It was 2002. I was visiting my sister. I remember it was a cold and blustery Saturday and we had hauled ourselves over the Borough. “We need to get a coffee” she said. We wound our way to the back of the market, past the hanging pheasants, simmering pots of fish curry, beautifully displayed vegetables and portly men spruiking the benefits of hot mulled wine at 11 am. We crossed the road and joined a queue that snaked around the outside of a cafe made of brick and blond wood, on the corner of the block.
“How long do we need to wait for?” I asked, stamping my feet against the cold. I’m guessing she would have slightly raised an eyebrow at my patented impatience.
“It’s worth it”.
We eventually made it to the front of the line. We ordered flat whites and bread and jam. We got plates. In the middle of the sturdy wood communal table were sticks of baguette, cut to the length of a child’s forearm in an open wicker bowl.
There was a slab of organic butter. And large jars of jam. People squeezed into wooden chairs at communal table, perched up on stools under the hunter green window frames, or stood where we could.
The bread was sweet, the butter bright yellow and cold against my teeth. I was amazed that the coffee brought properly textured milk- the first I’d found in that trip to London. It was 2002.
I sat there and imagined a life that included afternoons sitting at the table writing lists and making plans.
Nine years later, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.
It’s hard to believe I haven’t written about Monmouth until now.
If you come visit me, it will probably be the first place I’ll take you. Straight after you’ve laid down your bag, we’ll meander down Borough High street in search of coffee and some carbohydrates. Monmouth is a simple six minute walk from our front door. I’d like to say the proximity to decent coffee wasn’t one of the largest influencing factors on where we chose to live, but I’d be straight out lying.
Monmouth was one of the first proponents of decent coffee in London. The original store opened on
Monmouth Street in Covent Garden in 1978. The Borough branch came along in 2001.
If you’re going to go, here are some things that are worth knowing.
1) If you see two queues, join the one that’s closest to the pub. That’s the one for ordering coffee. The other is for buying beans.
2) Whether you’re planning on sitting down or taking away, you still have to queue. You’ll place your order somewhere at the outset, either with the folk behind the counter, or with someone who will operate as a vanguard, quizzing the line on what they want. You pay for it in the middle. Then you collect your coffee at the end. Nb, it’s just coffee. There’s no tea, there’s no hot chocolate. You can get filter as well as espresso and in summer there are iced lattes. But that’s as far as it goes.
3) It’s generally bad form to claim a seat at the table until you or your friend is close to the front of the queue. Otherwise, you’re hogging precious space. And that’s a bit rude.
4) The milk is organic Jersey whole milk from Jeff Bowles in Somerset. There’s no skim, no soy. If you ask you’ll be told no. There’s just organic Jersey milk from some very happy cows.
5) Their flat whites, lattes and cappuccinos come with two shots in them. You can order a single shot, but it will still cost you £2.35
6) The pastries from Villandry and Paul are on display on the far wall. The apple tart is sublime, heavy on apple, dusted with almonds and powdered sugar and sitting on a crust that cracks like dried Autumn leaves. The croissants aren’t half bad either.
7) If you want to order a pastry, or all you can eat baguette with jam, you’ll get a plate when you pay. It’s up to you then to serve yourself the right amount (be honest).
8) The days when the Borough markets are on (normally Thursday, Friday, Saturday) are always going to be busy. It’s not really a trip to the markets without a takeaway coffee to nurse while you browse (and a chorizo roll from Brindisa).
9) If you visit on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning, at around 10.30 am or in the early afternoon, then it’s civility itself. There’s room at the table to sit comfortably. There’s just the a gentle hum of people reading and making plans.
10) Monmouth are not open Sunday. We learned this early on, the hard way.
So, is Monmouth the best coffee in London?
Well, it depends.
Someday’s it is. The crema is pit-dark and sweetly mysterious, the milk in your latte as chewy as a marshmallow. There’s room to sit and watch the world go by. There’s sunlight slanting through the wooden windows and you can calmly treat yourself to slice of perfect apple tart.
Then there are the days where it doesn’t quite fill the spot. Beyond carbohydrates like muesli and milk, bread and jam and pastries, the food options are a limited. Though some mornings a Sally Clarke chocolate truffle is really all you need. (If it’s a morning when I need a full breakfast out, then I’ll probably head to Allpress or Foxcroft and Ginger)
Then there are the days when the queue is just a little too long and there’s just no room at the inn (we have waited up to 25 minutes). The coffees can be made in a rush. It becomes less of a considered craft and more about putting caffeine in a cup.
But a well timed trip to Monmouth has now become part of my daily routine. It’s how I break up the day. It’s how I reward myself. It’s where I go to make lists. It’s where I go to welcome friends and family to this chapter of our lives. It’s where The Hungry One and I scurry to kickstart every Saturday morning that we’re in town.
It’s a very special place.
Nine years after I first had the thought that it could become part of my life, it firmly has. And yes, it was worth the wait.
Monmouth Coffee Company Borough
2 Park Street
London SE1 9AB
Open Monday to Saturday 7.30am to 6pm