Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Coffee Capital

June 30th, 2011


Today’s Kiwese word or phrase: "Weir Eagles Deer". Awesome war film

I offered them my table. There were plenty more. No one else in the small waterfront cafe. Despite the intoxicating aromas. Freshly ground coffee. Hot muffins. They were an elderly couple. They’d not asked to sit where I’d chosen. But I just knew they wanted to. It mattered to them. It was their table. Couldn’t begrudge them that. I’d be old one day.

Amy, one of my hosts in Wellington, had been quite firm on this point. Cafe culture was firmly part of the Capital’s landscape. And its coffee the finest in country. Couldn’t quite remember if I’d mentioned beverages had been something of a theme running through the blog. It probably didn’t matter. I’d already demonstrated a perchance for long blacks.

So I’d found myself in Kaffee Eis. Explaining to the staff it’d come highly recommended. By a local. Not disappointed. Either by the coffee. Or the music playing in the background. Dire Straits. Brothers-in-Arms album. Mid-eighties I thought. I was really beginning to like New Zealand.



Lacking in charm

May 25th, 2011


Tiaro. Terrible coffee. Watery. Served in a dirty, water-stained glass mug. Resembling an early morning urine sample. But without the fuller bodied aroma. One of just two stops on the sixty mile stretch of highway south between Maryborough and Gympie. Like Childers a little way back, steady stream of motorists pulling over for a short respite.

But Tiaro lacked the colonial charm of Childers. Or pretty much anything else. Its only redemption a helpful woman in the town’s information centre. Map of Gympie. And decent public toilets. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t the case. Came across a man relieving himself against a wall barely twenty metres from them. Pointed out sharply to him how close he was to the Conveniences. Dismissive grunt.



Left turn

April 5th, 2011

Beyond the crest of the Kuranda Range, an undulating descent onto the Atherton Tablelands plateaux. Wisps of cloud. Distant. Dense, lush rainforest fading away. Gradually. Giving way to more open woodland.

Civcoff - web

Coffee stop a little short of Mareeba, the first settlement. A small coffee plantation. Warm and humid, comfortably so now. Civilised affair. Sitting on the veranda. Mellow jazz playing gently in the background. Breeze barely perceptible.

Pondering the map. Far too early to finish the day at Mareeba, despite the advice of yet another dubious guidebook I’d picked up in Cairns. On to Atherton I decided. But left wondering if a brief foray into Mareeba would be worthwhile. Turn right at the next junction? Or left to Atherton?

I sought Joanne’s advice in the cafe. "What was there in Mareeba?" I enquired. "Subway, KFC, Red Rooster" she explained. Left turn.



Drive-thu coffee

March 26th, 2011

Drive-thu coffee from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Drive-thu coffee. Great idea. Great beverage. And no need to worry about securing my trusty steed whilst grabbing a hot drink.

[With especial thanks to Ian and Judy at MuzzBuzz in Cairns]



Braving the “Elements”

December 3rd, 2010

Fading fast. More coffee. Another Starbucks. But now in Hong Kong. Not sure where exactly. Somewhere in the centre. “Elements” shopping centre. Busying itself preparing for Christmas. Ending up here because it was directly above the Kowloon Bus Station where I’d been dropped off.

Noel - web

I doubt you could construct a more perfect shopping centre. Offered complimentary mints at the concierge’s desk as I sought, successfully, to acquire a map. Public toilets the best I’d seen. Full stop. Ever. Automated soap dispensers at each basin, yielding a small, neat dollop of foam. Had a few goes.

Hong Kong wasn’t China. Strictly speaking it is, but in truth it seems very different. A defacto separate nation. It’s not just that they drive on the left or use a different currency. Or there’s a much wider, albeit far from universal, use of English. Subtle things. Three pin plugs. As in the UK. Or Malta. And cash machines that insist you remove your card before they give you your money.

The choice of shops in “Elements” intriguing. Less of the international names you might find in Chinese equivalents, the sort that sell you opulence. Gaudy symbols of wealth. More the sorts of places you might actually want to pop in, picking up more everyday items. The measure of a more developed society. Albeit at a price. Hong Kong isn’t cheap.


Mountains of Madness

November 27th, 2010

I’d waved frantically, pointing. Hoping he’d realise what I was desperately trying to indicate. In just seconds. An escape lane. Just around the corner. A remarkable piece of driving, struggling with the last vestiges of control. The wheels on one side momentarily leaving the tarmac as he’d rounded the bend. Somehow managing to sound the horn. Continuously. Warning others.

Escape - web

He made it. Had the presence of mind to cut his engine as he ploughed into the deep gravel. Emerged dazed, shaken, but otherwise fine. His load, now strewn around the lorry? Shale. Very stuff that had saved him.

Mountains - web

By the time I reached Shangzhou that evening I needed a coffee. Another prosperous provincial town. A familiar Western fast food outlet. Felt certain the Colonel wouldn’t disappoint. Picture menu to help. Came in a small tub. Espresso I thought. No. Mashed potato. I hoped the lorry driver I’d met earlier in the day was faring better. He definitely needed a drink. A stronger tipple than mine.


A few answers…

November 22nd, 2010

A little while ago, with a degree of trepidation, I’d posed a question. Any questions? Here’s my attempts at answering a few of them…

Do you only get green tea in China, or is there black as well… and do they drink it with milk? Sugar? Honey? Yoghurt etc? And how is it for you?

“Green tea is the staple, usually drunk warm without milk or sugar. You also see people going about their business with bottles of cold tea. For all its purported health giving properties, I’m not a huge fan, much preferring black tea with a little milk. Powdered milk is widely available, being very popular for infants, but black tea usually necessitates finding a decent sized supermarket.

Coffee can - web

Coffee is making beginning to make in-roads, normally in the form of small ring-pull ready-to-drink tins, milk already added. Surprisingly refreshing when drunk cold, despite my normally strong preference for hot black coffee. Jars of instant coffee are much less common, sachets the norm, but with powdered milk and sugar already added.

In the bigger cities you’ll also find plenty of Western style coffee bars, offering decent selection, but at a price. Comparable with what you’d pay in the UK, but expensive for China. Some local chains, and familiar international ones like Starbucks.”

Giardia – have you suffered from this illness in China?

“Fortunately not! Just prolonged and persistent bouts of travellers diarrhoea, in all probability the product of antibiotic resistant bugs and ineffective counterfeit medications. But, legs fingers crossed, that’s in the past now….”

[With thanks to Jon B for the above questions]

What’s surprised you the most about China?

“Three things really. Firstly, the sheer scale – and pace – of development, vast infrastructure projects – towering suspension bridges, pristine new carriageways, pipelines. Alongside the tangible, a real sense of huge social change. Migration to the cities reminiscent of our own Industrial Revolution. Greater freedoms of expression. The latter some way behind our own, but, given the repressive, brutal nature of the so-called Cultural Revolution just three decades ago, impressive nevertheless.

Secondly, the stark contrast between the relative wealth and prosperity of the urban dweller, and the often grinding poverty to be found in many rural communities. Just one of many challenges China faces, and one it is trying to address as best, and as quickly, as it can.

And finally, as a Western visitor, the relatively high standard of living in towns and cities, and yet remarkably cheap. Decent meal out for a few pounds, a three star hotel for ten to twelve.”

[With thanks to Barbara S for the above questions]


The English teacher

August 26th, 2010

"Simplicity is the ultimate simplification" – Leonardo da Vinci

Cafe - web

Seems there’d been a bit of a ruckus in a New York outlet of a well known coffee chain. An English professor refusing to succumb to their contrived terminology for a simple beverage. On the other side of the world, I’d been merely been seeking to help refine the cafe culture. In my never ending search for the very best cup of coffee, I’d found a delightful little establishment. But, try as I might, no matter what I ordered, the result was the same. Espresso. Single shot.

My efforts to have my cup topped up with hot water, a more palatable drink, caused great confusion. Quite possible because the Chinese for water – shui – is very similar to their word for yes. As in yes please, one shot of espresso, or one accompanying bottle of spring water. Feeling despondent, I’d returned to my seat, resigned to yet another perky little number. Pleasant enough, but, ordinarily, a bit too strong for my tastes.

Sensing my difficulties, Chenyan introduced herself. She taught English at a local junior school. Could she help? Smiling, I quickly sketched out in her notebook the ingredients for a black Americano – espresso and hot water. A few moments wait, and then success. At last. Maybe I should just have asked for a half-caf tall triple shot Americano, hold the latte in the first place. Whatever that is in Chinese.

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