A Guest Post by Piers Alexander

The serving-girl brought my coffee, and I lifted the dish to my nose as I had seen van Stijn do in the Moor’s Head. The smell was of dark earth, its spicy sting mixed with the soft womanly strength of soup on a cold day. It was as good as a lover’s first kiss. Its tendrils climbed under the skin of my face and smoothed out my frowns and aches.
I blew across the foamy brown surface and took a sip. My tongue burst into life. Stars sparkled in my eyes, and I could hear every throat-clearing and chair-scraping in the room.
“One shilling,” demanded the maid. A shilling for a teaspoonful of black dust?

– The Bitter Trade

While researching The Bitter Trade, my novel set in England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, I became fascinated with the role of coffeehouses in disrupting the pattern of society, thought and commerce. I like stories about underdogs and outsiders, and London in the late seventeenth century was one of rare places when people could rise up through society if their wits were sharp and their spirits bold. The coffeehouses were central to this: unlicensed, threatening to the establishment (Charles II even briefly closed them all down), hotbeds of discussion and networking.

The Bitter Trade’s protagonist, Calumny Spinks, is a half-Huguenot redhead who is forced to make a fortune quickly to save his father’s life, and is drawn into the murky world of London coffee racketeering. He soon realises that greater forces are at work: coffeehouses in those days were used as an early postal system, and were riddled with spies and gossip. It was a particularly tense time, with the Dutch ruler, William of Orange, threatening to invade at any time and depose the unpopular Catholic King James II.

I am a coffee addict, and I happily followed the trail of coffee back through the Ottoman Empire to its roots as a mild drug used by Yemeni mystics to access the divine. I think it’s no accident that (independent!) coffeehouses are frequented by troublemakers, writers, app developers and trendsetters: coffee is a creative irritant. Brewed properly, it disturbs conventional thinking, brings strangers together, turns its back on consumerism and allows artists and revolutionaries to spend hours huddled over a little table for a tiny fee.

Not to say that all coffee is equal. I was lucky enough to go on one of Dr Matt Green’s walks around London’s lost coffeehouses. He is vehement about the difference between a mass market coffee chain and the kind of free-flowing, organic connections you can make in an independent coffeehouse. It’s a theme I love: that it’s better, like my protagonist Cal, to be poor, under threat, struggling, than to be part of the controlling cynical corporatisation of life. As I wrote the scene when he first enters a coffeehouse in defiance of his hardbitten Dissenting father, it brought back the feeling of coming to London as an eighteen-year-old: high on the stink and jostle and sensuality of it all.

Matt will take you on a whistlestop tour of coffeehouse history: fuelled, like all good stories, by sex, lies and money. If the taste grabs you, I highly recommend reading The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse or – even better – joining him on a tour of the city’s coffeehouses and chocolate houses. As eye-opening as a triple espresso.

Coffeehouses were the Internet and social media of their day: unregulated, endlessly creative, swooping from high principles to low scandal and back again.

It feels like something similar is happening today: I was blown away by the London Coffee Festival: over twenty thousand bloggers, hipsters and freethinkers crammed into a small hall in Spitalfields. Wild.

There’s something about the drug itself that feeds the imagination and frees the mind from convention. If you follow the trail of coffee back through the Ottoman Empire to its roots, you’ll find a mild drug used by Yemeni mystics to access the divine. I think it’s no accident that independent coffeehouses are frequented by troublemakers, writers, app developers and trendsetters: coffee is a creative irritant. Brewed properly, it disturbs conventional thinking, brings strangers together, turns its back on consumerism and allows artists and revolutionaries to spend hours huddled over a little table for a tiny fee. If you Google “coffee and books” as a phrase you will find 23 million results.

THE Coffe-house Trade is the best in the Town;
Young sparks that have money they thither repair:
The Affairs of the Nation they have written down,
To blow up their Noddles as light as the Air.
Stories, Stories, Lies and Stories;
There’s nothing but Stories when they begin.
Pox on your News Letters, they lye both and flatters;
They are but a Trap to wheedle Men in.

From The City Cheat discovered: OR, A New Coffe-house Song.

Perswading all civil and sober Men not to frequent the Coffe-houses so much

Of course, too much coffee is rather… ungrounding. NASA’s famous 1995 experiment on spiders shows how this highly creative beast can be distracted by caffeine:

Spiders

 

Perhaps this is why gossip and salacious scandal have always followed literary ideals round the coffeehouses of the world. The first cup awakens, the second one focuses, the third trivialises. As the song says above: you can blow up your noddle if you aren’t careful.

Piers Alexander is the author of The Bitter Trade, a novel of coffee racketeering and treason during England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688

You can buy Piers’ superb debut novel here

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

You might think that Stoke Newington and its environs suffer a surfeit of cafés and perhaps, towards the Church Street end, you might have a point. There is, however, always room for somewhere new and interesting, especially if they are doing something a bit different, new, and tasty.

Yellow Warbler is doing just that.

Sited on Northwold Road, part of the Dantean one-way system that throws a confusing loop around part of the N16 area and heads off towards Clapton, Yellow Warbler is a café that also serves Venezuelan street food. The coffee is Climpson and Sons, always likely to earn an approving nod from my palate. I had a piccolo in an oversize glass (no criticism: the café actually only opened properly today and there are one or two things still absent from the roster), which was smooth and chocolate, a suitably tasty rendering of Climpson’s tried and tested Estate blend. I also tried a single origin Kenyan Kiangoi, again by Climpson, as a filter. I enjoyed this greatly and the rich summer fruits I picked up certainly complimented the weather.

For food, I had an arepas, which is a corn-flour patty cooked in some sort of mysterious machine and native to Venezuela, from where I gather one of the owners hails. They are crisp on the outside and fluffy and moist on the inside, and very filling. I had mine replete which crispy chorizo and indulgently gungey Manchego cheese, served with a punchy Venezuelan form of guacamole called guasacaca and a crunchy salsa called pico de gallo. All in all, tasty and interesting. This was served for a very reasonable £3.50, with the piccolo at £2.20 and the filter at £2.40. These prices pleased me too, not suffering from the north London chic tax that some cafés seem intent on making us pay.

The filter

The filter

The café itself is fairly typical in its design, airy and light and not exactly shy of its drop lighting, but I did enjoy the Henretian wooden throne I parked myself in to enjoy my food and drink. The atmosphere was gentle but lively: stuff gets done but it doesn’t disturb, which if you’re reading or writing is ideal. I was reading, a fine book about baseball as it happens, and passed a very pleasant hour in a state of genuine relaxation. And this returns me to a parenthetical point I made earlier: this is/was the first day that Yellow Warbler was open. And that is seriously impressive. The service was sharp and friendly, chattily congenial but also efficient. The coffee is already very good and the sort of teething problems cafés often, understandably encounter just didn’t seem to be present. These guys are on point and power to them for it. So, while those of you who visit N16 might already have your favourites, I would commend Yellow Warbler to you for a visit. And eat the food. The food is yummy.

Yellow Warbler, 9 Northwold Road, N16

Website with details

Also on Twitter

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

If the London Coffee Festival highlighted anything, it’s that coffee, and by that I mean good quality, artisan coffee, is now mainstream. According to an LCF press release, over 22000 people attended the four days of the festival and queues around the block and a ticket sell-out were testament to both the enduring and growing appeal of coffee.

Mission Coffeeworks were only one of a number of great roasters at the LCF.

Mission Coffee Works were only one of a number of great roasters at the LCF.

With the focus on days three and four of the festival on consumers rather than trade business, I made my way to the stand run by Make Decent Coffee and spoke to their head, Phil Smith. Make Decent Coffee is the militant wing of UCC, a large coffee corporation that sells mostly at trade level to companies and the hospitality industry. MDC is their consumer-level group that seeks to engage with the home coffee consumer, both for retail but also, crucially, to help them improve their coffee-making skills.

Phil told me that the crux of Make Decent Coffee’s mission is “taking the mystique out of coffee”, specifically “changing people’s habits around instant coffee”. The stress is on education, but in “a nice way”. Engagement with customers takes place at their level, not assuming any kind of pre-existing coffee knowledge or background, stripping out confusing terminology, so that a farm is a farm and not a finca. This allows customers to learn about coffee without the barriers to entry that required knowledge might present.

MDC roast their coffee with Andronicus in Corby, Northamptonshire, and sell direct to customers online. They don’t yet offer a subscription service as it is felt that the opportunity to choose and experiment is more useful and interesting to coffee neophytes.

An event like the London Coffee Festival is, according to Phil, crucial, not only as an opportunity to sell the brand and its philosophy, but also “to get a feel for the customers and feedback about what they want”. MDC are looking to get involved in events outside of London too, bringing their mission of making great coffee available to all through education and help more widely available.

The V60, my preferred method of home-brewing.

The V60, my preferred method of home-brewing.

In a field where knowledge is crucial and where discrete and complex terminology can leave consumers feeling alienated, MDC are at the vanguard of breaking down barriers to having great coffee at home. For me, it is a great approach, one mirrored by the best coffee shops such as Sharps x DunneFrankowski, who place a similar premium on the educational and engagement aspect of serving customers. Buying great coffee is no longer the issue, and with people like MDC and Dunne and Frankowski inspiring coffee consumers as they help them learn, making great coffee is getting easier too. You could buy a good coffee machine, of course, but there are some alternatives for those who prefer to home brew.

I was lucky enough to get behind the MDC bar at the London Coffee Festival too and chat to Matt and Craig, who showed me how to make French Press and V60 coffee easily and better than I was previously managing. Here are their tips:

French Press:

For three cups, use 45g of fresh, roughly ground coffee and 750g of water. For two cups, use 30g and 500g of water. Always weigh out your coffee pre-grind, and then put the press on a zeroed set of scales to get everything just so. Assuming you are going for two cups, warm the press first with just boiled water, and then tip it out. Add the 30g of coffee and then add 100g of water, pouring against the side of the press rather than directly onto the coffee. This agitates the coffee without scalding it, allowing it to infuse and setting off some of the gases trapped in the coffee. Give the coffee a bit of a stir, and then slowly pour in the remaining 400g of water, again onto the side of the press rather than directly onto the coffee and water mix. When all the water is in, use a spoon to scoop out the ground coffee that has risen to the top. This prevents the coffee from becoming too oily or bitter. Once you’ve done that, push the press bit down slowly. And boom, you have better coffee! The key tricks are weighing, not pouring the water directly onto the grinds, and scooping out what rises.

The MDC crew chatting to coffee lovers.

The MDC crew chatting to coffee lovers.

V60:

For the V60, weighing is again of crucial importance. Use 32g of medium to fine ground coffee for 500ml of water, which would be enough for two cups. Wet the filter first, which removes the bleach taste which can cling to some paper filters and heats the cup or server the coffee is going to sit in. Add the coffee to the centre of the filter paper, having discarded the water you used to wet the paper and warm the cup. Make an indentation in the centre of the pile of coffee and pour, slowly, 50g of water into it, making sure the water is at least 30 seconds off the boil. Ideally, use a pourer rather than water straight from the kettle, as it takes the edge off the temperature and allows for a more direct pour. Then agitate the water and coffee mix gently, which again allows some of the gases to escape. You’ll see the bubbling and crowning of the gases as white bubbling when this happens. Once done, gently and slowly pour in the remaining 450g of water in a circular motion around the edges of the mound of grounds. Remember, an even soaking makes for an even extraction, which is what you’re aiming for. This should take a couple of minutes and, at the end of the process, you’ll have beautiful, fresh coffee.

And that’s how simple it is. I hope you’ve found that useful. My thanks to Phil and the team at MDC and the folks at the London Coffee Festival.

Make Decent Coffee’s website can be found here and they are on Twitter too.

Mission Coffee Works, who are not linked to MDC but whose coffee is great and made for a good picture, can be found here.

Coffee Stop Awards 2014

March 24, 2014

IMG_4502Chris Ward has launched the Coffee Stop Awards to celebrate and publicise all that is good about the London coffee scene, a welcome addition to the discussion that swirls around the panoply of good places where we lucky Londoners can get the black stuff. Obviously, the section I find most interesting is the bloggers bit, where I am privileged to have been nominated along with some truly great people. Other categories include Best Coffee Shop, Best New Coffee Shop, and Best Use of Social Media.

Two places I have reviewed, Look Mum No Hands! and Four Corners, are in the running for several awards, and Harris and Hoole, whose founders the Tolleys I interviewed recently, get a nod for best chain.

These are the categories, and who I voted for:

Best Coffee Shop: Tapped and Packed, various

Coolest baristas: Notes Barrows, all over (used to be Flat Cap)

Best for cyclists: Look Mum No Hands!, Old Street

Best coffee roasted in London: Climpson and Sons

Best chain: Harris and Hoole

Tastiest cakes and bakes: The Fields Beneath, Kentish Town

Best use of social: Four Corners, Lower Marsh

Best for working out of office: Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, Leather Lane

Best new coffee shop: Sharps in Windmill Street. I reviewed them for Caffeine, so no link. Sorry.

Best London coffee blog: seriously?

I would urge you to check out all the other blogs on the shortlist. One of the things that has most struck me about the ‘coffee blogging thing’ is how kind and welcoming everyone is; I am lucky enough to count Brian, Chloe, and Kate as friends as well as fellow bloggers.

Here are links to all the other bloggers listed ranked in no particular order:

Coffee Hunter with Peter

London Cafe Review with Jonathan

Cups of London Coffee with Daniel

The Faerietale Foodie with Chloe

Brian’s Coffee Spot with (obviously) Brian

A Southern Belle in London with Kate

Mondomulia with Guilia

So get behind this: it is always a good thing to recognise excellence, and the Best New Coffee Shop list is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to try new places.

Love,

Alex

Step inside...

Step inside…

I had never been to Ealing before I made my visit to check out both Paperback and another café that I’ll talk about in my next post. I had driven through, stop-starting my way along the snakelike A406, which winds through parts of the borough before throwing drivers up onto the various roads that leave London. It seemed rather grey, rather dull, lots of houses and not much else to be seen from the road. But then, having heard about a couple of cafés doing great things there, I decided to take the plunge. It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there is more to Ealing than the bits next to the road.

Paperback Coffee is warm, welcoming, and friendly.

It is a pretty new concern, open for less than a month when I went down with Jennifer, but there was already a pleasing fluidity to ordering and getting your stuff. The aesthetic is more local café than artisan poseur, photos and little bon mots dotting the walls rather than exposed brickwork and the like. There is a bring-and-swap bookshelf at the back, I assume a nod to the name, but also quite fun. It is light and open and a bank of seats face the counter and bar, from which the owner was happy to talk and answer questions, something I am always a fan of and especially helpful when somewhere is new. There was a cleat enthusiasm from him and is staff about what they were doing, and a sense of fun too.

The espresso. Note the pretty saucer.

The espresso. Note the pretty saucer.

The coffee was interesting, from an independent roastery called Coffeeplant who have outposts in Portobello and Wembley (I think the sales in the former, the roastery in the latter, but I may be wrong). It was quite a dark roast, which Coffeeplant are producing for Paperback as a bespoke roast, and perhaps because it was only four days old it was still a bit bright. It’s not ideal to serve coffee in that period, though in fairness Paperback were happy to discuss that and explain that, because it was such early days, they were still tinkering with the blend in consultation with the roaster. I like this kind of honesty and also the process of discussion and development of a roast, and so, while the coffee was maybe a touch bitter for me as an espresso, I appreciate what they are trying and the fact they were open to talking about it. As a piccolo, the coffee worked much more successfully anyway, rich and nutty, the darkness softened by a well-stretched blanket of milk. The espresso was £1.70 and the piccolo £2.10. Jennifer was impressed by their use of Canton Teas, a very good producer, up with Postcard Teas in my opinion (maybe just shy of them, but still…). She had a beautiful Jasmine pearl tea that was clear and light and very lovely and priced at £2.50 for a pot. It is always fantastic to see a coffee shop bothering with proper teas and knowing how to brew them; too often, I see artisan cafés skimping on this to the detriment of their overall appeal.

The bar. Chats can be had from here.

The bar. Chats can be had from here.

We also had some food, which I don’t always do, but it looked appetising. Jennifer had a very moist coconut cake, which was delightful, and I got stuck into a pesto, salami, cheddar, and sundried tomato sandwich on ciabatta. It may seem like a small point, but not only was the sandwich tasty, but it was of a decent size and priced much more reasonably than some of the miniscule, ‘artisan’ things you get more centrally, which are an insult to the sensible sandwich eater. There were a couple of other eats available too, including more sandwiches and cakes.

All in all, Paperback was a lovely spot. Unfussy, unpretentious, friendly, and serving a good range of food and drink, it’s the sort of place we felt happy to spend a few unhurried hours reading and writing. It was busy enough to have a gentle hum of things happening, but not so rammed that it was hard to concentrate. Everyone working at Paperback clearly enjoys being there, proud of what they are doing and happy to engage and talk about it. There are one or two edges to knock off where the roast is concerned, in my opinion, but the idea of a new café working directly with an independent roasters to craft something just for their café is something I am a big fan of, and a few bumps along the way are to be expected, especially when the café is new and quantities and so on are still being worked out. It is only a very minor quibble though, set against a very pleasant experience. Given the seeming lack of decent cafés west of Portobello, it is brilliant to see somewhere like Paperback appearing. Long may the further caffeination of Ealing continue!

Paperback Coffee, 153 South Ealing Road, W5 4QP

On Twitter

ChrisKitch, Muswell Hill

February 25, 2014

The outside.

The outside.

For an area that, ostensibly at least, ticks so many of the ‘artisan’ coffee boxes, Muswell Hill is oddly bereft of the sort of establishment to which one would want to travel up that steep hill. The high street concerns dominate, cluttering up the two main drags that run out of the roundabout. There are no cafés that make me go wow. However, tucked away down a leafy, otherwise residential street is a gem of another sort: ChrisKitch.

We went to try the coffee, but we stayed for everything else.

Those salads.

Those salads.

Set up fairly recently by a husband and wife team, ChrisKitch is an intimate, quiet venue beautifully appointed with sturdy, thick wooden tables and the reassuring clutter of a busy, family-run business. The kitchen is visible from the back of the shop, always a healthy and welcome sign of owner confidence. The counter brims like a harvest altar with freshly baked goods, mountainous salads, and an assortment of other goodies. When the accomplice and I visited the first time, we went to get a late, late Sunday lunch, and we were not disappointed. We both chose the three salads option, though there are also rotating main courses to go alongside. Between us, we had a green salad of beans, peas, mange touts, freshened with olive oil, mint, and given some fatty chunkiness with various nuts. There was a red salad of tomatoes, both sun-dried and roasted, pulses, and raisins. We also had an earthy chickpea and mushroom salad, made more sprightly by capers, onions, and dill. All were beautifully balanced, with varying tastes and textures through the mouthful, which was testament to the care and interest taken in sprucing up what could have been a pretty ordinary set of dishes. There was also a bread selection, all baked on site, comprising a cheese cornbread, crumbly and light, a thick, rich Guinness and blue cheese bread, and a beautiful garlic and onion bread. It was all delightful, robust home-cooking but with a degree of invention and care that elevated it above the ordinary.

Breads.

Breads.

The coffee was decent enough, but not amazing. I had to explain what a piccolo was but Chris made it gamely enough, and was also happy to accept that coffee was not the main thing they did and so he was not too clued up on it. They source their roast from a local shop in Muswell Hill who I think roast their own stuff. It comes up very dark and a bit too bitter for my tastes, but it is part of ChrisKitch’s ethos of local sourcing and so it is hard to be too critical. They get their tea from the same place and it is much better. Jen had a very pleasant, light Earl Grey. It wasn’t of the quality of a Canton or Postcard brew, but it was loose leaf and eminently drinkable.

Coffee.

Coffee.

The great joy with ChrisKitch is, aside from the food, the pleasure and the pride that Chris and his crew clearly take in their product. It reminds me of where I used to work in Oxford, the Rose, which was run by the woman who first taught me about cafés, coffee, tea, and cooking. Marianne, an inimitable Danish woman who had moved from being a very successful architect and interior designer into running a tea house and bistro to follow her passion for food and drink, ruled every aspect of her place with care and dedication. She loved talking to customers about what she was doing and why, and would have forthright discussions about ingredients or brewing methods, sometimes resulting in an amusing difference of opinions. I suspect that Chris is not quite as combative as Marianne could be, but I saw the same love of what he was doing, the same interest in what his customers thought of his product. He dallied at our table to talk about seasoning salads and thoughtfully went through all the breads, explaining why he had chosen them and what he liked about them. This is a chef who is fiercely committed to what he does, but also manages to be friendly, helpful, and engaged with his customers, an attitude that pervades through his staff as well. It is an attitude, an ethos even, that to me is a must for people running smaller scale enterprises like this, and indeed most artisan cafés. The attention to detail, the care for even the little things, is what elevates a place and drives it to be more successful. Responsiveness to and engagement with customers is probably the best way to make yourself stand out. Find what you believe in, food-wise or coffee-wise, and then advocate it in everything you do. That is what the team at ChrisKitch are doing, and I would urge you to go and find it for yourselves.

ChrisKitch, 7A Tetherdown, Muswell Hill, N10 1ND

Website with details

Also on Twitter

A quick post to show you all some photos I took at the tasting for my most recent article for Caffeine Magazine, the UK’s only consumer-orientated coffee magazine and a damn fine one to boot.

I looked at coffee subscription services and here are pictures from the tasting session with the fantastic Chris McKie from The Coffeesmiths Collective at Speakeasy W1, who kindly offered the services of their brew bar for a massive filter knees-up.

Thanks to all concerned, and check out the new issue of Caffeine at all decent coffee shops.

The Caffeine notebook.

The Caffeine notebook.

Brewing.

Brewing.

Product.

Product.

Filter.

Filter.

Always make notes.

Always make notes.