Wilkins & Son are synonymous with Tiptree; even their website is called Tiptree.com! Located about 3 minutes drive from my door, this is an excellent place to bring visitors – and I’ve yet to be disappointed by the food and drink. The organisation though… well, that’s a slightly different story. The primary purpose of the factory is of course to make jam, though they have a nice little sideline with the shop and five quaint, old-fashioned tea rooms, located at Heybridge Basin, Dedham, Writtle, Chigborough Barns and, of course, the Tiptree visitor’s centre – two beamed rooms situated midway between the jam shop and the factory museum.
First thing to note about the tea rooms in Tiptree is that they are very popular and visited by many, including coach parties. Best arrive early just in case, or you may find yourself queueing, as did my small party last Saturday lunchtime. As with all the best tea rooms, there is a faint air of quiet chaos about the Tiptree tearooms, which I do not mean in a derogatory fashion. It’s as if they are always taken aback by their own popularity and are struggling to cope with this sudden influx of people, who are greeted nonetheless with a certain old-fashioned genteel courtesy, the type you wish were on display in more restaurants and public establishments.
That said, one surprising modern innovation is that the waitresses (who are all very lovely) are now equipped with handsets to place orders direct with the kitchen, though ours seemed to struggle with the new order fulfilment system. It seemed to take her about three times longer to input the order than it would for her to have written it down in full, but let that pass. I’m sure there will be more training to help her along. I did not notice our orders get to the table any quicker using this method, but presumably there must be benefits or they would not have invested in the system.
The other main blockage comes from the fact that you don’t pay the waitress but queue up at the till, which of course happens to be slap bang at the crossroads in the middle of the restaurant en route for the exit, loos and every other route, thus adding to the chaotic air that is still, perhaps, part of the quaintness of this establishment.
When you do eventually get a table, you have both a menu and a blackboard to peruse. The “specials” board does not vary overmuch, so it’s very common to see macaroni cheese and similar comfort foods available, for example. I’m very partial to the macaroni cheese, but on this occasion chose a sliced warm beef barm cake (barm cakes being a specialty of my north western heritage) with red onions (cooked) and stilton, served with coleslaw, crisps and a salad garnish. This proved tasty and moreish, perfect for a late lunch.
The menu contains a variety of teas, coffees, snacks, and of course the classic cream teas for which such traditional English establishments are best known, consisting of a pot of tea of your choice, two fruit scones, a small pot of the truly outstanding Wilkins jam (choose your own flavour – my party selected blackcurrant and strawberry respectively) and another pot of clotted cream. One of our party chose the cream tea and declared herself well satisfied with the results, while my mother went for a single scone and no cream, but with equal success.
The coffee comes in two varieties: from the expresso machine (rather expensive) and filtered (acceptably cheaper.) The cost added for use of real or pseudo-expresso machines seems to me a modern day scandal, perpetuated by our glib acceptance of over-pricing by Starbucks and other American-style coffee shops. Hopefully things will eventually settle down, but £2 odd for a cup of black coffee is undoubtedly way over the top in anyone’s language.
Overall you get the impression that the tea rooms are a victim of their own success, and to date they have yet to find a way of managing that success effectively – especially when rain intervenes and the outside tables are off-limits. Nonetheless, I would recommend you try this legendary institution if you happen to be in the area, if only to demonstrate that there is much more to Essex than TOWIE would ever suggest, not least old-fashioned charm and finesse. Out here in the sticks things are not that much changed from the era of Lyons tea rooms, for which we should be very grateful.
PS. Went to the tea rooms at Heybridge Basin on 1 March for a light lunch which turned out to be an hour’s wait for home-made soup and sandwich. Pretty good when they arrived but much too long a wait.