Want to know what my favourite tweet was from last week’s London Wine Fair? It was from Dan Jago, head of booze at Tesco, and it said something like: ‘Apparently this is a flat white at Olympia. It’s neither.’ Underneath was a pic of a cardboard cup of what looked like diluted mushroom soup. Even on my iPhone screen, it smelled of misery.
It made me chuckle, because two hours previously I’d ordered a cappuccino from one of the cafés in the venue and got something that looked almost identical. It was hot, dilute, milky, frothless and contained, as far as I could tell, bugger all coffee at all. Being British, I sighed, drank half of it with a grimace, then chucked the rest away.
What I didn’t do was ask for my money back on the grounds that what they were serving me wasn’t even drinkable, never mind that it bore no resemblance to what I’d requested.
Which is interesting, because that morning I saw an Australian wine world lady send back two badly-made coffees from a stand at Clapham Junction before getting something she felt merited her money.
But then, the Aussies and Kiwis, along with the Greeks and Italians (and possibly the Spanish) understand coffee. They know what it’s about and are rightly horrified at the kind of swill that passes for the drink in much of northern Europe (and yes, I’m including France in this) and – the worst offender by miles – the United States.
I was in California earlier this month, and, along with half a dozen stand-out wines, the drink that made the biggest impression on me was a coffee I bought in San Francisco.
Quick tip: never, ever, order a flat white in the States.
What I got was approximately a pint of warm, sweetened milk with, as far as I could tell, no coffee in it at all. It was more milk shake than coffee.
The fact that they misheard my name and wrote ‘Lash’ on the cup of dilute piss was the final insult – yet also oddly fitting. Surely only a hardened masochist would ever drink this dross voluntarily.
Yet coffee culture is a bit like erectile dysfunction or alcoholism: nobody ever admits that they have a problem with it. All over the world people swig back anaemic, badly-made drinks in unfeasible serve-sizes – often with rubbery pastries – and imagine that they’re being all continental and sophisticated
To question a nation’s coffee knowledge is fighting talk: like suggesting that, as a country, they are cowardly or racist. I’m bracing myself already for the deluge of correspondence from our many French readers… But face it guys – your coffee ain’t up to much.
I’ve had better coffees in airports in New Zealand than in supposedly top-end restaurants in France and the UK, where, outside the growing number of quality independent coffee bars, our approach to the drink is lamentable.
In fact, I’d suggest that what we have in the UK is not a coffee culture at all – it can’t be, because most of the time a) the coffee itself is foul and b) you can hardly taste it.
No, what we have is a milk culture – and not a particularly good one at that.
Telling ourselves that we like coffee because as a nation we spend millions every year in the likes of Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero is as self-deluding as saying we have a robust food culture because we like curry and burgers.
It’s nearly as bad as what we do to tea. But that’s a conversation for another time…