Tag Archives: champagne

On Location: The Library Lounge at County Hall

Psssst! Fancy going for afternoon tea with a great view?

I’m always on the lookout for somewhere to go for afternoon tea. Tea, finger sandwiches, cakes, scones and maybe a glass of something. That, and visitors love doing something so thoroughly British, and when there is a great view to boot, who could resist?

Recently I went to the Library Lounge at the Marriott County Hall. This is somewhere that offers fine views and some interesting history. The County Hall building is located on the south bank of the Thames, next to the London Eye and just across the river from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. So the view is one of the great views in the world. Yes, in the world. It does not fail to excite – show it to anyone, and they know what they’re looking at straight off.

County Hall was the home of the former Greater London Council until the 1980s, when the then-government got rid of it. There were a series of spats, but one of the things that annoyed the government of the day was the propensity of the occupants in County Hall to drape banners with inconvenient political truths down the side of the building – which was not something the occupants of Parliament were keen to see across the Thames when looking out of their offices! You still see extracts of this history – the walls are dotted with old political cartoons based on the battles between the Government and the Greater London Council.

While the location is stunning, it can also make it easy to overlook – locals might avoid this part of the Southbank given that it gets busy, and visitors tend to walk along the riverbank and then turn  straight onto Westminster Bridge and head towards Big Ben. So, time to change that!

Since the 1980s, County Hall has since been redeveloped, and you are now able to wander in and enjoy afternoon tea in the former library. This is a truly lovely space, living up to its name with books lined up on heavy wooden shelves. I think this is what makes the atmosphere so nice – the shelves break up the space, so it feels really rather very private – you could imagine the politicians of days gone by in this place, gossiping, making plans and scheming!

You’ve got a number of options in the Library Lounge, and faced with the selection, we plumped for the champagne tea. It just had to be done. I was there just before Christmas, just having completed my gift shopping. It had been hard work, and heck, I felt I had earned it.

I had arrived around 3 o’clock, on a clear evening as the sun was beginning to set. And I have to admit that there is a real thrill sitting there with a glass of chilled fizz, looking out over the Thames towards Parliament, and seeing Big Ben light up against the twilight sky. As a (pretend) local, it’s actually such an unusual thing to do, so easy to overlook, but it’s also a simple pleasure really worth enjoying. It’s one of those sights that makes you remember how great our city is. I know, I keep going on about the view, but it was lovely!

When it came to the tea, there was the usual wide selection, but a little touch that I rather enjoyed was receiving a tray of samples to test.

You unscrew the sample jars, and can then take in the aroma of the teas on offer. There was a good combination of classic teas (Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong and my own favourite, Assam) as well as herbal teas including rooibos with orange and cinnamon and a nice blackcurrant and lavender. Helpfully, the server was also able to offer some tips on which teas to take as well as sharing her own favourites.

As I was there just before Christmas, afternoon tea came with a festive twist. Following a section of finger sandwiches (a veggie selection was not an issue – hummus, cheese, avocado), we had Christmas cake, cranberry tartlets and tree-shaped cookies with edible pearls.

However, the highlight for me were the truly delicious scones. Light, fluffy and still warm. Yummy!

As you can see, I eat my scones the “Cornish way”. That is to say – split, spread with jam and then add the clotted cream. Apparently if you eat them with the clotted cream first and then the jam, that’s the “Devon way” – fine if you’re in Plymouth, but frowned upon if you’re in the Cornish town of Penzance.

So, would I go back? Definitely. The afternoon tea was lovely (as evidenced by the fact I managed to demolish three scones, in addition to the plate of finger sandwiches and all the cakes), and the view is breathtaking.

If you’re got a visitor to entertain, it works out a treat as you can take in the sights around Westminster, then nip in and enjoy the calm with an appropriate vista. My tip? Call to book, and check whether you are able to get a table near the window!

Library Lounge, London Marriott Hotel County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7PB. Tel: 020 7902 8000. Tube: Waterloo or Westminster.

LondonEats locations map here.


Filed under Afternoon Tea, London, On Location

On Location: Vertigo 42 (The City, London)

When I go out, I have a strong, strong preference for down-to-earth places that serve great food and are a relaxed place for a drink.

But…every now and then…it is nice to go to something of a landmark bar. And this is very much the case with Vertigo 42, located at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the City. As you can see, from street level, it’s a long, long way up. A whole 42 floors.

Now, this is not the sort of place that I would normally drop into for a casual drink. This is in part because you need to book ahead, but also because this is a champagne and cocktail bar, with the sort of prices that you would expect from this sort of venue in the middle of London’s financial centre. You get the point…

All that said, the whole reason for going is that it does offer some of the most amazing views across London, especially on a clear day as the sun is setting. You can gaze at the Shard of Glass that is being built on the south bank of the Thames, admire the sun setting over west London (and really understand what prompted to Kinks to write their famous hit) and take in the London Eye, Tate Modern and Houses of Parliament and St Paul’s Cathedral. Towards the east, you can see the towers of Canary Wharf and the nearby 30 St Mary’s Axe (better known as the Gherkin).

You can see below why I recommend getting there as the sun is setting – you’ll see London in the daylight, then enjoy the sun setting and seeing the city light up in front of your eyes. Even at these prices, the views are stunning.

After all that boozing at the top of the tower, a little wander through the chilly streets was much-needed before going off to dinner. To put it all in context, this is the more familiar view of St Paul’s Cathedral at night.

Would I go back? Well, as I said, it’s not a place for a casual drink, but great to visit or impress guests. Just be aware that the best views are for twos or fours (towards Waterloo – sunsets! landmarks!) so be sure to extract a guarantee about where you’re sitting if at all possible. Be prepared for a hefty bar tab, but remember – those views!

Vertigo 42, Tower 42, 25 Old Broad Street, London EC2N 1HQ. Tel: 0207 877 7842. Tube: Bank or Liverpool Street.

LondonEats locations map here.


Filed under London, On Location

Holidays II – La Champagne et la douce France

If you’ve been following my posts and tweets about holiday time, you’ll know that I decided to be green, and to travel from Italy to France by train. From Perugia to Milan via Florence, stay the night in Milan, then take the train the next day to Basel, then to Strasbourg, and then to Reims. Two days, five trains (a route something like this). Basta!

I started on that epic overland trip expecting it to descend first into farce, then chaos and finally bitter recrimination, thereby allowing me to write something amusing and entertaining about the trip. But, in the end, it all went like clockwork. All trains were on time, and everything was clean and efficient. So instead, I will just muse on my time in the Champagne region.

Champagne lies to the east of Paris, around the cities of Reims and Epernay. The pretty landscape is rolling rather than dramatic, covered in hills, small towns, forests and, of course, the famous vineyards. We rented a house in the pretty village of Orbais-l’Abbaye.

Ahead of the trip, my friends and I consciously chose to focus on visiting small producers instead of the big names, and we purchased in heroic quantities. You certainly pay less buying champagne in this way, but price is not the point. Visiting the small producers allows you to try different wines and to taste the various varieties and get to know what you prefer. Not that there is anything wrong with Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot but I can easily get them in London. But a bottle of Jean Gimonnet? That’s a different story.

Two of the biggest factors that affect the flavour of the final champagne are the area where the grapes are grown (so you can compare the same type of champagne from different producers) and the types of grapes used to make the champagne (so the same producer makes a number of different drinks). So yes, you need to visit a few different champagne producers – tough, I know! In terms of grape varieties, champagnes are made with combinations of chardonnay, pinot noir and/or pinot meunier. What can be surprising to a lot of people if that the two pinot varieties are actually black grapes. However, as the colour is only in the grape skin, during the pressing process, the producer just takes care not to crush the skins, so that only the clear juice is extracted. Even so, the fuller bodied juice of the darker varieties will be apparent in the finished drink, producing champagnes with a heavier flavour and slightly darker colour. In contrast, if a higher proportion of green chardonnay grapes are used, then you have a lighter, fresher champagne, which is most obvious in the 100% chardonnay blanc des blancs which is a typical bright, floral aperitif champagne. In comparison, the more pinot meunier and/or pinot noir, the more golden the colour of the champagne, with a stronger aroma and more pronounced flavours, such as caramel or baked bread.

So far, so clear. But what about pink champagne? If you don’t get the colour from the grape skins, where does it come from? Well, there are two ways. Either the producer will actually add a little red grape juice at the end of the process anyway, which tints the champagne pink and adds a subtle flavour from the black skins, or the producer uses a proportion of red grape juice right at the start of the fermentation process anyway. In the latter process, the black grape juice has more of an impact on the final colour and taste, with more pronounced red fruit aromas and flavours coming out.

What this visit has shown me is the importance of knowing what you like and why you like it. I’ve been in bars in London where someone had demanded bottles of “big name” champagne, and proceeded to brashly show off while drinking it. I just wonder what their reaction would be it they were faced with a bottle of a small producer’s award-winning vintage champagne? Hmmm…

In addition to all this champagne, there were many dinners and lunches in our holiday house, a marathon bramble picking session, and apricot and bramble jam made from what we found in the area. All sounds divine, right? Well, not quite. The place we stayed…it was a lovely old château, set in beautiful rambling gardens with views of the local abbey, but it had seen better days. The cleaner had been in the service of the owner for the last 35 years, and let’s just say her eye for detail had slipped. Someone (not me!) had to spend two hours upon arrival scrubbing, bleaching and disinfecting, and fly swatting was elevated to something of an Olympic standard. It was difficult to disguise laughs when the cleaner announced that she comes for three hours, three times a week “whether it is necessary or not”. Well, it was necessary. What really irritated me was not that the place needed a darn good clean, de-cluttering and some strategic yet sympathetic modernisation, but that it had the potential to be a truly stunning house which would really showcase the very best of the French countryside. It just needs a little love and care lavished on it. Let’s hope that things change.

With champagne bought and the holiday at an end, the final leg of the trip involved a train trip to Reims and a few hours wandering around the centre. I popped into the fabulous Cafe Waïda for coffee and a little mid-morning snack, and was in awe of their truly amazing cakes and desserts. A very old style of cafe – inside there were matronly women putting tarts, macarons, petit fours and fancy sweets into elaborate bags, and behind them, a sleek-looking art deco interior. I went for tartlette aux mirabelles, and it was sublime.

Next, into the TGV and off to Paris. We arrived, and the heavens opened, so we ducked somewhere for lunch and waited for the sun to arrive. The remainder of the afternoon was very relaxed, just spent wandering in the Marais district, then up past République and on to the canal (seriously – who knew that Paris had a canal?). Just time for a glass of rosé at the bobo Chez Prune before heading to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London. And all of this with way too many bottles, jars and little foodie treats stuffed into my groaning luggage.

I love to travel. And I love to get back home. And I love to sit at home, eating and drinking the things I buy on my travels, remembering those good times.

It’s been a great summer!

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