After a recent cake diary entry, which included a dilemma over the correct way to douse a scone in jam and cream, I was contacted by a Cornish friend of mine offering some one to one tuition. How could I refuse this opportunity and I knew the perfect venue. A Vineyard is not something you think of when it comes to afternoon tea and it is certainly not something you immediately associate with the British climate! However there is one, a very good one, just 30 miles from central London.
Frithsden Vineyard is run by a delightful couple, Simon & Natalie, who put their all into rebuilding this disused site since they brought it in 2006.
Nestled away in the tiny hamlet of Frithsden it’s a place you have to seek out, rather than stumble across. I was first introduced to it last year when my best friend had her wedding reception here. I was taken aback by the picturesque location and homely atmosphere. Orderly strings of vines intersect the hillside, heavy with fruit for harvest. The grapes are handpicked during September and October and the process continues on site until the finished bottles are produced in March. If vineyard tours and wine tasting were not enough they also offer themed foodie evenings and, of course, afternoon tea.
The outside seating area is tucked under a decorative pergola, draped in vines and paper lanterns. A little chilly on an October weekend but fabulous in summer.
The winery cafe is a converted barn, the naked wooden panelling sympathetic to it’s past life. The walls are filled with art work and photographs, shelves bulging with nicknacks and artisan food stuff to buy. Arriving during the lunch time rush (this is a popular spot for local ramblers and cyclists) we tucked ourself in the corner away from the gaggle of MAMILs (middle aged men in lycra!). The decor is a relaxed balance of rustic charm and chintz details. A wood burner stood proud in the corner ready for the winter months, local magazines and books for perusing or board games for more social interactions. A place to while away an afternoon come rain or shine. Even the bathroom has entertainment, the walls busy with newspaper cuttings and pictures of the venue. So if there’s a queue you know why!
Advised the sandwiches are all made fresh we were brought our drinks to warm us while we waited. No loose tea on offer but an array of Teapigs options and they were happy to provide coffee as an alternative if desired. A quaint matching tea set contained my earl grey and my partner in cake had coffee served with warm frothed milk. It didn’t take long for the three tiers of temptations to arrive, set centre stage and served with a smile.
Initially I thought the sandwiches looked a little sad. Thinly sliced bread in triangles lay weary on the plate. I cautiously reached for my first selection and the bread surrendered beneath my finger tips like a feather pillow. Soft to the touch and light on the tongue, the crust giving a little crunch of texture. The fresh ingredients were full of flavour, thick cut ham with wholegrain mustard and cream cheese complimented by delicate slices of cucumber to cleanse the pallet. First impressions did not count on this occasion and I could have gone another round.
It was then time for my inauguration into the ways of Cornish scone preparation. I learned that the Cornish tend to favour a plain scone (personally I love a fruit scone) but today we were served fresh blueberry scones. Another Cornish twist is they often opt for butter in addition to the jam and cream! Hearing my arteries gasp I resisted this addition. The scone was light and delicate, slicing it in half exposed the plump, juicy blueberries hidden within. I followed my guide; jam first, plenty of it right to edges. Cream next, take a dollop and drop it in the centre of each half. Here is where my inexperience let me down. Trying to spread the thick clotted cream over the slippery fruit jam I ended up with a mess of the two elements combined. I sought advice…….once the cream is piled in the centre you take your knife and gently tease the cream to the edges. Short, sharpe strokes are the key, turning the scone as you go until you have even coverage. My second attempt was better but I’m far from a pro. Although my attempt was not aesthetically pleasing it tasted delicious. The blueberries kept the scone moist on every bite and my hybrid of cream and jam topping was thick and satisfying. There was even enough cream left over for us to dip in the fresh strawberry garnish and devour, waste not want not!
The balance of this afternoon tea is well thought out. You haven’t got to battle door stop sandwiches, scones the size of your head and then a slab of cake. That always seems like a good idea at the time but it’s often wasteful and you are left feeling uncomfortably full. Our scones were followed by six bitesize squares of chocolate brownie and lemon drizzle cake. That’s six each so we certainly did not leave hungry! The brownie was soft, not gooey, with chunks of chocolate inside. The lemon drizzle was sweet and zesty with the perfect sugar crunch across the top. Unfortunately the tea was not bottomless so we had to order a second round of drinks to see us through all three tiers but the atmosphere is relaxed so we took our time and grazed the afternoon away. The staff are young and bubbly and have a great rapport with the customers. Several of them take turns in baking so you know your produce is freshly made on site. They all live, sleep and dream about the vineyard which shows in the attention to detail and experience they provide for their guests. There is a lot going on here, all year round, so wether you fancy tea and cake or wine and tapas I highly recommend this hidden gem.
Frithsden Vineyard, Hemel Hempstead, HP1 3DD TEL: 01442 878723