By Merlin Jobst
For all our grumbling, most of us have something we love about a cold winter; a favourite thing that helps us through the endless arctic wasteland. For some it’s mince pies, or mulled wine, or simply the freedom to eat as much as they wish without being seen to be overstepping the mark. For me, though, it’s steaming hot coffee on a wintery day. The combination immediately takes me back to being a teenager in my hometown around the Christmas season; to sitting outside a little cafe that was a favourite amongst the locals and sipping endless cups of black coffee clutched by gloved hands, paired with crumbly shortcrust mince pies. Back then I would have given no thought to the origins of the coffee itself, which was likely nothing to write home about anyway, but in London quality coffee is quite the zeitgeist. As with all things that could be considered a scientific or artful process, the prospect of truly getting to grips with it is intimidating, but tonight I’ve been lucky enough to be treated to a private masterclass by Matt Ho of Union Coffee, one of London’s foremost artisanal coffee roasters.
I decided to investigate Union for this month’s article for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have drunk their coffee in many reputable cafes across the city over the last year and have enjoyed every one immensely, and, secondly, they are currently offering a ‘Winter Blend’ – something that rather caught my eye and piqued my curiosity when it popped up on Twitter.
Around the corner from Jamie HQ, on the same cobbled street as Fifteen, is a small cafe and wine bar called Westland Coffee; a rustically-decorated and utterly charming place that, despite it being very young as an establishment, I and several of my colleagues have grown to be quite fond of over the last year. Paul and Joan, the owners, are devoted users of Union Coffee, and I am welcomed behind their bar one evening to get to grips with the bags of wholebean Winter Blend I’ve been very kindly sent by Union. Matt, standing before a veritable science lab, takes me through the process of a pour-over cup, an espresso, a piccolo and one more pour-over for good measure (it is my favourite, after all).
Union’s Winter Blend is not, as I initially thought, a blend of beans to produce ‘Christmassy’ flavours – no, it’s a blend of beans selected for their seasonality. The roast is medium and, whether coincidental or not, when ground releases heady, intense aromas that fit the season beautifully, like brown sugar, dark chocolate and vanilla.
Watching Matt at work with the Winter Blend was incredibly humbling, particularly after my own haphazard guide to a very basic pour-over coffee last month. Every aspect was meticulously perfect – the temperature and weight of the water was exactly right, as was the weight and coarseness of the grounds and the length of time the process took to complete. The result was delightful – a clean, crisp cup that still held the rich overtones of dark chocolate. If ever there were a style of coffee that should be drunk black, it is this.
Onto milk, however; as I mentioned several times last time, milky coffee isn’t historically a great love of mine. After pulling a couple of eye-wateringly strong espressos, each producing a thick, golden crema, Matt grinned as, with artful sleight of hand to achieve hearts in the foam, he created two of the most beautiful drinks I’ve ever seen or tasted; piccolo coffees. As the subtly sweet yet intensely rich warmth of the drink hit my tongue, my chest and eventually my stomach, I couldn’t help exclaiming. I could believe neither the natural sweetness of the milk, nor how much I was enjoying it; Matt merely continued to smile as he told me it was his very favourite coffee.
Back at home, I put the remainder of my wholebean to good use and make coffees similar to Matt’s piccolo to pair with one of my very favourite things to bake; Mimi Thorisson’s Italian pear cake, which is simple, elegant and, most importantly, not too sweet. The richness of the winter blend against the spongy, subtle cake is a wonderful match.
I’ll soon be investigating the very best food-and-coffee pairings, so keep an eye out for next month’s feature, but until then, I’d suggest bowing December out in style with Union’s Winter Blend, whether for yourself or as a great present for a coffee-fond loved one. Pick up a bag or two at www.unionroasted.com. Huge thanks to Matt and Alan from Union, and to Paul and Joan at Westland Coffee – and a warm Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all.