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2 August 2019

In North Wales, Steep Streets and Cloudy Peaks

We haven't even made it to the next junction of the M40 before my parents and I realise that driving from Oxford to North Wales on the first Friday of the school holidays may not have been the best idea. The journey takes over five hours, but the last part, at least, is lovely as we wind west from Welshpool through the rolling hills and lush green fields towards the coast at Barmouth.

We have been dreaming all day of fish and chips on the beach at sunset, a goal that is achievable only because sunset isn't until 9:20 pm, but it's touch and go for a while. Barmouth has put on a particularly beautiful display for us, and the sky is awash with rose pink, lavender blue and tiger lily orange by the time we park on the sea front. It proves more challenging than we expected to find a fish and chip shop still open at 9 pm, but The Mermaid saves the day and we are soon enjoying the crisply battered cod as the saturation on the sky is dialled down.

After breakfast at our B&B near Bontddu, we drive north to Harlech, which boasts a splendid 13th century castle. It's been many years since my last visit to Harlech and the town has had a moment in the spotlight of late thanks to Guinness World Records declaring Ffordd Pen Llech to be the world's steepest street. We arrive early, worried the small town might be inundated with 'gradient tourists' but other than the Victorian mop fair and several art and craft stalls, it is still fairly quiet. We end up walking halfway up a very steep road before I realise we're in the wrong place. Luckily, the right location is very well marked (I feel the gift shop is missing a trick by not selling commemorative spirit levels, however). It is surprisingly difficult to capture gradient on camera, but we try our best.

On the way back to Barmouth, we stop at the diminutive seaside village of Llandanwg, where we stroll along the beach, trying to avoid the giant translucent domes of washed-up jellyfish, and then pay a visit to the small church. Lunch in Barmouth is underwhelming, but at least we have a good view of the harbour and Barmouth's iconic railway bridge; I also take the opportunity to photograph the colourful houses on Marine Parade on the sea front.

In the afternoon we hike around Farchynys, four miles east from Barmouth along the Mawddach Estuary. We walk up the bridle path opposite Farchynys car park, a short but steep climb with stunning views over the estuary from the top, and then descend through the bracken, via St Philip's Church, to the main road. On the other side of the road, we spot some 'grey sheep' (well, white sheep that I later realise have been rolling around in slate dust), and plenty of vibrant and varicoloured hydrangeas. If you're interested in the area and its history, there is plenty of detail in my dad's lively book, Marians on the Mawddach, the launch of which I attended in Farchynys two years ago.

For dinner, we return to the always excellent Mawddach restaurant, a few miles east towards Dolgellau. The upstairs tables in the converted barn command stunning views over the estuary and Cadair Idris, although the sunset isn't as impressive as the night before. The food is top notch, however. I start with a plate of salami and cured pork collar, followed by 55C beef with celeriac and potato gratin and Etruscan sauce (a bit like salsa verde). The beef is particularly good, but I still have room for pudding when I find out they have lavender panna cotta; I substitute the poached pear for some honey ice cream, which works very well.

I go for a pre-breakfast run in the morning, and then we drive to Dolgellau to stock up on supplies for our Cadair Idris hike. Although we're wearing trainers and have some rain gear, we're not prepared for a full Cadair ascent, but we follow the Minffordd Path up to Llyn Cau, a stunning heart-shaped glacial lake most of the way up the mountain. The hike — particularly the part with steep stone steps — takes me back to the Inca Trail, and I regale my parents with tales of my Peruvian adventures.

After taking some llyn leaping photos, we climb a little further up until we can see over into the valleys on the other side of the mountain. Unfortunately, either it has started raining or we've ascended into the clouds, so we eat our refreshments quickly before returning to the sunshine of the lower altitudes. It took us just over three hours in total to reach the mini-peak above Llyn Cau. To get to Penygader, the summit, and back it would take about five hours, which would have been doable had we had more time, and better kit (walking boots, hiking poles and more food, for starters). The car park at Minffordd is full, though, and we meet many other ramblers, from the UK, EU and further afield.

Fortunately, the return journey is much swifter, and I'm back at Euston station about four-and-a-half hours after leaving Dolgellau (I hop on a train at Birmingham International for the last part). We have packed a lot in our long weekend in Barmouth and my knees will certainly thank me for the rest when I return to the office the following morning.

30 July 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Scarlett Coffee Roastery

Despite its close proximity to Angel Tube station, it's easy to miss Scarlett Coffee Roastery if you don't know where to look. Located on a quiet stretch of Duncan Street, which runs east from Upper Street, the cafe and roastery is a stylish haven of speciality coffee — and brunch.

Scarlett takes its name from the bright red hue of ripe coffee cherries, and the scarlet ibis stands proudly — if one-leggedly — as its sigil. These vibrant pinky-red colours add pops of colour to the otherwise grey tones of the cafe, from the coffee bar with hexagons reminiscent of the now-defunct Coffee Curators Gallery, to the gorgeous grey marble table that occupies most of the space in the main area of the shop. There are also some seats at the window, outside on the small patio, and upstairs on the mezzanine level where the Probat roaster holds court.

I arrive in the early afternoon on a Saturday, and brunch is still in progress, with dishes like pulled lamb with poached eggs on sourdough toast, as well as brunch classics like crushed avocado on toast, albeit with some interesting twists. There are also various cakes and pastries for tho I have already eaten but I make a note to come hungrier next time. Instead, I skip straight to the coffee menu. All of the usual espresso-based drinks are there, and they also serve pourovers, brewed through the Clever Dripper.

First up, I order a cortado with the De Beauvoir espresso, a Colombian variety, which tastes smooth, sweet and very well-balanced with a little milk. When I spot the Clever Dripper, I decide to try the filter coffee too; Clever Drippers are sadly all too rare — and they are one of the few brewing devices that I don't own. The single-origin filter-roast beans are from Rugali Coffee Washing Station in Rwamiko, Rwanda. The coffee, served in a navy Kinto mug, is very well brewed with notes of dark chocolate and red berries, which again evoke the inescapable scarlet ibis.

After I've finished my very enjoyable cups of coffee, I pop up to the mezzanine to get a better look at the roaster and the beautifully designed bags of retail beans. As well as the De Beauvoir espresso, whose name recalls the local neighbourhood, there are two versions of the Rwandan beans: washed process ('Ibis') and honey process (in the black packaging). They roast on Wednesdays and the cafe is closed, but if you show up on any day, you'll see that new Islington coffee shop is most certainly pretty in scarlet.

Scarlett Coffee Roastery. 30 Duncan Street, London, N1 8BW (Tube: Angel). Instagram, Twitter.

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

12 July 2019

Three Speciality Coffee Shops To Try in Lausanne

As soon as the train pulls out of Geneva station just after noon on a sweltering Sunday, I am captivated by the glorious views of Lac Léman (also known as Lake Geneva). I am bound for Lausanne, 45 minutes along the train line, for a conference and despite the heat, I can't stop gaping at the clear, turquoise waters of the lake, bordered by rolling green hills and mountains.

I don't have much free time in Lausanne but I've researched speciality coffee options, and after a quick brunch at Blackbird (one of the few restaurants open on a Sunday) with an Ibex Coffee cortado, I head straight to The Coffee Project, a small coffee shop on Rue Marterey in the old town. The friendly barista talks me through their beans, and I opt for a Colombian Gesha from ELDC, which is new in. Although they serve iced coffee, I order the coffee as a hot V60 pourover. The notes of jasmine and lemongrass come through beautifully and it is extremely refreshing.

There is another branch of The Coffee Project further west, on Rue du Grand-Pont, which is close to my hotels and which I visit almost every day on the way to the SwissTech Convention Centre. This cafe is also on the petite size but still offers a pourover bar alongside espresso-based drinks. Like its sibling, it only has a few seats, but is always busy with takeaway customers. I try a cortado one morning, which is nice, but the best drink of the week is the Ethiopian Dambi Udo natural coffee, which tastes delicious brewed as a V60 pourover.

A bag of the Ethiopian beans costs 25 CHF (£20) while the Gesha is 50 CHF — like the city itself, on the steep side, although well worth it given the quality. Lausanne is not a cheap city in general, of course, but, for reference, a speciality coffee pourover runs at about 5.90 CHF (£4.75) — not much more than some London equivalents.

On my morning off, I go to Sleepy Bear, a coffee shop on Rue Simplon in the Grancy neighbourhood. While I wait for the barista to finish serving another customer, I eye up the coffee menu. The coffee is from local roaster, The Coffee Society, and there are a couple of varieties available: a Brazilian and an Ethiopian. After inhaling the aroma of both, I go for the Ethiopian, and take a seat at the window seat while I wait for the barista to prepare it. I order my coffee as a V60, but they also use Aeropress, Chemex and French press brew methods. My pourover tastes great, with delicate floral notes — just what I need to help me cool down on another hot day.

The cafe is cosy and rustic, with wooden panelling on the walls and on the L-shaped coffee bar that occupies most of the space. It's a very welcoming place with friendly service. They also do coffee tastings and classes from time to time.

Things to do, places to eat...
On the day I arrive, after my visit to The Coffee Shop, I explore the old town but it is so hot, I find myself hurrying down the hill to the Ouchy neighbourhood by the lake. I only plan to dip my feet in the cool, clear waters, but in the end, glad that I have worn my swimsuit, I jump right in.

It cools down slightly at night and, after a (very good) burger at Holy Cow, another rare Sunday-night opening, my colleague and I walk up to the 13th century cathedral, which has good views of the city. The following day, I take lunch at Café des Artisans, a great neighbourhood cafe-restaurant (the lunch menu du jour was good value for Lausanne at 21 CHF).

Most of the rest of my trip is spent at the conference, but there are a couple of particularly special socials. One evening, we go to the Olympic Museum for a drinks reception overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, I don't have time to visit the highly rated Musée de l'Elysée next door. The following morning I run up the very steep hill to the Olympic Stadium.

On our last night, we are taken up into the UNESCO-listed Lavaux vineyard terraces. The village of Grandvaux is closed down for our conference, and we are able to visit many different caves, enjoying the wine and local food with stunning views of the vineyards and the lake. I'm more of a gin drinker than a wine connoisseur (and I also enjoyed trying some Glyph whiskey), but this visit makes me want to schedule another trip to Switzerland as soon as possible.

On the first night, I stay at Hôtel des Voyageurs in the Flon area just north of central station. It's a small, well-run boutique hotel in a great location. A buffet breakfast is included and my room is clean, quiet and comfortable. There is no air con but a powerful fan was provided. For the final four nights, I move to the Ibis Lausanne Centre, a very basic business hotel that I pick for several reasons: 1) it complies with my company's hotel rate policy, 2) there is air con and 3) it's in a quieter location, albeit still very close to the Vigie M1 metro. It is fairly characterless but the staff are very friendly, and after hearing about aircon-less nightmares of fellow conference attendees, I am happy with my choice.

One thing to note about Lausanne is that if you stay in a hotel, your city tax includes a free pass for all public transport within the city. As the train from Geneva airport costs 27 CHF, this is a good way to save a little money. Lausanne is small, but because of the hills, the M2 line, which runs up the hill from the Ouchy port, is a boon for tired legs.

8 July 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Second Shot Coffee, Edgware Road

I first visited the original Second Shot — Julius Ibrahim's coffee shop and social enterprise in Bethnal Green — during its launch event three years ago and have been back a number of times since then. It's been great to watch Second Shot, which aims to bring people together to tackle homelessness 'one espresso at a time', grow from strength to strength.

And now there's a second Second Shot, which has just opened on Church Street near Edgware Road, funded in part by a crowdfunding campaign. I was out of the country during the pre-launch event, but I was in the Marylebone area on Saturday, their first full day, and so I was glad to be able to stop by and say hi to Julius and his team.

Long-term readers will know I lived in Marylebone for three years before I moved to Bermondsey, and my old flat is only five minutes' walk from Second Shot. There weren't any speciality coffee shops in the neighbourhood when I left, in 2012, but I did used to enjoy visiting the busy market on Church Street, where Second Shot is based. The market was bustling when I arrived and a steady stream of local residents, shoppers and coffee lovers alike had found their way to the new coffee shop.

The social enterprise element of Second Shot works in several ways. They train and hire people who have been affected by homelessness and then help them to find longer term jobs. There is also a 'pay it forward' system, where customers can pre-pay for a coffee or a meal, which people in need can then receive free of charge. I pre-paid for a meal when I paid for my lunch and coffee, although was a little embarrassed by my drawing skills when I added it to one of the bricks on the 'pay it forward' wall. It is, of course, the thought that counts.

As for the coffee, as usual, there were several single-origin coffees from some excellent roasters available. I first tried a washed Peruvian San Ignacio coffee from Cast Iron, a Sussex-based roaster, served as a very fine macchiato. Afterwards, I sampled a Guatemalan Red de Mujeres coffee from Square Mile, which was available as a batch-brew filter coffee, and which had very nice apple and gooseberry notes. There will also be some exciting coffee coming soon, so it's definitely worth keeping an eye on what they have in their hopper.

As well as pastries and cakes, Second Shot are serving smoothie bowls and chia bowls, and several sandwiches. I had a ham sandwich on focaccia, which was tasty and very filling.

The cafe shares common design elements with the original — most notably the bricks, which here line the coffee bar and repeat in the pegboard on the back wall. In the main seating area, a handful of small tables face the bar, with teal chairs that coordinate with the coffee cups. There's another seating area in the basement, including a large communal table, helpful for those who need more space to work. There will be a second brew bar down there too in time, which will serve as a training area.

If you haven't yet had the chance to visit the original Second Shot, now you have a second shot — the new cafe is a short walk from Edgware Road and Marylebone stations, and offers a very warm welcome and coffee as good as its ethos.

Second Shot. 49 Church Street, London, NW8 (Tube: Edgware Road). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

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