Saturday, 5 October 2013

Pull, Brew, Melt

Pull Brew Melt: a festival of coffee, tea, and chocolate!
I had been excited about it for ages. The 28th and 29th of September were marked off in my diary. Friends had been organised, lifts readied, and cash withdrawn.
But on actually getting there - I have to be honest -  I was a little disappointed.

Hosted at the Plant Centre at Waddesdon Manor, the event was advertised as free entry. And yet this didn't stop two of my friends, arriving separately, from being charged £7.20 each to enter. Clearly they arrived at the wrong entrance, and for someone who doesn't know the local area this is an easy mistake to make. But on stating that they were there solely for the festival they should have been given directions back along the road and round to the correct - and free - entrance. Instead they were told that yes, entrance to the festival was £7.20. They had to pay up.

Pull Brew Melt is advertised specifically as a 'coffee, tea and chocolate festival', and I was expecting a fairly even split between what was being represented on its thirtyish stalls. But instead, a good deal of space was taken up by a range of unrelated goods: crisps, popcorn, sweets, alcohol, jams, and craft items.

Now, I like a good craft fair or food festival. I like vintage, upcycled, and hand-made. I will happily nibble on snack samples and I have been known to oooh-and-aah over my latest jam acquisition. But I had travelled an hour and a half to attend a festival - a celebration - of Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate. And that isn't at all what I found when I got there.

However - grumbles aside - my aims in attending were to sample the range of teas on offer, and to talk with the exhibitors about their products, and this is what I did.

First stop was Revolution Teas, who had very sensibly prepared a flask of each tea for sampling. Their teas are bagged, but are full leaf, with blends of fruits, flowers, herbs and spices. The exhibitors recommend using each bag two or three times, as each re-brew brings out fresh flavour from the leaves. These are quality teas with nuanced flavours, and it was difficult to decide which I liked best.

Honeybush Caramel Rooibos is a sweet and rich tasting tea, like a magical syrupy draught for winding down at the end of the day. Delicate on the tongue, White Pear has a subtly sweet and refreshing taste, perfect as an afternoon pick-me-up. But my favourite - Oh my! - is Revolution's Orange Chocolate Green Tea. That's Orange. And Chocolate. In a tea! Do you need any more convincing? The flavours roll over one another on the tongue, and each sip is serene heaven. This is by far my current favourite of all my tea hoard, and has become my special treat on a hard day. A small caveat though: pay attention to the steeping times. If you overbrew it, the orange flavour eclipses the chocolate and the balance is lost. Oh - and you'll become addicted. Don't say I didn't warn you.

In addition to making delicious teas, the people at Revolution were thoroughly nice, and clearly know their products well. They were happy to pour samples, discuss their teas, and answer questions. I will definitely be a repeat customer, and my wish list of their teas is a long one!

Next up was Solaris Tea. Also happy to chat about their products, they had a big pot of Organic Jasmine Dragon Pearls on the brew, and this was delicate and delicious. The tea is steamed seven times over fresh Jasmine flowers, producing an exquisite taste. When brewing at home it is recommended to use just two or three pearls per cup, and these can be rebrewed two or three times. Tea pearls look so beautiful as they unfurl and release their scent and flavour, and this tea is a real sensory experience. Also one for my wishlist when I run out of my current stock of pearls.

Moving on we came to Joe's Tea Co, who were happy to brew up some of their Chocca-Roo-Brew for me to try. Rooibos based, this is a chocolate-vanilla tea with a mild flavour that would make a relaxing cuppa for sometime between dinner and bed. Quite the opposite for their St Clement's Lemon: this would be a great wake-up tea, or one for zinging you back to consciousness after a heavy lunch. Joe's Tea Company is fairly new in the tea world: born in 2012 but already winning awards with its wholly organic ingredients.

We did of course look around the other stalls, sample what we could, and stop for a spot of lunch and a cuppa. If you get the chance, try one of Pan De Mania's wood-fired pizzas, hand rolled, deliciously topped, and ready in seconds. A real treat and a regular on the festival circuit.

On the way home we dropped in on the Thame Food Festival. There were a few tea stalls in the mix, including Rutland Tea Co., who had samples out of their loose leaf tea blends, all of which smelt heavenly. I bought a bag of their Tropical Garden, a blend of white and green tea flavoured with fruit pieces and flower petals. This turned out to not be such a winner. Whilst the dry tea smells divine, on brewing the flavour is rather washed out and the tea itself nothing special. It's nice enough to share with friends, but nowhere near the quality that I was expecting and not one I would purchase again.

Closing thoughts? As a food and drink festival Pull Brew Melt was rather fun - if not what I expected - and it was clear that a lot of work had gone into the design as well as the content of the event, with B-movie era mad scientists in charge, a range of interesting talks, and of course some admirable raising of funds for the charity Coffee Kids. We managed to spend a couple of hours there, in spite of our initial disappointment.

I'm not sure if I'll go back next year. There would have to be a better concentration of tea stalls for it to be worth me making the long trip. There are other changes that I'd like to see made for 2014. Better use of the venue space: the glasshouse could easily accommodate more stalls, and more stalls means more interest. A decision on what the festival actually wants to be: is it a celebration of all things coffee, tea, and chocolate or is it a full on sensory festival that just happens to include coffee, tea, and chocolate? The advertising needs to match up to the actuality of the event. And better communication between Waddesdon Manor itself and the festival, so that people aren't being charged unnecessarily for entry. I don't imagine that we were the only people caught out over the weekend. I understand that the festival is only in its second year, and that these issues are probably just growing pains. I'd like to see it reach its full potential, as it could be something quite unique if it takes the right path. All gripes aside though, it was an interesting experience and an enjoyable day.

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