One day, I will be able to start a post without an apology for my lack of recent posting. Today is not that day. I’m sorry. I’m a bit overwhelmed at present, and suspect I’m not going to catch up with myself until January…
But! Today I got to do something really fun, which sadly you cannot do, because this particular round of High Teas is over, but that’s not going to stop me from gloating. Besides, it’s not as though Josephine’s won’t continue to do high teas – this was just a special occasion one for The Age Good Food Month.
This review is already upside-down and backwards, and I’ve barely started. Let’s see if I can fix that…Note that apparently, I took very bad photos today, some of which don’t seem to be on my iPhone at all. Josephin’s food is much prettier than I’m making it appear here, with the exception of the macarons, which are a photo from her website.
It all goes back to my walking group, in fact, because we have been promising ourselves a walk to high tea for some time. But it goes back even before that, to when Gabi, one of my walking group members, mentioned that her former neighbour, Josephine, had started a French Café on Sydney Road in Brunswick. Sydney Road has many a pastry shop, but French pâtisseries are not so common, so I decided to give to give By Josephine a try. Her signature macarons and little tartlets were lovely, but I was particularly floored by her lavender crème brûlée, which has exactly the right amount of lavender, is perfectly smooth with a proper hard shell, and essentially caused me to finally understand why people like crème brûlée. I was hooked.
And then I heard that Josephine was doing a special High Tea in November called ‘On the Spice Route’, and so naturally, my fellow walkers and I had to go there.
It was wonderful. I’m a bit of a fan of high teas, and I usually find myself sitting there, wishing I could work in the kitchen, because the tiny little desserts are so fascinating, and it would be so much fun to make them! This was the first high tea I’ve been to where I’m not sure I’d be good enough to work in the kitchen. (Yes, I know, I have a ridiculously high opinion of my dessert-making skills. To be fair, I doubt I’d be fast enough for commercial work, but I really could make most of the things I’ve eaten at posh high teas.) Joséphine is, obviously, an excellent baker, but where she really stands out is with her exceptional and delicate use of herbs and spices. Everything I’ve had at her café has been meticulously and perfectly balanced – each flavour is present and works with each other flavour, nothing dominates, and nothing is too sweet, too bitter, too salty, or too anything. I have no idea how one learns this – perhaps it has to be inborn, at least in part? – I just know that this level of subtlety and balance is something I don’t have, and I wish I did.
Josephine’s High Tea On The Spice Route plays to this strength beautifully. We were first presented with the high tea menu as well as a menu of teas, coffees and hot chocolates, as well as cold drinks – but these were not just any hot chocolates. We could choose from salted caramel hot chocolate, praline hot chocolate, and spekulaas hot chocolate, to name a few. I love salted caramel, so that was an easy choice – especially as the high tea menu itself looked pleasingly light and not all that chocolatey. The chocolate was lovely – rich, with a distinct caramel flavour. I suspect that the salt was in flakes, as it sort of popped out at one periodically – a very pleasing effect.
We were then presented with a two-tiered platter of sweet and savoury bites, as well as little bowls of macarons and a tray full of small crèmes brulées. Not having had any lunch, I deemed it wise to start with something savoury and not too rich, so I began with the most ordinary-looking item on the platter, a ‘mashed avocado, dill and flaked chilli spicy bite’, also known as an avocado sandwich on wholegrain bread. I was initially not particularly impressed by this bite, but in fact, the chilli picked up the avocado very nicely – it had just the right amount of heat, and gave the impression of little sparks of flavour as I ate it.
Next was an ‘asparagus, mascarpone, pesto and speck canapé’, and this was absolutely first class. It was on a crunchy toast, and the speck gave it a lovely saltiness to go with the asparagus. I think the pesto had been mixed with the mascarpone, as the asparagus and speck sat on a pale green, creamy spread with a mild herb flavour. We all loved this one.
I decided to venture forth into the sweets, because the menu also included tiny little walnut-sized cannelé, speckled with vanilla and flavoured with rum. I’m not a big cannelé fan (not being into rum, particularly), but these were lovely little sweet things, with a sort of caramelized stickiness on the outside and a very true vanilla flavour. Beautiful.
The rolled blanched zucchini with goat curd and cumin seeds was pleasant enough, but just not my thing – I don’t really like goat cheese all that much, and my love of cumin is also fairly moderate. If you loved cumin, though, these would be awesome.
I decided to nibble on a peppermint and chocolate macaron next (on the grounds that of the three macarons, I thought I’d like the other two more – I was trying to eat my little bites in order so that my favourite things would be last). Josephine actually started off making just macarons for all sorts of cafés and restaurants around Melbourne, so it’s no surprise that her macarons are excellent. They have a lovely squidgy texture with a crunchy outside – perfect. These particular macarons reminded me of my childhood, with their chocolate peppermint taste.
The final savoury I tried was a brick pastry filled with tuna, coriander, cumin, tomato and preserved lemon. It was amazing. The pastry was very thin and perfectly crisp, and the filling was moist and bursting with flavour. I could eat one of these for lunch any day…
We then moved on to the sweets properly (as opposed to randomly grazing them as I had been doing), and I decided to try the financier with poached quince. Where is Josephine getting quinces in November? I have no idea, but I’m very grateful. The financier was beautifully soft and moist – they can sometimes be dry, but there was none of that here. I, personally, would have liked a little more quince, but then, I always would.
The chocolate and cardamom macaron was interesting primarily for the conversation it caused. I cook a lot with cardamom, but couldn’t taste it here (to me, the macaron was simply a very good dark chocolate macaron); two of my companions felt the same way, but the others all felt that there was a very strong cardamom flavour. I find it somewhat fascinating that we could taste such different things in the same food.
I’d been eyeing off the rosemary-infused crème brûlée from the start, as I love Josephine’s brûlées, and I also love herbs used in sweet food, and all my hopes were realised. The brûlée had a really good, solid caramel top, and underneath was the finest, smoothest, most unctuous custard I have ever tasted. And yes, it tasted of rosemary – absolutely, perfectly of rosemary, without a hint of the bitterness that rosemary can sometimes bring to a dish. I think this is the best thing I’ve tasted all year – even better than the sublime lavender crème brûlée I had last time. Absolutely swoon-worthy. I promptly put down my spoon after one bite, determined to savour it, and, most importantly, save it until last, and kept nibbling on it between bites of other things until the end of the afternoon tea… and amused my companions by my determination to get every last speck of brûlée out of the dish (I eventually resorted to using my finger to clean out the dish, and if I hadn’t been in public, I’d have licked the dish clean directly).
The salted caramel was my next bite, and oh, that was good too. So many salted caramels don’t taste at all salty, though I’ve had one or two which erred in the other direction. This, however, was spot on, with a good salty tang to the soft caramel filling. It made me very happy. I think my companions were trying not to laugh at me by this point.
The other bite I’d saved until last was the brick pastry filled with spiced apples, caramelized in salted butter. This was a good choice, not least because it was absolutely perfect eaten in alternating bites with the crème brûlée. Again, Josephine’s understanding of exactly how much salt a caramel needs came into play, and the apples were juicy, caramelised and full of flavour in their crispy pastry. Perfect.
And that was that. Really an exceptional high tea at a remarkable price ($38 per head, significantly less than I have paid for much worse high teas elsewhere). The menu was extremely well-thought-out, and the quantities were enough to be indulgent without leaving us feeling unpleasantly full or overwhelmed with rich food. The setting is lovely, too, with attractive china, lots of white wood, and decorative plates all the walls – very pretty and feminine and French. Little shelves display macaron shells, meringues and jars of caramel sauce for sale – most appealing.
For those with dietary issues, I’m afraid it didn’t occur to me to ask whether Josephine does high teas that cater specifically to these. However, the macarons, and I suspect also the financiers, are gluten-free, and the vast majority of menu items are vegetarian (one of the lunch specials was a zucchini, feta and mint crumble, for example), so I imagine that these two requirements could be managed. I think those who are allergic to eggs, dairy or nuts would have a bit more trouble finding things that suited them, as these are hallmarks of French cuisine, and this menu is quite traditionally French.
I will certainly be going back for an ‘ordinary’ high tea at Josephine’s (not that these high teas are in any way truly ordinary). I think my companions will, too. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful food, and we are lucky to have it in Brunswick. Long may it remain there!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~One year ago: Review: Practically Raw, by Amber Shea Crawley Two years ago: Another Shakespeare Feast