It doesn’t Costa lot to taste this mediocre – and luckily you can find one on every British street

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

How to describe it? How to articulate the effect provoked in me by these artfully aligned and textured surfaces? The task is worthy of Henry James or Wallace Stevens – some master of the intersection between social velleities and individual desires; but alas, there’s only me, and as usual I’m off my tit-shaped head on caffeine, and so barely equal to the task.

Still, here goes: there is herringbone-patterned woodblock, yes, and it’s on the floor, uh-huh. Then there’s some aluminium trim and after this what looks like slate tiling; the walls are whitewashed brick on two sides; on the third, the brick is bare. And the fourth wall? Well, no Brecht or Beckett could be as creative with a fourth wall, oh no. It appears to have been assembled out of at least four different kinds of wood, chopped up and assembled into a colossal Jenga-style barrier. I am awed by this fourth wall – awed. If it weren’t for the cod-Matisse images, I might altogether forget that I’m in a branch of Britain’s largest chain coffee shop.

There were 1,375 of these outlets as of 2011 – and given their viral rate of increase, it seems likely there are at least 1,500 by now. Somehow, beating Starbucks to become market leader seems to have given the Whitbread-owned chain a huge central nervous system stimulus; one you can witness spreading in neuronal sparks to its extremities as you carom down any urban artery throughout the British Isles: leapfrogging over one another to take this corner, or that intersection, are branches of Tesco Express and Costa. Yes, Costa is our subject – and it doesn’t get realer than this. So ubiquitous has Costa become that I feel enchained – my wrists manacled by its ridged paper cups, I hobble along the pavement, while anxiety over potential mocha-spillage fetters my ankles. And what do I see if I look up from this, the halting hobble of late capitalism? Why, the brown gaze of another minatory Costa, its slit-bean-for-an-eye staring at me with a steeliness that would gladden any panopticon-building Benthamite.

Actually, there’s a certain grotesque symmetry to the Costa surge: the first retail Costa was opened a mere 35 years ago in Vauxhall Bridge Road, not far from my house (and hard by the site of the Millbank prison, a panopticon, natch). Now it hardly matters how far I roam, I’m sure to find a Costa there waiting for me. At the university where I teach, on the outskirts of London, there’s a Costa franchise café; it’s not a Costa proper, but instead there’s a sign behind the counter that announces “Proud to Serve Costa Coffee”. A curious pride, I always think – after all, it’s not as if I couldn’t pick up a Costa coffee nearby; there’s a Costa Express vending outlet in the garage halfway between the station and the campus. And at this rate of market-penetration I’ll probably soon be encountering ambulatory Costa sellers – like water-sellers in the Sahel – who will offer to dispense a cup for me from the heated tank on their backs, and then stamp my loyalty card.

I often have lunch in the Costa clone at the university. I munch the Caesar salad with its risible “chicken”, followed by a gluten-free chocolate brownie (have I mentioned that I’m fashionably wheat-intolerant?) washed down with a triple-shot soy mocha. Are they any good, these comestibles? Does it matter? It seems to me that the Costa phenomenon is of a piece with the Googlisation of all contemporary culture: to drink a Costa coffee is to subject oneself to an algorithm of taste, rather to exercise discrimination in any meaningful way. The sponsorship of a literary prize is of a piece with this: palmed off on the chain by Daddy Whitbread, the Costa Prize jury functions in exactly the same way as a search engine: picking out the books that other prize juries have already picked out, so that the bland end up promoting the blander.

This is why the Costa branch described at the capital of this column seemed so delusory to me in its ornament; sited on Brixton High Street, it’s easily the spivviest one I’ve ever supped in. And what’s that about? Brixton is undergoing a phase of retail gentrification, with trestle tables piled high with ackee and pigs’ feet ceding ground to young lifestyle peddlers with asymmetric haircuts. You don’t need to be paranoid to see the invasion of this body-snatching coffee shop as the advance guard of a surgical strike on the area’s authentic personality – a lukewarmotomy, if you will. I make not apology for this execrable pun – after all, that’s the Costa of living nowadays.

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad