This article was written in 2013 and has been slightly updated
I love a latte. It’s in my five top vices along with chocolate, wine, shopping – although since I’m officially a maiden aunt – I can’t include sex. So number five is cake. I have one every day – and on Saturday about three – as I meet up with the girls for a gossip in one of several cafes close to my home near Velvet Bottom.
Unlike tea, coffee doesn’t grow on trees – which might explain why it was a late comer to cafe culture – and very late in the Strawberry Line District.
Wild coffee originally grew in bushes in dusty parts of the horn of Africa and what is now Yemen. The berries contained beans which when mixed with water produced a drink with life refreshing and even medicinal qualities. Although locals knew about its properties as a stimulating drink it didn’t catch on until Medieval merchants began to sell the beans in Arabia and the Middle East.
There are several conflicting accounts of how the berries came to be first roasted and then ground with the addition of hot water to soften them and finally to have milk and sugar added. Shepherds and country folk in Yemen and Ethiopia noticed the effects the beans had on animals and birds and with some experimentation a rather basic coffee was created more than a thousand years ago. It takes its name or so I’m told from an Arabic word meaning a wine with hunger suppressing qualities and eventually got corrupted into the word we know today.
One the word got out from the 15th century the drink spread out across the seas and the magic beans were transported to other favourable climes and to Europe where the Italians in particular took to the drink. Coffee houses sprang up across the continent with the earliest ones in London recorded by Samuel Pepys in his diary. Women were banned from the first coffee houses because they were considered places for men to swap information and trade although that changed over time. Now they make up the majority of the clientèle – another masculine blunder that has set the economy of this nation back at least two centuries.
According to some cafes Americanos and flat whites are the preferred choice of coffee for men while lattes are favoured by women. Twaddle. Men are more conservative and less imaginative when it comes to coffee and go for something like what they get at home or in the office. Women will experiment with mochas, café bombóns, caffè marocchinos, cappuccinos and Vienna coffee – essentially expresso with cream. And personally I won’t say no to a coffee liqueur such as Tia Maria, or Bailey’s Irish Creme of an evening.
I first came across the drink in a completely different form: that of Camp Coffee. Throughout my childhood I thought this glutinous brown liquid containing only 4% of coffee and 26% chicory was the only form of the drink. Served with a dollop of condensed milk this was considered to be the height of sophistication in our two-up-two-down off Eastreach in Taunton – and the only drink that got me though my history homework.
It was only a visit to the cafe at Taunton’s County Stores in 1960-something that I realised I had been sadly deluded. The smell of all that fresh coffee in the North Street shop was intoxicating – and since then I have been addicted to freshly ground coffee. However in the 1970s it was difficult to find a decent cup of coffee – and to be honest – powdered coffee was being served up as coffee in many cafes right into the 1980s and beyond. I blame it on the two World Wars – due to rationing and various shortages the population of England came to accept awful food and drink as normal. Powdered eggs, powered coffee, powdered milk – and yes – even powdered potatoes.
Thankfully a food and drink revolution began in the late 1960s and business and the Great British public have slowly rediscovered real food, real drinks and real coffee – so that today you can get a decent cup of the stuff without too much difficultly.
Partly due to high tax and partly due to tea being much easier to brew coffee had to wait until the 19th century to become popular in cafes and living rooms. With the invention of domestic coffee bean grinders and of pressurised hot water and frothing milk coffee finally came of age in the late Victorian era and by the 20th century was up there with tea and chocolate as a pick-me-up. In the 1930s Alfonso Bialetti in Italy invented a coffee machine that was to revolutionise coffee consumption as with his coffee maker it could be made at home.
My favourite – the skinny latte – took a little longer – and there are conflicting accounts of who invented the classic drink and when it arrived on the menus of Somerset. Various types of lattes had been evolved in Italy, France and Austria by the end of the 19th century, and the French café au lait was widely popular by the mid-20th century – a sort of short hand for a milky coffee.
However, the latte that is generally served today owes perhaps more to TV rather than its European origins. Series like Friends, Frasier and The Golden Girls popularised American lifestyles just as a new cafe culture was beginning to grow during the 1980s. By 2000 there appeared to be a Starbucks on every city high street – and whatever you think of that mega chain – their influence has been huge. But along with all the Costa Coffees and Caffee Neros have emerged independent cafes – and some of the best of them are in the Strawberry Line District.
In Cheddar there are several tea rooms and cafes including a Costa Coffee in the Gorge so you won’t go thirsty in the village. Over in Banwell there’s a cafe at the Garden Centre on Castle Hill – while there’s a cafe in Churchill Post Office – you’ll find it down Front Street past the clock tower.
In Winscombe there’s The Pantry and the Strawberry Line Tea Rooms where coffee is to be had. The Old Almshouse Tea Rooms in Axbridge also serves an excellent latte – and on a warm day you can sit in their garden and read the paper or tuck into a bacon sandwich at the same time. When I take the train to see my Italian “nephew” in London I always catch it at Yatton as there’s the Strawberry Line Cafe on the platform. A woman of a certain age needs have all the energy she can get before visiting energetic “nephews” – so a sweet black coffee and a cake in Yatton is always de rigueur.
So why is a latte so yummy? Um. It’s that combination of hot foaming milk, aribica coffee beans freshly ground and introduced to boiling water, a generous and rounded coffee cup – and for me a spoonful of sugar. Sprinkled with a little cocoa powder and then served up with a slice of cake – all squishy and chocolaty – and you have coffee heaven.
For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk
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There’s a programme on the wireless all about coffee – visit https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000c4x1