The dreaded Christmas advert. They seem to get better and better each year. Not better in a good sense, but better in a cynical, somewhat sarcastic sense where one tries to outdo the other on levels of emotive guilt-ridden tear-jerking images that bring to mind the true meaning of Christmas. After all, the true meaning of Christmas is absolutely about a giant truck delivering sugar-filled carbonated drink to every town to the ends of the earth. Isn’t it?
I project. Naturally.
It’s usually this time of year, when the leaves turn orange and gold, and the morning chill seems to tickle my earlobes in a creepy “I’m coming” kind of way that my mood seems to take on a slightly sour twinge. When my favourite plants seem to droop under the evening frost and the moss seems to form a new layer of hazardous green on my paved driveway that I walk a little slower, become a little quieter. The shops have hardly packed away the ghoulish ghosts and witches and red-eyed Halloween pumpkins, that they now laden their shelves with light-hearted, warm and fuzzy, mushy Christmas decorations of angels, snowy village scenes and twinkling lights.
My first Christmas in the UK was a magical spectacle. For the first time, Frosty the Snowman actually did make sense and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire actually were roasting on an open fire, and not on the braai. Hang on, they weren’t roasting on the braai at all. We were lying on the beach, in the sun, dribbling watermelon juice down our chins and getting suntan lotion in our eyes.
I remember observing the frosty South African Christmas vibe from a new perspective, the first time My Englishman spent Christmas in South Africa. Walking around the Somerset Mall in shorts and flops, and pointing out the fake snow on the shop windows, and the icicle lights hanging from the ceiling, I recognised the slightly ridiculous sight we portrayed to people who actually did come from a snowy Christmas. But I didn’t really care. It was my Christmas.
But now I am in the UK, and my Christmas’ are cold, and snowy, and chestnut-roasting. All that should seem beautiful in its perfection and idyll dreamed about on years of Christmas cards and dressing up games now appearing like something foreign and unfamiliar. I want that fake snow, and I want to hear Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly – while smelling the snoek baking on my dad’s braai, and my mom humming along to Dean Martin’s Let It Snow Let It Snow Let it Snow.
Of course. I still project.
For me, regardless of fake or real trees, fake or real snow, fake or real chestnuts, Christmas is so much more than a commercial excuse for credit card debt accompanied by a mad frenzy to feel satisfied and accomplished with the best Christmas lights adorning the house, and the biggest, most glittery tree. For me, Christmas is about having my mom in the next room, and Pa at the braai outside. It’s about knowing that my brothers and their families will soon be arriving, where we’ll eat until we cannot move any more, where we’ll roll ourselves into the family room, where Papa will put on the Father Christmas hat, as he always does, and with his Ho Ho ho, hands out each of our gifts, much to the delight of us all – as we polish off Ma’s frozen triangle cheesecake, that she makes every year, for Christmas.
And as many of us sit in far-away lands, many having forged new Christmas traditions and customs, and many who, like us, will be spending Orphaned Christmas with other friends and families who find themselves in similar positions, my prayer is for love and peace and happiness for you. But most of all, for a little bit of fake snow and the smell of a braai – somewhere in your Christmas season.
I love winter. I love the drizzle, the cold, the romance, the closeness, the bundling up in layers with scarves and gloves.
I thought I did. Until I arrived in the UK. And more so until I had to drive, in winter, on country lanes.
There’s something the oomie from the Helderberg Driving School never taught me, and that was how to behave on slippery surfaces. My three-point turns were beyond perfect, my parallel parking satisfactory, my hill-starts resulted in squeals of delight, but had he thought of teaching me the basics when it came to driving on slippery surfaces – perhaps I would think of him in a slightly different light as I do now.
Living in a small town, in the heart of Dorset, does have its drawbacks – despite what anyone tells you.
Two words: Country Lanes = Single hedge-lined tracks that allow only 1 vehicle to pass over it at any 1 time, usually covered in mud, lugged around by swollen tractors with gigantic wheels. Roads of Chaos when that mud and water starts to freeze, and you feel like an 11-year old whizzing around on the Sunnyside skate rink, thinking you know what it meant to be in love, while Roxette blares out from the tin speakers, and a lonely blue disco balls casts shadows on the not-so-lucky ones.
I’d unfortunately met my match, and slipped all-too-closely into a hedge on several occasions. It was early December, and it was time for My Englishman to teach me how to divide and conquer. So down we trundled to a vacant (and heavily iced-over) car-park near the local beach, that other sensible drivers had vacated overnight.
“Right,” he says, “All we’re going to do is this. You’re going to drive, quickly, and I’m going to pull up the hand-brake, put you into a spin, and then all you need to do is steer out of the slip.” I stare blankly. Sounds easy. I do as instructed and in no time, we are forming figure 8s all over the car park, in our trusty little golf. I soon get the knack of it, and feel far more confident. Something I’d never thought I’d need to do. Namibian sand? No problem. Oil? Not a trouble. Water? Go with the flow. But ice has always been that one thing that I never really thought about. I’d surely never need to know how to do that. Not even in Sutherland!
I’d soon learnt the knack and found myself enjoying it a little more than perhaps I should, and the disgusted looks from the older folk peering at us from their balconies signalled time for us to leave.
At home, A nice cup of Milo was just what the doctor ordered after a hefty cold day of Driving On Ice, and we settle down. My Englishman gets back to work, while I reflect proudly on my latest driving skill acquired.
Make no mistake, I still, every winter, have a sly little kiss with a cradling hedgerow now and then, but at least I have the confidence needed to tackle those dodgy hills. And I always ensure that I know the location of all of our yellow roadside grit boxes filled with road salts, just in case. I don’t intend to, again, have to chip away at iced-over tar, in order to get some grip, to make it up a hill.
Now, the only thing left to tackle is that blasted horse poo in the middle of the road. That, frozen, is an unhappy occasion to fail.
It’s not often in my life that I have found myself looking out of my kitchen window to see a traffic-jam of tractors at the end of our driveway. I live in Dorset. The quiet countryside of the UK. Thomas Hardy country. Vodka-made-from-milk country. Men Behaving Badly’s Martin Clunes country. But the tractor-jam is a normal site here in the UK countryside. Well, either that, or needing to reverse half a mile back down the single –track lane because the Combine Harvester you’ve just met isn’t planning on going anywhere.
When my generation of school leavers headed for the bright lights of London, I headed to the Far East. When many decided to lay new routes in their foreign worlds, I returned back to South Africa to study, and work, and settle down. Little did I realise at the time, that my ultimate life path would have me end up in that very same Island that I tried to avoid for fear of “following the crowd”. Regardless, in the heart of Cape Town, and over a random phone conversation, I’d met my English Gentleman that I would one day marry and follow back to England.
So today, I find myself stirring up a batter for some homemade pampoen-koekies and thinking about that moment when the decision was made that I would leave the country I am so loyal to. The city that I lived and breathed. The family – my cornerstone. My circle of friends that after many years of searching, had finally just clicked into place. At what point did I think to myself, “Hey. I know what. I’m just going to leave now!”.
Although sympathetic to so many of the plights I have heard and reasons given for Saffas leaving the country, I have always prided myself on the fact that I didn’t actually leave South Africa. Rather, that I simply arrived in the UK. Meeting my Englishman, I never contemplated the reality of needing to decide where we would live or which culture we would choose to raise a family in. So without being given a reason to leave, I had to make that choice myself.
I try often to pinpoint the exact moment when that decision was made – and I actively chose to surrender that which I hold most dear, to my own path, and my own choice. But here I am. Like many others, who live with the perpetual one-foot-here one-foot-there dilemma, and as hard as I try to surround myself with all things that remind me of home, I am reminded, daily, that I am not quite at home yet. I’m in a far different place. And until I am able to make peace with the fact that my roots may lie in two worlds, I would never quite feel at home.
Stage 1 of cross-cultural relationships – complete.
I’m a newbie, compared to some of the stalwarts who have walked this journey for many years before me. But I live with the pride of who I am as I throw myself into new experiences, new cultures and more so, these pampoen-koekies made from pumpkin bought at the local Fruit & 2 Veg grocer in our little town of Beaminster.
Written for Beaminster.net
In honour of the Eat Dorset Food Fair coming to Beaminster soon, we thought we’d post a little story about one of the many exhibitors who will be at the fair – and tell you a little more about a tea-drinking experience we recently had, at the Comins Tea House.
They may not be Beaminster-based, but hope that you will indulge us this, and take the opportunity to meet Rob and Michelle at the Food Fair, taking place at Parnham House in Beaminster.
On a sweltering summer’s day, where most people seek shade and swimming pool relief; where the allure of melting ice cream cones and suntan lotion seems to be the activity du jour, you wouldn’t be to blame should you happen to find yourself in the heart of the Blackmore Vale, and more specifically in the sprightly little town of Sturminster Newton, drinking tea.
Across the bridge, just on the hem of the town, lies a beautifully restored Georgian building which is home to Rob & Michelle’s Comins Tea House, a tea-sanctuary that welcomes all visitors that walk through the door with muted scents of faraway lands and abundant hospitality.
The tea shop, which has been open for just over a couple of months, is the result of a life story filled with tales about travel to distant lands, chance meetings of tea barons, a tea lover and her previously not-so-tea-loving husband who meets and develops a new appreciation for the stuff that he, like many others, only believed was really necessary to serve with milk and two sugars: a true love story and new appreciation for a traditional British icon – the cuppa.
It doesn’t’ matter if you don’t know your Assam from your Matcha, your Oolong from your Sencha, Rob and Michelle’s gentle approach to tea, and the ceremony behind serving tea, is infectious and captivates you, the minute you sit down. For those who may feel slightly overwhelmed by the variety and choice of what seems to be so incredibly foreign, the Comins Tea House team are focussed on educating and guiding even the sternest of sceptics, through a tea experience which is sure to be memorable.
You may opt in for a Lishan Spring Oolong Tea from Taiwan, served according to the Gongfu (also known as the Kung Fu or Chinese Tea) ceremony. This gently floral, caramel sweet tea ceremony comprises of several steps which include the awakening of the tea leaves, an infusion of the tea for an initial 45 seconds and thereafter served in traditional Chinese clay tea cups. Or, you may decide to be more adventurous and wonder over towards the Macha Japanese Green tea – where the tea is milled for 18 hours into a fine powder, water is added, and the mixture is whisked up into a green frothy tea and served.
But nothing beats a hot summer’s day than an ice cold brew of Sencha green tea. As you enjoy this chilled and refreshing green Japanese brew, Rob explains the difference between brewing the tea with hot water and then chilling it, verses the proper method of placing as much ice as possible on top of the tea leaves, in a large glass jug, adding chilled water to the brim of the jug, and steeping until it seems ready, which could be at least 5 hours.
Visiting the tea house may also give you the opportunity to meet a regular visitor called Chris. A local resident of Sturminster Newton, who spends most of his time on the road, describes the first time he ventured into Comins Tea House. Having wondered past the front door of the tea house on several occasions, he mentions his apprehension at being invited to attend the grand opening day. With fears that he would have to rub shoulders with experts and professionals who could taste essences of oak and honeysuckle in their Da Hong Pao tea, or hints of kelp and earthy dragon fruit in their Long Jing green tea, he decided on a slightly less intimidating visit. He sits at the corner table, with the morning sun drifting in, he seems relaxed and peaceful as he takes another sip of his Houjicha and tells about the first time he ventured through the front door one morning and how Rob and Michelle helped him to explore numerous tea varieties until he found his perfect match.
Rob and Michelle are hands-on hosts, but not at all intrusive, and Rob muses over how much he enjoys witnessing the change in people’s perceptions of tea, much the same as his perceptions were shaken years ago. Visiting a tea shop like Comins, you cannot help but question your own experience, love or distaste of tea and the circumstances that have lead to the conclusions you have drawn about it. Whether your experience of tea includes long conversations around the kitchen table, or whether it serves as a bed-time confidant, tea has almost always been in our lives.
Time seems to stand still at Comins Tea House, and for a few moments, the hustle and bustle of normal life seems to fade away. Rob tells of their journey that lead to the opening of Comins Tea House, detailing the hours of his own labour put into renovating the building, the bespoke local Ash tree counter that he created himself, the vintage school chairs sourced from an antique dealer in Cornwall, and the creation of each and every table, and doing all of this while being dad to a 3-year old and a pair of twin newborn girls. He talks about the inspiration behind the Comins Tea House brand, their Siamese cat called Anders who liked to drink whatever was left out, and points to the photo on the wall of Anders musing over a cup of what appears to be a light green brew.
As the River Stour meanders its way around Sturminster Newton and the Dorset sun sets over a hill shrouded by a herd of lazy fresians, Rob and Michelle Comins prepare for their next project. You may meet them at the next country fair, or you may even have the chance to sample their tea in a local restaurant, but should you have a few hours to spare, and you’re in the mood for a different, yet subtly comforting experience, meander your own way to Sturminster Newton and pop into the tea house. You never know, Dorset may just introduce you to your new favourite Darjeeling.
For more information about Comins Tea House, please click here.
To know more about the Eat Dorset Food Fair, please click here.
The Bridge House Hotel, a popular hotel and restaurant venue in the heart of West Dorset’s Beaminster, has, for many years, served as a haven to weary travellers and inquisitive visitors. We review their Afternoon High Tea and other quintessentially English fancies and investigate what it is that keeps this travel destination so incredibly popular with both local and foreign visitors.
On the hottest day of the year, a lazy Sunday where even the seagulls aren’t interested in flapping about, we find ourselves under the forgiving branches of a Whitebeam tree, in a beautifully manicured enclosed garden of a 13th century Beaminster stalwart, the Bridge House hotel.
This hotel, which was originally a Priests House, has bid visitors welcome for many years, and to this day, continues to be a popular attraction to many as both as a place to stay, as well as a smorgasbord of some inspired, locally-sourced, award-winning meals.
The starched table cloths dance in the slight breeze which brings relief to weary wanderers. As lazy lunchers sip on their chilled Chardonnay and enjoy the remainder of this Sunday afternoon, we opt for a table on the grass, right beside a lavender bush, home to a number of seemingly resident butterflies.
But on this occasion, we are here for Afternoon Tea. Not appearing on the regular tea menu, Mark explains that the Bridge House has had the privilege to serve Afternoon Tea on a number of occasions at weddings and tea parties that they’ve hosted, and are now in the process of looking to introduce this option as a regular feature for those looking for a luxurious afternoon option, alongside the traditional cream teas and Dorset apple cake. He suggests you advise the team, prior to arrival, when wishing to try the High Tea. We wait, with anticipation, for a new experience from the already famous culinary wizards.
Our tea is prepared and served by Geraldine, one of the chefs at the Bridge House.
Geraldine places the tower of temptations in front of us, and we sit back in our chairs and marvel at the work of art of each individual delicacy, carefully hand-crafted to become masterpieces in their own right. We feel slightly distraught at the thought of destroying them. Geraldine takes us through each tier of the tea tower, carefully describing each one from the salmon sandwich through to the mint and white chocolate mousse cup.
Almost all of the Bridge House Hotel’s ingredients are sourced locally, and I laugh and recall the time I saw the hotel’s head chef wandering back to the hotel with a box laden with the freshest of fruit and vegetables from the Beaminster’s local greengrocer. The tea is Clipper – another local Beaminster-produced favourite, now distributed all over the world, and we savour each sip as the heat from the teapot seems to calm our souls in the 31 degree swelter.
The setting couldn’t be more perfect and we nibble our way through traditional English tea sandwiches made with the best cucumber, smoked salmon and ham to the coconut panacotta with fresh blackcurrants and strawberries in a pastry crust filled with summer goodness. We leave the pièce de résistance, the white chocolate mousse cup, to the end. An impressive and beautifully presented piece such as this deserves the grandeur of nothing less than a huge finale. The Bridge House team have done themselves proud, and it is not hard to picture hours of tea parties, birthday gatherings or simple Sunday 3pm “Let’s Have Tea” spontaneity that wait for us at the Bridge House Hotel.
The Hotel boasts some of the most beautifully individually decorated rooms, and owners Mark and Joanne Donovan are more than happy to accommodate pet-owners in their ground floor cottages, which are perfect for access to the courtyard and garden. If you’re partial to an old Victorian tub with a beautifully ornate mirror keeping a watchful eye, or if you enjoy the allure of a four poster bed with crisp white linen that gently invites you in, then booking a room at the Bridge House is the perfect excuse for a getaway in one of the most beautiful corners of the UK.
We could tell you about the secret Priests escape passage that led to a secret cavity just above the bar, or the history of room number 3; we could also tell you about the secret window in the wall where Sacrament was served under very dangerous and trying times (hint: if you look closely enough, you’ll see the remains of a tiny window which has since been sealed shut with brick and mortar); or we could tell you about the incredible art hanging on the walls of the bar, the halls, the rooms, most of which is for sale, but those are things you’ll need to experience for yourself when you next plan a trip to the Bridge House, and whether you simply live up the road, as we do, or on the other side of the country, or even the other side of the world, there is every reason to have visited The Bridge House Hotel in Beaminster, at least once.
As the bells from St Mary’s indicate the start of service and the start to a new working week, we reluctantly put our shoes back on, after callously kicking them off mid-Victoria Sponge, and lazily amble back to our car, back to our home completely delirious with thoughts of garden mint leaves dipped in chocolate, clotted cream scones and unruly clover growing in the shade of our tea party.