Cake Diary: Camphill Cafe

Cake Diary: Camphill Cafe

With the weather being as glorious as it has been of late my other half and I decided to explore somewhere new to walk the dog. We headed up to Milton Keynes (the land of round abouts) to enjoy a picnic by Willen Lake. Amidst the sprawling housing estate that is Milton Keynes is this oasis where you can do as little or as much as you choose. There is an array of water sports on offer on the lake, from rowing to wakeboarding and most things in between, but as tempting as the swan pedalos looked we kept our feet (and paws) on dry land!
The park is vast and once within in you soon forget that you are in the middle of suburbia. We walked around the lake trying our hand at some of the exercise pit stops along the way (this challenge came to an abrupt end when I beat my other half on the monkey bars!). So to keep the peace we kept moving, meandering along the banks enjoying the sunshine.
In contrast to the sporty, fast paced South Lake the North Lake is home to a Buddhist temple and the first peace pagoda to be built in the western world. We clambered up the hill beyond the pagoda and found the “one world tree”, its branches heavy with messages of hope, photos of loved ones who have passed and ribbons of remembrance. We took a moment in this peaceful place, surrounded by cherry trees, to read some of the messages.

Just a short stroll took us to the perfect spot to sit and unwrap our sandwiches, overlooking the labyrinth and the lake beyond. The dog was content playing fetch and returning in hope of a spare crust to keep his energy up. Hours could be spent enjoying this clean and open space but cake was calling our name and I had found somewhere nearby to satisfy this urge.
Just across the road from Willen Lake North and the car park for the peace pagoda is a wonderful place called the Camphill Cafe. Camphill is an organisation that offers support and development for adults with learning difficulties or disabilities. They run a community where residents live as independently as possible whilst being supported for their individual needs.

Co-workers live alongside the residents assisting them with day to day activities and as many of the workers visit from abroad the residents, in turn, assist them in practicing their English language skills. It is a partnership throughout and the residents are encouraged to take part in various activities and workshops that are available on site on site.
One of these workshops is the cafe where residents develop their social skills, customer service and food preparation knowledge. Serving seasonal lunches, hot beverages and cakes baked on site in the Camphill bakery. The bakery and gardens are other areas where residents can learn about growing plants and vegetable or making bread and baked goods, all of which go on to be sold in the cafe. The pickles and preserves the residents are taught to make are also sold in the community shop. It’s a hands on environment making the site essentially self sufficient, its great to be able to meet those who have hand made many of the products on offer.
As we arrived it was like entering a small village, peaceful and slow paced. The gardens are exquisite with the residents clearly taking pride in the pruning and planting. The shared accommodation wraps itself around a small green area, with residents milling about running errands or off to their scheduled workshops. The cafe is modern in it’s decor, pine furniture and simple table dressings. Every wall filled with art work for sale and murals of the community, the space is filled with colour and light. We took a seat outside in front of the lawns to enjoy the sun.
Our dog attracted a lot of attention as numerous residents came over to enquire about him and take an interest in our day. With our order taken we welcomed the interactions, finding out more about the residents and how they fill their days. Some, it seems, have a preference for working in the cafe whereas others like to mix it up by spending each day doing something different. It is clear that they all get a lot of satisfaction out of what they do and a real sense of independence.
The cakes and scones on offer all looked delicious and the slices were generous to satisfy the appetite we had worked up walking around the lakes. Today my slice of choice was coffee and walnut. Not being a coffee drinker I am often cautious when it comes to this flavour but to my delight the balance of coffee to cake was perfect; soft sponge with just a hint of coffee, complimented by the sweet icing and bitter walnuts. My partner in cake ordered the Victoria sponge which was equally healthy is size with a generous layer of icing in the middle.

We selected a pot of mint tea to accompany our cakes, I always find this brew more refreshing on a warm day as it is still palatable as it cools down. I was impressed that the cakes are baked on site and the residents should feel a great sense of pride in the products they produce. I am not encouraging you to visit Camphill out of obligation or to feel good that you have contributed to those who require support in day to day living. I am encouraging you to visit because the cake is delicious, the produce is fresh and seasonal and it is the epitome of locally produced. The fact you’ll meet some amazing people and support this fantastic charity is just the cherry on the cake.
Camphill Cafe, Japonica Lane, Milton Keynes MK15 9JY TEL: 01908 308738

Cake Diary: Petersham Nurseries

Cake Diary: Petersham Nurseries

Being a foodie people regularly recommend places which I may enjoy visiting for food, drinks and, of course, tea. A colleague of mine had been urging me to visit London’s Borough Market for some time, with stories of street food and fresh produce from around the globe, eclectic backgrounds come together for the love of food and the vibe of our great capital city. Several months ago we put a date in our diary so she could share this amazing place with me but sadly it was not to be. Just one week prior to our planned visit 3 men took innocent lives in this vibrant market place and with the Police working hard to investigate it the market remains closed at this time.

Despite the inevitable fear and caution I felt inside I knew that acts of terror must not deter us from living our lives. The closure may have caused us to change our plans but London would still be our destination. Even during world war 2 milkmen made their deliveries, we are British and no enemy, near or far, will stand between us and a brew!

London milkman, 1940
Photo by Fred Morley – Learn more here

The weather was kind to us as we left the Shires and headed into the city, first stop Camden Town. The streets were heaving with rivers of people flowing in and around the market stalls and we were soon swept away. My senses over whelmed with colours and sounds from each of the stalls. Bespoke handmade jewellery, scarfs and bags through to antique books, records and clothing. Truly something for everyone which is reflected in the clientele.

Our noses lead us to the food stalls where you can travel the world in just a few paces. When offered the world on a plate where do you start?! Thailand or Mexico, America or the Middle East? In the end I landed in Greece with fresh falafel and halloumi wraps drizzled in yogurt dressing, crunchy salad and topped with pomegranate it was the perfect lunchtime treat.


Leaving behind the white water pace of Camden we hopped onto the water bus to head west. The dockside was lined with swinging legs soaking up the sun, passing them we meandered through Regents Park to our next stop, Little Venice. Tree lined avenues radiate out from the Grand Union and Regents canals with ornate barges decorating the waters edge, city life slows down to just four knots. You can re-fuel at the quaint floating cafe before walking the tow paths to explore this picturesque area.

Despite tea and cake being on offer this was not our destination de jour. A short tube ride from Paddington took us to Richmond where it is hard to believe you’re so close to central London. We walked along the Thames which was littered with rowers and paddle boarders, passed meadows of grazing cows in search of a hidden gem called Petersham Nurseries. This is not your average garden centre as tucked among the roses and evergreens is a Tea House with a difference.

Welcomed through an ornate oak doorway you find yourself in a secret garden greenhouse where you can enjoy tea and cake amongst the flora. The metal furniture is beaten and worn as if hidden here for decades, painted bright colours it blends in with the surrounding plant life. Relaxed and open plan privacy between diners is provided by orange trees, shrubs and vines which scent the room with citrus and jasmine. As well as the Teahouse they also offer a more extensive menu in their cafe, although this should be booked well in advance

Although we arrived late in the day there were still plenty of cake options on offer. My partner in cake ordered the lemon and poppyseed which did tempt me until I spotted the elderflower sponge. Given the surroundings I felt something floral was appropriate. To accompany it, the Petersham afternoon tea blend.

I was disappointed the elderflower flavour did not pack more of a punch but the sponge was deliciously light. Scattered with almonds throughout it did not loose moisture and was topped with sweet Italian meringue icing. The loose leaf brew was a simple black tea, light and refreshing with a splash of milk. The perfect pick me up after a day of exploring new sites. We soaked up the magical atmosphere and enjoyed the warmth of the afternoon sun as it shone through the glasshouse.

It’s hard for words to do this place justice, I feel even my photos don’t convey the experience in full technicolour. I often find cities claustrophobic, with towering concrete, exhaust fumes and people – oh so many people! Petersham offers an oasis of calm where I could almost feel the fresh oxygen emanate from the plants all around us. Wandering back to the tube riverside the sky opens up above you and you can’t help but smile. Richmond is a place you want to be, on or off the water it’s somewhere to slow down and enjoy what we have, for it is magic and cannot be taken from us.

“Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden – in all the places.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, TW10 7AB       TEL: 0208 940 5230 

The Art of Artisan Chocolate

The Art of Artisan Chocolate

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of returning to The School of Artisan Food to take part in an Artisan Chocolate making workshop hosted by the award winning Ottar Chocolate. It was such a joy being back on the historic grounds of The Welbeck Estate, its sandstone buildings glimmering in the spring sunshine, framed by fields in a rainbow of green.
Shelly was our guide for the day and it was apparent from the outset that chocolate runs through her veins, blood may be thicker than water but chocolate is thicker still! She shared her knowledge about the origin of the beans and I found it fascinating to learn what real chocolate is. The link between cocoa beans and tea leaves is clear; it truly matters where the product comes from and how it is processed. As with many crops the soil, altitude, weather and atmosphere all impact on the flavour. This seems a logical link when talking about wine, coffee and tea but chocolate seems to be the black sheep of this family. Let’s face it we all reach for a bar of galaxy or dairy milk when we get a sugar craving but that is exactly the issue, it’s a sugar craving and so far removed from chocolate.
My palate is used to detecting the subtle flavours in tea, appreciating hints of malt, spice or fruit in different brews, but could I tune in to chocolate? We took a taste test with beans from two origins, Madagascan and Brazilian. Like a sommelier of chocolate we used all of our senses to experience each. Starting with the Madagascan I noted it didn’t immediately melt with the warmth of my fingers into a gooey, sticky mess. Snapping the chocolate drop in half released the familiar aroma before I popped it into my mouth, letting it melt slowly. Solid dissolved to liquid on my tongue and it hit my taste buds with an unexpected citrus zing. The texture was unmistakably chocolate but the flavour was creamy, cut through with sharp lemon and a floral undertone. The Brazilian taster was still smooth but held a more nutty, toasted flavour. Deeper and richer it stayed on the palate with a comforting warmth of roasted beans. The differences were notable and could not be disputed; I finally understood what chocolate tastes like!
My taste buds were alive and in turn ignited my imagination. The kitchen soon became a hive of activity with a smorgasbord of fresh ingredients on offer; herbs, spices, fruit, nuts and, to my relief, teas! Shelly guided us through making salted caramel and tempering chocolate. She offered advice on balancing flavours as we raided the ingredients to create the perfect truffle. I was content lost in this chocolate paradise, coco powder in my hair and a workstation looking similar to an edible Pollack masterpiece.

It was a day spent with like minded people, learning and laughing. As always the school were attentive hosts offering an array of freshly made salads for lunch, the pea and mint hummus with herby focaccia was so delicious I had to have seconds…..and thirds! You can taste the freshness in every dish and the ethos of the school runs through every product and course they offer.

A perfect part of this artisan puzzle is Ottar chocolates, creating divine sweet pastries and truffles from high quality ingredients. The cocoa beans are ethically sourced from farms where the workers are treated well, their children are in school and the product is processed with care and respect. The passion for every step of this artisan process is evident in the work this husband and wife team put in, lovingly transforming chocolate into delicious treats which can be enjoyed (almost) guilt free.

Next time you have a chocolate craving think about the bar you choose. Don’t automatically reach for the sugar hit, why not explore the bean to bar process and select something where you can savour the flavour and awaken your taste buds!

Salted caramel heaven
It’s all about balance
Earl grey and lemon truffles

Ottar Chocolate, The Welbeck Estate, Worksop, S80 3LT            TEL: 01909 512579

Cake Diary: Cakestand & Crumb

Cake Diary: Cakestand & Crumb

Todays venture into cake lead me out of Hertfordshire to the small town of Ampthill in neighbouring Bedfordshire. With a quaint village like feel and a fascinating history Ampthill is littered with boutique shops, antique stores and pretty tea rooms, one of which being Cakestand & Crumb. I was first introduced to this hidden gem pre-blog so I simply had to return and share it with you.

Tucked away through an archway this vintage tea room catches your eye with it’s pastel frontage and multicoloured outdoor furniture. As it is away from the main road it can be pleasant to sit outside in the fresh air as to say it’s cosy within is an understatement. With just half a dozen tables it is an intimate affair, natural light floods through the gorgeous bay window preventing a claustrophobic sensation. As if welcomed into someones own dining room vintage dressers display old books and crockery and a record player fills the space with the unmistakable crackle of vinyl.

We had reserved a table, which I highly recommend doing, and ordered the full afternoon tea. We were running late but the staff were very accommodating and welcoming as we arrived. Our table laid out beautifully with classic vintage crockery and cutlery, linen table clothes soften the rustic wooden furniture and there is no holding back on doilies; chintz with all the trimmings. The glass display counter imprisons delicious cake creations including gluten free lemon, chocolate fudge, white chocolate and raspberry and a selection of cup cakes. Their slices are not for the faint-hearted, triple tiered, laden with thick buttercream icing and topped with the fresh fruit or thick chocolate drizzle. Choose wisely as there will be no room for seconds!

I was pleasantly surprised that the afternoon tea is brought to the table in courses. As divine as the tiered stands look they can also be intimidating; foothills of sandwiches to wander through before clambering up to the boulder like scones then the final push to the sugary sponge summit. Instead a delicate selection of sandwiches was placed before us, delicious triangles of ham & mustard, egg & cress and cheese & chutney. The bread was fresh and soft, each mouthful met with a flavoursome filling. With no time pressures upon us we were free to graze and top up our teas.

There was a respectable list of loose teas to choose from that included all the favourites but one in particular caught my eye, “Lost Malawi”. I believe the blend is from the Rare Tea Company who source the leaves from one of the oldest tea farms in Malawi called Satemwa. This is essentially a black tea, similar to english breakfast, but the fact it is hand crafted in small batches with such care taken over the harvest each cup fills with a rich smooth flavour you can’t find in a high street bag. We also ordered a pot of Assam so we could both try and compare each brew. As expected the Assam was malty and soft, slightly creamier than the Malawi leaf but equally enjoyable.

As we talked and topped up our second course arrived, traditional fruit scones with jam and clotted cream. In contrast to my recent scone encounter I was presented with two mini scones, delightful morsels on which I balanced cream and jam (I have now decided I am firmly in the Devonshire camp…….subject to change!). Four bites was just enough to bridge the gap from savoury to sweet.

With empty pots we decided to change our brew for the final course. Each with the lasting sensation of clotted cream on our palates we opted for a cleansing pot of lemon verbena. Served in modern glass pots the leaves swirled before our eyes as the tea brewed. A light golden green in colour it tasted as fresh as it looked. The perfect accompaniment for the sweet and sticky course that followed.


Our final plate consisted of bite size chocolate brownies with a sticky layer of fruit jam running through the centre. Mini lemon and mascarpone tarts, encased in buttery, crumbly pastry aside a gooey meringue topped with whipped cream and fruit. Each bite was delicate in texture but heavy in flavour, sweet, soft, crunchy, zesty, rich and fruity, the summit had it all. I was beaten by the time I reached the meringue so it was kindly boxed up for me to take home. Unfortunately I was a little careless as I got in the car and the box tumbled from my hand, bouncing off the car to land face down on the pavement!!!!…..oh well, now I have eaton mess!!

This bijou bakery has a world of passion within and every drop is poured into it’s bakes and although there is a compromise with space there is no such compromise when it comes to flavour. Enjoy a monstrous slab of indulgence or a platter of miniature delights, either way you wont be disappointed as you devour every morsel from Cake-stand to crumb.Cake Diary

Cakestand and Crumb, 7 Kings Arms Yard, Ampthill, MK45 2PJ        TEL: 07843 574379 

Cake Diary: The Kitchen, Croxley Green

Cake Diary: The Kitchen, Croxley Green

I stumbled across The Kitchen via a Facebook advert (thank you cookies!) and after perusing their website I was keen to know more as there seemed to be a lot going on. Celebration cakes to order, baking lessons and afternoon tea to mention just a few.

Croxley Green is just outside of Watford and Rickmansworth, and it is here town and country sit in juxtaposition. Winding narrow lanes take you past large houses and riding schools, circling to the rear of the Grove Hotel, renowned for it’s famous clientele. Entering Croxley via the green itself all appears unchanged since the 1800’s when a lot of the beautiful houses were built. Folk out walking their dogs and taking in the (almost) spring like air, both pubs on the green brimming with Sunday roast diners, but it was the cake we were here for.

The village-esque feel subsides a little as you approach the main run of shops and the terraces of modern housing beyond. The Kitchen stands understated just meters from the quaint and historic railway station. Part of the Metropolitan underground line it means that within just 30mins you can be transported from the shires to the heart of the city.

The Kitchen differs from other venues I have visited in that everything is simple and paired back. There is no getting away from the fact it is a modern building, there are no original features or open fire places to coo over. In fact it used to be a blockbuster video store!! Now that brings back some memories; spending Friday evenings pursuing the isles, debating which movie to rent and for how many nights! Leaving the house for such a menial task seems very old fashioned now a days. What the building lacks in personality is certainly made up for by the staff. Linda greeted us the second we walked through the door, looking up from the colouring in book she was assisting a young customer with, she smiled and welcomed us in. It was clear from the outset that customers of all ages are a priority here.

The seating area is relatively small, although on this occasion most of the tables were reserved for a Birthday party and a Hen party due in later. Both were having a full afternoon tea so the tables were laid beautifully with vintage crockery and traditional linen table clothes. It may be wise to book to avoid disappointment if there is a group of you.

The cake making talent is clear when you view the amazing sugar work on display, stunning celebration cakes made to order and created in the on site studio. I loved the fact the “studio” was not hidden away, surrounded by glass allowing you to see all the handy work going on behind the scenes. It was like getting a sneaky peak at Santas workshop!

We sat in the window on a sofa reminiscent of the Central Perk couch in Friends, but just for two. It enveloped us into it’s cushions and we were settled. Unfortunately the view is not as stunning as the surrounding country side but you can watch the world go by along and “there’s nowt as interesting as folk” as they say.

Various coffees are on offer from one of those fancy machines I don’t understand, and a lovely selection of Pukka & Fairtrade tea bags. No loose tea here but that feels right for this venue, it’s not about fancy leaves for far flung lands but a simple selection of quality bags and beans. After recently discovering Rooibos and its amazing health benefits (lowering blood pressure, improved complexion, relieves insomnia to mention just a few) I opted for the Rooibos and Honeybush by Pukka. My partner in cake today went for the Peppermint and Green Tea Blend.

Rooibos, pronounced Roy-Boss, really is the boss! It is grown in South Africa and was originally marketed in the UK as Redbush tea, which may ring a bell with some of you. I assume that now we are all about the Quinoa, Kale and Flaxseed tea companies felt we were able to handle the native name. My brew was blended with Honeybush, also South African, it adds a little natural sweetness to the cup. I let mine brew for about 3 minutes until a gorgeous copper, red tone – no milk required. The flavour is subtle and smooth on the pallet, the honey coming through in taste but not smell. It was a very easy blend to drink so I was grateful for the extra mini jug of hot water so I could top up myself.

The cake display was a little light when we arrived but Sunday afternoons can be like that, establishments will rarely over bake, especially if they are closed on the Monday. It was an easy decision to make, we selected a slice of the prettiest Victoria sponge I have ever seen and a slab of lemon drizzle, which I always find hard to resist. Our hearts broke a little when we went to pay the bill and saw they had topped up with Coffee & walnut and some amazing looking brownies!!! But it seems no matter what you choose you wont be disappointed.

As we were having a lazy Sunday we had enjoyed a late breakfast before heading out for cake, boy was that a wise decision. The portion sizes are eye popping and belly filling which put a smile on both our faces. This would be the perfect pitstop after a lovely long dog walk or cycle round the country lanes (we did neither of those things by the way #guiltyface) but that didn’t stop us from polishing off the lot!.

Both sponges were fantastically light and not overly sweet. The Victoria sponge let its thick butter cream coat the palate only to be cut through by the delicious fruity jam adding a sugar hit. It reminded me of a perfectly balanced afternoon scone.


The lemon drizzle let the fruit do the talking, the sponge being a steady base for the sharp lemon syrup which seeped through every inch, a crunchy sugar topping finished with a little fresh zest. Both light to the touch but packing a punch with flavour.

Satisfied (and ready for a nap) we wended our way back home in the comforting realisation that you don’t always need all the bells and whistles to enjoy an afternoon slice. The kitchen doesn’t hide behind gimmicks, it’s a community hub where children can come to learn how to bake on a Saturday morning, Grown up’s can enjoy comedy & live music evenings, or simply catch up with friends over a tasty brew and a generous slice of cake. To me the Kitchen feels part of something that isn’t about global brands and nameless baristas, it’s about community and a personal touch. So no matter where you are see what’s on offer right on your door step as these are the businesses that deserve our custom.

The Kitchen, 198 Watford Road, Croxley Green, WD3 3DB      TEL: 01923 805896


Soul Food Photography

Soul Food Photography

This time last week I had spent the day feeding my creative habit, combining two of my passions; food & photography. I am lucky enough to have a good friend who is studying at The School of Artisan Food and she invited me along to one of their short courses to indulge my photographic creativity. As you may have noticed from my blog I love taking pictures of food but I am the first to admit that they don’t always turn out as I envisage. Having taken general photography courses to familiarise myself with my DSLR I felt it was about time I sought some professional guidance on this area of photography which is fast becoming my passion. The School offers a one day introduction to food photography run by the very talented Joan Ransley.

Since booking the course I started following Joan on social media and her website. I felt an instant connection to her style; simple stunning food on rustic backgrounds. Each shot has a natural feel that makes you want to reach out and touch it, the textures and colours bringing the image to life. Everything looks so fresh and delicious I warn you not to peruse her website on an empty stomach!! In awe of her work and a hunger (not just metaphorically speaking) to produce images even half as good as hers I couldn’t wait to learn from a pro.
The School is situated on The Welbeck Estate, a historic site nestled within Sherwood Forest, North Nottinghamshire. The estate has been developed to support artists and traditional trades. Buildings and barns have been converted into workshops for talented folk who hand make jewellery and art work. Browsing the stunning hand made goods and seeing the artists at work was a really joy. Much of the site is open to the public including an art gallery and Farm shop which is supplied by the on site bakery and brewery. Amongst this thriving creative community is the School of Artisan food which nurtures traditional processes for bread making, Cheese making, brewing, charcuterie and confectionary.
As soon as I arrived the relaxed, creative atmosphere embraced me and I knew I was in for a good day. We were greeted with a selection of teas and pastries made by the amazing on site artisan bakers. I dowsed a buttery, flaky croissant with their home made jam and washed it down with a cup of earl grey to set me up for the day ahead. Joan welcomed us with her warm smile, putting us at ease no matter what level of photography experience we had. Starting with a short presentation we familiarised ourselves with the camera settings we would be using and Joan shared some of her exquisite shots to demonstrate how to set the scene.
It was then time to wrap up warm and head outside where we were working in a stunning old barn, it’s huge wooden doors propped open to let the dusky autumn light flood in. Benches brimmed with props sparking our inspiration, trigger fingers  began to twitch as we were keen to start snapping. Joan set us on our way with a few hints and tips on how to get the “perfect shot” (does it exist?). She made it look so simple I feared it would take me a little longer to achieve something I was pleased with! Thankfully we had a small group so Joan and her colleague Alison were both on hand to assist us with queries and inspire us when our own creativity froze. Playing with light and colour we all soon got lost in our lenses.

Despite rumbling tummies we took some convincing to step away from our cameras to break for lunch; however, given our location it was clear we wouldn’t be faced with a dodgy buffet. Calling it a canteen would be an insult as the cozy lunch room was warm and welcoming. Chunky wooden tables and chairs were surrounded by shelving units displaying cook books and fresh produce. At the far end was a small open kitchen where our chef for the day had rustled up the most amazing lunch. The serving bench was laden with blushing roast loin of Welbeck venison, fresh seasonal veg and the crispiest of crispy roast potatoes. For those with room it was followed by a cheese board with homemade chutneys. This is not your average school dinner!

Welbeck Venison Loin

With thawed fingers and toes we headed back out to the barn to continue with our shoot. The food was so fresh and delicious inspiration kept flowing as we tried new angles and back drops. The light dimmed throughout the afternoon so we utilised the courtyard to capture the soft glow of the sun as it retired for the day. Later in the afternoon we were given the opportunity to visit the working bakery to try some actions shots. My senses were overloaded as the noise and warmth of the kitchen hit me. I watched as bakers prepared focaccia and uniform bread rolls, stacked and ready to be slotted into the industrial ovens. The smell of warm, fresh bread made my mouth water but I had to try and concentrate. Faced with new challenges I tried not to get in anyone’s way whilst also achieving the correct lighting, composition & exposure. It was exciting to be in the busy kitchen seeing the breads journey as hands worked the dough bringing the loaf to life.

Exhausted but proud of all of our hard work we reconvened in the warmth to share our best shots and receive feedback. Joan was constructive and supportive with no question unwelcome. She helped us understood why something’s had gone wrong and how to improve. Artists of any kind always see the worst in their work so we all supported each other and praised the fabulous shots we all achieved. It was a real thrill to have my work appraised by a professional.

Looking back at my shots now I can see how my technique improved throughout the day and I am very proud of what I achieved. The school is a creative world to get lost in whilst learning skills you can take home and share with friends and family. I cannot recommend this organisation enough, whether you fancy a wander around the estate with its art gallery and farm shop or you choose to expand your knowledge of artisan processes. In an age of over processed, industrially produced food it gives you a sense of wellbeing to understand where food comes from and how to get the best from natural ingredients. This weekend was good for my soul and I encourage you to seek out some soul food of your own to feed your creativity…….enjoy 🙂

Cake Diary: Frithsden Vineyard

Cake Diary: Frithsden Vineyard

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.

Frithsden V

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

Cake Diary: The Brewery Tea Rooms

Cake Diary: The Brewery Tea Rooms

This weekend I caught up with a friend from work and travelled to her neck of the woods for Tea & Cake. I know the north of the county reasonably well and lived in Stevenage for a few years when I was younger. Despite this I had never visited the neighbouring village of Walkern, but having been advised it boasts an award winning Tea Room I didn’t take much convincing.

Stevenage is unmistakably a new town, concrete tower blocks, new build estates and supermarkets. I have nothing against this concept as I live in a new town myself but there is no sense of history or interest so I drove in one end……and out the other, scooping up my partner in cake on the way through! The bland, beige landscape of the new town is soon forgotten, like Dorothy leaving Kansas and stepping into technicolour Oz the winding, narrow lane guides you past golden fields of harvested corn, hedgerows come alive with wildlife as the sky opens up above you welcoming you to the countryside. Wind down the windows and breath in the fresh air.

Had I not had a local guide I would have driven straight past the Brewery Tea Rooms. Despite being on the High Street it’s facade is understated, heavy wooden doors open onto a small cobbled patio area lined with tables and chairs. As the name suggests the building is an old Brewery which was renovated into a house. The current owners, Sarah & Nigel, reside in the main building but converted part of it into the Tea Room which has been open to the public for the past 7 years.

You enter into a charming tea parlour with a combination of tables and chairs to sit and chat or you can relax in the comfy armchair and sofa with a book from their collection. There is a classy combination of antique pieces and up cycled chairs covered in vintage hessian sacks. Like an Aladdins cave there is much more space than it would appear from outside. The cozy parlour leads through to a lighter and brighter seating area for larger parties. Natural light floods in from high windows and glistens off two chandeliers, brightening up the space. The walls are used to display echoes of the buildings past, the original bond from 1848 when the brewery was born as well as black and white photos of the building and its workers from the 1940’s. The piece de resistance is the gift shop to the rear of the room, the ceiling lowers again and your eyes cannot rest as they flit around the burgeoning shelves and side boards. Gifts for all occasions in new and vintage styles. Gorgeous things that no one needs but they make life that much prettier. Make sure you allow time to loose yourself amongst the treasures.

Even more tempting than the trinkets for sale was the array of cakes on the counter. The serving hatch has a country kitchen feel with chalk board menus and old fashioned dressers displaying their homemade produce. Sweet or savoury scones, Rocky Road, Apricot slice and Meringues the size of an ostrich egg!

The Raspberry Ripple Victoria Sponge called my name from under it’s glass cloche, it was muffled but I definitely heard it! The cake decision was a quick one, the tea decision took a little more time. Behind the serving hatch was a shelf lined with vintage, oriental, tins containing loose leaf teas from around the globe. From the delicate sounding Rose Congou and Jasmine Flower to the slightly more intimidating Gunpowder blend! I played it a little safe and choose Lady Grey feeling the refreshing citrus would compliment my fruity cake choice.

The teapots were modern, containing a removable tea infuser which allows you to choose your own brew length. The rest of the crockery was vintage china to compliment our historic surroundings. It may surprise you to know that I am not a huge fan of Victoria Sponge and I can’t explain why I was drawn to it on this day, what I do know is I’m glad I was! If I had dropped the sponge from the table I’m convinced it would have floated delicately to the ground like a feather.

The Brewery Tea Rooms  – Version 2
Raspberry Ripple

Thankfully I did not waste a crumb, each exquisite bite filled my mouth with the taste of summer. Between the layers of golden sponge was light buttercream swirled with fresh, crushed raspberries. As the familiar flavours burst on my tongue I was transported back to a childhood of raspberry ripple ice-cream on hot sunny days. The freshness of the ingredients took this slice to another level stunning us both into an enchanted silence.

The attention to detail at this venue is impeccable, respecting the past but looking to the future. Family run with Sarah & Nigel front of house and mum up early baking fresh produce for the table. There is a real sense of belonging with regulars being called by name and the business supporting local charity events. With villages like this being taken over by commuters and younger generations moving away to new towns of convenience we risk loosing the heart of the British countryside. It was a joy to spend the morning in Oz and I would urge you to follow the yellow brick road and support local businesses like this one in restoring our community spirit. After all there’s no place like home.

The Brewery Tea Rooms, 198 High Street, Walkern      TEL: 01438 861930

Cake Diary: The Pudding Stop

Cake Diary: The Pudding Stop

I only had one day off this week so in a bid to make the most of it my lovely boyfriend offered to take me to St Albans for shopping and cake. The cynic in me says this was as much for his benefit as mine! However I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth so happily accepted.

St Albans is a beautiful cathedral city with a vast historic past, you can visit the Roman museum or take a stroll around the lovely parkland and lakes. The high street has an eclectic mix of familiar retail chains and interesting boutiques to loosen your purse strings. St Albans is one of my favourite places to eat out as there are restaurants to cater every craving; French fine dining, Greek Meze, American BBQ, spicy middle eastern and Italian comfort food to mention just a few.

Today we visited The Pudding Stop and not for the first time, it is one of my favourites. It’s the brain child of Johnny Shepherd who reached the final six contestants in the first series of The Great British Bakeoff. His venture started with the Pudmobile which parks up at the train station serving freshly baked cakes and puddings to hungry commuters. It’s success then led him to open The Pudding Stop in the city centre. His concept is simple; hearty, tasty puds made fresh on site offering comfort and pleasure to his customers. You can choose from the ever changing sweet treats available at the counter or from the unfussy but delicious menu selections.

The cafe is not huge so it can be a struggle to get a seat, today we were lucky. The decor is simplistic, dove grey paintwork and cream walls with a funky mural depicting Johnny in his Pudmobile. Long natural wood tables are for sharing and you sit on reclaimed wooden school chairs which may bring back memories for some! Gleaming chrome equipment fills the small downstairs kitchen where staff can whip up your frothy latte, pot of tea or pud inspired milkshake. If you needed any more of an incentive to come and enjoy pudding they have a projector on the back wall where they show films on Sunday evenings and GBBO every Wednesday evening during the series.

The menu occasionally has a savoury option on offer, like a cheese board, but this place really does what it says on the tin…..pudding! Its hard to pick between classics like rhubarb crumble and custard or sticky toffee pudding, or opt for chocolate heaven in their flourless chocolate cake or hot brownies! Being open till late, and a licensed premises, this is the perfect spot to head to for pud and a night cap after a meal at one of the divine local restaurants. Being daylight hours I was restrained and ordered a pot of Earl Grey, the tea selection is limited but the pots are bottomless so I cant argue with that.

Over our numerous visits I have had the pleasure of sampling a number of the goodies on offer but today I chose my absolute favourite….…Madeleines. These little sponge delights never let me down, baked to order they arrive on the table warm and inviting. Each delicate, shell shaped, morsel has a crisp edge encasing light blonde sponge. Served as a dozen or half dozen alongside a pool of chocolate salted caramel sauce for dunking.dsc_0383

Salted caramel is not usually a flavour I opt for but here they get the sweet and salty working in perfect harmony. The world around me became white noise as I lost myself in smooth liquid chocolate and warm fluffy sponge. Thankfully my other half was on hand to offer a napkin as I regressed to childhood, scooping up stray sauce with my fingers and dribbling chocolate down my chin! He must have been so proud!

When you order Madeleines you are advised they take 15mins or so to bake fresh, believe me it’s worth the wait. There seemed to be some delay in the bakery today and it took a while to knock up a fresh batch of batter. The waiting staff were very apologetic for the extended delay and kindly gave us some chocolate brownies to take away. The customer service here is always second to none and this gesture was unexpected but very much appreciated.

As their tag line says “The proof is in….. The Pudding Stop” and today, as with every visit, they have proved themselves to be at the top of their game.

The Pudding Stop, 6 The Colonnade, Verulam Rd, St Albans Tel: 01727 830357
P.S. Somehow the brownies made it home and were a filthy, gooey delight!!!