Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Tea Cup In a Storm...

There is a singular beauty to a foreboding sky. The rising chill and the quickening black. Portentous clouds fast-forwarding across such a pregnant void. You can feel it just before it happens, there is knowing. Knowing, something electric and then the first few full bodied drops on the nape of a neck or across the pale of a cheek. A hush, a rush up the spine and then it comes: rain. And if you're lucky it comes fuller and faster: an ardent, flashing storm. The glory and force of a wrathful sky is something welcomed not only by drought-stricken farmers, goths and first-year philosophy students who are still perfecting their gloomy outlook on the world (from the back of a bookish coffee house somewhere in Glebe). No, they're not the only ones. There is a special subset of people today who crave the celestial torrents and the heavenly deluge, the cloudbursts and the darts of rain like an arrow from a cupid hidden somewhere in the skies. Yes, to the urban tea drinker a bit of an Autumn storm is more than a backdrop, more than a setting and much more than mere mood, it's the ultimate accessory to that fine-porcelain-china-dainty-painted-silver-spooned-steaming-fragrant-steam-swirling-from-a-well-worn-pot ritual of taking tea that is quite simply our way of being who we are. Tea is not alternative to coffee, nu-uh. It is it's own curious, quiet and pretty-rose-blushed-beautiful world. And sometimes this world doesn't exist only in our imaginations, on a page in Jane Austen or down a rabbit hole that Alice fell through, sometimes all you have to do is step through a curious door. And sometimes that door is in Redfern. Shall we, then?
The first feeling you have upon spying Tea Parlour's unassuming little nook near the corner of Cleveland and Elizabeth is one of hesitation. Is this the right place? Is it open? Well the answers to both of those questions (respectively) are yes, and, well, it depends what time you go. I push the heavy door open and step into a wonderfully, painfully curiously-cute space that sets my heart gushing. A tiny room cluttered with lots of lovely anachronisms: tea potted-flowers, plates, cups, saucers, doilies, heavy furniture with quirky cushions, faded silver spoons, cloth-draped ceilings with tangled chandeliers and a peacock and a deer head jutting out of the wall - that sort of stuff. Much more a living room in eccentric grandma's house than a cafe, the space is frankly breathtaking. It feels so genuine and sincere and unstyled. Cosy, inviting and, even with funky music cranking: peaceful. As I shut the door behind me I feel like I seal back up the special feeling inside, it seems like a violation to let the reality and the rush of Surry Hills traffic break through into this dusky sanctum that shuts out the noise as effortlessly as it shuts out the present, modern, expensive and shiny iWorld. Every now and then a lonely tea drinker discovers a kindred spirit, and who did I find sitting alone, in the quiet of her own tea room, sipping a brew while the storm raged outside in a sodden Sydney, but Tea Parlour owner and founder, Miss Amelia Ruby. 
As Amelia's boyfriend was to discover when later he dropped by, I Love Amelia. It's pathetic to still own up to this feeling even after you've turned 30, but she is exactly the kind of person you meet and really, really spontaneously decide you want to be friends with. Forever. Sincere, peaceful and soulful, her passion for tea, cakes, little de-crusted sandwiches and pretty-itty-bitty tea trinkets is as obvious as it is silent. She is a gentle and kind host and the room feels like a larger emanation of her beautiful presence. 
Her thoughtfulness and intelligence is hanging on the walls and in the details of the way that everything comes together. 
Even an hour into taking photos my lens still nosed out a curious thing I hadn't yet noticed... 
Antique tea jars... 
lace and chalk and china... 
Unlit candles ready to flare up the darkness...
Girlie-pretty-sweet plates suspended like thoughts on a wall...
A sudden plume of green-blue-blue-green vividness...
Feathers...
An empty picture frame that looked like it was taken from The Ring...
Friendly flowers springing out of rusting tin...
 An ode to Empire...
 A bit of ribbon-tied Bambi...
 A gothic rose...
Siamese cushions...
 A very antique, stapled cup...
And some Chanel thrown in for extra good measure. Am I the only one swooning and sighing my head off?  As if Amelia weren't already perfect enough in her nature and in her love of tea, the girl can bake. Break your heart-ache bake. Bake with a capital B-Bake. A teeny menu that changes every day offers simple but sumptuous plate-pretty cakey-sandwichy-sconey creations with enough clotted cream and berry-red jam that even a Jane wouldn't notice if a Bingley walked in. The occasion for the tea party was a meeting between Laura + Claire of My Grandmother's Kitchen fame. The afternoon tea we enjoyed with Lauren featured treats that Amelia had had taken from the precious pages of this lovely book, plus a few of her own delectable creations. If It hadn't been the guillotine which did off with Marie Antoinette's cake-filled head, then this little line up courtesy of Miss Ruby definitely would have done the job.
Seated on comfy cushions by the glow of a lamp, steaming, tall silver polished-pots of an elegant jasmine pearl, chamomile lavender and french lavender were strained through fine mesh and poured slowly into worn, hollow china. The tea was unbelievable, smooth and fine and quickly warming. The fragrant gold of the chamomile lavender was my favourite, so unusual and balanced. 
Our wooden table quickly filled up with all of the glorious clutter that comes with tea. Little plates with gold-rimmed edges and patterns of flowers mismatched with other flowers, I was already doing a lamentable job of following the conversation at the table because I was distracted by all of this beauty. Then the cake came, and I gave up all hope of keeping up with the talk...
The only way these artful little shapes of wondrous sugar could have been any more homemade was if Amelia actually put bits of her house into them. They were all stunningly imperfect and not too glossed, so honeyed and gentle and full of buttery sweetness. 
This is the famous Keetley Family 'To Die For' Baked Cheesecake by Grandmother Cherie Keetley (aka Marnie) which appears on page 216 of My Grandmother's Kitchen. It is a furiously dense buttery-oaty-nutty based cheesecake, smattered with cinnamon and vanilla and sour cream. It was gooey with its own greatness, I don't think I have enjoyed a better cheesecake, taste or texture wise. Cherie passed away in April of 2010, it's special that her recipe is being enjoyed not only by her family but by so many people she never met.
Cake. Could there be any better legacy in this world?
We also enjoyed morsels of the delicious Scottish Apple Cake and a pecan studded chocolately roll, as well as some divine little creamy tart I was too busy gobbling to discover the name of. With all of this dessert I thought it appropriate to ingest something that vaguely consisted of vegetables...
The Zucchini Tart (also from the book)...
And some incendiary spiced but cooling creamy cucumber sandwiches - also the best I have ever had at afternoon tea. Slivers of cucumber and the warmth of the cream cheese are perfect against the smooshiness of the baby-white bread. I am coming back for these.
Tea Parlour happens at 569 Elizabeth Street, Redfern (the 'fern). Ph 0414 335 224. Website here. It is Open Thurs/Fri 5pm - 9pm, Sat/Sun 12pm - 8pm and other times by appointment. Especially if you plan to go in on weekends, book, Amelia does a lot of functions such as birthdays and hen's nights. It's best to book anyway as the place seats 20 and gets very busy. BYO means you can add a bit of your own sparkle to an experience I don't think you can find anywhere else in Sydney. I've tried almost all of them and this is standout afternoon tea, or just plain tea and cake. Even if you were to only come in and spend a tiny earthly while sipping a pot of something fragrant, Tea Parlour justifies any trek you have to make. Away from the rush and drama of Surry Hills it is a quiet spot to bask, to tea and to cake. The cakes, scones and sandwiches are made fresh every morning by Amelia herself. 
To Amelia, thanks a million for a great chat and for having the guts to take an incredible idea and run with it. I am going to be an annoying regular and bring back everyone I know. You are simply as wonderful as your cake and your tea - and your taxidermy. In fact, if I die any time soon, stuff me and seat me on one of your arm chairs for as long as you are open, that's exactly how I want to spend eternity. I can't believe Sydney has had an authentic tea place for 7 months and I just found out about it!

To Laura and Claire, the lovely ladies behind the stellar book, thanks for introducing me to my new favourite haunt and to all of the recipes in this book. Have still not recovered from how intensely blistering to body and mind that cheesecake was. If anyone wants to kill two birds with one stone, My Grandmother's Kitchen is on sale at Tea Parlour. It was also lovely to meet Lauren from Madison, who, like me, is going to live vicariously through the grandmothers in this book. 
I hope it's autumn forever.

5 comments:

bowb said...

what lush photos! oh to be eating cake in sydney...

amanda said...

bowb! i havent heard from you in ages. you're in melbourne arent you? if you are you cant complain, are you eating cake down there?

Maria Fondeur said...

Amanda, thank you so much for taking me to the Tea Parlour- It was heavenly, and your pictures are absolutely amazing. I hadn't seen them all before!

Nicole @ It's Feeding Time at the Zoo said...

Thanks for this, what beautiful pictures! This place is right around the corner from my house, and yet I always just walk right by it. Who knew what delights there were inside!

Lau@Corridor Kitchen said...

I want to go to there...