On Doughnuts

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The Perfect Doughnuts – Felicity Cloake

The inspiration for this post – or, I should say, series of posts – came partly from cycling past a sign for ‘Polish doughnuts’ outside Polsmak on my way to work. Seeing that sign got me thinking – Polish doughnuts? How are Polish doughnuts different from any other? And if Poles have their own variety of doughnuts, then how many other incarnations of the sugary, fat and carb-laden joy are there on offer in this fair city? I made a decision, there and then, to try a handful, at least. I must confess this wasn’t entirely just in the name of research… I also have an eternal, undying love of such deep fried dough balls.

BBC recipe for doughnuts

There’s nothing glamorous about them – in fact, they’re the antithesis of the beautifully-crafted, styled-within-an-inch-of-their-life pâtisseries you see in shop windows. (Indeed, if this year’s ‘back to basics’ restaurant openings are anything to go by – Dirty Burger, Tramshed, Bubbledogs, Chicken Shop, I’m looking at you – surely somebody somewhere has to open a decent doughnut shop soon?) And there’s absolutely no way to eat them politely. No nibbling on a corner, no pulling apart into little bite-sized pieces – no, you have to go all in, with the same reckless abandonment as attacking an oversized burger. Except this one is often covered in sugar, which will inevitably end up everywhere. In fact, the perils of eating a doughnut are so pronounced, that Wikihow have deemed it necessary to write a How-to guide. I particularly like their warning: ‘Eating too many, will put weight on you easily.’ It is, after all, a well-known fact that the humble doughnut was Renée Zellweger’s weapon of choice when she had to put on 2 stone in 6 weeks to play Bridget Jones. Anyway, I digress.

First, I had to set a couple of ground rules. It seems like while the method of deep-frying dough is fairly ubiquitous, the actual style, shape or size varies wildly around the world. I decided to include doughnuts of all shape, size and filling. They should be, at their essence, dough – deep fried. For the means of research, I might try to track down a ‘healthy’ (gluten-free, baked) doughnut but it’s questionable as to whether it would really qualify (or, indeed, whether such a thing exists). Vitally, for my health, sanity and wallet, all the doughnuts must be available ‘to go’. I’m sure the Bomboloni di Ricotta (Italian ricotta doughnuts) at the authentic Ponti’s Kitchen, Oxford Circus are excellent, but I might get a few odd looks if I just walked in and demanded a doughnut.

Nor will I be attempting to cook them at home – I have a mild aversion to deep fat frying… I tell myself it’s because it’s unhealthy, but given the fact that I’ll quite happily eat duck confit, baklava and sticky toffee pudding sauce by the jugful, the truth is I’m probably just scared I’d set fire to the kitchen. Besides, Felicity Cloake has already gone to all the trouble of finding The Perfect Doughnut recipe, so I don’t have to.

No, all I have to do is eat.

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A sad tale

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It’s high time I put up another post… As much as you all seem to love the Hairy Bikers’ recipe (and I’ll be posting some more of my own recipes soon…) I thought I’d take the opportunity to post a restaurant review I wrote a couple of months ago for The London Word. Due to unforeseen circumstances (explained at the end of this post), they were unable to publish it – so I thought I would share it with you instead.

Le Bouchon Breton, Spitalfields

Since the redevelopment of Old Spitalfields market over the last ten years or so, the atmosphere has transformed. Upmarket brands have set up shop, and a whole spate of chain restaurants have moved in – Las Iguanas, Wagamama and The Real Greek, to name but a few. While Le Bouchon Breton is not technically a chain, it was launched in 2008 on the back of the success of its sister restaurant, Le Bouchon Bordelais in Battersea. Both attempt to convey the atmosphere and style of a traditional French brasserie – Le Bouchon Breton has black and white tiled floors, a long pewter bar, and what felt like an entirely French-speaking staff.

The menu is similarly inspired, focusing on simple French food – snails and frogs legs to start, mussels or steak frites as a main. However, it is their new Plateau de St Maxim that really offers excellent value for money.

Served on a raised platter, the sharing dish consists of a whole crab, several large prawns, a good helping of clams and mussels, calamari and a small fillet of Gunard and cod. It is served with a basket of freshly-baked brown bread and butter, a 500ml carafe of Chateau St Margerite Rose Cru Classe de Provence and comes in at a reasonable £45 for two.

There’s even a bit of theatre thrown in: upon arrival, the waiter flambées the entire platter with a shot of vodka. While probably not entirely necessary for a dish where the majority of the vodka ends up on the shells, it’s a nice gesture. Unfortunately the food came lukewarm, but the crab was succulent and sweet, and the accompanying sauce vierge brought out the best in the fish and shellfish. The paired wine was rather dry, but was still light and refreshing and complemented the dish well.

Le Bouchon Breton have also recently opened their terrace, large enough to seat about thirty. It’s a lovely addition to the restaurant, but feels a little bittersweet. It would be stunning to sit outside on a long summer’s evening, catching the last of the sun’s rays over your meal – if you closed your eyes, you could almost be in Britanny – but alas, the terrace remains firmly indoors, overlooking the central area of the market. That said, given the summer we’ve been having so far, it might not be such a bad idea after all – there aren’t many places where you can eat al fresco and not have to run for cover the moment the heavens open.

Plateau de St Maxim is available until the end of August.

Well, it would be if the restaurant were still open. Sadly just a week after my visit,  Le Bouchon Breton closed its doors. Apparently, despite the packed terrace on my visit, they just weren’t covering their costs – so either they were making a serious loss on the Plateau de St Maxim and had sold thousands, or (more likely) they just weren’t getting in enough crowds to justify the rental Old Spitalfields market probably demand.

You can still visit and support their sister restaurant, Le Bouchon Bordelais in Battersea, to stop it from heading the same way, but if you’re looking for top-notch French bistro-style dining, I’ve heard Zedel is the place to be. It’s on my Hit List.

Street Feast London

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I am lucky enough to live in one of the most innovative and interesting parts of London, food-wide (and otherwise!). It seems every week there’s a new pop-up, food stall or story that emerges about some young startup doing exciting things with food, and today was no exception. Tonight was the inaugural night of Street Feast London – the Dalston chapter. I’d never made it to its Brick Lane or Camden counterparts, but luckily for me, they’ve just moved to a new site just opposite Dalston Junction station. Since it was such a nice evening, I decided to stroll down and check it out.

Whether it was the fact that Murray had secured his place in the Wimbledon finals but an hour before, or that it was one of the nicest evenings we’ve had all “summer”, there was no denying there was a sense of laid-back (natch) jubilation in the air.

Housed in a long-disused outdoor car park/warehouse space round the back of Eastern Curve garden, the stall holders were gathered around, with one long table running down the middle.

There were about 16 stalls in attendance, from stalwarts such as Homeslice, Yum Bun and Anna Mae’s to relative newcomers such as Roost, Pop Up Barbados and Bare Grillz.

Around the corner, street artists created wall-art alongside guests making good use of the ping pong table.

With such a range of cuisines and dishes, it was difficult to decide what to go for. A goat curry from Vinn Goute?

Tacos from Buen Provecho?

Some deep-fried buttermilk chicken from Roost?

A cupcake from Molly Bakes?

Or perhaps a cone of spicy Jahl Muri from The Everybody Love Love Jahl Muri Express?

In the end, I opted for a jerk chicken wrap from Mama’s Jerk Station.

Tender pieces of chicken, rubbed with hot jerk seasoning and cooked on a hot griddle, were stuffed into a corn wrap, topped with tomato salsa, cucumber and sweetcorn, fried plantain, tropical mayonnaise and a good splash of hot sauce (£5.50). Beautiful (although I might ask them to go easy on the hot sauce next time, my mouth is on fire right now!)

With this many amazing stalls to choose from, I can see this becoming a Friday-night ritual.

Street Feast London is on every Friday until the end of August, 5pm-midnight at Thames House, Hartwell Street, E8 3DU. 

Healthy Picnic Recipes

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I’ve recently taken up running  – I’m still at the probably-would-be-faster-to-walk stage but there’s nothing like a bit of sunshine and fresh air to inspire you to eat healthily! And with weather like this, what better than to have a picnic of Wild rice veggie salad, Old-fashioned lemonade and Pecan pies?

Wild rice veggie salad
Serves 2
Ready in 20 minutes
Adapted from Turbo Charge by Jason Vale

100g long-grain & wild rice
4 asparagus stalks
2 or 3 large chestnut mushrooms, sliced

35g organic cheese, grated
large handful of watercress, rocket and spinach salad
4 spring onions, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, thinly sliced
2 dried dates, chopped

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and tip in the rice. Boil according to pack instructions, until cooked. Set a steam basket on top of the water and steam the asparagus and mushrooms for 3-4 minutes until tender. Slice the asparagus and tip into a large salad bowl. Add the mushrooms and remaining ingredients.

For the dressing, pour 2 tbsp cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil and 1 tbsp cider vinegar into a jam jar. Add 1 crushed garlic clove, 1 tbsp chopped fresh herbs (I used tarragon, mint and chives) and shake together until well combined.

Once the rice is cooked, drain and rinse for 1 minute under cold water, until cool. Tip into the salad bowl, pour over the dressing and toss everything together before serving.

Old-fashioned (sugar-free) lemonade
Makes around 2 litres
Ready in 10 minutes

You need 250ml freshly-squeezed lemon juice – for me, that was from 6 lemons, but adapt as necessary, as it’ll depend how you choose to juice the lemons. I went down the Vitamix/Juice Bag route which also made the juice quite cloudy as it included the pith, so if you’re hand-juicing, you might need a couple more (and your juice will be much clearer). Blend the lemon juice together with 1.25 litres wateraround 10 mint leaves4 tsp Truvia (or 3 tbsp caster sugar), to taste, and a large handful ice cubes. I like my lemonade quite sour, but if you start with a small amount of sugar/sweetener, you can just keep adding tsp by tsp until you’re happy with it.

Gluten-free pecan tarts
Makes 5 x 10cm tarts
Takes 1 hour
Adapted from Hairy Bikers’ Perfect Pies (since this post is one of my most popular)

350g gluten-free shortcrust pastry (I used a mixture of The Gluten Free Kitchen‘s frozen Shortcrust Pastry, and Gfree Rich Shortcrust Pastry)
2 large eggs
50ml maple syrup
25g butter, melted
35g light brown sugar
1 tbsp gluten-free flour
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
150g ground pecans (Recently bought for the bargain price of £4/kg from Natural Choice)

You will also need a 10cm tart tray – I’d recommend this one from Lakeland.

Roll the pastry out to about 1-2cm thick between two pieces of greaseproof paper or cling film (as gluten-free pasty can get a bit sticky). Using a 12-13cm cutter (or bowl), cut the pastry into five circles. Press each circle into the the tart holes, carefully making sure the pastry doesn’t tear. Blind bake the tarts at 200C/Fan 180/Gas 6 and while you’re waiting, make the filling.

Beat all of the remaining ingredients together until well combined. Once the tarts are cooked through and lightly golden, divide the mixture evenly between the tart cases. Reduce the oven temperature to 190C/Fan 170C/Gas 5 and bake for 30 minutes or until the filling is golden brown and set. Leave to cool for 15 minutes in the tray (as the pastry will now be very delicate and flaky) before removing. Serve warm with a dollop of crème fraîche or ice cream.

Pizza in the garden

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Eastern Curve Garden, Dalston

Eastern Curve Garden, Dalston (Photo credit: Alex_Pink)

Two of my favourite places in the neighbourhood – E5 Bakehouse and Dalston Eastern Curve Garden – joined forces today to host a free pizza workshop. E5 Bakehouse was set up a couple of years ago by Ben Mackinnon to revive the lost art of artisan breadmaking. Their chewy, slowly-fermented sourdough loaves are rapidly gaining a cult following in Hackney and recognition across London. Dalston Eastern Curve Garden is an incredible community garden, a stone’s throw from Dalston Junction, that’s so peaceful that as you walk around the raised vegetable and herb beds, the only way you’d realise you were in East London is seeing the street art on the wall.

The class was part of Adult Learner’s Week, which has been going on all over the country this last week, offering free taster sessions in everything from Zumba to cross-stitch. But today 20 of us were learning how to make authentic wood-fired oven pizza. Of course, part of the joy was in baking and cooking outdoors (despite the chill in the air), but if you get your oven hot enough and use a pizza stone/granite slab, I’m sure you could recreate it at home.

The mouth of the oven was the perfect place to let the dough rise

We cooked the pizzas in a clay oven, built by the community last summer. By throwing in a few logs, the oven was soon up to 515C – so just slightly hotter than your regular oven… It really does make a huge difference though: simply chuck your pizza on the peel, shimmy it onto the base of the oven and two or three minutes later, your base is risen and crispy, your toppings perfectly cooked. Jamie Oliver does a range of wood fired ovens (is there anything he hasn’t stuck his name on?) but they retail at about £1000. Quite an investment for the occasional pizza in the garden. You can, however, build a clay oven for about a tenth of the price – a project for a long weekend perhaps!

Getting the pizzas out of the oven

If you don’t have access to a wood-fired oven, I’d just stick your oven up as high as it will go and put a (clean, smooth) paving slab in to get that searing heat cooking the base all the way through. You might need to cook it for a few minutes more but you should still get a good result. Here’s what you need to get up to the point where you put the pizzas in the oven…

Ingredients (for two pizzas)
6g fresh yeast (or 3g dried yeast)
160ml warm water
20ml extra-virgin olive oil
250g strong bread flour (we used Marriage’s Strong Organic White, grown and milled in Essex)
two large pinches of salt

For the tomato sauce (makes enough for about 20 pizzas, so scale down accordingly or save leftovers for pasta sauce)
1 bulb garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 red onion, chopped
olive oil
1 large can chopped tomatoes (around 2.5kg)
small handful black peppercorns, roughly crushed

Whisk together the fresh yeast, water and olive oil, then pour into the flour and mix until it comes together in a sticky dough. Leave the dough in a warm place to rest for 10 minutes or so, then knead in the salt. Leave the dough to rest for another 10 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and stretch and knead the dough for 5 minutes. Place the kneaded dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place for another 45 minutes. Meanwhile, fry the olive oil and red onion in a large glug of olive oil. Once softened, add the chopped tomatoes and crushed peppercorns, then simmer for 10 minutes or so until slightly reduced.

Tip out the dough and stretch it out into a circle as thin as possible – try spinning it if you’re feeling brave! Next spread the tomato sauce thinly over the top and add whatever toppings you fancy. We had chorizo and salami, goat’s cheese, sundried tomatoes, freshly-roasted asparagus and courgette… And freshly-picked thyme, oregano and basil from the garden, of course.

Three minutes later, perfect pizza.

All in all it was a brilliant afternoon – meeting some other locals, gleaning some knowledge from Ben and pizza-pro Dan, and spending the afternoon cooking outdoors in the beautiful garden. Thank you to all involved!

You can find E5 Bakehouse in Arch 395, Mentmore Terrace, just by London Fields station. They’re open 7am-7pm, 7 days a week and as well as selling their excellent bread, also serve breakfasts, lunch and, on Sundays, pizza.

Dalston Eastern Curve Garden is opposite Dalston Junction Station and is currently open every day from 11am-6pm. They are launching the first ever Dalston Flower Show tomorrow, which runs for 3 weeks.

Housebites

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The premise behind Housebites is simple: good, local chefs cook up a storm and deliver to your door, for the same price as a takeaway. Entrepreneur Simon Prockter set up the site last year, after deciding he was sick of the greasy offerings from his local Dominos/Indian/Chinese, that often failed to deliver, literally.

Visit the website to see what (and who) is cooking in your area – different chefs cook on different evenings, and set their own menu and price. It’s a good bridging gap between those who are amazing chefs or cooks but can’t yet or choose not to run their own kitchen, and those who want restaurant-quality food without leaving the house. The only downside is that the popular chefs occasionally sell out – twice I logged on at 7pm (admittedly, on a Friday and Saturday night) and one of three chefs cooking in my area had nearly sold out his main dishes. So perhaps not so great for late-night take out, but brilliant if you’ve got guests coming for dinner after work and don’t have time to cook – get it all out of the (compostable) packaging and you could probably pass it off as your own!

From left to right: Risotto cakes, root vegetable salad, two dressings, regular side salad, tomato salsa, sticky toffee pudding, the root veg for the salad and vanilla whipped cream.

I ordered Risotto cakes with tomato salsa, fresh green salad and mustard dressing (£8.95) and Root Vegetable Salad (£4.95) from Danny Jack, a chef who’s recently moved to the area (to the delight of his new housebite regulars!). An hour later, Danny himself turns up on my doorstep, with his pushbike and a big brown bag of steaming hot, delicious food. The risotto cakes have a hint of lemon and are crunchy on the outside, hearty on the inside – not at all claggy or stodgy as risotto is sometimes wont to be. The tomato salsa shows off both Danny’s knife and seasoning skills with the perfect balance between sweet, salty and the heat of the red onions… very moreish! Even the mustard dressing on the mixed salad leaves is buttery, peppery and the perfect amount to properly dress the leaves.

To top it all off, Danny even included a free sticky toffee pudding and vanilla cream to introduce himself… I can’t think of a better way to say hello! The pudding itself was lovely – not too cloyingly sweet, full of fresh dates and made all the better with the mound of fresh cream. Sorry it was eaten before I took any photos!

At the moment Housebites is only available in London, but it’s launching in Reading and Brighton later this month. Visit www.housebites.com for more details.

A rainy afternoon in the kitchen

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London’s markets are some of the best in the country – whether you want vintage clothes, bric a brac, delicious coffee and cakes or just cheaper-than-chips fruit and veg, there’s going to be a market that’ll meet your need. One of my favourite East End markets is Ridley Road. Yesterday I bought 5kg of plums for £1… perfect for an afternoon of cooking in the kitchen.

The plums were transformed into 3 jars of jam, a vat of compote and one glorious, accidental cobbler. I was loosely following the Leon: Baking & Puddings recipe for Dittisham Plum Crumble but an attempt to make the crumble topping in the Vitamix resulted in a dough, so I turned it into a cobbler. A most fortuitous turn of events, in fact, as it turned out rather well.

Plum Cobbler
Serves 4-6

1kg plums, preferably tart and not too ripe
30g Truvia (I apologise, I’ve gone sugar-free for Lent, but you could also use 50g caster sugar)
3 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp King’s Ginger liqueur
For the cobble
150g plain flour
100g ground almonds
50g whole almonds
30g Truvia (or 85g brown sugar, to follow the original recipe)
a big pinch of Halen Môn Vanilla Sea Salt (although any good-quality salt will do)
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
150g cold unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Halve and stone the plums. Place them in a bowl and scatter over the Truvia, flour and King’s Ginger. Toss together to coat, then tip into a 30cm square baking dish.

Blend (or mix) all of the cobble ingredients, until they come together to form a dough, ensuring all of the pieces of butter are fully incorporated. Break the dough into lumps and dot over the plums, then bake for 40-45 minutes until golden brown, sticky and bubbling. Serve warm with ice cream and custard.

Unreal City Audio: Coffeehouse Tour

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Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you sat in a coffee shop, sipping a steaming latte/flat white/americano? If our coffee-fuelled society is anything to go by, chances are it won’t have been that long. Have you ever wondered how this magical black elixir came to be such a vital part of our culture today? Or to put it another way, have you any idea how many aspects of society have been influenced by coffee over the years?

Dr Matthew Green standing on the steps of St MichaelUnreal City Audio have just launched a Coffeehouse Tour, traversing the streets of The City exploring the rich history of London’s coffeehouses over the last 350 years. For those of you who read my previous post, Coffee Culture, and are noting some similarities, you’d be quite right. The tour was led by Dr Matthew Green, who gave the excellent lecture at Selfridges a few weeks back. However this time, we were standing on the actual sites of the coffeehouses, rather than looking at drawings and paintings, and we were joined by actors and musicians, who brought the historical documents to life.

I won’t rehash all of the history from the previous post, nor do I wish to spoil the tour for any future participants, but I hope to capture some of its essence and persuade you to book in for the next date – I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. Enough of the preamble: to the tour.

We meet in front of St Michael’s church, an unassuming building on Cornhill, now hidden amongst the surrounding office and tower blocks. Fittingly enough, we’re opposite a Starbucks, and several of the tour members are clutching a coffee in a desperate attempt to stave off the -1°C chill. Matthew greets us and we start to retrace the steps of our coffee-drinking ancestors.

The first stop is the The Jamaica Wine House, which stands on the site of London’s first ever coffeehouse, set up by Pasqua Rosee. Three hundred and fifty years ago, we would have been standing at the residential core of London. As vivid and evocative as Matthew’s descriptions are, it’s difficult to imagine that this peaceful courtyard would have been a bustling metropolis and Pasqua Rosee seems like a fictional character long since forgotten. That is, of course, until a triangle is dinged and we are transported back in time… The soulful notes of a violin come drifting around the corner, and then Pasqua Rosee himself comes leaping out from an alleyway, hawking his coffee, exuberantly expressing the ‘vertue of the coffee drink’ in his thick Greek/Turkish accent.

It is excellent to prevent and cure the Dropsy, Gout and Scurvy. It is known by experience to be better than any other Drying Drink for People in years, or Children that have any running humors up on them, as the Kings Evil. It is very good to prevent Mis-carryings in Child-bearing Women. It is a most excellent Remedy against the Spleen, Hypocondriack Winds, or the like.

Extract from The vertue of the coffee drink, a bill published by Pasqua Rosee, c.1652.
 

In the quiet of The City on a Saturday, Pasqua Rosee’s flamboyance (played by Jonathan Hansler) echoes around the courtyards, attracting a few inquisitive stares from passersby. And so the tour continues, with in-depth historical information and anecdotes interspersed with captivating performances – the ghosts of 17th century London brought alive by a simple Pavlovian ding of the triangle. Matthew acted as our guide not just to the streets and alleyways of the city, but to the characters who walked those streets and whose lives were shaped (and in some cases, destroyed) by coffee over three centuries ago.

We continue down Lombard Street, and arrive at what was once Lloyds’ Coffeehouse– the first port of call for weary men coming off the ships, bringing news of the colonies. It soon evolved into London’s first insurance broker. Time moves on relentlessly and the site is now a Sainsbury’s, the counter that once housed underwriters and financial backers now home to ‘Meat & Fish’. It’s this juxtaposition that makes you realise how easy it is to miss the underlying history of this ever-changing city. We stop briefly at Garraway’s and Jonathon’s coffeehouses (birthplaces of the auction house and stock market respectively).

Passing our sixth Starbucks of the tour, we at last hear of the global brand that – love it or hate it – has taken over our high streets. A short polemic on the prolific chain follows from both Matt and Pasqua Rosee, who has been catapulted into the present day only to discover that someone else realised his dream of creating multiple coffee shops across the city and that to his horror, it is not a Turk’s but a mermaid’s head that hangs above the door.

We continue to the steps of St Paul’s, where a hot cup of Turkish coffee is gratefully gulped down, regardless of the grit and bitterness, before moving onto Fleet Street. I won’t list all the sights and coffeehouses we visited but suffice to say I had no idea the square mile was quite so overflowing with history. Indeed, it made me wonder what legacies we are leaving behind. Will the Gherkin, London Eye and Shard still be standing in 350 years time? What about the underground? (I have serious doubts it can survive the summer, let alone a couple of centuries, but I digress.)

Sign saying Ye Olde Cheshire CheeseThe tour ends at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, which was quite a revelation. Whilst it has always been a pub, not a coffeehouse, it does date back to the 16th century, so its decor is similar to that which you would have found in many a coffee shop of 1667 (following the Great Fire). Low ceilings, big oak beams, dark wooden panelling and exposed brick in the cellars… It’s the perfect place to end a fascinating and captivating tour.

Unreal City Audio are running the Coffeehouse tour (£12) on 24th March (11:30am and 3pm), and a special Chocolate Tour (£15) on 7th April at 3pm.

Coffee Culture

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Bookcase full of booksI’ve just returned from a lecture – at Selfridges of all places – titled Coffee Culture. Rather than discussing the ubiquitous sub-culture of addiction to caffeine and milk that is plaguing our cities worldwide, it instead looked at the fascinating history of London’s coffee houses, as they were once known, from their creation in the mid-seventeenth century to their demise in the late nineteenth.

For just over a month (until 1 March), Selfridges’ Ultra Lounge has been transformed into a library of floor-to-ceiling books. Inventive displays fill the walls. Seemingly ancient typewriters are up and running, offering an inescapable draw for anyone old enough to remember how to use a typewriter to leave a note to the next visitor on the blank white page. There’s an eclectic selection of books, all available for you to browse or even sit down and read on one of the supremely comfortable sofas. For free. There’s also a series of events and lectures.

Tonight’s lecture was given by Dr Matthew Green, with additional moments of brilliance from Somerled Mackay, who brought all of the historical quotes to life.

Matthew Green talking at lecture

First London Coffee House blue plaque

It was Pasqua Rosée, a Greek man who had spent much of his life in Turkey and on the Dalmation coast, who set up London’s first coffee house in 1652. His shack was positioned in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill and before long, queues were stretching down the alleyway, filled with weary Londoners desperately in need of a shot of the dark stuff to wake them up. Not all that different from today, you might think.

However, the very essence of the coffee shop was entirely different. Today you enter a Starbucks and find most people on their laptops, mobiles or at the very least huddled in twos and threes.

An early image of Edward Lloyd's Coffee House,...

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee houses were where one went to discuss current affairs, politics and all important matters. In fact, certain coffee shops were known for their particular specialty – St James Square for media, Westminister for politics, The City and East London for news from the colonies. And they were a much more communal affair. Long tables dominated the upper rooms (for they were rarely found on the ground floor). Once you paid your penny entrance fee, you’d be accosted with a ‘What news?’. Offer up a snippet of new news, gossip or information and your fellow coffee-drinkers would surreptitiously shuffle around the table to create a space. Several of the hundreds of daily and weekly newspapers (after the stringent laws on licensing were lifted in 1694) would be scattered across the table. The coffee houses were dominated by men. Other than those on the extreme ends of the social scale – duchesses attending an astronomy lecture and whores looking to pick up business – women did not enter coffee houses, for risk of tarring their reputation.

By the end of the 17th century, there was one coffee shop for every 180 or so Londoners (if you think that doesn’t sound like much, today it stands at about one for every 780). Interestingly, Pasqua Rosée was way ahead of his time with his branding. Rather than the head of a mermaid, he hung a sign with an image of his own head above his shack – The Turk’s Head. At a time when literacy was a skill only attributed to the upper classes, the pictures hanging above each shop dictated what it sold. Adam and Eve above an apple shop, a unicorn above an apothecary shop and, in many a case, a Turk’s head above a coffee house. [EDIT: Literacy was, it seems, more widespread in the late 17th century than I first thought. However, the tradition of having pictures instead of words above a shop still continued. Thanks to Roger for pointing this out!]

Coffee shops grew more and more popular as the British empire, and in turn, the middling classes, prospered. However, they ultimately fell out of favour as technology and methods of communicating news developed. The final traditional coffee house closed but two months after the Transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in the 1860s. Coffee houses, as a source of news, had been replaced by much faster and more accurate methods. And of course, the arrival of tea at the end of the 19th century didn’t help matters either.

Apart from a short Victorian misguided revival (in an attempt to get those darstadly scoundrels out of the alehouses), the coffee house more or less disappeared until the 1950s.

English: Cup of Costa coffee.

At first, they sprang up in Soho, at a time when teenage culture was developing and the new generation were wanting to revel in their post-war freedom. They remained fairly low-key and independent until the 1990s. Costa Coffee, first opened in 1978, was bought out by Whitbread in 1995. Pret a Manger was founded in 1986, Caffe Nero in 1997 and the first UK Starbucks opened in 1998. We’re now experiencing an ever-growing selection of ‘Third Wave’ coffee shops, set up often by Antipodeans as a backlash against the watery substances chains are pumping out. Small independents that painstakingly do everything thing they can to create The Best Cup of Coffee. It’s become a bit of a Holy Grail for many, myself included.

Matthew took an interesting viewpoint though – he said he’d be quite happy to drink instant (involuntary gasp) if there was an interesting person to sit next to and strike up conversation with. Now there’s a refreshing thought. What if coffee shops did become more like those in the days of lore, where people sat round and discussed current affairs, or interesting people they’d met, or even gave a snippet of their life story? One thing I’ve found from my travels is that every single person has a story to tell. It’s a sobering thought to think that there are 7.5 million stories wandering around London, brushing past each other on daily basis, waiting to be uncovered… if we just had the courage to strike up conversation.

Crowd of LondonersCoffee Culture was held as part of Selfridges’ Words Words Words festival, in conjunction with The Idler Academy, a bookshop (that serves coffee), has one large table and encourages discussion. They also hold a series of lectures, workshops and courses on everything from Latin to Ukuleles. 

If you’d like to hear the Coffee Culture talk in person, it’s on again on 29 February at The Idler Academy, 81 Westbourne Park Rd, W2 5QH. 

The Versatile Blogger Award

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It turns out this blogging business it harder to keep up than I thought. I’ve a long list of coffee shops, cookery schools and products I want to tell you about, but finding the time recently to write about them has been a problem. Besides, nobody really reads this, right?

Well, it turns out I was wrong! The lovely author of The Delgrosso Food Blog has not only been reading (really? people I don’t know? all over the world?) but has also nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award. OK it’s kind of like those chain letters that as a teenager you had to copy out and send to 7 other people, but it’s actually a great way to find out about some new blogs and connect with others who are on the same wavelength.

The Versatile Blogger

So here’s how it works:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link back to them in your post
  2. Share 7 things about yourself
  3. Pass the award onto 15 other blogs you enjoy reading
  4. Contact the bloggers to let them know they’ve been nominated.

7 things you didn’t know about me
I’ll try and keep this short and sweet. This blog isn’t really meant to be about me, so I’ll let you in on my favourite things… all potential posts for the future! My favourite…

  1. Food: Pie & mash- preferably Steak & Ale, with cheesy mash and always with a mound of peas, gravy optional
  2. Coffee shop: St Ali’s, Clerkenwell
  3. Salted caramel (and trust me, I’ve tried a lot): Fran’s Chocolates– sadly only available in Seattle
  4. London market: Broadway, with Columbia Road a close second
  5. Guilty pleasure: Glee/Desperate Housewives and a Boost bar
  6. Restaurant: Corner Room, Bethnal Green
  7. Cookery school: Waitrose, Finchley Road

And the nominees are…
I’m going to break the mould a bit, so here are my top ten blogs that I love. Some recipe-based, some story-based, some funny, some serious, most beautifully-photographed, and all worth a good read. There’s a world of talented food writers out there!