Travel Is a £96 cup of coffee actually worth it?...

Is a £96 cup of coffee actually worth it? I travelled 5,000 miles to find out

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After arriving by the island’s newly introduced midweek flight from Johannesburg – which doubles St Helena’s airlift to two flights per week – I stroll down to Jamestown harbourfront to sip my first local coffee. To the backdrop of the Atlantic’s crashing waves and purple-flowering jacarandas, my £3 French press arrives at Jill Bolton’s coffee shop close to where Napoleon stepped ashore in 1815. 

The coffee is brewed from an Arabica bean called green-tipped bourbon, brought in from Yemen, and introduced onto St Helena by the East India Company in 1733.  It has never been cross-fertilised with any other varieties and remains as pure as the brew Napoleon imbibed. This rarity along with the logistics of exporting it and the island’s minimal production ensures the beans are worth their weight in gold.

“It’s a mild coffee with floral notes,” said Jill from Sheffield, who started the coffee shopin 1995 with her late husband, Bill. Her café is the one of the few places where you can drink it on the island as her beans come from a 2.5-acre plantation her husband set up called Rosemary Gate Estate. Most other cafes in town serve imported coffee because even on the island the homegrown coffee retails for around £10 per 4oz bag.

By appointment, visitors can tour Rosemary Gate, where unroasted green coffee beans are exported exclusively to Harrods. I’d noticed before travelling that the Knightsbridge store had been completely out-of-stock. “There’s been issues with our shipping company, so I haven’t sent any over to England since February 2022,” said Jill.

Rosemary Gate is a 25-minute drive outside of Jamestown. If the bijou capital is enchanting – all Georgian architecture, Union Jacks, and pubs with 70s vibes selling drinks at 90s prices – the coffee plantations’ terroir is like Lundy on steroids. Roads corkscrew up long steep hill climbs and plunge into deep valley guts whilst cloud-forested peaks tilt towards dark volcanic cliffs.  Driving me is 75-year-old taxi driver, Ronald, who explains he cannot afford St Helena coffee.

“I buy imported coffee from South Africa for three quid a tin,” he said.

The tour takes me through the whole processing operation. From picking the “cherries” when they are post-box-red to removing the soft flesh and then drying the exposed beans under sunshine. They’re then bagged for export and any misshapen ones – heavens above Harrods clientele would endure wonky beans – are roasted for island consumption at Jill’s coffeeshop.

After once being lauded as the “best mocha” at the London Exhibition in 1851, St Helena’s coffee production went into steep decline until the early 1990s when a few small operations emerged.  Jill recalls the first time they sold beans to Harrods. “My husband only started it as a hobby in retirement and then suddenly we’re the sole supplier to Harrods. It was hard to believe. It’s a bit like fine wine. People buy it because of price and fame.”

Although none of this impresses St Helena’s honorary French Consul, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau. I join him for lunch at Longwood House, converted for Napoleon during his exile. After dessert, quelle surprise, imported French roasted coffee arrives in espresso bone china cups emblazoned with the République Française crest.

Michel said historians got it wrong about Napoleon’s love of local coffee. “Yes, he loved drinking coffee but like me he found the local stuff too bitter and weak. The coffee he enjoyed was imported from Sri Lanka”.

Michel’s duties include upkeeping Longwood House, which was sold to France in 1858. It’s one of the most atmospherically historic sites I’ve visited because inside this single-storey wooden house set in beautiful agapanthus gardens it looks as if Napoleon upped sticks and departed yesterday. Much of the furnishing is original, including a deep bath he soaked in for hours each day increasingly resigned to his fate in exile.

“Longwood is a memorial to where he died, not a museum,” said Michel.

After lunch, Ronald drives me to spectacular Sandy Bay where volcanic lava spikes rise like baguettes above rampant greenery, including bananas growing in the subtropical climate. St Helena’s small coffee production is concentrated here, and my caffeinated day ends with the charming Debbie and Neil Fantom, who recently launched coffee production at Wranghams.

Debbie is a Saint (an islander), and Neil is from near Derby. They’ve not just restored an acre of a coffee plantation abandoned from a previous venture but also a stately 18th-century Georgian manor house, where they host high teas for visitors in their garden. A wonderful cook, Debbie introduces me to island delicacies such as “bread-‘n’-dance”: a spicy tomato paste slathered on bread.

Neil explained they rescued the coffee bushes from overgrown vegetation and pruned them back into production with a few tips garnered from the internet. The aim was to grow just enough for their own consumption but last year they yielded 175lb so sold it for £10 per bag. “In the 70s there was a report saying St Helena cannot export coffee economically but demand for exotic roasts has changed this over the past 20 years,” said Neil.

Fancy trying a cup, he asked?

His roast is darker, and he makes my first St Helenian espresso. If I hadn’t quite got why this mild coffee is so sought after beyond its kudos of rarity, then my first sip of his espresso is an oral Catherine wheel as the bolder intensity triggers wondrous citrusy notes. Even Napoleon, with all his bristling Gallic disdain, may have nodded with satisfaction.

How to do it

Getting there: Virgin Atlantic flies to Johannesburg from £678 return. From Johannesburg, the five-hour connection to St Helena is with Airlink from £726 return.

Where to stay: Mantis St Helena offers B&B doubles for £250 per night.

More information: Visit the St Helena Tourist Board’s website

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