Sunday, 30 April 2017

Tonbridge has a sugary new addition

Tonbridge has a sweet new addition to its ever-growing food scene - but you'll be lucky if you manage to catch it open.

Creams Factory, a gelato cafe/dessert bar, opened in the high street in mid-April - or at least it did in theory - tempting us into visiting over Easter weekend. The website showed general opening hours of 8am-10pm, with no special Easter opening hours, so out we headed around lunchtime on Easter Sunday, ready for a sugar fix, only to find the place all locked up (s'all good, we ended up here instead). 

Checking again on the website and social media accounts for Easter opening hour announcements, and finding nothing, we headed in again around lunchtime on Easter Monday - to find the place locked up again, chairs on the tables, plunged into darkness.

A chance stroll pass the place one evening a couple of weeks later revealed that week's opening hours printed out and stuck to the door. Seeing that it was due to be open 11am-10pm on Sunday of the bank holiday weekend, we arrived around 1.15pm - to find it closed again, a note pinned to the door saying it would now be opening at 3pm. We decided to give it one more chance, rocking up around 4pm, and finally, unexpectedly, found the place open.

After all that, it had a lot of hype to live up to, but it didn't quite hit the spot.

The menu is impressive, a choice of around 20 individual ice cream flavours and a few sundaes too. For those who like things a bit warmer, waffles and crepes are available with varying amounts of fruit, chocolate, cream and sauce. A quick glance at the cake counter told us that cake probably wasn't the best option. Drinks-wise, choose from the usual hot or soft drinks, or do what any sensible person would do, and go for a milkshake. Pick from the usual flavours, or get a chocolate bar such as Galaxy or Crunchie blended into it.

Service was haphazard, although staff can't be faulted on their friendliness. Different menu items were being served to the table at different times - not a problem for us, but parents at a table nearby with three kids under the age of 10 had trouble keeping the peace. Elsewhere, one man's sundae was delivered to his table while he was still in the queue to pay, leaving him to return to a semi-melted mess.

Add to this the fact that, despite the tables all being numbered, the waiting staff couldn't work out which order was for which table, interrupting conversations every couple of minutes to ask 'did you order X?' and the whole thing felt somewhat chaotic.

The hot chocolate was decent, and the ice cream was tasty, if dense. Particular shout-out for the strawberry ice cream, which was made from real fruit.  The crepes were average, but the Maltesers milkshake was a disappointment. Unlike other milkshakes with well-known sweets or chocolate bars are blended in, the Maltesers were barely there. That said, it was a darn site cheaper than most chocolate bar milkshakes, so swings and roundabouts.

Tonbridge's recent foodie boom means it has no shortage of places to stop for a quick bite or a sugar hit. Beyond The Grounds, Finch House and Basil are all excellent options for a coffee and a slice of cake, and while Creams offers something different from this, it doesn't yet do it well enough to compete. Rather than trying to please so many people, they'd be better off focusing on one or two things - say ice cream and milkshakes - and doing them well. Oh, and actually opening from time to time.

If you do head there, it's worth phoning ahead first to check they're actually open. Even at time of writing, the website states opening hours of 8.30am-10pm daily, while the Twitter account contradicts this with 8.30am-10.30pm. Make of that what you will.

Creams Factory, 160 High Street, Tonbridge, TN9 1BB

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

B 'N' T Brunch Afternoon Tea at Le Meridien Piccadilly: review

Paging London: someone's finally started serving up a Full English breakfast inside a Yorkshire pudding and yes, it really is the stuff dreams are made of.

It's part of the highlight of a new brunch-themed afternoon tea which launches on 29 April. I had a little sneak preview, and it's every bit as good as it sounds. Choose from a gin-based cocktail (the Berries and Tea is the perfect blend of sweet and sour) or bottomless prosecco and get stuck in.

Naturally, the Full English Breakfast Yorkshires were our first port of call. They've got everything going on in there - bacon, sausage, egg, beans, mushrooms. It's basically a posh grease-fest. A charcoal bread open sandwich (not really to my taste) and Eggs Piccadilly (an English muffin filled with smoked salmon and egg, among other things - delicious) finished off the top tier, and it was onto the scone round.

I was fortunate enough to be dining with someone who doesn't like chocolate, so it was a double round of chocolate and raspberry scones for me. The delicious warmth meant delightfully oozy chocolate chips. The raspberries mentioned on the menu were somewhat lacking, but weren't really necessary anyway.

The chocolate brownies could have done without their sweet potato garnish, and it's a shame the Yorkshire puddings weren't hot (although their contents were). Otherwise, this is the ideal afternoon tea to satisfy both sweet toothed diners and those with more savoury tastes.

B 'N' T Brunch Afternoon Tea at the Terrace Grill & Bar, Le Meridian Piccadilly, launches on 29 April 2017. Prices start at £27.50.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Exploring a secret garden near Tonbridge

You can visit the furthest-flung corners of the earth, spend all your money on air fares and hotel stays, and sometimes the best surprises are the closest to home. I spent my Easter Saturday exploring a little-known garden just a couple of miles away from my home in Kent, and got just as much satisfaction out of it.

The place in question is Broadview Gardens at Hadlow College, just outside of Tonbridge. The College itself specialises in animal care, horticulture, agriculture and the like, and is partially an outpost of the University of Greenwich.

On Easter Saturday, the College grounds were all but deserted as we followed the signs to the car park for the tea rooms and gardens. Admission is free, and don't worry if you miss the map board on your way in - the gardens aren't big enough to get (too) lost in.

A word of warning - much of the gardens are spread on grass paths like the one above; something to bear in mind when choosing footwear or bringing prams or wheelchairs. The initial hedge-lined corridors give a feeling of vastness, but once you start popping your head through the gaps, the gardens become more intimate.

One gap in the hedge leads to a man-made pond, surrounded by an unusual colour of tulip. Three benches are dotted around this section of the garden, and fountain equipment hints at some sort of water display, but alas, it wasn't functioning when we visited.

The layout of the garden and high hedges, mean that turning each corner is like discovering a little secret, and stumbling across each bench feels somewhat voyeuristic.

Wandering further leads to the highlight of the garden - the lake. It's a decent-sized body of water, overseen by some trees of impressive heights, and awash with reeds, lily pads and, if you look closely enough, fish. It would be easy to go OTT and wax lyrical about its seclusion and tranquility, but the reality is that you can hear the incessant rumble of traffic on the nearby A26, just beyond the arboreal wall. Still, it's not a bad view, is it?

A few local residents made an appearance while we were overlooking the lake - 13 little ducklings going about their swimming practise, plus a mother duck ferrying them around.

As well as the usual tulips, camellias, rhododendrons and the like, the garden is home to some unusual species of plant, enough to fascinate the casual observer and fixate the keen gardener.

Further exploring reveal another little secret - and one that kids are bound to love - a cave created from the root base of a fallen tree.

Said cave even has its own sign:

Dogs aren't permitted in the gardens, and you'll need to keep an eye on little ones as there are plenty of open ponds and lakes, including this Japanese-style offering complete with raked stones.

As you exit through the garden centre, remember to cast your eyes right for a view of the nearby Hadlow Tower (open to the public on a very limited number of days each ear - check the website for details).

As well as the garden centre, there are tea rooms serving up drinks, cake and light lunches.

Broadview Gardens, Hadlow College, Tonbridge Road, TN11 0AL. Admission is free.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Bulbs, bikes and bridges: Amsterdam in photos

In Amsterdam, as with everywhere, the cliches exist for a reason. Bikes zoom skillfully in and out of tourist crowds, and there really are tulips on every street corner - at least there were during our spring visit. Take a look: 

The Dutch will squeeze flowers in anywhere there's space.

A typical Amsterdam canal scene on Prinsengracht, with traditional canalside townhouses.

Here's a closer look at one of those houses - notice how wonky some of the windows are. Subsidence is a big problem for property owners in the city.
A wall-mounted box of books, free to take, on Witsenstraat 

I love this pyschedelic canal boat, moored up on Witsenkade

A no-alcohol zone - ironically, just across the canal from the Heineken brewery.

Even the roundabouts are the prettiest I've ever seen. Evidently these ladies think so too.

Canalside views.

I loved this beautiful old-fashioned letterwork above one of the shops in the central district.

A typical Amsterdam view. The greenhouses to the right of the shot are the rear of the floating flower market on Singel.

There really are tulips everywhere in spring.

With pedestrians, bikes, trams and cars, there's so much going on at ground level, it's easy to forget to look up.

This floating display was part of the Tulip Festival. Very clever marketing to put such an Instagrammable display directly in front on the IAmsterdam sign. The building in the background is the impressive Rijksmuseum

Vondelpark is basically a giant sea of tulip in the spring.

My favourite house entrance in the whole city.

No explanation needed.

The city's most Instagrammable shopfront - a florist on Berenstraat.

...and another shop, just a couple of doors down.

The cliched bike-on-a-bridge-over-a-canal shot. If the bike in question is pink, all the better.

Trams, trams, everywhere.

ARTIS (the Amsterdam Royal Zoo) is the most well-kept zoo I've ever visited
See also:
Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Inside Amsterdam's Flower Market

Travellers to Amsterdam can widely be put into one of two categories based on the type of plant they seek out. There are those who come, usually in spring, in search of the rainbow of tulips the city has to offer. Then there are those who seek grass of an entirely different kind.

We fall firmly into the former category - our whole trip to Amsterdam was inspired, several years ago, by a mutual love of tulips - so can offer no tips on the latter. If, like us, you're heading to Amsterdam seeking nothing more sinister than tulips and daffodils, read on.

Dodging the chaos of tram lines, cars, roadworks and the ever-present bicycles where Muntplein meets Singel, under the internationally recognised symbol of the golden McDonald's arches, we ducked into the first shop of Amsterdam's famous Bloemenmarket - or Flower Market.

The shops themselves are a terrace of conjoined greenhouses teetering on the edge of Singel canal, ironically perhaps the ugliest buildings in the whole city when contrasted against the neat gabled townhouses that it's famous for. Once inside, though, it's easy to forget the ugly exterior.

Bunches of statice and other colourful flowers hang from the ceiling of the first shop, drying, their fading pastel hues putting us more in mind of the fields of Tuscany than the narrow streets of Amsterdam. Blooms, real and fake, sit on tables and in buckets on the floor, silk and wooden flowers attempting to trick the casual tourist browser.

And tourists there are many. In fact, almost every customer in the market is a tourist, and they're well catered for; a decent chunk of the shop is given over to what some would affectionately label 'tourist tat' - magnets, postcards, keyrings, shotglasses, novelty clogs and the like. In the same way that London's Camden Market or Barcelona's La Boquria cater primarily to the tourist market, so too does Bloemenmarket.

Wandering along to the next shop in the market, it becomes clear that the decor of the first shop is a ruse to lure tourists in. Here, there are no bunches hanging from the ceiling, no painstakingly decorated arches crying out to be Instagrammed. The overall effect is more clinical garden centre than exotic flower market, the bulk of the stock seeds and bulbs rather than flowers and plants. The subsequent shops are similar - wooden flowers where we had hoped real ones would be, and focus on seeds and bulbs. One or two of the shops specialise in certain items, such as cacti, but other than that, they're much of a muchness.

While the greenhouses sit on one side of the pedestrianised pavement, backing onto the canal, the other side of the path is lined with shops - coffee shops, gift shops, and the intriguing Magic Mushroom Gallery (again, I didn't indulge so can offer no further information on that particular point of interest). If you're starting to flag, head into the cheese shop - one of many identical outlets in the city - for a few samples to see you on your way. You could almost forget that the delights of the Torture Museum lie in wait just the other side of the canal as you lose yourself in a sea of colour and a coma of dairy products.

The Flower Market is a colourful (read: Instagrammable) experience, but don't go expecting a florist shop experience. Half of the flowers you'll see will be wooden rather than real, and focus is more on bulbs and seeds rather than fully-fledged plants and flowers.

If that's your thing, look into taking a trip to the Keukenhof bulb fields outside of the city during the tulip festival. It's something we didn't have time for during our time in Amsterdam, but it looks stunning.

Bloemensingel Flower Market, Amsterdam.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.