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Back Buzz - October 5, 2002

[pumping heart] La Brioche Doree, Welcome Break Services, on the M1 at Junction 30-31, Woodall, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

[pumping heart] Le Malongo Cafe, McDonald's Extra, Hadden Services on the A1, Hadden, Cambridgeshire

[pumping heart] Costa Cuore d'Italia, Sandbach Motorway Services, on the M6 Northbound, Sandbach, Cheshire

Yes, once again I have disappeared for several weeks and I apologise. It's not laziness on my part, or lack of inspiration. Since I moved to Sheffield I became totally reinspired about coffee, with so many new opportunities for sitting and having an espresso or macchiato or cappuccino in a pleasant, friendly, and cosmopolitan setting just a few miles from the most beautiful countryside in the world. No, it wasn't that at all. It's just that I've, well, er, um, I've moved back to the States temporarily.

Not that I wanted was a necessary inconvenience. But I will be back in Sheffield just as soon as I can arrange it, which hopefully will be as soon as is humanly possible. In the meantime I'm stuck in -- er, I mean staying in Southern California, in the Los Angeles area. And while I'm here I'll write about not only Southern California coffeehouses but also perhaps one or two in the Bay Area and maybe even Seattle -- hell, possibly even Chicago.

But this month, seeing as how I'm sort of camping out and on the move, I thought I'd write about more English coffee-on-the-move, namely the sort you find in motorway services. So this is Part III of my Motorway Services Caffeine Survey.

Not long ago when my partner and I were attempting to move to Sheffield we stopped at the M1 Welcome Break Services just south of Sheffield. We were excited to see La Brioche Doree, not only because of the French name but because of the French bakery-related name. C'est la place! we thought to ourselves as we walked from the car; we could already hear the burr grinder preparing the freshly roasted beans as we imagined the steamer arm on the classic Gaggia whipping up the milk. But alas: our dreams quickly disintegrated like so much milk foam as we were served instant espressos squidged from a pushbutton machine. Our espressos were a tad better than the instant coffee weakened with oceans of milk which had accompanied our B&B breakfast that morning. Still these espressos were rather nasty-tasting, providing no sense of enjoyment except for the caffeine rush. But caffeine is not what espresso is supposed to be about! Sure, it's nice to get a caffeine rush now and again, or even regularly, if you're so inclined. But if your intention is to get drunk, you'd rather do it drinking fine French wine, wouldn't you? And if you're ravenous, it's a far better thing to satiate your hunger with a pleasant dining experience rather than a quickly-wolfed McDonald's Happy Meal. I couldn't help noticing the "Egon Ronay "Recommended" sign on the wall. All I can figure is it must be for the food...

On another motorway trip, as we headed up the A1(M) we had no choice but to stop at the McDonald's Extra services in Hadden just outside of Peterborough. Inside we found Le Malongo Cafe which seemed promising. A sign advertised Rombaud's coffee, which is not necessarily a bad thing. So we ordered two double macchiatos. They turned out to be way too hot, actually burnt, but not terribly bad for what I've come to expect of motorway espresso, and at least they were real espressos and not instant.

I think I'll start using the term "real espresso" to mean "fresh ground beans put through a Gaggia or similar" as opposed to "instant vending-machine pseudoespresso". Since I also write about "real ale" it makes sense I should write about "real espresso". To Le Malongo's credit the woman who served us showed a bit of savvy: she had no problem with comprehension when I said "double macchiatos", and she commented on my hand-painted cappuccino-cup earrings.

On one long, gruelling road trip from the South up to Manchester we'd been driving all day and were still an hour from our destination. It was dark and rainy and we were both very tired. Suddenly my glazed-eyed driving companion, inspired by all the TIRED KILLS - TAKE A BREAK signs, suddenly pulled off into the Sandbach Motorway Services for an emergency coffee. Most English motorway service areas feature not only petrol stations and overnight car parks but usually a Burger King, a McDonald's, and/or a Little Chef. And, of course, at the better ones you can often find what promises to be a rather mediocre espresso cafe. Imagine our delight when we saw not only a sign for Wimpy Burger (far superior to McDonald's and Burger King) but also a sign for Costa Cuore d'Italia, evidence of the best English espresso company I've encountered so far. Our perfectly made macchiatos were manna from heaven, reviving us enough to battle the hideously confusing Manchester traffic into the northeastern suburb of Oldham and out onto the Saddleworth Moor. This was a quick but delicious espresso experience, the best by a million miles of any motorway coffee I've ever had. Hey, just remember Tired Kills! So take a break! We did.

Speaking of spending hours on the motorway with all those "Soft Verge" and "Slow Lorries" signs, I'm reminded of an e-mail exchange from a couple years ago with my Bay Area friend after he returned from a holiday in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica was cooler than I expected, and, surprisingly, nearly free of flying insects...although many of the animate species were difficult to spot. Remaining in the forest canopy, often partially hidden by a layer or two of vegetation, I logged about 6 pocket-notebook pages of mammals, birds and plants. This included a three-toed sloth, poison arrow frogs, coatis, a kinkajou and all four species of monkeys found on the Osa Peninsula: a white-faced capuchin, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys (which sound like something between an approaching BART train and a roaring jaguar, which can be quite alarming when it jolts you from sleep in the middle of the night), and several spider monkeys, including a mother whose anatomy confirmed, as our native guide had indicated, that females of this species have something resembling a penis.

Although my friend Maryl often had trouble locating things with her new binoculars, I found that my compact Nikons made things larger than life. The spangle-cheeked tanagers that appeared the size of jays were more the size of a sparrow when I saw one with the naked eye, and I was surprised to learn that the black howler monkeys, which appeared the size of small apes, weighed no more than 25 pounds. The interesting thing was that a large number of animals seemed to poop when I trained the binoculars on them, from hummingbirds to spider monkeys. Maybe not the three-toed sloth, which comes down from the treetops once a week to spend half an hour digging a hole and defecating. But between this observation and a dream you mentioned briefly, I'm wondering if this is the Year of the Poop. I can understand being awakened at night by a BART train, but how many times have you been jolted from your sleep by a roaring jaguar?

And as to when the animals pooped when you trained your binoculars on them, was it around 2:00 in the afternoon? That seemed to be pooping time at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, when as members we'd often stop by only to find ourselves watching the bears, lions, Colobus monkeys, hippos, and orangutans as they pooped.

I just learned about sloths and their once-a-week evacuations. I was surprised that there's a mammal with a lizardlike bladder and digestive track. (All of our pet lizards urinated about once every 2 weeks.)

And speaking of Seattle, watching the extremely slow movement of sloths on a recent BBC nature program reminded me of the Slow Loris in the Seattle zoo's nocturnal house, a tiny lemur-like creature which inches along the tree branches in extreme SloMo. When travelling through England we often see signs on the motorway warning of "Slow Lorries". We keep watching for the little creatures but haven't spotted one yet.

If this is in fact the Year of the Poop, the Chinese New Year falls on my upcoming birthday. I think we should celebrate both occasions with feasts of dried fruits and festive rolls of toilet paper.