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Live, Laugh, Laverbread
Three days in the Swansea Kardomah, by Isaac Rangaswami
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Today’s newsletter is the first in Vittles’s Normal Country project, dedicated to the everyday hyperregional food culture of the UK. This project also encompasses Red Wall Feasts — which challenges media narratives surrounding the north of England through the diversity of its food — as well as today’s new column by Isaac Rangaswami of Instagram account caffs_not_cafes, which will celebrate regional caff culture outside of London.
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Live, Laugh, Laverbread, by Isaac Rangaswami
It’s easy to get nostalgic about the high streets of yesteryear. Back when we wore more brown and everywhere had a fusty, threadbare Britishness to it, our town centres were paved with grocers, butchers’ shops and branches of Woolworths. I can only really squint at those days, but I still feel their pull. I see traces of them everywhere: on Bakerloo Line trains, motorway service stations and phone boxes with the old BT logo on.
My love for British ordinariness has made me interested in places I perhaps have no right to have nostalgia for, like pie and mash shops and carpeted pubs. The same goes for Kardomah cafés, a chain of coffee shops which died out years before I was born. The brand opened its first cafés in the early 1900s and thrived into the 1960s, before fading away and all but vanishing. At its post-war height, dozens of Kardomahs were dotted across the country, serving coffee, tea and cakes. Cities like London and Liverpool had a handful each; even Paris had a few, including one on the Rue de Rivoli near the Louvre. Manchester is still haunted by the ghosts of Kardomah past.
Only one Kardomah café survives today, in Swansea, for unclear reasons. By remaining in business, the place has preserved one of the most beautiful 1950s interiors in the country. Its dining room is spacious and airy, yet filled with a thousand marvellous modernist details. When I asked Catrin James, who works at Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum and documents the city’s modernist heritage on Instagram, why she loves the Kardomah, she reeled off the following: the copper reliefs, the abstract mural, the tiled back wall, the patterned Formica tables, the lengthy window with the mature plants. It may be the UK’s prettiest caff.
So when I went to Swansea recently, I made sure I ate at the Kardomah three times. I fell in love with its food. I fell in love with its comfy leatherette chairs, which are the terracotta colour of strong tea. I fell in love with its beautiful coat stands, which have ball-like ends for hooks, which Catrin adores too and I learned from her are in the Atomic Age style. By visiting Swansea’s Kardomah and its other historical places, I tried to get to know the city in my own way, through the purpose-built spaces its inhabitants have kept alive.
Swansea was heavily bombed during WWII and almost entirely rebuilt afterwards, which has shaped the city’s character enormously. When I arrive, it reminds me of places like Bracknell and Stevenage: new towns defined by their modernist buildings and pioneering urban greyness. But Swansea feels different, in that its post-war architecture is set against picturesque, sandy beaches and a series of dramatic, house-speckled hills, where sky and water and concrete meet.
One of its most distinctive buildings is Swansea Civic Centre, a hulking brutalist complex that houses various council services. The centre is a kind of Barbican-by-Sea, where you can register deaths, get legally married and browse old papers using a microfiche reader. Swansea’s indoor market has a similar vibe, in that it’s also colossal, was once radically modern and still gets a lot of use. But it’s the Kardomah that embodies this ageing functionality best.
The café had a previous life in another building which opened in 1905 that the Luftwaffe later turned to rubble. The new Kardomah, which is now 65 years old, was designed around the modernist principles of simplicity, functionality and space. The place remains the city’s beating heart, an enormous, light-filled room with 36 tables and 134 seats which has been run by the Luporini family since the 1970s. Unlike some heritage caffs, which like Trigger’s broom have been remodelled so many times as to lose all of their original components, everything in the Kardomah is as it was when it opened in 1957. But it’s more than a living museum; the place is a genuine community centre, where everyone goes.
As you enter, you pass a reception desk where a member of staff will kindly tell you which part of the restaurant to sit in. The service here is impeccable, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a caff; when you’re finished, the uniformed waitresses present you with a hand-written bill signed with their name. There’s a Welshness to it, but the bustle of the place and the service-led approach gives it the feel of an American diner.
The first thing I eat is an omelette and chips, as Catrin had told me it was a “very Swansea” thing to order. I go for the ham version, which comes in juicy, delicatessen-quality chunks. After I eat, I speak to Louise Luporini, who runs the restaurant with her husband Marcus. She confirms that the reason my omelette is so delicious is because the ham is cut from a joint. “We get asked sometimes to make a Welsh rarebit, which isn’t on the menu,” Louise tells me. “But we’ll make it anyway.” I’m also thrilled to learn that the Kardomah serves a Welsh breakfast, another off-menu item, which features cockles and laverbread (an edible seaweed), which I’d been hoping to try and I note for later. That night I eat whitebait, a spaghetti bolognese and a tiramisu at Topo Gigio, the city’s oldest Italian restaurant.
When I return for lunch the next day, I order the gammon and pineapple, mainly because I’d enjoyed my ham so much the day before. I’ve also seen the dish on the menu of every other Swansea caff, including Fairdeal, a spot deep in an industrial estate where I’d eaten a bacon roll that morning. While the places I’ve visited in Swansea so far are decades old, Wales is also home to multiple century-old caffs, which are among Britain’s oldest. In small valleys towns you can find caffs like Pino’s in Mountain Ash and The Prince’s in Pontypridd. They are remarkable time capsules which can be traced back to Wales’ first wave of Italian migration and the origin of caffs in the UK. After eating in two packed Swansea caffs, I feel like they get more use here.
My second day in the city reminds me that my fondness for such places goes well beyond food. These inexpensive restaurants are fascinating as communal spaces, in that they don’t necessarily require you to interact much with other people. In a caff, it’s easy to eat on your own, since they’re so cheap, which feels less self-indulgent. If you go with a mate or in a small group, you might say hello to the owners, but you’re not there to speak to strangers; you’re there to eat. If caffs do anything to unify people, it’s mainly by bringing them together under one roof. This sense of community feels particularly strong in Swansea.
My gammon lunch and a visit to the Indoor Market, which is packed with family-run butchers, convince me that the city is all about old-fashioned meat. After a long, rainy walk along the coast to Mumbles, a neighbouring seaside village, I drink some solo pints by the water. Inevitably, I find myself in the mood for something substantial, so when I go to Monni’s Fish Bar for dinner, I forego the fish and order faggots, peas, chips and gravy — something else I’d seen at Fairdeal and all over Swansea. The faggots are soft and gamey, somewhere between stuffing, organ meat and a corned beef hash. They have a wonderful sour taste that goes well with gravy. I return to my Travelodge, tired from all the walking, but feeling like I’ve put all those calories to good use.
On my last morning in Swansea I return to the Kardomah and order the Welsh breakfast. The laverbread is a shock, like a puddle of crude oil among the other fried breakfast components I know so well. I assumed it would be like soda bread or a tattie scone; if Ulster frys and Scottish breakfasts had their own bread-like things, surely Welsh fry-ups would too? But laverbread isn’t bread at all. It’s mushy, sludgy and coal-black. It tastes like the sea smells, as if samphire married boiled spinach, but more rich and iron-y, not far from liver and kidney. My breakfast cockles are great too: hot, porky and far better than a portion served cold in a polystyrene cup. I spend my remaining hours wandering around the Botanical Gardens in Singleton Park and the residential hills of Mount Pleasant, after paying a visit to Dylan Thomas’s house.
I leave Swansea thinking that the Kardomah is about a whole lot more than its interior. Maybe restaurants like this do attract the odd enthusiast like me, who have an interest in a place’s atmosphere and history. But they remain successful with repeat customers because they’re friendly and reliable and serve food that makes you feel good. When I spoke to Louise she told me, “We’re very lucky that we have so many loyal customers.” The place is packed with families, grandmotherly types and lunch-breaking office workers, who all seem extremely at home. While we chatted, Louise said hello and goodbye to more than a dozen people, including Swansea’s very own pantomime dame. “I know what day of the week it is by who’s walking in,” she told me. Yes, the Kardomah lifts your mood because it serves meals that are wholesome, nostalgic and distinctively Welsh. But the place goes beyond that, by making you feel at home too.
Perhaps this homeliness is at the heart of every good caff, although each one brings it about in its own way. After spending more than three years documenting London’s caffs I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of the city, but I’m also conscious that I’m not getting the full picture. I’m just as interested in other parts of the UK; I just don’t live in them. Each caff I visit convinces me that the things that excite me about London – history, functional buildings, wholesome and affordable food – also manifest themselves in so many compelling, region-specific ways up and down the country.
While Swansea was the first on my list to visit outside London, I know every town and city has places like the Kardomah, whether it’s in Penzance, Kirkwall or anywhere in between. Ordinary, purpose-built spaces are constantly changing, as new stuff destroys the old; every pub, caff, car park, chip shop, market, station, high street, library and bus shelter is interesting for that reason, because they hold traces of what came before. We could get dewy-eyed about the unlikely fragments of our communal past that slip through and remain available to use, since some of them won’t last forever. But that would be boring. It’s more fun to make good use of them while they’re still around, because that’s what they were built for.
Isaac Rangaswami is a writer based in London. He runs the Instagram account @caffs_not_cafes.
All photos by Isaac Rangaswami.