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Category Archives: Coffee and Tea

Brum Legends #1: The Chocolate Guinness Cake at the 6/8 Kafe.

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Beyond Fabulous: A freshly baked chocolate Guinness cake as photographed by the baker himself. Courtesy of Gavin Page.

Beyond Fabulous: A freshly baked chocolate Guinness cake as photographed by the baker himself. Courtesy of Gavin Page.

It is without a doubt, one of the best desserts I have ever tasted. And if you’ve ever ventured into the 6/8 Kafe near Temple Row, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The perfect blend of dense and moist yet strangely light chocolate sponge, with the out-of-this-world cream-cheese topping. It almost looks like a short, squat pint of Guinness. But you can eat it and make nom nom sounds in the process. With Guinness, you can only gargle.

Did you ever watch that old TV show Twin Peaks? I love Agent Cooper’s obsession with the cherry pie at the RR Diner and his quote: ‘This must be where pies go when they die’.

Well this is the cake equivalent.

It haunts my dreams sometimes.

I confess, I became quite obsessed with it last summer, just before I became ill (don’t worry, it didn’t contribute).  My sister in law visited from Detroit and we polished off at least three slices between us in one sitting.

Then I bought the entire sample tray at 6/8’s stand at the Taste of Birmingham event and served it at a dinner party. And the legend spread further. ‘What is this morsel of heaven?’ asked my guests.

It’s not just me who has noticed this cake either. It has spawned much discussion on Birmingham forums, and even been featured on a baking documentary.   Enquiring minds really want to know about the cake that is fast gaining legendary coffee-shop status in these parts.

So I determined to find out who makes the chocolate Guinness cake and what makes it so special.

Gavin Page, the creator, runs his business, Tobizzy2bake (FUN FACT: the  name comes from his kids Toby and Izi – aw, sweet) from his home up in Shenstone and gets up every day at 5am to make ciabatta for Anderson & Hill and Brewsmiths, both in Brum. That stuff is awesome too btw.

‘I’m sorry if this is a little ‘dull’, but I’m quite normal, apart from being a middle aged male home baker,’ Gavin tells me, obviously perplexed that some mad woman wants to know all about him and his marvellous creation.

Ah, so modest.

There’s no big secret to the cake (that he’s willing to divulge) and he cooks all his bread and cakes in a standard domestic oven. So no Agas, Wolfs or fairy dust then. Good to know.

Gavin has been making this particular cake for years. It was only after he was made redundant after a 20 year career in motor insurance that he decided to share his talent with the wider world.

Well I for one am glad for Gavin’s career change. I’m always heartened to read stories of people making lemonade from lemons. (Brum lemonade anyone?)

As the legend spreads, so does Gavin’s list of appreciative coffee shops. Indeed, the cake can now be found in Moseley at Cafephilia which opened earlier this month on the Alcester Road.

Long may this fabulous cake continue to be found in our fair city.

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New Tea Tasting House in Brum gets my Sympathy

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Delightful things happen when you least expect them. For instance, there I was searching for a funeral dress on Saturday afternoon when I pretty much stumbled upon a new indie tea tasting house in The Pavillions shopping Centre.

My quick candid shot of Char Wallah results in the owner coming over.

My quick candid shot of Char Wallah results in the owner coming over.

As usual, I whipped out my camera ready to share this discovery with you good people when there was a knock on the window. Uh oh, was I going to get a reprimand for for taking innocent photos (they weren’t military planes for God’s sake)? Hell no, I was warmly beckoned inside and given a tour of Char Wallah by its friendly proprietor Andy Smith.

As I snapped away at the fab selection of international teapots and encyclopedic selection of loose leaf  and fruit blends on offer (hundreds it transpires having since perused the menu), Andy told me that he and his sister Julie had been open since Christmas. He’s a well traveled chap it seems and developed a passion for tea and sympathy during trips to the East.

Brew Ha Ha: Owner Andy Smith's passion for far Eastern teas is reflected in some of the more unusual tea pots for sale.

Brew Ha Ha: Owner Andy Smith’s passion for far Eastern teas is reflected in some of the more unusual tea pots for sale.

I told Andy that his store reminded me of upmarket American tea chain Teavana (loose leaf tea shops are doing really well over there as they haven’t adopted the British habit of taking tea with milk yet) and some of the independent offerings that are creating a mini revolution Stateside. Really, I’m not exaggerating. Teavana has recently been snapped up by Starbucks (queue The Empire Strikes Back theme music).

Tea-vana: minimalist tea set.

Tea-vana: minimalist tea set.

Certainly, Birmingham wants more food and drink tasting venues as shown by the success of The Whisky Shop and the Loki Wine Tasting House in the Great Western Arcade.

Mad hatter Style: Giant tea cups for sale at Char Wallah.

Mad hatter Style: Giant tea cups for sale at Char Wallah.

Meanwhile, back in Andy’s neglected part of The Pavillions (next to the lovely Wisteria Lane), two women sit sipping serenely, oblivious to the shopping stampede outside (yes I know over-alliteration makes me sound like Courtney Stodden but the sun is out so just allow it this once).

Pretty in pink: this might get Courtney Stodden to stop spouting poetry for five minutes.

Pretty in pink: this might get Courtney Stodden to stop spouting poetry for five minutes.

And I find myself hoping that Char Wallah survives because I admire what they are trying to do. All to often places such as the 90 Day Cafe, Shakes and all manner of little furniture places in the Pavillions and side streets pop up and then crash because we never pop in. I fear Char Wallah may turn out to be such a case but for £2.90 a pot or tea tasting for just £1, I urge Brummies to give it a go. It sure beats Typhoo!

Breakfast in Brum

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Audrey makes do at Tiffany & Co. I think we can do better.

I know it seems hard to fathom how this would happen to any self-respecting girly-girl, but until the age of 18, I had no idea that Tiffany & Co wasn’t a restaurant or a greasy spoon.

The very concept of not being able to have breakfast there scrambled my brain. All was made clear when I actually watched Breakfast At Tiffany’s just prior to my first trip to New York, and I duly went to Tiffany’s (what a snotty staff they have but what lovely, lovely things), bought my first piece and started a collection of lovely, lovely things. I still wish you could actually have a fry-up there though!

Because Brum, with its plethora of nightlife demands a good hangover breakfast. The foggy-headed and unwashed need sustenance on a Saturday/ Sunday morning, just as the healthy need their granola and the ladies who brunch need a suitable venue. In London, I’ve noticed they have this well and truly covered in every neighbourhood. Not that it is perfect – for every Purple Cow in Streatham there is a Tooting-based VERY greasy spoon covered in black mould. Yet Birmingham doesn’t have obvious choices in the city centre (kudos to suburbs like Selly Oak and Moseley for having the requisite greasy-spoon coverage). And what lies there is not necessarily up to snuff.

So in the spirit of adventure, the husband and I have suited up our delicate stomachs every Saturday morn for the past two months to find the best brekkie in the city centre.

The Criteria for our search:

Each venue has to be within a 10 minute walk from our home. Otherwise you are starving and angry. And that wouldn’t do, would it?

The Brasshouse, Broad Street

Pretty forgettable fry-up here (you know the sort, plastic sausages, watery bacon, sachets of brown sauce) mostly ruined by the loud music which was obviously left on the same volume from the night before. The Brasshouse is a strange place; it looks and feels like Witherspoons/ Whitbread/ hotel restaurant, has no discernible character yet seems to think it is a destination pub and enforces a ridiculous dress policy (no trainers, no hats etc) from ridiculous o’clock in the afternoon. You are a restaurant that serves generic beer. Understand that and treat your customers better.

Coffee Lounge

Not having a photo of Coffee Lounge to hand, you’ll just have to imagine it resembles this beautiful 1903 pic of the Flatiron building in New York.

This place is situated in a Flatiron-style Building on the corner of Stephenson Street and Navigation, making it a bit of an unnecessary trek for us BUT if you are taking a morning train journey, it is handily situated by the Victoria Sq entrance to New St station and if you show your ticket, breakfast is 10% cheaper! The breakfast is fine (they even deliver if you’re in the city centre) as is the coffee, the staff are friendly and there is a big screen TV showing the news or sport. Downstairs in the basement, there is a Tardis-like eating space. The loo is a bit weird though; unisex but not very clean and with a strange door that gives the illusion someone could walk in at any moment. Overall, pretty good.

JuJus, Canal Sq, Browning Street

Had high-hopes for this little place as it has come top of the Trip Advisor poll in Brum. It is quite off the beaten track (unless you have a penthouse on Sherbourne Wharf) but easily accessible by water bus. The modern canalside location means there is a light, airy feel which is lovely the morning-after. The restaurant seems immaculate and there are all manner of breakfast dishes. My breakfast hash came served in a frying pan (nice touch) but alas it contained a blond hair (obviously not one of ours) and the eggs weren’t fully cooked. The husband (who was in an especially grumpy mood that day) didn’t like the coffee and had to ask for the very loud music to be turned down. Despite there being hardly anyone in the place (maybe it’s more of a lunch/evening destination), the cheerful service took a rather long time and we left with an underwhelmed feeling. We weren’t sure if they were just resting on their laurels but having so much potential, Ju-Ju’s could do better.

The Figure of Eight, Broad Street

The Figure of Eight’s beer garden.

Yes it’s a Witherspoons pub but that means you get a lot of food for not very much money. We’ve been back here a few times (it’s the closest breakfast joint to our house) and had a full English along with some of their brunch offerings. The food always arrives piping hot, the staff don’t mind if you specify what eggs you would like (even though the menu doesn’t give a choice) and the throngs of hungover party animals that turn up from 11am onwards are very grateful and slowly come back to life before your eyes. Music is not turned on. Coffee is OK. Stick to the English breakfast dishes – I was disappointed by their attempt at Eggs Benedict.

The Floating Coffee Company, Brindley Place

Tried this one last week. The breakfast here is all day (hooray) and there is FILTER COFFEE (hurrah). The food is hot and as my husband pointed out, there’s a lot on the plate, plus toast (yay). The sausages aren’t too bad either. The only things that go against this place are the lack of toilet facilities (you have to go to the ICC across the bridge) and the constant motion, especially when the water bus goes past. It could be an uncomfortable experience after a night out with no bathroom to escape to should it all prove too much. Yet I do like this place. The tiny interior is charming and clean and there is a sense of camaraderie among the diners.

The Canalside Cafe, Gas St Basin

The Canalside is a lovely place to stop in on a walk along the basin. It does cute, hearty veggie dishes and has a retro bistro feel. However, our breakfasts here have been lukewarm and sparse. The bangers are quite ‘plasticky’ and the cafe noticeably cold (it was in the winter), which is a shame because it’s close-by and and a place that does so well on basic, good grub. Hope they can remedy this.

Cafe Gusto, The Mailbox

This place reminds me of being closest to a London breakfast joint. There are papers laid our to read, coffee to go (not FILTER mind), and a myriad of breakfast options. There is allegedly free broadband but this has been on the blink the past few times I’ve been there. Breakfast is OK (the curse of plastic bangers again) and I often leave over-stuffed. Music is low and there is not much chance of being bothered by hungover clubbers which is a good thing. A place to go and read or blog over your breakfast.

Overall, we are still not sure we’ve found our breakfast place yet. Whilst Brum can (just about) manage a decent fry-up, there is precious little in the way of brunch choices (although I’m investigating that this weekend). Maybe I’ve been spoiled by all the American diners and pancake houses I’ve been to which take brunch and even the basic fry-up to an art-form. And whilst some places realize that prompt service and not poking sleeping bears (i.e. the hungover) is the key to giving good breakfast, many of the cafes around Broad St need to understand that breakfast does not demand the atmosphere of a thumping nightclub (witness the demise of Miss Latte). Listen to your customers’ needs.

Miss Latte – Birmingham’s indie breakfast joints aren’t cutting the mustard and the chains are sopping up the leftovers.

Wow – the coffee gods answer prayers quick!!!!!

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So I did a little intelligence gathering today… For a couple of months now, the wonderful Urban Coffee Company has been running a tiny cubicle in the Mailbox. Here is a handy picture:

Urban Coffee Co’s cute little cup-shaped cafe.

and yesterday I heard a very intriguing rumour which I set out to verify. A little coffee bean reliably informs me that UCC has submitted a proposal to open a permanent coffee shop in one of the (many) vacant units in the Mailbox. If they are given the go ahead, this neighbourhood could see a good quality independent coffee shop by the end of October. In which case this would be my reaction:

Further to this intrigue is the mystery of Caffe Vergnano 1882. On the third level of the Mailbox stands a fully operational coffee shop which has not been open during my three years in this city. Like a service industry Mary Celeste, the tables are wiped down, the plates are laid out, the espresso machines are polished but the lights remain permanently off and no sign of it ever being open exists. A web search yields very scant results. The facts are that this chain is thriving in London and throughout Europe and the Birmingham Post did report that the Birmingham branch was due to open in March 2010. One solitary photo shows the cafe open (but it looks like a publicity shot).

Today I was going to photograph this unusual sight but to my surprise the cafe had been sealed over with billboards. This coupled with the rumour of a new coffee shop is surely more than a coincidence. Has UCC done a deal to take on this deserted cafe? Stay tuned to find out.  

Independent Coffee Shops – Please Brum, can we have some more?

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Yay, first post on a clean new blog.

When a whole city is spread out before you, it’s hard to know what to focus in on first.

The first thing people notice about Brum is the shopping (the Bull Ring, the Rag Market, the Fish Market, New Street yadda yadda). I have to say that this is the thing that will start to bore you first, living here. The crowds are horrendous (Primark any time after Tuesday afternoon is just asking for perdition and should therefore be avoided at all costs), the shops mostly chainy (the recession has hit hard here with some much lamented casualties) and the emphasis is on mindless consumerism.

After an hour in the trenches of the high street, some form of restorative beverage is needed. Sure you can go to the many out-posts of Starbucks, Costa and Nero that pepper the centre but you take your chances here. I can attest (after much caffeinated research) that the coffee shops near the er… shops are as crowded as the shops themselves. Comfy and cosy it is not.

Cue the role of the indy coffee house; those mythical sanctuaries for the broad-minded, the quirky and those who actually want to find FILTERED COFFEE in this country. I swear there used to be way more of these in major cities but during the last 10 years they have become a dying breed (the coffee houses, not the coffee – coffee snob husband reliably informs me filtered coffee has NEVER taken off over here). The leases for city centre retail space have not been lowered to keep the high street afloat during the economic climate (a no-brainer, surely), pushing the independents to the fringes of the shopping areas or out of business completely. It is here we should take a moment to pause and remember the dearly departed 90 Day Cafe (and their delicious cupcakes) and Shakes.

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BUT  fear not, a quiet coffee revolution is in our midst. There are some small coffee shops that are thriving in Brum. Go, enjoy, support.

This is my new favourite little find. It is teeny, tiny and has been going about a year now. It delivers filtered coffee (hurrah) without any unnecessary fanfare. The baristas are friendly and remember regular customers. They also serve a to-die-for chocolate Guinness cake that I bought a platter of when they held a stall at this year’s A Taste of Birmingham event (it wasn’t all for me, I promise). The shop has a basement where you can hold private events and has been used for tango workshops, food events and art exhibitions. Oh and the best thing about this place? When I first walked in they were playing an old album from The Beat. Good music = good atmosphere = good coffee house in my opinion.

With two locations (the other one is in the Jewellery Quarter), Urban Coffee Co is rapidly becoming a major success story in the independent coffee market. I love that they have a handmade look to their premises (shabby chic), as if they are merely very responsible, creative squatters. An eclectic customer base is always a good thing too. On week days, you get computer-programmers working remotely alongside office coffee–runs and dreamers such as myself. Again, the staff is happy to start a conversation with you (especially if you are a smiley new face) and the radio plays in the background with regular news bulletins. Did I mention they do fabulous red velvet cupcakes? And there is a knitting group on Saturday mornings (heaven)? They also meet the gold standard of indy coffee shops in that yes, there is FILTEED COFFEE!!!!!! Here they make it a little showier by pouring it through elaborate china funnelled filters but my husband assures me that the end result is like caffeine heroin. The husband was so chuffed with this discovery (until this point we had yet to find filtered coffee outside of London) that he provided a video clip for UCC’s Birmingham Business Award nomination film (I hid – it was NOT a good hair-day).

An honourable mention for this place. It is convenient for the morning coffee run and prides itself on its coffee cocktails. It hosts networking events, music nights and arts events and for that I salute it. The trouble is I think they could do better. The atmosphere isn’ t that relaxing, the chairs are more sleek than comfy,  there is no filtered coffee (I mean come ON) and I once heard the staff tell a Japanese tourist that they didn’t know what afternoon tea was (I really think it was this event that swung it for me). For the size of the place they could be doing more in the way of food. There is another branch in Manchester and I suspect this could result in a chain of Café Blands Blends, that could be an upmarket Starbucks. Ok-ish.

  • Coffee Time, The Square, B4 7LG (sorry no website).

This one I haven’t had a chance to visit yet but I keep hearing good things. It’s tiny and situated just behind The Oasis alternative indoor market. The food and drinks are very reasonably priced (something that alas, is not the norm with coffee shops) and lots of power points for you mobile workers out there. Would love to hear people’s experiences here as it sounds unpretentious and cute.

Sadly I can’t think of any more cafes in the centre that aren’t chains right now (Bebo and Gusto are chains – who knew?) so I hope the coffee and economic gods will hear my fervent prayer: please, please, pretty please  indy coffee shops, could you come to the Broad Street – Mailbox area? We are not all beer-guzzling, hen partying louts. A lot of us make our homes here and we need you in our community! For our sanity.

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