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Back Buzz - January 10, 2002

[pumping heart] Fresh Express, Moto, Toddington Services North on the M1, Toddington, Bedfordshire

[pumping heart] >Welcome Break Services on the M1, Leicester Forest East, Leicestershire

Since I've spent a good deal of the past couple of months riding up and down the English motorways in search of new lodgings, I haven't had much of a chance to sample coffee in an actual coffeehouse. But I have added to my experiences with motorway services coffee. Before I start this week's review I'd like to include a relevant report from my Bay Area correspondent, Mistah Rick, on coffee on the Central California coast:

"The brewed coffee was weak everywhere. The very expensive Sea Otter Inn in Cambria had an innovation: new coffeemakers in the room with a built-in grinder and a gold mesh filter. Had I expected that possibility, I would have brought beans from home. The beans provided were a light roast and barely enough in quantity to make two little cups.

"The snack bar at Hearst Castle had a decent looking espresso machine, but I made the mistake of requesting a cappuccino and got a trace of coffee inundated with a styrofoam cup filled to the brim with scalding lowfat milk and not a hint of foam. (I wonder what they provide as a latte.) The next day, while driving up Highway 1, we went against our better judgment and stopped at a roadside motel/souvenir shop called 'Cappuccino Cove.' This time the styrofoam cup had a hint of foam, but again the coffee was drowned in mouth-singeing milk. A guide to decent coffee on the central coast would be an immense benefit, but I tend to think it just doesn't exist. Sadly, I doubt there's even a demand for it -- else Starbucks would have opened a store."

Meanwhile, back on the M1 in Gloucestershire, my partner and I recently stopped off at the Moto Services in Toddington. Having been on the road since 5:20 AM and desperate for a decent caffeine fix, we found ourselves at the Fresh Express counter. I ordered a "single cappuccino with an extra shot of espresso" -- a safe way to order a double short cappuccino -- and ended up with what appeared to be a single tall latte. Somehow the barista managed okay with Andrew's "double espresso with milk". Regardless of the details our drinks were surprisingly decent for motorway coffee: the Ritazza coffee beans, although very mild and smooth, came through just enough in my large glass of hot milk to assure me I was getting some caffeine. The true surprise in all of this was my croissant: it was actually quite good! As opposed to your typical English -- and American -- coffee shop croissant, usually a soggy greasy wad of bread dough, this was flaky with no greasiness and nicely crisp on the outside, just like a croissant you'd find in a Paris boulangerie. For this reason I would recommend the Toddington services if you're driving down the M1 and need a mid-morning or mid-afternoon refresher.

On the other hand I would advise you against even slowing down and considering pulling off at the Welcome Break Services at Leicester Forest East. Once again, having been up at the crack of dawn after having spent three exhausting and fruitless days in Sheffield, we were desperate for a caffeine restorative. So we pulled into the car park, climbed up the stairs, and forked out £3.88 for two of the most atrocious espressos I've ever experienced. Andrew's "double espresso with a little milk" had no milk at all and was lukewarm at best. My double cappuccino, on the other hand, was a boiling cauldron the temperature of the Earth's core. And both drinks were burnt, acrid, and disgusting, not even remotely similar to anything I've ever considered to be coffee. And what about that caffeine? On the rest of the drive home I certainly couldn't detect any post-coffee sensation other than a huge festering blister on the roof of my mouth.

Speaking of temperatures reaching the Earth's molten core, I'm reminded of an e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from three years ago about an interesting incendiary device:

A few weeks ago I heard about a safety device that people in South Africa are using to deter carjackers. If a driver is threatened (presumably by someone waving a gun at their head), they can flip a switch on the dashboard that rapidly emits and ignites a large quantity of gas from beneath the car, directed outward. To demobilize the threat, you'd imagine that it would be necessary to envelope him in fire, rather than just singeing his ankles; indeed, this must be what happens, because the reporter indicated a strong possibility of eye damage to the attacker. You'd think that would heat things up a bit in the car as well, and perhaps incinerate a passing poodle. The amazing thing is that this device is legal!

Perhaps it's popular in South Africa to stand on one's head when carjacking, enabling the carjacker to wave his or her gun at the driver's tires rather than at their heads. (After all, tires may be very dear in South Africa, and the loss of one's tires could be considered a fate worse than death or head trauma.) In this case the gas igniter could easily cause eye damage.

Considering the Coriolis effect causes water to drain in the reverse direction in the Southern Hemisphere -- and seeing as how most people who live north of the equator (or at least in the US and Europe, from my own personal observations) go about their daily lives in an upright position -- it may well be that a good percentage of people who live south of the equator conduct the normal course of their lives standing on their heads. I mean, I've never been to South Africa or Australia, but it would be just like my Australian friends to never mention the fact that the average Australian drinks all that Foster's lager and throws all that shrimp on the barbie while standing on her or his head. They do have a reputation for being an odd lot.

As I recall you've been to South America yourself. So did you see many Peruvians standing on their heads? Or isn't that the custom along the Amazon?