Quest Base Camp

Before Ismail and I venture out to “our” sheesha café at the Park Royal, let me tell you about an idea I’ve had to allow you to participate in the quest too.

Allow me to introduce you to Quest Base Camp.  Otherwise known as The Taste of Chamberlayne, a great little café in NorthWest London serving Illy – IMHO the best Italian coffee – with the finest elements of Western Europe and the Middle-East, along with alfresco seating which has pretty flowers in planter boxes adorning its edges.  It’s not in France, Italy, Romania, Spain, Iran, Jordan or Syria however – but there are stories about all these places interwoven into its fabric with the people who work here, and the people who come here.

It has a big wide window at the front of the café which allows you to see out onto the street and enjoy watching the people passing by – like you might do on The Continent, or equally on the sidewalks of the places you might visit in the Middle East or North Africa.

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Oh, and it has great food too – with hints of the taste from all of the places mentioned above…

For me though, what makes it special is the feeling that this is on a road for people going somewhere, to lands far away and back. I think it has enough space and easygoing customer service – along with the food and coffee, of course – that people would be happy to come here and share their stories from far away, and equally receive one in return. 

Indeed, that’s what I want to help happen. The idea being that if you have a story about an unusual café that you want to talk about, and potentially have featured on this blog, then come to “Taste” (as it’s known for short by the locals here) and register your name in the Café Quest Visitors’ Book along with a way to contact you so we can receive and hear or read your a story. 

The ideal thing would be to hear what you consider to be an unusual café, and your story about the discovery of it – such as the stories you’ve heard from someone at the café, what food it serves (or perhaps HOW it serves it!), as well as what makes you feel or think that this café is unusual or different to the standard high street café in any small town or big city.  It could still be something that makes one of those small town or big city cafés stand out, however – even if they are part of a chain….

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Posted in England, France, Italy, Kensal Rise, London, Middle East, Romania | 2 Comments

A Right Royal Sheesha

Continuing in the vein of cafes where you least expect them, a friend who runs one of my local cafes – in itself with a hint of alfresco Europe in the heart of London – tells me about a cafe in Park Royal that has been fashioned out of an old warehouse into a sheesha cafe with all the trimmings of old antique French and Arabic furniture.

What led us to discussing this was bemoaning some of the great places that have been lost to the traveller’s delight due to the troubles in Middle East, in places like Syria, Algeria and elsewhere.  I was particularly upset to hear about the old market, known in Arabic as a “souk“, in Aleppo.  It has been completely destroyed by fire recently.

I remember enjoying a tea in a carpet shop there, as tourists so often do in souks in different parts of the Middle East. The setting had been extraordinary there, as all the other shops in the souk that surrounded this place provided it with a heady smell of spices and other things that you can’t quite put a nose to (unless you are a local).  Then there was the bedazzlement  of the eye with the feast of colours from all the silks, pottery and silverware. The spices themselves are all bright and different colours (red, purple, yellow and green) and are poured in piles that make them look like mini sand dunes (or perhaps pyramids?).  I must to get some photos on here that show one of these places.

One would not expect to find places in London that are a patch like the tea and coffee shops in a souk there – although there are all the stylised places down Edgware Road that you might mistake for being like the thing you’d find somewhere in the Middle East.  However Ismail tells me that this cafe in Park Royal manages to capture the atmosphere, if not the full visual and olphactory experience you might get from a tea or coffee in a souk.

So here is another place to explore here in London, before I (once again) go to discover what new cafes are tucked away elsewhere in unusual places that you wouldn’t expect them – or that are simply unique or unusual regardless of wherever you might find them.

A story of mine and Ismail’s visit there will follow some time soon…

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Café Interlude

In Horta, a little place somewhere in The Azores, which is itself in The Atlantic midway between Europe and the U.S.A, there is a café which is renowned for people meeting to share their stories from having sailed from one side of The Atlantic to another.

I have yet to go there and find this café, however it sounds like it has to be one to add to the quest just for the seafaring stories that this would provide. 

It was my newfound friend, Philipe, who I met at photographers’ networking event, that passed on this piece de resistance of cafés extraordinaire. 

The conversation that led to him telling me about it began as we compared notes about what makes the difference between observing, and being observed, when hanging out at a café in London – and specifically Notting Hill (where we had just met and live or have lived in) – and compared with one somewhere in Paris or other big cities in France.

Those inside the café in France, Philipe tells me, are generally those who are passing through to grab a quick coffee at the counter and go. Perhaps sharing a story of the day just passed, or a thought for the day ahead.  You get to know the local community there. Those who sit out the front of the café are those seeking to observe the world passing by, either musing by themselves or philosophising with friends.

The cafés in Paris (and other parts of France) charge a premium for this world of musing and philosophising, whereas in London and the UK no distinction is made between the observers and the storytellers. 

In Horta, no such distinction could possibly be made, as everyone is transient and there only to have some respite from being afloat on the high seas.  Most likely, Philipe muses, the stories and the philosophy would abound about surviving that storm at sea as much as comparing notes on how to combat the next part of the journey.  What pictures these sea- and sun-burnt sailors must be inside or outside of this café.  A far cry from the café of either of the big cities we know, and one perhaps where the same people may only be seen perhaps once in a lifetime – with the tales taller than those the sailors’ masts or mizzens

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Just an ordinary café?

Back in 1992, almost twenty years ago to the day, coffee and café culture was almost unknown in Great Britain.

When you ordered a coffee, it was typically one type – percolated (aka filter) – and often served in a mug, rather than a cup. In the “greasy spoons” – which is the collective name for those little establishments that serve little more than a full English breakfast of bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms, toast and either fried or scrambled eggs – it was an alternative to a mug of tea and instant, generally Nescafé.

The former was the case with the café I ended up frequenting, but the friendly ladies running it somehow served in a way that made the coffee and the mug hold just the right level of warmth for me – even without it being a latte, cappuccino or “flat white” (as is now popular).

I think the experience was tinged by the fact that my return to England was not an easy one, as my mother had contracted a terminal illness called multiple myelloma in the year before – and so I had spent four months back in my native New Zealand watching her fade away, starved of oxygen by the inability of the red blood corpuscles being able to reproduce (as this is what this vicious form of cancer does).

Grief had left me feeling numb at first – and I later understood that this is typical, but for some reason I took comfort in going to this little café just off the market in Dartford. 

The café is (or was?) a place where elderly ladies – or middle-aged mums and their grown-up daughters – met for morning or afternoon tea, and drank tea out of nice china cups along with nicely cut sandwiches or freshly made cake to go with it.  Yet it did a great cup of filter coffee too, and the best scones with strawberry jam and double cream.  It was a new girlfriend of mine, who worked as the Market Officer on the Dartford Market, who had introduced me to it – and so became the place we met on Saturdays after she did her work.

Thinking back on it now, I think it was as much the comfort of seeing “the blue rinse set” enjoying their outing together that I remember and somehow liked about going there – as I had somehow managed to miss that time of my mother’s life, although she was only 70 when she died, as I had spent 5 or more years working and travelling (and oblivious to her getting older, perhaps down to me having been the child she had had in her forties and so used to her always being older than other mums).

Now I am back here again, in old Blighty – twenty years later – I must go back to that café and see if it is still there, perhaps even down to posting photographs of it in an update to this blog post, and with a view to seeing what it was that made it stick in my mind as being a place to include on the list of cafés on my quest.  

Certainly it seemed to sum up the classically twee tea shop, yet somehow be curiously comforting to me in my early stages of grieving. I wonder if anyone else has had this kind of experience with what would otherwise be “just an ordinary café”.

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Outside the Sad Café

The sad café. We all have one, don’t we?  Some place that we may remember with bitter-sweet memories, of what might have been but then never quite was.

Mine is a place in Wellington, New Zealand, called Lido – a place I had frequented on many an occasion after I had finished University and started working. It’s the kind of place that you arrange to meet friends before going on somewhere – such as the movies, or perhaps afterwards to reflect on it, get a bite to eat and work out whether you want to “kick on” somewhere else.

It’s also a great first date and last date place too…

The Lido has always had great cake and coffee, and something of a movie star quality about it – as it’s a place to come and see people, as well as be seen. Oh, and the music is (or was) always contemporary and cool too – especially late at night.

It took on a whole new connotation for me back at the end of 1991, as that was when I decided to return home from the UK because my oldest sister had told me how my mother was terminally ill and only had a few months to live.

The fact that the Lido was still the same as it was on my return, as it was when I had left home at the start of 1990, was somehow reassuring.  Most of my friends still had all those University ideals too, much as is sung about in that song by The Eagles about the sad café.

It was perhaps poignant that at that same time I heard from my friend, Souad, the petite and somewhat crazy, hippy French Algerian girl I had met earlier in the year, back in England.  She was on a tour of New Zealand and had somehow heard that I was back there (and given this was before the days of email and social media, that in itself showed how Kiwi-net worked back then).  The irony was that I had no idea how she had also come to be there, in New Zealand, at the same time as me.  

I guess I kind of had this boyish fantasy that she had come all that way to see me, although I should have realised that that would not have been a good idea – even if it was true – given the circumstances of me being back there for my mother. 

So, although I wasn’t really in the frame of mind to meet anyone, curiousity got the better of me to meet up with her and find out the story.

The Lido, as always, seemed the easiest place to describe where to meet – being just across the road from Wellington’s Town Hall and Library complex, and off Victoria Street.

In another time, and place, it would have been a great place for two travellers to come and exchange stories of how they came to be in the same place, on the other side of the world from where they met, in less than a year later. However talking about my Mum – and everything that she and my family were going through at that time – was  not  a travel story and something I relished talking about. It was meant to be a journey of compassion after all.

Yet I somehow hoped that Souad’s cheery disposition would help me feel a little better about life going on, despite me feeling guilty about meeting up with anyone under those circumstances. 

So the ironic reality of her story was that, unbeknownest to me, she had had a Kiwi boyfriend back in England, who had also helped with selling paintings door-to-door (and please see previous post to get the picture – lol). The sad fact of the matter was that they had broken up shortly after she arrived in Auckland – scuppering their plans to travel around the country together.  So suddenly Souad found herself in an unusual position, for her, of being all alone in a foreign country and needing someone to talk to….

As it also happened, on the very day we chose to meet, some of my old friends had chosen to meet up at the Lido too. So just after we had sat down outside the café, and Souad was telling me her sad news, first – as I insisted she go first – I briefly looked away, trying not to show her that her sad news was not what I really wanted to hear (given how hard it was dealing with my own),  and saw them sitting inside the café.

As fate would have it, it also began to pour with rain (as is so often typical of Wellington at the end of November – and despite it being the start of summer), and so we were forced to go inside.  I had yet to share my news, and so once inside – as we sat down, not far from where these friends of mine were sitting, laughing and clearly continuing on with life as usual – the music began to play. 

Yep, it was The Eagles “Sad Café” – and how often does life conspire to do that?  The rain and the music coming together, at the same time as two friends – unable to help one another – share sad news. 

There was something about the combination, of trying to tell sad news to this new friend at that point – with the lyrics of the song right on cue – while the old friends of my childhood, and pre-travel life, sat oblivious (or so it seemed) just a table away, that I felt the tears welling up.

It was like being in two places at once, both inside and outside the sad café, realising that a chapter of my own life was ending as much as it being the final chapter for my mother.  Yet no one was there to witness it, apart from this woman who I thought I had known in England – yet who had had this complete other life going on that I never knew or saw, and so who I suddenly realised was a total stranger.

So how weird it was to be in a café full of people, even with ones you know (or think you know), and to realise you are totally alone. This feeling at that moment in this café somehow manages to sum up “the sad café” experience for me.

I realise looking back on it now that Souad must have felt pretty much the same way as I did – yet there was nothing that either of us could really do to help one another, like we would have done if one or other had perhaps been more “together”. 

Still, I remember the carrot cake with the rich cream cheese icing on it, the aroma of freshly roasted and ground coffee of that day, and how the song that came on next somehow managed to break the spell – leaving us both in tears, yet able to leave the café that day. The song was Cher’s “Heart of Stone” – again, how amazing is music. Without that song, and with that new-found friend gained that day from it, and at that café, I don’t know how I would have managed to continue on over the next few months.

So, even though it was a sad café for me (and perhaps the saddest of my life, with dreams/delusions about Souad shattered as much as grief on top of that), it was also one for the quest to fight back – a place for beginnings as much as endings.

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From Kings Cross to Somewhere in Paris

Tea, tea, tea – that was pretty much the choice back then in the England I knew in 1991.  Coffee, if you ordered it, was typically filter stuff – often percolated to hell. You could cover the bitter taste of it by smothering it with cream, either the foamy type which you could add chocolate sprinkles to, or the stuff you can pour. Oh, and at least two spoonfuls of white sugar were required – or sugar cubes, if in an upmarket establishment.

They often weren’t even called cafés – tea room was the term.  Some were quite twee, with the frilly doily that the teapot sat on and the china teacups.  They weren’t the sort of place to hang out with your mates in watching the world go by – that was what you went to The Continent for (or even the Middle-East or parts of Northern Africa).

No, the tea room was the place that your Nan or maiden aunt took you to – and then it was largely for scones, jam and cream. Or tiffin. Tea and tiffin.

So it was my French Algerian friend, Souad Amrous, who introduced me to THE café of the day – en Paris.

Meeting her was as much the treat for me though. The coffee came a distant second. It began with seeking a job, which I found in a street magazine of the time, and involved Souad, myself and a disparate group of twenty somethings picking up a portfolio of paintings from this warehouse somewhere off Caledonian Road in Kings Cross. We were then all taken by car to different suburbs around London. Once there, this mottley bunch of expats – including people like myself from different parts of the Antipodes (which is what the Australians and New Zealanders are collectively known as in the UK), as well as “The Continentals” (as Souad and others from Europe were referred to) – would go door-to-door selling these chocolate box paintings.

It was a unique experience, and petite Souad was the best at it – with her dark curly hair, dark brown eyes, olive complexion and waistcoat with black suede trousers. She LOOKED like an artist – and, with her French accent, you could almost believe that she had sat high up in her garret somewhere off the Champs Elysée and painted these. Moreover, she could make up a good backstory about a painting that could bring either a laugh to the lips, or a tear to the eye – and, better still, the London suburbanites to buy.

Certainly she knew the cafés there in Paris, when I went to visit her a year later and a whole world away from those streets of suburban London where we’d trudged during the day.  I had got a real job shortly after our painting sales escapade, working on contract for an insurance company and then for an investment bank – boring stuff but good money for someone on a working holiday visa (as I was back then). Enough to buy a decent coffee, but also a good wine or two, at the end of the day. Yet neither of those things existed in London back then.

So I was drawn to Paris, and beyond, by the likes of Souad who knew just what to do – and where to go – in a quest for a café. They came with not only good coffee – ordered as “un café au lait”, or “un café crème‎” (as Souad corrected me into choosing, and in line with what I had become used to, just before leaving New Zealand) – but also came with the characters to go with it, who would just start conversing once you sat down. Even without conversation, there was an abundant street life that you could watch alfresco.

I only wish I’d noted the names of those places back then – but whenever I was with Souad, caring for the taste of a good coffee was never a top priority. Once she looked me in the eye, when my attention drifted, and said: “Allo, Matt?!” with her beautiful French accent and amazing twinkly-eyed smile, all I had eyes and ears for – was her, her views on life and the world, and what dreams or people may come to pass us by.

Posted in France, Kings Cross, London, Paris | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Cream Tea King of SouthWest England

So the coffee wasn’t cooking, as I progressed my way South towards Tintagel back in 1991 – however the scones were!

Hot buttered scones, with a good dollop of raspberry or strawberry jam (preferrably home-made) and a large spoonful of clotted cream (preferrably Devonshire). Heaven!

That, coupled with a pot of hot tea with nice fresh farm milk, makes what is called “a cream tea”. It more than made up for the coffee I’d missed from back in Australia, but largely thanks to the combo – because, for me, tea is not a drink drunk alone and without an accompanying side dish or snack.

In the start of that year of cream teas, somewhere in between Salisbury in Somerset and Tintagel in Devon, I began to discover a small realm of places with the best of them – from tea rooms serving small stodgy scones that needed more jam than cream to the large yellow ones, made with pumpkin flour, that were the crowning glory of all scones in sheer size and soft texture.

Yes, I became something of a connoisseur of all that was great, tasty and good in a cream tea. I might as well have been crowned king of the cake that is not a cake, and is not a biscuit either , as it is a scone (geddit) – but I could not have it without its crowning accompaniments. No, sirreee!

Admittedly it was thanks to my beautiful friend, Arna Marshall, that put me on to the wonders of it. She was an ample (as in buxom) lass from Taunton in Somerset who I had met back in Australia, in the year before arriving in the UK, when she was on a working holiday there and I was on my first year breaking away from my home in New Zealand. 

We had shared a love of cricket, with our highlight seeing The Third Ashes Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground on the first day after New Year’s Day, 1991, and taking walks in the countryside around Sydney (such as The Blue Mountains and Ku-ring-gai Chase National Parks).  It was meeting people like her that had both made my year in Sydney worthwhile, as well as gave me the incentive to make that first leap across the other side of the planet to see England through having someone to know and visit. 

Arna had stayed with me briefly before returning home to England and, in return for “surfing the couch”, had agreed to show me some of the sights around her neck of the woods when I got over there. This included introducing me to cream teas and the delights of the English tea room, often situated in the centre of some quaint village somewhere.

Somewhere along the way of the day or so we spent together, travelling from Taunton in Somerset and on down to Tintagel and back, we had this idea of deciding which tea room served the best cream tea.

The winner had to be this little place in Dunster, just down the hill from the famous castle with the most beautiful gardens I had ever seen up to that point.

Gardens at Dunster - but not ones at The Castle

The scones were just the right side of warm, and the jam not too runny – but the winner was the large white pot of fresh clotted cream that sat when served, without melting on the scone along with the jam in a way that literally was like a serving fit for a king. The tea too did not disappoint, made from fresh leaves – steeped in the pot for no more than five minutes – and then poured through a strainer, to remove the leaves, into a nice bone china cup with just a few splashes of milk to make for a reddy brown brew.

OK, so taking out the leaves meant there was nothing to tell our fortune with at the end of it (as I vaguely recall Arna professed she or an aunt of hers could do) – but then nothing likely to be embarrassingly caught in our teeth upon drinking it too.   

Perhaps the best thing about it though, was that it was definitely a good tea for two – where, for some strange reason, anything and everything seemed possible. I can still remember it, twenty years on, and also I wonder: what happened to Arna?

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