Meeting up with my friend Vick normally means exploring some secretive, cake-laden hidden gem, tucked away in the outskirts of some venue situated between our homes in Romford (me) and Ipswich (Vick). For this month’s meet-up, Vick had suggested a local nursery and garden centre that also harboured a quaint tearoom, situated on the outskirts of Chelmsford. Armed with my sat nav and half hour down the A12 later, I turned into the gravel car park of The Secret Garden Tearooms, and I was immediately hit by the tranquillity and peace of the place.
Despite it being on the road side, an incredibly thick layering of tall trees meant that as soon as you pull into the drive that leads to the car park, you are secluded with no road noise at all – it has a great sense of privacy and being away from the world. A scattering of small picturesque brick buildings obviously housed the different elements of the venue. One near the drive way for example, had an abundance of large wooden pots and stone urns lined up outside, some filled with beautiful blooming flowers in pinks and yellows, enticing you in to the garden shop. The shop was definitely more like a gift shop than a garden centre as such, offering natural soaps, cards and gifting papers, floating chiffon scarfs as well as the more expected goodies such as hanging garden ornaments, door stops and decorative planters filled to the brim with fancy floral arrangements. I loved the old fashioned jug style vases, and I was also tempted by the reed woven tea cup and saucer planter – looking at the gorgeous displays made me eager to get my hands on some vibrant geraniums, regal roses and nodding hibiscus for my balcony back at home.
After perusing the small but well stocked shop, Vick and I headed towards the tearoom section. Walking beneath a beautiful wrought iron archway into decorative garden area, we followed the small path towards the tearooms, which had a roomy courtyard area outside. The courtyard was covered in small circular tables and chairs, decorated with multi-coloured displays of flowers and patchwork cushions, which really gave the place a handmade and well-loved feel that was difficult to resist. The weather was a touch too nippy to eat our meal outside, but I imagine this area must be truly stunning come the summer months as it had a lovely view across the neatly overgrowing garden full of rolling greenery.
Going inside the tearooms, the theme of all things quaint and quintessential continued with the chunky light wooden square tables and mismatching chairs, the sage green painted walls an ideal accompaniment for the exposed brickwork. An old fashioned fire place gave the small room a cosy feel, the mantle crowded with flowers and nick nacks that made you feel right at home. Our table was decorated with an elaborate glass sugar bowl, like something you would find at the back of your grandparent’s cupboard, sitting next to a simplistic vase of baby daffodils, reminding us that spring was on the way. Our table was also directly next to the impressive cake stand – a light wooden display unit with numerous shelves which housed an array of exceedingly tall and thick cakes protected by plastic covers.
Despite having such a cottage-like feel that was clearly emphasised by the thoughtful and craft-centric style décor, the place was absolutely buzzing with people. We arrived just before 12pm for an early lunch and there was only one table available. They had cleared one section ready for a baby shower so that was taking up quite a lot of space, but they also had a function room the other side of the courtyard which they ended up using for lunch time custom as well. To be honest, I couldn’t believe how busy and thriving the place was considering it really seemed tucked away and out of slight – it had clearly become a popular hot spot with nearby locals, and by my first impressions of the tearooms, I could completely understand why.
Undecided on what we wanted to eat, we decided to deliberate over a deluxe hot chocolate topped with mini marshmallows that melted together in a gooey mess as they bobbed atop the warm chocolate. Hitting the sweet spot early, we then chose our lunch. I wasn’t really sure what I fancied, so I settled on a harvester roll, which was like a small granary bap with sprinkled seeds on top. For my filling, I went for cottage cheese with pineapple and chives since I haven’t cottage cheese in absolutely ages. The pineapple was fresh which was a pleasant surprise although I couldn’t really hunt up the chives as they all seemed hidden underneath somewhere and I couldn’t really taste them too much.
The combination of the fresh, soft cheese, with the exotic bite of the pineapple in the soft brown roll was really delicious and I really enjoyed it. It was served with a handful of chips which I liked as they were a nice size and beautifully fluffy on the inside. It also had a side salad of mixed rocket leaves with a slice of tomato and cucumber, drizzled in a balsamic style dressing which was a bit different. It was a really nice portion for lunch and I really enjoyed the meal on the whole, although I’m sure it was enough food for the £5 I paid for it. I think the pricing was a bit steep in this instance and would have expected a much larger roll for that kind of money. I saw someone else order a baguette which was only 50p more than my harvester roll, yet almost triple the size, so I was a bit baffled about that.
The rest of the menu did offer a nice choice of cooked hot food, sandwiches and salads. Vick settled on a jacket potato with coronation chicken, served with homemade coleslaw and salad, although she also toyed with having the lasagne. The variety was nice and the hot meals seemed to be priced between £6 and £7 so were reasonable as well. After the savoury stuff, it was evident that we would be hitting the cake, since that was the in-house speciality – and I have to say, my mouth was watering just looking at them. Luckily for us, they brought out two freshly baked offerings just as we were contemplating what to order so we were able to have the first door stop slices of the still warm cakey wonders.
A good couple of inches tall, these cake slices were clearly baked for hard core cake lovers, especially at £3.50 – £4.00 per slice. We decided to get two different flavours of cake and share. We firstly tried a maple and pecan cake, with two thick slabs of syrupy sponge cake which squidged together a light, sugary and nutty buttercream. A gooey icing sugar frosting on top was speckled with pecan pieces which added a nice surprise crunch. The sponge was absolutely wonderful and faultless – it was light and soft, simply melting in the mouth. Both the buttercream filling and the frosting worked really well to add different textures to your forkful as well as enhance the central flavours of the cake.
The second slice we sampled was a brand new creation of lemon and blueberry cake, which had an impressive three layers of cake, each with a lemony frosting style filling in between. The cake had a slightly wetter and denser texture since it was peppered with beautiful burst and bleeding plum coloured blueberries, so it was more filling to eat. Instead of just having icing on top, this slice was frosted on the sides as well, with the same soft cheese lemon concoction that was smothered inside the cake layers. We were also pleasantly surprised to reveal a layer of lemon curd snuggled in between the cake and outside cake frosting which added an extra punch of zing. I really loved the popped blueberries in this cake and the fruit worked really well with the lemon which was an added bonus. Despite the texture of the sponge being a bit odd, it was still completely delicious and I couldn’t stop myself from diving in.
When eating cake, it is essential to have an equally divine hot beverage, so we opted for caramel lattes to be our cake partner in crime. The lattes were absolutely lovely with a strong caramel flavour which I adored. Even though they clearly pay attention to detail with all aspects of their menu, their real passion and popularity derive from the cake section of their business. We saw platters pass our table for afternoon teas, which looked stunning on the tiered china plates, complete with sultana dotted scones and slim finger sandwiches. The cakes on display were almost mesmerising and hard to tear your gaze from. Also on offer was a classic Victoria sponge which was gluten free as well as a chocolate cake, although at the end of the day, I feel we definitely chose the right flavours of cake to try, as they were the more unusual and unique. The cake was expensive but totally gorgeous – I wouldn’t be able to resist going again, although both Vick and I said we would like to try the afternoon tea.
With home cooked food, freshly baked cakes of epic proportions, and a beautifully scenic spot surrounded by well-tended gardens, The Secret Garden Tearooms is a must-visit venue. The cake slices were absolute slabs, which is exactly how I like my cake and how cake should be enjoyed. Granted, the prices were steeper than I would have expected or anticipated based on what was actually on my plate, but the memory of that divinely devourable and delectable cake just wipes everything else out.