Hark! It is 2014 and over this year we want to discuss tea, coffee, sugar, jam, weather, rude people, nice people, secrets and gripes with drinkers of the world.
Below: 2012 in cafes…
Wild and Wood, Holborn
On the day Saint Paul’s became under siege by marauding disgruntled taxpayers (99% of the country, so I hear), Dave and I stopped here, at Wild and Wood, for a coffee, before heading into the battlefield and making unruly remarks about bankers, politics and the ambiguous City of London Corporation. We all know a little more about this secretive institution now, right? No, not really. “A coffee before the protest?” I advanced. — “Yes,” replied Dave, “I know a place up here.” — “Ah, but there’s a place up here that I’d like to check out, looks pretty good.” — “Trust me, the one I’m thinking of is really nice.” — “Where is it?” — “Somewhere round here, not quite sure…”
Neither of us could find the cafés we were thinking of, which were both, incidentally, Wild and Wood. Until, voilà, here it was. The micro-network of roads round there still throws me. Our coffee was swell and gave us a much needed fuel injection for the chilly day of polemics which awaited us.
Today I am back here with Chris. We nestle in in what could be described as an alcove. The seats are carved into the walls, and the tables protrude from them. Pictures of old movie stars dot the wall, and a candle sits between us, giving Chris’ beard an enigmatic shine. The unusual layout is a novelty in itself, and invites you to clumsily share the space with other coffee comrades. As the name of the place would suggest, its prettty woody and pretty goddam wild.
It’s another one of those places which opts out of the conventional ‘bar’ system, instead simply plopping a cash register on the side and relying on shelves and worktops which spill into the room. The woman with the coffee (European but I didn’t catch enough to guess where) is to-the-point but friendly. The small ‘polite’ reminders that those who sit here must purchase something, not water, sums up her character, at least in my head. Three suited men squeeze around a tiny table, sipping coffee delicately and talking about ‘fiscal years’ and ‘strategic incentive strategies (SIS)’. We enjoy our coffee, it’s good and is complimented nicely by a fine sugar. Buzzing slightly, we wonder whether we will ever set foot in an office; we expect not.
‘You could always do a Brighton café review if the situation arises,’ reads Adam’s text. I immediately romanticize the idea of myself as a café detective, accepting an assignment abroad. On walking through the streets of Brighton, I find myself inundated with good looking cafes. I want to sample them all and acquire the biggest coffee and tea crash I have ever known.
The drizzle is rapidly turning into a steady pummelling, as Chelsea and I concur that the place that has toasties for two pounds is the place to be at this particular time. Ella’s Yummy Delights is a lot cosier than it seems from the outside. All the tables are filled, and we join a queue of various people on their lunch break. The woman behind the counter rushes back and forth, dropping in tea bags and wrapping up toasties. She resembles a mum, preparing her children’s lunch boxes on a busy Thursday morning. This is further reinforced by an order from a middle-aged man sitting at a table, ‘and can I have pickle with my ham toastie, I like pickle with it…’
I order a bacon and brie one, all the while distracted by the gargantuan cakes on the counter which I vow to sample later. The woman takes our orders while fulfilling other requests, all the while apologizing for the delay, but no one minds waiting. Rather, they use the time to catch up on each other’s lives in this local hotspot.
I’m rather pleased that our table has cupcake shaped salt and pepper shakers, and the twee objects just keep coming. A cupcake themed teapot with a little bird on the lid, a cow shaped milk jug. I’m slightly perturbed, yet fascinated by the way the milk flows from its mouth as Chelsea pours it into her tea. The toasties are good, homely and reasonably priced. Young business people at the next table jokingly contemplate not returning to work, but do so anyway, leaving the café empty after the lunch time rush. I’m beginning to come down from a tea induced caffeine high, which is the combined fault of myself and the rather large twee pot. I think this is the perfect time for cake, as the cow jug stares at me, a drop of milk quivering at its mouth.
Chris’ Final Thought
2.50 is a rather good price for such a monolith, dwarfing the plate that it’s served on. My similarly dwarfed fork slices its way down through the various layers of cream, light sponge and coffee soaked sponge. The cakes are all made on the premises, and that comes across through its light freshness. It seems to hold the balance between a subtle sweetness, and the bitterness of an Americano that I often rely on for daily lucidity. I’m just over halfway through when I decide that I must postpone my enjoyment of this cake for I am well and truly replete. Chelsea has already given up on her chocolate and plum cake (the plums have been soaked in vodka no less). We get them to go, the woman behind the counter, who may or may not be Ella says, ‘I was going to ask if you didn’t enjoy them, but then again I wouldn’t believe you as you’ve finished three quarters of it.’ Yes, with cakes such as these, one must be a stoic eater, for such delights on the palette are worth the nausea induced by stuffing one’s face.
The Broca, Brockley
A huge blown up photo of the Broca staff hangs on the wall. What larks they have. My CV goes in… Could I be on that wall next season? No, apparently. Well, there’s a few too many kids anyway. Brockley, the burgeoning gentry gem of London’s south east, takes no prisoners. Indeed, ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’, to use Boris Johnson’s dramatic prediction for the coalition’s cuts to benefits, was what ejected me from the leafy suburb. I cleansed my way all the way to Deptford, where rents are cheaper and benefits are lowered to match, leaving everyone just as poor.
But still, the Broca, it’s a tasty place; cheap coffee and decent folk. I like it here, good for a trip down Memory Lane, or more accurately, Wickham Road/Cranfield Road. I’m keen on the array of dissimilar furniture, all second hand, mostly quite hard, cushionless. There is a sofa or two, too, if you’re so inclined. Pleasant tunes drift through on clouds of caffeine, jangly guitars made for places like this.
People come and go. The Brockley pram society arrive with their new wares, tested with new tiny humans. A room out the back caters for the kids, who spill over into the main bit where I am. Fortunately, I have the patience of a saint. A huge noticeboard serves the community. I saw a very reasonably priced room going for rent, which I forgot to pursue. Such is the nature of the noticeboard. There’s a nicely ethical undertone here, ensuring everyone’s place in heaven. Organic things coupled with not extortionate prices. If you take a leap over the train station you come across the Broca’s sister, the Broca Food Market. Not long ago it was decided that the house two doors down, identifiable by the bright yellow door, would be a more than suitable residency – good transport connections, local newsagents, two bars (one posh and expensive, one cheap and horrible, depending on priorities), and a couple of fine cafés within crawling distance.
Thorncombe Village Shop, Thorncombe, Dorset
The village shop. The only shop in Thorncombe so far as we can tell. It also functions as a cafe. Two tables sit upon the veranda, looking out down the lane towards cottages in one direction, a church in the other. Beyond this, the fields spread off into the distance. A picket fence separates us from the road. I am here with Chris and Crosby. We walked from the house a mile and a quarter away, battling with the flies and scaring a few large ducks.
Chris and Crosby stay outside while I go in to order. It’s £1.99 each for a coffee with either a scone or a tea cake. Now that’s value. The folk here volunteer to run the shop, and considering the number of poeple knocking around it would appear that the volunteers are plentiful. And they’re a goodnatured bunch, treating us like welcome guests. We feel Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper, away from the familiarity of the city, on a mission in the country. And much like Cooper says, “I like my coffee as black as midnight, on a moonless night.”
Chris’ Americano fits this description perfectly. My latté comes in three tiers: the frothed milk, the coffee body, the milky head. She’s a beauty. Crosby opts out of the coffee, preferring instead to share some of the scone. At quarter to one an ominous bell chimes from the church.
We sit maybe for an hour, half expecting Postman Pat to whip by in his van. A man called Lawrence attemps to leave the shop a few times only to be called back by screaming women, the reason for which will remain unknown. Then we head in to buy a bottle of wine for tonight’s dinner party. A fellow customer recommends a fruity Chardonnay, and we acquiesce. We also pick out some bread, a pot of jam, and admire the bulbous fennel that proudly looks out from the vegetable rack.
“That is truly excellent coffee.”
Chris’ Final Thought
We certainly weren’t lacking sustenance after gorging on Lincolnshire sausages and mash, but we just had to indulge in a cream tea. As the old saying goes, ‘when in Dorset… etc.’ This was also to be our last visit to the Thorncombe Village Shop, and a cream tea would have been the perfect farewell. Perhaps controversially, we had ordered coffee to accompany our cream tea, thus eliminating the ‘tea’ aspect of it, but we were in need of the lucidity that coffee offered. Two scones arrive on a plate, towering structures with a charming lean to them, soon to be joined by the cavalry of strawberry jam and clotted cream, sitting proudly in their ramekins. We savour the ritual of lathering half a scone with clotted cream, and although we are met with a slight resistance, we persevere and ease into it. I relish the adornment of the jam upon the structure, and although the scone has been halved in size, its height is restored via lashings of the cream and preserve. The satisfaction of course, comes from biting through this snow-capped mountain and the dialogue of its various layers upon my palate – sweet, cool and crumbly in texture. I must sit back and take a second to relish in it. We carry on in this vain, taking occasional bites so as to savour this expedition. Towards the end we begin to struggle a bit, coming up against the richness of the cream tea, but we persevere and conquer it. Victorious and satisfied, we set off back to the farm to be rewarded by a slow roasted leg of mutton.
I am at the other end of Brockley, after a failed attempt to get a hair cut. To be here having a coffee is in many ways preferable, although I realise that I am simply delaying the inevitable awkward conversation with someone who has a pair of scissors worryingly close to my neck.
Pat-a-Cakes is new, about 6 months old. It joins the creeping moss of cooky, quaint and particular places popping up in the South, squeezing out the greasy spoons. The resurgence of the cupcake, as Chris Sav notes elsewhere… is exemplified here. Cupcakes have shed the oppressive unwritten rules that determine their existence, and are finding new leases of life. So what are they like? Well, I didn’t have one to be honest. But they adorn the space beneath the counter like an impressive array of colourful, bloated spots, hidden behind a glass panel and selling for £1.80 each.
The place is wooden and delicate, more ‘tea room’ than ‘coffee house’. My coffee comes in a soup bowl of a cup, and I consider getting a cupcake to dip in like a piece of toast. But before long the effortless banality of Radio 2 lulls my struggling mind into a stupor, and I sit, almost catatonic, listening to Christopher Cross. I am riled from this state by a newcomer, putting the number of people in here up to three, including me and the Cupcake Lady who I assume owns the place.
The newcomer is a girl, mid-twenties, latté in a glass. She works on something, reading and writing, looking astute. I am on a sofa, doing my best to look similarly astute. I throw a contemplative glance outside and stroke my beard to this effect.
The room is slightly bare and I think the café is still finding its voice. It’s a little bit careful, a bit precious, not loungy enough. But hats off to those with the enthusiasm for cupcakes, for their adamant dismissal of the cupcake haters, of whom there are many, and for their willingness to say, like the president in Independence Day, ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our cupcake Independence Day!’
Blossoming Together, Deptford
The award for cutest name goes too Blossoming Together. They’ve only been open a handful of months, so I am told, and they’re still getting going. But this lack of refinement makes the whole thing better, possesing a reality that most places don’t have. They hail from Italy, and slot comfortably into this quiet pedestrianised road opposite Deptford High Street.
When I walked past and took a look in it felt like I was peering into someone’s front room. A woman appeared, somewhat expectantly, somewhat suspiciously, with a cautious smile on her face. I went in and asked for a coffee. She seemed slightly thrown, as if I had asked for something unusual, like a rabbit or something. But, quickly she seemed to accept that this was indeed a café and coffees were a fairly ordinary request. First, she fumbles around finding me a suitable place to sit. It’s not busy, so this shouldn’t be too challenging. But, also, there’s only a few tables. There’s one woman reading at one table, and a young girl with toys at another. I join the woman, she with Kindle, me with paperback. The three of us briefly discuss the merits of each device and the prospects for the rainforest.
There’s also a space downstairs. From the amount of noise I deduce that downstairs is bigger than up here. Hold on – that’s the indisputable sound of a sewing and colouring and braiding workshop, and it sounds like it’s going well. This community-oriented project seems to be a principle theme for the café, and I think that’s good. Although, I might add, I’m fairly indifferent to sewing.
There’s no ‘counter’ as such in here. A sort of small table/cupboard loosely demarcates the bit of the room where coffees are made and cakes are sliced. The sides and walls are lined with ingredients. It’s like when you go to someone’s house and you see how much better their kitchen is than yours. But this is a comfortable kitchen to be in, easy on the eyes and bursting with culinary potential.
Our Italian hostess, after marveling at the brilliance of Deptford market for things such as prawns, soon runs out the door leaving her one available employee, only just recruited, to keep things in order. This was fine until the Kindle Woman wanted to pay for her drink. The till loomed like an unfathomable corrupted robot, teasing her with booby-trapped buttons that do who-knows-what. I came to the rescue with my paltry knowledge of rudimentary cash registers and between the three of us we managed to get £2 into it. Soon after, the hostess returns showing off a bag of prawns. I pay for my drink, promise to return to tell her about my studies, and head home.
Browns of Brockley, Brockley
Some say that Browns do the best coffee in London. Dave and I set off at the crack of noon to check this out. It’s busier in here than usual. We sit by the window, parallel to the elongated table central to the room where the majority sit. To serve us, the girl has to leave the café, walk down the road about six paces, and come back in the next door. This route avoids the small crowd of customers filling up the space. I feel a pang of guilt as I ask her for milk, sending her back out for another journey. Thankfully, she’s very nice, and it’s not raining.
I have an Americano; Dave an espresso. Not cheap, £2 for mine. But indeed, it’s a good’un. I already sense that I’ll be buzzing all day. Best in London? Thus far, on this trip, I concur. We’re across from Brockley Station, and Browns has a monitor with the Live Departures. Nice touch, Browns, I’m liking that. Although I have no train to get today, one day, perhaps I’ll find that damn useful. Once, I recall, I had a sandwich here which was quite fancy and quite nice.
Brains buzzing with coffee bean-induced enthusiasm, Dave and I get down to sorting out the world and all it’s problems. Starting with the Torys . . .
An aimless stroll towards Trafalgar Square took us through Soho, the place where things go wrong (in recent experience), and straight past Yumchaa. “Quaint,” said Chris. “Quite,” I replied. “Shall we?” “After you.” And in we went for tea. Never have we sounded such like an aging couple on holiday.
It’s busy in here, and we queue. The queue is a device which is applied to people who want things, when the fire of desire is making them unpredictable and dangerous. It is a micro social contract, here to stop our instinctual greed and fear from dominating our engagements with other people. Especially when they want tea. (This is why tea and queues are such British things, one requires the other.) Thom Hobbes said, ‘the object of man’s desire is not to enjoy once only and for one instant of time, but to assure for ever the way of his future desire. And therefore the voluntary actions and inclinations of all men tend not only to the procuring, but also to the assuring, of a contented life…’ So when one desires tea, do not bludgeon those before you, but wait in line, and everyone’s happy.
The queue is also necessary in order to take in the vast menu, and make well-informed decisions. The range of teas on offer here would even make General Yen pause for thought. Chris goes for a Chilli Chilli Bang Bang. Yes, inventive names come with the teas. Tea is really what’s going on here. Loose tea enthusiasts, Yumchaa sell their own teas and have a few Teapigs knocking around for plurality. No PG Tips, though. They also have a good-looking selection of sandwiches and cakes which, of course, I can’t afford. The prices are pretty standard for a central London café which makes an effort and has young culturally-inclined professionals as its market. So, fairly reasonable all things considered.
So, what did I get? One of there adventurous tea blends perhaps? Or stick with the coffee? No, something in me compelled me to get a Bottlegreen – ginger with a hint of lemon. However, tea samples were thrust before me in quick succession and I got pretty high knocking back shots of various blends of which I have since forgotten. For a true cup, I will have to return.
It’s airy here, in this pale wooden room. We’re in the basement. Upstairs was full. If I could move into this basement, I would. It’s homey. There are enough different tables and chairs to match the extensive range of teas. For every visit you could sit on a different chair with a different tea – Armchair and Mango Sunrise one week; wooden stool and Lemon Sherbert the next…
The staff care about the tea, and they care about whether you care about the tea. And I care about whether they care about me and the tea, so top marks for the staff. They brew a coffee with the same enthusiasm so coffee drinkers don’t be wary.
And what’s this? French music. C’est un bel après-midi, chantons!
GFD Beyond London: Park Life Café, Hebden Bridge – From Our Café Correspondent
Fifties waterproof mascara
flickers through espresso steam.
Behind a throbbing counter
Orders line up, clipped on paper.
Drilled into shape by a sergeant major
young by modern standards
and the woman with the smile
that just knows.
A tropical glass, berry blood dark,
Its froth meniscus dribbles down
chilled hexagonal sides
leaving a guilty crescent
on the stainless steel table.
Three tongues of bacon lollop
between oval granary lips.
And for every lettuce crunch
a mayonnaise splash hits the jeans.
I leave the cathedral of hunger
as yet another monkeys wedding party
washes through the park.
by © Winston Plowes 2012
Monkey’s wedding, n. informal(South African) a combination of sunshine and light rain. Also know in some parts as a sun shower.
Winston H.Plowes writes his words with two cats on a narrowboat on England’s inland waterways. His compositions have been widely published, hopefully making people pause and ponder the magical details of life.
Daylesford Farm Shop, Pimlico
London is gripped by a heatwave. The Crofton Park to Blackfriars line is experiencing signalling failures. The media panic and the economy gets another weather-related justification for its timid recovery. Iced coffee is making the headlines. Beyond that, it’s a day for aimless wandering.
Chris and I arrived in Central too late for the dérive we had planned. (Somewhat ironic – Situationist tactics thwarted by an over-reliance on public transport.) We end up in Victoria, then a little north of Victoria, in this café/farmshop. It’s in the somewhat Parisian square here in Pimlico, where T-shirted Londoners happily bump into their neighbours in the street. It’s like WestEnders, the antithesis to the East: the sun shines, everyone’s smiling, peering into local independent furniture shops with their loved ones, or sipping ginger beer in a farmshop.
They sell organic food and drink. We have ginger beers – extra potent. The sandwiches look great. £1.75 a ginger beer, £3.50 a sandwich – not unusually expensive, too much for me though. The shop is bright and spacious, with organic aromas grappling with baked bread for nose-attention. This is a place for attractive people, and Chris and I wonder how soon til we’re chucked out. We keep our heads down and discuss trivial things. No music accompanies us, out front of the café, but a rich soundtrack of cutlery and nearby traffic. Daylesford negotiates the country into the city with some skill, all credit to them for that.
Caffé Vergnano, Charing Cross
Today I went to London’s Tin Pan Alley to buy a plectrum. I met my trusty plectrum hunting comrade, Summer, had a salami sandwhich and went to peruse some guitar shops. The first had a welcoming young man – ‘Hello!’ he said, ‘feel free to play anything you like.’ A ukulele was as adventurous as we got. The next shop had a walking talking stereotype running it: long hair but balding, jean jacket and man-jewellery. He pulls a guitar off the wall, extends a leg onto a chair, and retunes the strings at a rapid pace, talking to us all the while: ‘Today mate, second hand electrics, hundred-ten pounds; ‘cept these, eighty-nine, and the Squires, ninety-nine. Now if you’re willing to push out for a more top-notch high-grade instrument, I could direct you to the…’
On we went to Caffè Vergnano. Strictly speaking it’s a small coffee chain, and so it is written about with some hesitance. You can’t locate the specificity of a certain style or aura when the same place is reproduced in a whole variety of locations, but Vergnano isn’t yet global, and does have something that makes it distinctive. I would say, however, that the chainness of this café is exemplified by the vacancy in the eyes of the women who work here. They’re happiest when talking to each other, which they continue to do while they robotically take my order.
I get a mocha. It’s brutally thick, such is their trademark. They have a very nice silver coffee machine on the bar. It looks like a Dalek, after a good scrub, reprogrammed to work in Wonka’s chocolate factory. Summer has a hot chocolate which is too sweet for her. They think they can handle it, but rarely can in my experience. I remember how the chocolate beat Alex from Singapore a few months back. But for every person beaten there is a convert. A few months ago, I converted a sceptical James to the ways of the mocha. ‘You people with your art seminars, pseudo-revolutionary ideals and cappachapchini coffees,’ he would say with disgust. Not after he met the Caffè Vergnano mocha. There was no going back for James, who is now in a sanatorium in Poland hoping to combat his mocha addiction. We all wish him the best.
Summer and I sit in the corner, sharing a ham and cheese croissant flattened by a toaster into a 2D version of its previous, plump self. We practice Chinese and talk about our misgivings and anxieties about dating humans. Outside, the unceasing passage of endless people continues. They’re undeterred by the greyness of the clouds of the futility of their condition: Londoners powering through the absurd, with stiff upper lips at the ready.
Vergnano is nice but lacking any meaningful character. It’s clean-cut, black n wood, very dignified. I like the cups. They sprinkle an 1886 on your coffee in chocolate. Do I like that? ‘What you’re doing there is you’re drinking an advert, ain’t ya, shithead,’ as Super Hans eloquently put it.
The Little Barn Café, Kilmington, East Devon
Chris and I have survived the gruelling train ride and made it out to the far flung reaches of Dorset. Today, after arriving, we have pushed even further west, into Devon, to visit a farm shop called Millers. With Alexa in tow, driving us around, keeping us company, we stop for a bacon sandwich and cup of tea. The Little Barn Cafe is basically a wooden hut out the front of the farm shop. It houses a lone woman, who greets us happily, and offers a range of sauces that compliment bacon. Chris goes brown, Alexa red; I opt for an egg. Sir Francis, the man who shares his name with the contents of our sandwich, once said, ‘hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.’ I wonder where that leaves our mid afternoon snack.
We sit on extremely sturdy chairs. I mean really sturdy, chiselled out of finest strong wood from the most nourished of forests. No doubt their weight is needed when the winds pick up in the car park, sending the wind-chimes into chorus. We are thanked for bringing the nice weather, and as we sit here in the September sunshine, we discuss the plans for the coming month. These include a food fair and some visiting students from Plymouth University. Mostly, though, the priority is the Jammatology philosophy cookbook, Philosofood, for that is why we are here: to write, to cook, to make jam.
An overturned spoon donning a number impales the underside of plant pot. It marks our spot on the grid of tables out here. In three big pots the tea comes. A woman compliments the Little Barn lady on her brownies, saying, in agreement with the message scrawled in chalk on the hut, ‘That really was the best brownie in the west.’
Flowers, arranged in lines on a long table, flop about in the wind. A flip flop on a stick stands sturdy against a fence. From the end of the car park, stretching up a hill, extend fields which culminate in a blurred mass of an evergreen forest, the spiked trees puncturing the clouds. The constant passing of traffic brings a soft monotonous soundtrack of tyres and exhausts. The bacon, giving way with a slight crunch, lets out a smoky reassurance which is only encouraged by the warmth of the tea. The West Country will take of ye, it says, for all ye days that ye spend here.