This is an article I wrote, that first appeared in the Sunday Times (South Africa), in the Lifestyle section, on 12 June 2016. (The trip was courtesy of VisitBritain).
Here are a few highlights…
It’s Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth ll’s 90th birthday year and people throughout the United Kingdom are celebrating. Her actual birthday was 21 April and yesterday, 11 June, marked Her second official one and in pubs, cafes, posh bars and restaurants The Queen is being saluted over a pint of ale, a flute of champagne and at marvellous dinners and spectacular tea parties throughout the land. After the fanfare in April, a myriad of additional events are keeping the festive atmosphere alive over the next few months in anticipation of her next big day and all the way through to January 2017. Not to be outdone by all the parades, gun salutes and equestrian extravaganzas, the culinary scene too has upped its game and pulled out the stops, in anticipation and well aware of some 65 million visitors expected to descend on the UK over the next months.
London is undoubtedly one of the top food destinations of the world and being from Cape Town, also acknowledged as a foodie capital, it takes a lot to impress me. On a recent blitz tour through London and Edinburgh however, I wasn’t disappointed.
“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” said CS Lewis. Pinkies up chaps, Great Britain is leading the way as one of the world’s greatest tea consumers per capita. Drinking the beloved beverage is a serious business in the UK. It can be taken as ‘builders’ tea’, the blue collar way, by grabbing a quick break at the office, a takeaway cuppa on the street or at a ‘greasy spoon’ café and always in a mug, with milk and two sugars, explains chauffeur Chris Willis from Chirton Grange. A more sophisticated option and one that is usually associated with a special occasion or social event is the afternoon tea, that quintessential British custom introduced to England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in 1840. Usually taken between 3:30pm and 5:00pm, it’s not only a fabulous occasion but still serves as a stop – gap between lunch and dinner, the perfect antidote to that “sinking feeling” as the Duchess called it, to which we can all relate. The afternoon repast is not to be confused with high tea in the Britain of olde, when workers would settle down for ’tea’ straight after work, a filling meal that consisted of meat, vegetables, bread, cheese and of course, a cuppa. Today, we simply call that supper.
There are countless elegant places to enjoy a beautifully appointed afternoon tea in London. At Fortnum and Mason, the Queen’s Grocer on Piccadilly, you can book a table and enjoy Fortnum’s Famous Teas and rare loose leaf blends in exquisite St James Eau de Nils china with your selection of pastries, and shop in the store afterwards from a vast selection of delectables such as the light, buttery and crumbly Highgrove -The Prince of Wales’ own brand- shortbread or take home the Royal Blend Tea Bags Decorative Caddy, presented in seductive packaging, and holding a Royal Warrant.
At The Rubens on Buckingham Palace Road, the Royal Afternoon Tea Experience is a marvellous three tiered tray offering with savoury treats like coronation chicken rolls, delicate finger sandwiches with finely sliced cucumber and cream cheese, or with egg mayonnaise and cress. Numerous tartlets and eclairs beckon, as well as miniature dark chocolate biscuit cakes made with McVities, the outsize version of which was served at Prince William’s wedding, and a favourite of his. The orange scented scones spread thickly with lemon curd and topped with a generous dollop of Devonshire clotted cream are particularly divine. At the B Bar next door to The Rubens, the afternoon tea has added a unique South African twist to their steal menu – mini bunny chows stuffed with boerewors, chakalaka and crispy onion, and a tea list that includes interesting rooibos blends with enticing names like sunshine orange and totonac vanilla. (bunny chow recipe courtesy the B Bar on Buckingham Palace Road)
Watercress soup was a lovely discovery- a slightly peppery and surprisingly good dish found on most menus I happened across. The delicate little plant that has been around Britain since the late 1800’s, packs 15 essential vitamins and minerals and has undergone a bit of a renaissance as a superfood.
When cocktail hour comes around, a Dubonnet and gin cocktail, Her Majesty’s favourite tipple, is a must. Dubonnet originated in France and is a blend of fortified wine, herbs, and spices, mixed with gin and poured over ice (70ml Dubonnet, 35ml gin), and garnished with a twist of lemon rind. Sip one at the B Bar or at the Green Bar at Hotel Cafe Royal on Regent Street, perhaps after you’ve had afternoon tea in their lavish Louis XVI themed Oscar Wilde Bar. The Leopard Bar at The Rubens has created, just as they did in The Queen’s Jubilee Year, a special Emerald Royale cocktail, a sweet drink that combines Midori liqueur, mint leaves and prosecco. And for dinner afterwards, look no further than The Library, the hotel’s formal but inviting award winning restaurant that showcases several menu items created with Her Majesty in mind. (Emerald cocktail recipe courtesy The Rubens).
In Scotland, there is no shortage of exceptional venues in which to savour wonderful food. From drinks in the ancient 800 year old Cave Bar at the 13th century Meldrum House in Aberdeenshire, to lunch in Edinburgh at La Cucina at the Missoni-inspired G&V on the Royal Mile, afternoon tea in the Royal Deck Tearoom on Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, and dinner in the Italian Room at the opulent baroque Prestonfield Hotel, the cuisine was almost upstaged by the gorgeous décor and designer crockery. All these fine establishments also serve afternoon tea, once more guaranteed to be a refined and delightfully satisfying experience.
And of course there is whisky, the national drink of Scotland and one in which the Scots take great pride. The amber drink, be it a blend or single malt, is centre stage everywhere and a visit to Royal Lochnagar, the distillery near Balmoral Castle that holds a Royal Warrant, will unpack all one would ever need to know about this drink, from grain to cask. Or, if not in the ‘hood of Balmoral, visit the Scottish Whisky Experience a few metres down from Edinburgh Castle. Have a dram and appreciate the flavours and a combination of fragrant aromas, as the liquid slips down, leaving an afterglow. As Mark Twain said, ”too much of anything is bad but too much of good whisky is barely enough.”
Great Britain has something for everyone, on every budget. 2016 is a milestone year in the UK and a visit at this time means you’re in for a fine time with excellent fare in a jolly atmosphere. A winning combination!
The Rubens at the Palace Hotel and Leopard Bar, London: www.rubenshotel.com
B Bar on Buckingham Palace Road, London: www.bbarlondon.com
Fortnum and Mason, London: www.fortnumandmason.com
Royal Lochnagar Distillery, Balnoral: www.discovering-distilleries.com/royallochnagar
Meldrum House, Aberdeenshire: www.meldrumhouse.com
The G&V, Edinburgh: www.quorvuscollection.com
For more details re all the above and more, www.visitbritain.com
If you feel like trying your hand at making watercress soup, here’s a recipe, courtesy Meldrum House, in Aberdeenshire
6 x large potato, 1/2 leek, 1/2 onion, 1 clove of garlic, 1 lt vegetable stock, 4 bunch watercress, olive oil, salt, pepper
1. peel potato & cut into small dice, cut leek & onion into small dice, crush garlic
2. heat up pan & add in oil & sweat garlic, onion, leek & potato for 2 minutes add in veg stock & cook out
3. add in watercress & puree in liquidizer season & serve
All images by Allison Foat*
Cheers & here’s to Her Majesty’s good health!