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9 January 2020

The Caffeine Chronicles: Formative Coffee

I was quick off the mark with my first London coffee shop visit of the year, on 2 January, although as Formative Coffee first opened its doors in Victoria almost a year ago, I wasn't as prompt as I would have liked. The small shop is a short walk from St James's Park Tube station (and St James's Park itself, for that matter), and is only open on weekdays and only until 5 pm, which is why I'd struggled to visit previously.

On the first working day of the year, I found Formative fairly quiet, although there were also bursts of customers seeking coffee to take away. From the outside, Formative is very sleek, located in a pleasingly curved flatiron-shaped building on the corner of the pedestrianised Butler Place. The curvature is echoed inside, with a large black coffee bar that occupies most of one wall. White tiling, black tables and olive green chairs complete the look.

The coffee menu is simple, offering just espresso, filter coffee, flat whites and lattes. And the coffee selection itself — currently from Danish roaster La Cabra — is displayed on two cards on the counter. You can choose between coffee A and coffee B, with several flavour notes for each listed below. The idea behind this is to keep the focus on the coffee and its flavours, although I cheated accidentally as I had already seen the two origins on Formative's Instagram earlier in the day.

I started with coffee B — a washed Ethiopian Mekuria Mergia coffee with notes of mango, orange blossom and papaya — as a filter coffee. There aren't any hand-brewed filter coffee option available, but luckily I arrived in time for a freshly brewed batch of coffee B, which came served in a beautiful Åoomi ceramic cup and which I very much enjoyed with a slice of toasted banana bread. There are a few other sweet treats on offer if you're in need of a nibble to accompany your coffee.

Requiring more caffeination before I braved the Regent Street sales, I also ordered a flat white. I usually prefer coffee drinks with less milk, but I'm also partial to a well-made flat white, which this was, smooth and sweet, with latte art that endured until the last sip. They also sell a colourful spectrum of La Cabra beans, as well as coffee-making equipment and Huskee Cups. Given its aesthetics, I feel my new Carter Everywhere mug would fit in well here.

Formative Coffee. 4 Butler Place, London, SW1H 0RH (Tube: St James's Park). Website. Twitter.  Instagram.

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

2 January 2020

A Decade-Long Speciality Coffee Journey

I've been writing about coffee since I started this blog in 2007, but it wasn't until the start of the last decade when speciality coffee shop reviews took on a more central role among my posts. In January 2010, I was living in Marylebone and had just taken a new job in King's Cross, which brought my commuting back to Cambridge to an end. As I've discussed before, back then I had to walk 20 minutes on my lunch breaks to get to the nearest speciality coffee shop, the original Espresso Room on Great Ormond Street. And now...well, the speciality coffee scene in King's Cross, London and many other cities throughout the world has changed dramatically.

My tastes have changed too: I used to drink macchiatos almost exclusively (hence the name of this blog), and I still enjoy them (and their slightly larger siblings, the piccolo and the cortado), but these days, I drink a lot more hand-brewed filter coffee, usually light roasts from single origins. I've taken the occasion of a shiny new decade to pick out some of the highlights of my own speciality coffee journey — and my own blogging journey — over the past ten years. What a ride it's been, covering 29 countries on five continents.

I posted my first — very short — shortlist of London speciality coffee shops in 2009, and also wrote mini-reviews of Milkbar and Lantana in London, as well as Joe (pictured below) and Jack's Stir Brew in New York, all of which are, happily, still going strong. By 2010, I was complaining about Costa's efforts to jump on the flat white band wagon, and singing the praises of Milkbar and of Fernandez & Wells.

By 2011, I had visited enough speciality coffee shops in London to put together my first proper London coffee guide, with a map and eight highlighted coffee shops, off of which are in the West End and six of which are still open. Later in the year, I enjoyed visits to Tapped & Packed (pictured) on Tottenham Court Road (whose macchiato and repurposed Lyle's tins impressed me), Sensory Lab (now Workshop) and Climpson & Sons on Broadway Market. In New York, I also ventured east, checking out the funky Everyman Espresso, Think Coffee and Blubird (RIP!).

In 2012, I launched my 'caffeine chronicles' series, dedicated to more detailed reviews of speciality coffee shops in London and further afield. I kicked off with reviews of the Department of Coffee & Social Affairs and Prufrock (pictured) in Clerkenwell, my review of the Aeropress, and an updated list of my favourite London espresso bars. The latter included six new entries and highlighted the upcoming rebrand of St Ali and Sensory Lab as Workshop Coffee. In June, I reviewed the Borough Market Monmouth Coffee; their Saturdays-only Bermondsey coffee bar is still my regular post-run Saturday morning coffee destination. In September, I was delighted that King's Cross finally had a speciality coffee spot in the form of Caravan, Granary Square.

This year, it was time for an updated list of my favourite New York espresso bars, eight of which are still going strong. I also began to review more coffee shops outside London and New York. Hot Numbers in Cambridge, a city whose craft coffee options were rather limited when I was studying there, impressed me greatly. Meanwhile, a work trip to Finland saw me producing a two-part guide to the Helsinki speciality coffee scene (including Kaffa, pictured). And I even found good coffee in the middle of the cloud forest in Costa Rica. Back in London, I wrote up my visit to Association, which remains one of my favourite coffee shops, even though its opening hours mean that I only visit very rarely.

I started the year with my latest update of my list of top ten London coffee bars, all of which are still thriving. This year also saw my first visit to the London Coffee Festival; I only attended one session, so it was all a bit of a delightfully caffeinated rush. Some of the notable London coffee shops I reviewed in 2014 include: White Mulberries, Curators Coffee Gallery (RIP), Saint Espresso (the sleek interiors of their original Angel location remains by far my most-pinned photo on Pinterest), Browns of Brockley and The Gentlemen Baristas. On my travels, I checked out the speciality coffee scene in Brighton, Japan, Vancouver and even Saskatoon.

I travelled a lot in 2015, on holiday and for work, finding some really great coffee shops in Mexico City (including BUNA 42 Cafe Rico, pictured below), Washington DC, Copenhagen and Lisbon, among many others. And in Peckham, the wonderful coffee shop, roastery and social enterprise that is Old Spike opened up on Peckham Rye, right next to one of my favourite restaurants, Pedler.

2016 and 2017 were boom years for my speciality coffee write-ups and city guides, in part because I was travelling so much (my day job became a lot more hectic in 2018, which is why my posting has become less frequent since then). With so many great places to choose from, it's hard to pick my favourites, although Second Shot in Bethnal Green (pictured) and Frequency in King's Cross definitely deserve a mention. I've met Julius — who owns the former — and Justo — who owns the latter — many times, and it's hard not to admire their passion and drive. There's even a second Second Shot now, very close to my old flat in Marylebone. It took me until 2016 to first visit Origin Coffee's Shoreditch cafe, and they've since opened coffee bars in King's Cross and Southwark, making it the coffee company whose cafes I frequent the most.

I also produced speciality coffee city guides for my hometown, Oxford, and Manchester, Stockholm, Reykjavik, Paris, Portland, OR, where I took a third wave coffee tour (pictured below), and Vietnam, among the other destinations.

This was a very busy year of coffee travels for me, both locally and abroad. In London, I reviewed Catalyst, H.R. Higgins and Redemption Roasters, and ventured north to Velasquez and Van Wezel and east to TAB x TAB (pictured). I also finally managed to organise a return visit to Bath and the impeccable Colonna & Small's, reviewed cafes in Leicester, and produced a comprehensive London speciality coffee guide, including well over 100 coffee spots.

In the US, I produced a comprehensive and regularly updated guide to and map of New York speciality coffee shops (there are 84 currently on the list), and reviewed coffee shops in New England: Boston and Cambridge, MA (including Broadsheet; pictured), Little Wolf in Ipswich, MA, and several spots in Portland, ME.

I made short, but well-caffeinated, trips to Prague and Oslo. But the tour de force was my one-month sabbatical, which I spent in Australia and New Zealand, visiting a total of 51 speciality coffee shops in Melbourne (including Proud Mary; pictured), Sydney, Wellington and Auckland. Yes, I did sleep, although not excessively, given the packed nature of my itinerary.

After starting the year with my thoughts on disposable coffee cups and the now sidelined 'latte levy'. Two years later, although waste from single-use coffee cups is still a huge problem, I have been heartened to see more and more people trying to avoid using them, when at all possible/practical. My family are all from the West Midlands and I spent a lot of time in Lichfield growing up, so I was over the moon to discover Melbourne in Lichfield (pictured), a wonderful coffee spot run by Deb Pease, where the sense of community is just as central as the coffee. They've now expanded to a cafe on Bird Street, and are roasting their own coffee in characteristically funky packaging too.

Elsewhere in the UK, my visits to Curve in Margate and Rosslyn in London were other coffee high points of the year. In 2018, I also produced coffee city guides to Krakow, Budapest, Berlin, Amsterdam, Austin (including Merit Coffee, pictured) and Lima.

London's speciality coffee scene stepped up yet another notch last year, with the rightly fêted openings of Le Café Alain Ducasse in King's Cross, Omotesando Koffee near Oxford Street and a new branch of Kiss the Hippo, on the site of the former Curators Coffee Gallery just north of Oxford Circus. Just up the road from the latter is the delightful Kafi (pictured), on Cleveland Street, where I met and chatted coffee and travel with Yatish. Meanwhile, in Borough Market, new opening Flor combines fine dining with very fine coffee — go hungry (and uncaffeinated)! And to the amazement of my 2010 self, the King's Cross speciality coffee scene had developed so rapidly that I needed to produce a second, updated coffee guide.

In 2019, my coffee travels took me back to Berlin, as well as to Tallinn, Lausanne, Ljubljana, Seville, Chicago, Malaysia (KL and George Town) and Singapore (including Populus Coffee, pictured).

2020 and beyond...
Given how much change there has been in the speciality coffee decade, it's hard to predict what things will be like by 2029, especially with the ever-growing issues of climate change, wreaking havoc on coffee farms, and of increased rent prices in some inner-city areas. On my most recent visit to New York, it felt as though the number of new openings had levelled off, with other, mainly independent, cafes shutting down.

I'd like to think that openings like Le Café Alain Ducasse highlight that it is possible for the industry to adapt again, serving coffee that might be more expensive than some customers are used to paying, but that is high-quality and highly sustainable. Multifunctional coffee shops — that also serve food, reupholster, sell bikes or cut hair, for example — are becoming increasingly common as diversification offers a more secure future.

In closing, I'd like to say a big thank you to all of my readers, especially those who have followed since the early days of this blog, where the content was more diverse and also more #unfiltered. Even though I only occupy a tiny space within the speciality coffee community, I love being a part of it: meeting and connecting with other passionate coffee-lovers and, of course, drinking a lot of delicious coffee.

Still hungry for more coffee content? Check out my comprehensive speciality coffee guides to London and New York, browse my other coffee and coffee travel posts, and head over to my Flickr for a decade of London, New York and global speciality coffee photos.

31 December 2019

My Top 5 Books of 2019

Of the 135 books I read this year, there were many candidates for the top five and it was hard to narrow down my choices. As usual, I read a lot of thrillers, mysteries, crime and suspense, but my top five, and the further five on my longlist, are a little more diverse. And although I didn't pay attention to the gender of the authors when I was making my choices, all five of this year's top five, and four of my longlist, are written by women.

1. Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok. At the start of Jean Kwok's novel, the titular Sylvie Lee leaves her family and home in Brooklyn to visit her dying grandmother in the Netherlands and then disappears. Her younger sister Amy, who has always felt overshadowed by her beautiful and accomplished older sister, is left to pick up the pieces of Sylvie's seemingly perfect life and to try to find her. But the more Amy digs, the more troubling secrets she uncovers. The premise sounds superficially like Gone Girl but this is a very different book, thematically and tonally. The story is told from the perspective of Amy, Sylvie and their mother, and just like with Kwok's Girl in Translation, the author really conveys the influences of the primary languages of the three characters — Dutch for Sylvie, English for Amy and Chinese for their mother — on their English narrative. Haunting and evocative, Searching for Sylvie Lee is perhaps too slow-paced to be a traditional thriller, and the mystery at the heart of the novel always comes second to the relationships between the central characters.

2. Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce. Criminal lawyer Alison's personal life is in free fall as her career flourishes and she takes on her first murder case, defending a woman who stabbed her husband to death. She has a doting husband and an adoring six-year-old daughter, but she also has a drinking problem and is having an affair with a rakish colleague. And as Tyce's cleverly constructed and evocative novel unfolds, Alison's professional and personal worlds collide and she struggles to hold it all together. Tyce's characterisation is spot on, although none of the central characters are especially likeable, and I found myself racing through the novel to reach its dark climax.

3. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Since I first read Cat's Eye at 14, I've devoured everything Margaret Atwood has written, and The Handmaid's Tale remains one of my all-time favourites. It's such a brilliant novel that a sequel could have been risky were it not Margaret Atwood putting pen to paper (or perhaps fingers to keyboard). Unsurprisingly, The Testaments is a highly accomplished novel that builds upon its predecessor, answering some, if not all, of its unresolved questions. Picking up 15 years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale, three women offer their testaments: Aunt Lydia, who achieved personal power as an enforcer of the totalitarian Gilead regime, and two young women growing up inside Gilead and in neighbouring Canada, respectively. Atwood is a master storyteller and her dystopian worlds are as richly painted as they are horrific.

4. What Red Was by Rosie Price. When I started to read Rosie Price's debut novel, I was reminded of David Nicholls' One Day, a favourite of mine, but it soon diverged. Kate and Max meet at university and soon become the closest of friends, despite their very different backgrounds. Max draws Kate in to his enticing world of privilege, and she allows her other relationships to fade away. But then one night something horrific happens that causes Kate's fragile new world to shatter, as she reexamines everything she thought she knew about friendship and love, loyalty and courage. A beautifully written character study, What Red Was is uncompromising, sorrowful and utterly gripping.

5. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. From office air conditioning temperatures, to medical research and urban planning, our world is predominantly designed for men, as Caroline Criado Perez convincingly demonstrates in her fascinating, and often shocking, book. Bringing together big data and case studies, Criado uncovers systematic gender bias across many domains, some I anticipated, others I had never even considered, such as inner city transportation networks.

And here are five more books that I enjoyed, which almost made my top five:
  • A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson. Like Malin Persson Giolito's Quicksand, which I loved, fellow Swede M.T. Edvardsson's novel has a teenage girl accused of murder at its heart. A Nearly Normal Family is divided into three sections in which the girl and each of her parents narrate their side of the story, with plenty of inconsistencies. The novel is a slow-burner but I found it very compelling, and Edvardsson's portrayal of the three central characters, whose motives and incentives only sometimes overlap, is acutely observed.
  • Divide Me by Zero by Lara Vapnyar. By turns hilarious and tragic, Lara Vapnyar's highly unique novel introduces us to Katya, a 40-ish Russian woman living in Brooklyn and trying to deal with a failed marriage and a dying mother. Throughout the novel, Katya flashes back to her childhood in Russia as well as more recent periods, examining her relationship with her mathematician mother at every step. Each chapter features one of Katya's mother's mathematical lessons for life, which act as the framing device for what could be a rather chaotic story. 
  • Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Sharing elements with both Searching for Sylvie Lee and Divide Me by Zero, Taffy Brodesser-Akner's widely acclaimed novel centres on the titular Toby Fleishman, a wealthy (but seemingly not wealthy enough) New York doctor whose wife Rachel has gone missing. Funny, sharply written and clever, Fleishman Is in Trouble is also deeply sad.
  • The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas. This inventive novel opens in 1967, when four pioneering female scientists invent a time machine. Fifty years later, the consequences of this are still being being felt, especially by the nearest and dearest of the time travellers. And when a message from the future warns of an impending violent death, unravelling the mystery of whodunnit — and indeed who was killed and why — becomes an urgent priority. I enjoyed spending time with Kate Mascarenhas's characters, even if the storyline becomes a bit mind-bending in places.
  • The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard. Soon after arriving at St John's College, Dublin, Alison falls hard for Will Hurley, before her world falls apart when Will is arrested for the murder of several young women including her best friend Liz. Alison leaves Ireland, and her past, behind to start a new life in the Netherlands but when another young woman is found dead in Dublin's Grand Canal, the Garda persuade Alison to return home to help them investigate. Intriguing, twisty and well-plotted, Catherine Ryan Howard's novel was a fast but very enjoyable read for me.
The full list of the 135 books I read in 2019 is as follows (as usual, italics are for re-reads):
  • Becoming — Michelle Obama
  • Cult X — Fuminori Nakamura
  • In the Vines — Shannon Kirk
  • Attached — Amir Levine & Rachel Heller
  • The Apprentice — Tess Gerritsen
  • What Happened That Night — Sandra Block
  • Conquistadors — Michael Wood
  • An Anonymous Girl — Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
  • The Au Pair — Emma Rous
  • The Suspect — Fiona Barton
  • The Hunting Party — Lucy Foley
  • Call Me Evie — J.P. Pomare
  • Abandoned — Allison Brennan
  • Dead If You Don't — Peter James
  • Jar of Hearts — Jennifer Hillier
  • Normal People — Sally Rooney
  • The Night Olivia Fell — Christina McDonald
  • Tombland — C.J. Sansom
  • The Hiding Place — C.J. Tudor
  • The Mother-in-Law — Sally Hepworth
  • Smart Women Finish Rich — David Bach
  • The Lonely Witness — William Boyle
  • A Trick of the Mind — Penny Hancock
  • It Should Have Been Me — Susan Wilkins
  • The Silent Patient — Alex Michaelides
  • Broke Millennial — Erin Lowry
  • Forget You Know Me — Jessica Strawser
  • Something in the Water — Catherine Steadman
  • No Exit — Taylor Adams
  • The Rosie Result — Graeme Simsion
  • The Family Next Door — Sally Hepworth
  • Liar — K.L. Slater
  • The Darkening Hour — Penny Hancock
  • Lethal White — Robert Galbraith
  • Dirty Little Secrets — Jo Spain
  • The Wife — Alafair Burke
  • Blood Orange — Harriet Tyce
  • Heads You Win — Jeffrey Archer
  • Nine Perfect Strangers — Liane Moriarty
  • Money — Laura Whateley
  • Before She Knew Him — Peter Swanson
  • Invisible Women — Caroline Criado Perez
  • Murder in the Crooked House — Soji Shimada
  • Freefall — Jessica Barry
  • Catch Me If You Cannes — Lisa Dickenson
  • Bermondsey Horror — Albert Borowitz
  • Lock Every Door — Riley Sager
  • The Secretary — Renee Knight
  • Run Away — Harlan Coben
  • In the Dark — Cara Hunter
  • The Better Sister — Alafair Burke
  • I Thought I Knew You — Penny Hancock
  • No Way Out — Cara Hunter
  • Coffee: A Global History — Jonathan Morris
  • Clean My Space — Melissa Maker
  • Looker — Laura Sims
  • The Ghost Fields — Elly Griffiths
  • The Woman in Blue — Elly Griffiths
  • The Chalk Pit — Elly Griffiths
  • The Dark Angel — Elly Griffiths
  • The Stone Circle — Elly Griffiths
  • As Long As We Both Shall Live — JoAnn Chaney
  • The Temp — Michelle Frances
  • The Neighbour — Fiona Cummins
  • The Furies — Katie Lowe
  • My Lovely Wife — Samantha Downing
  • The Stranger Diaries — Elly Griffiths
  • I Know Who You Are — Alice Feeney
  • Save Me from Dangerous Men — S.A. Lelchuk
  • A Good Enough Mother — Bev Thomas
  • The Turn of the Key — Ruth Ware
  • The Missing Years — Lexie Elliott
  • The Night Before — Wendy Walker
  • The Last Night Out — Catherine O'Connell
  • Girl Most Likely — Max Allan Collins
  • Sorry I'm Late, I Didn't Want to Come — Jessica Pan
  • Tear Me Apart — J.T. Ellison
  • Under My Skin — Lisa Unger
  • The Lies They Tell — Gillian French
  • Pretty Ugly Lies — Pamela Crane
  • Beneath the Surface — Fiona Neill
  • The Last House Guest — Megan Miranda
  • The Charmed Life of Alex Moore — Molly Flatt
  • If I Die Tonight — A.L. Gaylin
  • Lessons from Madame Chic — Jennifer L. Scott
  • What Red Was — Rosie Price
  • The Lost Night — Andrea Bartz
  • Fleishman Is in Trouble — Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • How Could She? — Lauren Mechling
  • Bitter Orange — Claire Fuller
  • The Liar’s Girl — Catherine Ryan Howard
  • Some Choose Darkness — Charlie Donlea
  • The Last — Hanna Jameson
  • Winning Minds — Simon Lancaster
  • The Daughter — Michelle Frances
  • Good Girls Lie — J.T. Ellison
  • Cari Mora — Thomas Harris
  • She Has Her Mother's Laugh — Carl Zimmer
  • A Gambler's Jury — Victor Methos
  • Now You See Me — Chris McGeorge
  • Never Have I Ever — Joshilyn Jackson
  • Don't Believe It — Charlie Donlea
  • Down the River, Unto the Sea — Walter Mosley
  • The Perfect Wife — JP Delaney
  • After the End — Clare Mackintosh
  • Feel the Fear (and Do It Anyway) — Susan Jeffers
  • Big Sky — Kate Atkinson
  • The Psychology of Time Travel — Kate Mascarenhas
  • The Escape Room — Megan Goldin
  • The Family Upstairs — Lisa Jewell
  • Wrong Place — Michelle Davies
  • False Witness — Michelle Davies
  • Dead Guilty — Michelle Davies
  • Necessary People — Anna Pitoniak
  • Guess Who — Chris McGeorge
  • Beyond All Reasonable Doubt — Malin Persson Giolito
  • Searching for Sylvie Lee — Jean Kwok
  • The Testaments — Margaret Atwood
  • Nothing Ventured — Jeffrey Archer
  • A Nearly Normal Family — M.T. Edvardsson
  • Stone Mothers — Erin Kelly
  • Man of the Year — Caroline Louise Walker
  • The Girl Who Lived Twice — David Lagercrantz
  • The Tattooist of Auschwitz — Heather Morris
  • The Sudden Departure of the Frasers — Louise Candlish
  • American Royals — Katharine McGee
  • The Missing Girl —Jenny Quintana
  • The Poison Garden — AJ Banner
  • In the Woods — Tana French
  • Come a Little Closer — Karen Perry
  • Your Truth or Mine? — Trisha Sakhlecha
  • The Guardians — John Grisham
  • Divide Me by Zero — Lara Vapnyar
  • City of Windows — Robert Pobi
  • The Likeness — Tana French
The photo is of the wonderful Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, which I visited on my recent trip to Bath.

30 December 2019

A Year in Leaps: 2019

As 2019 comes to a close, and a new year begins, it’s time for my annual round-up of my favourite five photos of the year that feature me jumping for joy in various locations. Regular readers will know that I use this post as a way of looking back on my travels throughout the year. And this year, I visited nine countries, including three that were new to me — Estonia (new), USA, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia (new), Malaysia (new), Singapore, Spain and France. I also visited several major cities for the first time, including Chicago, Lausanne and Seville, while also returning to New York, Berlin and Cannes. I’m currently in the process of planning my foreign travel for next year, and torn between flying west and east for my main holiday. Stay tuned!

1. The bean leap — Chicago, USA
By happy coincidence, most of my favourite leaps of the year featured lakes, or at least bodies of water. You might have to squint a bit to spot Lake Michigan in my photo in front of Cloud Gate, better known as The Bean, Chicago's Millennium Park. I had to get up early to take this photo, but luckily, I was staying close by at the Fairmont, which made for a convenient stop-off on my morning run.

2. The Slovenian Ljeap — Lake Bled, Slovenia
I spent a long weekend in Ljubljana at the end of August and one of the highlights was the day trip I took to Lake Bled. It was a gloriously sunny day, and I walked around the lake, swam, visited the fairytale Medieval castle and, of course leaped. Like most of my leaping photos, I used the self-timer mode on my iPhone, this time with a new mini-tripod, which I’d recommend highly, even on the uneven surface of the lakeshore. 

3. The 'shoud've brought my hiking boots' leap — Snowdonia, Wales
At the end of a family trip to Barmouth in July, we decided to retrace the steps of my childhood and climb Cadair Idris, a mountain I mainly saw enshrouded in mist on account of us usually visiting in the autumn and winter. We weren’t really dressed for a proper hike and although it was a sunny day at sea level, as we climbed further up, the mist and rain descended. We did make it to Llyn Cau, a heart-shaped lake most of the way up towards the summit, before turning round and descending. The photo wasn’t as good so it didn’t make it into this blog, but on the same holiday, I also enjoyed leaping on what Guinness World Records have now classified as the steepest known street in the world, in Harlech. 

4. The ‘save me from the heatwave’ leap — Lausanne, Switzerland
Arriving in Lausanne in July, the day before a science journalism conference, I found the city extremely sweltering. Luckily, I had worn my swimsuit under my clothes, so after caffeinating at The Coffee Project, I headed down the hill to Lake Léman and jumped into the water. I did, of course, leave my clothes on the shore, although it was so hot that I was tempted to jump straight in. 

5. The island paradise leap — Pulau Perhentian Besar, Malaysia
The only leap not to feature a leap, this photo of one of my favourite beaches in the Perhentian Islands does at least feature the South China Sea. I spent almost three days there during my two week trip to Malaysia and Singapore, and other than a bit of island exploration, there isn’t much to do beyond swimming, snorkelling, diving and sunbathing. Although a small island, Pulau Perhentian Besar boasts numerous beaches and if you’re willing to walk a little further away from the resorts, you can usually find your own private piece of paradise. The snorkelling was particularly good at the pictured beach, with the coral reef starting barely two metres away from the shore. I found Nemo so many times I lost count and saw many other marine species too.

27 December 2019

Bex's Food and Drink Awards: 2019 Edition

In this, the first and most delicious of my ninth annual end-of-year round-up posts, I highlight some of my favourite coffee shops, restaurants and dishes of the year, both in London and on my travels. This year, I visited nine countries (Estonia, the US, Germany, Switzerland, Estonia, Malaysia, Singapore, Spain and France). From £4 chicken rice in Singapore to tempting tasting menus in Tallinn, as well as sublime speciality coffee, it's been quite a year. As usual, I've only included places I visited for the first time in 2019.

1. Best coffee shop
Le Café Alain Ducasse
I've worked in King's Cross for almost a decade, and it's been fascinating to watch the neighbourhood change. Where I used to have to walk at least 20 minutes on my lunch break to find good coffee, my most recent King's Cross speciality coffee guide demonstrates that the area is now a hub for craft coffee. The much-lauded opening of Alain Ducasse's Le Café in the sleek Coal Drops Yard development was no exception. With its excellent coffee, warm and attentive staff who offer an immersive customer experience, and beautifully designed shop, I consider myself lucky to have this café practically on my office doorstop and I've returned many times. Yes, I did try the £15 Yemen filter coffee and yes, I did think it was well worth it.

Runners-up: Kiss the Hippo, Fitzrovia, and Omotesando Koffee

Bonanza Coffee, Prenzlauer Berg (Berlin)
In a rare attempt at spontaneity, I booked a last-minute long weekend trip to Berlin in May, and got to spend some time in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood. Having enjoyed my visit to Bonanza Coffee's Kreuzberg roastery last year, I had high expectations for their smaller Prenzlauer Berg coffee bar and it did not disappoint. My piccolo was one of the best I had all year, the staff were knowledgeable and friendly despite the busy Sunday brunch crowd, and the honey-processed coffee beans I brought home with me made for some very unusual, but delicious, home-brews.

Runners-up: Stow Coffee Roasters (Ljubljana) and Torch Coffee Roasters (Seville)

Macallum Connoisseurs Coffee Company (George Town, Penang)
New York usually features in this category, but I only visited my favourite city once this year and for various reasons, didn't visit as many new-to-me coffee shops as I had hoped. Instead, my trips to Singapore, Malaysia and Chicago provided strong competition for this year's award. It was a close call between the winner and runners-up, but in the end, Macallum Connoisseurs just edged it, mainly on the basis that it was so unlike other coffee shops I've been to before. First, it's located in a huge open-plan space inside a former timber factory, a 20-minute walk from the centre of George Town. The fit-out is stunning, encompassing a central coffee bar, various seating areas, several pop-up boutiques and the roastery. Both the pourover coffee and the espresso were very well brewed and even mid-afternoon on a smoggy Friday, there was barely a free table in the huge space.

Runners-up: Passion House Coffee Roasters (Chicago) and Strangers' Reunion (Singapore)

2. Best restaurant
When modern European restaurant Levan opened on the site of Peckham Refreshment Rooms to many plaudits earlier this year, I was keen to visit, but it took me until November as part of my birthday celebrations. It was well worth the wait, with every dish — from the monkfish crudo with nduja and pumpkin, to the carrot, clementine and spices, and the canelé with milk ice cream and bacon caramel — tasting delicious and looking beautiful. Between us, we ate many of the small plates on the menu, but that doesn't mean I'm not eyeing up a return visit.

Runners-up: Trullo and Flor

ConTenedor (Seville)
My mum and I stumbled upon this cosy and colourful restaurant in Seville's laid-back Macarena neighbourhood on the last day of our visit, and were impressed by the simple but perfectly executed cuisine and warm service. After a plate of jamón ibérico to start, and pork loin and turbot for our mains, we managed to find room for a superb cheesecake with roasted apple and pistachio ice cream.

Runners-up: Tek Sen (George Town, Penang) and Au Cheval (Chicago)

3. Best brunch spot
I went to Crispin, Lundenwic's larger, more easterly sibling, for the coffee but stayed for the top-notch brunch. Scrambled eggs on toasted sourdough with avocado might not sound like the most creative brunch, but it was all in the execution, with perfectly cooked eggs served beneath pillowy clouds of parmesan. Chilli and chorizo added an extra kick to the dish. The coffee, from Assembly and Round Hill, is great too.

Runners-up: I Will Kill Again and Gunpowder

Sunday in Brooklyn (NYC)
I'd been meaning to visit Williamsburg's Sunday in Brooklyn for some time but never managed to book a table early enough. Instead, I decided to show up at opening time one Saturday morning when I was in New York in October. The rustic neighbourhood restaurant was already almost full, but they managed to squeeze me in at the counter. The cheddar scramble with bacon and home fries was excellent, as was the people-watching. My only regret was that I wasn't quite ready for a cocktail from the creative drinks list that early in the morning and stuck to a juice instead.

Runners-up: Bearded Bella (Singapore) and Merchant's Lane (KL)

4. Best street food
Tian Tian Haianese Chicken Rice (Singapore)
I ate street food most meals on my two-week trip to Malaysia and Singapore, including some really great dishes, from chicken satay and char kuey teow in Penang, to gold cakes at the ICC Pudu in KL. I also ate a lot of Haianese chicken rice, and was disappointed that the Michelin-starred Hawker Chan wasn't open during my visit. Instead, I went to the Michelin Guide-listed Tian Tian Haianese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre, where the chicken was incredibly juicy and the rice perfectly cooked.

Runners-up: Seville Tapas Tour and Time Out Market NYC

5. Best tasting menu
Restoran Ö (Tallinn)
I developed a taste for tasting menus this year, especially when on my travels. Although I very much enjoyed the dessert tasting menu at both Berlin's Coda (a runner-up) and New York's Marble Dessert Bar, my favourite tasting experience of the year was at Restoran Ö in Tallinn. When I had dinner there, it was actually my second tasting menu of the day after the brunch spot I'd identified turned out not to have an à la carte. The food, the service and the theatre were all spot on at Restoran Ö, however, and the €59 five-course menu (plus nibbles and candy) surprised and delighted. I particularly enjoyed the fir branch diffuser that accompanied the dessert, filling the air with a fresh fir scent.

Runners-up: Coda (Berlin) and Monstera (Ljubljana)

6. Best cocktail
Operation Dagger (Singapore)
In the last quarter of 2019, I've managed to visit seven of the bars on the World's 50 Best Bars list, including Attaboy (and two others) in New York, and Operation Dagger (and one other) in Singapore. Both of these bars involved elements of surprise: at Attaboy, I was invited to tell the bartender my cocktail likes and dislikes and she whipped up a mystery drink. At Operation Dagger, meanwhile, most of the ingredients are listed on the menu, but the spirit is held back to avoid selection bias. Indeed, the garlic and brown butter drink I guessed would contain whiskey instead had light and dark rum at its heart, while there was also a very creative twist on a piña colada that was made with tequila instead of rum. The drinks were delicious, the staff friendly and the underground, speakeasy bar beautifully decorated.

Runners-up: Attaboy (NYC) and PS150 (KL)

20 December 2019

In Honey-Hued Bath, Subterranean Spas and Vegan Victuals

When I found myself with a few days booked off work and no plans last week, it was the perfect opportunity to return to Bath, which I last visited two years ago. I took a train from Paddington on Sunday morning, returning home on Monday evening, which cost £42 (return tickets from London are generally around £60 unless you manage to score an advance fare). Bath accommodation can get quite expensive at weekends — with some properties requiring two-night minimum stays — while Sunday nights are often cheaper, hence the timing of my visit.

Where to stay
I stayed at No. 15 Great Pulteney, a boutique hotel on the titular Great Pulteney Street, a rather grand street a short walk east of the city centre, across the River Avon. My 'cosy double' room was indeed very cosy, and colourful too with a woodland mural on one wall. Although small, it was well-appointed with a kettle, Nespresso machine (I supplied my own pods from Bath-based Colonna Coffee), Dyson hairdryer and bath products from 100 Acres Apothecary. Guests also have access to the 'larder', which has a range of snacks and soft drinks.

One of the reasons I chose the hotel was its underground spa. Guests pay £20 to access the hot tub, sauna and steam room, although it's free with a spa treatment. As part of my package, I booked a facial, which was wonderfully relaxing, and enjoyed using the spa, which cleverly uses the curving space of the vaulted cellar, beforehand.

Things to do
I arrived on 15 December, which was the last day of the Christmas Market, but as I wasn't in the market for a Christmas market, I spent most of the day avoiding the area. Instead, I coffee-shop-hopped, visited the Royal Crescent and then retreated to the spa at my hotel.

The following morning, I joined a Mayors' Guides walking tour. Unlike many 'free' walking tours, the Mayors' Guides do not accept tips, and the two-hour city centre tour I took with Simon was informative and entertaining, as we saw famous sights and hidden gems (the remains of a centuries-old pharmacy, for example, and the house where Plasticine was invented). The volunteer guides tailor their tours according to their own interests so even if you've done a Bath walking tour before, you will probably get a different perspective on the city.

I've been to the Roman Baths before, but not for many years, so I was overdue a return visit. It took me about ninety minutes to walk around the well-preserved remains of the baths of the Roman city Aquae Sulis. There is an audioguide included in the £16 fee, providing detailed information about the history and culture of the site. Although you can't touch or drink the steamy jade water, there is a fountain near the exit where you can sample some of the water. Let's just say I won't be brewing coffee with it anytime soon!

While in Bath, I did a spot of shopping. Beyond the Christmas Market, there are lots of interesting independent shops. In particular, Bath is blessed with two excellent bookshops: Topping & Co, which I've been to before, and Mr B's Emporium. 'Emporium' really is the right word to describe the latter: the themed labyrinthine rooms house many literary delights with personal recommendations from staff. They also offer a 'reading spa', where you (or your gift recipient) can spend time with a Mr B's staff member chatting about your taste in books, before they select some new additions for your reading list.

I have more suggestions for things to do in Bath in my 2017 city guide.

Food and drink
I put together a Bath speciality coffee guide when I visited the city in 2017, and was keen to revisit Colonna & Smalls, which is, in my view, one of the best speciality coffee shops in the UK. Not only is the coffee excellent, but the staff are also incredibly welcoming and make real efforts to encourage guests who have not yet fallen down the speciality coffee rabbit hole to learn about and try coffees that they may have considered out of their comfort zone. Filter coffees are served via immersion methods, and I opted for a Kenyan Makena Estate PB, which was super-fruity, with notes of blood orange and raspberry when brewed with the siphon. I also bought some natural Rwandan beans and the aforementioned coffee capsules. The following morning, I returned for a piccolo made with a Mexican Limonada espresso, and had the chance to say hi to Colonna Coffee founder Maxwell.

I also visited the new-to-me Good Day Cafe, on Upper Borough Walls in the city centre, a pink-accented speciality coffee shop and cafe run by Steph. The house coffee is from Scotland-based Unorthdox Roasters, and they were also serving a guest coffee from China, roasted by Girls Who Grind Coffee. I had a very fine piccolo, brewed with a Brazilian espresso from Unorthodox, and scrambled eggs on toast for my brunch. The cafe was bustling in the Sunday brunch / Christmas Market rush, but there was only a short wait for a table and the staff were very welcoming.

Finally, I stopped by The Colombian Company on the recommendation of Debs for a Colombian cortado in the cosy, Abbeygate Street cafe. I may also have stocked up on some Colombian chocolate for the train ride home...

When I last visited Bath, I tried to eat at venerated vegan restaurant Acorn but I hadn't booked and they were completely full, so I didn't make the same mistake again. The menu includes small plates of varying sizes, and I decided to order three savoury courses: roast beetroot with a walnut, coffee and cumin puree; cauliflower 'many ways' with fenugreek croquetas; and smoked potato and hazelnut agnolotti pasta. With an amuse-bouche — a delicious pine nut arancino with the most vibrant green cavolo nero sauce — this was more than enough food for one. The food tasted great and each dish was well-conceived and attractively presented.

The following day, it was cold and drizzly, and a cosy pub lunch was in order. I dined at The Chequers, a gastropub that dates back to 1776 close to the Royal Crescent. I enjoyed my fish and chips, although there are also dishes on the lunch menu that cater more for the 'gastro' market than the 'pub'. At weekends, especially for Sunday roast, it's worth booking ahead.