Friday, July 31, 2009

Fidel Esprestro: Espressi, home

There have been a few coffee-related blog posts in the last few weeks that have been quite life-changing. Well, maybe life-changing is going too far. I don't want to call it something it's not. Let's stick with revolutionary. That's right. These blog posts rowed ashore into my blogconsciousness under cover of dark with a score of troops armed to the teeth, stormed the city, and before daybreak had overthrown the government and elected The Bean as their new leader!
As you can probably tell, revolutionary was also too strong a word.
But let's get down to business. Read/watch them for yourself and let me know what you would call it.
  1. James Hoffman's inaugural video blog post about how crema tastes horrible, and you're better off scraping it off before you drink. Seriously, give it a try folks.
  2. Five Senses's Coffee Mythbusting entry. Particularly #7 and #10.
These may be things that serious coffee dudes have known about for years, but I'm still ice skating up the slippery slope of coffee knowledge here. Making coffee has never been my job, this is just a recreational pursuit that I (for some reason) blog about obsessively. So I'm amazed when I find out that the barista tapping the side of his portafilter with his tamper is not doing it because trial and error have shown that it gets results. It's more like spinning drumsticks, or two-handed guitar tapping, or slap bass.
So with all that in mind, I just pulled a few shots, one after rinsing the portafilter, and one using a teatowel instead. I did the tappy thing on neither of the shots. It's an improvement. But honestly, the more I learn about this stuff, the more I realise how far off the mark I am. Putting new tyres on a complete shitbox Datsun 120Y doesn't make it a safe car. I've gotta sort out those rust problems and do something about the brakes first. Luckily, these heavy dudes blogging about heavy stuff is the equivalent of a roadworthy inspection: you might find out there are bits of your car you've never even heard of that need replacing. Don't let anyone tell you blogging is a waste of time.
Viva Caffelution!

Harder, Better, Faster, Tronner: Latte, home

I just heard that Daft Punk are writing and performing the score for the upcoming Tron sequel Tron Legacy.
This is good news for everyone. I can't think of a better blend of ideal-dudes-for-the-job and people-kids-have-heard-of. Exhibit A: Make Love from their 2006 album Human After All.

It's well Tron-ish. Mind you, they have some pretty big shoes to fill. Check out how intense the 1982 Wendy Carlos score for the original Tron was:

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Coffee in a Tea Bag

Some time this morning I was struck by a sense of adventure; the kind of adventure that can only be pursued within the confines of a mug. I knew I wanted to drink more coffee, and for some reason I wanted to brew it in a strange new way. If not a new way, it should at least be a way I was either unfamiliar with, or something I hadn't used for years. The first plan was to use a french press (or plunger, for those who don't automatically associate that word with unblocking drains and toilets) for the first time in years. But our french presses are dedicated to tea duties, and we all know that tea is absolutely vomitous if there's just a hint of old coffee taste in there.
Then I looked at the stovetop, or moka pot, or bialetti, or whatever you want to call it. We have two of those. A two-cup and a six-cup. But they have been sitting on the shelf growing mould for so many years that, I surmised, the cleaning job would be far more annoying than the coffee would be rewarding.
So I moved on to the Aeropress, of which I am a huge fan. But then I remembered that I took that on holidays in June, with exactly the same beans I currently have in the grinder. Fine results, but it was well-trodden territory. And that's not the name of the game today.
And then, finally, I remembered Cafe Grendel's post from last week about brewing coffee in a tea bag. LLL has a pretty serious stash of empty tea bags: as Grendel says, the only tea bag worth drinking is the one you fill yourself. This makes T2's "loose leaf in a bag" concept slightly less-confusing; tea bags often have much crappier tea in them, and so "loose leaf in a bag" implies the same level of quality as the rest of their products. Anyway, I set the grinder to "much coarser than usual" (I'll Mythbust the importance of this later), got an empty tea bag, boiled some water, let it sit around a while, pre-heated my favourite mug, then struggled with fitting all the ground coffee into the tiny tea bag.

The first problem I encountered was that it really wanted to float. So I mashed it with a teaspoon a bit to coax the water towards the dry grounds in the centre. I steeped for three minutes, then wrestled the gross soggy brown thing into the bin. It ended up tasting great. Very smooth, and similar to the Aeropress in that it's probably a nice way to check out coffees that won't reveal all their special powers in espresso format. I'm going to need two grinders soon.
So this was a very intriguing departure from my usual home espresso shenanigans. I think that generally the coffee grounds didn't have enough room to move in that tiny tea bag. I've got a few more plans for other tea brewing methods.

Espresso Book Machine: Latte, home

This has little to do with espresso. It has more to do with books. But I guess they are kind of related. Just as an espresso machine brews one cup at a time "espressly for one person", the EBM brews one book at a time. Their website also describes it as an "ATM for books", but ATMs don't print money, so the similarity falls flat right there. And people would be really pissed off if an ATM ever took this long. But still, watch:

Pretty cool. I think it could be the future. Imagine going to the orders window at Reader's Feast and them printing you the book they don't have in stock. Also, imagine a book shop which is more like a one-hour photo service meets Argos meets Kinkos. You walk in, swipe your card, enter the ISBN, go have an espresso, then come back and your book is ready.

Where the similarity between the EBM and the espresso coffee machine REALLY falls apart is in how important the skill of the operator is, and ease of assessment of the final product. Anyone can spot a badly-printed book, and nobody would have a problem going back in the door and pointing out the pages are upside down, or the last sentence of each page is missing. But returning a bad espresso? That is tricky.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Latte, Phil's Bakehouse, Northcote

Well, the coffee wasn't quite happening, but that experimental vanilla slice on the top shelf was superb. It's Greek, or something.
Is this really my first coffee in Northcote since the blog started? Furthermore, does this even count as Northcote?

Long Mac, Mr Tulk, City

Is this really what a long mac tastes like?

Not necessarily, no. Not quite a BOMB rating, but I didn't finish it and Tulk lost some points today. They gave me the wrong baguette too. Or maybe I have a speech impediment that results in "tuna" sounding more like "chicken". They also lose some all-time points for this: if you are sitting inside, you may be sitting a lot closer to the complete stranger at the table next to you than the person you're actually sharing a table with. I may have mentioned this before. Oh, I have, and interestingly some things also went wrong Tulk service-wise that day too. It's a shame, I really like the just seems they are so busy over lunch that they don't have time to iron out a few wrinkles.

This, from the guy who owned an ironing board but not an iron for about five years.

Guybrush Threepwood: Latte, home

I was right about that espresso last night. Woke up at 4.45am. Damn.
It's conceivable that it could just be plain ol' jetlag, late night espresso notwithstanding.
But what's hard to believe is that I haven't mentioned Monkey Island yet.
This is the iconic Scumm Bar scene from the VGA version of Monkey Island, circa 1990:

This is the same scene in Monkey Island SE, recently released for the iPhone:

It looks slightly better! And the music sounds slightly better! And it has speech! As a result, the size has ballooned out to a grog-swillingly-huge 350MB. But the best thing is it fits in your pocket. Your sword can be as sharp as your wit anywhere now: on the tram for five minutes if need be. There's a pretty reliable autosave feature which means you can quit and do important stuff at any time and still come back to where you were up to. Also, if you really dig those early 90s graphics, a two-finger swipe across the screen switches to classic mode at any time. The gameplay is exactly the same pointy-clicky goodness, although sometimes things move a bit more slowly: the cursor has to be dragged around with your finger, then clicked again to do something. Luckily it's a game that very seldom relies on timing. It's a great game. I owe most of my shit sense of humour to its dialogue. And the Indiana Jones in-jokes never get old. When you look at the chalice in the voodoo shop:
“That's the cup of a carpenter!”
Hopefully this paves the way for Lucasarts to resurrect more of their point-and-click past in iPhone app format.

Espresso, home

Further to this morning's Monkey Island discussion: it appears an episodic Monkey Island game has just been released on WiiWare. I'd better go check it out.

And further to the last three days of jetlag observation, I'm falling asleep again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Double Macchiato, Ismael, Tunbridge Wells

Warning: not Ryan. I have spent the last week or so travelling to various tourist places. I started to think I was becoming allergic to coffee because I felt nauseous after nearly every "espresso" I had. But after going back to Ismael today it's become clear that it was the crapness of the coffee that made me nauseous, not coffee in general. If you happen to be in Hexham (which is near Hadrian's Wall), the Chare does decent enough coffee for me to go there two days in a row. If you happen to be in Bakewell, in the Peak District, don't bother. Drink tea instead; at the "17th century tea-house" whose name I have forgotten, and who serve tea involving actual tea-leaves, a strainer, and an extra pot of hot water without asking for it. The "espresso" I drank in Bakewell yesterday was so long that if it had been in an espresso cup rather than an enormous take-away cup, it would have overflowed 3 or 4 times.

Anyway, back to Ismael, and the point of this post. After drinking my typically outstanding macchiato, I was talking to them about returning to Australia, when the manager pointed out how Australians are far more switched on about decent coffee than your average Brit. He even went so far as to ask if I knew anyone from Australia who would be likely to want barista work with them. So, if any Australian baristas are reading this, and wanting work near, but not in, London, I'd get in contact with them...

Espresso, Cumulus Inc, City

I finally got to try those prawns that everyone seemed to order last time I was here. Pretty spesh. The cauliflower salad will change the way you feel about cauliflower.
The coffee was right on too. Last time I was here I debated whether Single Origin was capitalised on purpose, which would mean the beans are from Single Origin in Sydney. Well, I could see their sticker on one of the three (!) grinders. Those beans have travelled a long way, several times over, to be here, and it's good to see they were put to such good use.

This 10.00pm espresso may wreak havoc with my jet lag.

Flat White, Seven Seeds, Carlton

It looks like we could have a new iPhone wallpaper contender.

The illy Method: Flat White, home

Ever wondered what happens to a can of illy coffee, pressurised for your enjoyment, at 30000 feet?

Yeah, it doesn't like the pressure. I understand the can crushing slightly when the pressure drops after takeoff, but would it resume to normal when we land? I guess the expansion of the inert gases/gasses isn't enough to pop the can back into shape.

Speaking of crushing, I just got up to the bit in Weeds season three where Mary-Kate Olsen becomes a recurring character. I wonder how here completely-identical twin sister Ashley feels about that? CRUSHED, I'd bet (ahh...tangent justified). Mary-Kate seems to be bagging all the cool roles and snogging Ben Kingsley, but where's Ashley? She probably yearns for the good-ol' Full House days where they could take advantage of their indenticality and share one character. Then Ben Kingsley might have snogged both of them, depending on how the timeshare works.

Okay, that's just gross. He won an Academy Ward for Best Actor four years before they were born. Eurgh. One Olsen is bad enough, in those circumstances. Let's not wish two upon him.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Flat White, Tre Bicchieri, Carlton North

Matt Preston's review of Tre Bicchieri informs me what Tre Bicchieri actually means. I could regurgitate it here, but you should probably read his review. Nice use of quotation marks around "baked eggs". He doesn't mention the coffee until the last sentence, which is funny, because I've been there about twenty times and only ever mentioned the coffee.
It seems I've missed the point.
It's a wine bar.

Flat White, home

Good morning, blogreaders. We will now be returning to regular programming. One blog post per coffee. There are a few vaguely interesting things that happened overseas that I haven't blogged yet (most involving espresso with a UHT container on the side...?!) which will be up in the next few days. Otherwise, it's back to Melbourne coffee adventures.

My first night of jetlagsleep did not go well, to say the least. To say slightly more: I slept from about midnight until about 2.30am. Then I got up and watched five episodes of Weeds season three, finally concluding that bloody terrifying season two cliffhanger that I watched about two years ago. Well, I know there's a fifth season on TV in the US now, so everyone must not get killed between now and then. That's nice to know. I fell asleep at about 9am, then got up at 11am, realising that being awake during daylight was probably a good move if I hope to get back to Normal Person Time™. Or thereabouts. Being a musician and coffee enthusiast I don't usually sleep like a normal person. But it's a good start.

It was good to fire up the Silvia again. LLL bought me a “welcome home” 250g bag of Coffee Supreme, which will take precedence over the tin of Illy I bought in Cologne*. Illy is stored at higher-than-atmospheric pressure in what Wikipedia calls either "inert gases" or "inert gasses", depending on which paragraph you read. I guess that means it will last. Not forever, but slightly longer.

* apologies for the Anglicised spelling there - I can't figure out how to do an o with two dots over it on a Mac. I'm sure there's a way, that will seem obvious once I know how to do it, but totally eludes me now.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Etihad, Abu Dhabi to Melbourne

Oh crikey, this is confusing.
If I fall asleep on a plane for six hours, I feel a lot better about it if I wake up to breakfast, then get off the plane and it's the morning. That at least makes me feel like I've been asleep at night.

But not today. This is the bad kind of twelve hour flight, where you wake up to a "light snack" (beef and noodles and a white bread roll is as "light" as it's getting on a plane) and it's 6.30pm when you get off the plane. Oh dear. I just slept all day. How on earth will I sleep at night?
I still had the coffee though. It makes it easier to negotiate that duty free shop that obstructs your path between the plane and immigration.

I went through the automated scan-your-passport-with-a-chip-in-it queue, which was blindingly fast in comparison to the other queue, but the machine still said I had to go to the assistance desk. I got a happy birthday from the assistance desk guy. That's nice. Maybe if the machine realises that your birthday is the same as the current day, it directs you to a human face for further niceties. It sure makes you feel a little better about sleeping on a plane for most of your birthday.

Etihad, Geneva to Abu Dhabi

That UHT milk is a little weird, but not as weird as the fact that they are the same ones I was served alongside espressi in Switzerland.
UHT in an espresso! That's of the wok, into the microwave!
Funnily enough, that's precisely what happened to the Thai beef I just had at the airport.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Delonghi Challenge

"I decided to write something about every coffee I drink."
Hmm. Allegedly, that is what this blog is all about. My Twitter bio says something to the same effect. It doesn't take much scrolling-down to notice that I have not been fulfilling that promise very well over the last few weeks. My main excuses is that for the last few weeks I have been travelling around on a bus equipped with one of these:

It's a Delonghi. It was great to have a machine on the bus, but honestly I didn't expect great results. Many espresso machine magazine ads feature a photo of the machine, with a cappuccino parked in front of it. Delonghi, unfortunately, tend to always use a terrible-looking cup of coffee as the vital demonstration-of-machine's-potential. So, based on this, I assume you can only make terrible coffee. Furthermore, I generally find it hard to trust any machine that does everything behind the scenes for you. You can hear all the grinding and tamping back there, but you can't see it. Quite suspicious. Wouldn't it be more fun to have the whole thing made of perspex so you can see all the magic? Anyway, I had serious doubts about the machine's ability to know how to do all the vital human observation stuff.

And so The Delonghi Challenge is, very simply, to make something good with this machine.

The first shot poured in about five seconds. Not fun. Just to see how far off we were, I turned the water knob (essentially the volume of the shot) to minimum, the dose knob (how much grounds goes into each shot) to maximum, the grind knob to finest, and pressed the double shot button. My logic was, "Hopefully this will result in a shot that either never finishes, or takes about a minute to do so. Then we can back off on the dose and/or grind to something acceptable."

That didn't really work out. It still took about 18 seconds. That's as close as we're getting, and the shot tasted pretty bad. Mind you, the bus driver said he never uses the machine, so those beans might have been sitting there for possibly months. So let's move on to the milk.

The steam wand has a very irritating attachment on the end with two large holes on an angle, kind of like a pig's snouth, I guess. Luckily, it unscrewed to reveal a single small hole. That would do just nicely. As for what to use as a milk jug, I had either a mug, a paper cup, or a plastic cup to choose from. I went for the plastic cup: it was washable, and I would feel the temperature changes a lot quicker than through paper. To get steam, you turn the steam knob to full, and a pulsing hissing sound starts to very slowly build up. It sounds like there is some very pissweak pump in charge of sending the water through something that takes a while to heat up. Hence, "ssssSSSsssSSSssssSSSssSSSsss," and then finally, "SSSSSS". So once the steam was going as strong as it seemed it was going to get, I turned it off, put the plastic cup underneath, and turned the steam back on.

This is where it starts to quite rapidly not make any sense. Even if you only turn the steam off for a fraction of a second, it kind of starts again from the beginning with the heating-up thing. A bit annoying. Putting the jug underneath while it is still steaming will only blast milk all over the room. Turning it off for a fraction of a second is as good a chance as you'll get. So anyway, my steaming technique is still pretty amateur, as is my pouring-from-a-plastic-cup technique. But I got some okay-ish results.

Stepping away from the challenge for a second, I have to say I'm pretty impressed with the machine's self-cleaning regime. Every time you switch it on or off, it uses up about half a cup of water doing some sort of cleaning thing. It's good to know there isn't any stale espresso sitting around in there during downtime. I also like how quickly the machine heats up. It feels like only about a minute, and the lights have stopped flashing and you're ready to go. More heatup time may not help you out too much: I'm assuming it's a very small thing in there that needs to heat up. Unfortunately, that also probably means that it won't hold that temperature for very long, and there is no thermostat light to indicate what's going on. Not ideal, to say the least.

Anyway, in yesterday's post I mentioned that Dan bought some beans from Starb$%&s. It turns out that Les the bus driver also bought some beans. I have no idea what they are. But they appear to have made a difference. The first shot I pulled this morning took about 32 seconds. I turned the grinder back one notch, and then we were well within the zone (the time zone anyhow - the temperature zone we may still be miles away from). The shot still tasted kind of bad though. I guess there are a few components in there not covered by the automatic-switch-off-rinse-cycle.

This is our last day on the bus. This is as far as I got with the challenge, with Les's unknown beans:

And again, in the light of day, after a few sips:

Well, it still didn't taste great. But it looks a hell of a lot better than the ones they use in their promo photos - albeit in a takeaway cup. I guess bad-tasting and okay-looking vaguely supercedes unknown-tasting and horrible-looking.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Espresso, Espresso Perfetto, Köln

It's the kind of place you could quite easily run into. Following the mall on Breite straße to the end, it's not hard to spot the word "espresso" on the other side of two time-consuming zebra crossings. But what you need to sum up is whether that time is worth gambling for potentially good coffee, based entirely on the signage out the front.

I would usually not cross the road for a place with "coffee to go" written five times in a row. But I was here based on a recommendation. So I persevered. What I found in the doors of (I'm not mad on places that signwrite their URL with that much prominence, either) has led me to reassess my entire shopfront judgement process.

Quite a terrifying array of machines and beans. The top shelf ones were on the top shelf for a good reason. The garish pastel bags on the right are Perfetto's own roast; 1kg bags only. And that was just the front room. Out the back, it was tasse heaven, both demi- and otherwise. I fumbled around with a few important Italian and German words and was served an espresso doppio without offending anyone too much.

I don't take sugar, but that is one seriously stylish sugar bowl. The shot was very nice too. Thanks for the tip, Andreas.
I picked up a tin of Illy for the bus too, but soon found Dan had also grabbed some whole beans from the Starb@&$s around the corner. How to handle that situation, without being the "I have superior beans" guy? Might have to hang onto that tin for a while.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Espresso, Nuke Festival, Wiesen, Austria

As somebody who has seen a lot of half-assed coffee stands at music festivals, I can say my eyes lit up when I saw this in the distance. It featured not only the word "espresso" spelled without an "x" in the distance, but, on closer inspection, espressi from multiple origins too. Wow. This could be a great festival.

The first thing you might notice is there are no grinders. No. It's some sort of pod system; these, in general, sacrifice freshly-ground-ness in the name of controllable conditions. That machine, heated up sufficiently, combined with that pod should result in something predictably, and repeatably, decent. I went for the Kenya AA.
(I think it's safe to assume that La Genovese is not related to the Genovese in Australia by any other means than similarity in logo and name)

I counted in my head. It was about a 30-second pull. Not bad. This pod contraption's grounds may not be fresh, but at least the time thing is sorted out. There are far too many espressi in continental Europe being let out of the gate far too quickly.
And yes, that is Calexico playing in the background. I kind of wish they could be playing nearby every time I have a coffee.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Espresso, Nero, Leeds

So you name your cafe chain after a famous Roman historical figure. Your customers, without even knowing, will instantly associate you with the entire history of Italy. They know it will be an authentic experience with their wifi every time they set foot in the door. Why fly to Rome on Ryanair for £6 when you can come here for a cappuccino that costs slightly less than half that much? Yes, the historical thing is good.

But is Nero a good choice? He became quite famous as the emperor who burnt down most of Rome to make room for his new palace. Do I really want to drink coffee named after these guys? Who knows what tyranny may be afoot in the cup?

Mental note: everything you drink within an hour of Listerine will invariably taste like Listerine.

Espresso, some hotel near Leeds

"He said the coffee is too strong."
"Try doing a single shot, but I much prefer a double."
This back-and-forth caught my attention; maybe this place was going to be okay.
I interjected, "Me too! Can I get a double espresso?"

Allegedly this is a double espresso. It tastes more like a single that's been watered down so much that even the crema didn't want to stick around for more than a minute. It's from one of those machines where you just press the button with two cups on it, and the machine does the rest.
What the hell, a dude's gotta wake up somehow.

Also, the price should be pointed out. £1.95. Somewhere between A$4-5. I have only ever paid that much for any multiple of espresso once in Melbourne (at Transit - as a result I try to save my coffee consumption there for when I have a gig, and the coffee is free). And yes, I know converting everything back to Oz dollars only results on misery, but now I have a precedent to compare this to: I got an espresso (one of the best ever - the photo is on my desktop on my laptop now) for 60p on Sunday. But I guess this is what happens when you sit down in a hotel lobby.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Flat White, Dose, London

James at Square Mile highly recommended one more thing before I leave London: drop in at Dose, near Barbican station, at an address you can't possibly read without giggling: 69 Long Lane. I took a quick look at my long-suffering and tattered Tube Map, and sure enough, Barbican was more or less in between where I was and where I was heading. I had a whole hour to get there, get a take-away coffee, take some photos, and get to Euston to catch the train I'd already paid for. It was a bit of a gamble: one delayed train could spell trouble. But I had to check it out. Everywhere I'd been that served Square Mile beans had been outrageously good so far, and so if there was a place that Square Mile themselves recommended then it was a must-see.

There it is. The zebra crossing even seems to lead to it. It seemed meant to be. I went for another flat white - which seems to be listed above latte on menus at any place worth their salt around here. And one of those halloumi/avocado/bacon baguettes too. To take away.
"Would you like that toasted, with some tabasco and lemon?"
Hell yes.
By this point the guy's Kiwi accent was becoming apparent. Even though I am from Australia, it sometimes takes me half a conversation to figure out if somebody is Aussie or Kiwi. Thankfully, there are a few syllables (or "sullabuls") that really give it away. But that wasn't the only accent in the room. Dose is a pretty small place; London is an enormous place; Australia is thousands of miles away, and Melbourne is a very small part of it. Against highly improbable odds, the four people sitting to my left were also from Melbourne, and all staff from the Maling Room in Canterbury - which somehow I still haven't visited. Wow.

Brilliant. I know I've said "You have to visit this place" quite a lot this week, but you should add Dose to that list. It's much easier to find and get to from the tube than the other ones, if that helps.

My final experience in London: sitting on the platform at Barbican, almost shivering from the cold (I was wearing shorts - this is supposed to be a heatwave) when there was an announcement.
"Ladies and gentlemen, in this extreme heat..."
I shared a group-laugh-out-loud with the other passengers around me who were also wondering what happened to summer.

Flat White, Square Mile, Bethnal Green, London

All of the amazing coffee I've had in London has had one thing in common: the beans come from Square Mile. This wasn't by accident though. I was working closely with a list of Square Mile-using cafes during my travels, with all the field research leading to this: a visit to ground zero itself. It isn't a place you can really just visit - the website makes the "appointments only" thing pretty clear - but I was here for a reason. An interview with co-founder, and 2007 WBC Champion, James Hoffmann. Square Mile has been around for almost a year, and in that time gained a loyal following while turning all sorts of conceptions about coffee in London on their collective heads. I felt like I had a golden, caffeinated ticket. After the initial awkwardness surrounding my impressive-looking-interview-recording-device having flat batteries, it all went smoothly. This is one of the few places I've taken a photo of a cup of coffee and nobody thought it was out of the ordinary. But I'll leave the rest of the story for later. Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Espresso, the backyard off Ezra St, Columbia Rd Flower Market, London

(read my previous post for directions on how to find this place)

With the time we'd spent coming all the way out here, I just had to get an espresso before I left. The queue was even longer this time, but I knew it was worth both the wait and the sunburn. I ordered a single espresso. In porcelain, of course. The barista Gwilym Davies let out a celebratory “Woo!” It seems the espresso-in-porcelain doesn't get ordered too often in the scheme of things. When I asked if they are visited by a lot of weirdos with cameras, I was told yes, but I'm the first one EVER to take a photo of an espresso. Mr Davies seemed happy though, adding that latte art is the fake boobs of the coffee world. I'm inclined to agree.

Definitely no cosmetic surgery involved there.

Flat White, the backyard off Ezra St, Columbia Rd Flower Market, London

Without wanting to build this up too much, I will say this: if you are in London on a Sunday you absolutely have to check out the flower market. It sounds like the perfect thing for a Sunday, doesn't it? Even if, like me, you don't think about flowers very often, nor where/how/when they are bought/sold, it's still quite a spectacle. We walked from Liverpool St station (regrettably – Old St is a much closer-on-foot option), and every few hundred metres we were passed in the other direction by people carrying a potted lavender, a budding lime tree, an enormous bunch of something-I-can't-name, and all sorts of other things that it seemed were unlikely to survive the trip home on the tube. The winner of Most Cumbersome Purchase was definitely the couple who had some sort of bigger-than-both-of-them giant tree between them, held off the ground by two possibly purpose-built straps. They had to walk sideways, probably had a long way to go, but both wore huge grins. That's dedication.

When we finally reached the market itself, we were greeted with an impressive sight: the most crowded street you can imagine. Not only are there people spending their whole Sunday trudging out to Shoreditch to buy flowers, but there are thousands of them. The real reason myself and Dr J.Mo (our London caffespondent) came all this way in the first place was for what could be the best coffee in the world, which also is only here on Sundays. Struggling through the crowd, we saw a lot of people holding takeaway cups of coffee, the really good-looking ones being in a white cup with some sort of green scribble on it. It took us a while to find the elusive backyard. On reaching the end of the market, I read the email again and realised that Ezra is actually a street. That made a whole lot more sense, and so we followed the map in Dr J's A-Z guide. So we've done all the work for you. Just follow our directions:
If you are walking from the Old St station end, turn left just before the crazy hubbub of the market begins, at Ravenscroft St.

Take the first right, at Ezra St.

Follow that breakfast/coffee sign to the left into the backyard.

In the back-left corner, there is the coffee stand. On the other side of the enormous queue. Sure enough, behind the machine is Gwilym Davies, the WBC champion of 2009. I guess you can see now why I went out of my way to say “best coffee in the world”. According to the WBC, nobody does it better than this guy. Coming here for coffee is like going to Dagobah and training with Yoda, or something. We joined the lengthy queue and a friendly Australian came and took our order, writing it on the cup with a green pencil. Bingo! It was interesting to again see the flat white in the hallowed top position on the menu. I ordered one accordingly, and Dr J stuck to her guns and went for an espresso. They asked, “paper or porcelain?” for the espresso. Kudos. Our order came to 2 pounds and 40 pence. I took another look at the menu, and sure enough, the espresso only cost 60p. This place was ticking all sorts of boxes already, and we hadn't even smelt or drank anything.

We moved up the queue, and the aroma hit me. Even outside on a windy day with the bacon frying next door, the olive stall to the right, and the particularly pungent cheese stall behind us, the smell of the Square Mile Spring Espresso Blend was still impossible to ignore.

There was all sorts of wisecracking going on behind the machine. Mr Davies, pulling the shots, was having a bit of a go at the guy on milk detail for how much time he was spending on the pouring.
“A fancy pattern does not make it a better drink!”
These guys were having fun. Even in the Gordon-Brown-decreed-category-two-heatwave. There also seemed to be a lot of people with cameras in the queue. Much bigger cameras than me. Finally, our drinks came out, and we headed back towards the cheese stall to enjoy the fruits of our queuing.

We were, quite seriously, speechless.
“How is it?” I asked after a while.
“I can't even talk,” said Dr J.
I'm not sure what's more satisfying: that the flower market has coffee this good, or that coffee this good is lucky enough to be at the flower market. Either way, it's a feast for the senses.

Short Mac, Le Pain Quotidien, London

You've heard of the wine list. You've heard of the cheese list. You've heard of the pillow menu. Ladies and gentlemen, familiarise yourself with the concept of the bread list.
The future is here. This place may be a chain, but don't hold it against them. The name literally translates to “the bread unsurpassed”, and by no means are they speaking out of line. There is a choice of about five breads, which you can order two slices of with butter (believe me, it's a big loaf - two slices is enough for anyone) and, like we did, a side of ham. It's ham that your grandfather the butcher would heartily approve of.

We came here yesterday, but I wanted to save coffee for our visit to Flat White, so that's my Earl Grey tea on the left. It's not often I feel like a whole pot of tea, but when I do, I want it to be a good one. They lost points for the teabag-in-a-pot scenario, but swiftly earned them back as soon as I caught a whiff of just how a beautiful Earl Grey this was.

But let's leave the teablogging to the professionals. There seems to be a lot of these places around, and I highly recommend it for breakfast. Somebody taking condiments-on-bread so seriously is such a breath of fresh air from the innumerable “Full English” cholesterol nightmares going on everywhere else in London. The muesli, too, is something to behold. I found a brazil nut in mine. Wow.

And the coffee? I was put off a little when I saw that the long drinks are served in something more akin to a fingerbowl – that's a whole lot of milk* – and so a short mac it was. Served in a much smaller fingerbowl.

* be thankful I didn't take the opportunity to say something like “that's a whole latte milk!”

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Espresso, Flat White, Soho, London

As I'm probably not going to get to visit these places again for a very long time, and I often visit them in a state of not-having-had-very-much-coffee – wisely saving up my coffee credits for somewhere mind-blowingly good – I'm starting to turn into one of those flat-white-or-latte-AND-an-espresso* guys. So here's the goods:

My word yes.

* For clarification: ((flatwhite || latte) && espresso)

Flat White, Flat White, Soho, London

This place has quite the reputation for being the place to go if you want coffee in London made for people from Australia and New Zealand, by people from Australia and New Zealand. And they certainly do wear it on their sleeve: a sign behind the bar offered pronunciation guides for “flat white” in both accents, and which country is more likely to conclude the sentence with “bro” or “mate”. I was kind of expecting a lot of coffee-obsessed patrons not unlike myself, and so was delighted to hear a customer talking to the barista about taking an Aeropress camping when I walked in the door. Taking an Aeropress camping sounds not only like something I would do, but something I would talk to strangers about. After ordering and commenting on the dude's magnificently-twisted moustache, we took a seat just as Steve Miller Band piped in with Take the Money and Run. I checked my iPod: yep, if this was track one, they had the same Steve Miller Band compilation that I had. I love Steve Miller Band. You know all those songs from the 70s that you hear quite a lot on the radio, but you don't know who they are by? More often than not, it's Steve Miller Band. Dr J.Mo's espresso came out, and track two began: Abracadabra. I imagined for a second that Steve wrote the first line from the perspective of milk waiting to be steamed by a barista:
“I heat up, I can't cool down.”
How true. Then my Flat White flat white arrived.

Magnificent. Dr J.Mo was lost for words for a while. But then:
“That tastes like it's got alcohol in it!”
It's at 17 Berwick St. Beans by Square Mile. Be there.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Espresso, The Wild Wood, Bristol

NOTE: The UK posts in the past have not been written by Ryan. But these next few are.
Walking past, I had a good feeling about this place. The décor, the menu, and the impressively shiny coffee machine made me think this place was worth the gamble. The odds were looking good that I was going to be paid a visit by the espresso gods. The fact that the machine was handle-driven rather than pump-driven didn't necessarily suggest great espresso was about to follow, but it made me think their staff training would have to be particularly extensive. I stepped in the door, and sidled up to the bar.

It soon was clear that my sidle was not loud enough. The guy at the bar was facing away from me, reading a magazine. Crossing my arms on the bar was also not noticeable, nor was my unintentional “ehem”. Of course, in situations like this an “ehem” is warranted, but I genuinely happened to need to clear my throat at that very moment. But to no avail: he kept reading.

Crikey, this place must get quiet. The only reason you would work at the bar facing the wrong way for this long is because it hadn't gotten you into any trouble in the past.

Minutes passed. I started to think this might be some sort of record. If only I'd started the timer.

I soon realised, after possibly three-and-a-half minutes, that I was actually in a hurry to get out of there. There's nothing that's more guaranteed to irk, or at least attract attention from, staff than either
a) using the toilets without buying anything, or
b) suspiciously wandering around in staff-only areas.
I decided the only way to get served around here was to do a little bit of both.
I walked out the back, well within the barman's peripheral vision, and walked downstairs. Even if the toilets weren't downstairs, at least he had seen me.
It turns out the toilets were downstairs, and after marvelling at the superfluous unisex handbasin outside the cubicle (a basin inside the cubicle often makes this redundant), I went upstairs and ordered a single espresso from the now-facing-the-front barman and took a seat outside.

Thank god. The aroma was having all sorts of fun in my nasal passages before the guy even brought it out to me. Glorious. If only I'd taken the photo on a slightly different angle to show the logo of whoever roasted the beans that gave their lives for this 30ml of heaven.

(I sound excited don't I? My judgement may be impaired by how much good coffee I haven't had in the last few days, but trust me, this place is really good.)