With his battered wool coat and Scandinavian scarf, our guide Dr Matthew Green resembles a 29-year-old Dr Who from Hackney. His Oxford PhD on 17th and 18th century coffee culture may explain his odd mixture of erudition and perkiness.
We delve into a labyrinth of lanes and courtyards, where Green begins to evoke 1650s London; the filth and noise of Cornhill, the queue of people snaking down an alley, clamouring for a cup of a strange black brew being sold from an exotic marquee, where the Jamaica Winehouse endures today.
The tent belonged to Pasqua Rosée, a Greek from Italy who kicked off the City’s first caffeine craze in 1652. Coffee soon took the capital by storm, explains Dr Green. Dozens of cafés sprang up, their spartan interiors as dark and primitive as the drink they sold. During the tour he produces a flask – we sample the gritty coffee of the era. It’s dire: smelling like paint and the taste: bitter and stewed.
It’s a far cry from the fuss over flavour and Fairtrade credentials today. “In the eighteenth century, the pinnacle of the slave trade, no one in their right mind would have even entertained the prospect of 'sustainable' or 'ethical' coffee production…most had some inkling of the cruelty and atrocities that common in the Jamaican plantations, but they continued to drink coffee anyway,” says Green.
People thronged the 17th century coffeehouses not for the drink but for the “kaleidoscope” of ideas and news within – communal tables strewn with newspapers and the chance to debate politics with strangers. Ideas such as insurance for ships and stock exchanges were born in spaces like these. “Without all these coffeehouses, it’s incredibly doubtful that Britain would have been able to build up an empire bigger than Rome,” he adds.
“Empire” is a good cue for a Starbucks critique. Their branches are even more ubiquitous than the coffeehouses of 350 years ago. There are 783 cafés in the UK, nearly half of which are in the City. “Like a barnacle of modernity it grows out of the church,” says Green, touching the wall of a Starbucks shoehorned into the back of St Stephen Walbrook. He explains the “bitter irony” of the multinational chain making a huge loss in the UK and that they are here purely for branding purposes.
When asked about the “fourth wave” of London coffee culture – with all its artisanal roasting and latte art – Green questions back disarmingly: “Would you rather have instant coffee and a really good conversation, or really good coffee and no conversation?”
He describes this wave as an “almost Epicurean obsession with the exquisite taste of the coffee” where the drink has come full circle. “Any conviviality between strangers in 'fourth-wave' coffeehouses tends to be secondary to the taste of the coffee.”
“I wonder whether it will last,” he muses, and puts today’s interest in coffee flavour and provenance down to an “obsession with the finer things in life – finer things that only a very small minority of people can afford.”
Is it time then, for a “fifth wave” of unremarkable, reasonably priced, fairly traded coffee that is nothing but lubrication for debate and the exchange of ideas?
Dr Green’s London Coffeehouse tour through the City of London is animated by actors in period dress and caffeinated with gritty period coffee. Visit www.unrealcityaudio.co.uk for the next dates.
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