Tuesday 24 March 2015

tea in the afternoon

As somebody who actively enjoys eating cucumber sandwiches (white bread, no crusts, decent butter, semi salted) and drinks enough daily cuppas to bathe in, it may come as no surprise that afternoon tea floats my boat. I can think of nothing better than whiling the best part of the day away, the quintessentially British way; over a smorgasbord of sandwiches and dainty treats, the chink of china and the idle flow of chitchat. Real decadence with a hint of bygone times. Although it can be a little girly and twee, and there’s nothing wrong with that, in recent years afternoon tea has been thrust firmly into modern times with eclectic twists on the stalwart ingredients and a healthy addition of booze. Ahh booze. Prosecco and champagne, or cocktail themed teas, get the party started in ways the early 19th century society gal could only imagine. Something one of my best friends knows only too well, as she recently treated me to an awesome tipsy gin fuelled tea as a birthday treat (see Mr. Fogg's below).

It’s fair to say that London certainly has no shortage of afternoon tea hotspots to suit all tastes and budgets – from the famously deluxe opulence of the Ritz, to Time Out and Groupon’s seemingly continuous stream of deals and 241’s, luring in punters desperate for something last minute to appease Mum on her birthday. But be warned, no two teas are the same! The variety is certainly broad but so is the quality. Trust me, cucumber sandwiches can be made so wrong. And there is nothing worse than forking out for stale sarnies and substandard sponge... Price is also something to take into consideration. You can certainly get some good offers, but if you want a filling tea it's sometimes better to pay a bit more and plump for the continuously refreshed option, such as at the Ritz or the St. Pancras Ren, where you can stuff yourself silly.
To avoid potential tea pitfalls, I have pulled together some of my tried and tested favourites, perfect for a range of tea partners, scenarios and pockets. Chin chin.

Something diff: Mr. Fogg’s Tipsy Tea

I think the key to quirk is to highlight one particular theme or ingredient. If you go too mental, you run the risk of turning afternoon tea into something else altogether, or even worse, a weird version of lunch. In that case, you may as well just go for lunch in the first place. There seems to be some awful bastardised 'lads' tea out there involving pork pies and doorstep sandwiches. I like a pork based snack product as much as the next bloke, but there's a time and a place people.

No, stick to the traditional parameters of afternoon tea (sandwiches, cake, liquid) but with a fresh spin and you can't go far wrong. Like at Mr Fogg's house, an elegant time traveller's drinking den tucked away down an inconspicuous side street in Mayfair, where teapots of gin or champagne infused tea cocktails accompany dainty towers of treats in novel surroundings. Watched over by an array of accoutrements from taxidermy to vintage maps (supposedly sourced by Phileas Fogg on his travels), whilst a pianist tickled the ivories, we opted for the 'bottomless' choice (£58 pp) which got us through three generously sized teapots each of a range of super sweet gin based drinkypoos. Our favourite was the Woburn Abbey, a refreshing mix of English breakfast tea-infused Tanqueray No. TEN with crème de bergamot, lemon juice and bee pollen sugar. The combo of the booze plus the custard and chocolate rich cakes and pastries made for an intense sugar hit, that was almost too much to handle and certainly left me craving the sandwiches more than the sweets. I think next time I would opt for the single teapot option (£38 pp) and perhaps pick a more savoury drink to have afterwards, like a G&T, so I could eat more cake! Best for drinking buddies with tons to catch up, this tea will certainly leave you tipsy by the time you come rolling out...

More to try: Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea at the Sanderson (from £38 pp), Prêt-à-Portea at the Berkeley (from £41), High Chai at Cinnamon Soho (from £20)

 Pure decadence: The Wolseley

For a great British afternoon tea in the old tradition with a touch of class, you can't go far wrong with the luxurious setting of The Wolseley, resplendent in it's black and gold art deco finery. The atmosphere is refined yet lively, service snappy and special yet you don't need to worry too much about smart attire or speaking too loudly; just relax and soak up the experience. Aaaaahhh. Ideal for nattering and people watching, you're also bound to catch a celeb or two in there, especially if you go during the week. Last time we saw Billie Piper and Laurence Fox with kids in tow (impeccable table manners FYI). Tea is served daily from 3pm, and it's a traditional affair with a lovely selection of perfectly turned out sandwiches, scones, cakes and teas, which keep getting replenished, and all at a very affordable £23.75 pp. A memorable special treat for any best mate, mum, gran or other half. Prepare to get your brownie points well and truly doubled with the Wolseley option.

More to try: The Ritz (from £55 pp), Claridge's (from £55), The Dorchester (from £49), The Goring (from £42.50)

 Cutesy: Betty Blythe

Chintz, cupcakes and a voluminous vintage dress up box; you can't get sweeter than Betty Blythe's in Hammersmith. Available to hire for large parties, as a group of eight ladies we had the Twenties themed basement boudoir, replete with retro photo frames, feather boas, long gloves and beaded headdresses all to ourselves for a few flippin' great hours... The food is tasty, simple, home baking done well. Think cucumber, cheese and ham sandwiches, dinky brownies and bitesize cupcakes with Earl Grey tea in prettily patterned cups and saucers. Betty Blythe's caters for all palates and ages, and is a great spot for baby showers, hen do's and children's parties - and at £22 pp for a traditional afternoon tea you'll leave feeling like a flapper on wings.

More to try: Stoke Newington Tea Rooms (from £23 pp), Bea’s of Bloomsbury (from £24.50), Bake-a-Boo (from £18.50)

 Shopaholic's delight: Liberty's

Afternoon tea bookended by shopping. Feminists look away now! However there are surely worse things in life, and if you do want to punctuate trawling the streets of the big smoke for glad rags with a creamed scone or three, then why not rest in the welcoming, and rather jazzily patterned, embrace of Liberty’s of London. Good for a pit stop, the buzzy café housed within the iconic black timbered Liberty's department store, serves a gutsy afternoon tea to keep you sustained throughout your day. Hearty scones, generous sarnies and a range of thirst quenching teas. On our visit we found some clingfilm in our smoked salmon, but even that didn't dent the mood. At £36.95 for two people, we each got a large, floor standing tier of goodies to ourselves (really enough for three) so certainly didn't feel short changed. The good news with shop or attraction cafes is that they often don’t get booked up far in advance, and tables get turned quickly - so your chances of walking in and securing a table for afternoon tea are high. Just be prepared to go up a dress size afterwards.

More to try: Fortnum & Mason (from £40 pp), National Portrait Gallery (from £24.50), Selfridge’s (from £21.95)

 The modern classic: St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel

Sometimes you find a place that just ticks all the boxes. The St Pancras Ren is such a place. Beautifully designed, with a calm and restful ambiance where time appears to stand still, afternoon tea is taken in the Hansom Lounge where we decide to treat Mum for a special Mother's Day. It's a large, spacious, light area with high backed comfortable armchairs that manage to give a feel of privacy to your table. This is a good looking tea, no doubt about it. Sandwiches were things of beauty, designed in different shapes and featuring yummy artisan beetroot bread, brioche and cranberry bread. Continuously refreshed, I can't imagine how many I ploughed through, but it was a lot. Fresh sumptuous scones with cream and jam and a huge variety of patisserie; this is definitely a tea you could bring a real man to, and he would leave feeling full and in no way emasculated. The service was always attentive and friendly and we felt in no way rushed or pushed. We could have sat there all day and night - and nearly did!
Classic tea is around £35 pp and there's also a tea inspired cocktail selection if you want to up the alcoholic ante. Our teatime easily spilled into early evening time and as darkness fell outside and the lights came up inside, we felt blissfully happy and ready to start on the pre-dinner drinks... A tea to remember.


More to try: Dean Street Townhouse (from £19.50 pp), The Modern Pantry (from £22.50), The Orangery (from £26)




Wednesday 3 December 2014

festive fondue

There's nowt more festive than fundue.

In fact, for turophiles, you could argue that fondue is even more festive than a Christmas dinner which is really just a glorified Sunday roast with added trimmings in my book. And honestly, can anybody get truly excited about turkey? A bubbling hot vat of molten cheese on the other hand, is the stuff of sweet (albeit surreal) dreams... Fondue is the perfect cold weather treat; warming, comforting and with all the Alpine Christmassy connotations of snow dusted mountains, log cabins and roaring fires. From the teeny weeny forks, to the platters of meat and veg for dipping, it's the funnest option for a December dinner shared amongst friends. The twinkly lights come out, the temperature drops and the best way to start getting in the mood for magic is through the medium of fromage chaud...
oh yeah
There are plenty of decent fondue establishments in London, where you can get elbow deep in quality grease to your heart's content - from Spitalfields' Androuet or Shoreditch's stinky Walluc, to the cosily central St Moritz or (brand new this year) jaunty Jimmy's Pop Up at The Lodge in Balham, which has been getting rave reviews. And I will never forget the now sadly defunct Art du Fromage in Chelsea where I spent one unseasonably hot October evening sweating into a raclette press.

But a while ago I discovered the wonderful Cheese at Leadenhall Market and as far as fondue experiences go it's been my favourite to date.
In 2011 I met Lou Beegan, dishing out groundbreaking raclette sandwiches by the bonfire at food blogger Ms Marmite Lover's night market. Quite simply, it was one of the best things I've ever eaten - sourdough bread, pickles, potatoes and thick melted cheese spilling out from between the toasted slices. I was raving about that sarnie for days! Lou worked at Cheese, an artisan cheesemongers in the City. Desperate for more raclette goodness, I was gutted that the short lunchtime sandwich availability meant there was no way I could make the journey west from my workplace in time. However I soon found out that over the winter months, and - if you ask nicely and book ahead - during the evening, Cheese will happily fire up the fondue on request. So one particularly frosty night a group of us made the post work journey over for a cheese fest.
Shivering, we anticipated the toasty interior of a welcoming restaurant - and were a little taken aback to find a tiny shop with hardly any seating inside and a table set up for us outside (under the cavernous roof of Leadenhall Market but pretty much exposed to the winter chill nonetheless). Were they mental?  Well it turns out no they weren't, as we were swiftly given big woollen tartan blankets to wrap up in, glasses of wine and soon enough, pots of delicious bubbling fondue, which warmed us up in no time. And just like that raclette sandwich, which tasted so much better devoured outside, it's true that the fondue tasted all the better and more festive for being eaten al fresco. Ok we were in spitting distance of the Gherkin, and not a skier in sight. But Leadenhall Market has a beautiful olde worlde, Victorian feel, the vintage shop fronts all lit up with fairy lights and a huge real Christmas tree pride of place in the centre. Most fondue joints also absolutely reek of cheese - so eating it in the crisp cold air made a refresing change, and we skipped away feeling nicely full and merry, not overly hot, bothered and dripping with the dreaded cheese sweats.

The fondue is a very reasonable £15pp - one hot pot of cheese comfortably feeds two hungry cheese heads and comes with a generous amount of crusty bread for dipping. You can also order a charcuterie platter with various hams and salamis, for just £12 more. The wine list is extensive and reasonable priced, with a nice Merlot coming in at £24. Since my first visit, Cheese has expanded with plenty more outdoor seating and a couple of mini heat lamps to take the bite out of the air. However an extra pair of socks and hat and scarf are recommended to enable you to linger over your fromage for the maximum amount of time!

While you're there, you could also get one of the lovely expert Cheese team to advise you on some tasty purchases to wrap up for your Christmas cheeseboard or as gifts for friends.

Grab your furry earmuffs and go forth to fondue!

le spread




Tuesday 18 November 2014

toad in the hole + spawn

November is all about #toadlife.

Jus' chillin', preferably on a fat boy, in front of a toasty fire, with hot tasty food, ideally washed down with something boozy and lightly spiced. I love the run up to Christmas, when comfort food can be guzzled down with wild abandon as we relish the first proper bite of winter. In January the guilt starts to creep in and Banuary bitches like to wag fingers and remind you of the millions of calories you've consumed in the preceding two months. Now, however, it's more than acceptable to start cooking up all those warming hearty dishes that light up the dark chilly evenings.

In honour of all things toad like, what better dish to try out on a wintry evening than a big ol' toad int' hole. I'm not usually a huge sausage fan, but enveloped snugly in billowy battery freshly made Yorkshire pud... Well, I'm all over it. Paired with a rich onion gravy and some roasted carrots, kale and broccoli for the health factor, this was a satisfying supper and a half. And pretty easy to make with hardly any ingredients required. Just buy some posh sausages and you'll probably have the rest of the ingredients at home. You could even sack off the Sunday roast and serve this up instead - you might get some complaints at first, but once everyone gets their helpings it'll be froggy fun all round, mark my words.

If Q4 is mainly about upping the eating ante, then of course there is always room for just desserts and with toads comes... erm... spawn?! As a child rice pudding was one of my favourite ever afters, preferably dished up with some of the lovely caramelised skin on top and a grate of nutmeg. So it was with this in mind that I cooked up a decadent version with cinnamon and double cream, the perfect sweet treat to round off a serious supper. Some slow stewed apples or plums would make a fantastic fruity accompaniment to your toad spawn, or you could go old school with a big fat jam whale swimming on top.

For go-to tried and tested recipes, Felicity Cloake is the mama. And it was with joy that I found she had wise words to offer on both toads and spawn, suggesting boozy additions of both ale to the batter and sherry to the pud. However, if you prefer your alcohol in your glass then the below recipes should serve you well. Both feed 4 comfortably.

Dive in...

Toad in the Hole + onion gravy

  • 100g plain flour
  • ½ tsp English mustard powder
  • 1 egg
  • 300ml milk
  • 8 pork sausages
  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and sliced
  • 1 tsp soft brown sugar
  • 500ml beef stock

    1. Make the batter: Heat oven to 220C/fan 200C/gas 7. Tip flour into the large mixing bowl and stir in the mustard powder with a good pinch of salt. Make a well in the centre, crack in the egg, then pour in a dribble of milk. Stir with a wooden spoon, gradually incorporating some of the flour, until you have a smooth batter in the well. Now add a bit more milk and continue stirring until all the milk and flour has been mixed together.
    2. The batter is ready: You should now have a smooth, lump-free batter that is the consistency of double cream. Roast sausages in the oven, in an oiled roasting tray, for 15 mins.
    3. Cook the batter: Take the hot tray from the oven, then quickly pour in the batter – it should sizzle and bubble a little when it first hits the hot fat. Put it back into the oven, then bake for 40 mins until the batter is cooked through, well risen and crisp. If you poke the tip of a knife into the batter in the middle of the tray it should be set, not sticky or runny.
    4. Make the gravy: Soften the onions with the remaining oil in a large nonstick frying pan for about 20 mins, stirring often, until they are golden brown. Sprinkle in the sugar for the final 5 mins. Add the spoonful of flour, then cook, constantly stirring, for 2 mins, so it coats the onions and there is no dry flour left. Gradually pour in the stock, stirring well to make a smooth sauce. Bubble for 4-5 mins to thicken, then season. Cut the toad in the hole into large wedges and serve with the gravy spooned over.
    Toad Spawn
  • 50g butter
  • 50g soft light brown sugar
  • 100g pudding rice
  • 1 litre full-cream milk
  • Zest of ½ a lemon
  • Bay leaf
  • ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • 150ml double cream

  • 1. Pre-heat the oven to 140C. Put the butter in a large saucepan over a gentle heat, and, when melted, add the sugar. Stir and cook for a few minutes, then tip in the rice, and stir to coat. Cook until the rice has swelled slightly, stirring continuously, then add the milk and stir well to dislodge any clumps of rice and sugar on the bottom of the pan.
    2. Add the lemon zest, bay leaf, spices and a pinch of salt, then pour in the cream and bring to simmer. Pour into a greased ovenproof dish.
    3. Bake the pudding in the oven for about 2 hours (or an hour if putting it straight into the same hot oven you just cooked your toad in!), until it has set, but is still slightly wobbly. Devour.