The most expensive coffee beans are said to be those excreted in the droppings of the palm civet. A weasel-like creature, the palm civet devours ripe coffee berries but discharges their inner beans intact. Endowed with a distinctive flavour by this digestive experience, the beans may then be scooped up by knowledgeable foragers, and when washed and lightly roasted, they retail in New York and Tokyo for up to $600 a kilo. A similar provenance was once ascribed to the choicest nutmegs, with the feral agent in this case being the outsize fruit-pigeon of the nutmeg’s original habitat in Indonesia. Other kernels, like the cashew, could also be candidates for ‘animal-added value’, and there is apparently a tea that falls in the same category. According to Sarah Rose, author of this breezy account of the botanist Robert Fortune, so-called ‘monkey tea’ nowadays costs ‘several thousand dollars an ounce’ – which makes civet coffee and pigeon nutmeg sound quite affordable.
On one of several visits to ‘the tea countries of China’ in the 1840s, Robert Fortune was the first foreigner to notice ‘monkey tea’ and offer an explanation of its name. At the time, all tea came from China. Fortune was there to end this monopoly by obtaining