Afternoon Tea at the Wolseley

My list of “Things I Absolutely Have to Do in London” is not very long, but one of them is to have a proper afternoon tea, preferably somewhere really posh. It being my birthday, it seemed the perfect time to check this one off the list. After a little research, my friend Francesca and I decided to try The Wolseley on Piccadilly Street in the West End (can you get any posher?). As soon as we walked through the heavy glass doors, I knew we’d chosen well; we found ourselves in a gorgeous, cavernous Art Deco salon (once an automobile showroom) with soaring ceilings, gleaming black and gold geometric planes, and glittering mirrors. As I looked around, I half expected to see Jay Gatsby and Daisy whispering to each other over one of the black marble tables.

We shared the full Afternoon Tea (£22.50. A simpler option is the traditional “Cream Tea,” which includes tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam for £9.75), with Francesca choosing English breakfast while I opted for jasmine green tea. We each received a generously-sized antique pot with a well-worn wooden handle and a printed tea label. Charming!

Along with the tea pots, we each received a strange silver contraption with a swinging wire basket that was apparently intended for filtering the tea in some manner; we couldn’t figure out exactly which manner. I was about to just drop the thing into my giant tea cup when I spotted the nattily dressed British men at the next table using theirs correctly: Lift by the handle; turn your wrist 90 degrees so that the cup-shaped stand swings to the side; pour tea through the filter basket to catch the loose leaves; flick wrist again so that the cup swivels back into place (neatly catching any drips) and can be used to hold the strainer upright on the table. Got it. (This brilliant apparatus is available for purchase for the trifling sum of  £63.00 — http://www.thewolseley.com/tea-strainer.)

Shortly after, our three-tiered tea tower was placed on our table with a flourish. The dapper, freakishly tall waiter carefully explained each of the five finger sandwiches and the three tea cakes in an unidentified foreign accent so thick he might as well have been speaking another language. We managed to identify the sandwiches by color and taste: 1) smoked salmon and butter, 2) cucumber and butter, 3) celery and roasted toe-mah-toe, 4) cold chicken salad with tarragon, and 5) egg and cress. On the second level were the little cakes: a slice of mini Battenberg, a tiny round Victoria sponge, and a beautiful doll-sized raspberry tart. On the top level, nestled under a heavy, elaborate silver dome topped with a tiny pine cone-shaped knob, were two small currant scones.

I went for the scones first since they were still warm from the oven. They were, in a word, heavenly. Tender, moist, light, and buttery on the inside — crisp and browned on the outside. I slathered mine thickly with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam (both also handily labeled for the uninitiated). The clotted cream was fantastic — it didn’t have the unpleasant sticky consistency of others I’ve tried — instead it was light (If that word can be used to describe a substance that clogs your arteries with a single glance…that’s why it’s called “clotted” cream, right?), smooth, and fluffy. The jam was lovely, too: neither too sweet nor syrupy.

We attacked the sandwiches next. I enjoyed the chicken salad the most — the cool chicken was tender and shredded into generously sized chunks. The other sandwiches were perfectly acceptable, but nothing to write on the Internet about.

And finally: the tea cakes. Battenberg cake is a favorite of mine, so I tried that first. The checked pieces of sponge cake, though alarmingly artificial in color, were moist and pillowy, held together with a thin layer of apricot jam and wrapped in a sheet of dense marzipan that had the same satisfying, firm, fine-grit texture as a bite of Play-Doh. Not that I’ve ever eaten Play-Doh. Next? Victoria sponge. Another favorite! Or should I say, favourite. Although it’s called sponge, this cake does not have the same light, airy texture as a North American sponge cake. It’s sweeter, moister, and denser, a bit closer to what we know as pound cake. The whipped cream that billowed out from between the wee cake layers as we bit into them was absolutely perfect: again, extremely rich cream that somehow tasted ethereal. And all balanced out by a dollop of the homemade strawberry jam. We saved the raspberry tart for last and it turned out to be a wise decision, since it was the best of all — a crisp, buttery tart shell filled with a spoonful of smooth, creamy custard piled high with huge fresh raspberries, velvety-matte under a coating of tiny silvery hairs and bursting with bright red sweet-tartness. “Sono contentissima!” (I’m so happy!) Francesca murmured, and I concurred.

It might all sound too girly for words, but I noticed that the muscular British men seated to our left ordered the exact same thing (wearing pink shirts, no less) and it didn’t seem to threaten their masculinity in the slightest.

We ended with a visit to the ladies’ room, suspecting that it would be as elegant as all the rest, and we were not disappointed: more vast expanses of black marble and mirrors, accented with glimmering gold.

Forget breakfast at Tiffany’s. Tea at the Wolseley is a sure-fire cure for the mean reds, any day.

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The Late-Night PFC Experience

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So I’ve been out with friends in Chelsea tonight. I take the night bus home and God bless the night bus. Even though it takes freaking forever, at least there’s a way to get home past midnight that doesn’t involve dropping a fortune on a cab ride (ahem…Boston, take notice). When I finally get back to Clerkenwell from Chelsea, it’s about 2:30 a.m., I am starving, and I am wondering: What on earth is open at this hour? Where can one get some soakage? Lo and behold, the N19 drops me off right in front of a PFC, and oh yes, I am gonna get myself some. What is PFC, you say? Allow me to explain. Although they do have KFC in England (though British KFC franchisees are apparently ignorant of the meaning of “crispy”), KFC is not generally open at this ungodly hour. They don’t eat this late in Kentucky. But they do wherever the people who run this Perfect Fried Chicken joint are from, and I am gonna have myself some perfect fried chicken. I march right into the harshly neon-lit place (I’ve always wondered about this. Nobody looks good after 1 a.m., much less in this kind of lighting. Is it a ploy to make you hurry up and go home faster, after you’ve caught a glimpse of your horrifying, melting face in the side-wall mirror?) and am immediately flummoxed by the backlit menu. Fries? Aren’t they called “chips” here? This must be some American-style joint. That makes me feel at home and gives me the confidence to order, very loudly, in my blatant American accent, four pieces of fried chicken and a regular fries. No, I’m not eating it here! I’ve seen that mirror, for God’s sake! Take away, please! I then march on home, clutching my warm cardboard box of deep-fried soakage.

When I open the box and sample the fries, my first thought is “Dirty, dirty oil!” That oil may very well be the same oil that fueled the miracle of Hanukkah. They’re still reusing it, up here in Islington. How thrifty. Then I try the chicken. Hm. Greasy, yes, but not so “perfect.” Apparently the PFC folks, just like British KFC owners, are unaware of the fact that the whole point of deep-frying chicken is to make it crispy. It’s sog city up in here, and the “just the way you like it!” slogan on the cardboard box is mocking me, because “cold and soggy” is NOT just the way I like my fried chicken. Oh well. Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. It was PFC or some mediocre kebab, and I was not feeling the kebab tonight. But probably the only cure for this bitter disappointment will be some Full English Brekkie tomorrow.

“Hot & Tasty” – maybe the ironic quotes should have been a tip-off, but legend has it that vodka makes it harder to see ironic quotes.

Don’t Turn the Spurtle Widdershins

 

Porrige Spurtle

Porrige Spurtle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It sounds like a nonsense word straight out of “Jabberwocky,” but a spurtle (or “spirtle”) is a Scottish cooking implement with a history dating back to the 15th century, closely intertwined with that of porridge (we know it as “oatmeal”), the traditional staple food of Scotland. It’s a wooden dowel used to stir the oats during cooking to prevent the formation of lumps and to create a thicker, creamier porridge. The origins of the name are murky, although the Oxford English Dictionary points to the Latin spatula as a possible root.

Early versions of this instrument were made from a thin, straight branch of a tree, and usually turned from hardwoods such as beech, oak, chestnut, or ash. Scottish housewives who didn’t have a spurtle might have used a rung from a ladder.

They are typically about a foot long, an inch in diameter, and cylindrical, with one rounded end. Usually somewhat tapered at the stirring end, spurtles are often shaped at the handle end in the form of a thistle, a national symbol of Scotland.

As with all wooden cooking tools, treating a spurtle with mineral oil before use and after each wash will keep it in good condition and lengthen its lifespan.

According to tradition, only the right hand should be used for stirring porridge, and it should only be stirred in a clockwise direction, as stirring “widdershins” (or counter-clockwise) was believed to invoke the devil and bring bad luck.

Today this stirring stick lives on — at least in name — in the “Golden Spurtle”: the World Porridge-Making Championships held annually in the Scottish Highland village of Carrbridge, although the rules do not specifically require the use of a spurtle in the competition.

Of course, you don’t specifically need a spurtle to make porridge at home either — the handle of a wooden spoon will do just as well, but it is important to stir oats frequently during cooking to help disperse the starches, which makes for a thicker, creamier bowl of cereal.

Traditional Scottish Porridge

Makes 3 cups

The conventional cooking method is a lengthy endeavor requiring upwards of half an hour. Soaking the ingredients overnight allows you to have breakfast on the table within 15 minutes. Serve with individual bowls of milk, cream, or buttermilk for dunking each spoonful of porridge before eating. Porridge can also be served with brown sugar, jam, honey, syrup, or molasses. Other time-honored conventions: For reasons that have been lost to the mists of time, porridge must always be referred to as “they” or “them” and must be eaten while standing up, using a bone spoon. If you’ve only ever eaten rolled oats (the flattened grains used in “instant” or “quick-cook” versions), which can easily turn into a gummy paste when overcooked, you may be pleasantly surprised by the nutty flavor and chewy texture of steel-cut oats.

Ingredients:

Porridge

Porridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3 cups cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup steel-cut oats (known as “pinhead” oats in Scotland)
1 1/2 cups milk, cream, or buttermilk (optional, for serving)

  1. In a medium saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil.
  2. Stir in oats and boil for 1 minute.
  3. Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature.
  4. The next morning, uncover, stir well, and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
  5. Reduce heat to low and simmer 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently with a spurtle (or the handle of a wooden spoon), until the porridge is thick and creamy and the oats are tender.
  6. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for a few minutes before serving.

Mr. Porky

Mr. Porky - Pork Scratchings - BEST EVER

I bought these at the pub at the end of our hike in Brecon Beacons in Wales – they really were quite tasty. I’d never seen pork rinds called “pork scratchings” before – must be British-speak.

Beanz with Balls – and Big Saucy Bangers

I don’t even know what to say about this.  I don’t think it needs any further comment.

"Beanz with Balls", "Big Saucy Bangers"

"Beanz with Balls", "Big Saucy Bangers"

Welsh Cakes

I bought these lovely little cakes from a bakery stand at the Swiss Cottage Farmers’ Market.  They remind me of something that might be eaten by Hobbits in Lord of the Rings.  They’re small (about 2 to 3 inches in diameter), dotted with currants and dusted with sugar.  Cooked on a griddle, they somewhat resemble tiny pancakes. Very traditional in Wales, they were originally cooked on heated stones and often served to travelers upon their arrival at an inn. They’re quite simple to make and very nice for afternoon tea.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 8 TB unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small pieces
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/3 cup dried currants (or raisins) – optional
  • 6 TB caster (superfine) sugar (plus extra for dusting cakes)
  • milk (as needed to wet dough)

Mix flour and salt well in a medium bowl. Using your fingers (or a pastry cutter), rub the butter into the flour until it forms a coarse, even mixture resembling corn meal. Mix in the egg.  Stir in dried currants and sugar. Add  milk as needed to form a fairly stiff dough that you can shape into a ball. Roll out pastry onto a lightly floured surface to about 1/4″ thick and  cut out 2″-3″ rounds using a small pastry cutter.  Cook on a heavy iron griddle that has been greased with butter, over medium heat, for about 3 minutes on each side or until well browned. Remove from griddle and sprinkle with sugar while still warm. Best served warm, with butter and/or jam.

[Recipe inspired by Welsh Teatime Recipes and the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen.]