Sharing tables in coffee shops?

Food politics
Cafe etiquette

A few weeks ago, we went to Edinburgh. It was the Edinburgh Festival, and the whole city was heaving with people, half of whom were apparently students in a show of some kind … my favourite pitch was for a show that was apparently a cross between American Psycho and American Pie. We didn’t go to see it. Chainsaws and dessert don’t mix.

Walking around Edinburgh, trying to do the normal touristy things at the same time that the Festival is in full swing is a tad tiring, and it’s easy to get slightly frazzled after being jostled all the way up the Royal Mile and back down again, so we took to camping out in many of the city’s excellent independent coffee shops (flat white, latte, hot chocolate, mocha and two slices of that chocolate cake please? Finished? Feel human again? Right, back into the throng).

So, one afternoon, we stumbled into a typically stripped bare and basic coffee shop, of the type that looks like they decided to have a refit, then gave up after the initial demolition phase, deciding instead to leave it at just bare brick, ragged concrete and dangling light bulbs, with a load of mis-matched furniture rescued from a skip outside some sort of institution that closed in the Sixties. These places are fine by me, because usually, all the money that would’ve been spent fitting the space out has been diverted into some beautiful, hissing espresso machine sat proudly on the counter, the sort that you can feel the quality and the power from ten feet away. The coffee is normally world-class.

There was some space in the back, so the kids went to sit down. What happened next was just astonishing.

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Bombay Lunchbox , by Carolyn Caldicott

Books
Bombay Lunchbox

In real life, I work for a big financial services organisation (we’re not a bank, just let me make that clear before anybody clicks away in disgust. We try to look after people).

In common with lots of other organisations, we use Indian resource to help us do cool stuff in IT quickly, and that means that we’ve got quite a number of Indian techs and programmers over here helping to get things done.

They’re lovely people, highly skilled and knowledgeable, friendly and open, and they’ve brought their traditions with them from the distant sub-continent to the middle of Leeds. Diwali is a huge event these days.

One thing that’s quite noticeable is the way our Indian contingent approaches lunch.

Where most other people wolf down hastily bought sandwiches, hunched over a PC, feeling guilty for reading the news for ten minutes rather than working, our Indian friends make lunch an event. Out come little pots of curries and pickles, dhals, pakora, rice, all heated up in batches in the microwave and placed in the middle of a round table, around which six, seven, eight people will gather, tearing off pieces of chapatti and paratha, eating their communal meal thali style.

It’s just something that happens, the way that people in India have lunch, and I often think that we should learn from them, rather than just buying limp sandwiches from the Sainsbury’s round the corner.

The most admirable thing is the care that’s taken over food. These are not thrown-together-from-leftover affairs, because, as Carolyn Caldicott notes in her excellent book Bombay Lunchbox, “in India food cooked at home with care and love is considered to deliver not only healthy (and relatively cheap) food but also divine contentment”, and who couldn’t do with a little divine contentment to set them up for a hard afternoon at work?

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Press Coffeehouse

Food & drink
Press Coffeehouse, Harrogate

There are a lot of subscription coffee services around at the moment.

It’s quite the thing, and a definite sign that more people are waking up to the complexities and intricacies that separate a mediocre cup of coffee from a good cup of coffee from a truly superb one.

The idea is simple – hook into a subscription, pay a few quid a month, coffee arrives at your door.

It’s a very effective model, and a good way for the people to easily access some interesting and unusual beans.

This is what Press Coffeehouse from Harrogate do, but with a few little twists.

The first thing is packaging.

Coffee packaging is nice. It’s a hip little creative industry, and design is important. Seems a shame to waste it by re-bagging beans from some uber-fashionable far-flung coffee roaster into boring bags that just happen to be shaped so that they fit through a letterbox. It’s surely better to present the beans in the way that the roaster intended, because you would be safe in betting your house that that little hip artisan roaster in some back street in Barcelona agonised for days over the design of the bag their lovingly roasted beans ended up in.

Press reckon you should enjoy that bag, and so do I, but there’s also the matter of the coffee itself, so a set of cupping notes are included, along with a couple of complementary recipes. There’s also a little extra sweetener each month, something food, art or design centred. This month brought a box of sea salt and orange almond caramel from the sublime Noisette Bakehouse.

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Spice: Layers of Flavour, by Dhruv Baker

Books
Review: Dhruv Baker’s Spice: Layers of Flavour

Dhruv Baker won Masterchef a few years ago.

Now, normally at this point, I’d start reeling off a whole series of snide, unhelpful and generally smart arse comments about TV chefs, etc, etc, but I remember Baker coming across as a nice chap, and his food was astonishingly good, so much so that the relish with which I tore open the package that contained this book took me a little by surprise.

Spice: Layers of Flavour is a collection of Baker’s recipes strung together by the common theme of, yes, you guessed it, spice.

It’s a loose theme, but that’s not a problem, because that looseness brings with it range, and this is a book packed full of the sort of things I actually want to cook.

That’s quite an important point … I read a lot of cookbooks, and many of them are very good indeed, and some are not so good, but there are few that I actually want to cook more than a couple of recipes from. That isn’t to say that these are bad books – they aren’t – they just don’t hit that particular nerve that sends me scrabbling around for bits of scrap paper to mark pages and to make lists of ingredients to hunt down.

This book did exactly that.

I sat reading it over breakfast one morning, making mental notes about this recipe, that recipe. That night, I knocked together a chicken curry from it, having earlier quizzed the fishmongers in Kirkgate Market in Leeds about the availability of razor clams (plentiful, all the time, if you’re interested) for a lovely little recipe that involves steaming them in wine and then drenching them in spiced cream. There’s a recipe for a chocolate and cinnamon torte that I’m going to make tomorrow for when my sister arrives.

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Bundobust, Leeds

Eating out
Bundobust, Indian beer cafe, Mill Hill, Leeds

One word review, please

Astonishing.

Well, that’s decisive, at least … care to expand?

Well, there are few things in life more certain than being disappointed by an over-hyped, over-played and over-done restaurant. It happens all the time – a new place opens, everybody gets all excited about it, but it turns out to be just OK … not bad, not good, just OK, the sort of place that I just can’t bring myself to write about because it’s so, well, dull.

Bundobust is not one of those place.

Not one bit.

It has had an awful lot of hype, though …

It has indeed, and it’s easy to see why.

This is a joint venture between the good people behind Prashad, late of Bradford, lately not quite of Bradford (that still hurts. Drighlington? Pffft) and the equally good people behind The Sparrow, a proper beer bar in the centre of Bradford that I privately gave five minutes before collapse, but which I’m extremely pleased to say is absolutely superb, and thriving.

Both businesses have carved solid and sustainable niches, both doing their thing in a first-rate fashion, and their coming together in a joint enterprise like this in the middle of Leeds was always going to attract a little bit of attention.

OK, that’s understandable, but it’s neither a bar nor a restaurant … what, exactly, is it?

It’s definitely a bar, and it’s not quite a restaurant, but you’ll eat very well. More…

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