FOOD & DRINK / When Coffee met Torte, Eclair, Fruit Loaf: Helen Simpson chases the ideal cup'n'cake combination through the cafes and tearooms of the Big Smoke and beyond

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
COULD coffee-and-cake be the safest current form of self-indulgence? Banished are the old associations of unmerry widows gossiping in plush gloom over Black Forest gateau and Viennese coffee. It can happen, unlike afternoon tea, at any time of day or night. And it has a continental glamour, particularly in the newest Italian coffee bars.

In pursuit of the perfect equation - strong, well-made coffee balanced by a confection of appropriate density and richness - I visited more than a score of coffee shops. I tasted many excellent cakes in my travels, starting in London's continental marketplace, Soho, on through its central shopping areas, still in the weary grip of the sales, and on out to the cosiness of tearooms in Henley-on-Thames. But I also discovered that it is surprisingly difficult to find a decent cup of coffee.

Places under Italian ownership can usually be relied upon, however. In Soho's venerable Bar Italia, 22 Frith Street, London W1 (enormous four-handled Gaggia machine), you have to drink your coffee perched on a stool in cramped smokey surroundings with loud noise from the non-stop video screen and game machines at the back of the shop. Many former fans have defected to Caffe Nero (La Cimbali coffee machine), which sprang up a couple of years ago across the road at 43 Frith Street, and claim that this is where to find the best espresso and cappuccino in London. It is certainly more spacious, and makes its own excellent cakes - Amaretti chocolate mousse cake, Torta della Nonna, Selva Nera, Toscanella - but you still have to stand or perch at a bar.

Nearby, Soho's rival patisseries, the long-established Maison Bertaux, 28 Greek Street, and Patisserie Valerie, 44 Old Compton Street, also make sure that you are sitting uncomfortably. Both look as though they were last decorated in 1953 and haven't been touched since. Maison Bertaux, which has four tiny tables in the shop and a few more in the bedroom-sized room upstairs, delights in its own shabbiness, baking smells and friendly long-term staff. Particularly good are the apple and almond tarts and the hazelnut slices, though the coffee is rather weak. Patisserie Valerie is larger and livelier. Here, you squash up at red Formica-topped tables, drink good coffee and eat the showiest cakes in town.

The Monmouth Coffee House, 27 Monmouth Street, London WC2, sells coffee beans and has four tiny tables with agonising short-shanked high-backed seating at the back of its shop, where you can taste its own coffee blends with a Mirabelle slice. Also in Covent Garden, Boswell's Coffee House at 8 Russell Street, is the place where Boswell first met Dr Johnson (7 pm, 16 May 1763), although it wasn't a coffee house then. The coffee is mediocre, the cakes good (bought in from Patisserie Valerie), and the surroundings are touristy 'historical', humming with refrigerator and lavatorial noises.

Costa's Coffee Shops shine like beacons in otherwise comfortless areas like Waterloo and London Bridge stations; excellent coffee, but they are tiny and cramped, and the cakes are mostly boxed. Good strong coffee can also be found in the Delices de France chain of cafes (61 Church Road, London SW13; 19 St John's Hill, London SW11; 16-17 Crystal Palace Parade, London SE19 and 1 Kynance Place, Gloucester Road, London SW7), which are packed with mothers munching pains aux raisins and palmiers, telling each other how much they've got to lose before they're back to pre- Jessica weight, and Jessica, will you sit down and take that straw out of your nose.

My tastings led me to one gastronomic conclusion. Pretty French pastries and fruit tartlets are best taken with tea; coffee is far better off with chocolate tortes or with the dense Teutonic cakes where ground hazelnuts are used instead of flour, or with plain pound cakes and dried fruit loaves in the British manner.

Outside London, many individual cafes and tearooms bake their own cakes, often very good if you don't mind surrounding chintz and horse brasses. In Henley-on-Thames Asquith's Teddy Bear Shop (corner of Bell Street and New Street) has a timbered upstairs room where you can drink coffee and choose from good sponge cakes, fruit cake, Millionaire's Shortbread and biscuit bears with their ears and paws dipped in chocolate, all baked on the premises. Up the road at 22 Hart Street is the long-established Old Rope Walk, with substantial rock cakes, date slices and shortbread (only for those long in the sweet tooth - pushchairs are banned).

Look out, too, for local specialities, like the sweet yeasted Sally Lunn cake at The Sally Lunn Shop, 4 North Parade Passage, Bath, or the quintessential Bakewell tart at Bloomers, Matlock Street, Bakewell, Derbyshire. Generally, the further north you go, the better the baking; test the truth of this by sampling the home-baked cakes in the tearooms attached to most National Trust properties. The snag with most of these places will not be the cake or comfort side of the equation, but the coffee.

Finest and most curious of all our native cakes are the Maids of Honour at Newens, 288 Kew Road, Kew Gardens. Here the coffee is reasonable and the room in the English Cosy style, while the cakes are excellent. Unshowy Madeira cakes, sponge cakes and Congress tarts are made to the same recipes as those used by the original owner whose sepia, knickerbockered image hangs above the shop counter. The Maids of Honour are a Tudor survival, puff pastry tartlets with a curd cheese filling made from milk curdled with rennet, and quite delicious.

The usefulness of coffee as a sharpener and cake to boost the blood sugar of sales-shoppers, leads us back to central London in January. Fenwick of New Bond Street serves better-than-average coffee in prosaic surroundings. Across the road, Liberty of Regent Street has a basement coffee shop, this one more 'decorated', in traditional Liberty colours, and the coffee comes in small cafetieres. Beware the horrible queue.

A detour worth making from Oxford Street is to Maison Sagne, 105 Marylebone High Street, a patisserie established over 70 years ago, its walls painted with pillars and rose trees and faded cerulean skies. Coffee arrives in a silver pot, a jug of hot milk with it. The cakes are the work of experts, little short pastry cases filled with honeyed walnuts, thin fragile Florentines and dense chocolate torten.

Over in Knightsbridge, Harrods has various tea and coffee shops within its acreage, but the nicest is the Dress Circle on the second floor: weak cappuccino with sad froth, but excellent sliced cake loaves, also four sorts of muffin, and frosted chocolate brownies. Harvey Nichols has a new cafe on its recently opened Fifth Floor Food Hall. It is the opposite of cosy, with lots of visible rivets and primrose metal plates. The cakes, baked on the premises, are very good and varied - superior Danish pastries, eclairs, flapjacks, lemon meringue tart, chocolate and banana tart. The coffee is disappointing. Espresso arrives looking good in a little lapis blue cup and saucer, with a glass of water, but is neither strong nor hot.

Cross the road to Richoux, 86 Brompton Road, which makes a brave stab at the sumptuous, and succeeds at least in being comfortable - no mean consideration for the serious shopper. It is a bizarre mishmash of styles, with elaborate wallpaper and carpets, tapestried chairs, and, for some unfathomable reason, waitresses in floor-length dresses with frilly aprons. The coffee is rather weak and the cakes unremarkable. A few doors along is Gloriette, 128 Brompton Road. A print of Klimt's The Kiss hangs in the homely upstairs coffee room, and the menu lists Viennese specialities - Linzer hazelnut slices, Esterhazy layer cake, Wiener Apfel Strudel and Sachertorte. Though some of the cakes are less good than others, Gloriette's is authentically gemutlich and serves good strong coffee.