian café that serves Kopi Luwak for $50 a cup

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The Lost Panacea of Silphium

July 8, 2009 at 6:21 pm (Ancient Greece, Botany, Drugs, Egypt, Extinction, Food, Health and Medicine, Modern World, Sexuality, Symbology, The Ancient World, Women) (, , , , )

silphium-plant-Cyrenaica-LibyaNative to the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene (located in modern day Libya), Silphium (also known as laser) is an extinct plant that, in its heyday, was one of the most treasured medicinal resources of the ancient world. Employed by cultures all around the Mediterranean, Silphium was used as a spice, a cure-all medicinal remedy, a form of birth control, and an agent for pregnancy abortion. Famed scholars ranging from Pliny the Elder to Herodotus to Theophrastus all wrote of Silphium’s legendary potency. Despite its widespread popularity, Silphium allegedly refused to grow anywhere aside from Cyrene. The colony became so closely identified with the plant that it appears on the settlement’s coins.

Silphium was Cyrene’s chief export. The plant was notoriously resistant to cultivation, and is believed to have been harvested to extinction within the first few centuries AD.

Silphium, here seen on Cyrene's coins, was the colony's chief export. The plant was notoriously resistant to cultivation, and is believed to have been harvested to extinction within the first few centuries AD.

Silphium was so strongly desired by various ancient civilizations that it was, at times, valued above currency. With some Romans contending that the plant was a gift from the god Apollo, its extinction was considered a great tragedy. Pliny even wrote that the last known Silphium plant was given to the Roman Emperor Nero himself.

An artifact from the 6th C believed to depict King Arcesilaus II of Cyrene overseeing the weighing of Silphium.

An artifact from the 6th century believed to depict King Arcesilaus II of Cyrene overseeing the weighing of Silphium.

The Egyptians shared the Romans’ veneration of the plant, associating its with human love and sexuality. The Egyptian glyph signifying the heart portion of the soul, in fact, may have been meant to picture the seed of the Silphium plant. This character, known to the Egyptians as Ib, is likely the origin of our modern heart symbol.

Here is an ancient Cyrene coin bearing the image of a Silphium seed. Its likeness both to the Egyptian Ib and, likewise, to the modern heart symbol is striking.

Here is an ancient Cyrene coin bearing the image of a Silphium seed. Its likeness both to the Egyptian Ib and to the modern heart symbol is striking.

While the world has been without Silphium and its powers for well over a millennium, our modern culture still bears its mark. Every time a love-dazed youth carves a heart into a tree or inserts a whimsical, heart-shaped emoticon into an online conversation, the plant that once commanded a king’s ransom is winking at us from the ghostly recesses of the Earth’s past. Like the Dodo bird that gave us an insult implying stupidity or the dinosaur that inhabits every child’s imagination, Silphium’s potency is strong enough to overcome the silencing power of extinction itself.

Some Further Reading:

Some information about Silphium’s possible use as birth control and an abortifacient

An article entitled “Abortion in the Ancient and Premodern World”

An article about ancient methods of measurement, including brief mention of Silphium from Cyrene

An essay addressing the five parts of the Egyptian soul, including Ib

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Deadly Nightshade

May 27, 2009 at 4:51 pm (Aesthetics, Botany, Drugs, Health and Medicine, Murder, Mythology, Poison, The Ancient World, The Occult) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

 

Deadly nightshade, alternatively known as belladonna, is an herbaceous plant found in North America, Europe, and Asia. A delicate-looking, beautiful plant with a legendary potency, its role in history has stemmed primarily from the effects of chemicals naturally occurring in the plant, which include the hallucinogenic toxin scopolamine. It is also from the berries of deadly nightshade that the drug atropine, included on the World Health Organizations Essential Drugs list, is derived.

Deadly nightshade was dubbed Atropa belladonna by Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, in his 1753 book Species Planatarum.

Deadly nightshade was dubbed “Atropa belladonna” by Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, in his 1753 book Species Planatarum.

The plant’s genus, Atropa, comes from the name of the Greek Fate Atropos, who was believed to wield scissors that could cut short the thread of human life. This is a reference to the severe toxicity of the plant’s berries, a handful of which, if eaten, can plunge an adult into a nightmare of confused convulsions and hallucinations, followed by a torturous death. Extract from the plant has, according to legend, been used as a poison since ancient times. Macbeth, King of Scots from 1040 – 1057, was rumored to use atropine as a sedative and poison to surreptitiously best his foes. There have also been reports of deadly nightshade being employed by torturers, who used it to disorient and weaken their unfortunate subject.

The three Moirai, or Fates, of Greek mythology. Atropos is pictured in the center holding her “abhorred shears”.

The three Moirai, or Fates, of Greek mythology. Atropos is pictured in the center holding her “abhorred shears”.

The toxic nature of the chemicals contained in deadly nightshade is such that, in small doses, parts of the plant have been historically used recreationally and spiritually to induce hallucinations, perhaps most notable by European witches and shamans in their notorious “flying ointments”. The chemicals scopolamine and atropine can, according to shamanistic lore, create the sensation of physical flight (along with a host of other hallucinations and delusions) when ingested orally or applied to the skin in ointment form. A tincture of deadly nightshade was also purportedly drunk by ancient Greeks who visited the legendary Oracle of Delphi, in order to induce prophetic visions.

An ancient depiction of the Oracle of Delphi giving a mystical consultation.

An ancient depiction of the Oracle of Delphi giving a mystical consultation.

The history of deadly nightshafe, one concerned both with death and with a heightened experience of life, speaks to the dichotomous nature of this powerful plant. Even its two most common names, deadly nightshade and belladonna, associate the plant first with death and darkness, and second with feminine beauty. Perhaps these contrasting interpretations are not separated by an unbridgeable gap, but are rather two poles of one notion. It could be that the seductive nature of this plant, which can cause spiritual visions, is amplified by its potentially fatal potency. This combination of erotic and thanatopic qualities is reminiscent, appropriately enough, of the Greek Fates themselves – three women who determine the course of mortal life through enchanting song, weave the course of events into an unchangeable fabric, and finally cut the life thread short.

Some Further Reading:

Botanical.com’s entry on Deadly Nightshade

An inquiry into flying ointments

Erowid.org’s page devoted to Belladonna

Drugs.com’s entry dedicated to atropine

A large collection of information regarding the Moirai (Greek Fates)

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