20 June, 2014

Pox Romana

My youngest son recently had a case of chicken pox.  He was generally, in himself, quite well, but he was covered in spots.  This meant that he and I had a good amount of time together during weekdays, as I took the time away from work to look after him.  We had a lot of fun, and spent some of it visiting cafes, in between his usual favourite places (parks, museums, etc.).  I came to appreciate that good tea is getting around, at least a little.  I don't usually get to visit cafes, and to do so was something of an education during my time with dear, spotty Xiaolong.

The first venue that we tried was the "Grand Cafe".  As its name suggests, it is a bit of a tourist trap.  It claims to be "the site of the first coffee house in England" but I can remember that just ten years ago, the Grand Cafe used to be a shop, selling something entirely different.  Specious claims aside, you can imagine the interior from the name: it is a "belle epoque" outfit, with marble columns, ornate mirrors, etc. etc.  I'd had a fantastic coffee (Kenya peaberry) in there a year before, and so thought it time to try the tea. Xiaolong was unimpressed by the decor, and slept through our visit.

The result, pictured above, was a very solid Darjeeling.  With Darjeeling, perhaps more than any other tea, a cafe has the chance to get it right, without risk, while still charging a sizeable price.  England has a long history of buying teas from that region, and so, if you run a cafe, it is not too hard to find a distributor able to sell you something reasonable from one of the good estates.  The quality was not at all bad, and I was pleased to see that Darjeeling is coming back into the popular consciousness, even in just at the periphery.

Next up: a real Oxford education.  We have a concept in English called the "greasy spoon", which is used to refer to a very low-cost cafe that sells basic breakfasts and the like.  I first came to Oxford in 1998, and St. Giles cafe, the greasy spoon's greasy spoon, had already been trading for some decades.  So endearingly bad (in a nice way) was the cafe, that it is commonly known in the university as "the Cafe San Giles", pronounced in the French way (soft "g") to give it some ironic elegance.

Imagine my horror to learn that the Cafe San Giles (soft g) had been taken over by new management in the middle of 2013.  The old greasy spoon looked approximately the same (thankfully), but had been pulled up by its bootlaces and was now distinctly "gastro".

We have another effect in England at the moment: the "gastro pub".  These are pubs that focus on high-quality, quite rustic food, served at medium-to-high prices.  Good ol' Cafe San Giles (soft g) had been gentrified.  Not too much, but enough.

The result was actually rather good.  I had sausages made in the shop (out of meat, no less), and a special blend of Assam and Darjeeling that the owners had bought in especially from a trader in London known to some of us.  It was really very good: heavy, with the malt of Assam, but floral and zesty in the manner of Darjeeling.  I am truly delighted to see that the "gastro" movement can sometimes include proper tea.

Xiaolong didn't sleep through all of our cafe trips - pictured above, in Cafe Coco on the Cowley Road (a rather "studenty" area), my spotty little fellow awaits his order while poking a rubbery ricecake.  Cafe Coco sells "detox tea", which I naturally wouldn't touch with a barge-pole, and so we drank coffee.  Xiaolong had juice, good times were had.

He's over his chicken pox, but we had a fine time together - and we were exposed to some decent tea, as well as to his virus.


Tuo Cha Tea said...

Do I unterstand it correctly:
Oh, my son has a highly contagious disease. Let's take him somewhere where a lot of people drink and eat!

Jakub Tomek said...

Well, Xiaolong seems to have no blisters at the photograph, so he should not be contagious at all...

MarshalN said...

Um.... that's not how it works. Kids often have very few blisters, but they are still contagious as long as they're having an active outbreak. Taking him out is, alas, probably not the right thing to do as some adults (and many kids) don't have immunity!

Hobbes said...


Call me a bluff old traditionalist, but I prefer to follow evidence-based guidance provided by one of the world's largest healthcare systems. :)




MarshalN said...

Hmm... so you chose to ignore their suggestion?

"If your child has chickenpox, try to keep them away from public areas to avoid contact with people who have not had it, especially people who are at risk of serious problems, such as newborn babies, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system (for example, people having cancer treatment or taking steroid tablets)."

I'd think a cafe counts as a public place.

Hobbes said...

My old friend, I admire your tenacity!

With best wishes,