Monthly Archives: June, 2012

The Best Coffee in Hackney

I’ll admit, I was surprised when Pacific Social Club opened its doors for business. Not much of the gentrification process in Hackney surprises me any more. I expect street markets to pop up out of sewer grates nowadays, but not on Clarence Road. Not my Clarence Road. 
Community-oriented, friendly, dirty and noisy, Clarence Road always felt when I first moved here just a bit edgier than Lower Clapton Road, probably because it’s emptier most of the time and it’s not a street with a lot going on. There are businesses, newsagents, convenience stores, bric-a-brac, Merry-go-round, but posh coffee shops? Not here. Until June of last year when Liam Casey and Nico Atwater opened up Pacific after overhauling the space formerly occupied by Lokat’s motor spares. 
Since its opening, Pacific Social Club has created an inviting space that has rapidly established itself as a feature of the area and is going some way towards making Clarence Road a destination for more than just riot tourism. 
The coffee is superb and unmatched anywhere in Hackney. Machiattos are flawlessly executed, flat whites are the subtlest, smoothest blend of coffee and milk, as only the bona fide Antipodean baristas (my last flat white there was made to precise perfection by an amiably chatty Kiwi called Matt) can do.The atmosphere is vintage with wall to wall vinyl covers behind the front counter, pastels and gentle, breezy dashes of turquoise and whites whimsically reminiscent of, appropriately, the South Pacific in the 1950s.

We’re taking the boy to Legoland this weekend, but if I were sticking around, I know where I’d be getting my Saturday and Sunday morning coffee. Pacific Social Club will soon go a long way towards making this humble thoroughfare quite a desirable destination. 

Speaking of beer…

Years of disillusioning experiences have made me suspicious of pubs with city postcodes, even ones that are in Hackney but also within close proximity to The City of London. Too many bankers, having just spent 12 deregulated hours ravishing the economy showing up in their jeans and t-shirts, their ‘casual’ clothes and well, just stinking up the place with testosterone and bleeding all the atmosphere out of  a room. 
The Old Red Cow is a breath of fresh air. Wide variety of beers from all over the world and to satisfy any and every thirst. I decided to stay local and try The Kernel Pale Ale, an uplifting bevvy from a brewery based formerly around London Bridge, notes of grapefruit and sunshine sprinkle down the palate with not a wisp of unpleasant after taste. Sprightly ale with a hoppy sense of fun. Also on show were Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale on tap and a Red Cow Belgian Pilsner. It’s nice to see high quality American beers on tap so close to the 4th. Puts me in mind of home. 
So, if you do happen to find yourself in The City of London this weekend and you are hankering after a drink to slake your thirst should the sun shine down on London in the next 48 hours, angle yourself towards Barbican and The Old Red Cow. Lovely atmosphere, lovely beer. 
The nearest tube stations to The Old Red Cow are Barbican or Farringdon. 

The Clapton Hart: Heralding an era of Restoration

I’ll admit, I was sceptical. I, along with many other local community members (that’s what I’ll call the rumour mill) had heard that the old Clapton Hart building, that crumbling boarded up edifice standing up until recently undecorously at the mouth of the Lea Bridge Roundabout, was going to be taken over by a pub franchise. And when you say pub franchise, I think ‘Wetherspoons’ and there is no quicker way to restore the rock-solid reputation of Murder Mile circa 2002 than to plop a chain pub like Wetherspoons right at the roundabout. I lived across the street from the Wetherspoons on Roman Road Market in Bow when I first moved to London. Looking out the window was better entertainment than any reality TV show any night. And on Saturday nights, it was like that old American fly-in-the-wall, or corner of the squad car as it were proto-reality TV show, Cops, complete with drunken brawling, police vans with vested officers spilling out, pinning down drunken disorderly offenders on their stomachs, knees pressed to their backs, pressing a promise to be good out of each of the inebriated, cider-filled customers to frequent the establishment. Sans guns of course. This was the East End of London. The local gendarme are nothing if not a little civilized.
I digress.
It is this term ‘franchise’ and my wife’s lukewarm review of the place on its opening night what made me apprehensive before my own visit with a couple of friends last Tuesday. Luckily, the new Clapton Hart could not be further from that cookie cutter chain pub that we have become accustomed to seeing on British high streets. Antic Ltd, who also run the Stokey favourite The White Hart, have taken over the decrepit building that used to house the pub of the same name with a notoriously dodgy past. They seem to have set out to restore the interior of the pub as sensitively as possible, bringing it right back to as close to vintage as possible, having taken the retro looking block capital sign from the outside of the building and brought it in. 
The Hart has created a spacious and inviting atmosphere that manages to feel welcoming and contemporary while at the same time kindling a sense of old Hackney circa 1891
And that’s to say nothing of it’s choice of beers. I was suitably impressed that they carried Tottenham-based Redemption Fellowship Porter, a fruity and smooth, but not overly sweet brew that I last had at the Pig’s Ear Beer and Cider Festival when it was in The Round Chapel

Somerset-based Blindman’s Buff was a lighter, more seasonal beverage, ‘a proper bitter’ remarked my friend Dom upon tasting, but I was most impressed by the Jamboree ale, with hints of citrus and summer washing all the way down the palate. I was as impressed by its provenance as by its taste though. It seems very easy nowadays for a pub to put Meantime or St. Peter’s on tap and call themselves local and organic. I very much like Meantime and St. Peter’s, but the beer buyer at The Clapton Hart has clearly worked hard to find beers that we haven’t seen in all the other organic gastropubs popping up in Stokey or Islington or Hackney-Wick-Upon-The-Marsh. Jamboree Ale comes from the East London Brewery in Leyton just down a shot on the dastardly, daren’t-traverse-it-on-a-dark night, Lea Bridge Road and they’re producing sensational beer. Fair play to them and to the Clapton Hart on a great sourcing job. I am a bit surprised and frankly a bit disappointed in The Hackney Citizen with finding fault for just this aspect of our new watering hole. 
Clapton is a very different place even from what it was in 2008, when last this place shut its doors for business. We’re seeing more and more signs that we are closer and closer to that affluent and civilised merchants’ village of the 18th Century here where we can trust our neighbours and our neighbourhoods for our children to grow up in. May The Clapton Hart be a further sign of that restoration.  

The Clapton Hart is just at the top of Lower Clapton Road and can be reached via the 48, 55, 38, 254 or 106 and is well worth making time for.

Cheese Superheroes: The Dark Knights of Cholesterol

It was always a bit disappointing to me to find when I ventured abroad that the American Cheese that I had grown up on was known in England and Ireland as ‘processed cheese slices’. It makes sense when you consider how diabolically poisonous Kraft American Cheese tastes, but it’s also made me want a little more out of my cheese.

Thankfully, I’ve recently found the saviours to any and all cheese crises: The Dark Knights of Cholesterol. I first discovered ‘Ian and Gian’ of Fratelli Formaggio a couple weeks ago at Hackney Homemade Market and was overcome by their selection, their general amiability and their willingness to serve you up as many tastes of as wide a variety of their cheeses as possible. On that visit, I picked up a mild, creamy honeyish cheese from the Emmental Valley near Bern, called Aarewasser and spent several mini-eternities savouring the beautiful flavour.

The only difference with yesterday’s visit was the location, the Chatsworth Road Sunday Market, and my choice of cheese. Again, John, one half of the Dark Knights, was only too eager to provide me and the patron next to me with taste upon taste of cheeses ranging from sensationally loud to subtly beautiful and one that was creamy, ripe, and apparently illegal in several countries. I was most impressed this time though with an 18 month old pecorino from Southern Sardinia, with a lovely texture and hints of smoke and nuttiness that kept hitting the tastebuds minutes after savouring.  These guys have a knack for sourcing magnificent cheese and bringing it to the markets of Hackney. Long may they continue to do so.

You can find these guys and their delicious dairy merch behind St. John’s Church and beside The Narrow Way at Hackney Homemade all day on Saturday and on Chatsworth Road Market all day Sunday.

There Will Come Soft Rains: Rest In Peace, Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was arguably the most influential Science Fiction author of the 20th and 21st century. The world is a lesser place for his incisive commentary on our ever increasing conflict between technology and humanity. 

Part of the genius of science fiction — good, high quality, genre defying science fiction — is not as many people think, that it warns us of some horrific future dystopian world that may come to pass if we do not divert ourselves from the path on which we’ve begun to travel as a society. Good science fiction (or speculative fiction as Margaret Atwood sometimes prefers to call it) exposes the most horrific aspects of our own world that we have taken as normal or buried down so deep that these elements of our lives cease to terrify us because we deny they even exist. It is all the more chilling for what it shows us that is uncannily familiar and therefore uncomfortably close to our everyday lives already.

The great American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury exemplified this in his prescient stories and novels. By his own admission, Farenheit 451 is more about the decimation of interest in literature by television than it is about censorship. How many of us, like Montag’s wife, have felt at times more emotionally invested in a television character’s life than our own? How many times have we seen the awful consequences of children being satisfied in all their material desires and being allowed to have an overflowing cup of the pleasure principle, as in ‘The Veld’?

As has been noted so many times by so many critics, Bradbury was the accessibly science fiction writer. I love Isaac Asimov, but he is the domain of the Sci-fi nerd almost exclusively. Equally, I love the works of Kurt Vonnegut, but there is once in every reading of Vonnegut where I feel the joke has gone slightly over my head.

Bradbury struck the right balance while still conveying sharp insight and most of all, capturing our fear of losing more and more of our dwindling humanity in our struggle with science and technology.

Do check out Margaret Atwood’s lovely article on Bradbury in last week’s Guardian right here.

Enjoy the short story, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ by Bradbury and check out the faithful film version of Farenheit 451.

Gentrified Hackney Revelry: The Clapton Festival 15-17 June

My Jewish colleagues, a number of them from Hackney old East End Jewish families born and bred in Clapton only to later drift north to Boreham Wood, expressed no small amount of shock at my plans to enjoy The Clapton Festival this weekend. And it is funny how much Hackney has changed.

From a village adjacent to London where wealthy merchants came to buy big houses and retire (so, the Essex or New Jersey of the 16th Century then?) to a run down borough best known for its high incidence of knife crime; rough, cheap, ‘bohemian’, ‘ethnic’ area with ‘a lot of character’ to gentrified destination for the hip and famous. Now the cool seems to be spreading and with it the decent coffee shops and some of the fun too. Some people have complaints, but I have to say, the effects, on balance, seem good for Hackney, which is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to The Second Annual Clapton Festival. The other is, there really will be something on for everyone, so if you’re passing East or not, but in London this weekend, make time. There may be scoffing and a bit of ‘far from that I was rared’ from those who know Hackney of old, but you won’t regret it.

Not Your Typical Rainy Day Out in London Town: St. Paul’s Cathedral

The wonderfully imposing structure of St. Paul’s, standing since 1710 when it arose from Christopher Wren’s imagination, still glowering austerely down over The City of London
After eight years of living in this ever impressive metropolis, I finally climbed up to the top of St. Paul’s on Thursday. 

We arrived at the cathedral rather late and it’s a bit of steep climb into your pocket just to afford admission at £15 a pop, which struck me as rather strange given that it’s part of a Christian institution and given that there was such a public outcry when the Occupy Londonmovement ‘prevented’ worshipers and tourists from enjoying the grandeur of the great edifice. A cynical person might think the loudest outcriers were cityites attempting to rid themselves of any guilt pangs they felt about the act of trudging to and from the freemarketeering that brought one of the world’s mightiest economies to its knees, endeavouring as it were, to sweep any reminders of unpleasant truths out of the bastion of beauty added to the world that sits amid the tax collectors. I digress. 

We arrived rather late and were debating about the worthiness of the price and the idea of walking across The Millennium Bridge to The Tate Modern when we decided, well how many St. Paul’s Cathedrals are there in the world? As it happens, the price turned out to be worth it because here’s your cheap living in London tip of the day: Gift Aid the money you pay for your ticket, and it turns into a reusable ticket for a year. Is there enough grandeur, enough humbling enormity in the heights of the dome, stunningly forward thinking imagination in the design and famous people buried in the crypt to make you want to go back for a second, third and fourth visit? Certainly, and I am glad I paid the price for it. 

But I am not great with heights. Fortunately, I decided to bite the bullet and not let my jittery sense of vertigo stop me form one of the most breathtaking sights in all of London. As with the CN tower in Toronto nine years ago, the nearest children to hand were braver than I was when we reached the top and there was a small glass in the floor from which you could see all the way down to the Cathedral floor. Of course, the nearest child this time around was my own, but at least I haven’t passed this particular anxiety on to him. 

The vertigo-inducing view from the top.
And the view at the top was awe-inspiring. And humbling. Say what you like about old London town. There is a fierce and terrible beauty in those rows of slate grey emanating stories told and untold, generations upon generations of that wonderfully gruff mixture of peoples that make up this city. 

 I feel civically and globally obliged to mention that there was  protest the day we went. It was led by a group called Jews forJustice for Palestinians. I felt fully in support of the protest as they were protesting against an insidious Anglo-Danish company called G4S, a company that is contracted by the government to deport asylum seekers. 

The protest was also supported by The Boycott Israel network, about which I feel deeply ambivalent. I get the fact that the state of Israel has some deeply unsavoury policies, especially amongst hardcore Zionists, but I also know from having worked with Jews now for six years that, oddly, not all of them are Palestinian-hating hardcore Zionists and the Israelis who are most likely to be the exceptions, the liberals, the intellectuals, the open-minded Palestinian sympathizers are also the ones who are likely to be the actresses, actors, and academics who come over here to speaking engagements or to bring over productions of The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew and who are going to suffer because of boycotts. It just seems like a classic example of organisations making enemies out of exactly the kind of people to whom they should be reaching out. 

Divine Revelation Under The Arches: Coffee Is My Cup Of Tea

Last Monday was Shavuot, the Jewish festival celebrating the bestowal of the Torah on God’s chosen people. I work at a Jewish school and the school was closed for the day. As a gentile and not one of God’s chosen, I had the day free to enjoy the rare appearance of the London sun shining down and bestowing its blessed warmth on all God’s creatures. 
My wife and I, footloose and child-free for the day, aimed to lunch at The Happy Kitchen, which we’d heard so much about but had always found difficult to locate. As it happened, last Monday was no different for us. We searched and searched the arches around that little paved tributary of London Fields letting out all the sun worshippers on these rare, bright days and found The Happy Kitchen bakery, which by all accounts is still doing lovely gluten-free cookies and cakes and ended up lunching at E5 Bakehouse, sitting amidst the buzzing atmosphere full of bright young self-made stylistas of Hackney, enjoying an unusually delectable chilled pear and pea soup.
However, the real epiphany came after lunch when we decided to head to somewhere else for iced coffees. A couple doors down, where The Happy Kitchen used to be, we found Coffee is My Cup of Tea, where we were promptly served deeply luxurious iced coffees that cooled us as we sat outside and sipped in the afternoon sun. The inside was bright, airy and full of clean bright whites with welcoming, railway arch industrial chic about. Sadly, I cannot speak for the menu, except to say it was full of organic classic looking Spanish-leaning savouries and richly tempting cakes and muffins that I am looking forward to trying on my next visit. But if you are ever in need of some divinely inspired iced coffees on a warm day in Hackney, Coffee is My Cup of Tea does not disappoint. 

Diamond Jubilee Weekend: Republican Three Ways

We’re just coming to the tail end of the long weekend commemorating HM the Q’s diamond anniversary as head of state for The UK and it feels timely and appropriate to mention my friend texting me on Sunday to say, ‘Watching the royal flotilla on TV. Really makes me feel proud to be British.’ You cannot really do indignant in a text message and I suppose with some people’s upbringings, you can’t help the particularly unsavoury shape your patriotism takes, but it was difficult to imagine feeling some sense of pride welling up in your chest for a symbolic gesture of what has brought millions of pesky subalterns, colonials and orientals to heel as an empire on which the sun sets is acquired. One does not feel amused. 
Of course, in America, we tend to hold ourselves sceptically, righteously and disdainfully above unquestioning royalism and the notion of the monarchy in general, for a number of reasons, including among them that it seems a tad unjust to siphon off tax money into supporting an anachronistic institution leading a charmed existence within which individuals have had to do nothing of any merit in order to earn the privilege that is bestowed upon them every day of their lives. Poke or prod a bit into recent American political history, say around 1 May, 2003, the presidential election of 2000, The Watergate scandal etc… and you start to scrape away very quickly at the crumbling integrity of the moral high ground on which we Yanks like to stand. 
Neither here nor there. What I found funny was that my naval proud friend was the exception amongst our set this weekend. Probably because of the nature of my own political leanings or the general tendency of expatriates, perhaps because of the inevitable direction in which the zietgeisty wind is blowing, most of the friends I spoke to were keen to assert their antipathy for the royal family as an institution. Of course, the British say it much more concisely, but not more simply. If they are anti-royalist, which many are at pains to point out, they say, ‘Oh well, I’m republican.’ This claim still induces a double-take because the British can’t be simple. They can’t be like Cromwell’s Puritans during the English Civil War and call themselves Parliamentarians. And I do get it. They support the abolition of a costly and useless sham of a national tradition in favour of a completely representative 
democracy. But why use one of the most confusingly connotative words in history? 
When I think of Republican, I think of people who are likely to subscribe to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the economic theory of Frederik Hayek and the rock-solid belief that if you are unemployed and living on food stamps then you are simply as lazy as sin; and you are likely to misquote Patrick Henry.
Then again, when Gerry Adams thinks of a Republican, he thinks of a freedom fighter who would like an ideal Irish-speaking paradise in which the Irish live in a Catholic Socialist society. But generally, there are quite a few who wouldn’t assert themselves as Republican in many parts of Ireland any more, which is in stark contrast to many Irish Americans, who swear loyalty to the IRA, without a thought to what it might mean or who it might offend.

Don’t even get me started on what the term Republican might mean to an ancient Roman or a Frenchman circa 1789.

So, I support my liberal British friends in their Republicanism, but wouldn’t be easier and less confusing to declare anarchy in the UK? 

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