The Fancy a Cuppa? tour of cathedral towns and cities took us to most of the UK’s biggest cities, but a dozen or so of the UK’s biggest 50 cities don’t have cathedrals, so were missed on our Cathedrals, Coffee & Tea Tour. Stoke-on-Trent is one of those cities, and since my sister lives nearby, I thought it was about time I gave the place a try.
Stoke doesn’t draw in thousands of tourists every year. The area may be known as the Potteries, but the nearest thing I could find to the old industries in the centre of Hanley when I arrived the other day was The Potteries shopping centre and car park, a fairly bland affair, rather typical of those malls that blight most city centres these days.
I did find a couple of nice places to review for tea in Stoke-on-Trent, though. Good coffee, on the other hand, was a real struggle (I know I came here direct from the UK Barista Championships, so my palate for more finely tuned than normal, but really, come on people of Stoke, you deserve better…).
The first place I tried for tea in Stoke is the kind of quirky, creative space that you’d usually associate with independent coffee shops (suggesting there could be a market for a good coffee shop in Stoke one day…).
The Big Strawberry on Foundry Street is principally a vegan restaurant, but does a rather nice pot of tea (with loose leaf tea from Storm Tea) and some great home-baked cakes.
It’s been set up in part of the old local Stoke Sentinel newspaper print works so has a nice connection to local culture, but it’s the internal décor that seemed such a pleasant surprise compared to what the rest of Stoke feels like: yes, owner Charli has fitted it out with a kind of exotic, Middle Eastern feel that reminded me of Tchai Ovna in Glasgow or some of the places we visited in Prague. Very bohemian; rather cosy.
Charli says she set the place up because she couldn’t find anywhere else in Stoke where she and her partner wanted to eat. It was along the lines of ‘Build it and they will come’ – and sure enough they did.
An added plus for someone like me arriving in town at 3.30pm desperate for a brew, is that it was the only place I could find still open at that time, and they don’t close till 8pm, since most of their custom comes from people wanting a meal rather than a cuppa and cake.
I returned to Hanley next morning to seek out some of the places that must have closed early in the hurricane winds that were crossing the country overnight.
And what a treat I had when I discovered Blondies Twisted Tea Room in Percy Street.
This is a tea lovers’ dream right in the middle of Stoke.
What I like most about the menu is that you CAN choose a basic corporate brand (Typhoo are, for example, a local Midlands company) and just have a pot of tea with tea bags as you might at home. But there are also lots of loose-leaf teas from all sorts of excellent suppliers. And apparently, hardly anyone goes for the standard tea bag options!
I started out with a Darjeeling/China Black blend, billed as their Afternoon at the Palace blend. It went down a treat with one of their home-baked scones. But I was also intrigued by something they called a ‘Potters Fog’, and since I like to find a local blend or idea, I went for that as my second pot.
The idea of tea infused in hot milk, with a shot of vanilla did not appeal on paper. But you know what? It tasted rather good, and was moreish enough for me to polish off the whole pot before I left.
I have a feeling I’d get on well with owners Abigail and her partner – they have a similar approach to tea, are probably a similar age, and I love their story of the godparents linked to the French resistance in the War. Sadly they weren’t around the day of my visit. But sisters Julie and Karen did a great double act in keeping me plied with tea and scones.
So Stoke would very much figure on my tea map of Britain. It just needs a good speciality coffee shop now…And next time I’m there, I must find the remaining pottery factories: Wedgwood, Burleigh, Aynsley. Just a shame they aren’t in the heart of Hanley, which was were I stayed for my brief visit this time.
OK, Stoke, I’ll be back!