Cafe society blends coffee with culture

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NEARLY three centuries after London share dealers left the Royal Exchange for the newly fashionable coffee houses of Change Alley, the urban British have again rediscovered the joys of arabica beans. This time they worship at the taste altars of latte macchiato (pronounced la-tay mack-e-ah- toe), decaffeinated mocca java (Swiss water process), organic Papua New Guinea, and the ubiquitous cappuccino.

London, as the capital's listings magazine Time Out recently pointed out, is 'round the blend' for coffee. Likewise in Glasgow: Italian-style cafes, once deemed old-fashioned, are now hip. And in Manchester, the cafe atmosphere of St Mark's Square, Venice, has touched St Ann's Square.

But it is in London, especially around Soho's Old Compton Street, that cafe society is booming. Bar Italia, Cafe Boheme, Caffe Nero, The Edge, Freedom, the Old Compton Cafe and others can between them deliver, legally, trimethyloxypurin - the active ingredient of caffeine - round the clock.

The newest addition to blending coffee with culture is the first London 'read 'n' feed' store in Charing Cross Road. Aroma at Books etc is following the current Los Angeles trend of putting coffee shops inside book stores. Sipping cafe creme (smooth with cream) with a newly purchased Lisa St Aubin de Teran or a tazza d'oro (espresso, whipped cream) with Lord Archer's latest opus could soon become the High Street norm.

The coffee craze, however, is unfortunately timed. A sharp frost in Brazil last month is expected to result in a large rise in world coffee prices. Up to 300,000 tonnes of Brazil's finest beans were said to have been lost in the frost. Average price increases are expected to be between 15 and 20 per cent.

For Seattle, in the US north-west, a rise in coffee prices will be greeted with calm. The city is the undoubted coffee capital of the world. In 1971, Seattle saw the opening of a small store; since then the Starbucks Coffee Company has grown to 10,000 speciality outlets in the US.

Starbucks - named after the coffee-loving first mate in Herman Melville's Moby Dick - has made a cautious inroad into Britain. Bodum, the kitchenware retailer, sells Starbucks blends, including Yukon, Caffe Verona and decaffeinated Sumatra, to a 'devoted' clientele at its Neal Street shop in Covent Garden.

Just round the corner from Neal Street, the latest coffee craze has amazed the Monmouth Coffee House. The small specialist store has a retail counter and four wooden booths, echoing the high- backed seats of a 17th-century coffee house. Its Colombian Medellin Excelso, Kenya AA and Costa Rica cafe finca de tres rios, are favourites.

Fifteen times a day in the basement, the staff roast 50lb of coffee. Egon Ronay voted the Monmouth 'Coffee House of the Year'. But the 16-year- old store still feels like a secret find. Its owner, Anita le Roy, has no immediate plans for Starbucks-style expansion.

According to staff member Henry Ward a 'hard core' of 30 people come in every day. 'We've had Americans asking for flavoured oddities, but usually people know what they want.'

On cue, a 'regular' walked in. He asked for '10lb Colombian'. He left looking like a man fulfilled.

(Photograph omitted)

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