The Joys of Modern Life

24. Coffee
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I CAN go on the equivalent of a pub crawl, in which caffeine replaces alcohol as the wicked stimulant, by walking the short distance between my flat and Notting Hill Gate. Start at Cullens with two nice, smooth caffe lattes, followed up by an espresso at Maison Blanc. Now on to the heavy stuff.

At Starbucks, a tall, skinny capp with extra froth and cinnamon topping. At Coffee Republic, a grande iced semi-mochaccino plus shot of caramel syrup. Finally, at the Seattle Coffee House, a triple goliath macchiato with banana-flavoured Nesquik and a cocktail umbrella. Here, shuddering like a plugged-in Black and Decker, I raise my brimming paper cup and toast those brave pioneers who believed that not everyone in Britain is obsessed with PG Tips.

It is hard, for a coffee-lover, to imagine life without these magnificent establishments, yet only a few years ago a cappuccino was regarded as a suspect foreign confection and the British drank Mellow Birds for their elevenses.

Those were the days of "coffee shops", in which the coffee tasted of groats, of a half-teaspoon of Nescafe dissolved in parboiled water, of liquidised Terry's All Gold coffee creams mixed with gravy granules...

Then, of course, you went abroad. On the Champs-Elysees you tasted rich, hot brews, dark and full-bodied as Beatrice Dalle. In the Piazza Navona you played excitedly with the foam on a cappuccino; at Florian's you swooned at the wonderfully adult milkshake that is the caffe latte. In New York, you drank the most delicious concoction known to man: the iced and creamy frappuccino. Admittedly each of these cost about a fiver, but my God, was it worth it. You returned to Britain sneering and despairing.

Of course, sophisticates have always complained about our coffee. In literature, cosmopolitan types such as Hercule Poirot bewail the "muddy liquid" offered to them. But people put up with it, presumably because tea was the stuff of life and coffee merely an exotic aside; the idea that it might taste sublime was unknown.

Closer ties with Europe, foreign travel and Frasier have all played their part in giving me my morning cafe crawl. Nor is this just a city phenomenon: the best cappuccino in Europe - and I write as an independent expert, with all the jitters to prove it - can be drunk at Luigi's of Leighton Buzzard. So why does coffee on the Eurostar taste like something made by Mrs Overall?