The South Bank Centre never ceases to amaze me with all it offers, and much for free. I used to simply rush to concerts there and run for my train just afterwards, never fully appreciating everything the Centre has to offer. Recently, I’ve learned that it’s a welcoming all-round arts centre, not just a concert venue, where people can go at any time of day to seek refuge from the cold and rain, view free art and photography exhibitions (including a current one of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees or the World Press Photo Exhibition I mention below) enjoy various activities, get some food and shop, use the loos (not that that's considered art), or just sit and read or get some work done courtesy of its free wi-fi. In addition, it frequently has excellent markets outside. At present, there are individual little chalets lining the river embankment selling crafts and jewellery that may make excellent Christmas gifts. (Though if you are looking for unusual, artistic and enormously appealing jewellery, be sure to check out the outstanding Dazzle exhibition upstairs at the neighbouring National Theatre).
In addition, this weekend there is a Tea and Coffee Festival on the square off Belvedere Road, as you approach from Waterloo Station. You may well walk past it without realising all the goodies available and the quality of the exhibitors, plus there are free talks and demonstrations, so I recommend you check it out.
On Friday, I stopped by briefly but did plenty of calorific and monetary damage, and managed to attend one talk, which was on “Re-inventing British Afternoon tea” by Lady Henrietta Lovell, founder of the award-winning Rare Tea Company. As she spoke extemporaneously about the history of tea generally—and pretty much everything you could hope to know about tea-- and naturally was there to plug her company and its hand-made real tea, it was perhaps not specifically focused on what we picture as the tourist-luring special occasions at the Ritz, Savoy or Browns. In fact, she was highly critical of the Ritz, which she said serves Champagne, not tea, with way too many sweet cakes and charges £50 for it, and she stressed the need to return the focus to the true tradition of high tea. She also taught us that all fruit teas are just hibiscus with chemicals that we should avoid, that it’s a myth that green tea is caffeine-free, that the cheap green tea we suffer is bitter because the leaves should not be broken (pricier green tea, like hers and others available at the festival, uses the whole leaf), that Britain gets the dregs of the tea crop and in bleached bags (she wants to ban bags from our kitchen and psyche), that the water shouldn’t be boiling when we pour it on real tea nor should we warm the teapot, that there’s no tea made in Yorkshire (or by chimps), and that it should be worth investing in special tea for special occasions the same way we spring for champagne, excellent wine or fancier coffee when we entertain. Some of her educational revelations were fascinating, and I wholly applaud her support for the smaller tea farmers rather than the mass producers, particularly as it helps Malawi farmers and villages, and even tigers, which some allow to roam through their land.
I fear she might have misjudged her audience a few times by speaking to us as though we regularly have people over for afternoon tea when most will be at work or struggling to heat the house, and I doubt everyone recognised all the names she admitted to dropping, such as the restaurants (of those, Murano and Fat Duck may have struck a chord) or the chefs (Angela Hartnett, Mark Hix) she proudly supplied, as we’re just in a different world. She even whispered “Sainsbury’s” so quietly as a supplier of her RAF tea that someone had to ask her to repeat it, and perhaps that’s more our world. But I'm certainly not alluding to snobbery, and her enthusiasm was infectious, her tea seems impressively ethical, and we were all terrifically enlightened about what it takes to bring tea to us and how it’s best enjoyed. Also, the Silver-Tipped Jasmine Tea she served the audience was lovely, and I really am savouring my purchase of her delectable RAF tea. The RAF tea is a bespoke tea she made for a former Spitfire pilot to remind him of the fine tea he got before the war, which she then began producing at the request of the RAF, with some proceeds going to the Wings Appeal charity. I may give a more detailed account of her full talk another time. Naturally, her fine teas were available to buy from a stall at the exhibition (or on her website, which also has preparation advice, details of how the tea is handmade using small farmers in Malawi, and videos with Alexander Armstrong amusingly telling you to buy her RAF tea. His name is misspelled in both headings on the site, but the tea’s good).
All the people at the exhibition standing behind tented tables with beautiful pastries, breads and tins of coffee or tea before them deserve more attention than you might think. For instance, Outsider Tart is on one corner, and the name doesn’t roll off the tongue but their products will certainly enliven it. The company, with a shop in Chiswick, was started by two Americans who rued the lack of bakeries in England like the ones we have at home (snap). So they started one, full of real brownies and cupcakes, giant chewy peanut butter cookies, coconut cream pies (my favourite as a child), red velvet cakes, and early whoopie pies. Their online shop also sells ‘dry goods’ that we Americans miss (like grits, A1 sauce and Saltines) and has a Barkery (baked treats for dogs), although I don’t believe they were on sale at the South Bank. Their cookbook was on sale, called Baked in America. As I couldn’t buy the whole stall for reasons of finance and weight-control, I tried a Blondie brownie (something from my childhood that I had completely forgotten about; I seem to recall they contain butterscotch chips) and it was divine; a pumpkin brownie (similar to a yummy pumpkin pie, perfect for Thanksgiving next Thursday had it lasted that long, with a marbled pumpkin top with [I’d guess] nutmeg offsetting the sweetness of the bottom layer of chocolate); and a Hepburn chocolate brownie, which I believe had dark cocoa and cinnamon. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a more detailed description because whilst their website shows an extensive choice of products, it doesn’t seem to describe them, which may inhibit new explorers….but I’m sure they’re all delicious. Understand that these are nothing like the recent feeble attempts at brownies that one finds in UK sandwich outlets, but the Real Thing--massive, luscious, chewy, extremely moist, and full of natural flavour. I encourage you to visit this stall and indulge a bit.
I also couldn’t resist the On Café stand with their unique macarons (“French patisseries with modern Asian flavours” made using handmade purees). Ladurée in the (currently) beautiful Burlington Arcade is no longer my only destination for amazing macarons, ever since I came across On Café at Real Food festivals at the South Bank. They have unusual flavours beautifully executed, hand decorated macarons such as Pink Peach & Champagne, Black Sesame with Chocolate Ganache & Glace Ginger, jasmine tea and charcoal, and dark chocolate with salted caramel Cornish cream. The people selling them are always happy and welcoming, and they now have a permanent home at Harvey Nichols, but here’s a great chance to pick some up whilst enjoying the rest of the festival. My sole complaint would be that it would be helpful if they inserted a little menu of the flavours in their boxes, or had one available to pick up, so that you knew what you were eating when you got them home or when you handed them to the host of your dinner party. On Saturday at the festival, On’s Loretta Liu was to give a baking demonstration on the tea macaron, but I was there on Friday (although I can’t boil water without burning it so it would have been wasted on me, but it would be interesting to observe, particularly as there is normally a fee for attendance at the On cookery school).
I also stocked up at the Teapigs stand (fairly traded, ‘real tea’). I’d recently made an effort to drink more green tea as it’s meant to be better for you, but I really hated it until I found Teapigs’ Popcorn Tea. It’s a bit like drinking liquid popcorn, without the salt and butter of course, and makes the green tea experience enjoyable. Apparently Japanese peasants traditionally mixed green tea with toasted rice, now described as having a “sugar puffs undertone”. I bought more of that as well as their spiced Chai tea (I haven’t yet tried it but usually love Chai)—though I was tempted by their Chilli Chai, with flakes of real chilli. Curious about their Spiced Winter Red tea (orange, cloves and cinnamon on a red tea base), I was given a steaming sample that sold me; it’s particularly rich and scrummy with milk. I also bought their Chocolate Flake tea, which is meant to save you the trouble and full calories of dunking a chocolate biscuit in your tea. I must confess that, when I’ve been served Teapigs English Breakfast tea at The Anthologist and Giraffe, it was nothing like as nice as these teas, but I can probably blame my bad blending and dislike of the full fat milk I was given. Certainly, you should visit the Teapigs stand and try some of their huge variety of teas, or their website, where you can choose appropriate teas for your mood, including ‘in a rut’.
There are also, as you can imagine, many stands selling special coffee, which were popular (I can’t recommend a particular brand as I don’t drink coffee). A few are providing demonstrations or talks on Sunday. The Ethiopian Coffee Company will demonstrate at 1pm the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which apparently is the main social event within villages there, consisting of women in traditional dress roasting green beans over a small charcoal brazier then pounding them in a mortar before brewing and handing round the coffee in small cups.
After that event on Sunday, coffee roasters Dark Fluid will give a coffee roasting demonstration and talk. Other coffee exhibitors include Bean About Town serving hand-pulled espresso; Kopi, which will deliver a ‘subscription’ of gourmet coffee to you each month; Organo Gold (OG) organic gourmet coffee and hot beverages; and the highly praised Sea Island Coffee (“specialising in rare and exotic coffees including the famous Jamaica Blue Mountain, Hawaii Kona and Kopi Luwak Civet Cat coffees”), which supplied the 2011 GQ Man of the Year Awards and MTV Europe VIP goody bags. (As no doubt you know 'cause you were there.)
Other tea exhibitors included Choi Time (renowned, quality Chinese green tea); Comins Tea House (fine loose teas and teaware, which I regret having missed), Kush (Jamaican herbal teas, which seemed to draw a crowd), the East India Tea Company (which attracted quite a few apparent tourists buying gifts); and Typhoo teas (including their Heath & Heather infusions).
The food stalls looked amazing, including:-
--the Sweet Tooth Factory serving tea and coffee flavoured cheesecakes as well as impressive cupcakes;
--Merry Widows selling wine including spiced tea mulled wine;
--Jaz and Juls homemade organic hot chocolate (eg Chilli con Choccy and Quite White);
--The Flour Station artisan bread, which seemed to be doing quite well;
--Tasty Burley fudge;
--Tantalising giant cookies from Gelata; and
--the Continental Bakery chock-full of tempting pastries and breads.
Finally, there was plenty of hot food on offer, including Arancini Bros’ risotto balls prepared to order, very tempting to this vegetarian though I didn’t have a chance to try it; Bhangra Burgers, selling Eastern spiced beef, lamb, veggie & fish burgers; and Jamon Jamon with inviting pans of Spanish paella. In addition, Rococo Pod chocolate was also serving hot drinks, and the family-run Churros Garcia, supplying naughtiness billed as a ‘typical Spanish breakfast and snack’. I know we Americans are known for sweet breakfast foods, but this takes the, um, cake. I was lured in with a sample, and the portions were generous. It’s basically ridged strips of fried dough covered in sugar and cinnamon, which you then dip into chocolate sauce, which for the Tea and Coffee festival, is mocha chocolate sauce, of course. Yes, it’s yummy, but no, I wouldn’t recommend eating it for breakfast every day—as you shouldn’t any doughnuts. In fact, I would have welcomed a half-priced half-portion, and had I not consumed this during my visit, I’d probably have bought more goodies from other stands, but it helped me realise that I didn’t need much more sugar for a while. But it’s a fun, unusual treat, and this is a fun, unusual festival after all. Other hot food was being served around the Festival; apparently Beppino’s was offering pasta and La Marmotte offering food from the French Alps, but I somehow missed them—unless one was the stall offering a variety of hot (including vegetarian) wraps.
So basically, what might look like a small food market that you rush past on your way to the station or a concert is something much more special that you should stop and visit. You can quickly grab a hot snack or meal or pause to browse the incredibly fine foods for sale. If you have more time, you can sit in on one of the free talks or demonstrations (given in an open tent near the steps up to the Royal Festival Hall below the Mandela statue).
Sunday’s talks, in addition to the aforementioned Dark Fluid coffee roasting demonstration and Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony (and really, where else are you going to see such a thing?), include a talk by the East India Company on its introduction of tea to Britain, and two baking demonstrations by Caroline Hope, first on how to make the perfect coffee-flavoured sponge cake with coffee butter icing, and second, how to make the perfect scone.
So if, like me, you love tea (or unlike me, love coffee), and perhaps want to venture from PG Tips or Nescafe occasionally, this is a grand opportunity to explore the fine stuff out there, all in one compact place, with an amazing choice of delectable accompaniments. Several of the products would make great Christmas or host gifts, as well, or you could just be selfish like me and shamelessly scoff the lot yourself as soon as you get home.
The Tea and Coffee Winter Festival finishes at 6pm on Sunday, 20 November (opening at 11am), and can be found at Southbank Centre Square (behind the Royal Festival Hall), Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX. Admission is free.