Friday, 13 January 2012

A Personal History of Coffee in Scotland

I may be in the Grumpy Old Man age group now, but I can remember being grumpy as a teenager - I know you are supposed to be surly at that age, but I plumped for grumpy. Back then I had three pet hates - the three Cs: caravans, coffee and Cream.

Caravan loathing was easily explained - family holidays in the Highlands mostly spent on the tortuous roads of the 60s in a barely mobile queue behind the inevitable caravaner. The proud owner of a powerful Rover 2000, with a front grille festooned with a row of hefty metal badges like Prussian campaign medals, proclaiming his allegiance to the AA, RAC and the Handlebar Moustache Drivers Club of Great Britain, he just knew that the `road unsuitable for caravans' sign couldn't possibly apply to him.

You'll have noticed the capital letter and twigged that coffee and Cream are not a pair. Yes, astonishingly it was the rock band I couldn't stand. Admittedly I had only ever heard `Badge', which I rather liked. It was in fact nothing to do with the music, but a reaction to boys a year or two older who, unlike me, had sneaked into the Cream generation and didn't they need you to know it. Nowadays I love most of Cream's music, though I still think Clapton lost it with `Layla' - ever tried dancing to the last six and a half minutes?

And then there was coffee. Fancying myself as a teenage iconoclast, I defined myself as a non-coffee drinker for no other reason than that virtually everyone else seemed to revel in it: remember that in the 70s there was still something faintly louche about coffee. The story of every addiction has its defining moments, and my first one came as a student. Our hall of residence rooms were furtively equipped with a surprising gift at the start of each term - a little tin of Nescafe (remember the tins?). To begin with, I simply gave them to my coffee-drinking neighbour. Then, with my first major exams looming, it occurred to me that the sleep-denying qualities of coffee might come in handy. So one evening, with a view to extending my studying time, I took a spoonful of the stuff, washing the gritty granules down as quickly as possible with copious amounts of water. And it worked! I was able to study for a full hour longer before the equations started swimming across the page.

With the psychological barrier broken, it was not long before I started to accept the occasional social coffee. Mostly these were those milky concoctions with a digusting skin of sickly slime and the merest suggestion of a coffee taste - a recipe dating from 1950s Scotland and our nation's dubious contribution to coffee culture. It was coffee made for people who didn't like coffee but thought they ought to drink it. The Dutch have an apt word for this coffee-esque drink: koffie verkeerd - coffee gone wrong.

But slowly the Scottish palate was becoming more sophisticated, with foreign holidays in France and Italy introducing many of us for the first time to a completely new style of coffee. Unfortunately, in our attempts to emulate this, we chose as our coffee-maker of preference the percolator.

The percolator was the wedding gift de rigeur of the 80s, and the centrepiece of many a Thatcher-era dinner party. You can still find a few, sold as retro chic, on eBay. But some things from the past are best left there. The percolator was always an unneccessarily complicated means of arriving at another version of coffee gone wrong - the tepid, insipid and lifeless version that was Scotland's second flirtation with coffee culture.

Only in recent years have we arrived at the happy situation in Scotland where you can get a decent coffee in most of the larger towns and cities, though you still need to know where to look and only a few offerings match what you can confidently expect from even the most un-prepossessing cafe in France. Nowadays, in the grip of a joyous addiction, a morning in town will often start with two double espressos. Which brings me to one last grump. I don't mind paying £1.50 for a tiny coffee when a larger measure is available for a sensible increment. But there are still places that will try to fleece you by simply doubling the price - deftly insinuating strong coffee into the same aspirational class as malt whisky. Such places are best avoided, and not just on grounds of cost: your coffee will be made and delivered by a genuinely surly teenager.

Life is a contradictory undertaking. With age comes not just grumpiness, but mellowness. Nowadays I can think of few things better than waking in my caravan, on a sunny west coast pitch with views out to sea, and starting the day with a generous cafetiere of Taylor's Hot Java Lava (Strength 6) to a soundtrack of Disraeli Gears.

No comments: