“Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia.”
Sunshine, cycling and wine as far as the eye can see. Sound like paradise? Well it certainly did to us as we grabbed a wine map, teased our rather squashed, rented tandem bike from the back of the campervan and wobbled off into Blenheim’s wine country.
Regimented rows of the precious grapes cover thousands of acres of the undulating countryside here and there are over 140 wineries in the region, with more than 60 of them offering free wine tasting to visitors – on the expectation that you’ll fall so utterly in love with the region’s brand of zingy, citrus sauvignon blancs and clean, ripe pinot noirs that you’ll end up leaving with a pannier full of bottles.
We meandered to Saint Clair Family Estate cellar off the cycle-friendly Rapaura Road before making our way – ever more carefully and ever less upright to Framingham Wines via the cellar doors of Cloudy Bay, MOA beers, Prenzel liqueurs, Bouldevines, Hans Herzog and the Fudge Kitchen, for an emergency sugar hit, obviously. By the day’s end, with panniers bulging and me doing probably less than 30% of the peddling, I can say shaky hand on tipsy heart that this the most fun you can have outside of a bungee harness in New Zealand.
‘An Italian heart beats in the heart of London.’
This luxurious haunt has an undeniably Italian flavour. That’s not to say that when you arrive you’re surrounded by Italian stallions calling you amore mio and trying to persuade you back to the family pad for a bit of how’s your father before mama comes home, more that the service here comes with a Mediterranean twinkle.
The Brunello restaurant is flanked by an impressive fireplace, statement bar and is strewn with plush velvet chairs, Murano glass candelabras and more gleaming gold and platinum than Harrods’ jewellery counter. Yet it’s all done with exquisite taste – think more Versace than Nancy Dell’Olio.
The cocktail list has everything, from a French 75 and a mean Bellini to bottles of Italian sparkling wine crafted in the same way as Champagne. Drinks were punctuated by a flow of delectable finger food: charcuterie, fat green olives, chunks of crumbling parmesan and ribbons of lightly-fried squid and courgette, all delivered as smoothly and as slick as top quality olive oil. Ok, so I’m running out of Italian references now, but if you ever feel like escaping to Rome but can’t afford the flight, then The Baglioni is a safe London bet.
Cocktails had a bit of a moment in 2013 as they were transformed from that cheeky pre-night out tipple into sophisticated, everyday concoctions. The term mixologist suddenly began to regularly feature in my vocabulary, connoisseurs started throwing everything from smoke to bacon flavours at booze and racing to see who could knock wine off the top diner spot by matching cocktails with food. And I was there, racing to try it all.
So when I heard that The King’s Ginger Liqueur and China Tang at the Dorchester were teaming up to combine the uniquely British pastime of a traditional afternoon tea with our nation’s penchant for a stiff drink I didn’t need much convincing to check it out.
The King’s Ginger has the premium credentials of being the world’s only high-strength ginger spirit and, made in 1903 for the gregarious monarch King Edward VII by macerating root ginger with lemon peel, it makes an understandable accompaniment for tea-based drinks. Which is exactly what head bar tender Luca C served up in a succession of gingery, heady cocktails using some of the finest tea leaves from China and matching them with some exquisite plates from the Asian influenced menu at the opulent China Tang.
Surrounded by the dark wood, flock wallpaper and gold panelling of China Tang’s bar I was offered delights like Her Majes-tea, a light negroni made with gin, The King’s Ginger and sparkling oolong tea alongside a plate of delicately cooked tender black pepper squid; a plate of sticky Peking duck with a smoked margarita cut with kaffir lime, ginger and lapsang souchong and a steaming basket of bitter-sweet chocolate dumplings that arrived with a generous crystal tumbler of Royal Chai made with Appleton rum, chocolate bitters, lavender and obviously, a glug of The King’s Ginger.
If I’m honest, the accolades for the drinks were flowing quite freely by the end as is the intrinsic problem matching cocktails with food: after the third you’ll be too inebriated to tell the difference between the good the bad and the ugly anyway. However, if you’re looking for a satisfyingly different festive drink then you can’t go wrong with a palate challenging glass from The King’s Ginger and The Dorchester.
My pick was the spicy, smoky Edward’s Margarita, but you can make your own choice by visiting China Tang as The King’s Ginger Afternoon-Tea cocktails are now available and on the menu. Or you can try and make your own using the recipes below.
Her Majes-tea (tea cups)
- 35ml Colonel Fox’s Gin
- 25ml The King’s Ginger
- 20 ml Suze
- Carbonated oloong tea
- Stir with ice and strain into Chinese teacup. Top up with carbonated tea.
- 45 ml Ocho tequila infused with Lapsang Tea
- 15ml TheKing’s Ginger
- 15 ml Fresh lime juice
- 10 ml Agave syrup
- Garnish with kaffir lime leaf
- 35 ml Appleton rum
- 35 ml The King’s Ginger
- 10 ml Chai tea syrup
- 5 Drops of Chocolate Bitters
- Sprayed lavender bitters
- Garnish with dried orange and sprig of lavender
What is it they say about restaurants and buses? Those searching for a new food haunt around W2 can call off the search, because two places have opened up within staggering distance of each other in as many months.
Ex-Masterchef finalist Marianne Lumb opened her bijou, eponymous place in September at 104 Chepstow Road and Wildflower Café followed hot on its heels and on its trail when it opened its doors just down the road at 108 in November.
Run by three foodie sisters, this restaurant cum florist cum coffee shop is small but perfectly formed with an intimate 36-cover max and a predilection for fresh, seasonal, fuss-free food. I visited with J to see what a meal sans foams and gels looks like nowadays.
The place has a country kitchen meets Hoxton chic vibe with natty bowler hat lightshades, upcycled, school chairs and a giant chalk board promising the delights of venison and red wine pie with mash and valrhona dark chocolate brownies.
During the day I bet the place is full of people buying hand-cut bouquets, sipping cappuccinos and wolfing down lemon and polenta cake but on a cold, Thursday night we were the only patrons for most of the meal, saved only from the pressure of solo dining by a middle-aged couple who wandered in towards the end.
Wildflower is still very young and clearly relies a lot on local word of mouth and the foot traffic that tramps past the brightly-lit windows only to be drawn in by the displays of sweet treats, olive oils and preserves.
The lovely, lone waitress didn’t seem too fussed by the lack of customers and was happy to chat to us during the meal, informing us that a few nights ago a couple of well-stilletoed ladies wobbled in at 11pm after a night out and left with armfuls of cakes. Swapping the chippy for the Patisserie? Only in West London.
There are only ever three options to choose from on each course of the dinner menu so we went for the prosciutto and parmesan arancini and the Jerusalem artichoke and roast garlic soup to start along with a glass of the dangerously drinkable house red Merlot.
The crisp, golden arancini squidged satisfyingly under the fork to reveal an oozing cheesy centre and came with a nicely spicy arrabiatta sauce on the side, which tasted like it was forged in the fires of hades and was scarlet with chilli. The aromatic Jerusalem artichoke soup was smooth and unctuous, although that promised hit of roast garlic turned out to be more of a disappointing whisper than a punch.
My soup was followed by a well-crisped, roast guinea fowl with a juicy thigh and a leg just this side of overdone served with girolles and some pleasingly pithy leaves of iron-rich cavolo nero on a butter saturated piece of pagnotta. If there had been any sauce when the plate left the kitchen it had been sacrificed on the altar of bread in transit and, while no one can really object to a meaty, oozing lump of hot bread, the dish was crying out for a generous glug of the pan juices to make it sing.
J’s pan-fried hake came with a healthy portion of chorizo, bean and tarragon stew and was perfectly cooked, disintegrating in the mouth with a spicy, meaty afterglow.
There was a choice of three puds, including the array of cakes still on display in the window and the freshly-baked plate of coco-rich brownies that the chef deposited near us moments before, filling the room with the heady smell of dark chocolate, vanilla pods and oranges.
I plumped for the Autumn Mess with blackberries, figs and pears swimming in podgy matrimony with dollops of whipped cream and nuggets of toffee-centered meringues from the Meringue Girls. I couldn’t escape the pudding envy though when J tucked into a spiced plum and apple crumble and started glugging from a bottle of piping hot, vanilla custard. Desserts are clearly something that Wildflower do well.
Wildflower seems to have brunches and teas down with a menu featuring huevos rancheros, blood orange bucks fizz and kedgeree but the bistro-style dinner market is a hard nut to crack. Let’s hope some of those late-night window shoppers soon turn into evening diners.
Wildflower Café, 108 Chepstow Road, London, W2 5QS, 0207 792 9594 wildflower.co.uk