Cracking da Coffee Code

Charles II tried without success to ban coffeehouses in London on the grounds (no pun intended) that they were ‘places where the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports concerning His Majesty and his Ministers’. By 1739, fewer than 50 years after his death, there were over 550 of them. Now every fourth shop-front houses coffee. There are 254 branches of Starbucks alone in the capital, plus countless other large franchises and the occasional privately-owned Greasy Spoon. The days of trying to control discussion of the Royal family’s behaviour and that of the government are over. The newspapers talk about nothing else. And the people still talk about the weather.

A working grasp of Italian is essential to be able to order a cup of coffee nowadays. Caffe Nero, a chain which opened in 1997 and already has 100 outlets in the capital and another 150 across the rest of the UK, is probably the most dynamic of the many coffee chains opening up around Britain, offring a proper menu with pasta dishes instead of a range of unspeakable pre-packaged pastries.

Like South Africa, the emphasis is moving towards the healthy and away from Black Forest Gateau and the McBreakfast. But, unlike South Africa, in London they look at you blankly if you ask for a coffee, reeling off a string of options which would mean not a coffeebean to Edward Lloyd, whose coffeehouse in Lombard Street was one of the first of its kind, that meeting place of shipping insurance underwriters in the 17th century which eventually gave its name to Lloyd’s of London.

Mr Lloyd might be offered Espresso or Cappuccino (so far so good for us maybe, but already a bit discomcaffulating for our time-traveller) or Caffe Mocha or Caramel Macchiato. He might opt for an Espresso because it sounded as if it might have come quickly, but no. Solo, doppio or ristretto? Oh, heck and botheration, he’d say, can’t I just have a filter coffee? The barista (oh, yes, that’s what you have to call them) would don his/her sad face and sympathetically tell him he meant an Americano. Mr Lloyd probably didn’t know very many Americans but let’s assume he agrees, relieved to have placed his order.

Tall, Grande or Medio? Er, medium please. Non-fat? Half-caf? Organic? Dry or wet? Ouch. Our man would surely give up and ask for a cup of tea and a sandwich only to be barraged again with teas ranging from Homeopathic to Herbal, Darjeeling to Calming, and what would he like in his Panini? You know the feeling when you just beg for Five Roses, PLEASE not Rooibos, and a Marie Biscuit.

Nowadays most Londoners have cracked the coffee code, so the cunning cafeterians have supplemented the stuff you know with even more concoctions. What do you think a Costa Cranberry and Raspberry Frescato might be? Or a Yoghurt Swirl? Or a Frappuccino? How many different kinds of muffin can there be? How disgusting must a Skinny Carrot Cake Slice be? Do we really have to call pastries Viennoiserie as if we are now to believe that they have come all the way from Vienna? Must we now learn Austrian-German to order a Strudel?

Retreating over the road to The Paul Bakery, we speak French. And even if we speak English, we speak it with such a ridiculous accent that no-one’s following a word. It’s like a Zulu child from Nqutu trying to understand a Rosebanker speaking Fanakalo.

De Gaulle said “How can you expect to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?”. In the same vein, Paul has over a hundred different kinds of bread from which to choose. “Wot bred woood Monsieur lark in eez sondweesh?” Oh la la! The word baguette comes winging back from a childhood holiday in Brittany.

“Wot woood Monsieur lark in eez baguette, ze Coulommiers Jambon Cru or ze Champignon Dijonnais aux Poivres or ze Thon Nicois aux Oignons or ze?”

I am becoming one of the King’s disaffected persons liable to start a revolution. Never mind Marie-Antoinette’s “let them eat cake”. May I please have a cheese, ham and tomato toasted on white government loaf and a full-caffeine Coke. It’s time to go back to Juicy Lucy’s.