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.
I first meet Alex, Sam and Boopee, more professionally known as Verity (the pooch), after a Sunday evening stroll through Beaminster. My curiosity leads me to the restaurant window, into the entrance hall, and onward towards the counter where a friendly smile bids me welcome. “Just being nosy”, I mention to Sam, as I immediately notice the familiar bottles of Fish Hoek crisp white winking down at me from the shelves behind her.
This is Big Fish Little Fish.
I silently vow to return, once I’ve rinsed the mud off of my wellies, and at least brushed my hair.
Fast forward to Monday evening, 24 June. Time: 17:43. Temperature: somewhere between 12 and 17 degrees with a light SE breeze.
Den and I trundle through the green doors of Big Fish Little Fish. Psychologically expecting to see the familiar tables from The Wild Garlic, the only reminder of what went before is the colour of the walls and a beautiful stone wall cradling a wood burning stove. We say a quick hello to Sam and take our seat at one of the tables in the corner of the restaurant.
The layout is somewhat sparse, but promising nonetheless. Flickering candles in glass bowls of glistening river stones adorn each table. Apologies are made for the work-in-progress renovation of the old sash windows but we are comfortable at our table and the aromas from the kitchen already have our stomachs eager to sample the menu. Sam brings the menu to us and we make our choice.
Sam and Alex have been together for just over a year now. Alex, having more than 10 years of head chef experience from the likes of the Browns chain of Bars & Brasseries, as well as the the Bellhouse Hotel, has a passion for food. His face lights up as he talks about the dishes he serves. “We don’t serve Jenga chips here, and lovingly prepare everything ourselves… by hand. No two chips are the same, and we take care to flavour our seafood carefully”. Sam adds that all the food is prepared each day, with an early start. She explains their unique style at leaving the skins of the potatoes on the chips, in order for them to hold their flavour, and more importantly, their warmth, that much longer.
Sam, comes from a guide-dog training background, and excitedly tells us about her precious Verity (known as Boopee to her friends) who holds the fort in the flat upstairs, waiting for the end of evening service. She laughs as she recounts an occasion recently, where Boopee, quite nonchalantly, made her way onto the roof above the restaurant and innocently sat and watched the world go by.
Our starters arrive – I have chosen the Calamari with the homemade aioli, while Den has chosen the hearty pepper and tomato soup du jour, served with a crusty slice of bread. Sam tells us that the calamari is a favourite at the restaurant. I have no trouble in believing her. It is seasoned to perfection and the garlic ai
oli makes you want to continue dabbing your fork in, just for a taste, long after the calamari has finished.
The menu is uncomplicated. The focus is on food. As it should be, and I tuck into (perhaps a little too eagerly) my second glass of vino. I silently wonder whether it would be acceptable to have calamari for starters, mains and desserts…. Den smiles and I wonder whether he has read my mind.
Sam also tells us a little about her silver service waitressing days, having served to many a celebrity, and their celebrity wives at VIP receptions. As we tuck into our battered cod, non-jenga, home-prepared chunky chips and fresh crunchy garden peas, I ask Sam and Alex about the ingredients they use. “We only use local ingredients. Our fish hails from Samways in Bridport, and our potatoes from local suppliers. For non-fish meals, we source our meat from Nick Tett’s family butchers in Beaminster and our vegetables from Fruit & Two Veg, also in Beaminster”.
“This project has been a huge learning curve for us,” Sam says. “It is a continuous work in progress and we are constantly learning new things – and make improvements as we go. It is anything but finished, and we are excited about where we’re going”. I ask them what their future holds, and the plans they have – and Alex shyly smiles and tells stories about red onion preserves and homemade tartare sauces that he hopes to have for sale on his shelves soon.
Our meal has more than satisfied. Den and I know our fish, but more importantly we know our batter. We know when batter has been neglected, the oil left just one day too long, the soggy bottom of a cod fillet, yet the meal served at Big Fish Little Fish leaves you feeling that it has been carefully and lovingly prepared – and it is clear to see on the smiles of those who place their take away orders, that they feel the same.
As we pay the bill, with our slice of cheesecake (for pud) under our arms, we thank Sam and Alex as we leave – but not before having the chance to meet the infamous Boopee.
Perhaps sub-consciously, when I wonder past Big Fish Little Fish from now on, my eyes may… just maybe… drift upwards, and hopefully, if I’m lucky, I’ll see a black labrador pup, with a bright pink tongue, lying in the sun and smiling down on me.
We wander into town looking for a little nook on a Thursday evening that offers us a bite to eat. It’s slightly drizzly outside and the glow of the warm lights from businesses in the square give us a sense of belonging, and welcome.
We notice a new little glow. A glow from a window that we didn’t expect to be open on a Thursday night. One that we hadn’t really noticed before. The glow emanates from The Steak Out, and the open door bids us welcome. We go inside.
The Steak Out, previously known as Vicki’s Sandwich Bar & Tea Rooms, in Hogshill street, has had a makeover. The country green has turned into warm shades of chocolatey browns and new menu boards on the wall indicate that there is so much more on offer. We sit down at one of the tables at the window. We like to watch the world go by. The décor is a combination of hushed leather and industrial metal, with an allure of a cigar bar. The licensed bar is beautifully kitted out with a wide selection of things to drink, and well laid-out tables in this relatively small space provide perfectly private and intimate little dining spaces.
As the candle flickers on our table, we cast our eyes past the local supply of Clipper Teas that are for sale on the shelves beside us, to the Specials Board hanging on the wall. The Steak Out specialises in providing the best quality steaks. Whether you’re partial to some rump (no innuendos intended), or whether it’s a rib-eye that captures your heart – be assured that your tastes will be looked after. If it’s not steak that you’re in the mood for, a variety of other dishes on offer are guaranteed to satisfy too.
We settle on a rib-eye steak (medium rare), and a chicken breast with a bacon & brie cream sauce, a pint of lager and a cider for the lady. We have a chat to Steven Stanners, the owner and chef. We marvel at his culinary experience, having previously run the Greyhound Inn as well as been the chef at Winyards Gap restaurant. He tells us about the challenges of running a restaurant and the paths their lives have taken to develop The Steak Out into the place it is today. He tells us about their popular mid-week roast (£6 for 1-course, £8 for 2-courses), and reassures us that they still continue to provide the same sandwich take-away option as before – making sure that their focus is to attract new clientèle, while at the same time, not alienate their already existing patrons.
The Steak Out offers a range of mouth-watering breakfasts and lunches too. “If it’s merely a drink that you’re after, then come and have a seat at the bar and enjoy some quiet time”, says Steve, looking out of the window as a gent and his Labrador walk by. Walking through the bar, you enter into another little room. “This is the chill-out area”, he says. Whether you want to sit quietly, enjoy a pint, and watch the rugby, or whether you want to hire this area out for stork parties or kitchen teas – this little room, clad with art by local artists, and comfortable welcoming leather sofas, is perfect if you are looking for a private space.
Steven uses only British 21-day matured steak and sources local ingredients for his dishes as far as possible.
Phil Collins lulls us along as we tuck into the meal put before us. The steak, cooked perfectly, is a welcome tummy-warmer to accompany an ice cold cider and we disappear into a food-euphoria for a little while. The chicken is cooked to perfectly and accompanied by fresh seasonal vegetables. Servings are not shy, and the accompaniment of side dishes will more than fill most diners.
The Steak Out is open daily from 8:00am – 5:00pm, but on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, service extends well into the evening for those looking for a place to have dinner.
We walk out into the Beaminster evening air. We feel satisfied. Full. But most of all, we feel that we’ve been with friends. Welcomed and appreciated. We make our way, drunk on good food, back home to catch our latest favourite episode of Mad Dogs.
Beaminster launches brand new community website
Beaminster, 16 March 2013
Beaminster businesses and residents are proud to announce the launch of a brand new community website. After a year of challenges within the community, a group of businesses and residents grouped together to launch ideas that would promote Beaminster as the idyllic place to visit as well as promote the local services and suppliers to local residents.
With the first launch of the Be Local, Buy Local, Buy in Beaminster campaign, all businesses in Beaminster were encouraged to get involved in a promotion of the town’s services and supplies and the awareness of all that the town offers. All businesses were encouraged to put the Be Local, Buy Local posters in shop windows and a social media campaign was launched.
Following on from the success of the campaign launch, the group then got together to develop the town’s first community website. Recognising the need to have a central portal which local residents and businesses, as well as visitors, could access in order to obtain useful information about the history of the town, the businesses, events, town news, important links to other key organisations such as the Beaminster & District Business Chamber, the Beaminster Town Council and the Yarn Barton Centre.
The Beaminster Community Website also provides access to places to eat, drink and stay as well as various campaigns running throughout the town which people can become more involved in.
The launch of the website will be done mainly via Social Media, as well as via press and community notice boards. The Beaminster Community Website can be found at www.beaminster.net.