(As I sit down to write, there is a front page story about a lady who lost her legs in the terrorist bombing here. She is now representing her country at the Paralympics. A great kick in the teeth to the cockroaches who planned and carried out that cowardly act; but it does make my tea blog seem rather trite, unless I have discovered a cure for cancer or somesuch, which < spoiler alert> I haven’t.)
TEA! As we know, it’s a variable commodity. The last few days have seen highs and lows.
At the end of the day on Day 1 in the new location – Bayswater, home for the next three weeks or so – we found Cafe Diana. A cafe entirely dedicated to Diana, just down the road. That’s Princess Diana, not the Greek Goddess.
It might seem an odd choice of place for me to praise - their entire tea selection was bagged except for an Ahmad of London Cardamom tea.
We had that – it was really lovely – and then there was soup and toast and toasted sandwiches. Simple fare, well cooked and served with pride. The same pride that went into the walls, which were covered with good quality photos of Diana, Princess of Wales. Every shot was and article was respectful, framed in a quality frame and perfectly dust free. In fact, the place was not just a tribute to Diana, but to cleanliness, friendliness and pride. I can’t really rate it as a tea shop, but I recommend it as a lovely experience. A good close to the day.
Next, we spent an entire day at the British Museum. It’s amazing. We will do at least another day there. So far we have covered Assyria, Romans, Egyptians, Europe up to 1300AD and a bit of The Enlightenment.
Never mind that, let’s talk about The London Review Cake Shop.
This place is quite wonderful. Unmissable. Scores 90 Caj (If you are not aware of how that scale works, keep up). An adjunct to the London Review Book Shop; which is incredible. we went a bit nuts in there as well.
Back to the cake shop, we drank Honey Phoenix Oolong and some Assam, both by Jing teas, I think. First rate. Lady Devotea has been planning to have a slice of their Lemon, Olive Oil and Rosemary sponge cake since reading about it last November; and she claims it was worth the wait. (Not that I have reason to doubt her, just disappointed I wasn’t able to try it).
If this place had 25% more floor space and comfortable chairs it would have scored even higher. The quiche I had for lunch there was also excellent.
Another day, another adventure – yesterday it was off to search for an anniversary present. This is based on the fact, I later found out, that Lady D thinks it is a 50th wedding anniversary. Anyway, we bought some lovely tea-related stuff and are including some tea, of course.
But I am skipping ahead. Let’s roll back
We alighted the tube at Green Park after a journey planned with military precision.
The plan was breakfast at Fortnum and Mason. But I went mad. The sign “Patisserie Valerie” was before us and it looked familiar. I was convinced this place was listed in our book of places to try.
Let’s ignore the dirty table that they failed to properly clean twice and that eventually Lady D sorted out with a serviette. The tea (Suki breakfast blend) was insipid and cheap-tasting.
The brioche was stale. When I complained they explained, “Oh, that’s because we keep in in the fridge. We can warm it if you like”. As we have owned a cafe and know all about keeping bread in the fridge, I can state categorically that the damn thing had been there many days.
Lady D ordered Toast with jam. Not easy to get that wrong, is it? Guess again. the toast was thin, and poor, and cold. The jam did not even show up.
If you are not across the Devotea Scale for Arsonistic Deservability, read this
Turns out the name was familiar as it is a chain and we had seen it elsewhere. Not in the book at all!
This was a splendid convenience; and furthermore, it was in a department with ALL the things that gentlemen need. Not just suits and hats, mind you, but essentials like silver candle snuffers and magnifying glasses.
The tea range was vast, but stupefyingly expensive. They wanted 75 pounds for 50g of English tea.
Even I wouldn’t spend that. The first time I have ever said ‘no’ to a tea I really wanted on the basis of price.
We did buy a canister of tea - a blend they made for Edward the VIIth. I think he might have been Guy Pierce”s and Colin Firth’s father in The King’s Speech, and therefore a bit harsh, but no matter.
Fortum and Masons is almost worth a visit for the tea, but is really worth it as a tea-themed amusement park. I have not tried the tea yet so no rating.
We left there a bit dizzy, on our way to the main target – the china shops of Regent Street for gift-buying. But then, we spotted a samll market. And this guy:
We could hardly go past someone who does what we do. And even though his English was poor and his guess at what tea we would each like was way off, we bought some Yumchaa Seajuli Estate Assam, and I am drinking it now as I type. And I find it to be lovely.
We then spent some time in Regent Street, but with our deadline to be at the meet-up approaching, we did not procure a gift before we had to scurry underground toward St Paul’s.
The next part of the blog is a little difficult to write.
When we were last in London, in 2007, the best cups of tea we had by far were ones we made ourselves. When out and about, tea was generally pretty bad. The exception to this was a place simply called Tea, and we liked to think of it as a special place for us.
So we organised to have a twitter friends meet-up there.
We booked for six (as we had five acceptances, plus ourselves) One had later pulled out at the last minute as always happens. But as it eventuated, we only had two turn up, and one was very late so there was very little overlap, so it was more or less just two three-person sessions for twice the time I’d booked for.
Also, we are hard work. We have high expectations and have also run a tea shop, so that’s a dangerous combination.
We had actually scoped the place out three days before; and we had some concerns. The guy on the counter was not overly friendly and seems mystified by tea.
The manager seemed very concerned that all was well with us, which was great. After the manager left mid-afternoon Friday, there was a noticeable diminishing of the service.
We had a great time meeting some tea folk, including fellow tea trader @vsopfables. We drank Keemun, Green Ginger, Bai Mu Dan with Rose, 2nd Flush Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon Vanilla and Earl Grey (all but me for the last, obviously). Possibly others I have forgotten.
All the teas were fair without being top quality. Above acceptable; never excellent. I got the impression that each one was prepared in an identical manner, so some possibly suited the method more than others,
Part of this to me is always of you are serving plain white cups and teapots; there is nowhere for the tea to hide.
I can’t say that I recommend this place for its ambiance; for even though it has great decor and should feel special; it does not.
I was in the line with the mysterious figure known as The Duke of Earl Grey of Myrtle Takes Tea fame and commented on the server we had nicknamed “Mr Surly” and The Duke made a very telling remark.
“This is the reality of hospitality staffing in London. The staff here are simply not tea people; they just have a job”.
I think the Duke was right – not just because I never argue with a six foot tall hare with a sword – and I have thought on that since.
It would have taken a really bad place to ruin the mood. It was a great afternoon. And ‘Tea’ did not do anything wrong – apart from serve stale carrot cake, and delivering someone else’s order to our table at one point.
It’s more about what they didn’t do. They didn’t care. They lacked pride.
This is the heart and soul of the rating system: How much do I want to in the environment that is being created? And this place has a heart of acceptable tea but no soul. So they score 50 Caj.
It would only take a small chance in personnel and attitude to make this place great. Actually, I’d love to see them succeed.
I won’t detail the intense gift shopping that took place afterwards, but by about 7.02 (I purchased a pocket watch at the earlier market and was incessantly checking the time) we were ready for the first proper meal of the day. Off Oxford Street, in St Christopher’s Place, we found a Turkish-run place called Sofra.
Every aspect of this place, the service, the food and the spectacular customer service was perfect. It is a model restaurant. And cleverly run, as well, from the owner holding control over the experience and working round the limitations of paid staff just turning up to do a job. At the end of the meal, they thoughtfully added the biggest tip so far in London to the bill, and we doubled it.
On a visit to the bathroom – which they seem to clean every few minutes – I walked past people drinking oolong, people drinking green and a couple who had a big cast iron pot of tea and a pile of rustic sugar cubes.
Back at the table, I excitedly relayed this information.
Ironically in a day that had seen me drink over 20 cups of tea, and Lady D was only maybe two cups behind that, we realised we simply could not partake of any more tea. That does offer a great incentive to go back, though.
So there you have it. A patisserie worthy of contempt and unworthy of the name; a department store bordering on imaginary; the tea shop that could be so much more and a restaurant that is so much more. A mad, exciting, infuriating but ultimately memorable day.
We walked for three quarters of an hour through the streets back to our apartment, taking in more sights, more sites, more sounds in the autumnal dusk.