One of the things I love most about Christmas has to be the Christmas markets. There is really nothing better to put you in the Christmas spirit. I have been to a lot of Christmas Markets over the years, but the one I went to today in Winchester next to the cathedral could very possibly be my favorite.
The Christmas Market has been going since 2006 and, modeled after the traditional German markets, attracts almost 400,000 people a year. It was absolutely packed, making it a slow walk to get around. But that wasn’t a problem at all, it just gave us more time to admire the dozens of little wooden chalets all lined up, each filled with something unique and interesting. One called the Mouse Trap had a selection of beautiful cheeses, another had handmade wooden toys including a flying dragon I almost bought. Then of course there was the traditional roasted chestnuts filling the air with their holiday scent, and a small but very popular ice skating rink in the centre of it all.
One of the highlights for me, other than the hot chocolate of course, was a little stall with a small open fire going, where a young man was toasting marshmallows on sticks and selling them for 50p. What a fantastic idea.
There were quite a few spots that offered hot chocolates, all with whipping cream and mini marshmallows on top. After making the rounds I chose to order mine from Chocodippity. I expected the hot chocolate to be really sweet but it was surprisingly good. Dark and bitter, made with water not milk, done well. With the cool weather and the Christmas cheer it was really enjoyable.
Verdict: If I had more time I would do the tour and could easily have 15 reviews of hot chocolates for the Christmas market alone. And then of course there is Winchester where we passed another half dozens really fantastic looking spots. I’m going to have to go back and spend some serious time there. Who knew. Winchester Christmas Market, right next to the cathedral, Winchester, UK
My hairdresser in London recently opened a new business in Hammersmith. Regardless of where I live in the world, I always take advantage when I’m in London to come back to her to get my hair cut. She just does it best. But it also gives me a chance each time to try a different hot chocolate in the area. Three months ago it was Lola and Simon. This time it is Upsy Daisy Bakery.
My terrible old iPhone camera completely fails to show how gorgeous and bright this little spot is. It is like a smile, if that is possible. The place was quiet on a Thursday at 3pm. When I ask the girl if she has hot chocolate she seemed to light up when she says they do. Good sign? I order one with little marshmallows and sit myself at a table near the front window overlooking busy King’s street. In front of me is a case with glass containers filled with sugary treats with colourful names, pink shrinks, apple bon bons, jelly babies and fizzy cola bottles. The ceiling has been painted a gorgeous blue with white fluffy clouds. This combined with the skylights in the back make you feel like you are outdoors. The walls are covered in a white wallpaper with sweet blue flowers which match not only the cups and saucers but also the outfit of the girl at the counter.
My hot chocolate is as smiley as the café. Once I get through the sea of mini marshmallows dusted with coco powder the chocolate itself is lovely. I’m instantly happy. Above me the speakers are playing motown and jazz and everyone who walks through the doors seems as happy as I am at this moment.
Verdict: What more can I saw, a chocolaty smile in a cup. And what a great name for a bakery! Upsy Daisy Bakery, 387 King Street, London, UK www.upsydaisybakery.com
St. Edward’s Passage in Cambridge is a hidden gem. This tiny lane way starts just off the main market place, past a gorgeous old bookstore where you imagine the literaries of Cambridge’s past used to browse. Around the corner is the Cambridge theatre which is always busy (at Christmas go to see the Pantomine, an experience in itself). Right next to that with the little wooden table and two chairs out front is Indigo.
Indigo is just a dot on the map really, it is a tiny coffee shop and it always surprises me how much they have managed to fit in to this compact space. On the ground floor one large window brightens the room, and they have squeezed in a couple of tables and the ordering counter. A range of bills and coins from around the world have been glued to the wall around the front door, which keep you entertained while waiting to order. There is a rickety old staircase that brings you upstairs where somehow 20 odd chairs have been made to fit.
We sit upstairs near the window on a wooden bench under a large mirror surrounded by fairy lights and little union jack flags which they put up to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee. Outside the window you can see the inside of what I believe is a college residence but always makes me think of a set of a Shakespeare play with its wooden walkways.
We are alone upstairs until a mother and daughter arrive. It is exam time and she is talking about her schedule and more importantly the party afterwards. May Balls, the big graduation parties, are just around the corner.
My hot chocolate comes in a purple mug. It is too sweet for my taste but nice and warm considering the cool and wet weather outside. I warm my hands and take a few sips but that is enough for me.
Verdict: If in Cambridge go look for Indigo. It is a little discovery and the best seats I think are the ones downstairs near the window or outside to watch the locals go by. If you like your hot chocolate with a bit of a sweet side you’ll enjoy this one. Indigo Coffee House, 8 St. Edward’s Passage
When I first walked by Bill’s I was in awe. I absolutely love how they have transformed the space into a colourful festival of food.
The walls are covered in shelves featuring all of Bill’s products, everything from Elderflower Cordiale, Beer, jars of thick English honey and pink champagne truffles. Large blackboards hang all around the restaurant, some with parts of menu, others with wise words and quotes about food. Large bunches of dried red chilli peppers and colourful paper hang from large hooks from the ceiling. I absolutely love the décor.
The menu looks quite good but we only have time for a hot chocolate. On each table next to the menu is a yellow sheet of paper with a list of all the products they sell in the shop with little boxes next to them to tick. You can shop while you sit there and they will bring you your bag when you leave. I am thrilled to see that on this shopping list is not one but two hot chocolates that you can buy, one is a special breakfast chocolate and the other is la tazza drinking chocolate bars. The menu for the café only said hot chocolate so I wonder which of these two we will be given.
My hot chocolate arrives and it is sweet…really sweet. I stop the waitress and ask her, out of curiosity, what the hot chocolate is. “We take the chocolate powder and mix it with hot milk until it makes a nice paste, then we froth some more hot milk and add it to the chocolate paste, it’s good isn’t it”. So I ask her what the chocolate it “it’s a powder”. Is it one of the ones in the product menu? “No” she answers, “it isn’t”. So what is this mysterious chocolate. After asking her in several different ways she finally caves. It is Cadbury Hot chocolate powder.
I’m confused. Why would they sell in store two very interesting sounding hot chocolates but then serve their customers something completely different? Do I not deserve a hot chocolate made from la tazza drinking chocolate bar? I think so. I now assume then that they don’t use any of the produce that they sell in the restaurant in the actual menu of the restaurant. That does seem a little strange to me.
Verdict: Such a gorgeous spot (and there are many because it is a growing chain in the UK). But its just a Cadbury Hot Chocolate…not that that is necessarily bad but I was expecting more. I’d go back though just to sit in a corner and take in the colours. Bill’s, 34-35 Green Street, Cambridge, UK www.bills-website.co.uk,
I’ve walked by Fitzbillies for three years. I always knew it was a Cambridge institution (90 years old!), it looks like one, but I never actually went in. It’s on the opposite side of town which is part of the reason. Then, all of a sudden a year ago, it closed. Even British comedian Stephen Fry tweeted about this sad event “No!No! Say it ain’t so – not Fitzbillies? Why I tweeted a pic of one of their peerless Chelsea buns but a six months ago.” This is what happens when locals like us don’t support so called institutions.
Well today we noticed it has not only reopened but got a much needed face lift. A couple (one of which is a food writer) bought it and fixed it up. They were also given the recipe for what makes Fitzbillies so famous, its super sticky sticky buns.
The place is now no longer just a bakery. The building it is in is a grade 2 listed art deco frontage which has remained untouched. Inside half of the walls are covered in a beautiful light blue tile with coffee cups the exact same colour. One side has been turned into a restaurant which serves good simple food on weekends only. The other side is a coffee shop which also sells icecream.
We sat down around 8.30 am and it was busy. Hot chocolate, a sticky bun to share and we sat on two empty wooden stools around a large communal light wooden table. The sticky bun is good – dangerously so. The syrup is dripped down the sides and if I hadn’t just had breakfast I could have eaten a full one, or maybe even two. The Hot chocolate was taken from a little pot and mixed with hot milk. I enjoyed it, it was simple, a little bit sweet but gave me the little kick I needed to start the day.
Verdict: I like the new version of Fitzbillies better than the last. It is beautiful and fresh and the hot chocolate was a perfect start to the day. Fitzbillies, 52 Trumpington Street, Cambridge, UK.http://www.fitzbillies.com
Caffe Caldesi is found on a cute little street right off Marylebone High Street in the heart of London. In the evenings it is completely full. Caldesi is a Michelin recommended restaurant that focuses on good, simple, authentic Italian food. Each of the tables in the café have a small newspaper that they produce every season with updates and information about the restaurant. I sit down and read through it. They talk he Italian way to a better life, sourcing fresh and organic ingredients. The restaurant even has a cooking school where you can learn how to cook authentic Italian dishes.
So you can imagine that I was expecting a hot chocolate with the same quality as everything else they are doing. I sat myself down on a table near the window and watched as the bartender prepare my drink…with Cadbury hot chocolate powder. Really?! What happened to authentic Italian? Organic? Quality ingredients? Cadbury isn’t bad but I was expecting something worthy of a Michelin recommended restaurant. The hot chocolate was presented very nicely but was too sweet for me.
Verdict: The atmosphere is nice and cosy so maybe try this place out for dinner, or for a coffee or nice glass of Chianti but don’t come for the hot chocolate. Caffe Caldesi, 118 Marylebone Lane, London £2.93
Konditor and Cook is right at the intersection of Soho and Chinatown, surrounded by Theatres showing the latest musicals. It is located in a Curzon movie theatre which shows fascinating movies from around the world. It is rainy and miserable outside but the bakery/café is bright and colourful and instantly puts me in a better mood.
I really enjoyed the hot chocolate. It is rich and creamy, quite thick and a little sweet but not too much. It is made using 70% cocoa with milk but it also has a bit of a malty taste to it. A real treat.
You can have a small or medium hot chocolate but if you want to try one of their desserts order the small. They have flapjacks, frosted carrot cake, coffee walnut cake and almond fruit tarts to name but a few of their treats.
Verdict: This is a gorgeous bakery and will instantly make you happy, regardless of the weather outside or the kind of day you have had. The hot chocolate is yummy. Konditor and Cook, 99 Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, London, UK £2.50
Verde & Co is a beautiful find, right across the street from Spitafield’s market. The store is tiny but sells a whole range of produce, jams, pasta, olives and olive oils and freshly made sandwiches and quiches for the lunch crowd. There is space for 4 people to sit inside and watch the steady stream of traffic coming in and out of this tiny little space.
There are three people working in the store at the time (how they all fit I never did quite figure out). The service is fantastic and one woman explains all the chocolates to me. The hot chocolate is a cup of melted Pierre Marcolin chocolate which they also sell in store if you want it in solid form. It tastes exactly how you would expect it would when you melt a piece of quality chocolate into a cup; very rich and luxurious. You can’t be in a rush when you order this hot chocolate. It needs to be enjoyed slowly. If you drink it too fast I suspect your system would go into shock!
At £5.50 this is pretty steep so this turns into a hot chocolate for a special occasion. So if you are going to order one, make sure you enjoy it in the store so you can take in the whole experience, or on one of the chairs outside so you can watch the crowds walking in and out of Spitafield’s market.
Verdict: Gorgeous hot chocolate and the store is a little gem. Enjoy your hot chocolate inside so you can take it all in. Verde & Co, 40 Brushfield Street, London, UK £5.50