Saturday, 7 October 2017

Best Coffee - Worst Cheese



Best Coffee

I've never really liked coffee all that much. I can remember needing it on many occasions - staying up all night before a dissertation deadline, or working a Saturday at Music and Video Exchange on Berwick Street, I might have swigged it down like a thirsty man drinks from a canteen of water. The flavour and mouthfeel of a good cup of coffee is very enjoyable of course, but the specialist market that has developed around the crop fascinates me more because of how many not-particularly-nice cups it seems possible to buy, rather than the myriad opportunities to over-indulge thrown up by what might as well be called Craft Beer. During this trip, I've drunk about a hundred quid's worth of no-great-shakes, nothing-to-write-home-about coffee. Shops that had come highly recommended in Bristol and Lancaster have served unpleasant Americanos or long blacks with milk on the side that remind me in many ways of a mean old lady's hands - thin and bitter, almost translucent in the wrong light, yet covered in ugly dark liver spots.

Maybe I should move on from the Americano as it is certainly not the coffee style-choice of the connoisseur. An enormous, particularly rank effort from one of those Costa machines in a petrol station in Deal was enough to show me as much, two months ago now. I watched in captivated revulsion while a tiny espresso was drowned in a gallon of hot water before gushing cow juice turned it all a whiter shade of beige.

I would like to do some coffee in my record shop one day, but I am absolutely nothing like an expert. It seems to me that it can't be that difficult to consistently do a simple, good, coffee well, but I'm told by friends who have worked with it that it's not that easy. Why? Why is proper coffee so difficult to do well? And is this really why there are so many small independents that seem to be trying so hard, yet failing to deliver? In Carnforth my first cup of instant coffee of the whole journey so far probably ranked in the top half of those I've had, served strong and hot, while we were made to feel welcome by a lovely man I've never known all that well, his poorly mum (nevertheless radiant in her dressing gown), and his whippet (who flew around the room as if he was on his ninth cup). Meanwhile, the St*rb*cks in Skipton made a fantastic flat white when the right barista was on - the strong-looking woman with tattoos on her arms.

The best coffee I have had, ever, I think, was yesterday in a place called Mr Duffin's near the Hawkshead Brewery in Staveley. Not only was this specific single variety cup - a Peruvian - pure gold, it was one of about six they roasted right there, in a big solid piece of impressive engineering, in addition to a few different blends (one of which was a key ingredient in Hawkshead's Tiramisu Imperial Stout, a powerful half-pint that had sent me looking for the coffee shop in the first place).

Worst Cheese

Here's another foodstuff that has been elevated to a position where buying and consuming huge amounts of it can be mistaken for some sort of specialist interest, rather than just being a bit greedy. The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, in the Yorkshire Dales, offers gargantuan piles of dozens of varieties for the tasting of. Many of these were exquisite in their single-cubic-centimetre taster portions, but were never savoured nearly so well in the massive slabs I cut and jammed into my hairy gob after spending about thirty quid.

All cheese is good. Once again, my ill-educated palette is exposed. I enjoy pungent French soft cheeses, big blue mouldy stuff, dry-as-dust parmesans and even those yellow slices of processed fat that go well in cheeseburgers, and my whole family refers to as "'sgusty cheese". Sweating yellow rubbery Best-In blocks that look and taste like Semtex can serve a purpose if no other cheese is available.

So the worst cheese on this trip has, and I apologise in advance for this, been self-produced. You do not need to spend very much time with me (or any at all, thanks to this blog) to know that there are a range of things about me that are quite unpleasant. But smelly feet have never really counted among these demerits. Until Thursday morning in Skipton - gateway to the Yorkshire Dales and a whole new kingdom of self-loathing for me. The day before, we had been at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, paying handsomely to be drenched with water by Valhalla and shitted right up by the octogenarian woodwork project rollercoaster Grand National. The night before this, we'd been rained on most thoroughly during an abortive attempt to admire the illuminations, which appear to be the greatest rebuttal of humankind's supposed recent technological advances, as they are less sophisticated than they were thirty-five years ago.

My shoes were so wet that I broke out my gore-tex oversocks, stalwarts of very many happy days' mountain biking and very few washing machine cycles. The combination of new and old, moist and desiccated footcheeses, had a simply overpowering aroma which I attempted to ignore by drinking so heavily that I fell right out of the overcab bed on my return, thankfully avoiding knocking a BLUES NIGHT - shaped hole through the floor of the van. Two industrial washing machines later, this perfume is losing its bite, thankfully for anybody who has shared a room with me recently, let alone a compact motorhome.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A Return Visit to Merseyside



It was, he supposed, inevitable that they would return to Liverpool, the city where the course of their lives had been set some twenty years before. They were not alone now, of course, sharing their carriage by day and at night with two bright-eyed young boys - living, breathing evidence that what he had done in the faded glamour of the Adelphi Hotel last century had not, thankfully, forced her away.

The place was different now, of course. Bright lights shone from new steel buildings and converted warehouses that had stood in silence two decades before. The docks provided a peaceful place to park and rest where once the van's wheels might not have lasted the night. Fine food from all over the world and beer of which they once could not have dreamt stood in the way of a visit to Chinatown just for old times' sake, and the faces of the city's favourite sons were everywhere, but EVERYWHERE, instead of peering modestly from just one shop window or two, and a plastic statue by The Cavern made to look like bronze.

However, this great love was forbidden to them - the red-haired child was small but strong and he laid down the law from the start. "I CHALLENGE YOU," he declared in a voice that, though reedy and nasal, demanded attention, "NOT TO MENTION THE BEATLES, OR ANY MEMBER OF THE BEATLES, OR ANY OF THE NAMES OF THEIR SONGS, OR ANYTHING ABOUT THEM, THE WHOLE TIME THAT WE'RE HERE." This was a relief, in fact, and the man enjoyed infuriating his son for 48 hours by finding it easy to do.

And so it was that as they approached Matthew Street, the ever-competitive young scamp pointed up at a life-size silver figure leaning down from a building with drumsticks in hand, and enquired innocently, "Dad, who is that?" Luckily, this most unlikely of likenesses bore precious little resemblance to the usually-easy-to-recognise Richard Starkey, so the man was able to be honest and still not fail to meet his challenge, "it's actually really difficult to tell." As they moved along the side of the building, other unrecognisable musicians came into view, holding Rickenbacker guitars or a Hofner bass, so he was unable to hold in the loud afterthought, "but I assume that they're the famous Liverpool band Gerry and the Pacemakers."

"NOOOOchkOOOOOchkkOOO," groaned a homeless scouser from the doorway behind them, shaking his head miserably while inserting even more guttural sounds into a word in which they did not belong. The situation of desperate homeless people, virtually everywhere they had been on their tour, had affected the man of the family a great deal, and so he flashed this one a knowing smile in order not to make him sad. It went unseen. "Yer cahrn't seh daht," he wailed, still tossing his sunburned face left and right in apparent agony, eyes screwed shut against the sight of this Southern Dichkh who didn't even know the Beatles when he saw them.

The slow lane, M6, 1998: the only time in his life that the young man had travelled by coach some distance alone, and all of the way he became sicker and sicker. His nose was running, he coughed and he sneezed, and his guts were churning within him as he attempted to digest a moist sandwich of thin ham and tasteless tomatoes. The toilet on this coach offered little refuge, but he was determined to make it to Liverpool to meet M more or less in one piece.

In the pub that evening there were many other young men too, skinny, big-nosed scousers with the carefree manners and dark hair he knew she liked so much. A guitar was passed around the pub and everybody who knew how to play a song did. "Diwyew know enny Beatles songs, mate?" As he drank, he began to forget that he was ill, a new vigour coursing through his veins, so he struck up a version of I've Got A Feeling worthy of the beard he did not quite yet have. But these were the semi-old days, and nostalgia for the Beatles' canon had not yet completed its tour of duty, and not one of these young Liverpudlians recognised his song.

Liverpool in 2017 is a fine city, perhaps even a nice place to live, that might yet have need for a record shop where the good stuff isn't buried in tons of crap, where you can sit down and relax, listen and peruse, rather than stand on tiptoes forcing the racks apart for long enough to catch a glimpse of each sleeve as you flick through... as those who never gave up on the format have cheerfully done for decades. 

Other attractions lay further up the coast - a hundred six-foot iron men less than half his age whose penises were already rusting off, and their equally-rusty-coloured neighbours further north in Formby. Though they are smaller, quicker and nimbler than the lumbering oafs who have almost completely replaced them, it seems that the latest initiative to save the endangered red squirrel is a return to the culling of the grey. Making sense of the need for slaughter as part of conservation was one of the more complex lessons so far in the home education of the man's children - one of whom bears a remarkable resemblance to a red squirrel. And the other, therefore, the grey. This made the man think of himself as a hungry pine marten.

The landscape at Formby reminds him of his native Suffolk's coastline - specifically at Thorpeness where the tour began. Scrubby grass projecting in defiant tufts from dunes of the softest sand at the edges of evergreen woodland, it differs only in its hilliness. A sign declares it to be 'some of the most rapidly changing coastline in Britain' and seems unconcerned by the fact that 'the dunes roll back across the land by as much as four  metres a year' so he made a mental note to visit the place again before all of its excellent facilities are buried and unusable. This lifestyle, he then declared, shall surely defeat any ambition I have had, as the sense of achievement gained from simply emptying the toilet cassette is enough to satisfy me for two days, or about as long as it takes to fill it up and start all over again. There must, of course, be more to life than finding an appropriate place to put the shit for which you are responsible.

And then he saw it again, or didn't - the inky blackness of a perfectly unlit room in the Adelphi Hotel in 1998. Half drunk yet and his insides burning, he had awoken in the middle of the night and felt his way around the invisible walls, hoping for the bathroom door, or lightswitch, and not finding either. The pain inside him ever growing worse, in the end he had given up, and when she turned on the bedside lamp and bathed the room in colour and detail, there he was, squatting in the corner, crapping wetly on the carpet.