Monday, 22 March 2010

A masterclass in tea: great on the lips, terrible on the hips

Last week I took my tea obsession one step further. I spent a whole day learning about its history, how to harvest it, how to brew it, watching it being prepared and the best bit of all- drinking it.

I had been to a tea tasting event before, but last time I did not actually walk in. Last time, not being able to see past a haze of blue rise and mobility aids, I decided the event was perhaps a bit beyond my age range. This time, I was pleasantly surprised. There was one girl who even looked to be my junior, or perhaps daily doses of white tea afforded her with a deceptively juvenile glow.

She had traveled from France especially for the day, as had a Greek man who was keen to take tea to coffeephile Athens. We really were a mixed bunch- two quintissentially genteel Japanese mothers who loved their green tea just as much as their families, one lady keen to break from the army with a passion to make tea, not war and a finance guy who knew as much about complex algorithm as he did about how to calculate perfect brewing times.

I arrived hungry- the class stared at 9.30am and as a morningphobe coming from the opposite side of London, I had yet to have breakfast. And thank goodness I arrived hungry, because I left anything but. I had not realised that lunch would be followed only a few hours afterwards by full afternoon tea.

Jane Pettigrew is a tea consultant and she delivered the sessions along with a fellow tea taster, Tim. As human wikipedias on the subject of tea, there was no question which had them fazed. Whilst they were incredibly well informed, amazingly there was no snobbery that you might see in other gourmet circles, like wine.

Whilst a couple of students picked up subtleties in aroma immediately, it took me a little longer.
'Ooh, I'm getting base notes of roast lamb here...' cried one. 'Ahh, wood shavings!' shrieked another. It became quite competitive at one point, with each contestant vying to encapsulate aromas in words before proud school masters Jane and Tim.

My only complaint of the entire day was being tempted into uber indulgence. I was assured that green tea could actively fight obesity, helping to break down fats. I doubt that even the greenest of teas could shift the scones that I had that day, however. I left, feeling slightly queezy from cake overload and couldn't face a thing for dinner that night. Apart from a cup of tea...

For course dates and more information see:

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Cafe Coffee Day for ice cream with glee

Cafe Coffee Day in the CP district of New Delhi is a prime hang out location out for young Facebook, Twiterring, SMS texting Indians. It is not somewhere one goes for tea. My travel buddy assured me that tea was no doubt the best remedy for all stomach bugs, but we did not go here for the tea in particular. Travel buddy went for uber icy air con. I was suffering from the aptly named Delhi belly and needed to stop for reasons that I will not go into so as not to put you off any brew you may be sipping as you read this.

Cafe Coffee Day is not about tea, nor air con, nor toilets. It is about ice cream and chocolate and mobile phones. Most kids here arrived in groups, but they didn't talk to each other. Phones buzzed from one corner of knockerbocker glory fans to the next. My travel buddy, Dan ordered a concoction to excite or perhaps even scare the biggest of ice cream fans- the Devil's Own. And sinful it was- lashing of chocolate sauce, with processed squirty cream and piles of ice cream. Funnily enough, the actual coffee that Cafe Coffee Day is so proud to grow on its own estates seemed to be lacking. My stomach turned, and I made a mental note to eat this next time travel buddy was feeling a bit queezy.

We went up to the fast food style bar and placed our orders. 'One Devil's Own please' said Dan.
'Regular or large? asked the waiter, impatiently punching the till keyboard.
'Ooh large, please' replied travel buddy
'Would you like extra cream with that?'
'Ooh yes please'
'chocolate sauce?'
'Ooh go on, yes'
Chocolate sprinkles?'
'Yes again' he said, looking at me, with apparent glee.
'Any food or cakes?
'Well I am on holiday' he said surveying the counter of prepacked cakes that were actually not plastic, but that were deceptively made with real edible ingredients.
'Sorry? Yes? I did not understand' he replied, confused
'Yes, yes, I mean yes, I'll have a slice of that chocolate cake please'
'Whipped cream?'
And so it went on.

I went back to the toilet and arrived back just in time for my order.
'And for you madam?'
'Just a tea please. No milk.'
'Any food or cakes?'
'No thank you'
And that completed my order.

I ordered a Garam Masala- literally translating as a spicy hot one. It was what Indians would think tea looked and tasted like in a sleek fast food chain in America. Thankfully it was noting near. Perhaps I was just feeling rotten that day, perhaps it was the whiff of chocolate and cream that was making my stomach churn, perhaps it was the disappointment at not even wanting to indulge in any of the ice cream madness, but I felt a sudden rush of comfort from the very first sip, even though in truth this was nothing more than a cheap tea bag plonked into a thickly rimmed mug of tepid water.

Which just goes to show that it's not always just the tea, nor the food, nor the company or general ambiance of the place, it's a combination of all these factors multiplied with my particular mood at that moment in time. This complex formula decides whether the tea room/cafe/street stall/friend's offer of a brew gets a thumbs up and broad smile or a stamping of feet and folding of arms.

I looked to my side; after wolfing down his 'Devil's Own', Travel Buddy had gone quiet. Without a word, he ran to the toilet. My gleeful chortle was more wicked that his iced coffee. Travel buddy was right, tea really did make you feel better.

Cafe Coffee Day
Shop No -37, M block Greater Kailash, New Delhi, India

Quality of tea: 5/10
Service: 5/10
Ambiance: 6/10
Food: N/A but if you are into heart attack inducing desserts this place is for you.
Value: 10/10

Embarrassing Dads at french capital of teatime chic, Mariage Freres.

My last visit to The Mariage Freres in the Marais district of Paris was unforgettable. Not because of the Mariage Freres insitution which dates back to the 17th century, nor the wonderfully aloof waiters draped in white frock coats, not even because of the lively bustle emanating from the aristocratic-boho-gay surroundings. This was my first memorable experience of EDS - Embarrassing Dad Syndrome.

ED (Embarrassing Dad) had come to visit me during a six month work placement in the capital of luxe. My daily uniform was a British take on the Jean Seberg in Paris look, pearls and twin set to boot. This contrasted with ED’s take on British style- flat cap, holey tweed jacket and trousers fitting a la Simon Cowell. Marching into the hushed tones of the Mariage Freres salon, ED yelled ‘ooh int this lovely and posh!’ and plonked himself down.

I winced and brought the menu up above my face. I ordered an iced version of the Peach tea and suggested to ED to point at the tea of his choice with true teenage daughter condescension. He looked up at me, bewildered by the pages upon pages of tea on offer and asked for me to get something as close to Yorkshire tea as possible. Yorkshire Tea? Bah non! Now calmez vous, you Yorkshire tea lovers, I am the first to praise its richness and caffeine kick. But s’il vous plait! Every tea in its place. ED thought I was being snobby and aloof. Actually I was just being French.

Our teas arrived, poured delicately from poker faced waiters holding charming 1920s style ceramic and metal tea pots. ED looked morbidly disappointed as a strikingly paler shade of tea than the builders brew that he was accustomed to filled up his cup. I pretended not to notice, loftily sipping my peach tea and fiddling with my pearls. ED peeked into his teapot, mashed up the water with great gusto. Then like a mad scientist he poured the tea from one receptacles to another in a vain attempt to transform it into his beloved Yorkshire tea. ‘How is your tea?’ he asked. ‘Delicious, very refreshing’ I replied. And it was. The peach was fragrant, but not over powering nor artificial and the black tea base was also good quality. I would have liked ice cubes made from the same tea, rather than plain water, but perhaps this was a diva request too much.

I hadn’t asked ED how his tea was, but he proceeded to tell me for the next quarter of an hour. ‘Damn French, no doubt they gave up and surrendered before learning how to make a decent cuppa’ he quipped. A few saving graces were the cream white waiters jackets and bow ties that got a big ED thumbs up, as well as the lighting and chic furnishings. The adjacent museum and shop were just a money making con, fooling silly parisiens and americans with too much money into pointless purchases. I failed to notice his remarks, drawn from my table by the aroma of some delightful little tea scented candles.

But then a remarkable thing happened. ED shot up behind me, smiled and paid for the bill, candles and all. Perhaps he was an Embarassing Dad, but he was also a Embarrassing Paying Dad. So perhaps he can come with me next time after all.

Mariage Freres tea salon, emporium, restaurant and museum
30 rue du Bourg Tibourg, Paris, France
Telephone (+33) 01 42 72 28 11
Tea Emporium - Restaurant - Tea Salon - Tea Museum
Open 7 days a week
30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, Paris 4e
Other tea salons throughout the capital, some with restricted opening times. Check website for details:

Quality of tea: 7/10
Service: 6/10
Ambiance: 8/10
Food: N/A (We didn’t eat, but there is a good menu, with good brunch options)
Value: 6/10

Monday, 15 March 2010

Tea Hee hits the spot, Bartie hits my table.

Today I went to Tea Hee in Easingwold. Tiny in size and tucked in the corner of the market place, you could miss it. Follow the trail of young mums in Barbours, WI jam carrying grannies in hunter wellies and you know you are on the right track. Easingwold is a pretty little Georgian town, but little it is and there is no way that this cafe is surviving from Easingwold folk alone. Having won several awards, including Top Yorkshire Tea Room and the Great Taste Award for many of the items on its menu, people are prepared to travel a little out of their way for some Tea Hee time.

I went for a feta cheese salad with a ginger ale. The salad could have done with a bit more dressing, but it was very fresh and simple. The tea was served exactly like I like it (proper boiling water, plenty of real tea leaves and extra water on standby). Furthermore the waitresses were attentive and sweet, young posh students, like grown up characters from an Enid Blyton novel.

In fact the whole place sings Enid Blyton, country warmth and home comforts. Looking around I am inspired to plant my own organic herb garden, mend the sewing machine and try a bit of patchwork... I might even buy a chicken or two for the back yard. Then my chair is struck as a well heeled school boy rushes past me and I wake from my day dream. I don't have a garden, nor a sewing machine, nor do I even eat that many eggs.

Tea Hee's only draw back is the lack of space. Originally using one shop floor, it extended next door and now the tea room and food preparation areas are mixed in each room. Mummy in new fitted red Barbour jacket and matching Hunters grabs Bartie from the cheese counter. Bartie screams and he recoils back onto my table, spilling the tea. The cheese counter is impressive, but I decide not to linger for some post lunch Brie. From afar I envy a lot of the ladies here, but up close I laugh with glee inside. I realise that I am not ready for a Bartie of my own. I'll have the Barbour but they can keep their Barties. Perhaps it is a worthwhile lesson, perhaps it is good that Tee Hee is so cramped after all.

Address: TeaHee! 3 Tollbooth Cottage,Market Place, Easingwold York YO61 3AB
Telephone: 01347 823533

Quality of tea: 9/10
Service: 8/10
Ambiance: 7/10
Food: 8/10
Value: 7/10

My verdict: Sharpen your elbows, Tea Hee's worth a visit.

Bettys- you can come to my neighbourhood anytime

Betty’s Tea Rooms are a veritable institution in my homeland of Yorkshire. Even my southern or foreign friends have generally heard about Betty’s or at least its sister tea company, Taylors.

It all started when in 1907, Frederick Belmont, arrived in England from Switzerland, unable to speak a word of English. Although he had planned to settle in southern England, Belmont mistakenly boarded a train for Yorkshire. In the end he found work and love there, marrying his his landlady’s daughter, Clare, and they finally settled in Harrogate. He opened the first Betty’s cafe there in 1919, and now there are now six dotted around Yorkshire.

Its current chairman, Jonathan Wild takes a very non Starbucks approach, actively limiting geographic expansion. He argues that Betty’s strength lies in its strong team and hands-on, family culture.

Although I’m moving down south and thus out of commutable distance to Betty’s, I’m inclined to agree with Wild. We all sighed on the last episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ , but watching anything go on and on, makes us start to resent it. This is one of the reasons I avoid Starbucks at all cost (another is the awful mugs).

The only thing Betty’s has in common with Betty’s is its consistency. The staff are trained, retrained and then receive more training just in case. One source I know of had managed a pub of her own before falling on hard times. Moving on to work at Betty’s she at first resented being told how to place a fork on the table. After a few months, she realised therein lied Betty’s success.

On my last visit I went for the Frittata Rossa, an Italian-style omelette made with roast red peppers,
sun-dried tomatoes, topped with chives and Parmesan cheese. Belmont was known for favouring things dainty and the portion sizes are generally no exception, but this omelette was actually quite dense and filling.

Perhaps the only really non dainty option is the aptly named Fat Rascal. Served warmed with butter, it has a texture similar to a rock cake, full of citrus peel and vine fruits, decorated with a face of almonds and cherries. You’ll either love them or hate them. My mother scoffs at them, I just scoff them.

But onto the important bit, the tea. If you are feeling experimental, the China Rose Petal variety is deliciously light and delicate. However anyone really serious about tea will go for the Tea Room Blend. It is rich blend that requires a good dash of milk.

Arrive after 6pm and you can drink tea to the tinkling of a grand piano, but allow plenty of time, Betty’s is no secret and you will almost certainly have to queue at peak hours. If you’re in York, go to Little Betty’s on nearby Stonegate, which is generally less busy.

I know Betty’s wouldn’t be the same if it were all over the country. Nevertheless, moving down south I will be sad it will no longer be within commutable distance. I'm just hoping that Wild might board the wrong train and end up in my neighbourhood.

Quality of tea: 9/10
Service: 10/10
Ambiance: 8/10
Food: 7/10
Value: 7/10 (Afternoon tea for two costs £50)

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Cannizaro House, Wimbledon, London

Tea time in Wimbledon

If Cannizaro were a style item it would be a pair of bright mock croc stilettos. Trendy and fun, but not always comfortable. The hotel describes itself as offering 'the very best of country house living with a modern twist'. The modern twist is certainly there, in the guise of bright 'art' pieces splashed across every inch of the walls. Whilst you might be less of a traditionalist than me and might even want to purchase one of the many fashion forward canvases for sale, if you are here for the tea, you might feel a little let down.

Initially the spread looked promising- a cake stand bulging with goodies, glistening clotted cream and truly fruity jam. But our waitress forgot our order and then wandered off, no doubt distracted by the modern twisted art. But worse still- just one meagre tea bag- gasp! Please I know I have been out of the country for a while but pleeeeeeease put enough tea bags in the pot.

To be fair, the scones were good, but to be traditional and correct, they weren't really scones at all; more of an Italian's attempt to remodel an English classic. Crunchy on the outside, quite dense on the inside, and admittedly very, very tasty.

On the upside, the tea room area also comes with views of a well kept but relaxed large garden open to all public, comfortable arm chairs to recline in and a grand piano. On the downside, when we were there there the only pianists were ADHD suffering five year olds. On an upside dogs are allowed, which when I went included a lovely Old English sheep dog by the name of Bailey. On a downside, this rule also applied to an even yappier than usual Chihuahua.

On another canine note, upon leaving we were offered a doggy bag of our sweet treat remains. Normally I do not condone doggy bag culture, but then again I hate waste, all the more so if cakes are involved, albeit slightly bland ones. And aspiring to ethical values I rarely mange to achieve, this ethical cake saving keeps makes me a better person, even if my bathroom scales would beg to differ.

Cannizaro House describes itself as a 'society beauty'. If you are in Wimbledon and need somewhere to rest those mock croc stiletto clad feet, then look no further. If like for me, it's all about the tea, grab a mock scone and hot foot it to the park.


Address: West Side, Wimbledon Common, Wimbledon, London SW19 4UE
Telephone: 020 8879 1464

Quality of tea: 3/10
Service: 5/10
Ambiance: 8/10
Food: 6/10
Value: 7/10

My verdict: modern art dog lovers in Wimbledon have found their niche. Tea lovers haven't.