Beyond the coffee cup – behind the bean – there is the evergreen tree that came out of Africa. As a commercial crop, coffee now embraces the world across the tropical zone, but as a living tree it is removed from us both by distance and the processing that is required to create its beguiling complex flavour. Claudia Roden gives a striking description of the coffee tree (most often trimmed to a practical shrub size);
A coffee tree is a rare, magnificent sight when it breaks out into a fragile and delicate white blossom, its fragrance as intoxicating as that of the orange and jasmine which it resembles. It may bloom alone like a young bride or with the whole farm, a swaying sea of white petals, as beautiful as they ephemeral. For in two or three days they will have fluttered off the bough, leaving their perfume to linger only a while longer. ‘Coffee’, Penguin 1981
In our climate we can only connect with the coffee tree in the greenhouses and tropical houses of botanical gardens, such as the ones at Singleton Park.
The painted jungles of the untravelled Henri Rousseau are rich in species, immaculate and rather window-dressed. It is perhaps not surprising that were inspired by trips no further than the Jardin des Plantes in Paris;
In Singleton Park’s greenhouses we can consider the coffee tree’s life away from its worldwide trade that is second only in value to petroleum. The flesh of the ripe fruit is edible; the seeds at the centre are the coffee beans we would only recognise as such when processed and roasted. Leaves and rinds can provide subsistence medicine where the plant is grown. The presence throughout the plant of caffeine appears to be an evolutionary adaption that attacks the nervous systems of aggressive insects; a fact not worth dwelling upon too much when one’s own verves are jangling a little after overconsumption.
I discovered the wider shores that a simple cup of coffee can offer not far from the Singleton Park coffee trees. The new Square Peg Coffee House should have been a cafe that I fled from after my first visit, never to return. My current pleasure, on the way to somewhere, or while killing time, is to withdraw into a cafe and to retreat in a shell that incorporates a newspaper. I achieve a Zen-like detachment from the world as I focus on a very few things. An experience I find nourishing in many ways.
I felt obliged to crawl out of my carapace by SQCH’s extraordinary coffee, which the staff engagingly chat to you about. I could list here the origins of the two mellow-roasted blends that they offer; the seasonal blend being particularly fruity and delicate. If I do so it will give the idea that I know more than my curiosity and pocket have reached. Experience is the best teacher. The people there can produce the usual repertoire of the espresso machine; the ‘usual suspects’ whose names conjure up sinister, minor Mafia families: Cordata, Macchiato etc. However, while this summer’s sun still has some warmth I will keep asking for the same extraordinary cold combination, and dream…
A long glass of cold brew feels like a pleasant sort of deep dive into dark water. The long, cold water infusion of roasted coffee gives a spectrum of flavours that is wider than traditional coffee but undeniably dark. The caffeine sensation appears to be like a gentle, lasting ocean wave, in contrast to the crashing wave of, say, an espresso that can eventually leave you feeling rather beached. The chaser of cascara provides interludes of air and sunshine. Made from the discarded pulp surrounding the coffee seeds, it has a lower caffeine content than the coffee seed/bean. Its flavour can suggest the fruit and flower of the tree. It can be offered as a tea-like infusion, but SPCH make a very light syrup with a clever enhancement of Earl Grey tea. (This cascara, or rind, should not to be confused with others of the same name such as cascara sagrada, a widely available herbal remedy from Rhamnus purshiana of North-West America.) If this is all so alarming to you, they have a decaffeinated blend whose flavour is not an also-ran.
I’ve been wary of writing about individual businesses, but occasionally a place is so extraordinary that you have to nail your colours to the metaphorical mast. Thanks to the descendants of Italian migrants at the beginning of the 20th century there are many places to have good coffee in this part of the world. But there is nowhere that attempts to do what this social enterprise does; if you wish it can be more of a coffee workshop than a coffee shop.
What sandwiches I’ve tasted have been made with the same care as each cup of coffee, I can say that there have been no duds among them. Their local producers and suppliers include Stuart’s Hot Bread Shop, and Olive and Oils so they clearly know what they are doing. Whatever their future brings I hope they do not lose their clear enjoyment in their enterprise, which, in this big, bad world, is uplifting in itself.
Square Peg Coffee House, 29b Gower Road. Sketty, Swansea SA2 9BX.
Singleton Botanical Gardens, Swansea SA2 8PW,