The product in situ at Vagabond.

The product in situ at Vagabond.

What makes a good café? Good coffee, certainly. Ambience is important too, as is the quality and general friendliness of the people who work there. But, and sometimes it is a big ‘but’, any coffee shop with aspirations towards being good, or even great, is providing a service for any potential, not just coffee geeks. I know from my own experiences of going to places with my partner Jennifer, who is a dedicated and knowledgeable tea drinker, that the variation in quality of available teas is massive. Cafés can sometimes put too much on an emphasis on their coffee to the detriment of other drinks and, therefore, to the detriment of their customers.

In the latest of my new series of interviews, I wanted to explore aspects of the other products available in cafés. And into my head popped Paul Eagles.

You might not know Paul, but if you have been to any one of the hundreds of cafes or businesses countrywide that stock his Kokoa Collection hot chocolate, you will appreciate that this is a man who knows his stuff. The signature design, that of small disks of chocolate rather than the customary flakes or powder, is instantly recognisable. Paul’s chocolate comes from a wide array of countries and each has different cocoa and sugar contents that mean that there is great variety in the taste and texture of the chocolate.

Paul’s passion for chocolate began at university. As Paul told me, “My room was always the one where there was chocolate – I was always brewing my own recipes, trying things out”. A love of travel took him to various countries and, especially in Spain and Italy, where he found a much higher quality of chocolate than was available here in the UK. Experimentation and blending opened Paul’s palate to the range of tasting possibilities in chocolate, something that he has put to good use at Kokoa Collection.

Paul is quick to point out, though, that he doesn’t see himself as part of the chocolate industry: he sees his company as fitting into a wider community around the coffee or café industry. He started out working for Esquires, a chain of independent coffee shops, on the product sourcing and new business side of things. This led to a growing awareness of products in other areas associated with coffee; for example, Paul introduced Esquires to Suki teas. However, as he told me, “the one area that people hadn’t really addressed was chocolate”.

Putting the touches on.

Putting the touches on.

So Paul started Kokoa Collection, which trades in speciality hot chocolate. There are various origins, but the major departure was putting the chocolate into disks, which makes the recipe a lot easier and saves cafés from using too much or too little: three disks will make a standard six ounce cup. This, of course, saves money, and it is no surprise that Paul does a lot of his work with contract caterers who specialise in delivering to large companies such as Disney and Sky.

Hot chocolate, of course, is usually seen a luxury item, not a staple pick-me-up like coffee or tea. As Paul says, the stuff has “an air of indulgence”; it’s a treat. All the more reason, then, for the chocolate served in artisan cafés to be proper and not the powdery or flaky chocolate that many places still seem intent on using. This, Paul thinks, is largely down to a lack of knowledge in cafés rather than a lack of interest. While the growth in artisan coffee has seen a commensurate growth in knowledge, “chocolate hasn’t moved the same way. Each origin has a distinct character. You can taste the difference in plant varieties.” As Paul sees it, much like with good coffee, “there is a story to good chocolate”.

Nonetheless, for Paul, the key is not to bamboozle clients or customers with details about growing regions, cocoa content, emulsion, and so on. While a level of training is necessary, and very worthwhile, Paul is quick to stress that the importance he places on the enjoyment of the chocolate is everything: “It’s about quality ingredients, yes, but it’s about still being fun, about returning to the fun and not being so specialist”. I suppose with any area of knowledge there is always a danger of becoming too specific, and you can see that with some coffee-shops. But an emphasis on knowing your product and your product being great does not have to lead to bombarding a customer with information that they don’t really need. If they do want to know, they will always ask. Paul told me that he did miss answering customers’ questions, and generally chatting with them, as much as he did at Esquires. To compensate, he keeps his hand in working a coffee stall at Muswell Hill’s Sunday market, providing him with a chance to stay in touch with the people who make the café industry, the customers.

The finished article. It was yummy.

The finished article. It was yummy.

I asked Paul what he thought was next in the world of speciality chocolate. Places like Hotel Chocolat, which sells edible speciality chocolate, have now added a café component, and Paul sees this a sign of things to come. The range and quality of drinking chocolate will improve “outside of cafés, and then move back in”. As the awareness of what good quality chocolate can bring to artisan coffee-shops grows, spurred on by these external advances, Paul sees coffee-shops responding to that and putting a greater emphasis on the product, alongside coffee and tea.

As part of this effort to grow and share knowledge, Paul has launched the UK Hot Chocolate Festival, inspired by a similar event in Vancouver. The aim is to promote not only hot chocolate, but to showcase its versatility alongside other ingredients. Cafés, restaurants, and even a cinema in Norwich, have experimented with Kokoa Collection to come up with signature drinks, such as Vagabond’s Chocolate and Lavender drink or Eteaket’s Ecuadorian Chocolate and Chilli Rooibos blend. Paul hopes that the event will demonstrate the versatility of hot chocolate, get his customers thinking about ways they can experiment just as he did while at university, and, perhaps, show the rest of the coffee scene in the UK what they’re missing.

The UK Hot Chocolate Festival runs from 24th March to 6th April. Paul will be at the London Coffee Festival as well, talking about mochas.

You can find his website here and his Twitter feed here.

Special thanks too to Kate at Vagabond, N4, for making me a delicious hot chocolate for photography and drinking purposes. You should go there and try it; it’s sublime.

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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

Little Gem, Highbury Fields

September 9, 2013

A cant name is a name that gives a clue, sometimes wholly obvious, other times tangential at best, to the character of the owner of that name. Little Gem is a cant name of the most obvious sort. A café with a strong Japanese flavour and influence, Little Gem is to be found nestled in the quieter back streets to the east of Highbury Fields, on the junction of Corsica Street and Calabria Street. These few streets make a small part of town that is calm and residential, rows of little red-bricks that are off the beaten track but very close to it. We discovered it not by chance, but following a heads-up from the Highbury Fields twitter feed; I fear that without it, this little gem (see?) would have passed the accomplice and me by.

I went arty for this one.

I went arty for this one.

We popped in on a Saturday afternoon, when many places would be heaving. This was, beneficially for us, not the case, and it was clear that the café owners, who were working the bar too, were happy to use the lulls to chat to customers about what they were up to, what they were serving, and even, in one instance, how to alter bags bought in charity shops to make them look more fun. I personally love to see this though: interaction between café owners or staff and customers is the lifeblood of any good place and LG seemed to thrive on it. Any questions I had were thoroughly answered as well, and I reckon I would have been welcome to stand there all afternoon fire off queries without becoming annoying; for a reviewer, there are few better feelings. There was a very friendly atmosphere aided by a comfy but intimate layout; size is yet another reason why this is literally a little gem.

Lovely cup, lovely piccolo

Lovely cup, lovely piccolo.

The coffee is Monmouth’s organic roast, which is in keeping with the general thrust of the venue towards organic items. The roast is quite dark and it’s not what I would call an explosively exciting blend, but the quality of the espresso and piccolo were high: the milk was especially creamy and well-stretched and the espresso was well-extracted. I don’t think I would choose this roast as a matter of course, but it is good enough and the barista had more than sufficient skill to make it, if not sing, at least dance a little. The coffee was beautifully served in little pottery cups from the Maze Hill potters from Greenwich. I don’t know enough about the subject to know what this style of pottery is called, but suffice it to say, I thought they were beautiful. The wooden spoons are classy too. The accomplice also made a very bold claim: she stated that her green tea, which is called Kabusecha and is from Gion Tsujiri in Kyoto, was the best green tea she had ever had. And trust me, she knows her tea.

The best green tea ever.

The best green tea ever.

I also had a very tasty little chicken teriyaki sandwich and a fine, soft and squidgy lemon cake; snack-wise, LG did well too. Add to that some fine illustrations of rioters and tree-loving cyclists by Eliza Southwood, which really caught my eye, and Little Gem is a superlative collection of details, beautifully assembled into a small, but beautifully formed café. A short walk from Highbury & Islington tube station, but far enough from the hubbub to be calming, this place is certainly worth a visit. Little Gem is no wet lettuce. Sorry to end on such an awful pun, but I couldn’t help myself.

Little Gem, 15 Corsica Street, N5 1JT

Facebook page with details

Also on Twitter: @LittleGemCoffee

Cake and forks.

Cake and forks.