TL;DR: Pots of tea and big cups you can hold with both hands; clotted cream and jam on crumbly warm scones; cakes and a great variety of fruit on crepes that have the satisfying mochi mochi (pleasant chewiness) of an unsullied marshmallow (a squished marshmallow is just plain sticky).
If you’ve ever spent a day playing in the snow with siblings or cousins (or both) as a child, with the wind blowing and snow stinging your cheeks for hours, you might know that feeling of coming inside: The house that you had earlier complained was cold feels a little too warm now, the hot meal on the table is extra delicious, full of flavors you wouldn’t otherwise notice. If there was time after dinner to read or play before bed; the delight in the book or toy was magnified by a full belly and that feeling of pleasant fullness, sleepiness, and all around well being. If it was the holidays your parents would be pleasantly distracted by their own siblings and parents; surrounded by voices you’d even get to stay up late enough to fall into perfect sleep on the couch and get carried to bed.
For me all these memories also include the perpetual smell of strong cups of Folgers coffee being made round the clock (decaf in the evenings) and the happy, heady feeling of comforting warmth in my cheeks, once flushed by wind burn, now flushed with sleepiness.
What I really loved best about snowy play days was the “coming in from the cold.” To enjoy the warmth I needed to be cold, to enjoy the quiet and stillness I needed exhaustion from the wind, and to enjoy rest I needed the exhaustive play. Coming in from the cold felt like Christmas Eve every time, even if it was a Wisconsin May blizzard (Maybe my memory is fuzzy, it seems likelier that on days when it snowed in May I may have just cried.)
I had forgotten those intense feelings until one blustery afternoon on High Street our first week in Oxford. We had walked and explored and the friendly warm sun had disappeared. The clouds seemed to gather in an instant; when the rain started we rushed into the nearest cafe with sore feet and backs that ached from hunching against the buffeting wind. The sudden quiet and stillness as the door shut behind us felt like the weight of a heavy fur mantle had slipped off our shoulders and lay at our feet.
We sat and ordered an Oreo smoothie for Bean (who insists on “experiencing the cold” as much as he can, our Wisconsin-born Texan) a crepe, a pot of tea, and a cream tea.
Cream teas so far have always come with two scones, clotted cream, jam, and a pot of tea. Scones here (so far) are not the hard dry bricks of wheat* coated in icing or sparkling with sugar like in the US, they’re more like biscuits that are sweeter rather than savory. Our favorite scones are slightly crumbly, warm, and mild in flavor with plenty of room for the added tastes of clotted cream and jam.
The crepes were wonderfully mochi mochi, (‘Mochi mochi’ is Japanese onomatopaia for ‘chewy’ or ‘squishy’ without all the unpleasant connotations). I used to think only toddler’s cheeks and actual mochi were the only truly ‘mochi mochi’ things, but the crepes at The High Street Cafe have made the list. Their only drawback being the tea is in bags, not loose.
We devoured half our fare and, slowing down, took out journals and books and wrote and read and nibbled away and suddenly I had echoes of Christmas lights in my eyes and I felt comfortably sleepy, warm, and contented. My cheeks were flushed and warm and I was like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, whisked right into the happiest and safest memories of my childhood. It was that “Christmas Feeling” all over again. Magical.
While we mostly live on spaghetti and porridge, if we’re out late or need fuel for the walk home we now tend to stop at Tea Houses, trying different ones. It’s possible none of these places are as delicious as I think; after all, sore feet and exhaustion make for the best seasoning: a good appetite.
The Grand Cafe in Oxford claims at “The site of the first coffee house in England.”
It is very pretty with gilded mirrors that serve the dual purpose of making the small room seem larger and entertaining younger guests.
We first visited The Grand Cafe because the tarts in the window were beckoning.
It was dinner time for us, so we ordered ‘high tea,’ a sandwich, and a lovely tart. A little of research (very little) shows that High Tea isn’t a specific set of things; so far to us in Oxford it simply means: Tea with scones and sandwiches and maybe some tiny cakes, or whatever else is listed on the menu. (eg: Fancy dessert lunch that costs the same or less as a meal and still come with a drink.). The tea here is loose tea and the small strainers that you put over your cup were a fun first for us.
Across the street from The Grand Cafe is the Queen’s Lane Coffee House, which claims to be the oldest coffee house in Europe (since 1654).
The scones tasted more pillsbury pre-made and the tea comes in a bag, but the atmosphere is good in the evening, especially when you’re cold, hungry, and the other shops are closed (The Queen’s Coffee House is open later). They also serve very good baklava.
Bean finished off an entire banana split for supper.
Finally, just yesterday, I visited the Rose Cafe by myself. I was by myself, returning from getting my violin repaired and got caught in the morning rain. I was outright dripping from elbows, bangs, and shoelaces when I entered the shop. It was morning so the shop was empty and quiet.
I had their “Tea Cake,” which was a pot of loose leaf tea and some thick toast with rum soaked raisins in it. I vote this one: Best Sunshine in the afternoon where you can feel cozy as a cat on the windowsill. Better yet, if you’ve been doused in a sudden rain shower and are coming in to dry off and the sun comes out you’ll be doubly warm, happy, and have tea to boot. Happy Kitty indeed.
Bonus: The tea is loose-leaf and the atmosphere was calm and pleasant. I’m sold.
Before I came to Oxford I would have thought Isn’t it expensive to have tea? The answer is: Less expensive than a full lunch, but just as filling, a bit more sugary, and generally less healthy in the best possible and most satisfying way.