Would you like a Labour party manifesto with your breakfast?’ the tattooed, multi-pierced waitress might as well have asked as she served me the most left-wing breakfast in the world.
What on earth is going on when Balham becomes so avant-garde that it negates the very reason a curmudgeon like me moved there — to be as far as possible from the trendy, liberal intelligentsia that rules most of London?
If I had wanted my local cafés decked out in reclaimed wood and serving quinoa specially flown in from the Amazon rainforest on Air Hypocrisy, then arranged on a pile of pea shoots according to a recipe by Gwyneth Paltrow, I would have settled in Islington.
Instead, I think I’m safe in crumbly old Balham, with its Caribbean market and pound stores. But now house prices have pushed this former haven of mundanity into the realms of the fashionable and the old street market where they once sold good honest yams is now teaming with the scourge of all England — independent cafés. Oh, how I hate them.
All the ex-builder boyfriend and I wanted was a spot of brunch when we stumbled inside a place that was until recently a ‘caff’ serving perfectly serviceable fry-ups and burgers.
Now we entered into a misty haze of whitewashed walls and distressed floorboards and reclaimed wood tables. And blackboards upon which strange legends had been chalked about ethically sourced this and locally farmed that and other bizarre fêtes of organo-claptrap.
If they could have got away with it, trading standards-wise, I have no doubt they would have put up a sign saying: ‘All our meat comes from animals that have in no way died at any stage.’
A tattooed, bearded waiter seated us at a recycled plank of distressed wood — I’m surprised they allowed the wood to become distressed, now I think about it.
Upon this so-called table were two menus made from a couple of sheets of some sort of recycled material on a piece of reclaimed wood held together with a rusty nail — or some such. In any case, you couldn’t quite open the menu fully.
We peeked between the pages, which bore more convoluted legends of locally sourced truth-bending. Chief among them was this: that they foraged ingredients from the banks of the River Wandle in Wandsworth.
We were so hungry we resolved not to make trouble. We tried to find something to eat, which was a bit like foraging in itself. Because among the acres of verbiage about ethical this and organic that and what sort of hens the eggs came from, and what these hens liked to do at the weekends, there were only three breakfast options, and the least strange sounding of them was called ‘The Convict’ — which gives you some idea how strange the others sounded.
The waitress who came to take our order had easily as many tattoos as her male colleague but not quite as much facial hair. The BB ordered the Convict and I looked up from the menu forlornly and said, ‘I’ll just have a croissant, please.’ To which she snapped, ‘We don’t serve croissant here! You can go and get one of those from the bakery down the street!’ Evidently, croissants are now considered bourgeois implements of imperialistic oppression by the quinoa intelligentsia. Did you know that? I confess I didn’t.
No, it was corn fritters, buckwheat pancakes, and eggs from specific hens with names and addresses and particular shades of yolk, or nothing. So we ordered two black Americanos and two Convicts. After a few minutes, two tiny glass cups were set down on the table, half full with a sort of luke-warm coffee-scented treacle.
The BB added milk to his, but I tried to sip mine black, a manoeuvre which resulted in me nearly spitting the stuff back out in his face.
‘Oh dear lord what’s this?’ I gasped.
The BB grimaced as he tried to force some of his milky treacle down. ‘I’ll tell you what it is,’ he said, setting the puny glass cup back in its vintage saucer. ‘It’s locally foraged coffee, from the banks of the River Wandle. In fact, it is the River Wandle.’
The BB was hungry and running out of patience. He got up and went to the counter where milling around were myriad bearded, tattooed waiting staff of various sexes and none, some of them making more ‘river café’.
‘Those two Convict breakfasts we just ordered?’ They nodded. ‘Forget it. We’re worried they’re called the Convict because they’ve been foraged from Wandsworth prison.’
And with that we left the small, ethically correct independent café and went to big, corporate Caffè Nero where a polite, well-groomed barista served us exceedingly good coffee and two paninis with no apparent bearing on the EU referendum.