Tea for two in Aldeburgh
PUBLISHED: 14:07 01 July 2014 | UPDATED: 14:07 01 July 2014
Jules and Sharpie drop in on The Cragg Sisters
In the days when Jules and I travelled around the country on selling trips one of the highlights of our tours was the pit stop. Not for us the quick dash into a service station for packs to eat in the car, oh no. We would seek out indie coffee shops or ideally a traditional tea room, lured by the promise of fresh sandwiches, toasted teacakes or a bouncy Victoria sponge. Our devotion to the tea room lives on even though our selling days are over and we’ve put our string-backed driving gloves away in the drawer.
Happily for us our local tea shop is a real gem. The Cragg Sisters Tea Room in Aldeburgh has been in the same spot on the high street since 1949. The two ladies opened right after the war and baked every day, giving away leftovers to children who hung around by the back door. One of these was a little girl who started working for the sisters when she was ten. She inherited the business from them and ran it for a number of years with famously mysterious opening hours.
In 2010 an enthusiastic self-taught baker from Dunwich, Emma Neilson, took over the business and it is blooming. She redecorated the rooms herself and bought bits and bobs to go with the original vintage crockery, china and kitchen equipment. There’s an old pale blue range in the fireplace and one of those multi-purpose kitchen cabinets opposite, stacked with wartime cook books, enamel jugs and teapots.
As Jules and I sit down at one of the tables with a contented sigh, Emma comes bustling out of the kitchen. She starts every day at about 7.30 she says and bakes cakes non-stop until she has her daily supply of the classics – lemon drizzle, coffee and walnut, apple and cinnamon and Victoria sponge of course. She tries new varieties now and again to pep things up a bit and her current favourite is rhubarb and ginger. Then there’s the mountain of scones for cream teas and sandwiches and soup to make, so she keeps busy. And as if that’s not enough there’s also the bespoke picnic hampers and party catering to fit in.
During the summer months she has another six or seven people to help part time and it’s easy to see why she needs them. Even today, when it’s not school holidays and the weather is watery, every table is full.
Our mission, and we do choose to accept, is to try as much of the tea room menu as we can. Luckily it’s not against the clock. We start savoury and I have scrambled eggs with Pinney’s smoked salmon while Jules goes for a crab sandwich. It’s so easy to make bad scrambled eggs, and how often have I been given yellow lumpy rubber, but these are perfectly seasoned, smooth and rich. Pinney’s smoked salmon is of course full of flavour and there’s just the right amount piled with the eggs on to toasted wholemeal bread. Jules’ sandwich is in squidgy white bread and a pleasant blend of white and dark meat. The salad with it is local and herby and to her delight there’s a spoonful of pickled red cabbage.
And what to drink? Tea of course and again Emma has taken on the job seriously. She met an enterprising young man in China who completely by coincidence ended up in Suffolk running a tea importing business. Obvious choice then for her supply of strange and wonderful teas - black, white and green - with irresistible names like Jasmine Phoenix Pearls and Jade Cloud Sky. They could be celebrity babies, but no, they’re all loose leaf teas (no tea bags here) and each one is described in detail on the menu along with serving and tasting tips.
We take her recommendation of Star of India and follow the instructions to the letter. It is a total delight and is served in mis-matched, achingly trendy china cups and saucers.
Next the scones. One fruit and one plain, please, and yes, of course, to raspberry jam and clotted cream. They are light and fluffy, but don’t crumble. Having dealt with the cream to jam ratio and ‘which first?’ question, it’s straight into cakes.
Baking’s not my strong suit and I find it more than a little irritating when people who can tell me repeatedly how easy it is. Well no, actually, it’s not. Jules, one of the bakers-who-can, well known for her lemon buns, tests Emma’s skill with the lemon drizzle and even though coffee and walnut is the most popular Cragg Sisters cake, I cannot resist the Victoria sponge.
In the world of baking criticism can be harsh, but, thank goodness, Emma has passed the test and her lemon drizzle cake gets 10 points from Jules. In fact she describes it as being as light as a feather from an angel’s wing. Who knew she was so poetic? All I know is my Victoria sponge is so mouthwateringly good it’s making it hard for me to speak.
Full to bursting, thank you, and absolutely no room for a meringue – the latest addition to Emma’s tea room repertoire – even though now there’s only one left. As we leave the little piece of heaven on the high street Jules and I agree that for a rainy Tuesday lunchtime it doesn’t get much better than this.