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.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Earl Grey Serendipitea

Movies. For the Love of God. Sometimes I just don't know. They can be amazing. Two hour time slots where life is held up to art. Sometimes, they're a quick-red celluloid match struck across your imagination in the light of which things suddenly seem full of flare and hope and promise and many golden tomorrows (confer: Muriel's Wedding, The English Patient, Wayne's World, Godfather Part II, The Departed, The Breakfast Club, The Secret of The Grain and, if we're being honest, The Sound of Music, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Mean Girls). Movies like that are wonderful, they allow you to question life the way you should (just a smidgen) and everything in them always goes where it belongs and ends up where it should be. 
Only You is a pretty lamentable 90's flick starring the very lovable Marisa Tomei and the considerably less lovable Robert Downey Jr. I won't subject you the details of the plot, that would be both unnecessary and cruel, suffice to say that it's a film all about fate and destiny. Just in case the theme might have been lost on us, the lead characters name is Faith and the advice of a fortune teller eventually leads to her discovery of her 'one true love'...you get the idea, bulimics should probably (definitely) give this one a miss. Anyway, as we were driving down through Berry the morning after en route towards one of my favourite mouth-in-the-South cafes: The Woodfired Sourdough Bakery, I was lamenting life's lack of great fate, as of late. Yes, that screwed up movie had messed a little with my head and the soggy contents of my brain were whirring over all of those mystical what if's and I wonder what could be's. I wanted some movie magic of my own, it seemed. I even went so far as complaining to Dan that life hadn't been fateful enough. Careful what you wish for, eh...
It was smack bang into this little mid long-weekend malaise that Laura Clarke walked right into my life. The usual wait for a coveted bakery table ended at exactly the same time for Laura as it did for Dan and I. We were both seated outside on adjacent tables, I took my Canon out ready to fire off at all of the pre-breakfast table textures, when before I knew it: Magic. Our eyes met across the salt and pepper grinders... aka food-blogger sits next to self published cook-book co-author who is about to launch an amazing new title that said food-blogger had accidentally discovered a few weeks earlier on a time-killing jaunt whilst waiting for a tardy smoothie from a Hippie outlet in Manly. Sad, But True. It took us about eleven spoken words a piece before we realised I already knew of her precious book which she and her partner in savvy-go-get-em chutzpah Claire Wallace (who Laura met in the lift of their apartment building in 2007) compiled, wrote and published - all on their lonesome. 
Coincidence much? I was already in love with Laura before I whipped out a little jar of my personal earl grey stash for the bakery to brew up for me (a tea hound leaves nothing to chance) but when Laura asked in on the said pot because earl grey was her leaf of choice as well, well let's just say the incredulous girlie-foodie-tea gushing-flutterings got a little bit awkward for poor Danny. Then when we discovered that we use the same pen, well, things got downright whack from that point. Turns out Danny had more than enough testosterone to see him through, because this was the beginning of a two hour long tea party that centered around the story of how an  absolutely, positively, doily-sweet and cinnamon-sprinkled-gorgeous full of homely-heart cookbook came to be. It's called: 

My Grandmother's Kitchen, 
recipes for love, life and happiness from Grandmothers around the world... 
Both Laura and Claire had especially close relationships with their grandmothers and with the adoptive 17 grandmothers whose family-secret-handed-down-from-generation-to-generation recipes, wisdom and portraits line the beautifully tactile, thick-antique-like-paper pages that make up this treasured compendium. Goat curry, Norwegian waffle pancakes, Scottish apple cake, Chilean meat pie, St. Clement's bread and butter pudding, 'The Keetley Family To Die For Baked Cheesecake and Nan's enormous victoria sponge birthday cake. Every recipe is precious because of the simple, humble and beautiful idea that binds the book together: Grandmothers and the way they love us through our food. Normally when I read a cookbook I scrutinise glossy pictures and try and cancel out what looks really amazing from what looks just good. You can't approach this cookbook that way, every recipe is special. The fact that the grandmothers of the book have chosen to share it (and the way that Laura and Claire have presented it) makes a history and a story out of all of those cupfuls of flour and all of that whisking of eggs. It's just so sincere. You want to make everything, not because it's new and magazine-page looking or made by someone you've seen on TV - you want to make it for precisely the opposite reason: because it's tried and true, because it's come from homes and been fed to families that you will never know and especially because each recipe carries so much of the pride and personality (and the love) of 19 wonderful women. Cooking has become so styled and so marketed and marketable, it's a rare moment when you find something that skirts all of this (fun) nonsense and goes back to roots, to the well-worn tables and to the mismatched, cluttered and colourful kitchens where many of us first learnt to love food. It's all soul. 

I love this book. If you want to love it too you can buy it at Arial Bookshops in Paddington and some selected smaller book stores and cafes, the link below allows you to buy it online. It will have a few tv appearances this week so keep your eyes peeled if you want to know more about Laura and Claire's amazing idea, and the story behind them putting it together. Claire + Laura's website is at http://www.poynterandwallace.com and the book's website is at http://www.mygrandmotherskitchen.net you can buy the book from this link and it also lists where it's stocked if you would like to browse through it first. There's an empty chapter at the end of the book for you to fill in with your grandmother's recipes.
And the setting of all this magic is no less magical itself. The Woodfired Sourdough Bakery sits a little back from the main road through Berry. A heritage-barn-like space is the busy backdrop for full-bodied coffee and all things beautifully baked. 
But beyond sourdough loaves...
and macarons...
and soon to be sold out wholesomely spiced and so-so nice hot cross buns...
and beyond sticky little cakes...
and rich chocolately tarts...
...beyond flaky-buttery glazed croissants...
And yes, we can go beyond those things, is a killer menu that has cranked out some of the most spectacular food I have ever fallen head over mouth for in any cafe. Ever! Last year I had a spoonful of an amazing, creamy white soup that someone at my table had scored the last bowl of, and half of one of the most splendid sandwiches that ever lived.
There's beautiful bircher and omelettes with goats cheese and tomato. Thick wedges of sourdough smeared with ricotta and layered with profoundly buttered wild mushrooms are a breakfast favourite. There's toast so divine that it all it wants is butter and milky tea or coffee. The menu keeps changing but the wow-factor always stays the same.
With an obvious emphasis on local produce and beautiful oils, cheeses and fresh baked breads used in all of the dishes (and some for sale, as well) this place always justifies the drive to Berry - even if you live in Perth.
Berry Woodfired Sourdough Bakery happens at 23 Prince Alfred Street, Berry, ph 02 94464 1617. Get there earlier on weekends as most things sell out (on the menu and in the cake and bread department), and also be prepared for an entirely justifiable wait. They close Mondays and Tuesdays.
Strong coffee, crusty baguettes, solid eggs and morsels of fragrantly-sweet oranged-chocolately-apple-spliced somethings are more than enough to command every ounce of your attention. But don't let that stop you from striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you, you'll never know who you're likely to meet.
Thanks to Joost and Jelle Hilkemeijer the inspired owners of this phenomenal bakery, and to their Alan Scott oven that keeps turning out all this deliciously flaming flour. 


Deep, indebted thanks to Danny, who kindly tolerates (and occasionally encourages) my devotion to cafes and conversations with random strangers/soon to be best friends. 


Thank you especially to Laura, for opening up so easily about your life and your past and for giving me this wonderful cookbook that I can't wait to start playing with. But most of all, thank you for a timely reminder (in bergamot) that movies get their magic from life - and not the other way around! See you at our Thursday tea date. 


Thanks to you, too, dear reader, if you managed to plunder through all of this jabbering. There were quite a few ways of telling this story, but I wanted to tell it the way it happened*. 

*sincere apologies to any bulimics.