l’elisir d’amore.

steaming cup of heaven pic by liz clayton

I have kind of a reputation for being a coffee junkie. I don’t know why. I grew up in the pre-latte era when coffee was generally kind of gross and I only used it when I truly needed it (was up all night reading chaucer in middle english out loud much to my housemates’ horror). I remember in the 1990s when I stopped at the newsbar every day for an iced cappuccino but they could never do it right and I always ended up holding a big glass of iced heavy cream with nowhere near enough coffee in it! (I actually dropped three quarters of a stone when I ceased going there, and my stress levels dropped too, because I saved $780 a year on badly prepared, undercaffeinated goo.) then, in the time out new york era, I used to show up for work without having consumed my morning fix, and I would sit at my desk with a giant tumbler filled with home-brewed espresso, ice, rice milk and soya milk. “what’s in the big cup?” people in the tiniest and slowest elevator in manhattan were aching to know. yes, I think it’s my slow-moving morning persona that makes my friends believe I practically need a giant syringe full of coffee just seconds after rolling out of bed. and then there I was in london in 2006, having been made redundant from a silly job and stuck in my bed with a bad cold for days, I decided to see if I could go without the black elixir. and guess what? I could. I replaced my morning ritual with a queen-cup full of something called Wake Cup (or Wake Up, depending on the brand), which is some kind of guarana-spiced barley coffee replacement thing, with a few mugfuls of white and green tea to make up for the lack of caf, and I was just fine! fine. until my dad died in 2007, forcing me to jet back and forth over the atlantic while coping with the emotional exhaustion of grief and funerals and such, and I found myself unable to prop my eyelids open while doing my silly freelance editing gigs. so my love of coffee has been renewed now, thanks in part to…

1. before flat white, I’m pretty sure there was no such thing as a decent mug of java to be had in my beloved city of london. thanks to some coffee “artisans” from new zealand and australia, now there is coffee worth heading to even soho for. yum. that’s all I have to say.
2. portland is a city that loves me back just by having soymilk at the airport, but the locals took me to stumptown, a fine idea. this is a town that cares about where its consumables come from.
3. I had heard a piece on npr about some silverlake coffee stand that costs a mint, but when I got to intelligentsia, I didn’t think it was so costly. but if you stay here day and night using the free wifi, I’m sure it adds up. delish.
4. it wasn’t until cf contributor and fellow zinester-photographer liz clayton came to visit me in durham that I even knew about counter culture, but I’m glad I do now. the packaging alone would be worth the cost of these but the beans are divine.
5. and really, I don’t pretend to be some kind of knowledgeable coffee snob like our lady ms. clayton — who has been known to go around tricking even the naturally caffeinated people into believing they cannot live without fresh beans — I’m not. but I would definitely consult her coffee blog for any future outings. there are options, people! use them. no one can justify going to a starbucks anymore!

14 Replies to “l’elisir d’amore.”

  1. [before flat white, I’m pretty sure there was no such thing as a decent mug of java to be had in my beloved city of london.]

    I don’t believe you.

    London, as Mr Shadrack said in Billy Liar, is a big place … a very, very big place. And it has been here for a long time … a very, very long time. Heaven knows, some things in life are terribly difficult to do, at least for me; but making coffee is not the hardest of them. Please, give us a little more credit than this.

  2. blue room r.i.p.! but tinderbox is better, natch. still waiting for the crypal branch to open. in my dreams!

    your comments are fair enough when it comes to a hot cuppa. but I’ve always thought if london’s indie java shops would embrace the perfection that is the coffee milkshake frappe-type genre – not iced coffee, mind, for this will not pass my lips – I wouldn’t have to rely on starbucks as often as I sometimes do.

  3. i must confess, at the risk of offending all those flat w. artisans, that every time i have a cup of their eponymous brew … it is COLD. now, that’s a real fly in the ointment for me. maybe it’s intentional? can anyone clarify? when i get a flat white anywhere else it’s pipin’ hot. what gives?

    i’m so inspired by your rice and soy milkscafeshake a la gailu.

    jb you gotta name some places. avoiding chains. i think what the column may really be about is: soy + coffee places. even for this i think london is pretty ok, overall. there’s no worse country for that than my homeland. you’ll find me in every starbucks in madrid. i can’t really complain about london, where even pret makes a decent soya macchiatto. but if boris wins i’m outta here.

    heads up to domali in crypal region (haven’t tried the blue mountain cafe yet, in gipsy), to faborit (in extended london hood of retiro/salamanca) and to tony, the dedicated barista at work. tastes good when it’s free.

    me llamo half-pint.

  4. fair points all. lupester goes to flat white a lot more often than I do (fly in ointment just sounds gross no matter what you talking bout). domali in cry pal does a nice cup, as does tinderbox. generally, though, the UK is not the west coast of USA when it comes to options.

    who knew I needed to address important topics such as COFFEE to get the comments rolling!

  5. well, coffee is an important topic. it is one of life’s constants, for some of us – I would say necessities, but you already pointed out in the original post that one can find ways out of the dependency. and the storytelling in your original post was interesting, TO/NY elevator and all.

    I’m sure there are many lovely sources of coffee all around the world – west coast USA, NYC, Milan, Brasilia, who knows. I’m sure that the places you mentioned are lovely to go to and drink coffee at (though I don’t like the sound of it cold, when you want it hot). but I just followed the link to yr flat white place, and it says it only opened in 2005. It really is not ok to say that one could not drink coffee in London before 2005. there are two aspects to this.

    1. food / drink snobbery – I really don’t like the attitude (prevalent all over the place) that “you haven’t eaten tapas till you’ve eaten at x”, “oh, we *never* buy bagels except from Mr Y” – this kind of talk is too exclusive and self-aggrandizing and I think it’s largely based on falsehood and self-delusion. there is good food and drink everywhere. you can make it yourself. fish cooked by my mother is more satisfying to me than the insanely overpriced platter (just monkfish and a couple of new potatoes, nothing much else) I had at fishy specialists El Pescatore on Charlotte Street. yes, it probably, very often, is (ethically / politically) good to support local producers, small outlets, etc – I’m in favour of that. but that shouldn’t lead to one-upmanship and sneering at other people just cos they don’t have the same expensive culinary bistros on their doorstep, don’t buy all their tomatoes at a Devonian farmer’s market, or whatever.

    so the first answer to where to get good coffee in London is – right here, wherever you are. I have an empty cafetiere of the (fairtrade) stuff next to me, and it was probably as good as any filter coffee I could go out for; good enough for me, anyway.

    but also

    2. it is not OK to say that London couldn’t do coffee before 2005, cos look at the history. Jurgen Habermas wrote an influential book in 1962 called The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, whose premise was partly re. the importance of London’s coffee houses in forming a discursive civil society in the C18. For a full and detailed history of those, see:

    — see, first London coffee house opened 1652! From the description:

    “For a hundred years the coffee-house occupied the centre of urban life, creating a distinctive social culture by treating all customers as equals. Gossip, dissent and sedition were exchanged and debated around their egalitarian tables. Merchants held auctions of goods, writers and poets conducted discussions, scientists demonstrated experiments and gave lectures, philantropists deliberated reforms. Coffee-houses thus played a key role in the explosion of political, financial, scientific and literary change in the 18th century. The stock market, insurance companies, political parties and the scientific symposium had their birth in the coffee-house.”

    I don’t know what it tasted like back then, to be sure. But remember also that London is among the greatest polyglot and immigrant cities in the world. Through the C20 Italians introduced different varieties of coffee to this city, and the New Left (Stuart Hall, Raphael Samuel, et al) in the 1950s / 1960s was centred around the cappucino bars around Greek Street.

    after all that, anyone who says London has only just woken up to coffee … well, how would a New Yorker feel if I announced that it had been impossible to get a decent glass of wine in Manhattan until xyz bar opened a couple of years ago? after they’d finished laughing, they’d likely run me out of town on an iron girder.

    btw, yes, if BJ wins, we are all in trouble, and will need something stronger than coffee.

  6. name places! your favorite coffee place?

    something else, against the west coast coffee etc: my one pet peeve about coffee (apart from: wateriness/coldness/bitterness/etc) is when it’s just too BIG. and guess where i get served a well of it even when i ask for a small?

  7. I wish I had a favourite coffee place. I don’t really think in those terms – if you need to go for coffee, you have to go where you can get it. and most of my coffee is made and drunk at home. the kind of couture cafeterias you probably have in mind are not generally on my map. recommendations welcome, I’ll look forward to going if near.

    for a favourite coffee place, really, I would have to delve back into memory: to the late 1980s when I was a teen exploring central London for the first time – nothing arcane, all very mainstream, but quite enough for me. the standard Italian cafes of those days – New Era on Shaftesbury Avenue, Stefano’s on Longacre – would become auratic, just because I had bought a caramel square and clutched a record to my nervy bosom in the booth of one. those places are mostly gone, or renovated, or transformed now. maybe no bad thing; London should probably not revolve around a 15-year-old’s affections.

    while it is almost inarguable that some coffee is better than other coffee, it is also true that the experience of a cup of coffee is heavily dependent on contextual factors (including time of day, mood, how much else drunk; food accompaniment; company, location, atmosphere) – just as the first glass of wine of the day, at 6 o’clock after hours of labour, is likely more delightful than the 7th in the muzzy shadowed hours when you’ve lost count, though what’s in the glass may be the same. well, even the crummiest Burger King styrofoam cup can probably be the sweetest cup of coffee in the world if you’re sharing it with your loved one just before they go. though that sentence looks a lot more autobiographical than it is.

    I can’t say I have a problem with coffee cups being too big, especially given what they typically cost; but at home, especially since I embraced black coffee only and its accompanying sense of strength, I now like to drink it out of the dainty little green espresso cups that none other than Pamela B once gave me for a present.

  8. when i first started work in london in 1997, i was sent out to a pret to get coffees for the team, and i stared in wonder at the list of coffee choices and the espresso machine; coming from edinburgh, i had never seen anything so… american-looking before. i also remember seeing the first starbucks on oxford st, which i approved of because there is a character called starbuck in moby dick, which was then my favourite book.

    flat white is shockingly overpriced. £2.70 for a coffee?

    in berlin they serve huge soup bowls of foamy cappuccino, i can’t remember what they’re called but i don’t much like them. that’s my contribution to your coffee controversy.

  9. I would like to endorse what I take to be the spirit, or perhaps more simply the substance, of those remarks.

    I also apologize for misspelling the word ‘cappuccino’ above.

    Here is a poor quality photograph of one of those cups that Pamela gave me:

    Next time he is in, or on, Long Island, Alasdair might like to try eating at one of these places:

    The number of them that are on Walt Whitman Road surely adds to the appeal.

  10. Alas, I don’t think those links will take you anywhere. Well – call me Queequeg, and I’ll have a latte, thanks.

  11. flat white is expensive, but I don’t think they’re any more so than any other chain coffee in london and since they are not a (big) chain I guess they have to worry about paying rent too in soho! if their brew is cold, then forget it. the blue room had a good cup. ray’s jazz café does a nice coffee.

  12. after new research, I can report that what was once New Era (actually closer to Denmark Street) is now Cafe Mezzo, and that if you stop there, 1980s-style, on a Saturday afternoon and ask if you can just have a cup of coffee they will turn you away.

    wound up at another place in Neal Street where the coffee, under a raindropped skylight, was OK, really quite tasty.

    Gail is right to say that it’s expensive everywhere, really; except of course in one’s own home.

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