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9 August 2018

The Caffeine Chronicles: The Pear Tree

From Canada Water to Norway Gate and Helsinki Square, it's possible to travel the world without ever leaving the Rotherhithe peninsula in southeast London. The names reflect the area's rich shipping history, until the closure of Surrey Docks in 1970. And it's on Greenland Place, in the heart of these former docklands, that I find another place that harks back to faraway lands.

The Pear Tree is an Australian-inspired all-day neighbourhood eatery, located just south of Surrey Docks and not much further from the River Thames itself, in full serpentine curvature at this point. This part of the world, on the borders between Surrey Docks and Deptford, is not far from my Bermondsey home but I have fewer opportunities to visit than I used to. The coffee and the brunch at the Pear Tree comes highly recommended, however, so I schedule myself some Sunday morning brunch.

As it turns out, I probably should have booked. At 10:30 am, the eatery is already bustling and as it's a warm day, the tables outside on the pedestrianised street are full too. Luckily, the host manages to squeeze me in to a table in the middle of the light and tastefully decorated dining room. The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming, and the other customers include couples, families and groups of friends.

Allow a few minutes to parse the varied menu. There are both 'breakfasty' and 'lunchy' brunch dishes available, with the latter ranging from pasta to poké, and duck hash to Dan Dan noodles. I am still in a breakfasty brunch frame of mind and stick to the requisite left-hand side of the menu. Most of the dishes are brunch classics, although some also have a twist; pulled pork benedict, yes please. Sometimes, though, all I really want is a really good avocado toast, like that epic work of epicurean beauty I had at Code Black, barely two hours after touching down in Melbourne last year. The Pear Tree's dish doesn't disappoint. The avocado is lightly smashed and comes with a coriander, lime and chilli dressing on chunky sourdough toast with superbly flavoursome oven-roasted cherry tomatoes.

But what of the coffee? Well, it's from Caravan — they use the Daily Blend — which is an excellent start. A little-known fact about me — despite the name of my blog and apparent drinking habits — is that I really like flat whites, but only when they're really well prepared. This means I rarely order them outside the Antipodes. I have an inkling that the Pear Tree's flat white would fit the bill, and I am correct. Served in an Acme cup, it is perfectly proportioned and tasted delicious. Next time, I may even branch out and try another Aussie classic, the iced Milo (an iced chocolate milk drink), or perhaps I'll just stick to a brunch cocktail.

The Pear Tree is open until 10 pm every day. It's a pleasant ten-minute stroll from Surrey Quays Overground. It's bursting with Australian-style hospitality too: the wait staff and baristas are universally warm, attentive and efficient, even during a busy service. Oh, and don't miss the well-stocked deli by the front counter.

The Pear Tree. Greenland Place, Yeoman Street, London, SE8 5ET (Surrey Quays Overground). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

For 100+ more of my favourite coffee shops in London, please check out my speciality coffee guide.

3 August 2018

In Europe's Highest Coastal Village, Côte d'Azur Views with a Lavender Twist

Countless villages — including Sainte-Agnès in Alpes-Maritimes — lay claim to the title of prettiest village in France. And Sainte-Agnès certainly is very pretty. But it also holds a more unique honour: le village du littoral le plus haut d'Europe. Indeed, on the day we visit Europe's highest coastal village, it is as though we are almost driving into the clouds.

Sainte-Agnès is an easy day trip from Monaco, Nice or Cannes, and from Menton, which is 10 km southeast and almost 800 metres lower, you could do it in an afternoon. Driving from Cannes after a long weekend on the beach, we take the A8 autoroute, which hugs the undulating coastline of the Côté d’Azur, winding up through the hills and then dipping down into the tunnels. It takes about an hour and a quarter, although it’s the final few kilometres, off the autoroute and on a narrow and extremely steep local road replete with hairpin bends and insouciant motorcyclists, that is the slowest. If you don't have your own wheels, there are several buses from Menton every day.

We have come to see the annual lavender festival so we aren't too disappointed by the clouds obscuring Sainte-Agnès's fêted panoramic views on our arrival, giving the village an ethereal beauty. Instead, we park just outside the village walls and then make the short but steep hike to the main square. It's quiet when we arrive — it is lunchtime on a Sunday — so perhaps the lavender scent is adding to the sleepy vibe. 

Our first priority is finding somewhere to eat. With about 1,000 residents, Sainte-Agnès is small, even for a village perché, but my research has highlighted two lunch options. We head to Le Righi, a few minutes' walk from the centre of the village, past the fort (of which more to come). The restaurant has two panoramic terraces, with views over Menton, the Mediterranean and across to the Italian border on a clear day. Despite not booking and arriving near the end of service, we score a table outside and as the meal progresses, the clouds begin to clear, even if the haze never really does. The view is still quite something, as the restaurant's cat, seated in prime position, clearly knows. 

The food — Italian-influenced Mediterranean fare — is good too, with the home-made pasta being a particular speciality. The beef daube ravioli are delicious: rich and filling, especially if you opt for the daube sauce.

After lunch, we cool off inside the Fort de la Ligne Maginot, a stark, concrete structure that formed part of the Maginot Line — France's ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent German invasion during the 1930s. There is little information inside the fort, and if your French is halfway decent, you'll be better off with the French version of the guide as the English translation is courtesy of Google. For history or military buffs, it's a diverting way to spend an hour.

By the time we emerge, the clouds have burned off and we hike up to the ruins of the medieval castle, perched higher still above the modern village. It's free to enter but we donate €5 each for a freshly bound lavender garland, and continue hiking up to the donjon (keep). It's a step climb but the views at the top are worth the effort, as we pick out coastal villages, sailboats and the ubiquitous A8.

Back in the village, the lavender festival is still going strong, with a distillation in progress and a brass band jollying up the ambiance. The festival has a new-age twist and there are various crystal healings and tarot card readings taking place. We can't stay for the lavender-themed Zumba class, but I do buy a handmade lavender soap-on-a-rope. Except when I get it home, I realise that the 'rope' is in fact holding in place a fortune. Tu rends l'impossible possible, it reads. Well, I try...

For more information about the best things to do on the Côte d'Azur, check out my long weekend in Cannes guide or my other Cannes-related posts.

20 July 2018

The Caffeine Chronicles: Jacob the Angel

Even as it expands and evolves, the speciality coffee world is sometimes smaller than you might think. Just last month, I walked past The Grand Café on the High Street in my hometown, Oxford, noting the text in the window that claimed the site as that of England's first coffee house, dating back to 1651. It turns out that this coffee house, once named the Angel Inn, was opened by a Jewish man called Jacob, who also gives his name to a rather more modern coffee shop, which I visited last weekend.

Jacob the Angel is located, appropriately enough, at 16 1/2 Neal's Yard — 16.5, if you will (16.51 might be pushing it) — in Covent Garden. I have wanted to visit both Jacob the Angel and its larger sibling and neighbour, The Barbary, for some time but the wonderful little foodie hub that is Neal's Yard is often very busy, particularly at the weekends. It turns out that early afternoon just before England's last game of the 2018 World Cup is the ideal time to visit if you would like to find a table — even if the coveted window seats, which afford perfect people-watching opportunities, remained occupied.

Inside, the café is small and beautifully decorated. A wooden bench runs along each wall, hosting brushed-brass tables and bar stools. Vintage photos bedeck one wall, while on the other, a tribute to the titular Jacob is displayed. I claimed a table and went up to the L-shaped counter at the back of the shop to place my order.

The coffee is from Square Mile, and although there were filter coffee options on the menu, I'd been brewing up an iced filter coffee storm at home earlier in the day and decided to go for a piccolo, with the Red Brick espresso blend. My coffee was beautifully made by the charming and friendly Daniele. I was also rather fond of the smart, racing green crockery, although my piccolo came in a glass.

I had hoped to indulge in a spot of brunch, despite my late arrival, but they were all out of the sourdough bread that was one of the key ingredients in the avocado toast I'd hoped to order. Instead, there were various pre-made sandwiches on the counter. I went for a posh egg mayo roll on challah bread, which was tasty and filling enough for me on such a hot day. I almost picked up a dessert on the way out — the chocolate and coconut slices looked particularly good — but I couldn't quite find room; a treat I will have to indulge in on my return visit.

Jacob the Angel. 16 1/2 Neal's Yard, London, WC2H 9DP (Tube: Covent Garden). Website. Instagram.

For 100+ more of my favourite coffee shops in London, please check out my speciality coffee guide.

Oxford's Grand Cafe, the site of the original Jacob's Angel Inn

14 July 2018

In Southern Snowdonia, Golden Hues and Barmouth Bridge Views

"You could make a fortune if you found a way of extracting the gold," our skipper John confides. We are travelling by RIB from the Welsh seaside resort of Barmouth up into the Mawddach Estuary. Despite the 19th century mining boom, some gold still remains, deep in the seams. Nuggets are occasionally discovered in the eight-mile estuary, and Clogau gold has been used for various royal wedding rings.

It is a glorious sunny evening — not yet golden hour, but you wouldn't know it because the water and the imposing Cadair Idris mountain (named for a legendary 7th century giant, not Mr Elba) are lit up in rich yellow and russet tones. The Mawddach's fast-changing tides mean that Mawddach Boat Rides run somewhat irregularly but if you time it right and the weather is fine, you will be assured a beautiful ride. For a more active Mawddach jaunt, SUP Barmouth runs stand-up paddleboarding sessions.

Just before we reach the Farchynys headland, we turn round and return to port, passing under Barmouth's iconic railway bridge, which celebrated its 150th birthday last year. The bridge is one of the reasons my dad booked us into Aberamffra Cottage for the week: the generous terrace provides panoramic views of the bridge at all times of day. Turning to the east, you can see more of the estuary, the surrounding hills and mountains, and the gothic manse known as the Clock House. The cottage has two bedrooms and a 'bunkhouse' one floor down, which is surprisingly cool, even on a hot summer's day, as, like much of Barmouth, it is built directly into the cliff.

It's a short walk from Aberamffra to downtown Barmouth — Abermaw, in Welsh, or Y Bermo, more informally. For a small town (the winter population numbers about 2,500), the high street is impressively bustling. As well as the expected collection of beach and gift shops, and second-hand book and antiques shops, there's the hip Pieces for Places, which sells a variety upscale and/or upcycled homewares. Speciality coffee hasn't yet hit its stride in the town, although Bradshaw's, with locally roasted coffee from Poblado Coffi, is probably your best bet. And for fish and chips, look no further than the Harbour Fish Bar; you may have to queue on busy evenings, but the crispy battered cod is worth the wait.

I've been to Barmouth many times before but never in the height of summer. Visiting the town's large blue flag beach was thus a novelty. Most of the town — and all its weekenders — have seemingly turned out by the time we arrive but the tide is out and there is plenty of room for everyone. The sea is pleasantly warm and we enjoy a refreshing dip before returning to our blanket for a picnic, and game of frisbee (Mum and Dad) or a siesta (me).

Another experience that challenges my expectations of Barmouth is a visit to Coes Faen Spa Lodge for dinner. A hotel and spa located across the road from the aforementioned Clock House, Coes Faen also serves dinner four nights per week. "It's Tuscan fare with local flare," the owner, Richard Parry-Jones, confides while we relax with a pre-dinner drink in the 'snug' living room. I am impressed by the gin collection, opting in the end for a G&T made with local Dyfi Pollination Gin (replete with botanicals foraged from the Dyfi biosphere). Served with a garnish of crushed mint, juniper berries and lime, it is unusual and delicious. After we move to our table, I enjoy the lobster linguine and beautifully cooked lemon sole. We take a walk through the property's beautiful grounds before dessert, enjoying still more views of Barmouth Bridge and the estuary. Pudding for me is a rich chocolate tart served with mascarpone, ginger and oranges.

On my final day in Barmouth, before I make the picturesque train journey back to London, we pay a visit to the Blue Lake. Located near Fairbourne, on the opposite side of the estuary (you can walk or take the train across Barmouth Bridge, but if you're driving, you'll need to go the long way round, via the Penmaenpool Toll Bridge), this erstwhile slate quarry turned wild swimming spot isn't well-signposted. Look for Fordd Panteinion, a small road that forks left off the main road south of Fairbourne, where you can park. Don't follow the Welsh Coastal path signs, but instead head to the abandoned quarry. It's a bit of a climb, but we soon arrive at the small, vibrantly coloured pool. The sun has finally gone in when we get there and the lake is not its famed sapphire hue, but looks just as beautiful in deep teal. The water is cold, but my mum, brave as always, goes for a swim. The rest of us stick to spectating. And dreaming of Clogau gold.

If I've piqued your interest in Barmouth and the Mawddach, you may enjoy my dad's book, Marians on the Mawddach, which celebrates the area, including his West Midlands school's history with this particularly lovely part of the world.