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Back Buzz - April 24, 2000

[pumping heart]Capri Restaurant and Pizzeria, 30 High Street, Hythe, Kent

This column is getting more and more difficult to write. I suppose I was expecting the quest for good coffee in England to be simply a challenge and not an impossible dream or, at the worst, an unsolvable enigma of anachronistic taste in a modern, world-class society. By far the best coffee I've had while in England has been the whole bean Peet's Italian Roast sent over from San Francisco. Sure, there are English coffee roasters -- I've enjoyed fresh-ground cafetiéres of Whittard's and Taylor's of Harrogate, and I've heard about Kent Coffee Roasters. But apparently even in London there are surprisingly few places to get a truly decent espresso, or at least a fresh-ground, robust (and strong) cup of coffee.

Looking around for answers on the Internet I found Ron Brocitelli's comments on Cafe Magazine's readerboard. Ron says that the quality of London coffee is "about average"; coffee bars tend to have decent espresso-making equipment but aren't producing decent coffee due to inexperienced baristas. He suggests only trying a coffee bar or cafe in which you detect a well-used grinder, the brand name of the coffee displayed somewhere, the use of real chocolate flakes on the cappuccinos instead of coffee powder, and a staff of Italian, Portuguese, or Colombian ancestry; also the correct spelling of the word "cappuccino" is a definite plus. Nevertheless he found the best London coffee bars and coffeehouses were in the Central area and the City of London.

I also found, in an article penned in 1782 by Carl Philip Moritz entitled Journey of a German in England, the following comment:

"I would advise anybody who wants to drink coffee in England to mention beforehand how many cupfuls should be made from half-an-ounce, otherwise he will get an atrocious mess of brown water set before him, such as I have not yet been able to avoid in spite of all my admonitions."

And this from a review by Lisa Teoh of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire:

"We took our coffee in the champagne lounge, again enjoying the sun that flooded through the windows. This really was the only disappointment of the meal: the petit fours that came with the coffee were perfect in size, selection and quality, but the coffee defies description. Cold, stewed and bitter only partially describes its awfulness."

And then this quote from British playwright Christopher Fry: "Coffee in England is just toasted milk."

So why could I find no quotes or reviews on how good the coffee in England is?

By now you're probably wondering if I'm ever going to review the Capri Restaurant and Pizzeria or not. Yes, I am; but don't get your hopes way up. Seeing as how this establishment, located at the west end of the high street in Hythe, is an Italian restaurant run by an Italian family, it seems logical it would have drinkable espresso. Sure, it's a full-service restaurant and not a coffeehouse or cafe, but at this point I'll review anything that shoots foam from a Gaggia machine. I can't say the espresso at Capri is particularly memorable -- the shots are a bit weak and the beans are a bit mild. But it's drinkable in an English sense. Naturally my after-dinner cappuccino was covered with those ubiquitous chocolate sprinkles, but there's not much I can do about that; after all, if I start complaining at this point I might upheave the entire British empire. And who wants that on their conscience?

One of my dining companions, having learned from my Seattle expertise, ordered a double espresso macchiato. At this the waiter replied, "Fresco or caldo?" This of course stunned my non-Italian-versed companion; but even a Seattalian like myself was confused at the thought of a "cold" or "hot" macchiato.

Was the waiter simply trying to intimate us?

By the way, the food at Capri was quite good -- my scampi in mushroom brandy cream sauce was divine.

Speaking of frustrating things like finding a decent espresso in England, I'll conclude with two frustration-based e-mail exchanges with my Bay Area friend. The first is from two years ago about joke e-mails:

This morning on NPR's "Morning Edition" I stopped everything I was doing to listen to a commentary by a woman in Santa Monica (an author of humorous books) who ranted about the practice some people have of forwarding unfunny e-mail humor to an extensive list of "friends." She gave a heated address about the personal essence of humor, about the interactive nature of friendship -- something lacking in the barrage of forwarded, unimaginative and unpersonalized, generic joke-toids.

Then I went to work and got hit by a barrage of forwarded, unfunny, unimaginative and unpersonalized, generic joke-toids.

Perhaps the Internet can be set up to add a little personal element to all these messages: "Hi, this is Mary." (To pick a name at random.) I just wanted to let you know that I will be sending you a joke in -- -- one point four seven three -- -- minutes.

Hi, this is JC. I just wanted to let you know that I will be sending you some forwarded, unfunny, unimaginative and unpersonalized, generic joke-toid(s) in -- -- one point one three eight -- -- minutes. Thank you.

**************** Begin Forwarded Message ****************
Date: 7/11/98 1:08 PM
Received: 7/9/98 2:31 AM

********- Begin forwarded message ********--

************ Begin forwarded message ********--

Subject: Pithy one-liners that say it all

If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.

****************- End Forwarded Message ****************-
******************** End Forwarded Message ****************-
********************--- End Forwarded Message ****************-

...and the second from around the same time is about irritating phone calls:

The past two evenings I've been working on dinner in the kitchen around 8 o'clock when the phone began quacking. By the time I rinsed and dried my hands, turned off the radio and reached the phone, it had rung three times and the caller had hung up. (I know it's not people soliciting for charities; they keep ringing, and I can recognize their calls by the second of dead silence when I lift the receiver, before the computerized dialer connects me with a person -- then, I have learned, I can play dumb, and they hang up right away.)

There must be some sort of reflective resonance between telephone calls and kitchen chores -- perhaps a magnetic trigger. I know there's got to be a reason why whenever we sit down to eat a nice dinner, no matter what time it is, the phone rings. I'd like to try skipping dinner one night and see if I get any phone calls. Of course, I could end up throwing the whole balance of nature off, receiving a flurry of phone calls at 3:00 in the morning and then nothing for a week.