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Posts Tagged ‘Edinburgh’

Just a quick plug for the online magazine, Made in Scotland, which showcases some of Scotland’s creative talent.

The latest edition features last minute gift guides, reviews and interviews with local craftspeople, including the artist Jenni Douglas, who creates beautiful designs for coasters, mugs, notelets, etc.

There also happens to be a little article about a particularly nice tearoom by someone you might recognise (click here if you’d like to read it, but be warned it includes photos of chocolate).

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A magnificent bafflement of chocolate choices.

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Following on from my previous post, my delightful assistant and I escaped the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tapestry viewing area and legged it upstairs to the relative calm of the Scottish Parliament’s Debating Chamber.

As we made our way through the building we were struck by the very angular architecture, which made me think of those mindboggling drawings by Dutch artist, M C Escher:

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Had we been visiting on a different day of the week, the Debating Chamber might have been full of MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament), but we were there on a Monday, which is one of the days when the Parliament doesn’t sit. On the down side, it meant we couldn’t attend a debate, but on the up side it meant we could wander around freely.

I’ve often seen pictures of the Chamber on TV but I wasn’t quite prepared for the scale of it. It was vast and airy, and delightfully free of milling bodies, in contrast to the downstairs lobby:

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Small assistant in a large Chamber.

One of the remarkable things about the Chamber is the absence of supporting columns for the enormous ceiling. Instead, there are reinforced steel and laminated oak beams spanning the area. The beams are held in place by 112 steel joints, each one made to fit the unique angles at its point in the structure.

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There are 131 seats and desks, laid out in a semi-circular arrangement to avoid the sort of confrontational style of debate that can be seen, for example, in the Chamber of the House of Commons in London.

The desks are made of oak and sycamore and over 60 of the MSPs’ seats are wheelchair accessible. My dad thought the desks looked as if each one had a pair of trousers laid over the back of it (the Presiding Officer and her clerks sit at the big desk at the front):

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Can you spot the ‘trousers’ adorning the desks?

While we were strolling around a tour came in and I overheard some of what the tour guide was saying (you can book to go on a tour of the building for free but there were no spaces available while we were there).

She pointed out the clocks that are placed at strategic points throughout the Chamber, explaining that some of them show the time and others show how long the current speaker has been talking for.

Speaking time for individual MSPs is limited, and each desk is fitted up with a microphone. The microphone is turned on when it’s a speaker’s time to talk, and abruptly turned off when their time has run out. I imagine that speaking for the exact amount of allotted time is quite a skill, and once honed could prove useful for radio interviews:

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Above the MSPs, a semi-circular gallery seats 225 members of the public, 18 invited guests and 34 members of the media. The tour guide mentioned that this constitutes a larger public gallery than you will find in any other parliamentary building in Europe.

We rested our weary bones by trying out the seats and I thought they were remarkably comfortable. I could well imagine attending a debate here and nodding off in the sunshine flooding through the huge windows:

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Talking of windows, there’s a lot of natural light in the Chamber. There were no artificial lights on when we visited and it was a dull day, but the room was very bright.

Fine views were to be had out to the old Palace of Holyrood across the road, and up to the local hill, Arthur’s Seat, and the Queen’s Park:

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View out to Arthur’s Seat, with turf roofed area of the Parliament Building in the foreground. The white building you can see at the back on the right of this picture is part of the Our Dynamic Earth exhibition, well worth a visit if you’re loafing around Edinburgh mulling over the amazing processes involved in the creation of this planet and wondering where you might learn more.

The vision of the building’s architect, Enric Miralles (who sadly died before it was inaugurated), included landscaping around the building to make it look as if it was part of the natural environment. This included laying turf on the roofs and planting Scottish wild flowers around the grounds.

He also chose to plant the same sorts of trees as are found in the grounds of Holyrood Palace across the road, in addition to planting rowan trees, because they’re traditionally regarded as a symbol of good fortune.

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View from the Debating Chamber across to the Palace of Holyrood, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland.

When we’d had our fill of sitting around in the Chamber, we got up to leave and both reported feeling somewhat dizzy.  Whether this was due to sitting up in the gallery looking down or, as I think more likely, having our brains confused by all the hard lines and angles in the building, I don’t know but we were both relieved to get back outside into the fresh air.

Outside, there were giant twiglets stuck to some of the walls. Perhaps noticing these on our way in explains the curious yearning I had for salty snacks during the visit:

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Giant twiglets at the Scottish Parliament.

Embedded into part of the outside wall we found a number of large panels filled with quotations. Some of these were from poets or writers, and others were from the Bible or anonymous sayings. They seemed to me to be rather a strange collection, including Scots and Gaelic as well as English:

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If you fancy visiting the Parliament yourself, it’s open from Monday to Saturday, and if you want to go on a tour I would recommend booking in advance.

There’s a cafe (which we didn’t patronise, on this occasion) and a shop, and perhaps most surprising of all, a free creche. You can deposit your offspring there for up to four hours while you visit the Parliament. It’s apparenty the only facility of its kind in Europe, and sounds like a good idea to me.

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A couple of weeks ago my dad and I trotted off to Edinburgh to see the world’s longest tapestry and have a mooch round the Scottish Parliament building, where the tapestry was on display.

Such an expedition required sustenance, and we called in at Mimi’s Bakehouse in Leith en route for energy giving morsels:

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Delightful assistant no.2 making himself at home in the plush surroundings of Mimi’s Bakehouse.

The delightful assistant ordered a cappuccino and a plain scone:

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A plain scone at Mimi’s: imagine a scone of normal proportions and then double it to get an approximation of the size of this gargantuan delight.

I went for tea and a fruit scone:

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Large dishes of butter and jam next to an outsize scone, all very satisfactory.

To my surprise the fruit scone was highly spiced, and extraordinarily fluffy inside:

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Spiced fruity fluffiness inside a Mimi’s scone.

Although the fruit scone was remarkably good, the plain scone really took the biscuit, so to speak.

Not only was it inordinately fluffy but it was also immensely buttery and melted in the mouth. The texture was that of a perfect scone but the taste was more like that of a croissant:

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Mimi’s plain scone of immense butteriness, I think of it now as a croisscone.

The plain scone was so good that not only were we completely enchanted by it during our time at Mimi’s, but it kept coming up in conversation at various points throughout the day.

It was a Scone Great, the sort of scone that, if there were Royal decorations for baked goods, would be in line for a Knighthood.

Having thoroughly enjoyed our comestibles, we scooted up into the old town of Edinburgh. Our destination was Holyrood, where a very modern sort of building sits directly across the road from a more aged one:

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The modern: Scottish Parliament building, opened in 2004.
Although it looks like concrete the facing is in fact made from granite, purchased from an Aberdeenshire quarry at considerable expense.  Initial estimates for the building’s construction were between £10 million and £40 milllion but the ultimate price tag sat at a whopping £414 million. Despite this, and the fact that construction took longer than anticipated, it has won numerous architectural awards. I don’t know why there are giant haidryers stuck to it.

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The aged: gateway into Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland.
Building began here in 1128 but most of what can be seen today dates to the 16th and 17th centuries.

I had only once before been to the Parliament building, some years ago, and at that time it was possible to simply walk in off the street.

On our recent visit, there was a police presence outside the entrance (just one lone policeman, but I daresay he could summon others pretty quickly if required):

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Entrance to the Scottish Parliament building, complete with strolling policeman.

Inside, we had to queue up in an airport-style security area where our bags, jackets, belts, phones, etc. went into boxes and through a scanner, while we passed through one of those full body scanner doorway things. The staff on duty were wearing bulletproof vests:

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Tightened security at the Scottish Parliament building.

Once safely inside with guns left at the door for collection on the way out (just kidding), we made our way into the main hall where the massive tapestry was on display.

It was hung in sections and there were lots of people milling about inspecting the stitching.

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The tapestry is a highly educational creation, as well as being a work of art. Prior to visiting the exhibition, I had no idea there had been a false alarm threat of Napoleonic invasion on my birthday in 1801:

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One of the many panels in Scotland’s Tapestry. The whole thing is 143 metres long, more than twice as long as the Bayeux Tapestry.

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Detail from the Napoleonic Threat panel; each panel took at least 500 hours to complete.

It was so busy in the hall that after a short time we toddled off upstairs to look at the Parliament’s Debating Chamber. It’s rather a splendid place and I’ll post about it separately.

In the meantime, here’s one last detail from the tapestry, showing a Scottish soldier fittingly togged up in tartan garb:

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There is a rather wonderful tearoom in Edinburgh called Eteaket.

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I had been wanting to visit this place for ages and I finally got round to it a couple of weeks ago when I popped down to the city.

A chum and I were lunching there, and although I was looking forward to my grub I found it hard to give my attention to the food menu because the tea menu stole the show.

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When the waitress came to take our order I think she mistook my delight for confusion when I told her that I was spoilt for choice and not sure which tea to go for.

She was keen to help and asked me what sort of tea I liked so that she could offer some suggestions, but my answer (‘I like all these teas’) probably didn’t assist her much. In any case, I had already whittled down my options to a handful and was simply trying to choose between these.

Under a little pressure from the helpful waitress (who was in fact providing a very useful service) I jumped to the quick conclusion that it was their Bollywood Dreams Chai I was after.

It was delivered to the table in a yellow teapot, while my chum’s choice of Awesome Assam came in a red one:

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The little egg timer that came with the teas told us when a 3 minute steeping time was up. Being desirous of a strong cup, I left it a little longer and shoogled my tealeaves about a bit before pouring.

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I’ve tried quite a few versions of what they call chai tea in the UK, i.e. a black tea with various spices such as cardamom, black pepper, cloves and ginger added to it, but I don’t think I’ve ever had such a full bodied and complex-flavoured one as Eteaket’s Bollywood Dreams.

Chai tea, as I first came to know it in Pakistan, was a thick, creamy and usually very sweet concotion. The whole caboodle was boiled up together: black tea, buffalo milk, sugar and all the spices that went into it. It was like the Guinness of teas, a veritable meal in itself.

I took the Bollywood Dreams chai black with no sugar to start off with, to see how I liked it. I liked it so much that way that I didn’t even try adding milk or sugar, and drank the whole pot black and invigorating.

To munch alongside my tea, I chose a cheese and tomato croissant.

I had in my mind a fluffy French pastry, puffed up with air, crisp on the outside and stretchy and delicious inside, with a nice bit of cheese and some tomato resting gently inside.

Much to my amusement, what arrived looked as if it had slipped onto the kitchen floor and been trodden on by a large boot:

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This was infintely more exciting than what I had been anticipating. I’m extremely partial to a toastie, and a toasted croissant, no matter how flat, was an unexpected highlight.

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I wish I had a photograph of the flattest toastie I’ve ever had, which was a sheer joy I experienced once at Dawyck Botanic Gardens. It made this croissant look like a balloon by comparison.

On tasting, I discovered that my squashed croissant was utterly delicious, and the salady items it was served up with were tip-top. I was particularly pleased with the couscous which came as plain little grains in a mound with nothing else in it.

My companion had a cheese and ham sandwich, which came untoasted but with the same sorts of salady accoutrements:

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Having devoured a chocolate and almond scone before lunch and then filled up nicely with the flat croissant, I didn’t indulge in a sweet treat at Eteaket. My comrade did, however, succumb to a cream scone, which I wished I had room for. The cream and jam came in little jars packed to the gunwales:

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The Devonshire method was employed: cream first, with jam on top:

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Somehow or other I managed not to even taste this scone. Despite being offered a bite more than once, I persisted in declining the kind offer. I was told it was exceptionally good and looking at the photographs now I find myself questioning my decision. However, being of the general opinion that hanging onto regrets serves little purpose, I have been endeavouring to accept it and move on.

One thing I like to see in bathrooms is a spare loo roll or two, and I was delighted to note that the Ladies’ facility at Eteaket was very well equipped:

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My chum wanted to pop into the Lyon & Turnbull auction rooms to have a look at a paperweight he was thinking of buying, and so we trotted down there after lunch, passing some of Edinburgh’s beautiful Georgian architecture on the way.

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One of the items on display in the auction house was an enormous stuffed white dog in a glass case, and there were several media people there with a real live dog, trying to get the real dog to look at the stuffed one.

Try as they might, tempting the dog with treats, things suspended above the glass case, etc. the little dog seemed interested in looking everywhere but at the stuffed dog.

By sheer chance, I happened to lift my camera and snap a picture at the exact moment the small dog complied with their wishes. My picture was zoomed in from the other side of the room so it’s a bit fuzzy and not the best of compositions, but this appeared to be the only occasion on which the wee one looked at the big one. I trust the photographers were pressing their buttons at the vital moment.

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A few posts ago I mentioned popcorn tea, and several blogging chums commented on this curious phenomenon.

I first came across it under this name at a tearoom in the small Scottish town of Lanark, where it appeared on their tea menu:

In my previous post if I had used its other name, Genmaicha, perhaps less puzzlement would have ensued. (Or perhaps not, I suppose it depends on your level of interest in green tea.)

I was first introduced to Genmaicha by a Japanese flatmate I had many years ago in Edinburgh. She used to buy it in a Chinese supermarket, where it came in a dull green packet marketed without fanfare as ‘green tea with roasted brown rice’.  Going food shopping with her was something of a revelation to me.

Although green teas are more readily available in the UK now than they were a few years ago, Genmaicha, or popcorn tea, is not yet a common sighting.

However, I noticed in my local supermarket the other day that green tea in general seemed to be taking over the tea aisle, thanks in large part to Twinings and their love of pairing it with just about every fruit imaginable:

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Some of the many varieties of green tea available from Twinings. My local supermarket stocks these by the truckload so someone must be drinking it all.

The popcorn tea I had in the Lanark tearoom, and which I am sipping as I write this, is produced by the rather wonderful company, Teapigs.

The ingredients are very helpfully listed on the packaging in 11 different languages, but what surprises me is that there’s no mention of pocorn, which is what I thought the little white knobbly bits in the teabag were (see photographs of teabags below).

They call their design of teabag a ‘tea temple’, and describe it as a ‘spacious, silky, transparent purse’.

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A Teapigs tea temple, containing popcorn tea

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It’s a sort of tetrahedron type shape, although that’s quite possibly not the correct term for it. In any case, it is undeniably spacious and transparent.

The reason for the spaciousness becomes apparent when boiling water is added, as all the leaves, rice and and popcorn bits puff up to fill their mesh home:

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The colour of the tea (after steeping for 4-5 minutes, which is my favoured time) is a very delicate pale yellow:

A subtle malty scent wafts from the tea when brewed and, in terms of flavour, I concur with Teapigs that it has an undertone of Sugar Puffs.

It does taste like green tea but, unlike some green teas, the honeyed nutty warmth of the toasted rice appears to counterbalance any bitterness you might expect from steeping the tea for more than a couple of minutes.

In order to concentrate fully on the flavour while writing this post, I closed my eyes while I swallowed a few mouthfuls. (Naturally enough, there was a scone involved, on this occasion maple and walnut):

Teapigs popcorn tea with a maple and walnut scone.

On feeling the tea slip down my gullet, two images sprang to mind:

1. being outside on a beautiful, calm, sunny summer’s day with the warmth of the sun on my shoulders;

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2. being cosily ensconsed indoors with a hot water bottle in the small of my back.

Delightful assistant no.1 soaking in the warmth from a hot water bottle at her back.

All in all, the sensation was soothing, warming and extremely pleasant.

Popcorn tea is not something I drink every day, but I could imagine that if I lived in a society where drinking green tea was the norm, this sort of green tea would be my preference.

As it happens, popcorn has come into my life in another guise recently, but I’ll save the details for another post.

A new way to eat popcorn – enrobed in Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate.

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By a sort of happy accident several years ago, I ended up in the Falkland Islands.

I’ve recently been revisiting the place in my mind, because it features in a book I’m writing, and although I unfortunately don’t have all the photos I took back then, I do still have a few and I thought I’d stick them on here in a post.

The Jhelum at Stanley

The wreck of the Jhelum in Stanley Harbour, the Falkland Islands, with geese in the foreground

In 2006 I was feeling a bit bored and needing some excitement, so I left my job, gave up my flat in Edinburgh and popped off to South America with the vague intention of learning Spanish.

En route, due to missing a connection in New York, I was put up in a New Jersey hotel for the night. This was the view from my bedroom window:

Hotel room view

The next day (or possibly the day after, it was a long journey and I got very confused about time zones) I landed at my destination: Buenos Aires in Argentina.

This next picture is a bit out of focus and not representative of the city as a whole, but it was the view from my hotel window and its depressing appearance pretty much summed up my mood at the time (I should say that the hotel itself was quite nice, but looking out at this didn’t exactly inspire me). It was quite a contrast from New Jersey:

Buenos Aires hotel room view

What with one thing and another (not just the view), I was rather miserable in Buenos Aires and didn’t seem to be able to shake it off. I got so down in the dumps that after a few days I walked into a travel agency and booked a flight to the Falkland Islands.

Due to the political shenanigans between Argentina and the Falklands, you can’t travel directly from one to the other. Although the Falklands are just off the Argentinian coast, I had to hop across the border into Chile and get to the Falklands from there instead.

I flew first to Chile’s capital, Santiago, and then on to Punta Arenas in the south, from where I could catch a flight to the Falklands. I enjoyed flying over the Andes:

Flying over the Andes Mountains

My mum is always saying I land on my feet, but what she doesn’t add is that I get there by way of inelegantly slithering over icy patches and slipping on endless banana skins.

I like to think of myself as quite well organised, but the truth is that I am never as well organised as I should be. On this occasion I was completely unprepared for what lay ahead.

I arrived in Punta Arenas in the dark, early evening I think it was, and only then discovered that there was no airport hotel. My flight to the Falklands was not until the following morning, and Punta Arenas airport was being locked up for the night. The small adventure I had as a result of that has provided me with a bit of the story I’m now writing.

I was also unprepared for my arrival in the Falklands. I had mistakenly assumed that since it was a British protectorate I could just turn up, waltz in and be welcomed with open arms.

Thanks purely to some kind Falkland Islanders who were on their way home after a holiday and took pity on me, I was smuggled into the country and deposited at a Bed & Breakfast in Stanley. (This is what my mum means by me landing on my feet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’ve lost a couple of years off my life as a result of the stress at the time.)

The B&B was run by a kindly lady who wasn’t expecting winter visitors, and certainly not those who turned up unannounced (you’re supposed to have proof of accommodation booked in advance before you can even be let into the islands). She looked after me wonderfully well and gave me a lovely big room in her house. My windows were at the top left, looking out in both directions:

Stanley B&B

Once I had settled in and got over the strain of the journey, being in Stanley was balm to the soul.

The weather was wintery, with bitingly cold winds and occasional snow flurries, but the sun shone and I had a jolly time ambling along Stanley’s quiet streets:

Windswept street in Stanley

One of Stanley’s long windswept streets sloping down to the sea

The landscape outside the town reminded me very much of Scotland’s western isles, low-lying moorland with occasional houses dotted about. It made me feel at home.

Falklands moorland

Despite being located off the southern tip of Argentina, the Falkland Islands felt very British. There were Union flags all over the place in Stanley, and traditional English pubs (sadly, without real ale on tap).

Like many people the world over, Falkland Islanders take a pride in their gardens, but I think Stanley is the only place where I’ve seen penguins standing like sentries round a well-clipped plant (up near the back of this garden):

Stanley garden

It’s also the only place I’ve ever seen Falkland steamer ducks, which is not too surprising since I believe the Falklands is the only place you find them. Like the other steamer ducks found in South America, these chaps can’t fly.

Falkland steamer ducks

The birds I encountered around Stanley all seemed quite tame, including these beautiful Dolphin Gulls and the many geese that were in attendance.

Dolphin Gulls in Stanley

The Falkland Islands are famed for their penguin colonies, but unfortunately I didn’t see any of these delightful inhabitants. I did, however, see the world’s most southerly cathedral with its whalebone arch nextdoor:

Stanley Cathedral and whalebone arch

I only spent a week in Stanley, and I had a bad cold for much of my visit, but those 7 days stick in my mind as a vivid and exceptionally positive experience.

On my way out of the Falklands I used the facilities in the airport and was amused by this wartime poster next to the sink. Wartime is within living memory of most Falkland Islanders, after the invasion of Argentinian forces in 1982.

 Wartime poster in Stanley airport

After leaving the Falklands, I made my way back to Santiago in Chile, where the smog was sitting heavily over the city, as I believe is quite common in the winter:

Santiago in the smog

I lodged in a hostel for a while, walking around Santiago during the day and trying to work up enthusaism for settling down and immersing myself into Chilean life, but my heart wasn’t in it. I did like Santiago though, and it would be nice to see it in the summer time.

I was a little sorry to leave after a short stay, but I had blown most of my funds on the Falklands trip and work was hard to come by with my poor Spanish, particularly in the winter time.

On my way home, the misty mountains around Santiago looked enchanting from the air:

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In the story I’m writing, my main character visits the Falkland Islands in winter too, but unlike me she makes her return journey to the UK by sea, during the course of which she has some adventures.

If I were to go to the Falklands again, I would like to jump aboard a cargo ship to get there, and I would especially like to go on one like this (below). It’s a new Japanese design using giant sails to harness wind power when the conditions allow:

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image courtesy of the University of Tokyo

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Mimi’s Bakehouse is a tearoom I’ve been wanting to visit for some time. It’s situated in the Leith area of Edinburgh, a part of the city I know reasonably well, having inhabited three different flats in the vicinity.

Edinburgh, and Leith in particular, has been on my mind quite a bit lately. In the past couple of weeks I’ve read two Ian Rankin books set in Edinburgh, and the main character in my own novel (still under construction, currently at 25,000 words) lives in Leith.

All of this, combined with my desire to meet up with a chum who lives in the great metropolis, led to me nipping down there last week.

The day was dreich (wet, damp, dull and – some might say – a bit miserable) but, arriving a bit early, I wandered round some of my old haunts.

One never knows, on revisiting a place, quite what one’s feelings will be. I was half expecting to be irritated by the noise and traffic, put off by the general busyness of the city, which has sometimes been the case when I’ve been back to Edinburgh after my quiet life in leafy Perthshire. However, I was surprised to find that I felt happy, exhuberant and delighted to be back. Quite a few of Leith’s streets are cobbled, rather than covered with tarmac (is this known in the US as asphalt? I’ve never been too sure): I was glad to see this old chap again, a fellow I often used to walk past and bid good day to: Although some of the shops, pubs, cafes, etc. have changed since I was last here, it was reassuring to see that some looked exactly as I’d left them. This wee pub has probably looked much the same for the past 200 years, dating back as it does to 1785: Inside, Mimi’s provided a bright and welcoming contrast to the weather. Indeed, far from feeling the chill outside, the ladies on the wallpaper appeared to be feeling the heat: We opted to sit in one of the sofa areas, which was decorated with some stylish cushions: The main point of interest to my mind, however, was the cake counter. I opted for the coffee and walnut: If I’d been in a chocolate mood I would have found this creation hard to resist: And if I’d been craving the malty crunchiness of Maltesers, this little gem would have been top of my list: To go with my cake, I ordered Teapigs Chai tea, which came in a little teapot with a slice of orange on the side: The cake was heavily iced (a bit too much for me on this occasion, although if I’d been desperate for a sugar rush I’d have scoofed it back readily enough), but the sponge itself was extremely light and fluffy:

Just as coffee and walnut is one of the cakes I frequently like to try, my chum is very partial to a caramel, or millionaire, shortbread. Mimi’s had large slabs of the stuff on offer, and he jumped at the opportunity, pairing it with a cappuccino: I wasn’t too fussed about trying it, since it looked a bit heavy and solid to me, but when I tasted a little corner I was astonished by its melt-in-the-mouth texture. The biscuit, toffee and chocolate disappeared together in a most pleasant manner. It was, surely, one of the best of its kind.

Mimi’s is, altogether, rather a stylish establishment. The ladies toilet can be located by this attractive notice on the door: The black and white theme evident throughout the tearoom itself, is continued in the bathrooms: After our delicious repast, my comrade had to get back to work and I thought I’d get a little exercise by way of trotting round the Botanic Gardens, which were on my route out of the city. The colours were beautiful but it was raining quite heavily. One good thing about going to the Botanics on such a wet day was that I virtually had the place to myself, including the magnificent hot houses: While I was pounding the pavements in Leith and driving through the city, I noticed that there are lots of new tearooms that weren’t there in my day.

The trouble, if you can call it that, is that there are far more tearooms to sample than I have the capacity for. Just as I don’t expect to die with an empty in-tray, neither do I anticipate managing to consume all the cakes I would like to gorge on in this one short lifetime. If ever there were a reason for reincarnation, that must be it.

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