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.

Tea tips

My name is Liz and I am a tea-aholic. It’s under control and I have no need of an intervention. Honest.

Obviously, this means that discovering the BBC was showing a two-part documentary on the history of tea was greeted with much joy – coupled with rejoicing at the news that Victoria Wood was presenting it. Tea and one of Britain’s funniest women? Yes please!

A Nice Cup of Tea

The documentary is worth watching (you’ve got a few days left to catch it on iPlayer). True, the first part – exploring the role of tea in the empire – did lack some of the finer nuances of imperial history and Britain’s relationship with the people it governed. [Thus speaks the imperial historian…] The second part looked at the role of tea in British society, revealing who it was who came up with the concept of afternoon tea (the Duchess of Bedford) and why tea is now under threat from the rise of coffee. [Coffee will never overtake tea in my world. Love the smell, hate the taste. I thank my superior taste buds.] I made a categorical error in my watching of the second episode. It accompanied a long bubble bath and stupid me didn’t think to make myself a cuppa before lowering myself into the water.

Essentially, the message was that for Brits especially, little competes with “a nice cup of tea” and that the ritual of making such a beverage – the boiling of water; warming of the pot; brewing of leaves; correct ratio of milk to tea; and the process of consuming it – are a centrepiece of society. Plus, tea-addicts will go to great lengths to get the ‘right’ tea. I don’t have a particular brand loyalty (shocking) but I have had to carry PG Tips half-way across the world to satisfy the cravings of my American Anglophile friend Ian.

As you may remember, prior to travelling to France for Chateau Duffy #4 I was wrestling with the conundrum of how much tea to take with me for 20 people (including 6 Americans and 4 children). You’ll be pleased to hear that not only did we have enough, we also converted an American child to the wonders of tea. Austin returned home to Texas with a spare pack of tea (yes, we even had spares) with which to continue his habit. I suspect, should I make a return trip to Texas this summer (here’s praying) that I’ll need to pack some tea in my luggage for him. Tea bonded several of us while in France, and sparked an interesting tea-themed dialogue on Twitter with our English plumber last week (post the documentary). He was looking for tea recommendations in London (as in places in which to drink it), and I was racking my brains for my favourites. Having come up with some, I thought it only fair to share it wider…

Tea ShotsTea photography…

My basic tea criteria is that tea needs to be respected and understood. Places like Starbucks and Nero do not understand it and do not respect it. There are bags and hot water – not blends and teapots. Yes, it will do when the need strikes, but they are not places to ‘take tea’. I also like a good atmosphere and nice receptacles. This is how the following list should be understood:

Drink, Shop, Do
It’s kitsch, it’s almost try-hard retro and it can be pricey (for this reason I’ve never partaken of their cake) but it has a marvellous tea-list, terrific motley china and has fun activities of an evening. (I went there last year for an alcoholic beverage and ended up making and decorating a cardboard 2CV while drinking a glass of wine. Awesome.) Plus, its proximity to King’s Cross makes it an amazingly convenient location for meeting people and it’s where I have as many of my meetings with one of my favourite student work colleagues as possible.

The Coffeesmiths Collective
Now found in four locations (Leather Lane, Chancery Lane, Carnaby St & Bishopsgate), it is a mecca for true coffee lovers, as you might expect from a company owned by two Kiwis. But it also respects and understands tea. There’s a list of great blends which always arrive with guidance on how long to brew it – the leaves come separately from the pot and it’s your responsibility to put them in and take them out. I’m a particular fan of their Earl Grey…

The Tea Box
In picturesque Richmond, this is the place to do tea. An amazing tea list and a genius device with which to time brews – it’s worth a trek out there for a visit alone.

The Orange Pekoe
If Richmond isn’t quite posh enough for you, head to nearby Barnes. The Orange Pekoe has an even longer tea list (I think) and a fabulous atmosphere. Tea connoisseurs rate it highly.

Finally, if you can’t make it to any of the above, treat yourself to some decent loose-leaf stuff and recreate the experience in the comfort of your own home. My top-tip is Suki Tea – a company that first sold its products at a stall in St George’s Market in Belfast, from which my mother would buy supplies to send to her tea-aholic daughters. Delightfully, this is now available in cafes in London (I’ve discovered it at the lovely Tinderbox on Upper St, where I drank their Earl Grey Blue Flower this very evening) and online. Hunt it out!

It’s also worth seeking out Flint Tea, partly because it’s the creation of a member of clergy at my previous church and partly because their ‘normal’ tea bears the name ‘Our Daily Brew’ thanks to the wit of one of my fellow ordinands. Oh, and their tins look pretty…

Our Daily Brew

Let this be an encouragement to you to re-examine your tea drinking. Take time to make your daily brew in the proper fashion. Try a different blend or tea-drinking establishment. Buy yourself a decent teapot. Most of all, enjoy it.

Nous sommes de retour. Encore.

It’s that time of year again. The time of year when my drawer full of ‘clothes not suitable for general public consumption’ gets opened and emptied; when I start keenly watching the weather forecast for Limoges; and begin to fantasise about baguettes and cheese. Yep, it’s Chateau Duffy time again.

Currently, my major issue involves tea. Yes, tea.
It’s a very important commodity en France. I don’t function without it, neither do many of my companions. It’s essential on a building site and during the cooler, wetter spring season it’s a lifeline. For some unknown reason I’ve become chief supplier of tea bags to the Chateau Duffy crew and this time last year, I didn’t quite bring enough. It’s difficult to know exactly how much tea might be needed…

Builders' TeaBuilders’ Tea

This time, there are 21 individuals. Of these, 4 are children and 5 are Americans. I am making the following assumptions:
1. The children generally won’t drink tea (particularly the 2 American ones).
2. The Americans will generally drink coffee rather than tea in the mornings.
3. We will be using a tea pot.

Would the 320 tea bags I bought yesterday be enough? Twitter, resoundingly, said no. [It seems they’re far more mathematically inclined than I am and quickly worked out the average number of bags available to each person each day.] I resolved to buy another 80 and ensure I had a stash of Earl Grey for my own purposes.

Then I realised, while in Sainsbury’s this afternoon buying additional tea, that I’d only bought 160 bags yesterday. That would have been an unpleasant discovery come Saturday morning. So, now I have 400 bags and an assurance that we have tea left over from the last trip that’s been safely stored in the Chateau’s caravan. We should be ok. I’m sure you’re relieved.

Work-wise, I only have a vague idea of what we’ll be doing. More pointing, no doubt, plus some scaffolding. A floor will be poured in (I’ll have very little to do with that) and we’ll attempt to stay dry. Oh, and there’s a plumber coming with us. I’m sure it’ll be great. Here’s hoping it’ll be relatively angst-free…

Chateau Duffy, August 2012It looked like this the day we left last August. Here’s hoping it still looks the same now.
(The blue skies and sun would be especially appreciated.)

A caffeinated discovery

Strictly speaking, I was done with my Texan retrospective well over a week ago, but there’s something I didn’t think to share on the blog that in real-life has proved to be quite a revelation to those I’ve mentioned it to – the wonders of Starbucks’ coffee for twelve people.

No, not twelve separate cups of coffee with complicated milk/shots/flavour combinations, a receptacle containing enough coffee for ten people. Voila:
As if buying morning coffee from a drive-thru Starbucks wasn’t enough excitement, I then got to travel with this (hot) beauty on my (bare) legs! It’s basically like a wine box, with a tap on the front and a handy holder for your cups, stirrers, napkins and milk on the side. Simply genius! 
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve told several people of this product’s existence and without fail, none have comprehended what I’ve been talking about until I’ve shown them the above photo, so read and believe! 
In the words of the Starbucks’ website: ‘This is our way of lending an extra hand to all those kind souls who purchase coffee on behalf of family, friends and workmates.’ In our case, it was literally a lifesaver – I don’t know if you’ve met any of the friends I choose to travel with, but without morning coffee (in large, fast-flowing quantities) they are not pleasant. 
Now Starbucks, if you could just get your head around selling tea in the US in the way you do in the UK, I would be much happier about spending longer in that country. [A coffee receptacle of any sort is no good to me – my morning injection of caffeine can only be done via tea. In Texas, I had to make do with the iced variety.] 

An ongoing education in weddings

Wedding season has arrived with a vengeance. Last Saturday I went to one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve ever been to and tomorrow, I’ll go to another ceremony in exactly the same location. Two weddings in six days at the same church? That’s quite something. I’m a fairly well practised wedding goer now, but it seems that education in the landmark occasion never ceases…

For example, earlier this week I discovered that it’s traditional in American weddings for bridesmaids to pay for their dress and accessories – extraordinary! It was a post on The Hairpin that enlightened me and honestly, I was stunned. Being a bridesmaid is an honour and a privilege, but surely it’s not something you ought to go bust over? If their presence as beautiful attendants is an essential part of the wedding, surely it’s an essential part of the wedding budget too? [Not to mention the added travel and bridal shower costs of American nuptials…] I guess I’ve just discovered a whole new aspect of the plot of 27 Dresses.

Also, tea (as in the drink, not the meal) should be an essential element of all weddings. It has fantastic medicinal purposes – soaking up alcohol consumed prior, during and post the meal; comforting those who have been overcome by wedding emotions; and providing a caffeine boost to get you through the night. On Saturday evening, a beautiful half hour was spent in the company of some lovely girls, some yummy cake and several mugs of tea. We were apparently a strange sight, clad in pretty dresses, sat on the steps of a church in a central London piazza, clutching mugs – but who cares what we looked like, we were gossiping, restoring our sanity and generally bonding, which is far more important.

Oh, and I’ve discovered that it is possible to make me cry at weddings. Honestly (and I’m sure some of you will be surprised by this, as I’m generally on the soppy side of the spectrum) I’d never actually shed a tear at a wedding. I’ve come close to it and I’ve certainly cried in laughter, but never from the emotion of it all. However, it seems that the combination of: groom recording song about bride that bride hears for first time when walking down the aisle; groom delivering spectacularly lovely speech; and bride writing and performing song for groom in her speech was a little too much for me. (I could also blame the friend sat behind me who kept nudging me to see if I was crying yet – not helpful.)

One final lesson – it is ok to wear the same outfit at two weddings, six days apart, in the same location and with some of the same guests. I’m throwing pride to the wind and enjoying the fact that I like my new blue dress so much that I want to wear it twice in a week. The important thing to remember is to do something differently (hair would be the obvious one) so that you can tell which wedding the photos are from on Facebook (key 21st century issue). Well, I’m saying it’s ok – here’s hoping no one looks at me tomorrow and judges me…