Picnic at Vaux Le Vicomte

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It’s been far too long since I last posted a blog, but my reasons for this are because I spent the last few weeks preparing for my weekend in France at the beautiful Vaux Le Vicomte. Once a year they invite visitors to dress in costume and picnic on the grass in their stunning gardens.

This was my first trip to the palace and after the wonderful time I had it will certainly not be my last.

We arrived on the Saturday and that evening we visited the Chateau for their candlelit evening and fireworks. They decorated the entire palace gardens with candles and halfway through the evening put on a firework display grand enough to match those held by it’s previous owner way back in the 17th century.

The perfect start to my mini break!

The next morning I woke up early enough to achieve the size of hair required by any self respecting courtier and hoped that the dress I had only finished sewing in the car on the way would actually fit me.

It did.

Posing in the car park.

My crazy historical hair.

When we arrived we ate breakfast in the grounds and did a bit of people watching, which I assure you is much more interesting when almost every person you watch is dressed like a member of Louis XIV’s court.

There were various entertainments throughout the day, including some gorgeous dressage horses and dueling musketeers, but even just walking through the palace and grounds in suitable costume was fantastic.

And best bit of all? It didn’t pour down with rain!

Afternoon Tea Poll

I’m shortly to post my latest afternoon tea review and was interested to know what important areas would have the most negative affect on your Afternoon Tea experience.

Picnic Pursuits!

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Marie At Tea is finally back from a rather extended break and more than ever I want to get out and about as much as possible now the weather is improving.

There are so many excuses to stay indoors these days. TVs are huge so why go to the cinema, and you can rent movies online that stream straight to your computer or console, you can shop online and have it delivered directly to you door, and you can even chat and see your friends on Skype, all in the comfort of your own home.

But there are some things you just can’t do from the sofa. A bit of creative thinking is all it takes and I hope my first suggestion covers all the bases.

A Picnic at Stowe Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire:

Stowe has been a National Trust property since the late 1980’s, and in that time they have managed to restore and develop one of the most beautiful and interesting attractions in the UK. With over 40 temples scattered throughout a huge expanse of land it makes one of the best walks in the country.

My Northern Inuit Dog Fen.

As a dog owner it makes it increasingly hard for me to find places to visit that don’t lead to me having to find a sitter for my pooch, so for me the best thing of all about Stowe is that dogs are welcome! There are a number of routes around the park of varying distances, giving everyone the chance to enjoy the grounds whether they need an easy stroll or a 2 hour hike. Considering the amount of exercise my dog needs, the 2 hour route is perfect for me, as he can have his daily walk while at the same time I can explore the architectural landmarks dotted around the property.

And for those of you who have children to think about rather than a dog you may be facing similar issues when it comes to planning the family day out. The combination of high energy children and historic properties can be stressful for any parents. Stopping your little darlings from touching that priceless antique vase can make a trip to a manor house more effort than it’s worth. However, at Stowe they aren’t restricted to walking within the red tape. Children can explore the riverside grottos and hunt for hidden statues to their heart’s content. There is plenty of space to run around and last time I visited one family had set up a cricket match.

And of course, picnics are allowed. If you want to go all out and take baskets of food I would recommend leaving them in the car in cooler bags while you explore the grounds as it’s a long way to drag heavy food until you want to eat it. We left ours in the car and then went back to get it after our walk. We ate ours by the riverside pictured above, but any spot you choose in this garden is idyllic.

And of course, whether you have a snack in a backpack or a full blown meal whatever you do don’t forget the scones!

“Unofficial” Cake Boy Review

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Today I visited Cake Boy. Now you may be wondering why this review is “unofficial”. The reason is that a couple of weeks ago I bought their Groupon voucher which offered 12 macarons and champagne for two, and whilst Cake Boy does offer an Afternoon Tea I didn’t have it. However, what I did have was pretty magical. Here’s why…

Although Cake Boy is basically a boutique cafe you will still need to book a table if you have a hope of getting a seat. I went on a Monday and the only space they had available upon booking was 4:30 onwards. Also, if you want the Afternoon Tea or a special menu you need to prebook so that they can have them prepared ready for your visit. You can also just stop by and pick a cake from the stand.

On arrival we were seated by a very friendly server who checked our order. There were only two people serving but they were both very attentive and friendly. The place had a nice warm, welcoming atmosphere. It might be worth mentioning that Cake Boy is not only a cafe but also a cookery school. You can attend lessons on everything from French country baking to cupcake decoration with Eric Lanlard, the owner. I was especially drawn to the cupcake masterclass as the price includes Afternoon Tea!

The decor is very boutique chic. It would be a great place to host a hen party which I believe they do frequently.

Very swiftly our 12 macarons and champagne was brought to our table with a hint from the server that everything on the plate was edible. There were two macarons of each flavour laid on a tablet, with a selection of sauces and sprinkles, including flaked chocolate and even Bee pollen which I have never tasted before. If you’re curious to know what it tastes like I can compare it to a piece of corn eaten straight from the field.

Really the photo doesn’t do them justice. They were so sparkly and pretty! And the flavours were lovely and delicate. Often the fruitier macarons have too strong and tangy a taste but there wasn’t one I didn’t enjoy here.

So, 12 macarons… surely that’s more than enough to satisfy two grown adults right? Wrong. The desserts on display looked so good we decided to pick one each to have for “pudding”. I chose a beautifully decorated chocolate torte (not for the faint hearted, it was incredibly rich) and my lucky companion picked a chocolate cupcake. They tasted as good as they looked and the price was shockingly low for a London Patisserie. The cupcake was only £2.50 (about $4). Compare that to the patisserie down my road where one cupcake is £4.70 (nearly $8) and the fact that it’s made by an award winning chef I’d say it’s a very good deal.

I will admit with no small amount of shame that we then picked three more desserts to take away with us! At that price it would have been rude not to.

As far as the logistics of getting to Cake Boy goes it is on the South side of the river so you would need to take a bus if traveling from within London. I would actually recommend driving if you have access to a car as there is secure underground parking for only £1.60 per hour right underneath the cafe.

So all in all the service was friendly, the atmosphere relaxed and the the cakes fantastic. I would definitely recommend it, especially for a girly day out.

Quality of Food and Drink: 10/10

Service: 8/10

Atmosphere: 7/10

Uniqueness: 6/10

Value for Money: 8/10

Total Score: 39/50

Tea Reads

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Afternoon Tea is a ritual that shouldn’t be rushed. To do it properly really requires the best part of a day. It is a soft, relaxing pass-time designed simply for one’s own enjoyment. And that’s why it goes so well with a good book.

Obviously curling up with a scone and a novel at a social gathering would be a bit, well, antisocial. But for any of you who like to both bake and read on your days off here are a couple of suggestions to keep you going.

Recipes:

Specially picked to help inspire those brave enough to DIY.

The Vintage Tea Party Book:

“The Vintage Tea Party Book embraces the style and class of the trendy London Vintage scene and illustrates how to beautifully recreate the tasty treats and classic styles at home. With a unique mixture of recipes and feature spreads with accessible tips on hairstyling, makeup methods and where to collect vintage china — The Vintage Tea Party Book has it all.”

Romance:

Pour a cup and dream of Darcy.

Lunch In Paris: A Delicious Love Story With Recipes:

“Has a meal ever changed your life? Part love story, part wine-splattered cookbook, ‘Lunch in Paris’ is a deliciously tart, forthright and funny story of falling in love with a Frenchman and moving to the world’s most romantic city – not the Hollywood version, but the real Paris, a heady mix of blood sausage, pains aux chocolats and irregular verbs. From gutting her first fish (with a little help from Jane Austen) to discovering the French version of Death by Chocolate, Elizabeth Bard finds that learning to cook and building a new life have a lot in common. Peppered with recipes, this mouth-watering love story is the perfect treat for anyone who has ever suspected that lunch in Paris could change their life.”

History:

Educational and tasty.

Tea With Jane Austen:

“You must drink tea with us tonight.” –“Sense & Sensibility”
Who would not want to sit down with Jane Austen and join her in a cup of tea? Here for the first time is a book that shares the secrets of one of her favorite rituals. Tea figures prominently in Jane Austen’s life and work. In fact, the beloved novelist was the keeper and maker of tea in her family. Tea with Jane Austen begins with tea drinking in the morning and ends with tea in the evening, at balls and other gatherings.
Each chapter includes a description of how tea was taken at a particular place or time of day, along with history, recipes, excerpts from Austen’s novels and letters and illustrations from the time. The book also reveals how to make a perfect cup of tea.”

Mystery:

For those of you who like a bit of a thrill with your tea.

Death By Darjeeling:

“Theodosia Browning is the owner of a teashop in Charleston’s historic district. Local developer Hughes Barron is found poisoned with a cup of her tea in his hand, and when a friend becomes the prime suspect, Theo starts to investigate to find the real killer. The late Mr. Barron was not a scrupulous man, so there is no shortage of suspects. Even his partner had motive. But can she find the killer before he comes after her?”

Just a couple there to keep you busy, and if anyone has any other tea themed literary recommendations I’d love to hear about them!

Tea Dress

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There are few things I enjoy more than sitting down to scones and tea, but if I were to name one it would have to be dressing up. And if anywhere gives you the chance to indulge an excuse to glam oneself up it’s a posh afternoon tea. So I thought I would explore the fashion options.

Vintage:

Vintage is an easy choice as you can combine the fantasy of a bygone era with the modern sense of style to create classy and original outfits fit for a Tea. Here are some examples from Posh Girl Vintage that nearly made me spend my life savings.

Old World:

Afternoon Tea is a thing of tradition, a piece of the old world we all long to experience. This section is for anyone who has ever curled up on a sofa with a cup of tea and an episode of Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey. Here are some suggestions from the Nataya Collection:

Fantasy:

And last but not least I have included a “what I would wear if people didn’t give me funny looks on the tube” section. These dresses represent the essence of Afternoon Tea, because for me, Afternoon Tea isn’t just about food, it’s an escape into a heightened reality, and if you can’t heighten reality through fashion then where can you?

 

Eat, Drink and… Knit?

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Vintage is the new power word. If you want something to sell then put the word “Vintage” in front of it. Vintage clothes, vintage cars, vintage afternoon tea, and even vintage knitting.

Knitting has taken off in a big way, with growing numbers of knitting groups giving the crafty among us the chance “stitch and bitch” to our hearts’ content. And no style of knitwear is more popular than vintage.

“So what does vintage knitting have to do with Afternoon Tea?” I hear you ask. Well, I’ll show you:

You can now attend a Vintage Knitting Afternoon Tea party thanks to Lavinia’s Tea Party, a company, based in the beautiful British Cotswolds, who organise and supply Afternoon Tea parties.

Now I love a simple Afternoon Tea as much as the next person of excellent taste, but I’m always keeping an eye out for new ways to “do tea”, and this certainly ticks the boxes. I only hope they add more dates to the calendar so I can get the chance to head West and try it out for myself.

Check out their website for more photos and videos.

Tophams Hotel Afternoon Tea Review

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WARNING: The following contains a bit of a rant.

I am about to share with you the details of the worst Afternoon Tea I have ever experienced.

I can honestly say will never be returning to Tophams Hotel in London again, for food or otherwise.

On arrival my  mother and I entered the reception and were directed to the “restaurant” through a pair of double doors. I say “restaurant” as it was basically a cheap conservatory with a breakfast bar and a few cafe tables. The decor was modern and generic.

We waited at the doors for 5 minutes to be seated. Nothing. The receptionists sat chatting away behind us utterly disinterested in anything not to do with their own conversation and I wondered if the waiters had gone on a break. A lady at one of the tables got up and walked passed us and I heard her ask of the receptionists, “Sorry, is anyone working?”. The reply was “Yes.” which was followed by a phone call to the kitchens, where a waitress then strolled out and smiled at us. It might be worth mentioning that no apology for either guest having to wait was offered, and the alarm bells rang loud in my head.

It has always been my belief that when dining, the important bit isn’t the problem itself, but how it is dealt with. For example, I arranged an Afternoon Tea for 10 for a friend’s birthday last year at The Blind Tiger, one of my favourite little hideouts, but due to an error they had booked us in a week later than I had asked, and so upon arrival I was immediately informed by the manager that because all the food is made fresh for the Afternoon Tea the chef hadn’t prepared enough for a party of that size. My heart sank as it was a special surprise for my friend but before I had the chance to collapse in a pile on the floor the manager told me that instead she would be happy to offer us a main meal and dessert from the dinner menu, with cocktails and unlimited tea for the same price as an Afternoon Tea. I did the maths and I can assure that this offer worked out to be extremely generous. Needless to say the meal was fantastic and we had a great time. Mistakes happen, nowhere is perfect, and I don’t expect it to be, but the issue is always in the fixing, not the making.

This apparently was an unknown concept to the staff of Tophams.

We were finally sat. The place settings were worn and the surfaces scratched and chipped, and considering all the mention of the recent refurbishment done to the hotel I assumed they had missed the restaurant in the improvements.

An old Celine Dion album echoed through the room and made me wish for the silence of previous Afternoon Teas.

We were promptly brought the cocktail menu, and this was the only thing that happened promptly, and were told we could choose 2 cocktails each throughout the meal as part of the voucher. There were no non-alcoholic options and as I was driving I asked the waitress if perhaps they had any cocktails without. I assumed this wouldn’t have been a problem as the alcohol is the expensive bit, but alas, her answer was no. In the end I got some juice. Also on the voucher the cocktails were advertised as being served in teapots, very prohibition era! They were not, in fact they weren’t even served in proper cocktail glasses.

So we sat there drinking our cocktails, wondering where the food was. We sat, and we sat, and eventually the cake stand arrived. We also awaited the tea menu, to no avail.

The cake stand was a mass produced Cath Kidston piece, and although I love a bit of Cath Kidston I can’t say it’s the kind of chinaware I expect at a Tea from a supposedly 4* hotel that sans voucher would have cost around £50.

We began with the sandwiches. Salmon and cream cheese, cucumber, and ham and cheese. I say cheese but in fact I’m not entirely sure that would be accurate. It was some cheap, rubbery, shop bought, party version of cheese. But then again at least the sandwiches I ate had a filling. Two of the sandwiches my mother chose were actually missing it! Although so scanty was the filling in mine she needn’t have worried.

Then we moved onto the cakes. They were shop bought. They were also tasteless and soggy from having sat in a fridge too long. Tiny little morsels of desserts, including a mini macaron, something chocolatey, something fruity and the rest I couldn’t be bothered to guess. And there was only one of each, leaving guests to fight over who got the least offensive looking cake.

And lastly the Scones. They were toasted and burnt. I can’t tell if they were shop bought, based on the rest of the food I would assume so, but they had obviously been cooked a while ago and had then been slung into a toaster to give them a fresher taste. Or in my case a crunchy taste. I would say I was disappointed to only receive one small scone each but in the end it was a godsend. Also the jam and cream had been served in egg cups, but they were only half full, so I told my mother I would ask the waitress for a little more jam and cream. I waited for a server to appear so I could catch her eye. And then I waited some more. It occurred to me that I could spend the entire day waiting without ever seeing a server so I got up and knocked on the kitchen door. The waitress came to the door and I asked if I was allowed more jam and cream. She said yes and disappeared again. A while later she brought a much more generous amount of jam and cream, which served to mask the taste of the bland, crusty scones.

So we had nearly finished our scones and still no mention of any actual tea had been made. We must have been in the restaurant for at least 40 minutes by now and even when Champagne is included, other Hotels show you the tea menu and ask when you would like it brought to you. I though perhaps they were waiting for us to finish our cocktails but that would have presumed the waitresses ever left the kitchen long enough to notice anything that was going on within the restaurant.

10 minutes later I got back up and knocked on the kitchen door again. The waitress came to the door once again and I asked if we were allowed tea. She said yes and brought us the menu. There were around 5 different choices, all very non specific with no descriptions. When the tea we had ordered finally arrived it became apparent as to why there were no specifics as it was Twinning bagged tea. After everything that I had experienced so far you may be surprised I had any expectations left, but I was genuinely shocked to be at a London Hotel Afternoon Tea that served me tea in bags. Only once have I had tea bags with and Afternoon Tea and the bags were made of silk and came from a private tea supplier. I would expect nothing less.

Now all of this would have been disappointing in a small town cafe, but keep in mind that this hotel matches the price for Afternoon Tea of some of the top hotels in the country. I can honestly say I have never experienced it’s like before from the smallest tea rooms to the biggest hotels, but the worst of it is cheek they have to advertise an Afternoon Tea for that kind of money with off the shelf food and drinks and the worst service I’ve ever had. All of the staff had loose, messy hair, which considering that they work with food is worrying. Having previously worked both behind the bar and in restaurants for many years I retain a certain amount of sympathy for waiters. However, this also gives me a working knowledge of good service, and made the lack of training in the staff at Tophams boldly apparent, not what you’d imagine of a “4*” hotel in central London.

The place is a disgrace, and from some of the reviews I read of the hotel in general, some of which compare the place to Fawlty Towers, I should have known better.

But there it is, you can’t win them all.

Quality of Food and Drink: 1/10

Service: 1/10

Atmosphere: 4/10

Uniqueness: 1/10

Value for Money: 1/10

Total Score: 8/50

The Kensington Hotel Afternoon Tea Review

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I am very excited to present to you my first ever afternoon tea review.

I chose The Kensington Hotel purely due to discovering a two for one offer on Afternoon Tea.

Now I have a personal rule where I won’t pay more than £20 a head for Afternoon Tea or £25 with Champagne. Unfortunately most of the top London Hotels do charge more than that per person, which is why I tend to go where the deals are. It’s my belief that if I’m being charged more than £20 for Afternoon Tea they have to be offering something pretty special, in the form of additional entertainment or all you can eat cakes and sandwiches, in which case I won’t complain. However, the good news is that between voucher sites like Groupon and specialist sites like Afternoon Tea, finding an affordable Afternoon Tea is not difficult.

Normally Afternoon Tea at The Kensington Hotel would cost £25 per person, and I will be basing my review on value for money on having to pay this per person.

On arrival we were greeted warmly by the staff and directed to our seats on a rather large sofa in a lounge area of the hotel. I would advise booking a table for Afternoon Tea here as almost every seat was taken or reserved.

The room was stylish and light, quite classical decor with an Asian theme, and although formal the room had a casual atmosphere. And this was perhaps the only disappointing part. Mistaken in thinking Afternoon Tea was taken in The Aubrey Restaurant I had Googled pictures of the rooms before booking. The restaurant is beautiful, full of period features, quite statement in it’s decor. But upon arrival we were seated in the drawing room next to the restaurant. It felt like the perfect place to relax, drink a coffee and read a newspaper on a business trip to London, but it did not feel like the place take Tea. Call me snobbish but I do expect posh to “posh”. Don’t get me wrong, the surroundings were high end but it just felt too casual especially for the price. The couple at the table next to me whom I shared a sofa with were both in jeans and t-shirts which may have had added to the relaxed feel, but in the end this was only a minor disappointment.

We were given the drinks menu by our waitress and were told we could choose as many different teas throughout the meal as we desired. I chose the Darjeeling 2nd Flush to begin and later on the Jasmine tea, and the choice, although not extensive, was varied and interesting.

Once our tea order had been taken the waitress came over to explain the menu to us. Interestingly enough I had managed to time my visit when their usual menu was suspended to make way for a special Russian Maslenitsa Afternoon Tea. The menu was as follows:

SANDWICHES
Pork pate with pickled beetroot
Mini rubens (corned beef, cabbage and cheese)
Herring and pickles onion on rye bread
Potato piroshki
Caviar blini, sour cream and dill

HOME MADE SCONES
Warm homemade plain and raisin scones
Cornish clotted cream
Marmalade
Home made Strawberry jam

SWEET THINGS
Pancakes with chocolate sauce and whipped cream
Russian fruit cake
Sugar cookies
Lemon cake
Berry and honey pavlova

Unlike most Afternoon Teas I’ve had each selection was brought out separately, like having a three course meal.

The savoury food came first, and as you can see below was as much about appearance as taste. It was extremely flavourful, but felt more like a taster menu than actual food, a trip to Russia in one mouthful. It’s hard to say which morsel I enjoyed most because they really were very well made, and it was as much fun to taste as it was tasty to eat.

I was rather close to the couple next to me and so didn’t want to disturb their meal with too much flash photography but I took a photo of the savoury course to give you an idea of the layout. Very neat and stylised.

Next came the scones. Now I don’t know why this is an issue at so many Afternoon Teas, but once again there was not enough jam and cream to fill all the scones. At most places you get two scones each, but more often than not you’ll only get one small jam and one small cream. When this is the case surely simple maths dictates that something is off. But never the less the scones were well made, not dry or floury, and there was an interesting, very light and creamy marmalade included (still only one between the two of us though). Also the scones came out freshly baked and wrapped in a serviette to keep in the warmth.

Lastly came the sweets. Once again they were all very tasty but very very small. Another taster course. I especially liked the mini pancakes.

The service throughout had to be the high point. The staff were attentive without being intrusive, formal without being cold, and friendly without being overly familiar. They knew a lot about the menu and contributed greatly to the gentle atmosphere the place had.

So to conclude, I would recommend Afternoon Tea at The Kensington Hotel if you are looking for somewhere pleasant to catch up with a good friend over well prepared food. It perhaps isn’t suitable for a special occasion or an intimate date, but for those who feel intimidated by the posher hotels it would be ideal, high end but not superior.

Quality of Food and Drink: 8/10

Service: 10/10

Atmosphere: 6/10

Uniqueness: 9/10

Value for Money: 5/10

Total Score: 38/50

Fuelling The Obsession

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It’s fair to say that Afternoon Tea is trending right now. Having come in and out of fashion over the years since it’s inception, right now taking tea is officially the thing to do. But some people are taking it further than just drinking the tea, they’re actually choosing to wear it.

How can you wear afternoon tea, I hear you ask. Well, here are a few examples I’ve found to inspire or amuse you.

Jewellery:

Above are two examples from the Etsy shop I Love Crafty. They have an adorable collection of whimsical jewellery inspired by Afternoon Tea. If you’re more adventurous with your fashion choices then these are a great way to accessorize and show off your passion.

Home Decor:

For those who like to surround themselves with the things they love here are some interesting housewares to perk up the decor.

First we have a teapot cushion from Bumblebee Cottage Shop. They have a number of teapot designs to choose from, all very Cath Kidston-esque.

Next is a vintage tea cup and saucer from T N Cake that has been transformed into a candle. Such a simple but effective idea. I actually own three of these and they also smell great, and can still be used once the candles are finished with.

Lastly we have an upcycled tea tin clock from Reigruche Studio. Firstly it’s vintage, and don’t we all love a bit of vintage in our decor, and secondly it’s just a fantastically quirky idea. I doubt you’ll find these clocks in Ikea any time soon.

Gifts:

Perhaps you have friends or family that share your passion for Afternoon Tea. Sharing is caring and the best way to do that could be with a tea cup card from The Vintage Drawer.

If you’re particularly generous and are buying a gift to go with the card then how about a teapot tag from Tori’s Custom Creations so your special someone knows exactly who to thank.

Clothing:

And lastly, if all of the above isn’t enough to quench your thirst for Afternoon Tea related goods then how about showing the world how much you care about this noble pass time with a Tea Tee from My Cup Of Tea.

If for you a teapot is just the thing that gets in the way of the cake stand then how about a skirt covered in goodies from Rooby’s. Perfect for a hot summer’s day picnic.

Perhaps you’re the kind of person who likes to eat cake by day and party by night, and want something a little edgier than a t-shirt? For you I’ve found this underbust corset from Corsets and Curves, nothing hides a day of scone scoffing like forcibly squashing a cake belly into shape with one of these.

So whether you wear your passion or just eat it, I hope you have been as inspired as I was.