Bilby Bites - the food blog from Bilby Marketing

Can I Get a Coffee?

I’ve lived in and around Exeter for over 15 years now and it is a fantastic city. Not being a true, authentic, card-carrying city-dweller I fight with myself intermittently about whether I really belong in an urban environment, but if I am honest Exeter is a perfect compromise for me. I spent much of my childhood growing up in Australia, moving from place to place alongside my nomadic mother. Roughly every 2 years she would ‘announce’ casually that we were moving to a new area and my sister and I would respond predictably with a lot of hysterical crying and/or eye-rolling. The hysteria came when we were very young and could only think of the dramatic disruption to our little friendships and routine playtime, but as we got older and more used to the drill, the eye-rolling set in. Each new location exposed us to unfamiliar landscapes, people and experiences so now that I am older, I feel a nostalgic thankfulness for the frequent displacement. We often lived by the sea as my mother is a water baby and sun worshipper by nature, but for a time we lived in what is called the Australian outback – lots of red dirt, sheep and the occasional tree. The benefits of isolation, stillness and quiet have obviously stuck with me to this day.

What on earth has all this to do with coffee I hear you ask. Very good question. Since moving to Devon in 1994, I have realised that I always need a rural landscape to hand even if I am not surrounded by it constantly and that is no doubt why Exeter seems like the perfect city to live in. Surrounded by green fields and farmland it seems to hit the right chord. Village life is definitely up there in terms of spiritual well-being, but nipping into town on a Saturday morning for coffee (I’m getting there!) is a serious treat no matter how many times I do it. JC being the keen cyclist that he is, needs to be within a reasonable riding time from his workplace each day and we seem to have achieved this balance with our current abode. We are also only 20 minutes walk from the centre of Exeter. Perfect. The weekend coffee run is one of my favourite treats. It may happen a little too regularly to be called a treat, but it still makes me very happy every time we do it.

I have a few favourites in Exeter for different reasons and most of them nothing to do with the coffee. JC is the coffee taste zealot in our house, not me. I am all about the atmosphere, the ethics and provenance. I can of course taste the difference between a coffee bought on a train journey (seriously not good) and a decent cup, but I prefer my coffee milky and preferably with flavourings – chai, vanilla, etc. – which many consider to be complete blasphemy. I’ve long ago come to terms with the idea that I am a serious coffee-lovers nemesis. Anyway, back to my favourite places to get a sweet, milky coffee-like beverage.

First stop is Boston Tea Party or BTP as I fondly, and lazily, like to refer to it. Anybody who lives in Bristol, Exeter, Bath, Barnstaple, Honiton or Worcester will more than likely know all about this West Country institution. The small, but perfectly formed chain of cafés, use 100% arabica beans from a range of countries, that are imported by D J Miles & Co, roasters in Somerset. A big bonus and contributing factor to their great coffee is that they don’t use beans that have been roasted more than 10 days previously. JC’s keen coffee palate has picked up on this and I find it difficult to get him to agree to visiting any other establishment now. The Exeter BTP building was apparently the Post Office in the 19th century although I have struggled to find any in-depth information about this on the web. The upstairs dining area certainly looks like it could have been a post office with it’s huge space and tall columns. The furniture is a mish-mash of well-loved tables and chairs that seem to have been taken from a classroom (don’t let that put you off) and other similar institutions as well as comfy sofas. The patrons are a mix of students, families and well-heeled bohemians. It’s a strange, but inviting mix and the atmosphere is always relaxed even when the place is solidly packed with people. I’m waiting for the day when they create a mezzanine level over this existing space as the celing height certainly cries out for it and would add both additional eating space and architectural interest.

Boston Tea Party do a huge range of their own homemade cakes, pastries and biscuits, including cupcakes, as well as delicious lunches and breakfasts using locally sourced produce. In particular, their salads are great – try the roast butternut squash salad - and most recently I had a raspberry flapjack that was amazing. JC swears by the Great West Country Breakfast with Applewood smoked bacon, traditional pork sausages, scrambled egg with tomato & basil, roasted tomatoes & baked beans, whilst I have been known to eat a toasted bagel or two with cream cheese and smoked salmon or smoked bacon, depending on my mood.

If I can ever drag JC away from BTP we also head from time to time to The Phoenix Café, part of the Phoenix Centre, and a laid-back cultural haven off historic Gandy Street. The art's centre hosts excellent music gigs, cinema viewings, dance classes and workshops as well as offering creative workspace to filmmakers, digital artists and freelancers. The building, commissioned by Exeter University in 1911, is situated on the edge of the Norman motte (mound) of Rougemont Castle and has a grand entrance. Inside the bar and café area is welcoming and chilled with a sofa area and outdoor space with plenty of tables. I have visited the café many times for both evening meals such as sausage and mash (very good), lunches and coffee and love the arty, but not pretentious, vibe. It feels tucked away and intimate, but can get very crowded even on weekdays because lots of yummy mummies use it as a post-yoga haunt. Don’t let this put you off though as if you catch it on a good day it can feel like a little undiscovered oasis.

My latest happy coffee place, although I may be the last person in Exeter to discover it, is The Plant Café in Cathedral Yard. The Plant has been open for a few years now and I was told about it very soon after it’s launch, but only this very morning did I sit down and order a coffee there. I have bought a couple of items from them in the past including local, organic chocolate, but I wouldn’t call that getting the full experience. A friend of a friend bought the café not too long ago so I was taken along quite readily for a visit. The coffee was very good in my humble opinion. I’m not altogether sure that my friend JC will agree, as I have a feeling it was too subtle and smooth for him – he likes the full espresso, climb-the-walls for hours afterwards experience – but it was completely up my street. I was so impressed that I bought a bag of the In-Season Blend beans roasted locally by The Coffee Factory in Axminster. This particular blend was a mix of Guatemalan and Brazilian beans, that have been ethically sourced and I’m looking forward to JC’s verdict. I might just be able to tear him away from BTP for a cup of something different every now and again.

Of course, for me the atmosphere and location are hugely important so looking out over the Cathedral Green towards that stunning 14th century west front of Exeter Cathedral, I got the feeling I could sit at the Plant Café and have coffee many more times if this was my vantage point. Tables and chairs out the front of the café make it a beautiful spot to sit and waste some time. The menu, again which is locally sourced and organic, is vegetarian and features seasonal delights that you can eat in or takeaway. I must admit I haven’t eaten there yet, but it won’t be long before I get that under control. City life for me has always had an air of crazy volatility that doesn’t always synch with my personality, but what I really love about Exeter is that I can sit in 19th century former-post offices, art centres and look across at ancient cathedrals without having to walk more than 20 minutes from my door. If urban spaces were all this civilised I might have to re-consider my position in the rural v urban debate.