Or is that heavens? Early morning. The deep, dark, warm coffee scent, hints of chocolate. The promise of peace. Momentary solace.
This past summer, for reasons some of you already know, was not spent in rural Wales. In between trips to Ottawa, there were also flying visits to St. Petersburg, Vancouver and always, just in passing, London. Such is the price we pay for far flung families. And, through it all, three cafes sustained my soul and spirit- BWCHE in St. Petersburg, Planet Coffee in Ottawa, and Café Nero, in Aberystwyth. Through it all, they kept their gentle arms around me, offering comfort, serenity, sustenance, revitalisation.
I cannot detail the blends and brews, the roasts of the innumerable cappuccinos and macchiatos I drank, always in the mornings. But the earthy, homey scent, enhanced by baking bread, warm scones, straight from the oven, the sight of cherry pastries the size of small platters, never failed to wave me in.
There are BWCHE cafes sprinkled all around St. Petersburg. One found itself right on my daughter’s doorstep, near Park Pobedy, just off Moskovsky Prospekt.
Of course, you can always have an omelette, but why would you when those cherry pastries, are shouting out ‘choose me’. This is Russia. You would expect giant pastries and so they are, covered, no, slathered artfully in apple slices, raspberries, and… cherries. But the BWCHE specialty has to be the incredible range of rustic breads, round loaves, oblong loaves, seeded loaves, dark crusty rye loaves piled mountain high in early morning, diminished to a small hillock by late afternoon. Local residents, very much in the French style, replenish their bread supplies daily. All the BWCHES have an intimate feel, low hanging lights, little pops of whimsy -in this café, the papier mache lamb with a red bow sitting in the window looking out onto the street.
Little touches of comfort. BWCHE, uniquely offers, with every order, sealed and freshly scented hand-wipes. The cappuccino at BWCHE is the gentlest of all the cappuccinos I drank across the world this summer.
Very berry and date pecan, the best scones in the entire world, (trust me!) were my ‘go to’ breakfasts for several weeks, moments of pure joy at Planet Coffee, or ‘the Planet’ as I renamed it. A melange of warm, soft, crunchy, with chunks of sweet dates or hints of tart berries. The size of small planets. After all, this is Canada. Cappuccino- absolutely the best in Ottawa. It’s impossible once you have been to the Planet, to go anywhere else. And, I have to mention the London Fog tea drink, on offer once I had consumed my daily coffee allowance. I was always there at 7:00 sharp, maybe a little later as jet lag wore off. Just down from Parliament Hill, you can reach Planet Coffee from a little lane, where it sits on a tiny square ringed with 18th century, grey stone buildings.
Low hanging lights, the fish painting on the back wall, fresh water in the pitcher on the counter, the daily newspapers.
And…finally, on the high street in little Aberystwyth, Café Nero. In some ways, the most ‘homey’ of the three cafes I celebrate here, Café Nero, the country over, makes a point of offering a range of hard chairs, big, soft enveloping chairs, little coffee tables, bookshelves with real books.
And…while they are of a more modest size, the crispy, flaky, pain au chocolat, or the pain au raisin, slightly heated, are quite simply, the best. The cappuccino positions itself somewhere between the ‘pow’ of the Planet coffee and the more café au lait style of BWCHE.
What do these far flung cafes, these homes away from home have in common? What makes them so welcoming, so comfortable, so compelling? BWCHE is a local chain, Planet Coffee is stand alone and of course we know about Café Nero. Yet they share a certain ambiance, a modern rustic feel, simple, pale woods, grey walls, soft, lovely lighting, coy little touches of interest. For all the industrial quantities of coffee drinks they offer in a day, each is remarkably quiet, no jarring noise, of grinding machinery, crashing cups, indeed, even loud conversation. There seems to be a respect built into their very fabric.
Their ambiance is supported always by music in the background….not too loud of course, but audible. In Café Nero, it’s often mellow jazz, of the Ella Fitzgerald or Stan Getz variety. BWCHE seems to favour quiet, French chansons. Planet coffee, offers a totally different experience from day to day, depending, I think, on the mood of the manager, some days energizing, other days, soft…but somehow always a perfect fit for the day. Now I realise these choices of music may simply be to my taste, but I am obviously not the only one who appreciates them. Because these cafés are busy. Of course, there is an ebb and flow but throughout the day there is a steady stream of coffee lovers. Yet there is rarely a ‘line-up’ at the most, two, three or four people at the counter. There is little ‘waiting around’ for someone to come and take your order at the table, prepare it and return with it. For someone who wants their coffee -now- this is the perfect arrangement. Seating is always adjustable, whether you are alone, or accompanied, there is a place to sit comfortably, not too crowded, and yet close enough to be cozy if you wish.
Not drafty, damp, chilly, overheated or under-heated, the climate is usually just right. In summer, a soothing coolness. In winter, utterly welcoming warmth. In an odd sort of way, the same can be said of the staff. The twinkle in the eye of recognition. A nod. A smile. Perhaps a passing comment about the weather outside. The care for each and every cup of coffee. A slow dance, the patient swirl of foam with just the right amount of air. Here is your cappuccino and your scone, or pain au chocolat, or cherry pastry. Renewal, revitalisation in a bubble, an oasis of time away, of time out of time.