Kim’s Tea & Coffee House, Saffron Walden


The wonderful thing about English rural market towns is that as a rule, they retain their quaintly dated quality in all particulars, and one way they do so is through the medium of delightful cafés and tea rooms.  Indeed, there are some places where you could spend your entire day flitting from one to the next and still barely complete the café crawl by closing time.

And one aspect of English café life that delights is that there is no urgent need for them to follow trends, as with small bistros and brasseries.  Not for tea rooms the fussy cheffy touches to demonstrate “flair”; if anything, the reverse applies, with patrons welcoming such establishments for their old-fashioned products and service, touching memories just as surely as Proust remembered madeleines.

Bringing my mother to Saffron Walden was not accidental, since I was fairly sure the town was just the sort of place to stir her little grey cells, and what better than a late light lunch with coffee in the sort of café we do so well?

The difficulty was in choosing just one, since a quick wander around town revealed more cafés than you could shake a stick at.  It’s the sort of choice that could paralyse we Brits in total indecision.  There was Café Coucou (proud of its bakery), Bicicletta Velo (Italian cafe with bike shop), even one of the Tiptree tea rooms that as a Tiptree resident I promote gladly, and many more…

Luckily, a heavy rain shower forced the decision; so it was that we stopped at an elegant Georgian building and paused at  Kim’s Tea and Coffee House.   I liked Kim’s on sight, for several reasons: the stripped down solid wooden furniture; the simple wall decorations giving a nod to wartime posters; the outside tables and a pergola, which would have been very welcome when the sun shines; and perhaps most of all the fact that it is a genuinely family-run affair.

More than that, this is a cafe run with a very particular sense of occasion and attention to detail, as recorded on the website:

We took over the premises in October 2003 and decided to run it as the type of tea house that we would like to visit.  We list below some of the things we dislike about places we have visited and our solutions to them.

Lukewarm drinks – so many places serve so-called ‘hot’ drinks at surprisingly low temperatures (using health & safety as an excuse).  The real reason is that a cool drink ensures you do not hang around too long – faster turnover = greater profit!  We serve our coffees at 70 degrees C, which is the correct temperature for a cappuccino or latte.  We have never had a drink returned for not being hot enough!

Cold butter – we hate getting teacakes (or crumpets or toast) with a small pat of cold, hard butter to spread on them.  So we butter the teacakes for you (sunflower spread is also available on request).

Garnish – another pet hate is a “doorstep” sandwich that is all bread and no filling, served with a little piece of limp lettuce and a tasteless tomato (garnish?).  We don’t bother with garnish (as most people leave it anyway) and prefer that the price is reflected in a generous, good quality filling instead – after all, a garnish is just a means of helping to disguise an inferior sandwich.  You will not find a better filled sandwich anywhere in Saffron Walden!

Whipped cream – some tea houses serve their scones with whipped cream and cheap catering jam (in tiny jars).  We use only genuine Rodda’s Cornish clotted cream with either rose petal, blackcurrant & apple or organic strawberry jam.

Music – so many coffee shops these days play music that it is virtually impossible to find somewhere that you can relax in peace and quiet and just immerse yourself in a newspaper or a book for an hour or so.  We have such a place!

Dogs – as dog lovers ourselves, we think it odd that so few establishments cater for dogs.  We welcome dogs to our outdoor seating area and can also accommodate well behaved dogs inside if requested.

Were I to open and run a restaurant (and I have on occasions considered it), I would be similarly opinionated, thoughtful and exacting in my standards.  You need to apply principles and stay true to them.  A keen following is acquired though steadfast loyalty to those intangible qualities that make a place one you would readily return to without loyalty cards or promotions.

What attracts me most is the passion with which Kim and Paul have acquired and serve teas and coffees from around the world, and indeed local high-quality suppliers, all dutifully recorded on one of several laminated cards on each table.  You wouldn’t get this personal dedication to serving the best and freshest products in a Costa or a Starbucks, for example.

Take a moment to peruse the teas and coffees offered.  The range is staggering, as many as my kids and I once counted in a Chinese tea shop in San Francisco.  A goodly proportion are lined up in jars in a unit within the cafe, while another provides packs of teas and coffees to take home.   Not only that, but you get full detail of leaf grading and every aspect of how to get the best from your brew.

The menus are appropriate to the establishment, comprising mostly sandwiches, toasties, scones, teacakes, cookies and a small range of other cakes and sweetmeats.  The cakes, I learn, are made with Kim’s fair hands on the premises.  Mum ordered a teacake, the provenance of which was also recorded on the card, while I tried a Reuben.

This is a good test of the ‘generous good-quality filling’ rule, being a favourite of NY Jewish delis, where they are stacked high with glorious salt beef, cooked on the premises.  British restaurants are generally pathetic at recreating a true Reuben, such that an American eating a YooKay version would probably send it back.  My recipe can be found here – bear in mind I make my own salt beef and consider myself an expert on the subject.

This version was tantalisingly close to perfection… but for the fact that authentic rye bread was not available (multiseed bread made a good and quite blameless alternative) and the absence of Russian dressing (Americans would be picky there.)  Those are minor quibbles, for the salt beef was of excellent quality, piled high and topped with judicious portions of sauerkraut and melted emmenthal.  The toasting was also superior, giving the sandwich a satisfying crunch.  Whisper it, but I have not had a better Reuben this side of Manhattan, all for £7 without even a pickle for garnish!

What would Noo Yarkers make of the Americano coffee we drank?  Alas, the blend is not recorded on the menu, but it was rich, strong, full-bodied and deeply fulfilling.  It certainly met the temperature criteria, but more, it knocked the Costas and Starbucks into a cocked hat, and cost what by modern standards is a not unreasonable £2.20.    I doubt any serial coffee drinker could possibly object.  Next time I will venture into the cafetières of more exotic brews.

Now here’s a rare thing.  I judge establishments I visit on their merits – that is, how well they achieve their aspirations.  I could not criticise Kim for failing to turn out a Full English, for example.  For what she does, Kim does it to bravura standards.  She is fully worth a Millward 5 stars out of 5, which on the back of several scathing reviews is something of a welcome relief.

The deciding factor is always the same: would I return, bringing alone one of my brood, and particularly my partner?  Yes, for she and my daughter would greatly approve of the teas and cakes, while my son would love the Reuben.  This reminds me – I feel another batch of salt beef is overdue.

PS.  One small apology.  Normally I would take and post my own pictures, but on this occasion my phone had fallen from my pocket and smashed.  This minor tragedy means I had to borrow pictures from the copyright owners.

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