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.

Weeks ago, as the venerable W7 eased its way down Stroud Green Road toward Finsbury Park Station, I noticed a curious phenomenon among the kebab pedlars and charity shops of that slightly shabby thoroughfare: a vibrant-looking, busy coffee house, not too garish or run-down, and from the look of its out-door seating area (this is when we were still in drought, natch), doing a decent trade. Being the roving sort, I resolved to head there when time allowed, and sure enough, the accomplice and I attended a weekend or two later. This review is based on today’s jaunt, but takes that earlier visit into account as well.

Vagabond is well worth the journey.

And, I fear, the wait. For the first impression of my solo, weekday visit, where the place was busier, oddly, than my first (a deux and at the weekend), was that the single barista was swimming massively against the relentless tide of orders. It took a fair while for my espresso to come, but I must give substantial props to the barista and his colleague’s cheerful demeanour and genuine regret at the time it took. I have to confess that while, like anyone, I find waiting a bit of a pain, I do fully understand that good coffee cannot be rushed and anyone who grouches and grumbles should go to the Great Russell Street Starbucks and wait half an hour for the ashtray leavings they serve there, and then rethink their position. Rant over.

Vagabond, N4

Was the espresso worth the wait? Yes, emphatically yes. The first impression was full and earthy, before the biting acidity of the top end scorched around my gums like an excitable wasp. The crema was rich and gloopy and gave way to a pleasingly thick shot, which shows the extraction was spot-on. It went well to the bottom of the glass too, unusually, with none of the final bitterness that can come from a shot with such clear high notes. I was extremely impressed and the Has Bean roast being deployed here clearly does the job. The final swallow left a lovely warm glow and a slight tingle. This is what an espresso ought to be like.

I then, as is customary, went for the macchiato. Now, one of the things I’ve learned is that people approach the macchiato in one of two ways. My preference is the blending, through a high pouring action, of the milk with the shot, but others do like the foamy milk scooped off the top and dolloped in, like a helping of softness which mitigates the shot’s bitterness as you drink it through the foam. Preferences are just that, and I am happy to leave a barista to make it the way they do and see how it goes. I was not an enormous fan of the macchiato I had today for that reason, as today’s maker was a dollop-merchant. The milk was very well made, but like the macchiato I had at DoCaSA (see my previous review), this method doesn’t elicit the silkiness I like from a macchiato – the point, for me, is to enjoy the contrast between a straight shot and a smoother delivery in the milkier version. Having said that, the macchiato I had when I went with the accomplice on my previous visit was heavenly, made exactly the way I like, and exhibiting all the qualities I look for. And I did chance to see a few other coffees made today, and they looked as they should, and very good that was too.

And what of the venue itself? It is lovely, a bit ramshackle and messy perhaps, like a child’s playroom without the toys, but warm and welcoming and friendly. The name implies an affinity with artistic, itinerant types, and the style and feel of the place works with that image nicely. As I said before, I was really impressed with the way the chaps behind the bar stayed cheerful and chatty despite being a touch overwhelmed. There are some niVagabond, N4ce coffee-themed photos up, and the outside seating area is well done and will be rammed come summer, I have no doubt. Drinks start at £1.60 and there is a good-looking selection of cakes and other items too. Though Crouch End, a short bus ride away, has some good and even great venues, this part of N4 seemed a little lost and Vagabond is a cracking addition to the firmament. As N4, and the Finsbury Park area of it especially, sees an influx of young professionals and arty types, I have no doubt that Vagabond will get even busier, and rightly so. Based on the quality of the coffee and the commendable loveliness of the place, I doubt Vagabond will be wandering off anytime soon.

Vagabond, Unit 20, Charter Court, Stroud Green Rd, N4 3SG

I couldn’t find a website, but I’ll stand corrected…

Also on Twitter: @VagabondN4