Tag Archives: coffee

Fully Roasted

the bitter aftertaste of popping out for a cuppa

It could only be Caffe Nero in Henley-on-Thames, the microcosmic world of the Henley Regatta, the highlight of the year for the upper-middle Englanders of the Home Counties. Don’t think the coffee shops are any different. As lunchtime creeps closer, the lycra-clad middle-aged women finish sipping their cappuccinos and head out to another yoga class, or for the weekly Waitrose shop more likely. Instead, the queue consists of the students who get more than £5 lunch money for the week (those ones head across the road to Dominoes or the fried Chicken Shop off the high street), a few high-flyer business types with the briefcases, sharp suits and (yes, they still exist) blackberries and finally a few elderly customers spending their retirement in style.

It’s fairly quiet, the music a willowy piano piece that seems to be stuck on a loop while the single table and seat by the window, nestled between two others of course, calls out to you. You seat yourself; the look goes up: “what? You wish to sit between these two tables? With someone sitting either side? Have you no regard for personal space?” Actually, I have every regard but getting a table is hard enough and the metre of space either side is entirely reasonable for my comrades to continue sipping their teas and reading their papers. They sternly look away and grudgingly oblige. Victory.

The task is not over yet, however. You may have secured a table but you have to hold it until your panini arrives. Don’t be thinking that because you’ve bought a diet coke, and even asked for a glass, that you qualify to sit at that table with no coffee and no food. Not to the upper-echelons that are surveying you from the queue. They glance around and shake their heads at the lack of tables. Then they look back at you. You pour the coke into the glass, spread your papers around the table, take up more room than necessary. Still they look. Banging the food marker doesn’t seem to do much good either. You begin to sweat, despite the ice-cold coke: will they actually ask me to move? Will they sit beside me, ask to share my table? (I can assure you, it happens.) Ah at last! The panini arrives! The scaly, cream-clad women look away, moving towards the armchairs. One waves her arm at the waitress to bring the coffees over. Wow, I didn’t know they did table service in Nero.

But just then, when you’ve finally settled down, you hear the shrill pitch, elongated-vowel sounds and a tone coated with condescension that marks the arrival of somebody overly superior to your lowly status. And that of everyone else around you.

“Oh, let’s sit in the armchairs, more roooooom, no?” the mother coos. Good, they won’t sit next to you. Her waif-like daughter drifts over too her before gliding to the sugar stand.

“Would you like some water? I’m getting some.” The mother shakes her head but raises her coffee, as if in toast.

“Cheers!” The talk turns to dresses for some occasion, probably the regatta, of course. “What about your white ooone, with the laaace?”

“Think I could get away with this colour?” The girl ripples her willowy fingers, peach-coloured nails swanning through the air.

“Oh that colour, yest, I think you could get away with most colours. They look gorgeous. You look gorgeous!” Did you get that at the back? This woman’s daughter is goooorgeeous! The mother proceeds to knit: a dark, muddy-green item, while the girl gets out a book. Because who doesn’t read and talk?

“We’ve got nice teas for Daddy haven’t we?”

“He loves cherry maderia cake, and victoria sandwich.” Of course he doesn.

“Gosh, I get my exam results soon. I must get Daddy to do my student finance. He hasn’t done it yet. Then I can choose my modules.”

Enough said.


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Fully Roasted

the bitter aftertaste of popping out for a cuppa

There’s nothing worse than overly loud people. Except maybe overly loud, obnoxious people. These ones weren’t obnoxious, but the ignorant kind of loud. The “we don’t care loud” paired with the makes-you-want-to-eat-stones idiosyncracy. The two older women twitter and cackle as they wait for their male companion. No, sorry, person-with-tray trying to squeeze through the gap in the chairs to get to your own table, you are irrelevant. Another round of cackles. Another chair is pulled out as their own drinks arrive to much cooing and unnecessary rearranging of drinks, receipts and bags. The tray-battler behind manages to dash through a temporary gap, sacrificing the foam of her latte and someone’s milk. Ah well, emergency situations call for drastic measures.

A small boy leaps to his feet as an even smaller girl walks in. They nervously make their way to the counter together. Could this be what it looks like? No, surely. It could be, he’s paying for her. Disaster! He’s discovered he doesn’t have enough money and sheepishly has to pick something else for himself. Bless, she’s already taking advantage of a free drink. I wish I’d had that skill at 9.

I go to look out of the window, not forgetting to give a bone-chilling glare as my eyes pass over the crows’ nest next to me. It’s as if they arrange that no two people drink at the same time, ensuring an incessant squabbling of voices in my right ear. Looking out the window, it’s strange to see two women have picked a table right on the other side of the glass. Looking at all the empty chairs and tables around them I realise they must have picked it because it was the only one free. It feels strange, as if there’s no glass there really. I almost want to make fish lips. But I don’t. They seem immune to this intense claustrophobia I am feeling and continue their conversation. I feel privy to it though can’t hear any of it. Fear enters me: how do I look out of the window without looking as though I’m looking at them? Fortunately a man wanders under the far end of the canopy so I can look over there instead. He sits down on a chair and lights a cigarette. Oh, it’s funny, I thought these chairs were sat under the Costa canopy but his must be outside the rope. Oh no, it is inside the rope.

Back inside, the first-date sits at a table far away from everyone, overlooked by a sleepy potted plant. Sorry kids, it’s behind the table so no shelter there. They suck on straws cautiously, talking very quietly. At least it makes a change to next door where the tittering voices crescendo before bursting into laughter. Beautiful. Time to leave, I think.

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Tinderbox: a bit of fire for your coffee break

Tinderbox: 7 Parkfield St  London, Greater London N1 0PS

A quiet, unassuming shop front can be really quite deceptive. The downstairs entrance to Tinderbox seconds as the takeaway counter, topped with muffins, pastries the size of a small frisbee and a short sweet drinks menu. Head upstairs, however…

and you’re greeted with a chic, alternative coffee shop. Seating ranges from sleek wooden benches to leather sofa-style car seats or dark alcoves with mirrors and padded benches. The staff are friendly and fresh in their service, happy to talk you through the many different types of loose tea or to spare a few more seconds for the regulars.

You’ll find any coffee you want as well as an impressive arrary of teas. Surprises for the sweet-toothed amongst us include everything from proper French custard tarts, stuffed biscotti or slabs of mocha cake. An almond latte was a velvety smooth mix of dark, rich coffee and fluffy frothed milk, heavy with almond from the syrup. A regular was also ample size and good value. Want to match it? Try the carrot cake muffin: moist and sweet, without being overpowering as chocolate sometimes can be and the dollop of cream cheese in the middle was a wonderful innovation on the classic carrot cake.

Staying off the caffeine? Darjeeling was fantastic, though bought from another company but a good match would be the banana cake. Pale yellow flecked with dark seeds, it was the size of a brick made from the density of air. It was moist, suitably sweet and the plain icing topped it off nicely.

Tinderbox is open long hours and has Wi-fi too as well as serving sandwiches during the day. So why not add a bit of spark to your coffee today?


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How not to be Viennese

The Vienna Coffee House: 74 Mosley Street, Manchester, M2 3LW

I’m not expecting great things in the centre of Manchester from a Viennese coffee shop. I am, however, expecting the basics of good food, service and, above all, good coffee.

The service was good, if a little casual and over-friendly. The menus suggest you look in the counter to choose a cake or pastry, though the shiny icing-clad dry sponges may not appeal, while wobbling cheesecakes and wonky meringue-topped creations raised an eyebrow or two. The Chinese tourists, however, were suitably impressed and gazed for roughly ten minutes longer.

The decor is plain and quite homely: posters and old pictures are plastered to the walls while a twisting staircase takes you up to a second floor. A couple of the tables are surrounded by brown leather sofas, and it certainly seemed to be a popular place to spend an hour or two chatting, for kids to do homework, or for tourists to treat themselves.

There are plenty of offers from lunchtime sandwiches to afternoon tea and since it was 4pm we thought we might try the latter out. A hot drink and piece of cake for £3.99, described as “spoil yourself.” The Einspanner was described as a double mocha served whipped cream and a wafer. The large mug was half filled with a cheap whipped cream and there was no wafer. Once I had waded through the sweet bland mass of white stuff, I came to a double shot of fairly good-quality coffee – dark and rich, if you like your coffee that way – before I found a puddle of un-dissolved chocolate coagulating at the bottom. There was also a cherry, and not a fresh one either, more a glace-type one for baking, which I suspect came from somebody making a mistake and making the Fiaker drink (which was meant to be topped with a maraschino cherry.) Disappointing.

Anyway, onto the cake. I opted for carrot cake, it being the least manufactured-looking of the choices. The sponge was too dry but the flavour was good, studded with grated carrots and pecans. The topping was sweet and light and, while thick, was not too overbearing. More successful than the drink but not overly impressive.

The staff meant well and perhaps we went on an off-day. However, there is no sign of the Viennese quality coffee or the carefully crafted delicacies you can find in their cafes. The lingering of the customers though? Well, I think you’d find that it any coffee shop.

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starting 2013 as I mean to go on: with a shot of chocolate and a slab of cake

Rumsey’s Chocolaterie of Wendover: The Old Bank, 26 High Street, Wendover, Bucks, HP22 6EA

There is nothing like a hot chocolate and a slice of cake on a cold day! And what better way than to kick off 2013?

Rumsey’s has been creating chocolate since 1991, but the Wendover branch was opened in 2004. It’s a lovely environment in which to sit and relax and you can even see the chocolates been handmade through the glass windows into the catering unit downstairs. It’s always a lively and busy shop, where tables are much sought after, and the food even more so!

The menu includes soups, salads and small main dishes but we were here for cake. The house espresso hot chocolate is a neat shot of dark chocolate, subtly spiced with orange, ginger and other warming flavours. The texture was thick and rich, wonderful for dipping in the coated chocolate gingerbread wafers served with it. The regular hot chocolate with whipped cream is better for those who like their drink a little sweeter, matched by a dark chocolate leaf draped over the rim of the cup to melt into the cream – a beautiful touch.

The cake list is extensive and comprehensive, combining fruity flavours of the lumberjack cake (apples, dates and a coconut topping) along with chocolate torte, blueberry cheesecake and lemon tart. The chocolate banana bread was a thick slab of moist sponge. It was more of a cake than a bread but very light and the chocolate flavour allowed the sweetness of the banana to come through still. A hot chocolate brownie was dark and velvety, but typically sweet, with a slightly hardened topping that caved in under your fork to reveal a gooey, spongy centre stuffed with walnuts. The nuts added great texture to what is often too soft a dessert, but this brownie held its form wonderfully. A scoop of vanilla ice cream, studded with vanilla seeds, was rich, creamy and melted into the dark chocolate sauce, lifting the intensity brilliantly. A definite addition! Finally, came a coffee and walnut cake. A classic, and something that doesn’t include Rumsey’s favourite ingredient. It was tall and majestic, topped with a large walnut half-dipped in chocolate. The sponge was light and subtly exuded coffee, though it was slightly dry. The icing was thick and sweet, sometimes a little too much, but the texture was like liquid satin, the walnuts crumbling and crunching within it. Perhaps not as successful, but certainly delicious!

Great value for money and the staff are friendly, helpful and always willing to recommend their favourite from the menu! You can also buy chocolates, shortbread, cakes and other goodies to go, so if you ever get the chance to pop in either at Wendover or Thame then don’t hesitate to do so!

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Starbucks 4 : Costa 2

Oh yeah, it’s getting fierce now! We have the combination of food and drink.

On test is Starbucks’ salted caramel mocha latte and the chicken and roasted tomato panini.

I was excited for this salted mocha, I won’t lie. Salted caramel is a huge flavour at the moment and the combination of sweet and salty is a risky but wonderfully complimentary one should you pull it off. Incorporating chocolate is, again, dangerous but definitely doable. Starbucks didn’t do it. The drink was overly sweet with barely a flake of salt. The drink was too thin and runny, as if the milk hadn’t been frothed enough, the name latte devoid of meaning. Better with cream? I doubt it, though apparently it’s salted. I don’t want to imagine what that’s like. To Costa!

Hold up though, if you’re hungry anyway. Remember that ham and cheese panini from Costa? Starbucks’ panini was, in general size, bigger I believe and had more filling. Classic combination of chicken and tomato worked well with a hint of cajun spice but nothing overpowering or even dominating. The rocket was a fresh addition adding colour and balance. The panini was well-toasted; a bit too floury but thick and foccaccia in style though definitely still a panini – don’t worry, nothing too fancy.

Yep, this panini held its own so a point each.

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Starbucks 3 : Costa 1

Sorry, Costa, if I wanted rubbery cheese, I’d eat babybel and cheese strings.

The word improved is a tenuous one; things can be improved in certain areas while greatly lacking in others. The degree of improvement is debateable too as well as how you judge the improvement itself.

Well in this case the subject to be improved was Costa’s ham and cheese panini. Firstly, yes, it has improved; it was served on sourdough and that was lovely; floury, chewy and thick it really lifted the quality of the sandwich. The ham too was tasty though a little more would have been appreciated. But the cheese! It upset me so, it really did. Rubbery and just far too yellow, it either hadn’t been grilled long enough to melt or just wasn’t good quality. As the panini cooled (it wasn’t really hot enough to start with) the cheese began to solidify and tough cheese is like chewing on a tyre, with the additions of cold bread and salty ham.

Go again? Yes but sorry it just wasn’t up to scratch. Starbucks gets this one.

Am I wrong? What’s your favourite?

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Starbucks 2 : Costa 1

Okay, it’s getting fierce. Starbucks too have released new drinks and on trial today? Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Sounds disgusting right? Who in their right mind would put a vegetable, and one we cut into grotesque faces at that, in a perfectly innocent cup of coffee topped with whipped cream? Horrendous I know.

But it’s not. Calm yourselves, please, don’t shout. Honestly, it’s rather nice. I did have one friend who said “it tastes like soil” but in that case I blame the barrista, or maybe my friend’s taste. Okay, perhaps it’s an acquired taste this one…but I would order it again which is why Starbucks is awarded the point.

Earthy and full of warm cinnamon spice and nutmeg tones, it was much better than I expected. Sweet yes, but not overly so, though a little bit of undissolved syrup stewed at the bottom which was rather sickly towards the end. Sweetened whipped cream floated on top, sprinkled with the Autumnal spices and as the cream sunk below the surface, it became velvety and thick.

The verdict? Probably not without cream, but I’d get it again. Grab it now while it’s out for Autumn!

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Starbucks 1 : Costa 1

The competition is back and it’s come to a draw thanks to Costa’s chicken fajita wrap.

The wrap was crisp, toasted perfectly and with a lovely soft and chewy texture. Inside, chunks of chicken nestled effortlessly alongside tomatoes, all snuggled up inside a blanket of melted cheese. Served hot and suitably spicy it was well worth the risk of trying. The only thing that put me off slightly? The rather unnatural pinkish colour of the wrap and the brown stripes across it; I’m going to bank on the grill pressing down on it.

For interest purposes, the map was purchased at Costa in Milton Keynes, Bucks in Cotswolds. Great service too.

Come back soon for more Starbucks vs. Costa

Not what you thought? Or maybe your favourite coffee shop does something better; don’t be selfish, tell the world!

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Let’s Do: Brunch

the full english – brunchified

It’s what Saturday and Sunday mornings were made for; to relax with the papers and a hot drink or to take the dog for a walk, to recover from the night before with a pillow over your head and the curtains closed or a chat with that special someone you haven’t seen for too long.

So when 11 o’clock comes around you’re hungry. And nothing, believe me, beats a good brunch.


Nothing before 9. Sorry early risers, you’ll have to wait. And no breakfast either! That defeats the point of the long, leisurely brunch that is centred around needing to, wanting to and enjoying eating. Around 11 is best – note the word brunch combines lunch and breakfast…it should therefore be self-explanatory when it takes place.


My favourite? Eggy bread. Cereal, toast, fruit salads, even the full English; we’re back to breakfast again. Brunch must be something out of the ordinary, a little bit lazy because it’s easy to cook but at the same time it’s satisfying and shareable. There should be a guilty but enjoyable element of disgust at your own lack of energy and carelessness about it.

For eggy bread you want two thick slices of good fresh bread, none of this silly sliced white stuff. Whisk a large egg and soak said bread on both sides. Salt and pepper. Leave to rest momentarily before frying with a small amount of heated oil. Once egg is fried and bread is hot, serve onto plate.

Extra additions may include grilled mushrooms or tomatoes. Cheese is allowed but remember, this is not a lunch-time toastie. Omelettes are acceptable also provided you don’t stray into the artisan or the gourmet with haddock or double cream. You want a good knob of butter or oil, lots of colourful veg and maybe some ham. Bacon fans, or alcohol fans, a thick bacon butty should satisfy you; no trimmings of lettuce and tomato please, this is not a coffee shop sandwich. Pancakes and scones are also good choices; choose fillings and toppings of unusual chutneys, jams (no cream – wait until afternoon tea) and sugar and lemon for the pancakes. Maple syrup will go down a sticky treat.


Relaxed. Read the paper, watch tv or listen to the radio. If you’re more sociable than I am then chat to friends, family or your cat. Eat accompanied by a large cup of tea or coffee, whatever you prefer to savour and what comforts you most. No cocktails; you are not at a Carribean island hotel, you are in Britain.

Brunch was originally defined in 1895 as a Sunday meal for “Saturday-night carousers,” combining breakfast foods and “heavier fare.” Dim Sum brunch is still popular in many Chinese restaurants and even the French use our wonderfully azy word for the combination of two meals. Oh, yeah, remember to eat enough so you don’t want lunch.

That’s brunch with me, but how do you do it?

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