One of the most important, and most tragic, stories of human history since the age of the Portuguese explorers is the story of Colonialism. Today the vestiges of Colonialism are apparent everywhere from globalization to the impact of slavery and race relations around the world. For example, to look at the history of Cape Town, South Africa, is to look at the Dutch East India Company and the forced migration of slaves not from Africa but from southeast Asia — i.e., primarily modern day Indonesia and Malaysia.
Fast forward to modern times. It has been less than two decades since South Africa has been free from apartheid, and the “Rainbow Nation” has done a remarkable job at overcoming cultural differences and burying grudges over the many wrongs of the past. (Contrast this with, say, the recent history of the Balkans.) Fortunately, Colonialism in South Africa today has been reduced to more of the corporate variety. Take retail coffee chains, for example.
Last month, coffee colonialists Starbucks blew their vuvuzelas to announce their arrival in South Africa in time for the 2010 World Cup. It was as if to tell the many global tourists to the Rainbow Nation, “Don’t worry. We will save you from the scary coffee backwaters of South Africa. Rest assured that good coffee will be made available during your stay, thanks to us — your Starbucks rescue team.”
Not unlike South Africa’s Commonwealth sisters, New Zealand and Australia, Starbucks lacks a presence here partly because a typical espresso in South Africa is better than most of what’s typically available in a Starbucks haven, such as the U.S. Hence Starbucks’ announcement elicited little more than a yawn from the locals.
Another reason why this wasn’t news was because smaller regional chains, such as Vida e Caffè (“Life and Coffee” in Portuguese), have captured the market with better coffee and a far more relevant environment. Vida e Caffè is one of the best local chain examples — branding itself through a Portuguese theme, bright red colors, and a lively, youthful image. In American cultural imagery parlance, think artsy, ethnic skateboarders gone hip hop. This is not the café chain for anti-social laptop zombies.
Vida e Caffè @ Wembley Square Review
This installment of Vida e Caffè is located in the high-security Wembley Square mall. “High-security” is sort of redundant in much of South Africa, but this place takes it to another level. For those who recall the transformation of SF neighborhoods such as the eastern Mission District — where, in the 1980s, metal bars and gates once covered every street-side window and door along Bryant St. — imagine going in the complete opposite direction.
South Africa takes its security so seriously, to an outsider it feels like a cross between paranoia and a people under siege. Barbed wire and electrical fences are as ubiquitous as the security systems advertising “Armed Response”. Half of Cape Town’s 3.5 million residents seem employed as private security. Yet despite the ominous signs of eminent danger, and despite the country’s criminal reputation, in reality there are rarely signs that the alarm is justified. A 1970s New York felt far more dangerous. Whether their cultural response is overkill is good fodder for a separate debate.
The newer Wembley Square mall, frequented by the perfect bodies entering and leaving the Virgin Active gym inside, is built like a fortress. Pedestrian entry is next to impossible to find at street level, and where it does exist there are interlocked double security doors. But once inside the fortress, in a small mall court, you’ll easily recognize Vida e Caffè by the red plastic tables and chairs along with logo parasols (what for in an indoor mall, we still don’t know). High-energy baristas/servers decked in Vida e Caffè gear will shout out the orders in their ethnic tongues while Brazilian samba plays overhead.
Using a four-group, white WEGA Nova machine, they pull shots that are also decidedly Portuguese. It has a thinner layer of a medium brown crema and a somewhat thinner body. The flavor profile is weighted more in the tobacco end of the spectrum, though they are quite excellent at producing dense microfoam with their milk. Served in a Vida e Caffè-logo Protexca cup with a 70% Lindt chocolate on the side. A decent deal at R10.50.
Read the review of Vida e Caffè at Wembley Square in Cape Town, South Africa.
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