Legendary Sheffield chef turns her talent to sandwiches and cakes at the Old Vicarage.
Imagine the perfect aunt.
A warm, generous teller of stories, the keeper of the cosiest of hearths in a rambling Victorian house with something homemade and wonderful in the oven at all times.
Tessa Bramley is that fabled aunt.
She also happens to be one of the best cooks in the country and that house is the Old Vicarage restaurant in Ridgeway just outside Sheffield.
Big-name London food critics Jay Rayner, Matthew Fort and AE Gill have left her table charmed and satisfied, gastronomic gods like Egon Ronay and Robert Carrier have craved her cooking.
And now she wants to make afternoon tea for us all.
The Old Vicarage has been doing teas, three days a week, for about a month now.
My daughter Hannah and I, having never previously availed ourselves of Tessa’s genius, decided to check out the char – afternoon tea at the Old Vicarage sounds far too good to ignore.
Classic country house gravel leads from the road to the handsome Old Vicarage in beautiful grounds with nothing but a small inconspicuous house nameplate to tell you where you are.
We park up and crunch our way on foot to the house wondering where we get in when the door swings open and we are greeted like visiting aristocrats by front-of- house man Walter.
Beautifully done and a great introduction to a Sheffield-area and British culinary institution, one which until last year had held a Michelin star for more than a decade.
As we enter Tessa greets us from the half-light of her desk at the foot of a dark-wood staircase.
We are shown through rooms large and small to the conservatory where we are seated and menus presented.
Classical music plays in the background – Vivaldi, as seasonal as the vegetables.
Hannah explains that it sounds bright and uplifting because it’s played in a major key whose cadence creates musical happy endings for the listener. At least I think that’s what she said.
We order our tea and are offered Prosecco which I accept and Hannah declines. There’s no point in going to a classy restaurant and complaining about the prices but I thought £8 for a glass of Prosecco a bit steep, even for here.
To offset that we are told that the tea is £25 and not the £28 as advertised.
So why afternoon teas and why now?
“A guest of ours said that with all that garden to look at it was a shame that we didn’t do afternoon tea,” said Tessa.
“I had never given it a thought until that moment. We started about three weeks ago. It’s early days yet.
“I think it’s something that will grow as people get to know about it. What could be nicer on a warm day than sitting out on the terrace with a glass of Prosecco and looking at the garden?
“I think it’s an ideal thing for people to treat themselves to and to dip their toe in to this kind of place to see what it is we do.”
It wasn’t warm enough for us to sit outside but the conservatory offers lovely views of the gardens. I order a pot of Assam and Hannah has a decaffeinated brew, both of which arrive pretty smartly as does our ‘savoury starter’ a beautifully presented and flavour-packed mini-rarebit with cheese, eggs, beer and wholegrain mustard topped with an olive and anchovies. A great hit of savoury delights on crunchy toast.
The sandwiches look lovely too in a well-filled, neat and dainty, crust-free way. They include home-cooked ham, grain mustard, tarragon poached egg, water cress and mayonnaise, oak-smoked salmon, cream cheese dill and cucumber, vintage cheddar and home made orchard chutney on a variety of home-made breads.
All sounds fairly familiar but at The Old Vicarage they do things the old-fashioned way. Hams are from local butchers and cured in the kitchen here, bread is baked here, butter hand-churned on a Lincolnshire farm, eggs are from a farm round the corner, mustard is home-made, as is the mayonnaise and the chutney with fruit from the Vicarage orchard.
And all sprinkled with the culinary wisdom that the young Tessa began to pick up in the 1940s when her grandmother would send her into the garden to pick herbs at her house in Hollinsend. Wisdom she has handed down to Nathan Smith, her chef of 23 years.
That knowledge goes in to perfectly crumbly raisin scones served with that butter, homemade jam and clotted cream, heavenly. The cakes are light and fanciful with pistachio and chocolate macaroons, strawberry and cream millefeuille and a gorgeously buttery and rich millionaire shortbread. All gorgeous but I would have preferred loose tea and perhaps a little more substance with the cakes, but that’s just personal taste.
My Assam was fine but when you go to one of the best restaurants in the country for tea you might expect to be impressed by the quality of the tea itself.
The theatre and ceremony of leaves, pot and strainer, the evocative chink of silver on china cups is part of what makes it special. Seeing the Twinings tag on the teabag string took some of the mystery out. I mentioned this to Tessa and she agrees and promises to consider a change, as a perfect aunt would.
For tea, a glass of Prosecco, an apple juice and sparkling water we paid £66.
Star rating out of five:
Category: Afternoon tea.
The Old Vicarage, Ridgeway Moor, S12 3XW, Tel. 0114 2475814
Afternoon tea available Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday From 2.00pm to 4.00pm. Booking essential.