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.

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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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Absence of Coffee

It was the tail end of winter, 1991, that I first came to the United Kingdom.  Actually, I thought it was meant to be spring – because it was April after all and I had been told that that was when the light returned and the days became warmer and longer.

‘Twas not exactly true, and worse it was when I came to truly miss my brew!  Tea did not cut it after being frozen into my little pup tent all night outside in the garden of Bath’s fancy Italianate Youth Hostel on the hill.

I needed something warm, and fast, to unchill me and keep me going on the second leg of my three week journey down in the Wild West of England – where you can hear the crystals clinking at every step. Except those crystals weren’t on the hippies I met at the hostel, or in the many New Age shops down at Glastonbury – they were danged ice crystals, and the first ones encountered were those that I had had to bash off the zipper sealing the entrance to my tent. It was almost an ice sarcophagus, I kid you not.  Even the Youth Hostel manager was surprised as to why I had not come in that night when they had given shelter to every other camper in the garden due to warnings about the drop in temperature.

Somehow I did not get that warning, but I suspect now it was because I had somehow managed to get myself warm that night with my three layers of clothing on, and newly acquired four seasons sleeping bag, and so I was probably snoring too loudly to hear him.

However it was the first time that I really noticed the absence of coffee in Britain, as neither good coffee nor café culture had  arrived in the country to help cheer us all up and getting us going when the cold snap has set in. The best one could do was settle for a hot cuppa tea or some soup.

Now here’s the thing, having just arrived only a few weeks before from Sydney, Australia – a place that already had a reputation for great coffee and an amazing café culture – tea or soup just didn’t cut it. So it was back then and there, with the fresh smell of snow drops and icicles on my breath, that my first inklings of the beginnings of this quest began….

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