A key ingredient at Second Shot

Coffee, hot chocolate and cake at Second Shot in Marylebone,
Second Shot
Coffee, hot chocolate and cake at Second Shot in Marylebone

First impressions count, and the first impression we got of Second Shot‘s second branch north of Marylebone Station, was of a very friendly, local spot type of cafe. A small crowd were sitting around a table discussing a topic in an animated way. Various others were popping in or out, chatting with the barista, one person was sitting at a table with a laptop. And despite the fact that the weather was turning and the sky was becoming an ominous grey, the cafe itself seemed bright and open, with plenty of light coloured wood to complement the large windows.

We decided on a long black, hot chocolate and nut free brownie. Not wanting to spoil the initial taste of the coffee, I waited for the long black to arrive so that I could try that first before trying a bit of the brownie. The coffee was very well made, from Square Mile, and a perfect complement to the squidgy but moreish brownie.

On the walls, plants were hanging in pots with their leaves trailing down, while the light was reflected off a series of drawings sketched using coffee as an ink (they were for sale). It is surprisingly easy to make ink out of many different household (and not quite so household) items. Coffee is one base ingredient and, not surprisingly, makes a brown ink. But to bind the ink and to make it more viscous, gum arabic is frequently added to home-made ink recipes. The gum arabic is needed particularly if you are going to write with the ink with a fountain pen as it makes the ink viscous enough that it can flow through the nib.

coffee art, pictures using coffee ink, sketch, Second Shot
Hanging plants and coffee art, the walls at Second Shot, Marylebone.

Just as with the gum arabic, often ingredients are added to a product that are crucial to it, but that we do not realise they are there. Another example is the seaweed extract that is added to some plant based milks in order that they produce a better milk froth. But what if you don’t add all the ingredients at the same time, what happens if you add only one ingredient of the ink rather than all of those that are necessary?

One type of black ink that has been used for centuries is made from oak galls. It is even thought that ink based on galls was used to write the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus (the oldest complete copy of the Christian New Testament that we know of). The galls form on oak trees when the larvae of different types of wasp secrete a chemical that produces abnormal growth in the tree. The gall is the protective casing around the wasp larva, a type of home for the wasp larvae as they mature. Once the wasp has matured, it burrows through the growth which has turned from green to brown and it leaves a tiny little hole where it exited the gall. Galls can be seen on many oak trees during the summer and autumn and I’ve even seen them on the oak trees of various central London parks.

After the galls have been crushed and soaked, iron sulphate is added to the gall solution to produce a deep black ink*. Again, gum arabic is added to bind the ink to the paper and to increase its viscosity. But it is this ink that was also a popular ‘invisible ink’ first described over 2000 years ago. Philo of Byzantium** (who lived from 280-220 BCE) describes making an ink with the oak galls only. Forget about the iron sulphate for the moment. When it dries, the ink is nearly invisible on the paper, it can easily be missed and so can be sent to a collaborator as an invisible message. When the collaborator washes the paper with a solution of iron sulphate, the black ink appears on the paper and the message is revealed. Although the recipe has been known for two millennia, it has been used as an invisible ink even as recently as Mary, Queen of Scots and the American Revolution**.

coffe ink example
Coffee ink made for writing with a fountain pen (including recipe). Perhaps a yellow-ish paper was not the best medium to use to showcase the ink. An inadvertently (almost) invisible ink.

This idea, of making the invisible visible, by adding a key ingredient seems to form a nice metaphor for the societal aspect of the work of Second Shot. On their website they describe this aspect as:

We’re changing perceptions on homelessness by being a destination that serves some of London’s best coffee, alongside a unique community atmosphere, amazing food, and just so happens to be changing lives.

We employ people who have been affected by homelessness, train them up and transition them on to long term employment elsewhere, helping them on their individual journey taking them from where they are, to where they deserve to be.

Key ingredients of training, and accompaniment on individual journeys that combine to change our perceptions but that are not realised by us as we consume great coffee at this friendly cafe: Making the invisible visible, but doing it without us even realising that we have received a hidden message.

Second Shot’s second branch is at 49 Church St. NW8 8ES

*”Make Ink: A forager’s guide to natural ink making”, J Logan, Abrams New York, 2018

** “Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies: The story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qaeda”, K Macrakis, Yale University Press, 2014

To stay or to go at Cafe from Crisis

coffee commercial St volcano

Cafe from Crisis on Commercial Street, E1. Notice the arches…

It was not what I had expected. Entering the door of the Cafe from Crisis, you go up a ramp with a bench running alongside it before the counter looms in front of you with a large café space opening up to your right (previously partially obscured from your view by the wall for the ramp). Perhaps it is fitting that my expectations were wrong. Many of us have ideas about the homeless (why they are homeless, what homelessness is etc) that may not match fully with the reality. And this café is, after all, in the head office of Crisis, a UK national charity working with the homeless and homelessness.

The coffee is roasted by Volcano and there are a large number of food options (including vegan and veggie) and cakes at the counter. A selection of keep cups are also arranged in a rack on the left of the counter, should you not have one yet. We ordered an Americano and tea (to stay) and took our numbered wooden spoon to the table so that they could find us. Although it was late lunchtime and busy, the drinks arrived fairly quickly with the coffee in a (Crisis themed?) red cup. Apparently serving coffee in red cups make us perceive the coffee as warmer than if it is served in a blue cup. Whether this is true or not, the warm brew was very welcome on this cold January day. The café is situated on a street corner which means that it has many windows, each topped with a shallow arch. The building looks fairly modern from the outside, but the arches were reminiscent of the way that older buildings can be dated by the window style, along with other features. The Cure played in the background which entertained my tea drinking companion but made me wonder about the ideas of Pythagoras on the psychological impacts of different sorts of music (and whether it affected the ability to find thought connections in a café).

plant in a coffee cup

It turns out there are many things to notice in this photo. From the bricks to the self-defence tactics of plants. But what about the nature of the home of the plant?

As we sat, enjoyed our drinks and looked around, we noticed that some plants had found a home in coffee cups placed on the tables around. Small plants in plastic pots (a nod to the anthropocene as pointed out by @lifelearner47 on twitter) were dotted around the café. Did they move from an espresso to a long black cup as they grew larger? Perhaps it was the spiky plant in one of the pots, but my mind immediately jumped to hermit crabs and their search for a new shell each time they grew a bit bigger. Marine hermit crabs  have been shown to be happy in any old discarded shell. Normally these are the ex-homes of gastropods that have, well, “moved on” would be a euphemism, but marine based hermit crabs have been known to make their shells out of all sorts of things including our plastic litter. Land based hermit crabs however are far more demanding and only move into shells that have been specially remodelled by earlier generations of hermit crabs for their own use. This means that land based hermit crabs have to develop a social awareness of other hermit crabs when they want to swap shells.

Apparently the interaction goes something like this: A group of hermit crabs come together in a small-ish area and begin to scope each other out. The loose collection becomes a cluster as the crabs explore whether one of the larger crabs can be evicted from its shell. As the process of eviction is about to occur, the remaining crabs (which can number quite a few, 10 or more) literally ‘line up’ in order of shell size so that, when the largest is evicted, each crab can move up to the next sized shell leaving the smallest, most undesirable shell on the seashore and the poor evicted crab, shell-less.

Several questions arise but one is, do the crabs make decisions, “to stay or to go” based on how advanced the eviction process is? So, say a crab wanders into an area with an unusually large number of crabs in it (perhaps 4) but the crabs are all lined up in a queue ready to swap into each others shells. Do the crabs coming into the area stick around for a long time or do they head off somewhere else? Or, conversely, what if they enter an area where there are more than the usual number of ‘colleagues’, but they are all scattered about, not yet ready to evict the largest crab. What would our incoming crab do then?

coffee red cup Crisis

What would you learn if you noticed the connections your mind was forming while enjoying a coffee?

These questions were addressed by a group working with the terrestrial hermit crabs of Costa Rica. By defining five cells on the beach, each with a different arrangement of (empty but inaccessible) shells that the incoming hermit crab may want, the researchers found that the incoming hermits were making some strikingly sensible decisions. When the crab came into a region of scattered shells (that the incomer mistook for fellow crabs owing to a trick with a combination of loctite glue and partially burying the empty shells that the researchers used to fool the incomers), the incomer tended to stick around, waiting for an opportunity to swap a shell. If the incomer came but saw that the queue of shells had already formed, it still stayed a bit longer in the region relative to a control area devoid of shells, but it did tend to leave it after some time, perhaps to look for new shells elsewhere. The researchers concluded that when the crab came into an area and thought it had a pretty good chance of inserting itself into a good queue position, it would stay in the area waiting for the eviction to occur and the shell swapping process to start. However when the crab came into an area where the queue had already formed, it was unlikely to be able to get a good position in the queue and so would investigate the situation for a bit before wandering off elsewhere in the search of a new shell in a different area.

Does this have any relevance to a café trying to do a bit to address the problems of homelessness and the homeless in our city and country? I will leave that to each reader to ponder. However, it was a great opportunity to learn something new about our world, which only happened because I stopped to notice something in a café and then wondered how hermit crabs get their homes. It’s always good to slow down and notice things. What will you see next?

Cafe from Crisis (London) is at 64 Commercial Street, E1 6LT.