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The Cloister Coffee House, Strawberry Hill House

May 20, 2014

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A few weeks ago, Lawrence Hartley – owner of the lovely and highly acclaimed Brula restaurant in Twickenham, as well as a co-owner of Joe Allen in Covent Garden – asked me to meet him at Strawberry Hill House cafe. Brula have taken over the running of the cafe and are also the resident caterers at Strawberry Hill House, catering for weddings, special occasions, buffets and other events at this famous gothic castle in Twickenham. After telling me about what they were doing there – while I enjoyed a great coffee and a gorgeous homemade cake – he invited me to return for lunch one day with a friend and sample more of their food, and that’s what I did today, and asked my friend Kate to join me.

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I seem to be making a habit of turning up to the house on days when dark, threatening clouds hover overhead. But I guess that all adds to the gothic nature of the ‘castle’. Strawberry Hill House was created by Horace Walpole, son of Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in the 18th century. It is now internationally famous as the finest example of Georgian Gothic revival architecture. It also inspired the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. It’s an eccentric place with towers and battlements and an elaborate interior. You can visit the house and even enjoy a Twilight Tour when the house is at its most magical and dramatic (click here for link: www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk for details of visiting).

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The cafe, however, housed as its name suggests in the cloisters, is open to the general public and you don’t have to pay to go into the house or its grounds to enjoy a snack or meal at this wonderful location. This beautiful vaulted room, known as The Great Cloister, was originally open to the elements in Walpole’s day but has now been glazed so it can be enjoyed all year round. On warm days you can sit outside on the terrace and admire the peaceful gardens and take a stroll round them before or after eating. Open from 10.00 to 5.30 every day except Thursday and Friday, it’s a great place to go for morning coffee, lunch or tea. And apart from the great surroundings, the added bonus is that you can enjoy Brula’s wonderful food too!

What really excited me about the menu when Lawrence was telling me about it was their commitment to embrace the setting of the cafe. Many of the dishes originate from Walpole’s time in the 18th century. The menu highlights these dishes in red and you can enjoy reading some of the strange names: Potage – soup of the day; Soweed herrings – pickled herrings with preserved cucumber and rye bread; Chickin in white broath – a chicken stew in a light white wine stock; Forc’d beef pie – a steak & ale pie;  Lemon posset and Strawberry syllabub. In Walpole’s time cows were occasionally led from the meadows up into the garden for guests to inspect before their milk was used for syllabub. The menu changes regularly – in fact we were told the new menu will be available from tomorrow. For lunch you can enjoy a set 3-course menu at £14.95, have a main course, such as those described above or perhaps a vegetarian baked macaroni. If you want something lighter there are Small Appetites with things like soup or Welsh rarebit. Kate and I decided to order three ‘Morsels’ – small dishes – to share. Seeing people at the next table eating Forc’d Pork Pye – pork pie with piccalilli – we decided on that as one dish. It looked pretty splendid when it was put before us!

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It had a look of the best kind of homemade pie and something of the 18th century about it. However, while some recipes date back to Walpole they are represented in a modern way, reflecting Brula’s excellent kitchen. It was a delicious pie: fabulous pastry and a wonderfully tasty filling. We also ordered some Smoked Salmon with horseradish cream and rye bread.

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This was delicious too and a good sized portion that gave us each a healthy helping. Our other choice was Pickled Beetroot Salad – with goats’ cheese, honey dressing and croutons.

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This was a lovely fresh salad that was a perfect accompaniment to our other two dishes, making the whole lunch nicely balanced. There are wines by the glass, beer and cider or soft drinks to have with your meal. We decided to share a dessert. Oh, but what to choose! Bramley Apple Cake? Carrot Cake? Mincemeat & Shortbread (which I had when I met Lawrence and is wonderful, with a fabulous 18th century mincemeat recipe)? There was Spiced ‘leach-lumbar‘ ice cream & Shortbread Biscuit. However, we settled on ‘Leach-lumbar‘ ginger cake. Leach-lumbar is a traditional red gingerbread.

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It was so rich, deep in flavour, moist and wonderful; the icing had pieces of preserved ginger in it. With an excellent coffee it was a perfect way to end a lovely lunch. Although the weather wasn’t brilliant outside and quite windy, it wasn’t raining so we took a walk around the gardens before going home. Some people were working in the herb garden and a sign told us these were used in the cafe’s kitchens.

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What I really liked about the cafe, apart from the location, was the food was a bit different and very English. The cafe was quite full with people visiting the house, but for people like Kate and me who live within walking distance, it’s a great place to go – especially on a sunny day – for a leisurely morning coffee, a light or more substantial lunch or a gorgeous English tea of scones and jam and fantastic cakes. It’s all quite wonderful and even worth a special trip from further afield to see the magnificent house and have some fabulous food too.

 

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