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A sense of history at Lundenwic, Aldwych

Lundenwic Aldwych coffee

The bar at Lundenwic

Of all the senses, our sense of smell is probably the one that is most likely to evoke memories that can take us right back to our childhood. One whiff of something as we walk past a café can, almost magically, transport us back many years and to a quite different time and place. This aspect of our sense of smell was brought home to me a few weeks ago on a visit to Lundenwic in Aldwych.

Lundenwic was the Anglo-Saxon name for the settlement that was located between what is now Covent Garden and Aldwych. As time progressed and the population of Lundenwic decreased, the site became known as the old-settlement (Aldwic), from which we get the name Aldwych*. Lundenwic is also the name of a (relatively) new cafe that has opened up near the corner of Aldwych with Drury Lane (incidentally, originally called the Via de Aldwych*). The upstairs seating area is quite small but with Caffeine magazines on hand, and plants dotted around, as well as the bar, there is plenty to watch and to notice while savouring your coffee. The espresso based coffee is sourced from Workshop while the filter option (V60 based) features different guest beans. On the day of our visit there were two filter options available. Opting for the Kenya Kagoumoini AA, I waited for my coffee to be prepared while my cafe-physics review companion had a late lunch of a cheese and ham toasty which quickly filled this small café with the aroma of cooking cheese. The tasting notes for the coffee stated that I should expect “rhubarb and raspberry lemonade”, and while the taste was certainly of lemonade, the aroma seemed to me quite different, almost spicy.

Lundenwic coffee

Kenyan coffee, freshly brewed appealed to all five senses, but each in different ways.

The cooking cheese and the memories evoked by the smells, along with this difference between the smell and the taste of the coffee, suggested that smell ought to be the subject of this cafe-physics review. Indeed, smell turns out to be a very interesting sense. The nerve cells relating to smell are the only type of nerve cell that can regenerate†. It is this ability of these nerve cells to regenerate that recently helped a previously paralysed man to walk again. Nerve cells from his nose were transplanted into his spinal cord where they helped in the regeneration of his spinal cord (for reasons that are not yet fully understood).

But what about those smells in the coffee? That special aroma, that you breathe in and appreciate immediately after you have brewed your cup is due to a fantastic mix of over 1000 volatile aroma chemicals. If you let your coffee stand, those chemicals evaporate off, which means that the just-brewed aroma starts to change. One of the most important chemicals for this coffee aroma is called 2-furfurylthiol. It has been shown that the concentration of 2-furfurylthiol in the coffee decreases by a factor of 4 over the course of an hour‡.  Even after as little as twenty minutes or so, the concentration of these complex aroma molecules starts to decrease significantly and so if you, (horror of horrors), were to let your coffee cool overnight and then zap it in the microwave in the morning, you would no longer regain that freshly-brewed smell that may have attracted you to the coffee in the first place.

durian skins and seeds

What was left after a session eating durian on a durian farm in Penang, Malaysia

This may also be the reason that the coffee at Lundenwic tasted differently to how it smelled. By inhaling the aroma and then tasting the coffee without exhaling (and so pushing the aroma back through the nose), our nerves are sensitive to different sensations. Although we may experience this while tasting many foods, occasionally it is crucial. A few years ago, Hasbean coffee were selling a very unusual coffee. The coffee, from Indonesia was called “Sidikalang”. Looking back at Hasbean’s “Inmymug” video, it is clear that it was very difficult for Hasbean’s Stephen Leighton to come up with tasting notes for the coffee which, in the end was compared with “durian”. The aroma of durian has been described as “turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock” and yet in South East Asia it is known as the King of Fruits and is highly sought after for its taste. The aroma chemicals found in durian have recently been analysed (by the same group as studied the aroma of coffee). Nonetheless, the inclusion of “durian” in the tasting notes was extremely accurate (and did result in an amusing, if unconventional, attempt at opening one of the fruits in the video). It was accurate not only in terms of the experience of the taste/smell combination of that coffee. The actual taste and smell of the coffee was very similar to that of durian. A very unusual and interesting coffee that I have never yet had the opportunity to experience again.

However, to return to Lundenwic, how do the (lovely and inviting) smells that emanate from that café compare with the smells of the area that had been Aldwych before 1905 (when Aldwych was built, demolishing the slums that had existed there)? Some museums, such as the Canterbury Tales (in Canterbury), use the aromas (odours?) of medieval life to give visitors some idea as to what life was like in years gone by. Recalling a childhood visit to that museum, I would suggest that the smell of freshly brewed coffee and melting cheese is an almost unquantifiable improvement.

Truly we could say that at Lundenwic, it is time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Lundenwic is at 45 Aldwych, WC2B 4DR

*The London Encyclopaedia, 3rd Ed, MacMillan publishers, 2008.

†”On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen”, Harold McGee, George Allen & Unwin publishers, 1988.

‡The coffee had been held at 80C in a thermos flask for the duration of the experiment. It may be expected that as your coffee cooled down, the volatile aroma molecules would evaporate more slowly than the time indicated in this study.

 

 

 

Wonders of the World at Espresso Base, Bloomsbury

Hasten coffee, long black, black coffee, espresso base

‘Has Bean’ coffee at Espresso Base

Espresso Base is exactly the sort of café that you want to make sure that you know about, but part of you is selfishly quite happy if not too many others do. It is not that the the place is small, far from it. There is plenty of space in the courtyard at Espresso Base, beside St George’s Church, to sit and enjoy your coffee. The thing is, it is great to have the place almost entirely to yourself. With few others around, the oasis-like quality of the place is emphasised, astonishing as it is so close to the busy Bloomsbury Way. Only this oasis serves great coffee. Their coffee is roasted by Has Bean, which I admit is the reason that I first dropped into Espresso Base a few weeks ago. The black coffee that I had was certainly very good and the environment in which to enjoy the coffee was thought provoking which, for me, is an important aspect of any café. Cafés need to be places that you can go, slow down and notice things and Espresso Base certainly falls into that group of cafés that I would highly recommend both for the coffee and the café.

stone recycling, slate, slate waterfall, geology

The purple slate waterfall feature in the courtyard area at Espresso Base. You can just see the stone with the rectangular holes carved into it at the bottom of the wall.

On the day that we arrived, it had been raining. For a café with seating outside this may have posed a problem but the chairs had been thoughtfully folded so that they remained dry. The rain had however seeped into some of the paving slabs around the chairs and so that was the first thing to notice, the fact that many objects when wet appear darker, why? Opposite our seating was a rock feature that to me looked like a waterfall made out of slate, the slate had a purple tinge which again, had been made slightly more purple by the rain. Below the slate ‘waterfall’ and forming a wall, were a series of stones that had clearly been taken here from somewhere else. I say ‘clearly’, because the stone at the bottom had two holes that had been carved out of it, one square, one slightly more rectangular. Presumably the stone had been used as part of a gate post in the past and yet there is no evidence of the remains of a gate on the other side of the courtyard (I think that a gate post would have to be deeper than the square indent in the paving slab that is at the other side of the courtyard). It is therefore more likely that the stone had been used somewhere else beforehand and ‘recycled’ for use in this wall. This juxtaposition of slate above and recycled stone below reminded me of the early geologists and how they identified the Great Glen fault that runs through Loch Ness in Scotland. Slate is a metamorphic rock, meaning that it has undergone changes due to the high pressure and temperatures within the Earth. Slate is however quite a low-grade metamorphic rock so, compared with higher grade metamorphic rocks, it has not been subjected to that much pressure or that much temperature. By mapping the lower grade and higher grade metamorphic rocks along the Great Glen, the early geologists noticed a line that sharply separated the metamorphic rock types. This fault would have, in the past, caused earthquakes as the ground slipped along the fault.

Replica of Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

The steeple of St George’s church, Bloomsbury Way. The statue on top is of King George I rather than King Mausolus in  his chariot. The statue of Mausolus, his wife/sister Artemisia and a horse from his chariot can be seen in the British Museum.

On leaving Espresso Base I turned and looked up at the church. If you get a chance, take a look at the steeple. Particularly ornate, the stepped steeple is apparently built to the description of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus by Pliny the Elder. This monument was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World and was built to be the burial chamber of King Mausolus of Karia. Described as standing approximately 40 m in height, this massive stepped, marble pyramid stood on top of 36 columns surrounded by statues. Topping the pyramid was a statue of King Mausolus himself, in a chariot. This ancient wonder is thought to have been destroyed by an earthquake in the fourteenth century after which the stones were ‘recycled’ by the Knights of Malta to build a fortress. A history that is aptly mirrored in the geology and stone recycling evident in the courtyard of Espresso Base.

 

Espresso Base can be found in the courtyard of St George’s church, Bloomsbury Way, WC1A 2SE

Artefacts from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus can be seen in room 21 of the British Museum (conveniently just around the corner from Espresso Base).

Geology help from: “Geology Today, Understanding our planet”, Murck/Skinner, John Wiley & Sons, 1999