I'm more loyal to Caffè Nero than I am to any other institution. I care more for the Sicilian lemon cheesecake it serves than I do for parliamentary democracy and, while I would sooner have my penis surgically removed and sold as a pestle in a branch of Recipease, Jamie Oliver's delicatessen chain, than rise to toast to the Queen, I stand up proudly by the counter in Caffè Nero, near-saluting when the time comes to pay for my triple-shot latte and the aforementioned cake. If you want the clincher: I possess a Caffè Nero loyalty card, a scrap of blue and black card that stands in the same relation to the contemporary left-liberal bourgeoisie as a party membership card did to earlier generations.
However, in the past few months, a certain scepticism has crept in - this could be the post-Hungarian Revolution moment in my relationship with the chain. It's become such a shibboleth among the caffeinated classes to babble that Caffè Nero is the only coffee shop worth its cinnamon sprinkles that I began to be suspicious of the orthodoxy.
The tooth hurts
This seemed like a good week to put my loyalty to the ultimate test. There's no doubt in my febrile mind that a coffee and a snack is what passes for a real meal in this day and age and, besides, I had a botched molar extraction last week and have developed something sinisterly dubbed a "dry socket" (alveolar osteitis, if you want some real Latin), a hole through the necrotic gum to the exposed bone that feels to the pained and probing tongue bigger than my mouth - hell, bigger than all 400-plus branches of Caffè Nero put together. Eating, as you can appreciate, seems faintly preposterous under such circumstances.
So, one grey morning on the clone high street, with the terrier snapping at his leash, I commit the ultimate act of disloyalty by buying a single espresso at Starbucks, then strolling three doors down to Caffè Nero, entering and buying a second espresso.
For cover, I also select a honey bio-yoghurt, an orange juice, a blueberry muffin and something called a "brunch pot", which sounds like a dubious sexual practice but is, in reality, "creamy, half-fat, Greek-style yoghurt with blueberry compote and crunchy muesli with dried cranberries", or so the label assures me.
“Will you have this here?" asks the charming Slovak girl by the register and I moan: "Sure, I think I'm going to stay for ever. I can't go home." Which is all by way of further cover, because there I am, in the oxblood-painted interior of Caffè Nero, eyeballing a weird arrangement of woody stems, decorticated dried tangerine skins and artichokes (what's that about?) while sipping a Starbucks coffee! Surely such a profanation is tantamount to pissing on the Kaaba or committing B&E at the Vatican, then eating a saintly relic, and yet...and yet...nothing happens. The Starbucks espresso is still hot and it has that distinctively watery, sourly flat taste I always associate with the chain. But what of the Caffè Nero espresso, coddled in its china egg cup? Yes, yes . . . It's fuller and rounder and definitively better.
Mum's the word
What a relief! My breast swells once more with loyalty but I rein in my impulse to down the whole shot - I've already had my customary four at home before the school run and if I carry on, my thoughts will spill from my buzzed-up bonce like polystyrene pellets from a slashed sag bag. Even so, as I plough through my yoghurts and pop Nurofen with slugs of OJ, I find myself salaciously eyeing the other customers who are, almost to a woman, what I understand - from surreptitious glances at the magazines my local newsagent Mohandra shelves above the NS - to be Milfs and cougars.
Blimey! Who'd have imagined a mid-morning chain coffee shop to be such a sensual moshpit? Is it just me or is there an actual hormonal haze wreathing the counter? When one of them comes across to pat the terrier, who's lying on my lap, I nearly leap out of my chair. I can barely read the screed on the board, which is just as well because, when I put on my glasses, the blur resolves into: "Super-thick and finished with whipped cream and Belgian chocolate". As for the sign above the muffins - "Don't squeeze me until I'm yours" - there ought to be a law against it. Or perhaps a law in support of it, because, I now realise, having come into Caffè Nero to test my loyalty, I've instead assayed my fidelity. I should definitely get out less. l
Next week: Madness of Crowds