I love good coffee and the culture which has grown up around coffee shops but it has become abundantly clear that, whilst I am not alone in my love, every passion for the bean is matched by apathy or antagonism in others.
By tradition I am a tea drinker and I still love a good cup of tea but I first caught the coffee bug a few years ago during a long distance walk in Spain. Each day I started walking and my first break of the day was determined by the distance to the nearest café. Some days this was just a few hundred yards, on others a mile or two, and on one particular day it was seven miles before I got my caffeine hit. No matter the distance, what awaited was always a beautiful café con leche with a little gift on the side; maybe a biscuit or a pastry or a little square of cake, in the afternoon it might be a tapa of tortilla or a complementary bowl of olives. But the coffee was always perfect.
The coffee, however, was not the only important part of this ritual; the coffee break was an opportunity to sit and watch the world go by, chat to other walkers and practice my Spanish on unsuspecting (and often highly amused) locals.
This is what I also love about coffee culture in England; whether it is in an international chain or an independent local shop I love the opportunity to take time out, watch the intimate dramas of other people’s lives unfold and refuel ready for the next of a busy day’s events.
My husband, Martin, doesn’t drink tea or coffee, he also “doesn’t get” coffee culture. He bemoans the overpricing of a latte or a cappuccino and prefers to do his people watching over a pint. On a trip to Brighton last year I realised how different we really were on this issue. I wanted to stop for a coffee and chose a café on a busy street so we could sit outside and watch the world go by. I got a great coffee, excellent service (which always puts me in a good mood) and was ridiculously pleased that my latte came with a complementary shot glass full of Smarties – a bit of fun and so much more enjoyable than a cellophane wrapped biscuit. Martin had a glass of orange juice. For me this was a really enjoyable part of the day. For Martin it was a hiatus; a gap between what we were doing and what we would do next, an unnecessary bit of punctuation. I drank my coffee and we moved on.
In telling this story it became clear that our friends are also divided around this point. A number of them see coffee merely as refreshment; drink a cup and move on, a cup of instant at home fills that gap as well as a coffee on the go. A “good” coffee is one which is brought to them in bed or which accompanies the first cigarette of the day. They aren’t averse to a cappuccino but wouldn’t go out of their way to get one.
Others, like Aren, love coffee culture as much as me. Aren has an office but is often to be found working in the local Starbucks, he makes good use of the free Wi-Fi to connect with his clients and meets them face to face over a hot drink – and here’s the rub – that drink isn’t always coffee – coffee culture can just as easily be about a cup of Earl Grey or camomile tea – it’s about the place, the space and the feel of a coffee shop.
Nigel, on the other hand, feels strongly that most people don’t actually like coffee and that is why they disguise the taste by buying drinks drenched in syrup and cream – he feels that good coffee needs no help and the only options should be black or white (at a push he concedes that frothy may be acceptable). Perhaps if he realised that Starbucks actually offer 87,000 possible drink combinations in their stores he would feel more strongly still!
Actually, I take his point, sometimes less is more and I am personally not a fan of the extras but each to his own. No.2 daughter has a problem with cow’s milk and so prefers soya, whilst she was pregnant she gave up caffeine and I have to admit to being slightly embarrassed asking for a soya, caramel, de-caff latte but it hit the spot for her every time and surely that is what matters.
Nigel also gets cross about the sizing conventions in coffee shops and wonders what’s wrong with espresso, cup and mug – terms we can all understand – and he’s in good company, The Plain English Campaign also want to lose terms such as grande, medio and venti but coffee isn’t a particularly English convention so do we really need to Anglicize it?
My personal preference is for a coffee shop that makes good coffee in small cups (a small cup means I can have more than one in a day) which comes with excellent service. Somewhere I can sit in comfort to meet friends or clients and leave feeling like I’ve been refreshed – emotionally as well as physically. In other words I don’t just want a drink – I want the whole coffee experience.
If you are also a coffee lover you might like to try one of my favourite simple desserts – Affogato. Put a scoop of good quality vanilla ice cream in a bowl and pour over a shot of hot espresso (or double strength filter/instant coffee) and eat immediately – the mix of hot and cold, bitter and sweet is wonderful.
Failing that you might want to re-visit the cappuccino cake recipe I put on here a few months back.
The coffee in the photo came from Wendy’s Coffee Barn at Morgans in St. Agnes. If you find yourself in the area pop in and say hello to Sally and Natalie who take pride in their work and who made me feel welcome despite the fact that I was wielding a camera!
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