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).
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.