Tea with Bea
Anyone who has ever had tea, coffee, lunch or cakes at any of Bea’s of Bloomsbury’s three locations in Bloomsbury, Chelsea and the City, or shopped from her stall in the Druid Street market, will testify that the owner Bea Vo knows all there is to know about good patisserie. Originally from Washington, she trained in the culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu cookery school and then worked, amongst other places, at Nobu and Asia de Cuba as a patisserie chef before setting out on her own in Theobolds Road in 2008, with financing from an old University friend and a small bank loan.
Her ascent into the firmament of top tea destinations in London, as voted by Time Out and the Louis Vuitton City Guide London, has been diligently won through hard work and determined dedication to her art, in a city where tea rooms, cake shops and Ottolenghi-style restaurants and cafes are more numerous than pebbles on the seashore. What marks Bea’s work out is consistent excellence, freshness, lightness of touch, keeping up with the patisserie zeitgeist and good service from well trained staff. Now how hard is it to achieve all of the above in just one shop, let alone four points of sales?
In her debut book “Tea with Bea” I learn that the author was sceptical when first asked by the publishers Alison Starling and Celine Hughes at Ryland Peters & Small to crystallise her years of hard work in a cookbook. Bea Vo writes:
“After all, all of the greats have already covered almost every single possible recipe and technique there is to think of ….But then it occurred to me that cookbooks are not just textbooks – they are a reflection of a particular chef’s point of view, much in the way that while we may have almost all types of stories told in novel form, we still look to seek new cadences and structure and ideas in an author’s new work.”
Bright ideas and clever inspirations are certainly at the forefront of this offering. If you love beautiful patisserie and creating celebratory tea-time treats and you are fairly accomplished in their creation, then this is the book you will want on your shelf. You can begin gently, with a humble buttermilk cake or almond cake (made with Greek yoghurt and sunflower oil for lightness), and build towers, swirls, tiers and layers from creams, icings and decorations from there on in. There are solid building blocks beneath the dazzling heights, you do not have to start as Chef de brigade.
There are few publishing houses left that can do a job as conscientiously as RPS (the impresarios behind The Hummingbird Bakery, Nordic Bakery, Macarons and the Popina Book of Baking publications). They publish authors who are specialists in their field, not supermodels. For this oeuvre they have galvanised the labours of food photographer Kate Whitaker and Art Directors Steve Painter and Leslie Harrington as well as food stylist props that can only be found after much judicious searching through many, varied kitchenalia collections. From sultry black Japanese tea urns to golden edged white porcelain, art deco stripes, damask paper and embroidered linens, this book is satisfyingly bewitching.
There is a didactic introduction to make sure you get all the fundamental techniques under your belt: top tips for the perfect pastry, methodologies, kitchen equipment and troubleshooting as well as how to make the perfect tea and coffee.
The main chapters are dedicated to cookies and bars, scones and small treats, tarts, cake bases and fillings, special cakes, cheesecakes and ideas for tea parties. Unlike a whole new genre of cookery books which feature only a small list of ingredients and very short methodologies, some of the recipes here are quite ambitious and require attention and involvement. It invokes engagement and enthusiasm on the part of the cook. “Ultimate chocolate chip cookies and double chocolate chip variation”, “Killer Valrhona brownies” “The ultimate afternoon tea scone”, “Almond financier and mocha variation” and “The ultimate coconut cream pie” stretch the home cook to aspire to a more special level of care and attention.
It is obvious that the recipes have been tested very thoroughly, written with ergonomic logic and flow, with mindfulness of what the consistency of mixes should look and feel like at every stage.
My top three favourite recipes I have cooked for my family from the book so far are:
Hummingbird cake: from America’s deep South, containing pineapple, coconut and banana, with a touch of cardamom and rum, covered in a take-no-prisoners cream cheese icing.
Golden Bourbon pecan custard pie – with a Pate Brisee pie crust, served with a whiskey infused prune ice-cream.
Doughnut muffins – an interesting take on the humble doughnut, with inspiration taken from the bakers of Amish country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania “with a soft crumb and touches of nutmeg”.
There are also very classic and well known recipes, which you will find in other cookbooks, such as Key Lime Pie (adapted from the original Marion Cunnigham book “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook”), Pear and Frangipane Tart, sundry cupcakes, red velvet cake and vanilla cheesecake with berries. But what makes this book unusual is the level of professional detail. From where to find the best ingredients to the ultimate versions of classic recipes, different approaches to old classics and fusion-weaving across disciplines, Bea’s patisserie is unique and perfectionist.
There is also a very useful “Ideas for tea parties” sections, adorned with a photograph of shiny, teapot light fittings. From a special breakfast party, to Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, baby showers or Christmas celebrations, you are given a list of the kinds of pastries that would suit the occasion, taking the strain out of trying to work out a complete service all at once.
Home baking is once more cool, fashionable, frugal and comforting. This is a very intelligent and well executed addition to the cannon of modern patisserie instruction. It’s a joyful book for the serious cake lover, written by a very skilled baker, who puts kitchen travails into perspective:
“Best of all, remember that you are surrounded by sugar, butter and probably chocolate and fruit. Nibble some sugar when things look hairy.”
Bea’s of Bloomsbury: www.beasofbloomsbury.com
Follow Bea’s team on Twitter: @beas_bloomsbury
Ryland Peters & Small : www.rylandpeters.com
Follow the team on Twitter: @RylandPeters
Kate Whitaker Photographer: www.katewhitaker.co.uk