Bex’s Food and Drink Awards: 2017 Edition

2017 has been a particularly fine year for coffee, food and cocktails for me, partly because I’ve travelled to diverse destinations with copious coffee and culinary delights. Remind me not to work on next year’s list on an empty stomach: reviewing so many food and drink photos gave me quite the appetite!

I’ve kept the categories — coffee, brunch, street food, restaurant and cocktails — the same as last year and in most cases, I’ve picked a London and a rest-of-world favourite. In the coffee shop category, though, I’ve included my favourite places in the UK, Europe, USA and the rest-of-the-world. Meanwhile, I ate so many excellent brunches in Melbourne and Sydney that I felt I also had to include an Australia sub-category in the brunch section. So, without further ado, here are my food and drink favourites of 2017; as usual, I’ve hyperlinked my reviews for each winner and runners-up below.

1. Best coffee shop
United Kingdom
Redemption Roasters (London)
There have been so many excellent new openings in the London coffee scene this year that it was really hard to pick a winner. I was particularly lucky that two of the finest — Redemption Roasters and Catalyst — are just about walkable from my King’s Cross office on my lunch break and I regularly visit both. Redemption’s coffee is roasted in small batches at HM Prison Aylesbury, where young offenders are trained up in roasting and barista skills. This in itself would be a worthy social enterprise, but the coffee is consistently top-notch too. I’ve tried various espresso-based drinks and Aeropress-brewed filter coffees, as well as buying beans to enjoy at home, and the coffee has always been faultless.

If you’re looking for more great speciality coffee in London, please check out my guide.

Runners-up: Catalyst (London) and Colonna & Small’s (Bath)

Tim Wendelboe (Oslo, Norway)
2017 was a year of speciality coffee pilgrimages for me and I was the first customer through the door at Tim Wendelboe’s Grünerløkka coffee shop on my first full day in Oslo. While there, I had one of the best filter coffees of the year, a Honduran Caballero Geisha with beautiful papaya notes. I liked it so much that I bought a bag of beans that cost almost £30, which seemed expensive until I got to the Reformatory Caffeine Lab in Sydney one month later… If you’re more organised than I was, you can also book onto one of their Saturday morning cupping sessions.

Runners-up: Misto (Prague, Czech Republic) and Nømad (Barcelona, Spain)

United States
Broadsheet Coffee (Cambridge, MA)
This year was the year I rediscovered Boston, which was the first US city I visited, some 25 years ago but which I’d neglected in favour of New York, San Francisco and DC during the past decade. I went to Boston once for a snowy conference in February and then returned in the summer for a family holiday. It was on the second trip that I visited the newly opened Broadsheet Coffee on Kirkwood Street in Cambridge. The coffee shop and roastery is beautifully designed and serves excellent hand-brewed filter coffee and espresso-based drinks. There’s also an awesome brunch menu and the staff are super-friendly. I bought a bag of beans too and loved the striking packaging — rivalled only by one of my runners-up, Little Wolf (just up the road in Ipswich, MA), which has also been nominated for a Sprudgie this year (there’s still time to vote if you haven’t already!).

See also: my Boston and Cambridge coffee guide and my New York coffee guide.

Runners-up: Little Wolf (Ipswich, MA) and Black Fox (NYC)

Proud Mary (Melbourne, Australia)
Although this sub-category is named ‘rest-of-world’, it’s really just Australia and New Zealand, where I managed to visit at least 60 coffee shops in my one-month trip. With 16 coffee shop visits in Melbourne alone, narrowing down my favourites was really tough, but continuing my ‘coffee pilgrimages’ theme, Proud Mary in the Collingwood neighbourhood was near the top of my list. I had a fab brunch, chatted with the friendly staff and had one of my top pourovers of the year, a jazzy and intensely fruity Pacamara Maragogipe from Panama. I then popped down the road, to their roastery and brew bar, Aunty Peg’s, to keep me caffeinated during the rest of my stay in Australia.

Runners-up: Reformatory Caffeine Lab (Sydney, Australia) and Flight Coffee Hangar (Wellington, NZ)

2. Best brunch spot
Treves & Hyde (Aldgate)
One of the most Instagrammed new openings of the year — thanks in part to its striking millennial pink spiral staircase — Treves & Hyde served some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had — and I’m usually more of a savoury brunch kind of gal. The coffee is great too and if you don’t have time for brunch, you can grab a coffee and/or a pastry in the downstairs cafe.

Runners-up: TAB x TAB (Notting Hill) and Where the Pancakes Are (Borough)

Haven Tailoring Coffee Joyously (Sydney)
Although I’d been saving all year for my trip to Australia and New Zealand, one category where I overspent massively was brunch. I had so many superb brunches, including outstanding avocado toasts (Folk’s was the best) and all sorts of other inventive, photogenic and delicious creations. Although technically it wasn’t my dish — mine was also fab, though — my friend’s ‘Amazing Kimcheese’ at Haven really knocked everything out of the water. Waffles with kimchi, sesame, parmesan and vanilla bean ice cream might not sound like a winning combination, but just go with it. You won’t regret it. The coffee is particularly good at Haven too.

Runners-up: Folk (Byron Bay) and White Mojo (Melbourne)

Cookshop (NYC)
One of the advantages of visiting New York in the bitterly cold days of early February is that it’s really easy to get a table at some of the city’s best brunch spots, especially if you’re dining solo. I’d wanted to go to Cookshop, which is just opposite the High Line, for some time and it was worth the wait. I had a BLT mary (yes, with bacon) and a fried egg sandwich, which was colourful and delicious — the sandwich came served on a brioche bun with Italian sausage, aged cheddar, potato hash and jalapeño-cabbage slaw.

Runners-up: Eska (Prague, Czech Republic) and Bespoke Kitchen (Queenstown, NZ) — and not just because I was on such a high after my skydive!

3. Best street food
Giant Robot (Canary Wharf)
My travels this year have meant I haven’t had as much time to explore new places in London, but I did enjoy visiting Street Feast’s newest market, Giant Robot, next to the new Crossrail station in Canary Wharf. There’s a good selection of food and drink vendors (albeit with prices slightly higher than at some of the other Street Feast spots — this is Canary Wharf, after all) and — particularly important during London’s colder months — it is indoors too.

Boston Public Market (Boston, MA)
I went to the gourmet food market that is Boston Public Market a couple of times this summer, sampling various foods and drinks, from oysters to doughnuts, and coffee to…er, coffee. I also took part in a coffee extraction class run by George Howell in the market’s Kitchen. The Kitchen runs a diverse programme of events and classes, so check out their website to find out what’s on.

4. Best restaurant
Santo Remedio (London Bridge)
I missed Santo Remedio’s first incarnation in Shoreditch, so I was delighted when, boosted by a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Mexican restaurant reopened this year just down the road from me near London Bridge. Santo Remedio specialises in tacos but the other dishes and sides were just as delicious, as were the cocktails. It’s great to have an authentic Mexican taqueria in SE1 at last.

Runners-up: L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele (Stoke Newington) and Pique-Nique (Bermondsey)

Coco’s Cantina (Auckland, NZ)
Of all the restaurants in which I dined in Australia and New Zealand, Coco’s Cantina was the one that came most highly recommended. It was fitting, then, that I had my last supper there, just before heading to the airport to return to the UK. The fun, laid-back restaurant is owned by two sisters, who serve delicious, well-priced food and drink with thoughtful, welcoming service. I had a superb pasta dish and a very good cocktail, and it was the perfect place to spend my last meal of my trip.

Runners-up: Automata (Sydney, Australia) and eels (Paris, France)

5. Best cocktail
Dandelyan (Bankside)
The Dandelyan bar in the Mondrian Hotel on London’s South Bank has won countless awards — it’s currently ranked #2 in the World’s 50 Best Bars, for instance — and my brother and I finally paid a visit as a warm-up for my birthday celebrations this year. Although there weren’t any free tables — you should definitely try to book — we perched at the bar, and spent quite some time browsing the extensive cocktail menu. I settled on the (green) Arsenic Waltz, with Tapatio Blanco, sour pear, long pepper and cucumber honey, partly because of its name and historical provenance:

“Vanity boomed in the 16th Century (as well as the pox) so sales of make-up made a killing. Literally. Queen Liz I used “Spirit of Saturn” – a fun mix of vinegar and lead, whilst arsenic found its way into many a compact in the 1500s (not included here).”

Runner-up: Dirty Bones (Soho)

BlackTail (NYC)
Another bar featured in the World’s 50 Best Bars list, BlackTail serves Cuban-influenced food and cocktails in its location in Battery Park, in Lower Manhattan. I went with a friend from work on Valentine’s Day for a ‘Galentine’s Day’ night out. The menu is comprehensive and creative, and every cocktail we drank was absolutely delicious.

Runners-up: L’Fleur (Prague, Czech Republic) and Bulletin Place (Sydney, Australia)

Please let me know in the comments if you have any favourite coffee, brunch, restaurant or cocktail favourites of 2017 — particularly in cities or countries I have yet to visit. I’d love to hear your recommendations!

The Caffeine Chronicles: Coal Rooms, Peckham

You might not want a lump of coal for Christmas but conversely, a lunch at the Coal Rooms in Peckham is an infinitely more appealing proposition. Peckham’s Old Spike Roastery and Camberwell’s Spike & Earl have long been favourites of mine, but because I’ve been travelling so much this autumn, it’s taken me a while to visit their newest sibling, which opened in August. Occupying the former ticket office in Peckham Rye station, Coal Rooms consists of a series of three rooms, moving from the bakery and take-out-coffee spot in the first chamber, to the stools at the sleek black marble bar overlooking the kitchen in the middle, and the bright, minimalist dining room at the back.

Some fellow south-east London friends and I visited for brunch at the weekend and really enjoyed it. We booked a table (which is always a pleasant novelty), although as we were there fairly early on a rainy, winter’s day, we probably didn’t need to. We had a great table in the corner of the main dining room, seated at the comfy teal benches that skirt the room. The room is light and sparsely, but attractively, decorated. Although I didn’t take any photos, the bathrooms — located in the station’s former public facilities and retaining most of the period features — are well worth a visit even if you don’t need to spend a penny.

The Saturday brunch menu erred on the breakfast end of the spectrum, which is just as it should be. There were three brunch cocktails and I was tempted by the bloody Caesar but stuck to coffee, as I’ve been fending off a cold for the past fortnight. Coffee is from Old Spike, of course, and the menu simply proposed black (£2.25) or with milk (£2.65). Of course they serve espresso-based drinks but in the absence of a piccolo prompt on the menu and distracted by the food choices, I defaulted to ordering a black coffee, which turned out to be an americano. It was pretty nice but had I thought more carefully, I would have ordered an espresso or perhaps a piccolo. One of my friends ordered a flat white later on, which looked rather good.

Most of the brunch dishes sounded great — the hash brown with kimchi and kimchi mayo, and the bubble and squeak with smalec, fried egg and plum brown sauce, in particular — but I had heard such great things about Coal Rooms’ bacon sandwiches (£5), with coffee-cured bacon and homemade ketchup or brown sauce in a custard bun, that I had to go for that. I went for streaky bacon and ketchup, and also ordered a fried egg on the side.

Now, they must have been out of custard buns, although no one said anything to us, because the sandwich came on two ginormous slices of sourdough bread. This was so little of a disappointment — I mean, it was a half-foot-tall sandwich! — that I didn’t even notice until later. I would still like to try the custard bun another time, particularly after enjoying the Dutch crunch sandwich at Spike & Earl. The bacon was delicious and flavoursome and came in a very generous portion. Seriously, this was a very challenging dish to eat, but well worth the effort. I ended up using my knife and fork because I don’t think it’s physiologically possible to eat it by hand without unhinging your jaw. This bacon sandwich definitely merits its rankings among London’s best bacon sarnies, and although I probably wouldn’t have guessed that it was coffee-cured if I hadn’t already known, the coffee did add a rich, full-bodied twist to the meat.

We did almost regret not ordering the full English for two (£30), which came served on a huge platter of deliciousness, but our ‘modest’ main course meant that we had room for a pudding. The pudding was a millionaire’s shortbread (£6), with rich chocolate sauce, brown butter caramel, crumbled shortbread and ‘waste barista milk ice cream’ (yes, we are in Peckham). It came served in a cup with the logo of the premises’ former occupants, Fat Boy, and once all the layers were mixed, it tasted heavenly.

On the way out, we paused in the café room to look at the Old Spike coffee (whose packaging remains one of London’s most beautiful) and merchandise — the Old Spike socks, packaged in a tin, would make a particularly good gift for the hipster in your life. There are a few pastries and sweet treats on offer here, waiting patiently underneath the Christmas tree.

Coal Rooms. 11a Station Way, Peckham Rye Station, London, SE15 4RX (Peckham Rye Overground). Website.

Four Days in Melbourne: Things To Do, Places to Eat & Drink

After two pleasant overnight flights with Singapore Airlines, I touched down at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport just after 7:20 am on Sunday morning and, thanks to the electronic immigration stations (alas, this meant no passport stamp for me) and a speedy SkyBus journey, I arrived at my hotel just after 8:15 am. This was too early to check in, but just the right time to head off in search of jet lag-busting coffee and breakfast. I slept pretty well on both flights and was more than ready to start exploring. My onward flight to Cairns was in the early afternoon on Wednesday, which gave me 3.5 days in the city. I’d have preferred to take a later flight on the Wednesday, but couldn’t find one that fitted my itinerary.

One of my main reasons for coming to Melbourne was to explore the city’s extensive and varied speciality coffee scene, which meant I spent more of my time in city visiting coffee shops and cafés than your average visitor might. I will be writing about Melbourne’s coffee shops in a separate post, but here are some of the other things I got up to. NB: in what Brits may find a refreshing flashback to GCSE geography, in Australian cities, the city centre is usually referred to as the CBD (central business district).

Things to do
Exploring on foot

I spent much of my trip wandering around the central areas of Melbourne, including along the waterfront — next to the River Yarra — and through the city’s network of historic, seedy alleys, which are known as ‘laneways’, and grand arcades and where Melbourne’s best street art, as well as numerous cafes, bars and shops, can be found. I also loved the colourful Victorian townhouses that can be spotted throughout the city.

My time spent working in the Oxford Tourist Information Centre has meant I’ve long been a walking-tour geek. As such, I took a three-hour walking tour with Dave from Melbourne by Foot ($40). There are tours that focus on more specific topics, including street art and coffee (in the case of the latter, I figured that I’d rather spend the money visiting more coffee shops of my choosing than on a tour), but Melbourne by Foot offers a great introduction to the city. Dave gave us a wealth of information about the city’s history and culture, street art (we saw AC/DC Lane, a not-yet-painted-over Banksy and several ‘guerrilla knitting’ examples), sport, coffee and much more. At the end, we received a list of food and drink recommendations, several of which I ended up taking. I would highly recommend taking this tour — ideally early on in your trip.

I didn’t have time to visit the Melbourne Museum, although it is supposed to be excellent. I did pop into the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square, which houses the NGV’s Australian art collection. The permanent exhibitions are free. There was also a temporary exhibition called The Pool, which highlights Aussie pool culture, and includes a swimmable pool. The international NGV is located just south of the river.

Markets and shopping

I visited Queen Victoria Market, a sprawling open-air market just north of the CBD, on my first morning. There are clothing, gift and produce sections and a gourmet deli hall. I also went to South Melbourne Market, which has dozens of independent shops, cafes and eateries. I didn’t try the ‘dim sims’ but apparently they are a speciality worth trying! Also of note is a shop called The Pet Grocer, where you can buy ‘chewy roo lung’ and other ‘goodies’ for your pet! Both markets are closed on certain days so check trading hours (here and here) before making a visit.

I didn’t do very much shopping (the perils of taking only a small suitcase for a four-week trip), but the streets between Little Bourke Street and Flinders Lane in the CBD have numerous shops, from department stores like David Jones and high-end boutiques, to chains and independent stores.

Parks and gardens

The weather was beautiful during my trip, so I spent a lot of time outside. In the springtime, Melbourne is green and blossoming, and the Royal Botanical Gardens were particularly verdant. I went running around The Tan, a (mostly) flat running path that loops around the Botanical Gardens and the King’s Domain. Nearby, you can visit the striking Shrine of Remembrance, which sits atop a hill. East of the CBD, is the grand, sloping Fitzroy Gardens, which is home to Cook’s Cottage.

St KildaThe bohemian suburb of St Kilda lies just south of Melbourne and it’s an easy 30-minute journey on the tram. As it was so hot while I was there, I ended up spending most of my time on the sandy beach — the sea was a bracing 15C, even though the air temperature was almost 30C — and on the pier, which gives great views of the CBD and sometimes the local penguin colony. Brighton and Bayside beaches, further south, are supposed to be better, but I knew I had better beach opportunities later on in my trip.

Day trips and excursions
I wanted to spend as much of my short stay as possible in the city so didn’t take any day trips, but various companies will take you out to the Great Ocean Road or to Phillip Island to watch the penguin parade, among many other destinations. The Melbourne Visitor Centre, located in Federation Square, has myriad leaflets and brochures and can make bookings.

Food and drink
Eating out is expensive in Melbourne, even compared to London. That said, tax is included in the prices and tipping is not required (although welcomed; a couple of the more touristy places I visited presented me with the option to add a tip on the card machine — I did it once and then regretted it, and then declined the second time and regretted that). Note, though, that some cafés and restaurants charge a 10% surcharge on weekends, Sundays and/or public holidays, which covers the higher minimum wage for wait staff on these days.

Unlike in London where brunch can be difficult to source on a weekday, many of Melbourne’s best speciality coffee spots also serve brunch throughout the week and until about 3 or 4 pm. I’ll be listing my favourite coffee shops of my trip in a separate post but I’ve included below a few of the cafés that focus on brunch-type dishes as well as coffee. If you have a sweet tooth, your tastes will be well-catered-for at pretty much any coffee shop: most serve a combination of pastries, cakes and cookies. I also went to a shop called Doughnut Time, where I was only mildly embarrassed to order a doughnut called the Liam Hemsworthy.

Code Black Coffee (North Melbourne). It proved somewhat challenging to find a coffee shop open at 8 am on Sunday morning, but I found my salvation in Code Black. I only planned to have coffee and a pastry but ended up having superb avocado toast with pistachio dukkah, balsamic apple syrup and the most flavoursome beef tomatoes I’ve ever had.

The Kettle Black (South Melbourne). Located in a gorgeous Victorian townhouse near the Shrine of Remembrance, The Kettle Black will probably require a wait at the weekend. It’s worth it, though. I had the day’s brunch special: miso-cured salmon with peas, barley, ginger and a poached egg. It was delicious. If you like a) ricotta and b) Instagramming your food, you should order the ricotta hotcakes — one of the prettiest brunch dishes I’ve ever seen. Beware, though: the portion is huge.

Proud Mary (Collingwood). I went to Proud Mary for the coffee (obvs) but was impressed by the creative brunch menu, which includes small, medium and large dishes. I went for one of the medium options: salmon ceviche with blood orange and hibiscus, avocado and quinoa. It was the perfect lunch dish and the flavours combined beautifully. Even classic brunch dishes like avocado toast get a twist here — the avo toast comes with kimchi and kohlrabi — and everything is prepared exquisitely.

Seven Seeds (Carlton). The first time I visited Seven Seeds, I took one look at the brunch menu and regretted that I had already eaten breakfast and it was too early for a brunchy lunch. I went back the following day to try the eggs and waffle Benedict with pulled pork, which was divine and beautifully presented.

White Mojo (CBD). For my last brunch, I went to speciality coffee and brunch cafe, White Mojo, tucked away down the quiet Hardware Street. There were lots of tempting options on the menu, but I settled on the double cheese chilli scrambled eggs with bacon, served in a black brioche roll. It was as delicious and decadent as it sounds, the chilli adding a nice kick to the dish.

Chin Chin (CBD). One of the advantages to being a sole traveller who has been awake a really long time is that when you rock up alone at Chin Chin for dinner at 6 pm, you can actually get in without a wait. I think my waiter thought I was boring for ordering the pad Thai but I was in need of comfort food and carbs, and it tasted great. The sakura vermouth, mezcal and grenadine cocktail, and the panna cotta with watermelon granita were just as good. A similar — if almost as busy — choice is Supernormal, a block west on Flinders Lane, which several friends recommended.

Meatmaiden (CBD). If you like barbecued meat — or meat in general, in fact — you will probably have a good time at Meatmaiden. I had beautiful brisket, but the steaks looked fab too. Unfortunately, they were all out of the bacon sour cocktail I wanted but my smoked old fashioned was excellent — very smoky indeed!

Tipo 00 (CBD). A Melbourne by Foot recommendation, Tipo 00 is a lovely, intimate pasta bar on Little Bourke Street. It’s worth calling ahead to reserve a spot, but I was able to nab a spot at the bar. I had a fantastic white negroni and then gorged on gnocchi with braised wagyu beef and cavolo nero, which left no space for dessert, sadly. The food and the service were excellent.

Practical information
Getting there. From Tullamarine Airport, the SkyBus runs into the city every 10 minutes. A return journey costs $36 and it takes about 25 minutes.

Getting around. Melbourne’s wide boulevards meant that unlike other Australian cities, it could retain its tram network. Trams are free within the CBD (including route 35, which runs a circuit around the centre, providing an informative commentary). Outside this central zone, you will need to buy a Myki card (pronounced Mikey, not Mickey), which costs $6. You can buy a starter pack for $15, which includes the card and $9 credit — enough for one day’s travel on trams and buses (each journey costs $4.10 within the central two zones but there is a daily cap of $8.20).

Cycling. Melbourne has a couple of cycle schemes — a cycle hire scheme, which has docks of bikes around town, and the new oBikes (more info here). For the latter, you use an app to locate nearby bikes, which don’t need to be docked, and then use the app to unlock them; they come with helmets (it’s against the law to cycle without a helmet). I also spotted a cycling helmet vending machine in Southern Cross Station.

Lodging. I found Melbourne hotel prices quite expensive, and ended up staying at The Atlantis Hotel, in the northwestern corner of the CBD. My room was quiet and comfortable, if unspecial, and the hotel had a small gym and pool in the basement. The free wifi was so slow as to be essentially unusable — even loading Google Maps or the BBC News proved too much, so I was glad I have free data roaming on my phone. It was about a 20-minute walk downhill to the heart of the CBD, and it was also within the free tram zone and a very short walk to Southern Cross station, which is also where the SkyBus arrives.

Wifi. You can get free wifi in the CBD by connecting to the VicFreeWiFi network. This was the only way I was able to download podcasts during my stay. I’ve heard that hotel wifi in general is poor in Australia so I don’t think I was just unlucky…

Water. Water fountains, most with water-bottle refilling taps, are frequent throughout the city and in parks, so try to take your own re-usable bottle. Tap water is offered in most cafes and restaurants.

Christmas Comfort

Christmas is a season of magic.Time moves in all directions–past, present, future. 
I stood on my tiptoes, hanging a wreath on the tall mirror, and glimpsed my reflection. I didn't see a 64-year old woman. Looking back at me was a brown-eyed girl with curly hair and a snub nose, a kid who loved pecan pralines and make-believe. And I remembered that Christmas makes us all time travelers, pulling us backward into childhood.Continue Reading »

Bath: A Speciality Coffee Tour

Other than the obligatory school history and Latin trips, my only other visit to the city of Bath was in summer 2002, on a pre-university weekend trip with my then boyfriend. I was working in a sandwich/coffee shop at the time and had begun to get into good coffee, but no memories of Bath’s coffee — good or bad — have stood the test of time. Fifteen years later and Bath has become quite the speciality coffee destination. So much so that when a barista in one of the coffee shops I visited on Friday asked a customer about a new opening in the city centre, the customer suggested that Bath’s coffee market was already saturated.

I have been wanting to return to Bath for several years but every time I look at the train ticket prices — even booking several weeks or months in advance — I haven’t been able to find a day return for under £60. But I had some annual leave to use by the end of December and realised I had probably had my fill of international travel for the year, and got myself organised and nabbed a £29 day return nine weeks in advance.

I didn’t just go to Bath for the coffee — and I’ll highlight some of the other things I got up to in a separate post — but I did manage to visit five coffee shops, four of which I’ve written up below (one was somewhat underwhelming so I’m leaving it off until I get the chance to give it another go). Unfortunately, I couldn’t go to one of the coffee spots I had hoped to visit, Hunter & Sons, as it is only open from 9–11 am on Fridays. As well as speciality coffee, they specialise in craft beer and have a kitchen, so I assumed they’d be open all day, but sadly, this was not the case.

Mokoko Coffee, Southgate
By the time my train pulled in to Bath Spa station, just after 10:30 am, I was in dire need of a second coffee. Luckily, Mokoko Coffee’s Dorchester Street coffee bar is mere steps from the station forecourt. Mokoko wasn’t on my radar before I started researching this trip, but I’m glad I found the small but lovely coffee spot, which has a slightly larger sister branch near the abbey.

There were three single-origins available on espresso and four on filter. Knowing that I wanted a piccolo helped me to narrow down the selection, and the Ethiopian Guji from James Gourmet Coffee jumped right out (it was also what the barista was about to recommend before I interrupted him). You know it’s going to be a really delicious coffee when you can smell the flavour notes — rose and strawberry milkshake, in this case — as soon as the coffee has been ground. Indeed, my mouth was watering by the time the piccolo (£2.70) arrived. It tasted as good as it smelled and although I had been considering ordering one of the sweet treats on offer (probably the peanut banana bread), I wanted to savour the taste of this coffee a little longer.

The Dorchester Street café is small with only a few stools at the window inside, and a few more seats on a covered section of the pavement. It’s clear, though, that a lot of thought and care have gone into the coffee shop and into each cup of coffee brewed. There was also a good selection of beans for sale, including some from James and from Dark Arts Coffee. Don’t rush away from the station too quickly or your might miss this gem.

Mokoko Coffee is located at 7 Dorchester Street, Bath, BA1 1SS (their other Bath branch is at 6 Abbey Churchyard, Bath, BA1 1LY) Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Colonna & Small’s
Although Bath has more than enough coffee shops for one day’s caffeination, Colonna & Small’s is the one that no bona fide coffee lover can miss. Walk in through the pastel blue shopfront on Chapel Row, admiring the framed homage to some of the world’s best roasters and make your way to the long, wooden counter.

The décor is minimalist with light blue and green accents to the light wood and white walls. It’s surprisingly bright inside, even when it’s grey and snowy outside, and there is a variety of seating from armchairs near the door to the rustic wooden benches towards the back. When I arrived, it was bustling and the only available seats were at the stools perched in front of the brew bar, which suited me just fine.

I started off with a filter coffee, struggling to choose among the three single-origin coffees available as filter. In the end, I opted for the Huatusco Coe washed from Mexico, with notes of red apple, brown sugar and pink peppercorn. Had I been reading the names of the estates more closely than the flavour profiles, I might have opted for the Hartmann’s Estate instead, but my coffee was very well brewed through the siphon (£3) and the flavours came through beautifully.

Next up, I went for a piccolo (£2.60) and again, there were three espresso varieties available. I thought that the Guatemalan washed La Cumbre sounded nicest with milk, and indeed, it was beautifully prepared, and wonderfully sweet and smooth. Although I was tempted to stock up on some Colonna merch (the titular Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood was around and so signed copies of his books were possible), but instead spent my pennies on some beans: 150g of a ‘rare’ La Negrita Geisha from Colombia, whose lime and tropical fruit notes I’m looking forward to sampling.

Whether you are a coffee geek, coffee curious or somewhere in between, you will be equally welcomed at Colonna & Small’s, as the knowledgeable, friendly baristas help you decide what to order and then work their socks off to produce a really excellent drink. All of the rumours were true: Colonna & Small’s is one of the UK’s best coffee shops.

Colonna & Small’s is located at 8 Chapel Row, Bath, BA1 1HN. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Society Café, Kingsmead Square
Since Society Café opened in Oxford last year, it has been my first port of call each time I am in town to stay with my parents. Society has two cafés in Bath (and one in Bristol) but with just one day to spend in the city, I decided to pick one, the original on Kingsmead Square. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from Colonna & Small’s and when I walked past the first time, a small street-food market was getting started in the square. Later, when I returned for coffee at Society Café, the square was absolutely heaving but inside, it was a peaceful oasis.

If you’ve been to the Oxford café before, the Kingsmead Square décor will be familiar: there’s a beautiful turquoise espresso machine on the counter, colourful local art on the walls and a bright, relaxed seating area in the back. The coffee selection was familiar too: most of the ‘house’ espresso and filter varieties were from Origin, although a lone Nude coffee sat on the counter.

I’d reached my filter limit for the day, so I went for the house espresso, a San Antonio Lot 32 coffee from El Salvador, brewed as a piccolo (£2.40). The coffee was very nicely brewed and its toffee and pineapple notes paired well with the white chocolate and peanut butter blondie (£3.50) I ordered as an accompaniment. I enjoyed my refreshments with the latest issue of Caffeine Magazine sitting at one of the large, communal tables in the back room. There is also plenty of seating at the raised bench that runs along the side of the café and more space downstairs. It wasn’t too busy late on a Friday afternoon but I suspect that it may be elbow-room only during peak hours.

Society Café is located at 4–5 Kingsmead Square, Bath, BA1 2AB (their other Bath café is at 19 High Street, The Corridor, Bath, BA1 5AJ). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Picnic Coffee
Once I found out that Hunter & Sons was closed, I had ‘space’ for one more coffee and as I had been shopping in some of the excellent independent stores on and around Walcot Street, Picnic made the perfect pit-stop. Located on Saracen Street, the small café had steamed up from the damp December air when I arrived. Inside, though, it was cosy and colourful and there was a great range of coffee on offer.

With two espresso varieties available, as well as two filters (one for Aeropress and one for V60), it took me a few minutes to decide what to order. Actually, though, I recognised the lavender and lime flavour notes of the V60 coffee as the Dhilgee Lot 4 from Origin that was in my hopper at home. It’s a great coffee but I wanted to try something different, so I went for the Kenyan Nyeri variety, which I think was also from Origin, brewed through the Aeropress (£3). The house espresso was Origin’s Pathfinder blend, while the guest was from Union. There were various bags of Union and Round Hill beans for sale too.

I took a seat in a cosy nook — I’d arrived just after the lunch rush and there weren’t many tables free — right next to a bookshelf full of travel books. I picked up a Peru guidebook, hoping to make a start on some planning for my big trip next year, but it was a 2006 edition, so I didn’t make much progress. The coffee, though, was very good: well balanced and flavoursome. And if you’re in the mood for more than coffee, Picnic also serve sandwiches, cakes and alcoholic drinks.

Picnic Coffee is located at 9 Saracen Street, Bath, BA1 5BR. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Christmas in the Breakfast Room

Last Christmas, the house was completely decorated by early December. I'm taking an unhurried approach this year, and I'm enjoying the process. Over the weekend, I drank hot cocoa and watched Season 2 of "The Crown," which I highly recommend. Then I puttered around the breakfast room.Continue Reading »

The Caffeine Chronicles: Over Under Coffee, Soho

Since talking to the good folks of Assembly Coffee at the London Coffee Festival in the spring, Over Under Coffee in Earl’s Court has been on my coffee to-do list. I knew it would take me some time to find an opportunity to go that far west, however, and so it was fortunate that Over Under opened a second, more central location instead. I have often used Ham Yard as a cut-through between Great Windmill and Denman Streets just north of Piccadilly Circus, and as a over Over Under II, I now have an excuse to linger there instead of rushing through.

The Soho Over Under opened a few weeks ago while I was out of the country and it made the perfect pit-stop during my West End Christmas shopping on Saturday. As well as the Ham Yard Hotel, where I’ve been for a few meetings and events, there are some lovely shops in sleek, understated Ham Yard.  Over Under is on the right-hand side as you amble up from Denman Street.

The coffee shop is small inside, with just a dozen or so seats along a comfortable cushioned bench along one wall, and a couple of tables too cold to sit in on the day I visited. My eye was drawn immediately to the décor: the beautiful, beach prints took me right back to Sydney and Bondi and the Great Barrier Reef, where I was relaxing just over a month ago. I also loved the cheery pops of yellow behind the counter, on the bench and in the yellow cups sitting on top of the sleek Slayer machine.

The food also echoed my recent antipodean trip, with diverse breakfast bowls, toasts and sandwiches on offer. Another time, I’ll have to come back to try the avocado toast, simply because I can’t resist menu clickbait like “micro coriander”. There are plenty of vegetarian, vegan and dairy- and gluten-free choices on the menu. I had already eaten but found room for two mini toffee cakes (£1 a pop), which were sweet and just indulgent enough.

And as for the coffee, it’s from Assembly, of course, and tastes fantastic. The new Colombian espresso, which I’d sampled at Lumberjack the week before, wasn’t in the hopper, but my piccolo (£2.40) was absolutely beautifully brewed, with a perfect swan floating elegantly on top. It tasted great too, and was complimented well by my toffee-pudding shooters.

With its friendly staff and laid-back, beautiful café, Over Under is relaxing spot for an excellent coffee away from the Soho crowds. I still plan to visit the Earl’s Court original…it just might take a while.

Over Under Coffee. 4 Ham Yard Hotel, London, W1D 7DT (Tube: Piccadilly Circus). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Gone to the Dogs

My 90-year old mother claims that I was raised by a dog–a Weimaraner named Cindy. Mom wasn't kidding. During my childhood, Cindy was my protector and companion, and if I whimpered, she'd dash off and find my mom. Dear Cindy bestowed a life-long love of anything with four paws (even three–in the 70s, we adopted a Chihuahua who'd lost her leg in an accident). So it's no wonder that I chose a dog theme for my Christmas tablescape.Continue Reading »

New Zealand North Island Road Trip I: Coromandel Peninsula

I commenced my first New Zealand trip in Auckland — later than planned thanks to Qantas incompetence — but I’ll be returning there before I fly home next week, so for now, I’m skipping ahead to the next section: a short North Island road trip. I rented a car from central Auckland (it was under $200 NZD for a Toyota Corolla for six days) and was soon heading south on State Highway 1. Here is what I got up to along the way.

Coromandel Peninsula
Although the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula is accessible by public transport or by tour, it’s more convenient if you have your own transportation because then you can stop at whichever scenic spots and small towns take your fancy. There isn’t much to do in most of the towns and villages, especially this early in the season, so it was nice to have the flexibility to stop off, have a wander, grab a coffee and then hit the road again.

I headed first for the small town of Thames — hey, I’m from Oxford and live very close to the river now — which took about 90 minutes from Auckland. The roads were good and it was an easy drive. I stopped for a rather good Coffee Supreme piccolo at Coco Coffee Bar, walked up and down the high street (there was a cool indoor marketplace called The Depot with various independent shops and eateries) and then continued. There’s also a small town museum and a mining museum, but not much else.

From Thames, I followed the SH 25 north along the western side of the peninsula. Navigating was easy, partly because I was using Google Maps on my iPhone and partly because there is generally only one road. The roads, however, quite quickly became rather precarious, although they afford splendid views of the sea as they weave along the coast and inch up the steep, verdant mountains. Most of the trickiest bends have handy suggested-speed indicators, which helped in judging the severity, and I soon got used to the concept of one-way bridges. Although I occasionally got stuck behind a slow vehicle or, more often, frustrated other drivers for sticking to the speed limit, it was a decent drive.

I stopped for lunch an hour later at Coromandel Town, which, like Thames, is a small mining town that was less picturesque than I had expected, although had a bunch of quirky independent shops and plenty of character. I should have stopped for seafood at the Coromandel Mussel Kitchen just outside town but missed the turn and instead was left with the main street offerings. I ended up having a decent Allpress piccolo and scrambled eggs on sourdough at a place called Wharf Road (on Wharf Road).

I wasn’t sure I’d have time to go all the way to the top of the peninsula so I cut east to Whitianga instead. There are two routes — the southern is ‘less travelled and legendary’ (according to the Lonely Planet) but sounded like a more challenging drive, so I went for the northern route, which had some steep climbs and fantastic sea views. I stopped briefly at a couple of beaches on the way, one (pictured below and at the very top) primarily because I saw a penguin ‘warning’ sign. There weren’t any penguins, unfortunately (I’m beginning to think they’re as mythical as goats in trees in Morocco, which I didn’t see either), but the beach was gorgeous. I found out later that it’s called New Chum Beach, and has been voted one of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand. 

I arrived in Whitianga about 45 minutes later but there was little there to divert me longer than it took to walk down to the esplanade and back.

Hahei, where I stayed for the night, is only a short boat ride from Whitianga, but by car, you have to go the long way round which takes about 30 minutes (longer if they are resurfacing the road, which they seemed to be doing in large parts of the North Island during my trip). Hahei itself is a tiny but pretty village, with a handful of shops and eateries, and a few hundred residents. There are two main attractions nearby, which I’ll get to shortly, but both require specific tide timings, which I’d missed. As it was a sunny afternoon, I went for a stroll on the beautiful Hahei Beach, and then hiked up to the Te Pare Reserve, which had great views down over the bay — it reminded me a little of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

I stayed at Tatahi Lodge in Hahei, in a private room in their backpackers’ lodge. The lodge was comfortable, clean and thoughtfully appointed, even if it did feel a bit like sleeping in a particularly nice shed (especially when it poured with rain overnight). I went for dinner at The Pour House, a local craft brewery and pub. I had the fish and chips, which was really good. I even had a sample of one of the beers brewed on site (the Easy Rider, which the bar tender was recommending to most customers), although it was rather too beery for me (I don’t like beer).

In the morning, I rose early and headed out to Cathedral Cove, one of Hahei’s two main sights. It’s about a 50-minute walk from central Hahei, but I decided to jog instead. Note, though, that it’s an extremely steep route, although has great views. I was rewarded when I got to Cathedral Cove beach and found it deserted, which meant I got the iconic view through the cathedral-like hole in the cliff face of the ship-shaped Te Hoho rock to myself for a few minutes before a group arrived. It was such a beautiful and peaceful place. Try to go in the morning (it’s east-facing and so the light is better) and at low tide (otherwise you might not be able to walk through the cave).

I returned to my hotel to shower and check-out and to borrow a beach towel and a spade from the owners. It was almost low tide and I was headed to Hot Water Beach, a ten-minute drive from Hahei. For two hours around low tide, you can dig yourself a hole on the beach that fills with warm to hot water, depending on your spot. I got there about 45 minutes before low tide and the beach was already busy. The Germans had, of course, already found the best spots. There was a lot of asking around as to how hot everyone’s water was. Mine wasn’t the hottest but I dug it by myself and the water was indeed pretty hot. A fun, if somewhat tiring, activity. I ran into the (rather cooler but still tolerable) sea to clean off and then, after dropping off my spade and towel at the hotel, got on my way.

Wairere Falls

My destination was Rotorua, a three-hour drive from Hahei. I was hoping to find a nice cafe or roadside eatery to stop at for lunch, but although the drive was beautiful (again, many steep, winding mountain and coastal roads), there wasn’t much along the way. However, passing near Matamata (most famous for its Hobbiton attractions; I’m from Oxford, though, so there’s only one Shire for me), I saw a sign for Wairere Falls and, in an effort to be more spontaneous, I took the turning. There was nothing about it in my Lonely Planet but at 153m, it’s the tallest waterfall on the North Island, and you can either take a 40-minute hike to the viewing platform, about halfway up, or climb to the summit if you have three hours or so to make the round trip. Having not had lunch and having done a steep jog at Cathedral Cove, I stuck to the shorter walk, which was a relatively easy if steep hike. The views of the falls at the top were well worth the detour.

And before I knew it, I was approaching the outskirts of Rotorua, of which more in my next blog post.