Top 5 Cafés: Oxford

Yet again I’ve been day-dreaming about coffees of the past whilst sipping my sugary sachet of Dao coffee… This time I was thinking about the coffee shops I used to go to in my previous home of Oxford.

1. Mostro Coffee
This was my favourite café in Oxford.  It’s a tiny sliver of heaven inside the Truck Store, a great independent music shop on Cowley Road. The baristas here take great pride in what they do, and know their coffee – I once overheard a conversation between the owner and a new barista and the depth of the owner’s knowledge combined with his passion for what he was doing made me so happy. Because it’s so small it feels very intimate and friendly. A great place to study or read or, with it’s great location on the corner of Cowley and Rectory Road, sit and people watch.

2. The Grand Café
This place is indeed grand. And so are the prices. Hence I’ve only ever been once. But the coffee I had there was incredible. I had a cafetiere of Old Goverment Java (that is how it’s spelt on the menu by the way) but I want to know if the 100% Blue Mountain Jamaica is worth the £9.95… If you can afford it, let me know.

3. Café Crisis at The Old Fire Station
Ok, so the coffee here isn’t out of this world but it’s decent and cheap. The fry-up for a fiver also makes the coffee taste better! Huge portions of deliciousness served up by Crisis Skylight members who are getting on-the-job training.

4. Jacobs & Field
A lovely cafe that seems to be eternally popular with Headington residents. If you can get a table order a cappuccino and, depending on how hungry you are, either a slab of their warm banana bread or their full English. You won’t be disappointed.

5. Taylors
A small deli on the High Street selling decent coffee and tempting looking cakes…. Obviously being the cheapskate that I am, I’ve never purchased one of their cakes. Instead I wait until after 2pm when they give away cookies with every hot drink, then stroll around Christchurch Meadow, smug and happy.

Coffee Chronicles: Dexter Cafe

I’d cycled past the black and white fronted café a few times, and had stopped to study the menu for a good ten minutes on one occasion. Their international coffee page intrigued me… particularly the Finnish speciality which involved coffee with chunks of mozzarella in. I don’t know if that’s honestly what Finnish people drink but it got me interested.

So, last week I decided to splash out and headed to Dexter Café for a morning of indulgence and, potentially, cheese-infused coffee.

The smell of espresso and condensed milk envelops you as you walk in, and the open space is tastefully and simply decorated.

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The coffee menu is extensive with all the usual espresso-based favourites, but I was there for the coffees of the world… I struggled to choose between the German, Aussie and Hong Kong specialities. And then, of course, there was the Finnish coffee with steamed milk and mozzarella. I was tempted. I asked the waitress to help me decide and she couldn’t conceal her distaste when I asked about it. Her nose turned up like she’d smelt something bad and I genuinely thought she’d vomited in her own mouth for a moment. I was still tempted. She recommended the Korean coffee with Oreos. Weighing up this incredibly difficult and meaningful decision for a couple of minutes more, I decided to cool off in the 34 degree heat with the Yuan Yeng, a Hong Kong iced coffee with condensed milk and English breakfast tea.

Even as the waitress walked away with my order I debated whether to call her back and change it to the cheese coffee, but I resisted.

My iced coffee came with a bottle of sugar syrup on the side (which I liked because I could then control how sweet to have it) and it was delicious and refreshing. But to be honest, I couldn’t really taste the English breakfast tea (not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing), and I would’ve been just as content with a sweet, condensed milk coffee off the street for a third of the price.

I guess the cost paid for the attentive staff and lovely surroundings, which I enjoyed for much of the morning, writing, reading, eavesdropping and people watching, so I didn’t feel disappointed. I will go back to Dexters for more coffee, but next time I’m ordering the cheese one.

Coffee Chronicles: UXO

Nope, it’s not the latest trend in brewing. UXO stands for unexploded ordnance. And this week, I went without my posh coffee and headed to the UXO Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang.

I knew very little about the Secret War before I visited the centre and I would really recommend going along. It’s informative but not overwhelming and there are some videos showing the real human impact of UXO which help to put the statistics into context.

According to MAG (Mines Advisory Group), as part of the Vietnam War, the US conducted more than 580,000 bombing raids over neighbouring Laos: the country now holds the unwanted title of most bombed country per capita in history. UXO Lao work to clear these bombs so that the land can be used for agriculture and much-needed infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and water supply. There are statistics galore at the UXO Visitor Centre but the one that stuck with me is this:

From 1996 to 2010, UXO Lao has destroyed a massive 446, 711 unexploded sub-munitions… yet that’s only 0.55% of the estimated unexploded sub-munitions throughout Laos.

Going without my posh coffee doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.

 

Give Blood

I’m a nurse that doesn’t like blood. Ok, maybe I should clarify that. I like blood. I think it’s great, in fact. It keeps us alive. But I don’t enjoy the sight of it and I definitely don’t enjoy people taking it from me.

So giving blood isn’t top of my list of things to do, particularly in a country like Laos where, instead of having a needle in my arm, I could be hiking up the side of a waterfall, visiting a temple, or eating delicious street food.

However. Volunteering at the hospital in Luang Prabang, I regularly see patients who need blood transfusions, but there are times when the blood bank runs dry. Families donate and staff give blood to help make up the shortages. The expat community here is also incredibly supportive and responsive to pleas for blood donations. However, it is still not enough to meet demand. The Lao Red Cross states that 60,000 blood donations are needed every year, but only 30,000 are made. Our guidebook encourages tourists to give blood whilst they’re passing through, and if every traveller did so it would make an unbelievable difference. No doubt, life-changing for some.

So, I decided to suck it up and go and give blood. After all, I could hardly harp on at everyone to donate if I hadn’t done so myself.img_28981

The process is incredibly simple, although potentially not what you’re used to if you’ve given blood in the UK. The blood donation centre is underneath the Lao Red Cross Sauna and Massage Centre, an unassuming white and blue house opposite Wat Visoun which is a short walk away from the main street.

After a big breakfast and copious amounts of water, I cycled over, filled out my form and ticked all the boxes that needed ticking: the questions are similar to those that you’re asked when you give blood in the UK, although your answers will most likely be different. For example, I was asked if I’d had any vaccinations in the past few months, which most travellers will have had, but I was still able to donate. I had my blood pressure taken and then was taken over to one of the two beds they have set up. I lay sipping my free water, distracted by a bizarre Thai-dubbed Chinese fantasy/horror film that was on the TV, whilst the nurse expertly found and, more importantly, got a vein on the first attempt. Fairly painless, very quick, and on your first donation you get a goody bag to say thanks. I’m going to be honest, whilst the knowledge that I’ve potentially helped a patient today makes me feel good, what makes me feel even better is the free, synthetic yet delicious coconut cake in the goody bag.

 

So, I would say to anyone visiting Luang Prabang, whether it’s for a day or a year: if you’re healthy and able and willing, head to the Blood Donation Centre.

You could save someone’s life. And that’s a pretty incredible memory to take away from your time here.

Coffee Chronicles: Joma

For my treat coffee in week two I strategically held out until the end of the week. Having finished nights at the hospital on Saturday, I slept for only a couple of hours and then later on foolishly went out for a few beers…

Consequently, when Sunday arrived, although I desperately wanted coffee, I also felt the need to hibernate. So instead of indulging in a delicious brew overlooking the Mekong, I got a take out americano from Joma and returned home where I could drink coffee, eat crisps for breakfast and be in my pyjamas without being judged.

img_2835For me, Joma is like the Starbucks of South East Asia. Depending on your views, this may sound like an insult but I don’t mean it as such. In a sea of cafes (some serving excellent coffee, some… not so much), Joma is a beacon of dependability. Whether you’re in Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Luang Prabang or Hanoi, you know you can go to Joma and get a taste of home (if home for you is North America or England that is). Good coffee, delicious banana bread, and generally good service. Nothing to write home about but comforting and easy.

And, as it seems you can no longer just have a coffee shop, you must also be a social enterprise, 10% of profits are poured back into NGOs in the local communities. So you can feel virtuous with every sip.

I picked up my americano and wandered home in the sunshine, back through the streets of Luang Prabang, picking up deep fried snacks along the way. No frills, no fuss. Just strong hot coffee on a lazy Sunday, enjoyed whilst doing a coffee-themed puzzle. And that was one of the highlights of my week.

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The Best Coffee in Asia… So Far

As part of my bid to save money by not buying delicious, expensive, freshly ground coffee from gorgeous little cafes lining the streets and rivers of Luang Prabang, I’ve purchased a cheap bag of instant powder masquerading as coffee.

Whilst sat drinking my sugary hot beverage this morning, I found myself pining nostalgically for coffees that I’ve indulged in over the past few months of travelling. And so, here’s a list of my most memorable cups thus far.

1. Natural Coffee, Kandy, Sri Lanka

After a long day of sightseeing around Sigiriya and Dambulla in the interminable heat, you would’ve thought an ice cold beer was what I was craving. But I was seriously flagging and if I was to make conversation, or indeed just stay awake, for the rest of the evening, I needed something more. So did my friend who had arrived in the country less than 24 hours earlier.

We sought refuge in Natural Coffee and ordered a French press each. Pricey at 400 rupees (roughly £2), I desperately hoped it would be worth the money.

And it was. From the first sip we came alive again. My friend actually started tearing up with happiness.

Don’t be put off by the fairly amateur looking menu. The fair trade coffee is good.
2. Cafe Eh Eh, Vang Vieng, Laos

Proudly flying the Naked Espresso flag, this little cafe away from the hubbub of the bars and backpackers, serves good coffee and incredible cheesecake.

I recently spent two weeks working with the housekeeping team at a nearby hotel, in exchange for free accommodation and food. The iced americano at Cafe Eh Eh got me through many mornings of cleaning. I never understood cold coffee until I tried it here but I became hooked on it: strong black coffee, no sugar and icy cold. Perfect.


3. Gelato Lab, Siem Reap, Cambodia

As well as creating some of the best gelato I’ve ever eaten, this trendy place in the heart of Siem Reap serves good, strong espresso.

After two packed out days seeing Angkor Wat, we spent a leisurely morning here planning for the next part of our trip to Vietnam. Try not to think about your budget (a small cappuccino costs $2.75) and just indulge in the deliciousness of the whole experience.

4. A market stall somewhere in Vientiane, Laos

This bag of sweet, strong, iced coffee weighed as much as a toddler and lasted for three days. It cost 12,000 kip (£1.20). More a dessert than a coffee, it’s probably not the best health-wise, but in terms of price there’s no competition. And it was indeed, delicious, intense and glacial…

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Coffee Chronicles: Saffron Coffee

Despite my fears that Friday would never come, it did and with it the chance for me to buy my one good coffee for the week – a self-inflicted money saving idea I’d had when clearly not thinking straight.

I woke like a child on Christmas Day, but hadn’t foreseen the dilemma I was now faced with: Which cup of coffee and which coffee shop to choose?

Anyone who has been to Luang Prabang knows that the peninsula consists predominantly of coffee shops and temples. I haven’t done the maths but if you multiply the number of cafés by the number of coffee beverages they each sell… Well the options aren’t quite infinite but let’s just say there’s a lot. More than I can try in a few months.

Thankfully I’d done my homework (and when I say homework I mean drooling over all of the menus), whittling the choice of cafés down to just a few. I’d heard good things about Saffron Coffee.

Started by an American living in Laos, Saffron Coffee partners with tribes in the mountainous area of Northern Laos, to produce arabica beans that are then roasted in Luang Prabang. The coffee produced is both organic and fair trade. Perfect. I could feel virtuous whilst indulging my addiction.

img_2808The café itself is situated on the quiet road that runs along the Mekong, and feels light and open. Definitely somewhere to spend an hour or two, writing, reading or, as I did, just gazing adoringly at your coffee.

 

Both the menu and decor show that the owner is passionate and knowledgeable about coffee. Always a reassuring sign. The ‘alternative brew’ section of the menu intrigued me, but as much as I wanted to try a cold drip (a phrase I never thought would pass my lips)  I chose a small, hot cappuccino… mainly because it was half the price of the alternative brews. I am on a budget after all.

 

My coffee arrived decorated with latte art: a fashion and skill that may be impressive but is not necessarily welcome on my cappuccino. I like a simple, dry cappuccino, no chocolate dusting or fancy shenanigans.img_2807

For a brief moment my heart sank: had I just spent my weekly allowance on a milky coffee that was more style than substance? The first sip reassured me that I had not. Despite the latte art, it was quite dry and very rich. I’m no coffee expert, I just know what I like. And I liked this cup.

 

I could have happily spent the day there, working my way steadily through the various coffees on offer, as well as the incredible looking cakes and desserts. Saffron Coffee, you were well worth the money. And next time, I’m splashing out on a cold drip.