The luck of the (Northern) Irish

Visits to Belfast are always punctuated with the regular consummation of tea and cake – not just because a wealth of tea is available in my parents’ home (all nicely labelled, obviously) but because the city possesses some of the best places in which to sit and eat cake.

For a start, my Dad’s theological college has tea and scones every morning. Who couldn’t fail to love an institution that pauses at 10.50 every day for such a refreshment? And, when I say ‘scones’ I don’t just mean the regular raisin variety, I mean baskets of all sorts of variations – wholemeal with dates; strawberry and white chocolate; cherry; plain… It makes our St Mellitus biscuit assortment on a Monday morning pale in comparison.

Edgehill SconesA basket of Edgehill scones.

Then there’s the hitlist of places I require a visit to on every trip to the city…

Avoca [renamed ‘Avocado’ by the iPhone autocorrect] which also does a fantastic line in scones. (What can I say, I love a good scone – as long as it’s sweet. Savoury scones are wrong, wrong, wrong.) Their pear and vanilla scone has to be consumed to be believed! On this particular trip, as I’d only had a college scone a couple of hours previously, I went for the lunch option of Carrot & Ginger soup with a side of wheaten bread – utterly delicious. The café is the upper floor of an equally delightful shop that sells what can simply be described as ‘nice things’. The foodie bit of it is wonderful, and a good place to go for an affordable dessert for a dinner party if you want your guests to be fooled into believing that you made it yourself.

The Ikea café. Yes, I appreciate that one can eat Swedish meatballs in practically every major city around the world, but Belfast’s Ikea must have the most entertaining cafe view of the entire chain. In Edmonton you look out over a roundabout; in Wembley it’s the A40; and in most other locations it’s the car park, but in Belfast it’s the runway of Belfast City Airport. [We don’t ever refer to the ‘George Best’ bit of its name.] You don’t need to be a plane spotter to appreciate the entertainment value of planes landing and taking off, though it becomes rather more geeky when your companion uses their flightchecker app to establish the destination/origin of each plane. Plus, what’s not love about a mid-morning tea break that includes free beverages (thank you Ikea Family Card) and three Swedish cakes for £1.50? I also love visiting Ikea when it’s physically impossible for me to buy anything but that which can be easily carried in hand luggage (basically, cushion covers and Swedish liquorice).

Common Grounds. The traditional Saturday brunch location of the Belfast Clutterbucks and an incredible example of social enterprise. Run by a combination of paid employees and volunteers, all  the profits are put into social transformation projects locally and abroad. It has a fabulous atmosphere and delicious food, plus lovely means of showing love to others. They had the ‘suspended coffee’ concept long before Starbucks and you can also pay for a coffee/snack for a friend when they next visit – the chalkboard above the counter bears the names of those who have a treat awaiting them. It’s no wonder that it’s effectively become my mother’s second office. According to their website, in their 8 and a half years of existence, they’ve given away over £55,000 – quite a feat.

Lunch at Common Grounds & Harlem CafeOn the left, my go-to savoury brunch at Common Grounds (potato cakes with chilli sauce) & the Veggie Fry at Harlem Café. There’s a potato theme…

Harlem Café. A new addition to my ‘places to visit in Belfast’ list, but well-deserved. It’s eclectically decorated with myriad ojects d’art, generally vintage themed, but with a cracking menu of local delights. (I had their Vegetarian Fry, which was carbtastic in a way that only happens in Ireland – potato farls, soda bread and pancakes!) I noted that they also do a range of afternoon tea options (something to explore on another visit), including a ‘Gentleman’s afternoon tea & cognac’ (with an optional cigar extra). The mind boggles…

The Dock. I’ve saved the best till last. This pop-up café may not be around forever, so catch it while it is! Located in a new shopping strip in the Titanic Quarter and barely a 5 minute stroll from the Titanic Experience, this café is run by the Church of Ireland and staffed entirely by volunteers. There are no prices, you simply donate what you feel your food and drink was worth. (I’m virtually certain this results in people giving more than they might actually have been asked to pay.) There’s a mix of furniture; interesting art on the walls; friendly volunteer staff; free books; and they serve Suki Tea, seriously, this place is amazing!

Homemade Chocolate Tea CakesHomemade chocolate tea-cakes at The Dock. I am now obsessed with getting hold of a silicone mould in which to try this out myself – as inspired by a technical challenge on the last series of the GBBO.

Oh, and talking of the awesome Suki Tea, my other Belfast foodie essential is St George’s Market, where I was able to stock up on tea leaves – Earl Grey Blue Flower (a classic) and Mango Tango (a newbie, sampled at The Dock and likely to be an excellent candidate for summer iced tea making).

Wee Buns at St George's MarketAnd this stall, at St George’s Market, will always make me giggle. Because I am a child.

A friend and a footballer

There is a lot to say about the last week. Being apart from my beloved laptop meant that I was reduced to writing down potential blog topics in a little notebook. [At a Christian event people watching you do this assume you are having profound thoughts and thus do not disturb you, simply looking on in awe at the stream of words flowing from your pen…] In fact, one of my top 5 highlights of the week relates to blogging, but I’ll tell all when I’m less tired and unclean.

Suffice to say, I’ve learned a lot about myself and a lot about coffee. Well, to be specific, a lot about working in a café (although I was taught to use the fancy machine for special coffees I never actually got to use it). After I’d got used to the routine I discovered my analness manifesting itself in hitherto unseen ways…

Exhibit A:

A pretty perfect Chai Latte (not actually on the menu, but once I’d been taught milk frothing technique and had spotted the chai syrup I deduced that my beverage of choice had to be only seconds away). Not overly anal, but it did please me that getting the right level of milk vs foam into the cup had quite a technique to it.

Exhibit B:

These beauties are Chocolate Mountains. Hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows, squirty cream, chocolate sprinkles, a flake and about a billion calories. There’s quite an art to their creation and they can be rather labour intensive – particularly tricky in the late shift when all people seemed to want was a sugar rush before bed.

I discovered that the key to getting into the groove for the Hot Chocolate/Filter Coffee station was to have a system supported by plenty of preparation and the kind of focus I somehow rarely stir up for my regular day job. Despite the noise, the team were in tune and with every cry of “Liz – another Mountain!” I was immediately to work. In fact, such was my dedication and artful skill that by the end of the shift I’d been declared Queen of the Chocolate Mountains. Beautiful.

Exhibit C:

One of the key analness indicators was the precise way in which the station had to be set up to function. It made me happy to organise the flakes in this tidy fashion, rather than a higgildy piggildy mess. [This is a box I filled once empty – I then tidied the second box so that it too met with my high standards.]

Exhibit D:
Actually, there’s no photo for this one, but a job I fell in love with on my first ever café shift was re-stocking the fridges ready for the next session. It involved counting, filling spaces, ensuring symmetry and creating a work of art. This is where the footballer reference comes in – Britain recently discovered (courtesy of Jonathan Ross’ final chat show) that David Beckham has an OCD complex with drinks cans and his fridge. Like Becks, under my care, the fridges balanced – labels faced the front, cans aligned, a certain number of each brand… It’s worrying.

And the friend reference? Well, I’d think that would be obvious…just call me Monica.


It is a small world after all… Anyone in Christian circles knows that the six degrees of separation is rubbish – it’s more like three. (In fact, I have one friend who reckons that between the two of us we know everyone, given that pretty much anywhere I go I meet someone who knows him.)

Lately, I’ve had a run of coincidences that have gone from the pretty random to the utterly ridiculous…

  • A girl I’ve done kids stuff with at church for a couple of years, turns out to have a Dad who does the same job as my parents. Not so unusual – it makes a current total of five of us at church with parents in that particular denominational profession. On top of that, our sisters do the same job too – they’re both teachers, so no massive coincidence there – but in fact they teach in the same school. Random.

Two weeks later…

  • My sister is out with her colleagues and ends up sat next to a woman whose imminent maternity leave is the cause of the celebration. During a conversation about weddings which results in my sister mentioning her maiden name, this woman suddenly exclaims “Oh! You’re Liz’s sister”. Turns out the teacher in question worked with me in my bookshop era – in fact, we began our jobs on the same day. Quite random, though not unbelievable.
Last Thursday…
  • A colleague casually mentions that he met someone who knew me the night before. Turned out her name was Alice, so I began running through friends of that name in an attempt to work out who it was. A comment about the Potteries and a priest for a father quickly made me realise that the girl in question was my Godfather’s daughter – who I’m in semi-regular contact with regarding our mutual driving sagas. The truly weird thing about this encounter is that they’d met on a crowded platform at Green Park station and simply got talking, which is not normal London behaviour! The revelation of his occupation and employer immediately had Alice asking if he’d come across any Clutterbucks – deeply worrying. 
  • I’m just home from a day out in the sun, tinged pink both from its rays and a little embarrassment. Sauntering through Covent Garden after a delightful few hours with friends, I popped into a favourite Café Nero for an iced beverage and the use of their facilities [that’s a delightfully British way of saying I needed the toilet]. As I made my way through the crowd at the counter, realised that one of the arms that had just taken a frappé bore a familiar wristband. I looked up a discovered an equally familiar face. We chatted, discovered we’d come into the café with the exact same purpose and after a few minutes I excused myself. I guess that as we both live in London, this shouldn’t be such a coincidence, but you just don’t generally bump into people like that. [There’s a back-story as to why this was more random than it might seem, but I’ll not go into the details.]
  • The slight embarrassment results not from this encounter, but one 20 minutes later when we both ended up (independently) in Trafalgar Square. I was busy escaping the attentions of a male tourist intent upon interrupting my quality time with my book [“Can I sit here and chat with you?” ,”No. I’m reading and having some quiet time by myself”]; he was waiting for friends. I decided I looked like a stalker – hence the pink cheeks. Paranoid? Me? Very. [It should be noted the use of the word ‘he’ in the previous sentence suggests why this might have been a potentially cringe-worthy encounter.]
None of these coincidences are bad things, just a little weird and leaves me pondering whether this happens to me more than most other people? It certainly feels like it at the moment. 

Meringues & meanderings

Is this not one of the most amazing meringues you’ve ever seen?

How about these?

This wonderful cafe appeared on a Cambridge street just as me & dear Wibblyfish had exhausted ourselves by walking miles and miles round the town, gathering supplies for our weekend of crafting. (More about that tomorrow.)

We shared the yummy lemon meringue (I helpfully observed that it “tasted just like lemon meringue pie, just without the pie” – yet again proving my talent at stating the glaring obvious!), whilst Mrs WF had a Strawberry smoothie made from fresh English strawberries and I had Rosehip tea. Glorious. If you’re in the ‘bridge any time soon, do check out Origin8.

Our tea break was politely interrupted by a couple of Dutch hitch hikers who needed an extra chair. One left their (also gorgeous looking) brownie on our table whilst retrieving coffees and our observation on his return that this was a dangerous item to leave next to a pregnant woman drew a question that had both of us giggling:

“Oh! Which one of you is pregnant?”

Cue much giggling. It seems Mrs WF’s obvious 5 month pregnant bump is not so obvious when sat down. Luckily, the student redeemed himself by going on to say that he assumed we were both students. Cue even more giggling.

Unfortunately we then managed to look exceedingly dim as we couldn’t answer any of his questions about goood places to go in the town as neither of us actually live there!