Saturday, 26 February 2011

Coffee: the finest organic suspension ever devised

Title quote attributed to Captain Kathryn Janeway, Star Trek Voyager

My darling husband and I have a lot in common. We like the same foods, we love a good bottle of vodka, we both enjoy travelling to places we've never been before... heck, we both even have an unabashed adoration of Star Trek. But if there is one difference between us, it is the love of a good cup of coffee. The Yorkshireman cannot stand the stuff whereas I cannot get through a day without it. Mentally scarred by the horror stories about the negative effects of caffeine that circulate every so often when there's a slow health news day, I've recently switched to decaff for the majority of my never-ending trips back and forth to the kettle, but when I'm out at a coffee shop it's generally fully-caffeinated espresso-based beverages all the way!

And boy do I love those coffee shops! Personally I blame the TV show Friends - you see a group of great mates having a laugh with their lattés in a laid back spot like Central Perk and it looks like so much fun. Yes, maybe I too can be a trendy, twenty-something city-dweller, sipping my way through a cup of joe on a slightly worn, comfortable sofa whilst sharing in the highs and lows of my similarly trendy, twenty-something, city-dwelling friends' lives and watching other trendy city-dwellers stop in for a takeaway cappucino and a muffin on their way to somewhere no doubt fabulously exciting.

In reality at 5.30pm in the Starbucks at Corn Market it tends to be grammar school children with more pocket money than sense, screeching at each other about who said what on Facebook over their strawberry frappacinos with whipped cream, or exhausted-looking 9-5 office workers seeking a few minutes' respite and a quick pick-me-up on their way home from work. But yet coffee shops are still one of my favourite places to spend time.

I love the smell for one thing (funny since that's the Yorkshireman's main objection to said establishments); the richness of the roast beans brewing away, the comforting smell of paninis being toasted and the sweetness of the array of tempting baked goods invariably available all combine in a delicious, heady concoction that just epitomises a coffee shop.

The décor and furnishings can be hit or miss though and really, apart from how the coffee tastes, this is a major consideration when you're deciding which coffee shop suits your mood at that particular time. Can you cope with a crowd or do you want some peace and quiet? Do you need the comfort of a big sofa or armchair, or will a hard wooden chair suffice? Are you planning on hanging out for a while with a group of friends or are you just dropping in for a quick caffeine burst solo?

Starbucks has just about the right combination of minimalism, art and comfort for my liking most of the time, not to mention sufficient space to allow me to sip my way through my coffee and read my book without being too disturbed by the aforementionned screeching teens or the loudly complaining yummy mummies ignoring their bawling infants. Indeed the Victoria Square branch seems to have the same ambience but yet a different demographic entirely, usually being full of students telling more and more elaborate tales in an attempt to garner their companions' approval, or young professionals gossiping about colleagues or meeting their other half for a civilised coffee before heading out on a date night.

I also quite like Red Berry on Royal Avenue for its minimalist décor and people-watching bar upstairs; space isn't exactly its strong point but it makes the most of the little it does have. Even the Yorkshireman quite liked this one when I forced him to join me there for a much-needed caffeine hit early one morning, although I suspect that was more to do with the yummy BLT he ordered.

Grand Central (formerly Roast back in my early coffee-shop-frequenting days, fondly remembered by me as one of Belfast's first "real" coffee houses) is probably the closest to Central Perk from Friends. None of the furniture matches, but yet it all goes together. The décor seems to be based on the home of a world traveller with a penchant for the 1960s and the ambience is so chilled out you could happily sink into one of the comfy sofas and put the world to rights for a few hours. Their food is pretty good too - lots of homemade yumminess to tempt you. I really must try that lemon cake sometime... *drool*

The most elaborate café I've been to recently is probably the Harlem Café on Bedford Street - so many details in the décor but yet it just manages to escape being too busy. It's a shame the same can't be said for the café itself at lunchtime - it would be a lovely place to just chill out for a while but in reality you're lucky to get a tall chair at the shared table near the door if it's only coffee you're after.

The strangest little place I've sipped an americano lately is Café Avoca on Bedford Street, not to be confused with the café in the Avoca shop on Arthur Street, which I hear is to die for but I haven't gotten around to visiting yet. This non-Avoca Café Avoca just seemed very cold, hard and unwelcoming, even though the coffees I had there one snowy day and the staff who served me were all lovely.

In a complete juxtaposition the Little Cupcake Café next door has managed to transform a similar space into a warm and colourful wonderland with its delicious-looking cupcake displays in the window and Ikea chic décor inside.

Oscar's Champagne Café is another little oddity. It looks quite upmarket from the outside, and the name certainly implies sophistication, but on the inside it's relatively stark and feels like a strange mix between a greasy spoon café and a bar. Hard to describe but the outdoor area certainly seems popular with the forty-and-fifty-something crowd when I go by anyway. Perhaps it's just not my kind of place.

Café Revive on the top floor of M&S on Donegall place, on the other hand, I really like. The décor is simple and clean and whilst it feels pretty much like any other department store café at first, it has the added bonus of a long table along the window where you can while away your time drinking your filter coffee staring down at the people passing by on the street outside (often confused-looking tourists looking for the Belfast Visitor's Centre across the road - "It's up the escalator peeps! Behind you!").

I could go on and on about coffee shops in Belfast - it seems like there's a new one opening every month and there were plenty to start off with. Not that I'm complaining - I like the variety of choices available to me when I feel the coffee calling to me with its rich, smooth siren song. There are all the usual chains (Starbucks, Clements, Costa, Nero, Streat, etc) as well as the smaller more individual shops and personally I like to have the mix. Where I go depends on what I'm in the market for and what mood I'm in. For instance I can't stand Clements' coffee but their food is divine so I will occasionally pay them a visit. Bizarely I think the nicest cup of coffee is actually from the Caffè Ritazza in Asda Living at City Side Mall and that isn't exactly the first coffee shop that would spring to mind if someone asked for a recommendation.

However all this talk of coffee has made me thirsty so I shall be taking a little trip to the kettle now. Unfortunately it's only instant decaff but I may very well find myself in Starbucks after work on Monday. One tall filter coffee with room for milk to sit in please, friendly barrista - my addiction needs to be fed...

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Team AntiCupid

I'll just put it right out there: I hate Valentine's Day. Hate it. "Oh but it's such a sweet, romantic day and the perfect excuse to show someone you love them!" Bollocks. It's an excuse for the likes of Hallmark and Cadbury to make some money between Christmas and Easter. It's an excuse for people not to express love and affection for their other half except when a predetermined special occasion tells them to. For me, it's an excuse to stay inside and lock the door.

Why so bitter? It can't just be an objection to commercialism, otherwise why go all in for Halloween, which is about scaring people (sadism?), or St Patrick's Day, which is basically about getting drunk (woohoo!)? Well, it's not entirely, although I do genuinely feel saddened by the knowledge that there are people out there who only tell their partner that they love them when society says that it's acceptable to do so rather than every single day. For me, Valentine's Day is an entirely more sinister affair...

You see, without going into great detail, every time the Yorkshireman and I have attempted to celebrate Valentine's Day in the past, someone has inevitably been maimed or injured. Examples include an emergency operation (exchanging cards through a haze of anesthesia - how romantic!) and a very bad diagnosis for a family member (leaving a romantic movie halfway through to take that call made the day all the more special!). Quite frankly I'm surprised neither of us has been run over by a bus yet. And so as time has gone by, the Yorkshireman and I, both fairly romantic souls at the best of times, have shunned Valentine's Day and the horror that comes with it.

It was therefore with interest that I read this Wikipedia article on AntiCupid. I have long suspected Cupid was evil but this perhaps makes more sense, especially if AntiCupid has taken to maiming the body as well as eating the soul.

And so, for me, February 14th is just that - another day in the middle of February, all the worse this year for having the audacity to also be a Monday. Should you receive a dozen red roses, a romantic dinner or a cute cuddly toy from your beloved tomorrow, I wish you well and hope that you feel cherished and loved. As for me, the phrase "Happy Valentine's Day!" will not pass my lips and I'll be double-checking for Acme anvils and pianos hanging precariously out of upper windows on my way to work.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Entirely Gleeful

According to the Thesaurus on Microsoft Word, we're talking about delight, hilarity, merriment, laughter, excitement, amusement, joy and happiness. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we're talking Glee!

If you've read my previous posts about my favourite, "guilty pleasure", TV shows, you may know that I do not require much class or sophistication in my TV viewing. Okay so I do not like to dwell in the very depths of trash with those who watch Kerry Katona or Jordan's latest "reality" shows and Tool Academy (yikes!), but I have been known to watch the likes of 16 and Pregnant on MTV when I'm home alone (with no-one around to judge me!). And then, of course, there is Glee.

I've been in choirs since I was about 8 years old, mainly at school but then later in mass choirs taking part in things like the opening ceremony of the Odyssey Arena, Les Misérables and One Enchanted Evening. I don't have a great voice but I can hold a tune and that's thankfully really all that matters when you're in a choir. Unfortunately when I moved to Yorkshire I cut my ties to the Belfast choir world and I haven't sang in one since. I must admit it makes me a little sad because there's nothing quite like the feeling of being one voice among many, all sounding so different but yet working together to create beautiful harmonies. I know that all sounds a bit hippy-like, but I just love it. To understand it you just need to listen to something like Handel's Messiah, close your eyes and picture your voice soaring amongst all the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, creating such a powerful sound, rising and falling, louder and quieter, higher and lower... *sigh*

In the absence of any decent choir action in the last seven years or so, I get my kicks singing along to the mp3s on my mobile phone at bus stops (only when there's no-one else around!) or occasionally playing SingStar. However, when I heard there was a new American TV show coming to the UK about a glee club, it sounded right up my alley. Singing and rubbish TV - joy! (or indeed, glee!)

I know there is a difference between a choir and a glee club. In a choir you kinda just stand there and sing, whereas in a glee club you need to be an all-round entertainer, with amazing vocals and funky dance moves. It's a lot more energetic but I would love to have a go! Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't pass the audition stage in the majority of schools, especially if the documentary Gleeful: The Real Show Choirs of America is anything to go by. Wow, those kids are talented. But I would love to do it just for fun. Someone should start up a Belfast Glee Club. We might be rubbish but we'd have great fun!

As for the show itself, I completely love Glee. I actually think it's one of the best shows to grace our screens in the last couple of years. It just has everything: great singers, great dancing, weird and wonderous plots, themed episodes, characters you simultaneously want to hug and bitch-slap, humour and a big old dose of tongue firmly in cheek, which I think is what makes it. That and the character of Sue Sylvester, who I completely adore. Oh and also Britney, who comes off with some of the funniest one-liners ever.

A lot of people disparage Glee because it's so cheesy but that's entirely the point. People draw comparisons between Glee and High School Musical but there is one big difference. They are both big balls of cheese but where High School Musical took itself completely seriously, Glee not only knows that it's cheesy - it's shouting it from the rooftops. You're not supposed to take it seriously - just sit back and let the teenage melodrama and candyfloss swirl around your brain. It's pure escapeism.

As for the music, I have to say there are a few of their covers that I think are brilliant. I loved Don't Stop Believin', even though Journey's version was already up there amongst my favourite songs ever, and that never happens for me - I tend to cringe when people cover my favourite tunes. Like A Virgin and Vogue from the Madonna episode were also great fun, especially with the different plots that were going on in that episode, and the slowed down version of Poker Face from the Lady Gaga episode was a triumph. No matter how many times I hear them, I can't seem to get enough of Alone and Maybe This Time from the first Kristin Chenoweth episode and Defying Gravity still makes me tingle about a hundred plays on. The duets-themed episode screened yesterday on E4 was also excellent.

If you're not really into pop music, musical theatre or the ins and outs of imaginary teenagers' love lives, it may not be the show for you, but I would say give it a try. Where can be the harm in submerging yourself in an hour of pure and unabashed superficiality and letting your inner Gleek out to play (or indeed sing!)? All together now: "Just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world…"