A bit of Britain in Buenos Aires

By | Category: Travel destinations

Argentines and expats alike have developed an appetite for the charming British ritual of afternoon tea, as Emily Farmer – the Brit whose baking has hit the big time in Buenos Aires – can attest

 

When you think of Buenos Aires’ food scene, you probably think of parillas (steakhouses) specialising in prime beef cuts.

A British tea room serving dainty cucumber sandwiches, fluffy freshly-baked scones and a selection of cakes accompanied by rivers of refreshing teas, is the one thing you almost certainly wouldn’t expect to find in Argentina’s charismatic capital.

Think again. Queen of Tarts – a traditional British tea room – was opened three months ago by Emily Farmer, and business has been better than Emily and her colleague, fellow Brit Claire Griffiths, ever expected.

But Emily’s journey to open Queen of Tarts has been nothing less epic. Indeed to say that she has had a rollercoaster of a decade, is like saying Lionel Messi is an average footballer: a major understatement.

By all accounts the English expat had a “great life” in the UK where she lived in an idyllic thatched roof cottage in Oxford with her then husband, rising early every day to tend to her five horses. She’d then commute into London to work as “an independent IT contractor” for the likes of Channel 4 and BSkyB – before her health failed her.

In September 2012, Emily was diagnosed with severe diverticulitis – a condition that saw her weight plummet to a skeletal seven stone. “The doctors at The John Radcliffe hospital saved my life on many occasions,” says Emily with a grateful smile.

Helped by her “rock-star parents” with whom she clearly has a strong bond, Emily slowly recovered and returned to work. However after four months, she found that she “couldn’t cope with the long hours.”

This, coupled with the breakdown of her marriage, led Emily to begin to dream of a new life abroad – her wanderlust stemming from her peripatetic childhood. (“We were never the type of family to spend our holidays at home.”)

So in November 2014, after “speaking with my lovely and supportive family”,  she decided “to go travelling around central and South America for a few months” to get her sparkle back.

Emily visited Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Brazil but it was Buenos Aires (Argentina) that captured her heart and seeped into her soul. And where, in August 2014, she decided to unpack her bags for good.

Shortly afterwards Emily met her boyfriend, Cristian (an Argentine), became a committed Porteno and started searching for a business opportunity…

While walking around the buzzing dining district of Palermo Hollywood one evening, Emily saw a window for a proper British tea room (it’s safe to say that British food hasn’t been represented well in Buenos Aires) – and leaped through it like an over eager puppy.

For, growing up, baking was always in the background for Emily “having caught the baking bug from my mother at a very young age.” Her passion for baking – combined with the fact that she had previously run a restaurant in France and “so had some experience in industry, and knew it was something I could do” – and the popularity of puerta cerradas (closed door restaurants) in Argentina, prompted Emily to take the plunge and open her own.

Emily in QOT

© Autumn G Pittman Photography

Emily opted to go down the puerta cerrada route partly because “the rent on restaurants in Buenos Aires is prohibitively high – one landlord even demanded that I spend US$100,000 on renovations!” And partly because after suffering through four major surgeries, she “wanted to work at home, in order to be able to get the correct work-life balance.”

Consequently Emily and Cristian purchased a property in Villa Crespo (an up and coming Buenos Aires barrio) in July 2015 and spent the next six months renovating the house (“for five months we were bathing with a bucket”, she shares) with a view to opening Queen of Tarts.

It’s a gamble that’s paid off. Cut to June 2016 and there’s a considerable buzz  surrounding the new tea room which can accommodate 14 guests in the main dining room and six in the hall area, where you’ll find the spiral staircase that leads to the living quarters. (Emily also offers an B&B suite for those who’d like to linger a little longer…)

Despite only opening two months ago, Queen of Tarts has already built up a loyal fan base of homesick expats, curious locals and inquisitive travellers, in need of a break from beef, who are looking to experience BA’s secret world of dining. (The exact address of the puerta cerrada is revealed, once a reservation has been made).

By and large they come for the Classic afternoon tea (AR$250) – think tip top pastries, crustless sandwiches, scones and selection of unlimited loose teas – Cream tea (a scone and tea for AR$100) or, on special occasions, the Royal tea, AR$300 (expect a glass of champagne).

But it’s not just the food that wows – so too does the setting. All of the goodies are served on pretty porcelain tea sets, while the antique-style furniture successfully transports guests to olde England.

Of course this being Argentina (where drama is a daily event), opening a closed door restaurant hasn’t been without problems…. Finding ingredients can be challenging and the politics and rising prices for basic goods, can leave Emily in despair.

Nonetheless Emily gets genuinely excited about baking British treats in Buenos Aires, making those around her feel the same way.

What’s next for Queen of Tarts? The closed-door restaurant has been asked provide an afternoon tea for the British Embassy later this month and has also been booked for a private birthday party. Beyond this, there are plans to publish a cookbook and offer baking classes to the public.…

It’s hard not to be seduced by Emily’s positivity and, looking at her now, you have to pinch yourself quite hard to remember that four years ago, she nearly died.

She has been on one hell of a ride but is thoroughly enjoying her life in Argentina with Cristian and her puerta cerrada. And who can blame her? You can’t help but want it to work….

Find out more about Queen of Tarts at www.queenoftarts.com.ar

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