Sunday Tea: Interview with Krisi Smith, founder of Bluebird Tea Co.

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Mike and Krisi outside their Brighton store Image: Bluebird Tea Co.

I’m really proud to say that I’ve worked with Bluebird Tea Co. for a few years now and it’s be been brilliant watching the business grow from a market stall (which, bravely, they once let me man!) to three stores in Brighton, Tunbridge Wells and Bristol. I talk to Krisi over a Spiced Pumpkin Pie latte (what else?!) about a whirlwind year-including a new book, the future of Bluebird and the challenges of preparing for Christmas sales. Keep reading for a giveaway too!

Some autumnal tea treats from @bluebirdteaco - treated myself in town today. Might get @krisismithteamixologist to sign this book when I see her next ūüėČ Also @klinakloen taught me the importance of a good stroopwaffle with tea- these are from Tiger. #autumn #pumpkinspice #tea #amreading #treatyoself #stroopwafel:

Can you tell me about the book- how it came about, what the initial plan was and what the process of writing it was like?

Bluebird has led me to so many exciting opportunities; I’ve always wanted to write, but I always thought I’d write fiction! The publishers, Octopus, approached me and asked me if I’d like to write a book about tea; they publish a series of ‘atlas’ books about different things- such as wine and coffee- and wanted an expert to write a book about tea. Of course I said yes! I was concerned that I might have some gaps in my knowledge- we don’t deal in single estate teas, for example, but Mike (Krisi’s husband and Bluebird Tea Co.’s co-founder) said that I would have to factor in plenty of time for research, which I did. I also really wanted to get something really creative in the book, such as the mixology section. I wanted to really show how important tea is around the world- it’s drunk in almost every country in the world, but in very different ways: but always socially. I wanted to write in a more lighthearted tone than some of the other books in the series. The publishers were ¬†supportive of my ideas and really good to work with throughout the process. It’s been two years in the making and I’m really happy with the final product.

You recently went to the T2 Chai Championships in Sydney. What was that like?

It was awesome- another opportunity that landed in my lap. It’s amazing how much stuff has come my way; I have to pinch myself sometimes. It was a competition to find the best chai, a way to publicise the new T2 store in Regent’s Street. I didn’t realise until a week before that it was all done live! On the day, we were given a box of stuff and 40 minutes to create a tea, as well as to create a show. I know the boys at Mixology Group in Brighton who mix cocktails and so they’d given me some lessons on how to perform for the crowd, as it’s something I’m just not used to doing. The whole thing was really different to how we usually create our teas! I won the London heat, which I never in a million years thought I’d win- there was some pretty stiff competition- and then went on to Sydney. (You can buy Krisi’s winning blend- Lapsang Chai– as part of the current range of autumn teas.)

Bluebird works with a lot of bloggers- how does that work?

When we moved here, I put together a list of the local bloggers and sent out an email letting people know that we were going to be a Brighton-based brand and asking whether could we send out some tea (which is pretty much how we do it now). No one turns down free tea! We work with different types of bloggers; we try and work with lots of people, with different sizes of online presence. Even if a blogger sends a smaller group of people to us, they might be more passionate about tea. There’s a place for all types of blogger and we’re not snobby about who we work with. We want to be inclusive of anyone who wants to get involved.

What do you think are the big trends coming through in tea- for example, using it in recipes has been massive on Bake Off this year?

I would consider that we’ve been the leader when it comes to iced teas and the tea lattes market, but the baking has become a big thing. It’s lifestyle baking, people want to produce recipes that are photo-worthy or content-worthy and getting something a bit special in there. Tea’s become fashionable for that. Matcha’s been fashionable for the last couple of years and is still going strong: matcha in baking, matcha smoothies, matcha chocolate. Also, it’s not really hit down in Brighton yet, but in London there’s a trend for ‘healthy’ cocktails using teas instead of sugary juices or cordials. Pumpkin’s going crazy, too. This has led us to think about making our teas more vegan friendly- there are sprinkles in the Spiced Pumpkin Pie that are not vegan. Most of our teas are vegan-friendly, we have a vegan section on our website and we have vegan customers and staff members and we’re seeing what we can do to improve this. I’ve spent all year trying to find vegan marshmallows for example! We want to be accessible to everyone and trying to balance that is a challenge that we’re working on. I do want to listen to feedback and provide what our customers want.

What can we expect in the next few months- can we have a sneaky preview of the Christmas range?

Alternative Advent Calendar:

Not going to lie, I really want one of these. Image: Bluebird Tea Co.

We’ve found that people are asking for Christmas products earlier, especially since we’ve become bigger- people are excited and they want to get prepared. So this year we’ve launched some of our Christmas products a bit earlier than before. We’ve been planning Christmas since June! We have some lovely products, like the advent calendar, which we’re really proud of. It was a big investment and a big risk, as it’s not a cheap product to put together. We launched it a week ago and they’re flying out already. We’re still planning a big official launch in November, but we wanted to let those people who wanted to be organised and to let those who were just perusing have a look at what we have. It’ll be our first Christmas in our Bristol and Tunbridge Wells stores. We’re going into Christmas this year with a really solid team.

What’s next for Bluebird?

We’re sort of at the limits now as to where we can be as an organic company. We’re at a nice size for what we are, but we may look at crowdfunding an equity sale of a very small amount of shares in the business in order to grow what we do. I think we have a great concept and I’d love for us to be on more high streets, to employ so many more people, to create so many more experiences and to meet so many more cool people along the way. We’ve proven it works and we have a great team. I’m really interested in exploring ¬†a way to do this and crowdfunding fits with our ethos. We have loads of people getting in touch asking if we can open on their high street and this would be a way to do it. I’ve always been the one to say ‘We can do this’, but I’m cautious about this, how will it change the way we are now? I don’t want to be a big chain, so it’s all about the way we do it. It’s exciting.

GIVEAWAY! I have a copy of The World Atlas of Tea worth £20 to giveaway to one reader. All you have to do to be entered is leave a comment below, telling me what your favourite tea is. Extra entries can be gained by following me on Twitter/Instagram (@wuthering_alice) and leaving your usernames in the comments. Giveaway will close at midnight on October 23rd and competition is open to UK entries only (sorry.) You can buy the book here.

EDITED TO ADD: PLEASE ENSURE THAT YOU LEAVE AN EMAIL ADDRESS OR OTHER WAY TO CONTACT YOU IF YOU WIN.

A few favourite baking books

So everyone’s in a state of GBBO mourning at the moment, aren’t they? As I write, Paul Hollywood has just been confirmed as the only member of the original quartet to have signed a deal to go over to the dark side (well, Channel 4. Which, to be honest, is the next best channel after the BBC to host a show like GBBO- but I know that’s not a popular opinion.) Anyway, this got me thinking- I do own two of Hollywood’s baking books, but I NEVER bake from them. And if you follow me on any social media channel, you’ll know I bake quite a lot. I like the books, they’re very pretty- but they’re just too fiddly and faffy for the type of stuff I like to bake. I’m probably more of a Bezza baker than a Hollywood baker, although I’ve never picked up one of Mary’s books.

But there are some books I use over and over.

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Bake- Rachel Allen

This was the first baking book I ever picked up (I had never seen Rachel Allen on the TV; I just wanted a baking book.) I learnt a few skills here, but I have found the recipes a bit hit and miss. However, as a first book, it was OK. I still swear by the honey cake and snickerdoodles in this, though.

51pxbskes6l-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_ Be-Ro Home Baked Recipes

Cheap and cheerful, the Be-Ro book is a proper, old-school classic. This is the book that I turn to when D wants to bake: gingerbread men, shortbread, tea loaves. It’s all the stuff your mum or nan probably made and the recipes are simple and straightforward (and you can get away with using margarine in most of them if you’ve run out of butter!)

510cb-crdgl-_sx258_bo1204203200_ Home Sweet Home- The Hummingbird Bakery

This book is one of the biggest bargains ever- I think I picked it up for a fiver. It’s stuffed full of what I think of as ‘showstoppers’, cakes that I pull out for fancy things and when I want to impress. My go-to brownie recipe is from Hummingbird (although I’ve tinkered with it so much now, it’s virtually unrecognisable from the basic recipe) and the strawberry milkshake cupcakes are seriously good. This is the book that really helped develop my skills onto more than just ‘basic’.

cover Flavour- Ruby Tandoh

I love Ruby’s recipes and have never had one fail. I was lucky enough that she sent me a signed copy of the book after I mentioned on Twitter that I had borrowed it from the library and loved it. Although it’s not really a baking book, but a book with baking recipes in it, I urge you to check it out. I can HUGELY recommend the easy chocolate cake- it is the only cake I’ve ever made that worked every time, and I’ll be making it for D’s fourth birthday in a couple of weeks. I’ve also made a banana cake and the shine theory truffles, which I adapted by adding rose and violet flavouring (I have plans for Christmas editions too… watch out for a future blogpost on those!) But what I really love about this book is the attitude in it- that we should eat what we like, and just ENJOY food. In a world obsessed with clean eating, it’s a refreshing change.

 

 

Some recent recipes

I’ve been baking LOADS recently. I’ve also been taking advantage of fruit from the garden (cherries, bland tasting apples) and the local woods/common- foraging is quite fun, as long as you don’t mind being stung a bit. Seriously, lately I’ve been stung three times and NO DOCK LEAVES were available. I feel nature let me down there. Anyway, if you’re up for a bit of autumn foraging, I can recommend Alys Fowler’s very good book.

Anyway, recently I’ve made the following and, where possible, I’ve linked to recipes. Welcome to autumnal comfort baking!

The closest I’ve got to ‘proper’ Millie’s style cookies is here. I’ve done these with choc chips, Smarties and M&Ms. I would definitely stick to M&Ms, as they seem to cope better with being cooked.

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We visited my family in Cardiff at the start of the summer holidays and I came home wanting to have a go at Welsh cakes, which are sort of like scones but you fry them instead of bake them. They’re a bit temperamental and you have to watch that they don’t burn, but they are lovely. I got my recipe from the Bero book¬†(which, if you don’t already own is well worth the ¬£2.50 it costs!), but Visit Wales have a very similar recipe here.

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I also had a go at making a Bara Brith, which I remembered from GBBO a couple of years ago. I make tea breads quite a lot, especially if D wants to bake, as they’re quick and simple. Bara Brith means ‘mottled bread’ and is a handy recipe to whip up if you have guests coming round. You can find the¬†recipe I used here.

Remember when I was pregnant with D and my nesting phase was basically just me baking parkin, which is lovely and autumnal (as well as being a recipe from my home town of Leeds? Well, it’s the time of year again to get perfecting it in time for Halloween and Bonfire Night. The recipe is here.

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I’ve also been experimenting with chutney (my friend Marine suggested a few weeks back that apple and ginger was nice), as we’ve had a glut of apples. The ones in the garden are a bit strange: small and not very flavoursome. However, they are a really good apple for taking on and enhancing the flavours of other things. So, I made four small jars of apple and ginger chutney, which was MUCH easier than I expected. The recipe is here. The jars are now in a cupboard maturing and won’t be released until December, when I expect them to perform well with the festive cheeseboard.

I’ve also been making an autumn jelly- foraged blackberries, garden apples and spices- but I’m working on tweaking that recipe, so keep your eyes peeled for that soon!

What are you baking at the moment?

What’s been happening in my kitchen…

I’ve been quite busy in the kitchen lately; I think it’s a hangover from this time two years ago when I was on maternity leave and nested by baking an insane amount of parkin¬†(which I baked last week for old time’s sake- I let D ‘stir’ the dry ingredients and only narrowly averted disaster by stopping him tipping the entire contents of the bowl over his head…)

First up, I recently baked two batches of Hummingbird Bakery‘s Strawberry Milkshake cupcakes from their excellent Home Sweet Home book (which I picked up for a fiver a while back). I find Hummingbird recipes really almost foolproof and this was an excellent recipe.You use actual milkshake powder in the cake batter and the frosting. It gives a wonderfully sweet, sugary and fake strawberry flavour that reminds me of being about six. Wonderful, although there’s so much sugar in them you do risk both type 2 diabetes and/or a massive headache.¬†I took the second batch to work for my turn in the English department cake club. Now, we’re a bunch of cake connoisseurs/gannets and even I’ve never seen a batch of cakes go so quickly and with so much enthusiasm. It’ll be a while til I bake them again though. There’s only so many e-numbers I can take in the name of baking!

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As well as baking, I’ve also embraced my inner jam maker. This was inspired by finding two boxes of cloudberries in the freezer when we moved in. I had to google them to find out what they were and was advised to make jam. Although enthusiastic- I bought jam jars and pectin and everything- I was foiled by the fact that the berries were most likely spoiled (they did not smell good). Instead, I popped along to Lakeland and bought oranges in a can. Because life’s too short to bugger about peeling Seville oranges and getting pith in one’s eye. Plus, I figured that if this went wrong, I’d only spent ¬£2.49 on fruit, instead of a small fortune on Spanish fruit.

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My pan was too small to hold over a kilo of sugar (!), so I made two batches of marmalade. I’d also bought a small muslin square of mulled wine spices, as I planned to make spiced marmalade. Alas, this didn’t work and next time I’ll probably have the spices loose as the fruit is cooking. Anyway the second batch, bizarrely, turned out to be sweeter. After a couple of hours and a significantly messier kitchen, I had ten jars of marmalade:

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I’m ridiculously proud and already planning my next foray into jam making. Strawberry and rose jam, anyone?

Getting my bake on…

Tuesday is fast becoming my favourite day of the week, mostly because of Bake Off being on. Benn and I sit on the sofa, discussing the contestants and what baked product I want to buy as a result of this week’s show. However, I also have a baking deadline marching ever closer- D’s first birthday.

As I’m not a very good technical baker, I’ve decided to have a go at a Victoria Sponge cake and gussy it up with fancy birthday candles. I mean, it couldn’t be too hard, right?

Anyway, so I was looking on the Kleeneze site to see what nifty gadgets they have to help the cack-handed (cake-handed?) of us. Here’s my ultimate wishlist:

Picture of Cake Cutting Wire

This. Is. Genius. A cake cutting wire. If left to my own devices, I would only end up in A+E, so this will save both money and the ambulance service’s time. It’s only ¬£3.99 too!

Picture of Cake Lifter

As well as being rubbish with cutting, I am also clumsy when it comes to moving cakes around. As I’m sure I don’t want to mar the memory of D’s first birthday by serving his grandparents Victoria Sponge mush instead of actual slices of cake, this cake lifter could be a godsend.

Picture of Morphy Richards Black Stand Mixer

I don’t have a food mixer- I have a hand whisk. I can’t be the only person who looks longingly at the hardware in TV chefs’ kitchens, can I? We don’t have room for one of these at the moment, but when we move I would LOVE a fancy stand mixer.

Mary Berry would be SO PROUD.

*Written in conjunction with Kleeneze*

Whittard’s Mumbai Chai

The idea of ‘chai’ as we know it in the West comes from the Indian drink ‘Masala Chai’ (‘chai’ is just the Hindi word for tea.) Traditionally, Masala Chai is a blend of black tea, milk, some kind of sweetener and a blend of spices, known as Karha. This spice mix is traditionally made up of cardamom, ginger and cinnamon, with other spices such as cloves and black pepper.

You might wonder why, as part of a review, I’m giving you a lesson on Indian beverages.

The reason is simple: Whittard’s Mumbai Chai is probably the closest to an authentic chai blend as I’ve come across in my (few) chai drinking years.

Image: Whittard

Image: Whittard

I am longing for icy days, when you can see your breath; this is perfect chai weather. The spices in this blend are warming and intense, but in a good way. I have yet to make it in the traditional Indian way, but rest assured, I am planning on it and will let you know how it goes. (In the meantime, I have been drinking Whittard’s Instant Vanilla Chai powder, which is lovely- even my sister is a fan and she’s not a great lover of ‘fancy tea’.)

I’m also planning on using this tea as a replacement for coffee in some of Joy the Baker‘s recipes (I’m allergic to coffee, hence the love of tea), as I think the flavour is strong enough to stand up on its own and make a really interesting cake.

As a simple, straightforward tea made in the usual way, Mumbai Chai has a powerful but harmonic spicy taste, which I’m loving first thing in the morning. It definitely has more of a kick than, say, Earl Grey blends and will wake you up quite quickly!

*PR Sample

 

Baking: A super easy parkin recipe!

I’ve been a bit remiss in my baking lately, but to be honest, summer just isn’t the right time for me to get on with it. Now that the GBBO is back on and the nights are drawing in, I’ve got my baking mojo back. On Friday, ¬†in honour of my grandma and sister coming to visit, I decided to bake a very Yorkshire cake: parkin. Now, if you’ve been following the blog or my Twitter since last year, you might be aware of my obsession with this sticky ginger cake when I was pregnant. I didn’t have a nesting stage in which I cleaned; I had a nesting stage in which I baked loaves and loaves of parkin. I was in labour and asking my mum to take a loaf home with her (!).

To many northerners, parkin is a classic autumn cake, particularly eaten on Bonfire Night. I also found out that it originated in the Leeds area (i.e. my home town.) and was essentially a poor person’s food- it gets better after a few days, so the cake would be made on a Sunday and eaten throughout the week.

I use a non-traditional recipe, as it doesn’t have oats. The Hairy Bikers recipe is super quick and easy- and satisfying. It’s practically fool-proof (I mucked up the melting of butter and golden syrup bit and it still worked brilliantly.)

The life cycle of a loaf of parkin...

The life cycle of a loaf of parkin…

What I remembered from last year is that I couldn’t leave the loaf in for the whole hour without risking burnt bits, so I whipped it out at the 50 minute mark. I daren’t open the oven before then, as I remembered Mary Berry saying that you can check on biscuits but not cake. Although I’m not sure parkin qualifies as ‘cake’, it’s kind of halfway between bread and cake as it’s so dense. I also added more ginger than called for in the recipe, I like my ginger cakes to have a kick to them. I toyed with adding a bit of cinnamon, but figured that would be sacrilegious.

I love making this, it is so easy and the house smells wonderfully autumnal with all the ginger in the air. I just won’t be baking six loaves in one week this time.