A Place Called ‘Starbucks’

ROISIN KIBERD questions our national submission to Starbucks.

I consider myself to be something of a connoisseur  when it comes to coffee. Such is my liking for the humble bean, I have been known to munch them whole to get myself through all-nighters in full term. I sometimes even brew them in a pot, creating a vastly superior drink to that desiccated cow-dung euphemistically called ‘instant’. Which is perhaps the reason why I find myself at the door of one of Cambridge’s own coffee-houses, a place called ‘Starbuck’s’  tucked away behind a shoe-shop on the main street. On its alternate side is a diabolical pasty shop which I have always been puzzled by; what kind of customer would plump for some obscene melange of boiled meats and cardboard cheese, enveloped in artery-clogging, butter-laden ‘pastry’? And why is it advertised by a pirate? The fact that he wears an eye-patch and wooden leg, and lives on the run from sea authorities hardly makes him an exemplar of good health.

But its neighbour aside, Starbuck’s bears all the hallmarks of an authentic coffee-house. I wonder if, in these difficult economic times, the shop will manage to stay afloat, or even to develop into further branches? I also wonder who this Mr Starbuck is; is he a local man? I venture inside, greeted by walls painted alternate shades of caramel and mud, and familiar background music- a collection of hits by ‘The Talking Heads’, whom I believe to be modern independent music artists. I approach the counter.
‘An ESPRESSO please, miss, and make it prompt.’
The blank-visaged girl does not look up.
‘I’d like to order an ESPRESSO if you please.’ ‘You’ll have to wait in line, first’, she says without eye contact. I turn and notice the ten people behind me. I mutter something and walk to the back.

Some 15 minutes later I’m back face-to-face with Miss Congeniality. I request my ‘ESPRESSO’, taking care to stress the Italian intonation , to prove that I am no coffee lightweight. Its not clear if she notices, but she asks me for £4.95 and I pay, assuming this must be some imported speciality blend that’s to be served. Several minutes more and a drink appears before me on the counter. It doesn’t look like coffee; its colder and taller than anything I’ve previously sampled. Nevertheless I take it and head for a table with tall chairs, where I find a seat beside a man furiously typing on a Apple-Mac.

‘Its rather rude, you know, to bring one’s electronics to the table’, I comment helpfully. He looks at me strangely, then decamps to a chair on the other side of the room. I am left in peace to savour my purchase.

I examine the drink for the aroma, the low acidity and top-layer of crema that is the mark of an exceeding good ESPRESSO. But no such qualities are in evidence. Mr Starbuck and his baristas must be taking brave new liberties with traditional coffee-making, as my drink is at least three times the size of a normal shot, seemingly mixed with blended ice and garlanded with a thick layer of whipped-cream. Aside from this unorthodox presentation, upon tasting I discover Starbuck has introduced a fruity flavour, perhaps of strawberry, to the coffee’s ‘bouquet’. Perhaps this is what has imparted the drink its pastel pink colour. This ‘berry’ note is so overpowering, it leaves me in doubt that my ‘ESPRESSO’ contains any coffee at all.

While sampling/examining/sniffing my drink in the name of journalism and connoisseurship, I notice a woman looking at me oddly from a nearby table. On her knee is an hysterical child of indiscriminate gender. She appears to have ordered a more traditional ESPRESSO.
‘Excuse me madam,’ I venture, ‘but staring at strangers is frightfully impolite’.
‘You took the wrong drink. That’s a child’s strawberry frappuccino you have there’. Her local accent renders these words almost unintelligible. The infant is bawling in high-pitched tones, and the woman herself is muttering profanities.

I’m not sure what to say. ‘Madam, I beg you to see reason; I merely took the next drink to arrive on the counter, which I presume to be my ESPRESSO… perhaps you could address an attendant with your complaint, or ask for Mr Starbuck..’ But the woman gets up, lifts the tall iced beverage off my table, and retreats to a distant table at the entrance, taking her androgynous spawn with her. I swear I hear her stifle a laugh as she leaves.

Starbuck’s coffee-house is a confusing place; although it seems to aspire to cozy, local-institution  status, I am puzzled by their Spartan decor, plastic cutlery and their churlish clientele. Furthermore, their coffee does not look, taste, or cost anything like I once thought coffee should, taking on strangely-flavoured guises more akin to a dessert menu. This is no country for the connoisseur.

Perhaps I should have gone to Costa instead.