Whether he’s in Newport or across the Pond, Murray Chalmers loves the ritual of afternoon tea.
If you’re anything like me – and if we do share any personality traits then psychiatric counselling is available – you might have spent some of lockdown reminiscing about the good old days when a pint of Guinness drunk in a pub – at lunchtime, with friends and maybe even on holiday – didn’t ever feel like it would be such forbidden fruit.
Exactly a year ago I had just returned from New York where I ate, drank, laughed and caroused as if my life depended on it.
Although coronavirus was in the news, I don’t recall any sense of panic, either in New York or when I returned to Scotland. I returned with no excess baggage other than the two extra cases I hurriedly bought to transport all the stuff I’d acquired.
I remember drinking Champagne in bed on the flight and thanking Virgin Atlantic air miles for allowing me to turn left as I got on the plane; I also remember plotting my next trip as the Champagne kicked in somewhere over the ocean, assuming that I would be returning within months.
Now, of course, it all feels like a last, desperate splurge on freedom, hanging out with friends and blowing a whole load of cash on rare books and trainers; it’s now apparent that the main things we can’t exist without are those that money can’t buy – health, freedom, family, friendship and fun.
At the moment the idea of carousing anywhere with anyone seems a beautiful fantasy because that particular carousel ground to a halt a year ago, grinding the world down with it.
As February ends I feel like hope very much does depend on the idea that one day we will all walk into a pub and the biggest dilemma to face will be whether to have that Guinness at room temperature or extra chilled.
And whether any of us will ever be able to look at a Scotch egg without seeing the face of Michael Gove is, frankly, another matter.
I’ve been thinking a lot in the last week about New York and tea.
New York is a good place to reminisce about because for me it sums up life in all its frenetic, brutal, glamorous, contradictory glory.
I’ve been going there for work and for pleasure so much since the mid-1980s that at one stage I contemplated moving there.
Now I love to visit, using city landmarks and experiences to provide an instant lift to the humdrum of life; spending comparatively little money on six oysters and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc at the Grand Central Oyster Bar is as life-affirming an experience as you can have with your clothes on.
Closer to home, tea has been in my thoughts for a number of reasons, not least because I bagged a delicious last-minute Valentine’s day box of baked treats (£10) from the inestimable Mary-Jane Duncan, fellow columnist and head honcho at Kitschnbake in Newport.
This reminded me how much I miss the ritual of afternoon tea and how it has replaced high tea (a concept I love, especially when it involves Welsh rarebit) as something which gently eases day into evening. Cake and then a sofa, a crackling fire and the noise of the waves outside my window can hit spots that no sleeping tablets could ever reach.
Afternoon tea at home in Fife is one thing but the same in New York is one of my favourite things ever.
The place I often choose there might be seen as touristy and a bit naff in some ways, but I think it’s highly sophisticated in its archness, kitsch and camp.
Serendipity 3 is a restaurant that was founded in 1954 and over the years has hosted Marilyn Monroe (who famously burst out of her dress whilst eating there, casually changing frocks in the minuscule toilet), Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy, Cher, Joan Rivers, Oprah Winfrey and John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, who celebrated Serendipity’s iconic Frrrozen Hot Chocolate in their 2001 film of the same name.
How I wish someone like Dundee’s Phil Donaldson (Draffens, The King of Islington, Abandon Ship) would open somewhere here that captures the spirit of a place like Serendipity.
Like the best of Phil’s bars, and just as in the old-school Dundee tearooms I still remember so fondly, the minute you walk into Serendipity the further real-life recedes – and all for the price of a coffee or a hotdog.
The original concept of Serendipity was an antique shop with a cafe in the back. Even now it feels like you’re eating in a shrine to glamour and THINGS, surrounded as you are by original Tiffany lamps (worth a fortune now, but almost worthless when Serendipity opened), a huge grandfather clock, and an Andy Warhol doll, which Warhol made himself, hanging from the ceiling. It’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of arty bling which at once feels comforting and also hugely glamorous; it transports you out of yourself and it works.
The recipe for their signature dish of Frrrozen hot chocolate (trust me, it’s more a meal than a drink) was so prized that the restaurant resisted publishing it in their first few cookbooks and it was only extreme pressure that eventually forced them to do so.
This isn’t so surprising when you know that they not only refused to give the recipe to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy when she wanted to serve it at the White House, but also said that the only way it could be served there was if the restaurant owner attended the function and made it himself.
Thankfully it’s now available in their book Sweet Serendipity (out of print but used copies available online for £4.49) although, more prosaically, you can buy the magical chocolate powder in the store at the front of the restaurant.
In 2004 Serendipity celebrated its 50th anniversary by introducing the record-breaking golden opulence sundae, the world’s most expensive dessert at $1,000 a pop. They also held three further world records for the most expensive milkshake ($100), hot dog ($69) and hamburger ($295).
A recent search of the menu showed the Frrrozen hot chocolate to be a more realistic $12 or $16 if you decide to share your diabetes moment with a friend.
Back home, tea is sustaining me in so many ways, not least because I’ve not drunk alcohol for a month. And, inspired by the idea of frozen versions of classic drinks, my big new discovery is cold-pressed tea.
First, you need a good quality tea. I’ve been using Pukka because they sent me a huge selection of it before Christmas and I’ve loved trying the various flavours. I also find their Night Time organic blend to be a delicious, useful aid to a good night’s sleep; there’s a whole section on Pukka’s excellent website www.pukkaherbs.com about how you can improve your sleep patterns which, for an insomniac like me, is extremely helpful.
Because of Pukka I’ve gone from drinking one cup of tea per day to around seven. My favourite blends are Relax (chamomile, fennel and marshmallow root), Three Fennel (sweet and wild fennel seeds with fennel leaf), Feel New (aniseed, fennel and cardamom) and Mint Macha Green (matcha and spearmint). All are organic.
All or nothing!
However delicious the teas are when brewed conventionally, I have discovered a new way to serve them which has taken away any pangs I have for booze in the evening. I’m aware as I type this that many will laugh – I mean what could take the place of a delicious, complex glass of Burgundy or a robust, peaty whisky?
Surely it’s all or nothing when trying to capture that first drink of an evening, when it’s as much about the reward as the taste? Allow me to introduce you to the delights of iced tea in winter.
To start you will need a cold press coffee/tea maker, or you could improvise with just a large jug. Cold brew makers are about £20 online and I do think it’s worth it because you can then use loose tea as well as teabags, knowing that the loose tea is contained in the diffuser.
After choosing your teas, it’s all easy. You fill the jug with water, put the teas in the container, leave it in the fridge and then marvel at what comes out a few hours later.
The wonderful thing about these elixirs is the complexity of flavours that emerge from such a simple process. They are absolutely delicious! I serve mine in a heavy crystal glass meant for spirits. I add ice and maybe a twist of lemon and I’m probably three days away from adding a Perello olive and pretending I’m a sober Bond. The possibilities are endless and, of course, you can use any tea – it doesn’t have to be herbal.
Hibiscus tea makes beautiful crimson liquid whilst the teas from Mariage Frères bring some French subtlety to proceedings. And, best of all, your mind is fooled into thinking you’re having a real, proper drink!
If you’re going to try this I recommend starting with Pukka’s Green Collection teabags which, to me, taste completely different when served cold. You can also experiment with adding bitters from the excellent range from Fee Brothers. Aztec chocolate, cherry and peach are the best. It’s a long way from New York and frozen hot chocolate but, with the thought of spring, sunshine and freedom, it’s an equally joyful one – and infinitely healthier.
Kitschnbake, 16 Boat Road, Newport on Tay, DD6 8EZ. kitschnbake.co.uk
Serendipity 3: serendipitybrands.com
The regular website for the restaurant seems to be down whilst the restaurant is closed
Pukka teas: pukkaherbs.com
Fee Brothers bitters: feebrothers.com