Somebody sent me this pic and wondered if I’d resumed a former life – we had a bar/restaurant for five years – but it turns out this splendid café is in India. We’ve thought seriously about opening a café on several occasions. We like meeting people and I love cooking, but never got round to it.
We’re very much ‘café people’ and most days you’ll find us slurping a cup/mug/glass of brown stuff somewhere or other. We’re picky though. On this trip alone, we’ve had a ‘coffee’ in any number of places and been underwhelmed in the main.
G is the really fussy one. To the point of obsession some say, well me anyway. I remember him writing something about cafes once and asked him to dig it out. Here are the thoughts of a café society obsessive!
Where I’m living, for now as it’s a variable concept, there are at least two dozen bars/restaurants/cafes where a contemplative soul may choose to pass a reflective hour watching one’s fellows meander past. They all serve coffee, in one form or another, and none are part of a National Chain. No Starbucks, no Costa, no Caffè Nero where a coffee aficionado knows in advance what he/she’ll be getting.
Forgive a momentary gripe, but is it really necessary for a request for a cup of coffee to involve so much rigmarole? Okay, I’m a simple soul and can just about tell the difference between a flat white, cappuccino or latte – only just about, mind you – but when a request becomes an inquisition: ‘is that with legs?’ meaning to take away, apparently, or any references to First Crack and the like, that some clever-clogs Barista with – let's be kind and say – five hours of training behind him/her demands to know will leave me whimpering in frustration.
I’ve developed an odd fixation in the past year: when in the UK I expect, nay demand, newspapers to read with my coffee, even to the point at which this provision assumes greater importance than the coffee itself. Telegraph, Times, Guardian, and the I as a poor substitute for the now departed Independent: any and all of these are fine. Anything else and I’m inclined to sulk.
Even worse is some selfish git hogging the paper I want to read. What used to be a simple quest for refreshment has become a strategic battle, fought on a daily basis between myself and the half dozen or so equally obsessed individuals who regard the gratis newspapers as being there solely for our own gratification. Yes, I do mean you, Mister cravat-wearing hogger of the Times who sits there pondering the crossword clues while resting his stupid tweed hat on all the other sections of the paper. Oh, don’t get me started!
This morning was a Bank Holiday so three of my usual haunts were closed. Yes, it’s a holiday, there are legions of people roaming the streets who are usually at work, but let’s close the café and take a day off. Hmm! I pressed on and reached the newest venture: it’s smart with leather armchairs and a menu board chalked on the wall. It used to be a deli, but not of the kind anyone who’d lived for any time in Europe would call a deli.
It’s next door to a rough old dive, uncomfortable wooden chairs, surly owners and plastic tablecloths. Needless to say, the rough old dive is packed, every day. I’d glanced in, seen all tables were full and every newspaper had a reader, and moved next door.
The new place is all shiny chrome, leather sofas, stripped pine floors and young girls eager to take your order. It’s also empty. It always is. Okay, the place next door has a Bohemian charm, but that’s about it. The new one has better seating, better staff and the cups appear to have been washed recently. It also has newspapers.
I pick out a leather armchair in the window with plenty of light for reading and order a large latte. It arrives in a tall glass and I make a mental note to ask for a mug in future. Yes, I know a latte is always served in a tall glass, but I have plebeian tastes.
The coffee is good and the papers are fresh, crisp and as yet unread. There’s a range of sugar/sweeteners on offer and the armchair is comfortable enough to make me want to take it home with me. I should be happy. But I’m not.
I’m the only person in here and there’s not a whiff of atmosphere. Ambience. It’s an odd concept, isn’t it? That comfortable sense of belonging when in the presence of others, all of us happy to be there, drinking our coffee, watching passers-by, chatting away. I miss it.
I sip away, turn pages and ruminate. Outside, it’s raining and the poor wretches who have looked forward to a day off work for weeks are scurrying past, misery etched on furrowed brows. I’m warm, dry and should be content, but I’m not. This place is like a Chapel of Repose.
The girl wanders from behind the counter, tops up the tin containers with fresh sugar twists, and wanders back. She must be wondering how long this job will last. It’s cost an arm and a leg fitting out this place and in the past hour there’s been one customer. A scruffy bloke making a single cup of coffee last long enough to read three entire newspapers. That’s me, by the way.
I finish, return the papers to the rack and pay. Outside, it’s stopped raining and I walk back the long way. The café next door is still heaving; every hard, uncomfortable seat occupied and three of the four staff are outside, having a ciggie break. I make an instant decision to become a trendsetter: patronise only the new place in future and hope for others to see the light as well.
I walk home along the sea front. The tide’s in and there’s a big swell on the sea. As it’s a Bank Holiday, there’s an ice-cream van on the promenade. He’s not seeing much in the way of trade as most people out today are muffled up like me, hustling by, hunched against the wind. I know him, slightly, so stop to say hello.
‘Bad day,’ I say, for some reason, nodding at the scudding clouds.
‘Yeah. Waste of time being here, but nothing else to do,’ he offers in reply. ‘Want a spot of this?’ He nods to a flask on the counter next to him. It’s one of those big, tartan jobs, holding about five gallons of liquid. ‘Coffee. Warm you up. I’ve got cups.’
‘Thanks very much,’ I say and he does the honours. I’m standing on a wind-swept promenade, a wild sea at my back, elbow resting on the counter of an ice-cream van, drinking coffee from a beaker that says ‘World’s Best Dad’ on the side. Do you know what? It tastes delicious.
He smiles. ‘Bit special, ‘aint it? Camp coffee, milk, dash of evaporated milk to give it a bit of flavour. Never drink anything else. Got chicory in, see? Makes all the difference.’
I nod, take another sip. Now I know why I like it. Camp coffee, in a brown bottle, is a taste from my childhood. There were others: Bev and Bon, I think, of a similar nature, but Camp was the brand I remember best from my Gran’s larder.
In the often harsh environment of my youth there were few happy memories. One was playing football, twenty a side, in the street until it became too dark to see the jumpers that marked the goals, but another was the tastes and smells of childhood. Sugar butties – bread and butter, never margarine, sprinkled with sugar – washed down with what was always called ‘proper coffee.’
Instant coffee came from America as brown powder in a jar with Maxwell House on the side. In my Gran’s house, it was the spawn of the devil. Proper coffee came in a tall, slim bottle, had brown smears around the screw cap and the label said ‘Camp.’
I finished my coffee and thanked my host. ‘Have another,’ he said. ‘I’ve got plenty.’
‘Go on, then. Don’t mind if I do.’