Just coffee

WE HAD JUST CROSSED the River Stour, leaving the county Essex and entering neighbouring Suffolk when we felt the need for coffee. We pulled up next to what seemed to be the only pub in the tiny village of Stoke by Clare and entered.

The village’s name includes the word ‘stoke’, which when used as a geographical term means hamlet or small settlement dependent on a larger place nearby. Stoke by Clare, which was in existence by the 12th century AD if not before, is only about two miles from the far larger and once important town of Clare. In 1124, Richard de Clare, the first Earl of Hertford, moved the Benedictine priory that had been established in his castle at Clare (now in ruins) to Stoke by Clare, thus giving some importance to the place. Today, Stoke is a picturesque, sleepy little village (population less than 500) with a few old houses, some with thatched roofs and some decorated with pargetting. Some of the thatched roofs are adorned with straw animals’ One has three dogs and another a pair of boxing hares. There is also a fine old church that was established at the time the Benedictine Priory moved to Stoke.

Entering the pub was like stepping back more than seventy years except that the diligent publican had equipped the interior with transparent plastic sheets, hanging like shower curtains, to prevent the covid-19 virus from being spread from one table to another. There was one elderly gentleman nursing a pint of beer and no other customers.

We asked the publican if coffee could be obtained. To our surprise and relief, he said that it was available although from the quaint old appearance of the place, which seems to have remained unchanged despite the passage of the centuries, we feared it might not be. My wife asked him:

“What kind of coffee do you make here? Espresso? Cappuccino? Cortado?”

The publican looked bewildered. Then, he replied:

“Coffee … just coffee.”

The coffee he produced was unexceptional, but it was just what we needed, and we enjoyed it in the lovely garden behind the pub. Before we left, we asked him if business had picked up since the easing of the pandemic ‘lockdown’ rules. He told us that it had not. I felt sorry for him as he has done everything to make his delightful old establishment safe for customers including providing hand sanitisers and instituting a one-way system through his tiny pub.

A piece of cake

blog cake

 

EVERYONE HAS WEAKNESSES. One of mine is a liking for coffee and walnut cake. According to Wikipedia, Robert Mullis “stumbled” upon the recipe of this cake whilst studying catering at West Somerset College in 1994. However, I am sure that I first ate this confection long before that date. I remember enjoying slices of this cake while I was working as a dentist in a practice in the small town of Rainham in north Kent.

Just outside Rainham on the road that leads to Sittingbourne (the old A2), there was (and still is) a farm shop called Gore Farm. Its premises included a pleasant dining room where for a modest price you could eat a very fresh tasting ploughman’s lunch that included cheeses made locally. Various cakes were displayed along a shelf in the eating area. These always included a coffee and walnut cake, a slice of which invariably rounded off my luncheons there. As I practised in Rainham between 1982 and 1992, and ate the cake during that period, someone other than Robert Mullis must also have ‘stumbled’ upon its recipe, but before he did. This would not be at all surprising because the cake in question is simply a sponge cake flavoured with coffee and both iced and filled with butter icing and topped with walnut halves.

Does it really matter when the coffee and walnut cake was first created? The answer in ‘no’. The important thing is that it exists to give pleasure to people like me. Today, a friend offered me a slice of it. It was extremely delicious as she had substituted some of the flour with ground almond. It was while savouring this that I wondered about the history of the cake, but so far, I am not entirely satisfied with what little I have discovered. Clearly, the answer might not be a ‘piece of cake’.

Taking the plunge

MOST COFFEE DRINKERS will be familiar with the cafetiere or French press (‘caffettiera a stantuffo’ in Italian and ‘Stempelkanne’ in German). The earliest versions of this were patented in the 1920s. For those not familiar with these devices, let me explain how they are used. Coffee grounds and hot water are introduced into an open topped cylindrical vessel, often made in glass but also in metal and plastic. After waiting for the coffee to brew, and people argue how long this should be, a plunger that snugly fits the opening of the vessel is placed on the surface of the hot coffee mixture. The plunger has a metal sieve that does not permit the passage of coffee grounds through it. This plunger is attached to a metal rod, by which pressure can be exerted to drive the sieve through the liquid towards the bottom of the vessel. As it moves downward, the coffee grounds become separated from the liquid (the brewed coffee) above it. Then the coffee, free of grounds, can be served.

BLOG CAF

In the early 1960s, the cafetiere became a fashionable way of preparing and serving coffee. My mother and her sister were quick to buy one for each of their homes. They were elegantly designed with clear glass vessels and shiny steel holders with black handles. And, the coffee they produce is good.

My mother kept using our cafetiere until disaster struck. It did not happen to her but to her brother-in-law. One evening after dinner, my uncle began plunging the filter through the hot coffee when something slipped causing the plunger to descend far too rapidly. As it shot down into the boiling hot coffee, the liquid shot up onto my uncle’s arm and caused him serious burns. Hearing of this unfortunate event, my over-cautious mother decided that far from being useful, the cafetiere was a potentially lethal weapon. So, our cafetiere was decommissioned, never to be used again. My uncle’s family continued to use their cafetiere(s) despite the accident.

Many years later, my wife and I were entertaining guests one evening. My wife had filled a large glass cafetiere with coffee and hot water and told me to plunge the filter whilst she sat down with our friends. Usually when you press the filter plunger into the brew, there is some resistance as the coffee grounds begin the reduce the flow of water through the fine filter mesh. On this occasion, I encountered some resistance as expected but then something unexpected happened. Each time I applied pressure and then released it, the filter disc began rising up towards the opening of the glass vessel. This happened repeatedly and it became increasingly difficult to depress the filter. It seemed as if the coffee was fighting back, pushing the filter plunger upwards.

Eventually, I managed to force the plunger down sufficiently and I served the coffee, somewhat mystified. After the guests had left, I examined our weirdly behaving cafetiere. I removed the plunger and found a deformed stainless-steel spoon amongst the compressed coffee grounds. The formerly straight stem of the spoon had become bent into a ‘U’ shape. I had applied sufficient pressure to the plunger to bend the spoon. I felt as if I had become Uri Geller, famous for his spoon bending tricks. Fortunately, and amazingly, the glass vessel of the cafetiere did not break or even crack.

Breakages are common amongst the glass vessels used in cafetieres. It is not the making of coffee that breaks them but dropping them on hard surfaces does them no good. We now use cafetieres with stainless-steel vessels. Not only do these not break but also many of them have double walls to help keep the coffee warm.

Very late at night

MY PARENTS USED TO go to bed early, usually just after hearing the 10 pm BBC news on the radio. When I was a youngster living at home, this used to upset me because I did not want to go to bed so early or to stay up without company. However, my aunt, my mother’s sister, and her husband were ‘night owls’. They lived a few minutes’ walk away from our family home.

BLOG BED Autumn leaves viewed nocturnally_500

Often, I used to wander over to their house after my parents had gone to bed. I would join them in their comfortable living room, and we would chat. Every now and then, our coffee cups would be refilled. And as the hours ticked by, the empty cafetieres would be replenished with coffee – one with normal coffee and the other with decaffeinated. As night merged into early morning, the three of us would nod off for a few moments and then wake with a jolt.  This would happen several times during the early hours of the morning. I used to love these late-night sessions with my relatives. Frequently, I left my aunt and uncle’s home at about 3 am.

I used to walk home along the tree-lined streets of Hampstead Garden Suburb that were illuminated by the strange orange glow from the bulbs on the concrete streetlamps. The streets were deserted, without cars or other pedestrians. If you were lucky, you might have spotted a fox scuttling past. To be honest, even in daytime, the thoroughfares of the Suburb were almost as dead. Occasionally, I would encounter a policeman on his nocturnal beat. Usually, these encounters led to me being questioned politely. What was I doing out so late? Where was I going? My answers, my innocent mien, and the lack of a sack of swag probably reassured my questioner that I was innocently going about my business.

On weekdays, despite going to bed late, my uncle was ready to drive with his wife to Golders Green station at 8 am. This was the time I headed in the same direction on my way to school. Oddly, although my parents had retired just after 10 pm, they were always still lying in bed when I left the house at 8 am, having prepared my own breakfast.

Something that has only struck me whilst writing this is that my parents did not give any hint that they were concerned at me wandering the streets alone in the early hours of the morning. When our daughter reached the age when she went out with friends at night, often returning at 3 or 4 am, I could not fall asleep until she returned home. These days, so many decades after I was a youngster, the streets are not nearly as safe as they used to be. I am not saying that the streets of London were 100 percent safe when I was old enough to first venture out alone, because there were hazards. However, many new dangers have been added to those that I might have had to face ‘when I was a lad’. ‘That’s progress’, you might say, but, remember that, speaking medically, a disease that progresses is one that is getting worse.

Shortages

AT THE START OF THE ‘LOCKDOWN’ in March 2020, there was some panic purchasing and it became difficult to buy items such as toilet paper, paracetamol tablets, yeast, and several other products used regularly. Fortunately, this situation has been resolved. Having experienced this situation briefly reminded me of two trips I made to Belgrade, the former Yugoslavia during the 1980s.

 

BLOG Prof Sreyevic

Often, I used to stay with my friend ‘R’, who had a flat in the heart of Dorćol, an old part of the city’s centre. One day, R announced that he had secured two places on a prestigious tour to visit the extensive Roman archaeological site at Gamzigrad in eastern Serbia. The tour group was to travel in two buses. One of them was for the ‘intellectuals’ and the other for the ‘workers’. We were to travel with the latter. The long drive from Belgrade to Gamzigrad was highly enjoyable. Everyone was drinking alcohol, chatting loudly, and often breaking into song. I wondered how we would cope with what promised to be a serious guided tour of the ruins of what had once been one of Diocletian’s huge palaces.

We were shown around by the eminent Professor Dragoslav Srejović (1931-1996), an archaeologist significantly involved in the discovery of the ancient Lepenski Vir site (9000-7000 BC) on a bank of the River Danube. I was impressed that everyone on the tour, especially my ‘tanked up’ fellow bus travellers, listened to the Prof quietly, attentively, and respectfully. By the time we had seen around the ruins, it was well after 1 pm. We were taken to a field with a few trees where there were long tables covered with tasty snacks and bottles of wine. We enjoyed these before boarding our coaches. I thought that we were about to head back to Belgrade, but we did not.

We were driven to a restaurant in nearby Zaječar, a town close to Bulgaria. What I had thought had been our lunch at Gamzigrad was merely a light hors’ d’oeuvre. We were served a hearty three-course meal. The desert was baklava. This was not served in the form of dainty little pieces like ‘petit fours’ but generously large slices. Turkish coffee ended the meal. The coffee was served in cups bearing the logo of the restaurant. Several of the group took them home as souvenirs.

After lunch, we had about an hour to look around Zaječar. R and I stepped into a food shop. My friend became very excited when he saw packs of butter on sale. This commodity was almost unavailable in Belgrade at the time. We carried our butter back to the coach, where R told some of the other passengers about his discovery. Moments later, everybody on our bus stampeded towards the shop and emptied it of butter.

On another visit to Belgrade, in April 1983, my friends were most upset. There was a severe shortage of coffee (in any form) in the city. This was a serious problem for people in the capital of Yugoslavia. I was staying in Belgrade on my way Bulgaria, which I was visiting for the first time. I told my friend, R, with whom I was staying in Belgrade, that if I found coffee in Bulgaria, I would bring some back for him and his friends.

There was no shortage of coffee in Bulgaria. I bought two kilogrammes of the stuff and after my short tour of the country, I headed back to Yugoslavia by train. At the Bulgarian side of the border, the train stopped. My travelling companion, S, and I were almost the only passengers in our carriage. After a wait of more than fifteen minutes, a Bulgarian customs official entered our compartment. He asked (in passable English) if we had anything to declare. We said that we had nothing. Then, he asked if we were carrying any coffee. I told him that I had two kilogramme packets, and he frowned before saying:

“Not allowed.”

I asked him what to do about it. He shrugged his shoulders and said again:

“No allowed.”

I offered him the bags of coffee. He nodded his head up and down, which is the Bulgarian expression for ‘no’, and not to be confused with the English head nodding that means ‘yes’.

“Shall I throw it out of the window?” I asked.

“Not,” he replied before leaving our compartment.

Then, nothing happened for more than one hour. The train did not move, the countryside was silent, the train was noiseless, and nobody moved inside the train. After this long period of inactivity, I peered out of our compartment and looked up and down the carriage’s corridor. At one end, ‘our’ official and a couple of his colleagues, were smoking cigarettes and nursing tiny cups of coffee.

Suddenly, there was a jolt and our train began moving into the no-mans-land between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Clearly, my illegal export of coffee had been forgotten or forgiven. My friends in Belgrade were extremely happy with my gift of coffee beans from Sofia.

On subsequent visits to Belgrade, I never again encountered shortages of anything as basic as butter and coffee. I hope that Britain never finds itself in the ‘shortage’ situation, which is anticipated by some who believe that this might become a problem if the country leaves Europe without a trade deal.

So long Soho

SOHO BAR ITALIA

IN MANY MINDS ‘SOHO’ conjures up sleazy night spots, strip joints, sex shops, and risqué nightlife. For me, Soho contains many memories of my childhood. And before you wonder about what kind of upbringing I had, let me emphasise that these recollections have nothing to do with the seamier side of this colourful district in London’s West End. If you are hoping for something more ‘exciting’, stop reading now to avoid disappointment.

My mother was an artist. Her preferred metier was sculpture. In the 1960s, she used to work in the sculpture workshops at the St Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. She welded pieces of metal to create artworks. Her companions in the studio included now famous artists such as Philip King and Anthony Caro.

In addition to being a sculptor my mother was acknowledged by friends and family as being a good cook. She was a disciple of the food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce French and Italian cuisines into British kitchens. Ms David’s recipes required ingredients and cuts of meat not readily available to British shoppers in the 1960s. However, St Martin’s was close to Soho, in particular Old Compton Street and Brewer Street, where the ‘exotic’ ingredients needed for Ms David’s recipes were easily accessible. These streets contained a variety of shops that catered to French southern European culinary needs.

We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, an attractive but, in my opinion, rather dull place. As a youngster, I loved being taken into central London. My mother often took me to the West End. We used to take the ‘tube’ to Oxford Circus Station. Near there, we always entered Dickins and Jones department store. Why, I cannot say, because my mother rarely bought anything there. The ground floor of the shop was dedicated to perfume and other cosmetic sales. Once, one of the salespeople, called to me. Without prompting, she advised me never to use after shave lotions. I was far too young to have begun shaving, but I have followed her unsolicited advice ever since then. I have not yet been brave enough to experiment with these lotions and to discover why she advised against them.

After leaving the department store, we used to visit the Danish Centre in Conduit Street, where I would be treated to an open sandwich and a kransekage, a Danish confection containing marzipan. From there, we used to head for Soho.

Meat was always bought at Benoit Bulcke, a Belgian butcher shop on the corner of Old Compton Street and a smaller side street. According to my mother, only this place knew how to cut meat properly, and she was not someone to argue with. Their motto was “Meat to Please You, Pleased to Meet You”. They moved from Soho to northwest London some years ago. 

Coffee was always purchased at the still extant Algerian Coffee Stores. The shop’s appearance remains unchanged since I was a child. My mother used to choose Mocha Mysore, a name which meant nothing to me as a child. Decades later, when I began visiting India, I got to visit Mysore and also Indian coffee plantations. One innovation at the Algerian Coffee Stores instituted long after my childhood, and well before the Covid-19 crisis, was the inclusion of a small counter where exquisitely made espresso coffee is served.

Other groceries were bought at Lina Stores, still in existence, and Camisa, another Italian grocery nearby. Almost every visit to Soho included a stop at Bar Italia. Founded in 1949, this coffee bar still exists. Entering it is like stepping straight from Soho into a typical bar in Italy. Much of its décor remains as I first remember it, but now the far wall of the café is lined with an enormous TV screen on which Italian football matches can be watched. Whenever we visited Bar Italia, my mother would point at a doorway close to it and tell me that it led to Jimmy’s restaurant. Founded in 1948, it was the first Greek restaurant to be opened in Soho.  Although she always mentioned the place, we never ate there. However, close by in a parallel street there was an Italian restaurant, Otello, which my parents visited often, sometimes taking my sister and me.

One shop that no longer exists was on the short stretch of Old Compton Street between Moor Street and Charing Cross Road. It had trays of vegetables and salad greens on stalls on the pavement outside the front of the store. It was a French run greengrocer, whose name I cannot recall. One of the things my mother bought there was something that sounded to my young ears like ‘mush’ (rhyming with ‘slush’). I had no idea what it was or what it was used for, but I know that my mother prized it greatly. Many, many years later, I realised what she was buying was in fact ‘mache’, also known as ‘lambs lettuce’ or ‘corn salad’, and to botanists as Valerianella locusta. In the 1960s when my mother was buying mache in Soho, hardly anyone in the UK would have heard of it, let alone eaten it. Today, it is a common ingredient of packaged salads found in supermarkets. I had no idea that back in the 1960s, my mother had become a foodie trend-setter by serving us mache in our salads.

My mother died forty years ago, and Soho has changed since then, but much remains that she would have recognised. Whenever I sip coffee at Bar Italia, I raise my tiny cup of strong black coffee to her memory. Mache more than that, I cannot do!

Eating out remembered

SEEING A PHOTO TAKEN  of La Cage Imaginaire, a restaurant in Hampstead has whet my appetite for writing about some memories of eating in this picturesque part of London long before the current restrictions on individuals’ movements and public gatherings.

COLIN BLOG

My parents used to like dining out at a ‘bistro’ in Church Row, a street lined with lovely old houses. The Cellier du Midi, as its name suggests was in a basement. Long before my mother died in 1980, they dined there often. My sister and I were never taken there. This made me curious about the place and for many years after they stopped going there, I thought it would be fun to try it out. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that I did. My father’s teacher at the University of Cape Town, and later his colleague at the London School of Economics, Professor William Baxter (1906-2006) and his wife invited my wife and me to have dinner at the Cellier. It was Baxter, who in 1938 encouraged my father’s family to send him to England to continue his studies. I was excited about the prospect of eating in this restaurant at long last. Sadly, by the time we were invited there, the food was far from exceptional. It was far below the quality that would have been acceptable to my late mother, a discerning eater.

My parents ate Indian food occasionally. Their favourite Indian restaurant was the Shahbag in Rosslyn Hill, the continuation of Hampstead High Street. I ate enjoyably there once or twice with friends in the early 1970s but did not return for over 30 years. One evening, we drove up to Hampstead to attend a concert in a church on Rosslyn Hill. We arrived just before the performance was scheduled to start. I was driving. I dropped my wife and a friend at the venue, and then looked for somewhere to park. It took so long for me to find somewhere that I had to miss much of the concert. As the concert was near to the Shahbag and I was also hungry, I decided to miss the music and make a nostalgic trip to the Indian restaurant. I sat down and placed an order. Then, I waited and waited. While I was waiting, I looked at the food being delivered to customers on neighbouring tables. It did not look too appetising; by now, having visited India many times and eaten Indian food cooked in many Indians’ homes, I could distinguish between well and poorly prepared dishes. My appetite diminished. I looked at the time. It was nearly time to collect the rest of my party from the concert. I summoned the waiter and told him that as I was not prepared to wait any longer, he must cancel the order, which he did. I was disappointed that this experience had shattered my nostalgic illusions about this venerable establishment.

After my mother died, I began practising dentistry in a village near Gillingham in Kent. I lived down there during the week and visited my father most weekends. On Sundays, my father and I usually ate lunch out, often in Hampstead. One of our favoured places was the Cage Imaginaire, a tiny French restaurant at the end of Flask Walk furthest from Hampstead High Street. I always associate this restaurant’s name with that of a humorous film, “La Cage aux Folles”, which appeared in 1978. However, the restaurant was/still is a serious eating place. On one occasion when the waiter brought the cheese trolley to our table, I cheekily asked him to point out the cheese whose odour most resembled that of smelly socks. Without batting an eyelid or showing any disdain, he singled out a satisfyingly pungent French cheese.

Gradually, my father and I shifted our allegiance to an Italian restaurant, the Villa Bianca in Perrins Court. Although pricey, the food at this eatery never failed to satisfy. My father, whose mastery of the Italian language is good, enjoyed chatting with the Italian owner and his staff.

During my student days, all twelve years of them, I lived at my family home north of Hampstead, but visited it often. One place in which my parents would never have set foot but was popular with my friends and I was Maxwell’s on Heath Street.  This was Hampstead’s take on the American eating experience. Just up the street from the Pizza Express, Maxwell’s sold good hamburgers and milkshakes. Popular with more than one generation of northwest London’s younger set, this place opened in the 1970s and closed more than 40 years later. Incidentally, Maxwell’s pre-dated the arrival of McDonalds in London.

Almost across the road from Maxwell’s there was and still is a good Japanese restaurant, Jin Kichi, at which I ate several times more than 20 years ago. This was the first place I ever ate sukiyaki, a dish that involves cooking raw meat on a hot plate on the dining table.  Writing about this brings to mind another place, which was not strictly in Hampstead but close by in Swiss Cottage: Benihana.

I have only eaten at a Benihana restaurant once and that was long ago when the girl, who is now my wife, celebrated her birthday at the Swiss Cottage branch. We sat at counters surrounding an open space where our chef cooked, or rather performed, our meal. The chef would pick up a prawn, place it on a hot grill, and then toss it high up in the air, catch it, before placing it back on the grill. This performance of flinging food items up into the air and putting them on and off the grill was impressive in terms of juggling skills but disappointing as a gastronomic technique. By the time a much travelled, burnt, dead acrobatic prawn arrived on my plate, it had lost any appeal for me. However, a good time was had by all, except the prawns and other fragments of food we were served.

Returning to Hampstead proper, there is one restaurant that has been in existence since 1962. This is La Gaffe, which is on the same side of Heath Street as Jin Kichi, but higher up the hill. Although I have passed this place countless numbers of times, I have never entered it.

Heath Street leads down to Hampstead Underground Station and the start of Hampstead High Street. Despite vociferous objections from many of Hampstead’s ‘snobbish’ and ‘cultured’ residents, McDonalds managed to open a branch of their famous fast-food operation a few feet away from the station. It took the company twelve years to fight the objections to their opening.  Although I enjoy ‘haute cuisine’, I have the occasional yearning for a meal at Mcdonalds. The Hampstead branch was perfectly acceptable. However, after 20 years business in Hampstead, the company closed its branch there in 2013. It has been replaced by a branch of another chain, Le Pain Quotidien. I preferred its predecessor.

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead Heath Street is almost as old as I am. It first opened in 1954. Both externally and internally, this has not changed in appearance since my early childhood. When I was at school in the 1960s, this was the place to ‘hang out’. Oddly, I never did. In those days, the café had an exciting reputation. Maybe, I was not exciting enough to pay it a visit. Recently, I have ventured into this relic of the coffee bar era of Hampstead. I enjoyed a satisfactory, but not top class, espresso in its quaint interior, which looks as if it retains the original decor that it had when it first opened. I did not eat anything there, but I watched delicious looking pastries and English Breakfasts being served to other customers. Oozing with nostalgia, this place is as popular now as it was long ago.

Walk up either Perrins Court or Perrins Lane, and you will reach the southern part of Heath Street just before it continues to become Fitzjohns Avenue. On that short stretch of road, stands Louis Hungarian Patisserie. It was opened in 1963 by a Hungarian called Louis Permayer. Like the Coffee Cup, Louis has retained its original appearance. However, although it began as a place purveying Hungarian pastries and cakes, its current owners provide similar items, but not quite as tasty as what the former owner sold. That said, it is a quaint place to sit and chat over a hot beverage and a snack.

Louis has a special place in my memory. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I met one of my fellow students for a date one afternoon at Louis. My female friend liked the place and we have visited often since she became my wife some years after that afternoon. She recalls that in those long off days when we first met, Louis served coffee with a separate small bowl of whipped cream. Sadly, that tradition has disappeared and the charming Eastern European waitresses now working at the café look uncomprehendingly when you try to get a bowl of this with your coffee.

As soon as it is safe to roam around without risking one’s health excessively, we will head to Hampstead for a not brilliant but romantically nostalgic coffee at Louis, provided it has weathered the pandemic.

 

Photo of La Cage Imaginaire by Colin Hill

 

The importance of being British

HBY 60s 36 HW BLOG

I HAVE ONLY VISITED CRETE once, and that was in the late 1960s with my parents and sister. We were based in Heraklion and made excursions from there around central Crete, visiting sites including Knossos, Matala, the windmills of Lasithi, Malia, Aghios Nikolaos, and Phaistos. This piece concerns three memories of my late mother on that visit.

The first recollection is of the rather non-descript but very comfortable hotel where we stayed in Heraklion. It had its own swimming pool. My mother, who could not swim, and was always a bad sailor, could not bear to look at the pool; it made her feel seasick seeing its water.

The next memory is of a hot day somewhere in the Cretan countryside. We were all thirsty and ready for a drink. We passed a house with a garden. Some people were sitting at a table sipping the tiny cups of coffee that Greeks favour. They were drinking what many people call ‘Turkish Coffee’, which many Greeks prefer to call ‘Greek Coffee’ or even ‘Byzantine Coffee’.

My mother walked up to the gate leading into the garden and using one of the few words of Greek that she knew, called out:

Kafenion?

Kafenion (καφενεῖον) is the Greek word for ‘café’. Another Greek word she knew well was ‘siga’ (σιγά), which means ‘slowly’. She used it almost in every car that we were being driven in Greece. She was terrified that others driving her would have an accident because as a child in South Africa she had been involved in a dreadful car crash.

Getting back to my story, the coffee drinkers invited us into the garden and asked us to join them. My mother was mildly embarrassed to discover that this was a private house, not a ‘kafenion’. Soon, we were all supplied with Turkish Coffee. One of our hosts spoke rudimentary English. He had been a sailor when younger and excitedly told us that he had been to ‘Kong Kong’, in his own words.

Then, my mother noticed a single brightly coloured flower in the hedge surrounding the garden. She pointed at it, exclaiming “oreia” (ωραία), the Greek word for ‘lovely’. Our hosts burst out laughing. They found my mother’s reaction to the flower hilarious. One of them took Mummy to the flower and showed her it was artificial, attached to the hedge with a fine wire.

The third thing I recall about our Cretan odyssey relates to a commodity that was in great demand recently here in the UK: toilet paper. When we used to visit Greece in the 1960s and 1970s, there were usually people sitting at the entrances to public toilets. These folk, often elderly women, were there to sell sheets of toilet paper to people about to make use of the facilities.

We were in one small Cretan village when my mother needed to answer Nature’s call. We found a public convenience. An elderly toilet paper vendor was sitting by its entrance. My mother rummaged in her handbag for small change. While she was doing this, the lady asked my mother:

“Deutsch? German?”

My mother answered:

“British.”

The lady handed her some toilet paper and would not accept the customary two Drachma payment.

We were in Crete at least twenty years after the German occupation of the island had ended in spring 1945. The Germans had perpetrated many horrific deeds on the Cretan population. The woman outside the toilet was certainly old enough to have had strong memories of that ghastly time. Had my mother been German, she would have had to pay for the toilet paper. Being British, she was like the great writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) who fought the Germans in occupied Crete, a representative of  a nation which helped rid the island of its unwelcome occupiers. This toilet attendant’s small act of kindness towards my mother helped drive home how awful it was to have been occupied by the Germans during WW2.

Espresso and extraction

lisb

 

Back in about 1995, I decided to leave the dental practice where I was working. I went to one or two job interviews, but did not feel that I would have been happy working in them had I been offered a job in any of them.

Then, I visited a dental practice next to the Portuguese Lisboa Patisserie in Golborne Road (near London’s famous Portobello Road). The owner of the practice, who has long since retired, knew me, but I could not remember him even though we had studied at the same dental school. 

The interview began well after my future boss had gone next door to get each of us an espresso coffee from the Lisboa. It was one of the best espresso coffees I had ever tasted in London. We got on well, speaking for hours, for so long that I was late for a pre-arranged dinner engagement. 

I took the job and worked in the practice for five interesting years, fixing and/or extracting many of the local’s teeth. I do not believe it was only the espresso coffee that persuaded me to join the practice, but it certainly helped. 

I have long since retired from that practice in Golborne Road and also from dentistry, but still visit the Lisboa Patisserie regularly. The quality of the coffee and Portuguese snacks, both sweet and savoury, has not faltered over the years, and some of the staff are those who were there back in the late 1990s.

I can strongly recommend a visit to Lisboa and its coffee, which was so perfect that it helped direct my career pathway.

 

57 Golborne Rd, London W10 5NR

Under the trees

The outdoor café at Airlines Hotel in Bangalore has been in existence for many decades and still remains a popular eatery and coffee place. What a great joy it is to sit induer the leafy branches of the trees surrounding the outdoor chairs and tables.

People can be served while they sit in their cars parked in the small car park next to the outdoor seating area. At times, this parking lot can become very full. Cars queuing for entry to Airlines can cause traffic congestion in the street (Madras Bank Road) on which the eatery is located.

The walls enclosing Airline’s compound are decorated with paintings and quotations about tree leaves from the poetry of Kabir Das (1440-1518).

I have been visiting Airlines regularly since 1994, when I first visited Bangalore, and my enjoyment of the place had never diminished.