During the long flight home from London I began to fret that given I don't do tourist, generally don't take pictures while eating out, and didn't travel far from Casa del Sally and Simon, my promises of a holiday blog post of epic proportions may have been somewhat beguiling in nature. Then I started going through my photos and discovered my fears were unfounded...
Things kicked off with the World Barista Championships at Cafe Culture 2010. Attending a conference where stallholders offer you coffee, rather than the standard post-its and pens, served only to strengthen the desire to change professions, and seeing a plethora of world-class professionals in action was really rather something.
For me, the rock-star status of designer-generation hipster baristas currently doing the rounds is amusing, at times intimidating, and an interesting snapshot of a niche industry just starting to spread its wings. Being able to meet some of the 'big names' and enjoy conversations with people genuinely excited about sharing what they know was thoroughly refreshing, and made me, as an outsider, feel welcomed and wanting to learn more. I was also privileged to sit in on a practice session by the UK barista champion with the lovely folk at Square Mile, which was both fascinating, and a fantastic opportunity to walk through the competition process and try many a tasty beverage.
For the uninitiated, a barista competition gives each competitor 15 minutes to prepare four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks designed to highlight the features of their chosen blend, while talking about anything and everything coffee, from farms and roast profile, water and brew methods, to emotional experiences and the industry in general. They must be informative, entertaining and deliver a streamlined and aesthetically pleasing presentation, all while being watched over by four sensory judges, two technical judges, a head judge, more cameras than there is space for, and peers from all around the globe. The time and effort made by the team of people supporting each barista during the preparation is phenomenal, and while in some ways it feels so far removed from what a barista does in the everyday, it is also a wonderful way to approach coffee from a different perspective, and develop the skills for transferring such deep and comprehensive knowledge to the inquisitive, coffee-loving general populous.
Over three days, baristas representing over 52 different countries delivered presentations of impeccable quality, and in the end Mike Phillips from The USA was crowned World Barista Champion 2010, with Scottie Callaghan from Australia coming a very commendable third.
John Gordon (UK), Mike Phillips (USA)
Colin Harmon (Ireland), Stephen Leighton (Has Bean Coffee)
Oda Misje Haug (Norway), Scottie Callaghan (Australia) with James Hoffmann
To see these fine folk in their natural settings, I then undertook somewhat of a coffee odyssey, making the most of the beautifully long summer days to cycle and wander from cafe to cafe, enjoying a number of fine new establishments scattered throughout London's streets and alleyways...
Penny University 5 Redchurch street, Shoreditch E2 7DJ
Pruefrock coffee at Present 140 Shoreditch High street, London E1 6JE
Taste of Bitter Love 276 Hackney road, London E2 7SJ
Climpson and Sons 67 Broadway Market, London E8 4PH
Browns of Brockley 5 Coulgate street, London SE4 2RW
Look Mum No Hands 49 Old street, London EC1V 9HX
Dose Espresso 69 Long lane, London EC1A 9EJ
Kaffeine 66 Great Titchfield street, London W1W 7QJ
Fernandez and Wells 73 Beak street, London W1F 9SR; 43 Lexington street, London W1F 9AL
Milk Bar 3 Bateman street, London W1D 4AG
St John's Bread and Wine 94-96 Commercial street, London E1 6L7
Caravan 11-13 Exmouth market, London EC1R 4QD
Teasmith 6 Lamb street, London E1 6EA
Tapped and Packed 26 Rathbone place, London W1T 1JD
Wilton Way Cafe 63 Wilton way, London E8 1BG
Tina We Salute You 47 King Henry's walk, London N1 4NH
Monmouth Coffee Company 27 Monmouth street, London WC2H 9EU
Taylor St Baristas 125 Old Broad street, London EC2N 1AR
Lantana 13 Charlotte place, London W1T 1SN
The Counter 4a Roach road, London E3 2PA
The Espresso Room 31-35 Great Ormond street, London WC1N 3HZ
Other foodie highlights included...
Arriving to find Sal and Simon's new digs just minutes walk from Broadway, London Fields Farmer's and Columbia Road Flower markets was undeniably pleasing. Spore Boys still do a fantastic mushroom sandwich, scary-looking gentlemen still sell trays of petunias, and despite being end of season, the local farmer's still managed a delicious rhubarb sorbet.
And what with Regents Canal just down the road, there have certainly been worse ways to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
...naturally. This time for dinner, and again delivering above and beyond all expectations. Still one of the sexiest window displays I have ever seen. Still one of the most aesthetically pleasing seasonal menus I've had the pleasure of enjoying. Still thoroughly, thoroughly delicious. Once again, swoon.
Colebrooke Row is a gorgeous little cocktail bar tucked away in the back streets of Islington. With stunning seasonal cocktails, a gorgeous atmosphere and the delightful Maurice tinkling away in the corner, driving out some spectacular jazz standards, I desperately wish this were my local.
Delightful for a number of reasons, Borough not only offers exceptional season produce and wonderful specialty stalls, including The Ginger Pig butchers, but is also the location of three very wonderful things.
Borough markets and dinner supplies
One - glorious coffee and pastries from the lovely people at Monmouth Coffee Company.
Two - Neal's Yard Dairy, my most favouritest cheese shop in the whole wide world.
And three - Brindisa, supplier of Spanish goodness in the form of a devastating parma display
And their extraordinarily delicious grilled chorizo sandwich.
There was a pleasant repast at Giaconda Dining Room, the unmissable Tayyabs for the consumption of medically-inappropriate quantities of mango lassi and an astounding, chair-breaking cake-fest at a friendly backyard birthday barbecue, but feasting honours undeniably go to...
Run by the passionate former El Bulli intern, Nuno Mendes, I cannot stress enough how much you need to go here. To borrow directly from the man himself...
"I want my food to delight and surprise my guests... it is about being playful. Each ingredient should taste as perfect as it possibly can, its flavour never lost or masked, but rather developed and combined in exciting ways that make you fall in love with it all over again."
I was delighted, I was surprised, and I was absolutely smitten. The presentation and attention to detail was simply stunning, and the flavours like nothing I have ever experienced before. That a three course meal comes with three amuse bouche, a stunning sorbet palate-cleanser and petit fours shows their dedication to providing their guests with nothing but the best. The service was impeccable, to the point where each main was brought to the table by the chef who prepared it, and who would happily discuss the ingredients and processes involved. It was a wonderfully unique experience, and filled with so many exquisite joys there is no question of it being right up there on my list of most memorable life experiences.
As for cultural highlights...
Museums in Europe are something else, and this time I managed the British Museum and its Italian Renaissance drawing exhibition, the Tate Modern for Exposed and where you can stand with Pollock #12 on your left and Monet's water lilies on your right, Tate Britain for Rude Britannia, and the Hunterian for the most extensive collection of anatomical curiosities I have ever had the pleasure of viewing.
Exhibitions were also at a premium, with Sally Mann's stunning photography collection, the surprisingly emotive Breathing Room 3 by Anthony Gormley, and the epitome of smut at Modern Toss' Urban Shit-Naks.
The discovery that World Cup football, Wimbledon and the Spanish grand prix were all televised at normal hours of the day was an added bonus, and an excellent reason to head down to the local pub for a pint of Crabbies ginger beer on a warm and sunny afternoon.
Free tickets to the taping of BBC 4 radio program The Infinite Monkey Cage at Southbank meant sitting in the same room as Robin Ince, Brian Cox, Alan Moore, Brian Greene and Jonathan Ross - an equally humbling and hilarious experience. And while we're on famous types, this visit's celebrity spotting featured the likes of Noel Fielding, Matt Berry and Kevin Spacey.
Everyone's favourite bookstore
Further afield there was Brighton, filled with tourism and tackiness, but still a revitalising supplier of salty sea air.
Bill's Produce Store - Brighton
And Cambridge was also rather delightful, with the Fitzwilliam museum, Cavendish laboratory and the immensely stunning King's College.
King's College, Cambridge
While the religious significance would no doubt be lost on me, I can only imagine that the annual performance by the King's choir here must be simply marvellous. Punting down the river Cam also sounded like a fine idea, and like a positively civilised way to spend a glorious summer afternoon...
...until, that is, we reached the river, only to discover that absolutely everyone else had had the exact same idea, and things were in fact rather chaotic and noisy. Needless to say, we decided to give it a miss.
It will come as no surprise that I had a fantastic time. It was wonderful to hang out with Sal and Simon, meet some lovely new people, and just take the time to relax and think over things. I had worried that I should have made more of my holiday by attempting something more exotic than the activities I would normally undertake at home. But I knew that wasn't the kind of holiday I was after. I needed to take some time to think about life, think about making some serious decisions, and start planning how I want my new life to be.
I know there are still many things I wish to experience, but I also know that I don't want to be eating the best seafood of my life while watching the sun set off the Iberian coast if there is no one there enjoying it with me. So I will grant myself the serenity to accept that such things must wait, and in the meantime try rustling up the courage to change the things I can.
The trip away, and more importantly the people I enjoyed time with, have left me feeling reinvigorated, freshly inspired and dying to get back in to the kitchen. Add too that the few new plans in the think tank, and I get a vague sensation that things are going to be ok, which is surely a very good thing indeed...