By Nick Searle-Donoso.
Situated innocuously in Claypath, the apex between the city centre and Gilesgate, this deli offers an insight into a culture that Britain has never had. This is the so-called ‘coffee culture’ or what I prefer to think of, more generally, as the ‘café culture’ – defined vaguely as the social activities connected with the drinking of coffee that occurs alongside the eating of sandwiches, cakes, pastries, etc.
Although ubiquitous across continental Europe, the one country which, for me at least, emblematizes this kind of culture is, of course, Italy. Wander through any village, town, or city, and you will find numerous cafés, their glass fronts revealing counters lined with selections of sweet delicacies: brioches, croissants, tarts… And like Sirens, they pull you irresistibly towards them. Agonisingly, perhaps, you walk past (there are so many cafés to choose from, after all, so you have to be selective), catching only the heavy scent of freshly ground coffee and the harsh whiff of cigarette smoke. You hear snatches of gossip from groups of people of all generations and social strata. You spot the old men and women playing cards, the couples deep in conversation, the friends chatting loudly. Whether it be Milan, Turin, Venice, etc., you cannot fail to realise that the café is an institution at the heart of Italian culture. The food writer Elizabeth Minchilli summarises this idea nicely: “It’s always a social occasion, whether it is morning, afternoon, or 6 in the evening…”
And this is a culture, I want to suggest, that Britain has never had. This might be a controversial claim: from their inception in the middle of the 17th century, coffeehouses in London were extremely popular – especially as arenas for gossip, business, and discourse. Nevertheless, I would question whether London has ever had a café culture that could even remotely compare to, say, Paris or Vienna. And even if the coffeehouses of London were once packed with intellectuals and socialists, as it is claimed, this culture never managed to spread to other parts of Britain.
More importantly, this absence of a café culture has continued even though the consumption of coffee is at an all-time high in Britain. The Independent reports that Brits consume 70 million cups of coffee each day. Yet this love for – can we say addiction to – coffee has not translated into this familiar European culture. Instead, British highstreets are dominated by multi-national chains – Costa, Starbucks, and Pret a Manger, to name a few – which produce overpriced black sludge served by employees with as much passion for their coffee as Gustav III of Sweden, who was so convinced that coffee was dangerous that he tried to prove this was the case by forcing twins sentenced to death, to drink either coffee or tea every day for the rest of their lives in order to see who died first (ironically, the two doctors overseeing the experiment died before it was completed – perhaps from boredom?).
More than this, Claypath Deli does not just conform to what we expect from a deli/café but in fact extends how we might define such an establishment.
But why this spiel? What has this to do with Claypath Deli? Well, what I want to suggest is that Claypath Deli has all the elements of the type of café that would have the potential to precipitate a British café culture. It offers a small selection of fresh pastries and breads that are baked every day – as well as an impressive selection of mouth-watering gourmet sandwiches. More than this, Claypath Deli does not just conform to what we expect from a deli/café but in fact extends how we might define such an establishment.
Faced with COVID, Claypath deli has responded admirably; their greatest innovation being the Friday-night offering of takeaway sourdough pizza. This is proper sourdough pizza: the crust is distinctively bread-like, and its Mediterranean toppings are hard-hitting with spiciness. I decided to try the enigmatic sounding (or perhaps unimaginative, depending on your pretensions) ‘The Nduja’ which consists of mozzarella, fresh basil, nduja (a kind of spicy pork paste), and onion. If I had one complaint, it would be this: more toppings please! Nevertheless, if you are interested in experiencing a very different kind of pizza – almost uniquely different – I would certainly recommend that you claim one of Claypath deli’s coveted takeaway slots. And, on a side note, you would do worse than trying one of their chocolate tarts – if they are available. The one I had was covered with a layer of rich and almost bitter dark chocolate which hid the oozing cherry interior.
But there must be a reason why Claypath delis do not line British streets to the same extent as cafés line the streets of Italy (or even if they do, why they are not nearly as populated). The simple reason for this is the price. £1.50 for a finger-sized aragostine (a miniature shell-shaped pastry filled with chocolate and hazelnut) is clearly excessive, and while £2.70 for a cappuccino might be the going rate, this reveals what is fundamentally wrong with cafés in the UK. Throughout Italy, you’d be unlucky to buy a cappuccino for more than two euros, while pastries are usually less than a euro. This is fundamentally why Italy has a café culture and Britain does not. There is no way that a fiver for a coffee and pastry is economically viable; but halved, as in Italy, and a café culture might – and only might – flourish.
Claypath Deli might be cliquey, it might be gentrified, and in many ways, it might be aimed for a certain ‘Durham student’; yet it has the potential to represent a new kind of culture in Britain. I am, therefore, optimistic that Britain might one day have a café culture.