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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.

9 July 2018

The Oxford Caffeine Chronicles: Common Ground

In the heart of Oxford's hip Jericho neighbourhood, Little Clarendon Street certainly earns our family's nickname for it: Little Trendy Street. A short walk north of the historic city centre, the street — along with Walton Street, which joins it at its western end — has long since been home to a collection of independent shops and eateries, from the first branch of beloved ice cream bar G and Ds, to funky homewares store Central Living.

And now Little Trendy Street has a speciality coffee spot too. But Common Ground Workspace is more than just a coffee shop: it's also a co-working space and community hub. The large blackboard near the entrance detailed activities as varied as a barista skills class, a bike maintenance class, a crafting workshop and a ping pong tournament. They opened in the spring as a pop-up, but more than three months later, they are still going strong.

Inside, it's a spacious affair, with plenty of mismatched furniture, from well-loved, if comfortable, sofas to large communal tables and even an old saddle atop a tall wooden desk. Sitting on the counter, the Victoria Arduino Athena Leva espresso machine, with its vintage appearance and historical credentials, is perfectly in keeping with the rest of the décor.

The coffee itself is from the Bristol-based Clifton Coffee Roasters. As they (technically, at least) a pop-up, they only have disposable cups so do try to bring your own — or you can buy one of the rCUPs available for sale. Luckily, the barista was able to rustle up a small glass for my piccolo. There were some Brazilian single-origin beans in the hopper and, as always, it was a pleasure to watch the lever espresso machine in action. The menu features mainly espresso-based coffee drinks (there aren't, at the time of writing, any filter coffee options available); they also serve iced coffee and espresso tonic.

I took my piccolo and its impressive latte art to one of the low coffee tables in front of the counter. An old draughts board was set up with milk bottle lids as the counters, but I didn't have time for a game. The coffee was very well brewed and I enjoyed a few moments of peace and quiet before heading back out into bustling Jericho.

Common Ground Workspace. 37–38 Little Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX1 2HF. WebsiteFacebook.

For more Oxford coffee suggestions, please check out my Oxford speciality coffee guide and Oxford coffee map.

29 June 2018

72 Hours in Budapest: Bex's Guide

Have you ever bathed in a 16th century Turkish bath with a stained-glass ceiling? Stayed in the residence of a former prime minister? Haggled for cherries and paprika in a historic market hall? These are just a few of the experiences that Budapest — the ultimate city of two halves — has to offer.

With a population of 1.7 million, the Hungarian capital is one of Europe's largest cities. But its compact city centre — comprising the hilly, historic Buda and the bustling, metropolitan Pest, separated by the Danube — is relatively compact. It is thus easy to see many of the beautiful city's historic and architectural sights, visit a couple of museums and take in a thermal spa or two during a long weekend. Here's what my mum and I got up to on our recent four-day trip (my speciality coffee recommendations can be found here).

Hungarian Parliament Building
Hungary was founded in 896 and the number 96 carries a strong significance. The striking Gothic Revival Hungarian Parliament Building was inaugurated in 1896, and its dome reaches 96 metres in height making it the tallest building in Budapest, along with Stephen's Basilica. My favourite views of the building were from across the Danube when it gleamed in the sunshine. I also toured the inside and I'd recommend booking a tour in advance online as the tours often sell out. The experience only lasts 45 minutes but it's an interesting, if whistle-stop, tour. Photography isn't allowed by the beautiful cupola, but some things are better enjoyed in real life. Don't miss the Shoes of the Danube memorial on the river banks nearby.

Castle Hill
Castle Hill, perched high above the Danube on the Buda side, has numerous historical sights and provides some of the city's best views. Ride the Sikló funicular from the Buda end of the Chain Bridge to the Royal Palace, which has been rebuilt no fewer than six times in seven centuries. The palace is home to the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum, but we skipped these and enjoyed the panoramic views instead.

A few minutes' north lies Matthias Church, with its orange-tiled roof and ornate interiors, and the Fisherman's Bastion, a seven-towered neo-Gothic terrace. A modern Hilton hotel might not be an obvious stop on a historical tour but this one is built on the site of a 13th century Dominican church and some of the remains have been preserved.

Perched atop Gellert Hill, south of Castle Hill, the Citadella and Liberty Monument are well worth the steep climb to the summit, even on a hot day. The views over the city and the nearby Buda Hills are excellent, and you can always freshen up afterwards with a dip in Gellert or Rudas Baths.

Thermal baths

More than 100 thermal springs flow beneath Budapest and thermal spas are sprinkled throughout the city. Each has its own character, facilities, and rules and regulations (most are now mixed on most days, but some still have male-only and female-only days). Two of the biggest and most popular are the Gellert Baths and the Széchenyi Baths, but it's worth doing your research before you visit. These are the three I visited:

Rudas Thermal Bath
Sinking into the warm waters of the Rudas Thermal Bath while light streams in through the domed, stained-glass-panelled ceiling is like taking a bath in a giant kaleidoscope. The central pool is surrounded by several smaller pools of different temperatures, one as hot as 42C. But don't worry: there's a plunge pool and a pulley-operated cold shower if you need to cool off. There's also a swimming pool and a rooftop thermal pool overlooking the Danube; these cost more money but various combo tickets are available. Note that the baths are only mixed at the weekend.

Széchenyi Baths
Located in City Park, the grand Széchenyi Baths has three outdoor pools — two warm, for relaxing, and one slightly cooler, for swimming laps — and multiple pools inside the yellow, Neo-Baroque buildings. It was very busy when we arrived on a Friday afternoon and the World Cup was being screened, but there was a relaxed, lively atmosphere. Saturday nights are 'sparty nights'.

Palatinus Bath
Of the three baths we visited, the Palatinus Bath on Margaret Island was the most local and family-friendly experience. We spent most of our time in the outdoor pools, which included a lap pool, some thermal pools, various 'fun' pools with a wave machine and rapids, and even stomach-churning water slides. If you only stay three hours, you can get a refund on your full-day ticket, so keep your receipts (and bear in mind that most staff don't speak English).

Margaret Island
One of Budapest's key oases, Margaret Island an easy walk from the city centre, but you can also take the cheap and convenient ferry (D11 or D12) that zigzags up and down the Danube between Buda and Pest. On the island, there is plenty to explore, from the musical fountain (which isn't much of a fountain, and only plays music a few times an hour), to the peaceful Japanese gardens, the Palatinus Bath and the Art Nouveau water tower.

House of Terror
As the weather was so nice during our visit, we spent most of our time outside. The House of Terror is a comprehensive and well-produced museum about Hungary's fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century. The museum is located in a building used by the Arrow Cross Party and AVH, and walking through some of the former prison cells is a chilling experience.

Great Market Hall
Budapest's vast Great Market Hall was completed in 1896 (bien sûr). The ground floor has dozens of produce vendors, with a particularly good selection of fruit and veg, meats and cheeses. We bought supplies here for our picnic on Margaret Island. The stalls upstairs offer plenty of opportunities to purchase lace products, fridge magnets, packages of paprika and other Budapest souvenirs.

Mazel Tov
Part cultural space, part Israeli restaurant, part ruin bar, Mazel Tov's crumbling exterior belies the buzzy, modern space inside. The food — a combination of street food dishes and larger plates — is tasty and well-priced, and there was a lively ambiance, even on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

This modern Hungarian restaurant sources food from the nearby Great Market Hall, and has a large variety of Hungarian wines on the menu. I particularly enjoyed the roast duck, a dish that featured on many Budapest menus.

Struggling to find a table with no booking on Friday night, we decided to go to Menza, which was recommended to me by several friends. Located on the busy, touristy Liszt Ferenc Square, Menza's vintage 'old school canteen' interiors and good-value, modern Hungarian menu make it a popular choice. We scored a table on the terrace and devoured our food. My favourite dish was the garlic soup, which was served with a giant, Yorkshire pudding-like bread roll and a mound of cheese on top. the cheese gradually melted into the soup making it even more decadent.

Barack & Szilva
After failing to secure a table at 'Peach and Plum' on Friday night, we put our name down for Saturday. We sat outside and enjoyed the live music and cooling breeze, soaking up the atmosphere. I enjoyed the succulent duck breast salad to start, followed by some very tender and flavoursome pork tournedos.

Costes Downtown
If this meal were a Friends episode, it would be, 'The One Where We Went for a Quick Lunch and Ended Up with a Multi-Course Michelin-starred Feast'. The less stuffy younger sister of the original Costes restaurant has beautiful, understated decor, impeccable service and delicious, immaculately presented food. Although they serve a tasting menu, it's a 'mix and match' of the à la carte, so we ended up ordering two courses each (and a shared pudding) from the main menu. With all the amuses-bouches and intermezzi, however, it was a more decadent and languorous affair than we were expecting. Both my sea bream crudo starter and mangalica pork main tasted wonderful, although I couldn't stop eating the homemade bread with bacon and onion butter. Overall, it was a very special last meal in Budapest.

I hesitated for a long time between Brody House — an art-themed, shabby-chic hotel inside the residence of a 19th century Hungarian prime minister — and Hotel Rum, a more modern boutique hotel. In the end, we booked the former and would highly recommend the hotel. Each guest room is named for an artist, whose works are displayed therein. Ours was the spacious, quiet, comfortable and funky Ludo Room. Hotel guests can also relax in the 'club rooms', which have stylish lounge areas and an honesty bar. The staff were very helpful and welcoming and the hotel's location, near the National Museum, was peaceful but still central (and close to good coffee).

Ferenc Liszt International Airport lies about 12 miles southeast of central Budapest. There's a direct bus (the 100E), which runs frequently to downtown Pest. The journey takes about 30 minutes and it costs 900 HUF (about £2.50). You can take one of the official taxis from outside the airport terminal (go first to the booth to get a receipt for your itinerary); the journey is slightly quicker than the bus and it cost us about 7,000 HUF (£20).

St Stephen's Basilica

Getting around

Budapest has an extensive and cheap public transport system, with assorted buses, trams, boats and a Metro system. The city centre is small, however, and if you like to walk you might not need to use any of them. During our four days, we just took a boat from the Liberty Bridge to Margaret Island and the funicular to the top of Castle Hill.

The Hungarian language — with a complex, agglutinative structure — is fascinating to a former linguistics student but tricky for a casual visitor to master. Many people working in the tourism and hospitality industries speak great English, although try to learn a few Hungarian words: hello is hello; szia [see-ya] means hi; and köszönöm ['kuh-suh-nuhm] means thank you.

Ernő Rubik mural

There are about 370 Hungarian forints (HUF) to the British pound. Credit cards — and contactless payments — are accepted in most shops, eateries and tourist attractions. We brought some forints with us, but only needed to use them for restaurant tips and public bathrooms.