Smokehouse, Coffee houses

February 4, 2014

Liam Watson with his grill

Smokehouse chef Liam Watson

Good news that The Smokehouse  is popping up again from the end of February at Braunstone Gate’s O Bar. Its previous sojoun last November provided hearty American barbecue food with the flair, innovation and quality you are never going to find in, well, Frankie and Benny’s.  I reckon they will get a fair amount of repeat business – including me – and there’ll be plenty of new people wanting to give it a try. It reopens on 27 February.

While I’m reflecting on good news – I reckon there’s a bit of a coffee renaissance going on in Leicester right now. St Martin’s Tea and Coffee is of course now a fully fledged coffee specialist, roasting their own and providing a good range of beans and serving options. We’ve also now got Bread and Honey – a basic but appealing coffee and sandwich stop on King Street serving excellent Monmouth Coffee – and newly opened in Silver Arcade is Deli Flavour. This classy deli (one of the 50 best in the country according to the Independent)  has been well established in Stoneygate for a good few years but now also has a lovely unit on the second floor serving excellent coffee in comfy surroundings with great sandwiches and extensive deli selection including Hambleton bread. Add these to established places such as Café Roma and we’re starting to get a real choice of quality coffee beyond the chains.

Anyone like to give  further recommendations?

Sorry it’s gone quiet, but a couple of so-so meals about which I couldn’t think of much of interest to say and general lack of writing mojo led to me taking a bit of break. But I’ll try and climb back on that pony now. Just hope some of you are still there.

I did get quite excited this weekend when I discovered that, finally, Leicester has acquired something approaching a specialist coffee and tea merchant. I’d been indulging in a favourite dream of mine to open a coffee shop featuring 50 varieties of  unusual coffees that people would try whilst discussing politics and listening to my eclectic playlists of Sufjan Stevens, Charles Trenet and John Coltrane. The next day I stumbled across St Martin’s Coffee and Tea when passing through, err, St Martin’s Square. I think it only opened last week and seems closer to my ideal than anywhere else in the city.

Big jars of clearly labelled coffee and teas line the walls, along with coffee making paraphenalia. There’s nice looking cakes too and Leicester-made Helsham chocolates,  and the design is all modern clean lines.  There appears to be just a couple of seats so  I think the plan is to develop a market for high quality beans and leaves to take away. A quick chat with the owner Andy suggested he knows whats he’s on about and he was keen to point out the beans are all roasted locally – well Nottingham anyway – and in the last few days.  Whether turnover means they can continue to meet that aspiration I don’t know but at least they want to do the right thing.  Beans aren’t cheap but there is a broad range of stuff that I don’t think can be bought elsewhere in the city  – blends start from £4.95 for 250g, while current stock also includes Monsooned Malabar, Ethiopian Sidamo and Djimma, Sumatra Mandheling, and Pasajquim from Guatamala. If you’ve got curiousity or just money to burn you can also get Kopi Luwak, the beans that have famously passed though the discriminating digestive systems of civet cats in Indonesia (£25 for 100g).

Some coffee beans recently

I’ll be going back soon for a longer look and to try some of the produce.  Those interested in knowing more about coffee might want to sign up for a handly little email course run by coffee evanagelist and roaster Stephen Leighton who trades out of Stafford as Hasbean. As well as selling wonderful coffee online and producing videos, blogs and podcasts about his life in the business, he offers Coffee 101, a course providing a daily email for 10 days covering the history of coffee and an introduction to techiques of harvesting, washing, roasting beans and making the drink. Each one is an interesting five minute break with a cup of your own favoured bean. Find out more here:   http://www.coffee101.co.uk/ or go to www.hasbean.co.uk .

I listened to a fascinating edition of Radio 4’s The Food Programme today which looked at the coffee industry in the UK and the “third wave” of coffee retailing. The first being dominated by the giant producers and based on instant, the second being the specialist chains based on push-button espresso machines and fuelled by the depiction of community in shows such as Friends.  The  third – now arriving in London (says the BBC) by way of Seattle and Sydney – is defined by independent, barrista -owned places which are based on high quality, differentiated coffees where provenance and varietal are important and the sell is based on the taste of coffee, not on the volume of frothy milk. The re-emergence of small-scale craft roasters (hello Hasbean!) is helping this.

The big players will always aim for rigorous consistency. A good friend of mine works very closely with Nestle in Switzerland and everything they do – whether for the bog-standard instant Nescafe  or the premium pod brand of Nespresso –  is premised on achieving a reliable, repeatable consumer experience. It would be great if people were being guided toward better coffee and I’m sure it’s helped them become the multinational giant they are  but it’s premised on a depressing view of life. By getting rid of the risk of disappointment, you miss out on the possibility of greatness. Coffee geeks talk in hushed terms about the “god shot” –  when the stars align and the combinition of bean, grind, tamp, water and whatever else gives you a heart-stopping expression of flavour.  

It would be lovely to think someone out there is planning to open a  cafe in Leicester where you could sit down and spend a moment discussing whether to go for the Yirgacheffe or the Harrar, the Sumatran or the Celebes, and where the barrista would tip you the wink about a great microlot of  Huehuetenago that’s just arrived.  Risking the possibility of having something you might not like may not be everyone’s, erm, cup of tea, but  I’d certainly welcome a place that aimed for something more than mere consistency. 

(The Food Programme will repeated on Monday at 4pm or is avaialble on iPlayer)

Had a delivery of coffee today. I know some of you  have already noted and indeed used the link at the very bottom of this blog to a company called Hasbean.  I heartily recommend the unstuffy, no-nonsense approach they have and the customer care is great. Best of all are the beans themselves.

I remember the day I decided I would never again drink instant coffee.  Given the pleasure available from freshly roast, freshly ground coffee, to drink Nescafe seemed like a betrayal. I get  tremendous satisfaction from opening the sealed pouches of beans from Hasbean, that may have been roasted less than 24 hours before, and breathing in deeply.  Another deep inhale awaits when the beans are ground. And then there’s the pleasure of pouring water on the grounds in a cafetiere and seeing the foaming head that appears – almost like the crema on an espresso. You only get this from the freshest of beans, not from stuff that may have been on a supermarket storehouse and shelf for  months. 

Coffee is  every bit as varied, subtle and complex as wine.  I’ve tried to capture some of this in these two photos. On the top  is Celebes Toraja Kalosi, from Sulawesi in Indonesia. Look at those bad boys – dark,  mysterious, glistening with oil. The coffee they make is similarly dark and brooding, earthy like the forest floor. On the botttom is the Costa Rican Finca de Licho, lighter, sweeter, more approachable with almost citric acidity but chocolate notes too.  Two very different drinks for different moods, different times of day. Marvellous.

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