13 Nov Burberry: with love… & (British) food
The spirit of Christmas came early this year, at Thomas’s Café, my new best-kept secret in London… brought to us “with love” by Burberry at their flagship Regent Street store.
Burberry, the epitome of British luxury & style, opened Thomas’s earlier this summer. Discretion is the word. No flashy celebrities here, unless they pass discretely through the Vigo Street side entrance. It’s a café with a refreshing difference – a café formed & created by fashion people, not by restaurateurs.
Named after founder Thomas Burberry, Thomas’s is a café, as it says on the tin, open from 7 in the morning till 9 at night, with an all-day menu. The atmosphere is quintessentially British: as British as a Burberry Trench Coat made in Yorkshire & styled over the years since the brand was founded in 1862.
The menu reads like a road trip across Britain: produce gathered from the countryside & the coastline, from Cornish new potatoes to Scottish girolles, when in season.
The look & feel is inspired by Britain’s history of craftsmanship & given a twist of eccentric, individual flare – the British version of the je ne sais quoi style of the French.
Colours are inspired by the purple of damsons, the hues of walnut & the pale golds of wheat fields, while the marble floors provide a touch of classicism, & the silver wine buckets, with their robust, brown leather handles, sparkle.
My family & Burberry
Burberry runs deep in my family history. My grandfather writes about his Burberry Trench Coat in his diaries, as he & his men prepared for the Battle of Ypres in the First World War.
And my mother, a stylish woman who herself worked as a fashion designer, bequeathed me her 1950s Burberry Trench Coat when I was working for BBC TV News, capturing the early-morning moments of the picket lines during the coal miner’s strike of 1984-85 – the backdrop for Billy Elliot, this year’s inspiration for Burberry’s Festive Film.
I still have my 1950s Burberry heirloom, which went on to save me from the severe cold while sleeping under the stars in Touareg country, in the middle of the Sahara desert in Niger – a beautiful experience. To add incongruity to incongruity, the area is now criss-crossed by refugees & migrants fleeing West Africa to reach Europe.
In honour of the founder
Burberry was founded at the time of the American Civil War, three years before the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a year after Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a staple in many a Victorian home.
Like Thomas’s, Mrs Beeton was an advocate of eating local and seasonally. And she saw cooking as an art, requiring skill & ingenuity.
The cutting of ribbon & crinkling of paper
I dropped into Thomas’s for an early lunch, at 12pm. I deliberately chose a time after breakfast & before lunch, so that no one would see me as a lonely lemon on my own… I am a social, millennial-minded person at heart, but not in age.
The café is set over 2 floors. Weaving across the geometric, Victorian-inspired marble flooring are tables & chairs for eating & drinking, as well as cabinets & displays for gifts … from leather pouches & cushion, to candles & throws, with the reassuring sound of the cutting of ribbon and the crinkling of wrapping paper heard faintly in the background together with the music of Burberry Acoustics.
Not everything is for sale. The crafted, wooden cabinets are full of drinking glasses & jugs from Muddy Fingers Pottery, based in Jarrow, famous for its 1930s’ protest march against poverty in the North East & not too far away from the home town of the fictional character of Billy Elliot.
Link between fashion & food – the ‘new’ arts
So what has food got to do with fashion? Food & fashion, when crafted with skill & imagination, are both arts. They are about the visual, the theatrical & the story, as well as going one step further than the traditional arts… to be about touch, smell &, for food, taste. They turn the ‘spectator’ into the ‘participant’, who stars alongside the chef and the fashion designer.
No other arts are so multi-sensorial, engaging the mind, body & spirit … & without the need for incense, chanting or mung-bean diets.
Lobster & chips
The menu, emblazoned with the golden swirl of Thomas Burberry’s signature, reads like a book of fairy tales, full of wondrous stories & beautiful etchings.
These ‘stories’ spark memories. My lobster had been caught by a fleet of small fishing boats off the coast of the Isle of Wight, where my godmother used to live in a whitewashed house surrounded by roses & hydrangeas, with the sound of the clinking masts from the nearby harbour.
Among the teatime fare, Thomas’s offers scones with clotted cream cooked in the AGA, & hot buttered crumpets, served with Rosebud Preserves made from wild fruits & flowers in a Yorkshire village. For me, this pulled up memories of my cousin’s 2 Jack Russell terrier dogs curled up in their basket in front of the AGA … nice & comforting, & as reassuringly British as a Women’s Institute fête with bunting, cream teas & talk about the weather.
This sense of Britishness, so loved by cultures around the world, may be a vision seen through rose-tinted glasses, but it makes me proud to be British, yes British, not English, Scottish, Welsh or (Northern) Irish. British. For me, being British is more all encompassing, more inclusive. Even Thomas’s bubbly is from British vineyards –a Nyetimber Classic Cuvée and a Demi-Sec, which sits alongside a NV Aubry Brut 1er Cru champagne, but then the French are at least our cousins.
My lobster had been poached & grilled in a British-made Bertha charcoal oven – I’d love to have one of these at home – & served with chips. Mrs Beeton, in her 2,000-age tome, had noted how the French ate chips for breakfast, so I felt fully justified at eating them at 12pm.
The lobster was sweet & succulent, served with a buttery sauce so good that I asked for a teaspoon to scoop up the last drops, & the only way to eat the chips was with my fingers, as they looked so deliciously crispy & tantalising to dive into.
To put the finishes touches in terms of taste & colour, the lobster was served with a fresh-green frisée salad decorated with edible yellow & deep purple viola flowers, all served with homemade mayonnaise.
This is simple, flavoursome cooking. Writing about the way the English cooked their meat compared with the French, Mrs Beeton remarked: “… we have acquired the habit of cooking meat so as to bring out the flavour and not to disguise it, while in other countries experience has taught the cook to disguise it in many a cunning way.”
And a menu would not be British without desserts, with classics such as Bakewell tart, Yorkshire custard tarts & Eccles cakes. I’m on a no-sugar diet, so no desserts for me.
The Christmas touch
Time felt as if the grandfather clock had stopped. ‘By The Fireside’ drinks of Thomas’s Gin & Tonic or a Bloody Mary were on the menu for just that, to be enjoyed by the fireside, with the fireplace crowned by a large round, gilt-edged mirror set above the festively decorated mantelpiece.
The anticipatory attention paid by the waiters hit just the right the note, making you feel as good as everyone should feel on Christmas Day … & the waiters were as wholesome as the up-and-coming stars of Burberry Acoustic.
Further stories were shared by the waiting staff, about the old days, when they would put a piano in the smokehouses as the vibration of the music was thought to add to the flavour of the salmon. A nice, comforting story, but then Thomas’s was full of nice, comforting stories.
A streak of naughtiness
I sneaked in a few photos of the cafe, in the same vein that Billy Elliot slipped off to ballet rather than going to boxing. I’m sure that if Mrs Beeton were alive, she wouldn’t have approved. I had the same guilty feeling when, at the same age as Billy Elliot, I had stolen a sherbet Flying Saucer from the local sweetshop. Hopefully Burberry will forgive me, all as part of the Christmas spirit.