Friday, 11 February 2011

Tea at Home: A Cheapskate's Delight

illustration by the fantastic J. Homersham

Having started this blog to discover – and hopefully, publicise- the tea delights of London et environs, I'm starting to feel like I've acquired an expensive hobby. It's not quite in the league of Formula 1, say, or buying a football club, but our last few jaunts have left my delicate eyes watering with the cost of a piece of cake and a pot of tea in the Capitol. Something that's made with cheap ingredients has, through the vicissitudes of metropolitan rent hikes and the completely laudable need to pay people a living wage (plus, I have to think, a smidge of a desire to turn a profit)...has become dear. Fine, I'm a bit slow to catch on. But I'm not definitely getting the message that a treat. I won't! And I think with a little DIY magic, anything – even an affordable tea – is possible.

Last week my tea pal Mr. Things came down South, where living is a bit easier, and we had tea chez moi.

I share with you our menu:

First course:
Mariage Frères Tea: Thé Alexandra David-Néel (black tea with spices)

Caramel Toast

Second course:
Mariage Frères Tea: Thé Sur Le Nil (green tea with citrus fruit and spices)

Harry Eastwood's Passionfruit Cream Swiss Roll

Third course:
De Lieto Sandwich: Mini-baguette with coppa, sheep's cheese and pickled artichokes

De Lieto Apple Pie.

We then exeunted the premises for one of my favourite cheap nights out, Stitch London at the Stamford Arms.

Overall cost, about £10. Not dirt cheap, but we did eat a staggering amount (I like to carboload before Stitch London.)

Fancy doing a home tea of your own? In addition to the recommendations above, may I introduce you to a recipe by Ms. Julia Homersham? Julia, in addition to being an amazing illustrator and cartoonist, is also a dab hand with a tea treat. To whit – her marshmallow truffles, pictured above on the happiest day of their very brief lives.

Marshmallow truffles

1 packet of rich tea biscuits (about 250g), crushed
½ tin condensed milk
2 tsp vanilla essence
100g butter
½ cup brown sugar
2 tsp cocoa powder
desiccated coconut
1 large packet of marshmallows

Melt the butter and sugar in a pot. Add condensed milk, cocoa and vanilla
essence. Mix well. Take off the heat and add crushed biscuits.

Wet your hands and roll the mixture around marshmallows. Coat each ball
in coconut.

Put in the fridge to set.

Variation: try using other types of biscuits, e.g. digestives

You can get Julia's new comic Chuckle Sandwich here

And don't forget - in tea circles, as in everything else, when in doubt, DIY!

An update on a former Tea Report destination, the Tea Room at Liberty's of London.  The Tea Room is now shut for refurbishment, pending reopening with 'an exciting new concept'.  A bit terrifying, but fingers crossed.  

Friday, 21 January 2011

Drink Shop and Do

Snuggled next to a sex shop in grimy Caledonian Road, just down the street from King's Cross tube and rail station, Drink Shop and Do offers precisely the amenities its moniker suggests.  It sells stuff, you can drink stuff and you can do stuff, all under one roof.  But what are these things? And are they any good?  And what's the cake like?  Intrigued by anything palatable within the orbit of the British Library (and, slightly further afield, Gosh! Comics) Mr. Things and I decided to explore.

We entered the carvernous, nearly deserted space around 5 on a weeknight.  With high, looming ceilings and a ladylike dove-grey on the walls, DS+D had a ghostly quality to it, only slightly dispelled by the overly loud music (courtesy of Frankie Valli and others).  Perhaps it's haunted by the specter of a furniture warehouse owner – for neon orange price stickers appear on most of the items of furniture.

It's all for sale, as far as we could tell - even the table we were drinking at.  This situation made Mr. Things extremely nervous.  "I keep wondering why people hover around the table, looking over us...but it's just that they like the look of the mirror, or the bookshelf we're in front of.  This is crazy!"

Thinking that a bit of food and a caffeinated beverage might quell our mounting panic, we approached the counter to check out the victuals. A very sparkly-eyed Frenchman who wouldn't have been out of place in Andy Warhol's Factory helped us with our selections (comfortingly, he seconded my expression of worry at the size of the Scotch eggs. Scotch eggs are something we Auslander just do not get.)  Mr. Things and I thought we bought two pieces of tart - a very nice-looking slice of something involving sweet potato and some greens - and a pot of tea.  It turned out that we got one piece of tart - 5 pound 50 with a bean salad - and a pot of tea - 5 quid.

The tart was fine, and luckily we came up with the idea of sharing it.  We just couldn't face the nice Frenchman again, and confess a) our mistake and b) our horror at a 5 pound two person pot of tea.  Perhaps we're just behind the times, but  I just couldn't get my head round it - tea's not very expensive, and though the pot was very large...can't we keep tea cheap and cheerful?  On principle?  After all, it takes less time, energy and manpower to create than the meal, with fewer, cheaper ingredients - but it's almost the same price.  This seems unfortunate.

On to the second course – CAKE. Both our lemon slice and carrot cake proved to be excellent specimens of their respective species, though the lemon slice could have been a bit more tart.

As we enjoyed our food, the place began to fill up - first with ladies relaxing after work (Drink, Shop and Do also serves cocktails) and, as the night wore on, with a crowd of mystery folk, all quite keen to make...dinosaur origami.  When I asked the proprietress about, the, erm, dinosaur origami, she did not, unfortunately, regale me with listings of upcoming events, or even bother with much explanation of this one.  

"It's Drink, Shop and DO" she replied, when I asked if the event was organized by the store, or strictly spontaneous (King's Cross does attract an odd sort).  I felt a bit snubbed - for Christ's sake, I was just asking! - and it caused me to cast a jaundiced eye on everything I'd seen (and eaten).  Those neon price tags burned brighter in my mind's eye, and the numerical values emblazoned thereon seemed all the more ridiculous (160 quid for a two tone 50's mirror?  Please no.)  The undercooked artichokes in the bean salad rumbled in my stomach, and I felt terrorized anew by the enormous scotch eggs.  Was this place the making of King's Cross, or just the encroachment of –gasp!- Islington?!

But then, let's get some perspective.  We're talking about a part of town where tea is already either completely absent as a sit-down affair, or wildly overpriced (the Peyton and Byrne concession at the British Library being a worthy new-ish contender, soon to be examined by yours truly).  Most importantly, the fact that DS+D serves cake and tea until 11:30 is unprecedented, to my knowledge, in the Capitol.  I now dream of stepping off the Eurostar and NOT having to visit McDonalds.  Ooh, or I could get a dosa in Drummond Street and then pop over for some tea and cake.  My mind reels with the possibilities.

So, do Drink Shop and Do.  Do it soon.  Their website has plenty of information on upcoming events. Just bring some cash, and, please read the sign next to the door to the loos. If you don't, you might end up in the sex shop next store, and I cannot -repeat, CANNOT- vouch for the quality of their cake.  
That is all.

3 teapots.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Yauatcha and Liberty

Chief amongst the joys of the freelancer’s lifestyle is to simply disappear (it's also one of the few things we have in common with builders). Have your usual clients forgotten your name in the haze of the office Christmas party? Have you had enough of working fourteen hour days, enviable problem though that may be? Well, then... it's tea time.  
Tea time, you say? I don't drink tea. I prefer coffee. To which I can only respond - then you, dear sir, or madam, are part of the problem.

Coffee break = sad dreary life in an office. Tea time = good things to eat, a mild high, and an actual TIME OF DAY, which appeals to my OCD side. So, tea it is.

Mr. Things, my usual companion in these late-afternoon dips out of the work day, shares my interest in what we’ve come to call the ‘tea binge’.  Unlike the ladies (and gents) of yore, we don’t stop for tea often - hence its treat status - but when we do, IT STAYS STOPPED!   We’re talking multiple cake courses, two different pots, the whole schlemiel.  

Because, in today’s London, if you’re going for tea, it’s a bit of a commitment.  There’s no longer a tea room on every corner.  Sure, you can get tea - acceptably hot, ALWAYS with milk from the neighborhood caff, your order filled halfway up the styrofoam cup and topped up with boiling water from the coffee machine.  It’s been stewing so long, it’s officially tea concentrate.  Or you can get your fix at any of the chains of faux Italian coffee shops - problem being that the water they use is too too hot, and cooks the tannins in the tea rather than simply releasing them.  Cue one giant serving of bitter regret.  Not good.

When Mr. T (the slightly smaller Caucasian one) and I seek out tea, it tends to be in one of the few remaining corners of the capitol where tea is taken a bit too seriously.  Large, loose leaves shaken into a teapot made before 1971 (or by artisan hands after 2007), cakes baked on the premises, people of leisure chatting in a gently caffeinated way.  These tea enjoyment venues tend to be quite far from the Tube, in places like Barnes or Stoke Newington.  People who live in neighborhoods like these - by virtue of cash, in the case of the former, or by demand of constitution, in the latter - have chosen to pull back from Flash London, into Twee London.  

Twee London is Tea London.  And that’s where we usually want to be.

But today, we’re in the heart of the Flash.  Liberty - in full Christmas-shop frenzy. did this happen, again?

Bit of a long story, that.  

For a few years now, I’d reckon that the best place to get tea if you’re stranded in Flash London is...Alan Yau’s “You can have the table from 8 until 9, but ONLY until 9” electric blue temple of dim sum - YAUATCHA.  When my husband, who works in W12 and hugs the Central Line as closely as possible at all times, took me there for our anniversary, I initially balked.  Too smart, too expensive.  Didn’t look like good value on the menu - something like £28 for an afternoon tea!  (Have I mentioned we try not to spend too much on a tea binge? We're freelancers, not Rockefellers.)  But we went, and... the courses KEPT COMING.  That tea was enough for my husband and I, to the point of being overly full, and each course - the chocolate chip scones, the fruit, the dim sum, the chocolates, the macarons - was of the highest quality.

At this point I should probably unmask myself as an American.  I know what 'overly full' really feels like. I also don’t mind mixing afternoon tea with dim sum.  What are finger sandwiches, except British dim sum?  Both are eaten with tea, both are tasty. And I don’t mind having blue tea - or white tea, or green tea, or freakin' sencha genmai cha - instead of Earl Grey.  But, apparently, a lot of other people did. Because, after a long, proud run - well, long-ish, but very proud - YAUATCHA HAVE STOPPED DOING SET TEAS.


And what they are serving....well, it’s very nice....but £7.50 for a piece of cake, however glamorously decorated, is just too much for me. After splitting a pot of blue tea and four macarons (perfectly pleasant, but not the substantial tea we were looking for), it was time to move on.  Goodbye, Yauatcha....FOREVER.  

This left Mr. Things and I in unknown territory - we’d never left a tea venue in protest!  And a two-location tea is unheard of in the history of the Tea Binge.  We might as well have made a costume change, it felt so decadent.  Let’s be clear - we didn’t want to spend twice our tea budget - but considering Yauatcha’s cruel jettisoning of the set teas, we had no other choice.  We were still hungry!  
And so, we recovered our senses, and found our way to the ground-floor tea room at Liberty, the old standby.  Neither of us had ever been, so...why not?

First difference with Yauatcha - though both serve food, only the Liberty tea room smelled like an airplane during the meal service. The second blow - the cake was almost as expensive!  Slight comedown to £5.95, but still.  THIS HAD BETTER BE SOME CAKE.

Luckily for Liberty’s international reputation (which could have been brutally injured by my little blog, I’m sure) the cakes were...amazing.  Whoever thought of pairing coffee walnut cake with a dainty filllip of clotted cream is actually a genius.  A real one!  Mr. Thing’s pear tart was pretty nice, and benefited from my generous donation of half the clotted cream.  When my husband turned up, there was plenty for him to share.  And Liberty is, of course, the best place in central London to buy expensive but bracingly cool gifts, which is very important at this time of year.  Or so it would be, if we hadn’t spent all of our money on tea.  

We give the ground floor tearoom at Liberty three teapots out of five, on the strength of the very hospitable head waitress and the sublime cakes.  Well done!

15 Broadwick St
London W1F 0DL
020 7494 8888

Tea Room at Liberty
Regent Street
London W1B 5AH