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Damsons: not just for gin…

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I don’t believe in doing a dry January. It’s a long bleak month, made grey by the weather and the removal of those lovely twinkly Christmas lights and decorations. The rest of the world withdraws from society, exhausted after the festive season and starts detailing every morsel they do or don’t eat with a side helping of shame and the Special K diet. So frankly I need a drink just to deal with them.

I don’t mean going out and drinking every bar in the borough dry, but I do enjoy a winter time tipple, usually just before bed to warm the cockles properly. And luckily my family always comes up trumps with just the ticket over Christmas in the shape of homemade fruit gins. Mister North tends to specialise in damson gin and our mum tends to go for sloe gin, which is a family tradition dating back to my childhood. However the weather in 2012 was not good for sloes, so both of them went for damson gin this year.

Warm and jewel coloured, this plum rich sweet liquor warms you better than an electric blanket and with much more style. Sipped slowly in front of fire, it softens and soothes you to sleep well when you get to bed. Served long, tall and cool over ice with tonic to cut it, it reinvents the gin and tonic in a way that’s not just for Christmas. You can even, oddly enough, douse fish in it to make a sultry salmon gravlaks.

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Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea is a delightfully English tradition and one that has become increasingly fashionable in the past few years, usually with a hefty price tag and a tendency to be overrated. I was slightly nervous therefore when a friend suggested meeting at the rather on trend Bea’s of Bloomsbury for afternoon tea this week.

My mind was put at rest the instant I walked in the door of this independent cafe. I was greeted by friendly staff who seemed genuinely pleased to see me when I said that we had booked a table. Taking a seat I noticed how low key and subtle the surroundings were and just how roaring the trade in teas, coffees and truly mesmerisingly good looking baked goods at the counter was.

Bookings are only taken for afternoon tea and the neatly laid table was ready and waiting. I looked at the lengthy tea menu while waiting for my friends and decided on Earl Grey. My companion chose English Breakfast and we chatted while waiting for our third guest. She got slightly lost trying to find the cafe and was a bit late. The staff were happy for us to sit over our tea and wait for her, swooping in almost immediately she arrived to tend to her rain soaked, stressed self with a pot of hot tea and a stunning stand of ready prepared baked goods. It doesn’t get better than this!

We weren’t quite sure where to start on the abundant selection of goodies, but trying to be well mannered we began with the huge plain scones offered. Glorious golden on the outside and soft, fluffy and light inside, we smothered them with lashings of clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam. I’m fairly ambivalent about scones usually, but these were sensational. I may have gobbled mine down like I had never seen food before…

I was surprisingly well filled by the scone, so it was perfect that the stand was filled with little morsels of the desserts sold at the counter. Who could resist a teeny tiny chewy raspberry meringue or a bite sized chunk of Vahlrona chocolate brownie studded with chopped walnuts or a little titbit of soft creamy melting Belgian Blondie no matter how stuffed you feel? The fact that they were all fantastic didn’t hurt either.

We nibbled these mini sweetmeats and drained a second pot of tea each while chatting away. We were just wondering if we could do justice to the signature cupcakes that were waiting patiently on the stand for their moment of destiny, when our waitress appeared to say they were closing in ten minutes and would we like our cakes boxed up to take home? We of course did and while we were finishing up our tea, the cakes arrived back in little boxes marked raspberry, vanilla and praline. We each made our choice and went to settle the bill.

The Sweet Tea we had came to a very reasonable £9.90 per person. This is excellent value for such pleasant and helpful service, beautiful baked goods and enough tea to sink a battleship. The cafe was busy and bustling the whole two hours we were there, but it was surprisingly quiet and easy to talk with the way the tables were laid out. I had forgotten that tea and cake could be a relaxing experience in London due to the modern vogue for loud music, screaming children and in-your-face staff in most cafes. Bea’s managed to feel very grown up and welcoming.

It is open until 7pm each evening and it was a real treat to wend my way home through the rush hour stragglers with a little box of raspberry cupcake for dessert when I got home. If you are in the Theobald’s Road area en route home some evening, I heartily recommend nipping in for a post work treat! (The cupcakes are light and airy little numbers with a buttercream topping unlike the cloying lumps of sugar some other bakeries sell. Do not miss!)

I will definitely be returning here as soon as possible thanks to the fabulous atmosphere and top quality baked goods. Individual items were well priced with many under a pound. I’ll be trying the coffee next time too as they roast top quality Square Mile beans and I think it will be a match made in heaven with the blondies…

Do make a booking for Bea’s. It’ll restore your faith in afternoon tea in London!