Coffee, espresso coffee, is gorgeous stuff. I don’t crave it every hour of the day, but it is very difficult to do without at least a cup or two in any day. So in the morning, as soon as we get up the espresso machine is turned on to heat and I will usually have a flat white at breakfast and another after dinner at night. Occasionally there may be another cup during the day at a cafe; and if we’re at a restaurant for dinner I would usually prefer to have an espresso after the meal than my usual flat white or caffe latte.
We’re very well served in New Zealand now by the great majority of our cafe baristas. They know how to work their espresso machines and use the numerous coffee roasts available to make really good coffee. Sadly this is not so everywhere, as we had reinforced during our recent travels through Hong Kong, London, Berlin and in the three Canadian cities we visited.
Coffee begins to have a longish history by now since its discovery and cultivation, as a stuff one might drink, in Ethiopia way back in the tenth century. From this orginal home coffee spread first through the Arabian world, and then into India before arriving in Europe courtesy of Venetian traders in the early 17th century. Coffee invaded the major European cities during this century with coffee houses becoming spirited centres of social, often political and frequently business, life. [London’s great insurance house Lloyd’s grew from just such a coffee shop.] So the culture of the coffee shops then continues to be recognisable in our own cafes of today.
Disappointing then to find that now in some of those same great European cities quite dreadful coffee is served. They are still littered with coffee houses – of the ubiquitous chains, and others – but finding a really good espresso is extremely difficult. Our antipodean baristas could teach most of their northern counterparts we encountered on our tour a great deal about how to better perform their art and trade. Just as the NZ-Oz proprietors of Soho’s Berwick Street cafe, Flat White, are doing.
We had looked forward to drinking good coffee at Flat White [their fame having spread back home] but unfortunately during our stay in London the cafe was closed for renovation. However we were saved from repeated ghastliness at a Nero or Costas by Jason at C4, whose mentor, Richard, now roasts at the Monmouth Coffee Company, Monmouth Street, in Covent Garden’s 7 Dials. On Jason’s recommendation we sought out Monmouth that first morning in London and were treated to excellent coffees [with some fine Danish pastries from amongst the many deliciousnesses on the broad wooden counter that greets one on entry into this tiny but brilliant coffee house]. We were lucky enough to gain seats in the confined wooden booths [they must be very like, if not of, original 17th century coffee house design] behind the baristas’ station. Richard came up from the roastery below stairs to hear reports of Jason and to talk a while. We were well content – a pefect cafe experience.
Such coffee perfection proved to be a very rare thing in London. Monmouth have a branch at the Borough Market [next Southwark Cathedral and near London Bridge] as Richard informed us [it’s where they are moving the roastery for greater convenience] and as we saw for ourselves that very afternoon. [More of the Borough Market and all anon – i think it deserves space of its own.] So Monmouth provide 2 of the 4 cafes where it is possible to get good espresso coffee in London. The fourth is in the Charing Cross Road on the right as one walks north towards Cambridge Circus from Leicester Square. This cafe is called Caffe Vergnano 1882 and we can assert, having drunk its wares, that it has reasonably, in recent years, been awarded best coffee shop accolades. I dare say there may be a few other London cafes that can produce well made coffee but we didn’t find them. What we found all too often was coffee that was too hot, without substance and regretably unsatisfying.
This experience of disappointing coffee we had over and over again – in Hong Kong, and in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Berlin proved a little better. The branch of espresso Ambulanz next door to our Berlin hotel, Arcotel Velvet in Oranienburgerstrasse, produced ok breakfast coffee. And we found a Caras cafe near the Hachensher Markt that also made quite good coffee and had pretty good aprikosentarte – so we returned there several afternoons for espresso and kuchen.
It was great to come home to our own little Italian espresso machine and C4 Crank beans.