Monday, 31 January 2011

A review of Alley Cafe

Cannon Court, Smithy Row, Nottingham, NG1 6JE

I can’t remember how it was I came to hear about Alley Cafe in Nottingham, or even if it was a happy accident that I stumbled down the small alleyway in which it’s nestled only to be pleasantly surprised. 

More than a mere eatery, this cafe-come-restaurant-come-bar is a radical vegetarian space. It is an ideal, a cluster of social and political morals bound up into an eclectic space of reggae music, vegetarian food and Green propaganda. 

However, for all its political gumption, Alley Cafe is an overtly relaxing place with a laid back atmosphere and communal seating policy (due to its tiny proportions) which could just as easily result in you sitting next to a mother and baby group as an environmental activist. Half of the charm here is the lottery of who you will sit next to, and the amusing and interesting anecdotes they might impart.

Communist seating policy aside, the food is impeccable. My favourites include the cooked breakfast – ‘bacon-esque’ included – falafel wrap and bean burrito. You can come here for breakfast, lunch or dinner, with a fiver or a fifty and find something to enjoy and satisfy. A large selection of fresh juices, herbal teas, organic bottled drinks and espresso based treats make choosing what to quench your thirst a full blown dilemma. 

The staff are warm, welcoming and efficient but don’t expect fast food. The whole experience pivots on the cafe’s laid back charm so expecting your meal in five minutes flat is not only unrealistic but completely misses the point of a visit to such an establishment. 

A packed community notice board adds bundles of charm and intrigue as you never know what you might find – poetry zine, gallery flyer or vacant flat. 

Saturday, 29 January 2011

An introduction to coffee art

Would you believe that before I went to Australia I had never before seen a latte in a glass? Some of you may screech of a deprived childhood but I must admit that I don’t think latte glasses or coffee art hit the UK until the last year or two.

Usually imported from our antipodean friends, I have only come across latte glasses in the UK when visiting cafes owned and run by Kiwis or Aussies. The norm in their home countries, it would seem the obvious choice to continue the practice once set up over here. However, we British can be a little bit slow on the uptake when it comes to these new fangled coffee trends and I haven’t really seen it implemented across the board yet.

The thing I don’t get though is - why not? Lattes, when well poured, have the most elegant layers and what better way to show off their caramel nectar than through a vessel which displays them in their full splendour? Add to that the magic achievable when you add coffee art to the glistening, foamy top and you get yourself more than just a blooming good caffeine hit -  you get paradise in a glass.

For me, coffee drinking should always be a three dimensional experience- smell, appearance and taste all taking their toll on my overall enjoyment. Coffee in the UK often lacks in all three of these categories and I’ve lost count of the amount of over-enthusiastically frothed cappuccinos I’ve been subjected to. 

In Australia and New Zealand coffee making and drinking is an art. Cafes call their staff baristas, treating them with a kind of revered respect in full recognition of the skill it takes to turn out coffee after coffee of the same impeccable standard expected by their loyal customers. I can only hope, for all our sakes, that quality coffee crafting is something quickly rolled out across the UK so that we too can come to expect this kind of standard as the norm.  

In the meantime, if I’ve sparked your interest, take at look at the Barista Brothers’ website - it’s got lots of great videos showing how to ‘free pour’ amazing coffees and believe me, the extreme sports lingo won’t be lost on you for long. 

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A review of Cakehole cafe

Vintage Heaven, 82 Columbia Road, Bethnal Green, London, E2 7QB. 

Given the amount of times I’ve wandered down Columbia Road at the weekend I was astounded that I hadn’t before happened across this quaint little, well, cake hole. Actually, I suppose it isn’t all that surprising when you consider how busy this particular corner of London gets. And combined with the fact that, to the novice eye, this address seems to be no more than a collection of vintage fabrics and kitchenware - mismatched tea sets and doilies galore – it’s probably a genuine miracle that I stumbled into this kind of cafe Narnia. 

I first came across this tiny bolt hole offering coffee, cake and other tasty treats when shopping with my sister and have returned on a several occasions. The perfect, intimate venue for treating a pal to birthday afternoon tea or escaping the crowds of the Sunday flower market, I’ve always been more than satisfied with the cakes on offer and the heartily sized servings. 

The dimensions being small enough to create a sense of almost forced intimacy, customers must be satisfied with taking their tea almost on top of one another during busy periods. However, it is this intimacy that provokes a sense of genuine conviviality in this tiny space so often at odds with eateries on hip London high streets. 

I love that the tea comes in tea pots with mismatched cups and saucers and that everything – both in the shop and the cafe- is for sale. I also love that, unlike many cafes, this is almost exclusively an afternoon tea shop. There are no sandwiches or savoury dishes adorning the counter tops, but an impressive selection of sweet treats which change often so you don’t get bored. Although kitsch and cluttered, this cafe is also strikingly simple- sticking to what it does best by not trying to branch out too far from its key offerings. 

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A review of The Green Refectory

Mountainous muffins
115 Sydney Road, Brunswick, Victoria 3056, Australia

As one of the most popular cafes in Brunswick, I thought I’d start my reviews of Melbourne’s cafes with Green’s to give myself a bit of credibility. I do know a good cafe when I see one  - honest.

Firstly, I have to put Green’s in the context of Sydney Road. This bustling city street just north of the CBD (central business district for those not geographically inclined) holds a very fond place in my heart as it was our most convenient high street when living in Melbourne (on Park Street if you were wondering).  Stuffed with outlets of very kind you can imagine, Sydney Road practically bubbles over with a cosmopolitan energy not found on many streets in your typical Australian suburb. 

When visiting Sydney Road I’d strongly recommend you take the number 19 tram from the city centre’s Victoria Street up to the Brunswick Rd / Royal Parade stop and start at the beginning. I really can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than mooching along Sydney Road stopping in on any of the many weird and wonderful outlets that crowd its footpath. 

The first thing to note about Green’s is the abundance of giant muffins bursting with fruit and unceremoniously piled upside down in mounds along the counter top.  Visible from the street outside, your eyes are treated to a veritable feast of deliciousness before you’ve even opened the door and this, I believe, is the secret to attracting so much passing foot traffic. 

Characterised by the kind of shabby chic look which automatically puts me at ease, the reclaimed furniture, rubbed down wooden surfaces and wall murals create a sense of homely disarray. This is the kind of place where it’s cool to be ‘seen’ – an encounter which is likely to involve you feverishly devouring whatever food is in front of you at the time.  

One aspect of Green’s which I have seen applied all over Australia but is still a rare find in the UK is the presence of a large communal table positioned at the front of the cafe. This informal seating space is for those on their own, in a rush or unable to find a more formal seating arrangement deeper inside. I would relish observing this kind of set up in the UK where we are all so uncomfortable with the rudimentary act of sitting down and eating with strangers. We will share a space with them, but dread the possibility of sharing a table. Cafe goers beware – communal seating is coming!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

An introduction to Melbourne cafe culture

Degrave Street, Melbourne
Convoluted, mysterious MELBOURNE, the ‘cultural capital’ of Australia, does not enjoy a reputation as celebrated as that of its sister, Sydney, despite its attributes as ‘one of the world’s most liveable cities.’ Set somewhat further back from its harbour than Sydney, Melbourne’s charms lie instead in its winding laneways, cleverly concealed interior arcades and stairways into the sky which, if you have the audacity to explore, will reward you with intricate, historical boutiques, cosy, hidden cafes and towering cathedrals of consumption- otherwise known as DFO. 

Although Melbourne frequently experiences four seasons in one day, forcing you to keep your wits about you and an umbrella safely stowed somewhere upon your person, the city’s split personality means that whether you arrive in June or December there is always something going on. Subtly lit, warren-like cafes tucked around a corner offering hearty soups, mulled wine and muffins in winter swiftly transform into luminous, airy spaces in which to enjoy homemade lemonade and escape the 40o summer heat. 

You are utterly spoilt for choice for food in Melbourne, whether you’re after a hearty meal (around $15) or the endemic coffee and cake (around $5). Particularly exquisite breakfasts are offered on Sydney Road in Brunswick in one of its many character-full cafes; try Greens, Mule or Kaleidoscope. Then, for a quick lunch in the city centre, Degrave St is a must with a plethora of cafes to choose from and the legendary Little Cupcakes store. For a treat, head to Acland St (St Kilda) for floor to ceiling window displays of cakes and pastries. In the evening, Lygon St is the place to be; with tussles between Italian proprietors resulting in ridiculously great value deals. However, for a vegetarian option, head to the Vegie Bar on Brunswick St, Fitzroy, which serves scrumptious dishes in a buzzing atmosphere. 

As some of my friends are soon to venture to the other side of the world on their post-uni travels I thought now was as good a time as any to start including cafe reviews from my six months spent in Melbourne in 2008. Keep checking back for future posts. Oh, and if you’re travelling on a budget, check out The Graduate Traveller blog – great for travel tips on a budget.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A review of Cafe Mio

Order numbers on wooden spoons - inspired.
85 High St, Epping, CM16 4BH.

As this cafe is the one I am on most intimate terms with, I feel it is probably where I should begin. Eventually, I hope to review cafes from all over the UK and the world. So, dear reader, do not panic. I will not expose to you to the deepest depths of Essex for long. 

I worked at Cafe Mio in Epping for four months during the summer of 2007. I’d spent my time since finishing my A-levels working in telesales and then travelling around Australia and New Zealand so needed a job to tide me over until I started university (Nottingham, if you’re interested). Thinking I had found myself an easy summer job, I was almost immediately taken aback by the passion of both the owner and manager in maintaining excellent standards of customer service and refreshment provision.

It was here that I first learnt to appreciate that to treat a coffee bean with respect is to provide a more superior standard of cappuccino. It was here that the mystery behind frothing milk into a warm, glossy, hug in a mug was revealed to me. And it was here that I began to fully appreciate the real truth and value behind getting to know your customers, as well as that age old adage “the customer is always right”. 

In life, we are so often anonymous. Sometimes this can be convenient. But at times this anonymity can make you feel isolated, alone, adrift. Of all the lessons I learnt that summer, the one I still hold most dear is the role that cafes can play in the social networks of the communities they inhabit. By getting to know our ‘regulars’ – their tastes, habits, little idiosyncrasies – both I and they felt a greater connection to this otherwise functional space. 

The ‘regulars’ would come in and order the same drink or meal and feel like they belonged. For people without a sense of belonging in the wider community the cafe offered a haven where they could be recognised, valued, remembered. Although the attention to detail required to ensure each ‘regular’ felt that little bit special often exhausted me, the satisfaction in making their day that little bit more meaningful has stayed with me. 

Of all the things Cafe Mio represents to me now, compassion is the one that sticks. In creating a space that is welcoming and inclusive, Cafe Mio is a triumph.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

A recipe for breakfast muffins

Carrot breakfast muffins
These breakfast muffins are really quick, easy, healthy and hearty. I’ve adapted the recipe over the last few years from one originally found in a magazine and discovered it copes really well with different fruit and vegetables, though carrot, berries and apple work best.

They’re great for breakfast in the week when you’re in a rush so I often whip up a batch over the weekend – why not give them a go!

Prep time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 15 mins
Serves: 18 cupcake size/ 12 muffin size
Oven temp: gas mark 6

100g wholemeal self-raising flour
100g porridge oats
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
150ml vegetable oil (I use rice bran oil)
Zest and juice of 1 orange
3 medium eggs
200g soft brown sugar
200g fruit/veg

  1. Pre heat oven to gas mark 6, put cupcake/muffin cases or baking paper into trays
  2. Sift flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices into a bowl
  3. Stir in the oats
  4. Combine oil, orange juice and zest, eggs and sugar in a jug
  5. Add wet mix to dry ingredients and mix until combined
  6. Gently stir in the fruit or veg – do not over-mix
  7. Spoon into the cases and bake for 15 minutes
Cream-cheese icing

This icing works really well on all sorts of fruit-based baked goods. Try it on these muffins, carrot cake or banana bread. I usually sprinkle some poppy seeds over the icing to give it that extra visual flourish.

150g cream cheese
25g olive oil spread
25-50g icing sugar to taste
lemon juice

Combine ingredients in a bowl adding icing sugar and lemon juice to taste (add more sugar to combat the cheesiness and then more lemon to combat the sweetness). To get it to a good consistency for icing either leave in the fridge for a few hours or whisk the icing in a bowl over some iced water (an electric hand whisk works best for this).

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The importance of place...

The Green Refectory, Sydney Road, Melbourne
 ...cannot be underestimated when creating, or indeed visiting, an eating establishment. As a self-proclaimed geography geek I am forever contemplating the effects of ‘space, place and time’ on the cafes I visit, having had these concepts carefully drummed into me as an undergrad.

Space refers to the physical, three dimensional area in which the cafe exists. Place is a little more nuanced, suggesting the ways in which a space has meaning attached to it through the objects and relationships which inhabit it. Time simply refers to how places change over time - how they can seem so different depending on time of day, month or year.

I’m interested to find out how spaces are transformed into places with emotions, memories and feelings attached to them. What makes spaces come alive? Why do some cafes make you feel stressed and claustrophobic whilst others instil you with a sense of quiet calm and inexplicable desire to while away a good few hours over copious [lattes/ cappuccinos/ drink of choice] whilst pawing over your favourite [book/ website/ person].

I believe a high-quality cafe is as good a place as any to have at the centre of your universe. In this often impersonal world, why not anchor yourself to a place which is warm, friendly and filled with food?

Monday, 3 January 2011


My cafe review journal

...Clare’s cafe chronicles a record of cafes visited, recipes tried and tested and other musings.  A collection of recollections initially, I endeavour to eventually bring my blog into real time with content posted ‘as it happens’.

Based on the jottings within a small notepad which has frequented my person for the last few years and contains my innermost cafe/cake/coffee-related musings, I will at first be transcribing my reviews based on past visits but fully intend to add real-time reviews as my little notepad swells. 

Although I am very fond of coffee, and of cake for that matter (carrot or chocolate fudge would be my preference, if you were wondering), I cannot proclaim to be a foodie, connoisseur or even a particularly good baker (my friends, colleagues and family kindly refer to my pursuits as ‘experimental baking’). In fact, I have very little experience of working in cafes; spending 4 months working in a local cafe one summer and whilst studying in Melbourne does not an expert make. I am a layman; a novice; Jo Public; Jo Blogs. 

However, I bring my inexperience to the blogging table as a symbol of my suitability to write about cafes and cakes as I approach the subject matter much in the same way I imagine my readers to. I do not have superior knowledge; I am simply seeking to record my experiences of visiting certain eating establishments in the hope that doing so will be informative and hopefully entertaining. 

Therefore, as I attempt to cast my critical eye over establishments in order to provide ‘reviews’ for your reading pleasure, please keep in mind that they are based on my opinion only.