Beat the block: five things that help me write

“If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” – Keats

Writing can be a tricky thing. Especially if you end up writing for a living as well as for pleasure. It can very quickly seem like a chore, one that doesn’t even give you the opportunity the throw an artistic hissy fit and refuse to do anything because, as a freelancer, my words are my bread and butter. And it doesn’t help that impressively prolific romantic poets like Keats and Wordsworth set their standards for writing so high. I’m not too sure how naturally Keats’ poetry would have come to him if he was on deadline and writing mind-numbingly dull copy on a pay-per-word basis. Wordsworth once called his writing “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, which sometimes it is, but then again there are always times when the words aren’t even trickling out, let alone overflowing. When this happens for me, I try one of the below to help ease that dreaded writer’s block. b78bea2088c7e3afce571a3472817b55 1. Sort your life out. Trying to write when you’re surrounded by mess that has built up because you’re trying to ignore it while you write is, for me anyway, pointless. If I’m sitting in a kitchen that hasn’t been cleaned for weeks or in my room when it’s decorated with used clothes and empty cups, all I can do is fret over having to tackle the mess at that indefinable point in time ‘after I’ve done some work’, which invariably means I don’t get anything written because I know what’s looming post work. If you have tidy surroundings before you start you’ve got no excuse to do anything but write. cd1ce53a6c50a32c38af3779a38d9eb1 b838f52c9f1a2cb23f89fa783604fa7f 2. Get inspired. When you can’t get the words out and you’ve been staring at a blank page for the last hour and a half it’s easy to despair. Sometime looking around my room all I notice is peeling paint or that messy drawer that could be re-arranged…I don’t see potential stories or article pitches. Sometimes I see nothing at all. Everything goes completely blank and not in the pleasing black canvas ideal, more in the black hole of nothingness sense. If I can’t think of anything I’ll fill my head with the thoughts, images and words of other inspirational people and hope somethings rubs off and I have a eureka moment during the process. When I need inspiring I go here: BoredPanda.com – like buzz feed but with more art and incredible imagery. It was also where I found the work of Erik Johansson and JeeYoung Lee. Messy Nessy Chic – a blog on offbeat travel destinations and photo diaries of the unusual and the obscure. See the inspiration vault for an endless source of joy like this post: A Compendium of Abandoned Greenhouses. 700x464xthomasboyce.jpg.pagespeed.ic.piWZpftVw9hqnW_DGJlp The National Portrait Gallery – From the crowds of tourists and locals who visit to the thousands of pictures on the walls, it’s hard not to loose yourself in these images of faces past and present. 10947432_10153044891489664_6737786702993815902_o The British Library’s Reading Room – I don’t think there’s a better way to be inspired to write than being surrounded, from floor to ceiling with words. The British Library Reading Room inside the British Museum, Bloomsbury, before the move of the British Library to its current location at St.Pancras. If all else fails, these writers never fail to inspire me:

3. Take a dance break. Ok, so this will probably sound utterly ridiculous, but when I’ve been scrunched up writing furiously for hours I often feel like a corpse riddled with rigour mortis. There are also times when words won’t come; when I’ve spilled a fifth cup of coffee down me or over my notepad; when a feature falls through at the last moment; when I can’t find any work at all and I think about the looming rent…times when all I can do is stand up in my kitchen, put a song on and engage in that most mental of alone time activities: the dance like no one is watching dance. I’ve been caught out many a time doing these dances. Mainly by flatmates coming home early and once by a bemused window cleaner, but all I know is I feel immeasurable better for having done them…even if I do have all the smooth moves of a chicken having a seizure. These are the songs that never fail to get me moving for three minutes. 4. Get out of the house. When I’m freelancing I can often be found sitting at my kitchen table, usually in my dressing gown, desperately looking for things to do to distract myself from work. I’ve found myself doing everything, including cooking elaborate three course meals for one and scrubbing the underside of chairs, to avoid getting onto the task in hand. There’s a very unique sort of embarrassment that comes with this territory that often involves answering the door semi-dressed at three in the afternoon to delivery men who assume you’re off sick from work; or facing your housemates who trot in suited and booted from work at 6pm to be greeted by the sight of you, still in your dressing gown (which potentially has food stains down it by now) in the same position they left you in ten hours ago. There’s only one way I can beat this writing-induced rut and that’s to escape. Nothing clears my mind or focuses me like a walk around one of the Commons (Clapham, Wandsworth or Tooting) near me or an afternoon spent in a coffee shop typing away. Not only will it give you a change of scenery and rescue you from ironing every sock in the house, it will also force you to get dressed, which is always a bonus. 1404827_319853228157569_410999429_o You wouldn’t be alone either, other famous writers like Ernest Hemingway and JK Rowling have all retreated to cafes to get their work done…although I haven’t quite found anywhere as inspirational to write in as Hemingway’s Les Deux Magots in Paris. Lido Cafe 63 Final LR sRGB There are lots of lovely places to hide out in London, my favourites are The Lido Cafe in Herne Hill, where you can watch the swimmers do lazy laps as you type on their sunny terrace; The Black Lab on Clapham Common Southside, which has divine coffee and a quiet bank of seats at the back that’s ideal for freelancers and The Wellcome Cafe on Euston Road, which has the added benefit of letting you explore The Wellcome Collection’s latest free exhibit for inspiration. The current one is an intimate look at sex called The Institute of Sexology and is running until September 2015. 564936_10151804465743538_1078830932_nImage: Wellcome Collection 5. Just write. Write anything. This sounds simple, but when you’re faced with an intimidatingly blank page, that flashing curser can seem as terrifying a spectre as Edgar Allen Poe’s raven  and it’s often hard to scribble anything. When this happens I always try to write around what I am meant to be writing. I write adjectives I like, sensations, memories and names and their surrounding semantic fields. I write to do lists; I pen fragments of short stories, I simply write phrases that I like the sound of; emails to old friends or random thoughts that do – with a little coaxing and a lot of editing – eventually turn into finished articles and posts. There’s nothing harder than starting to write if you’re out of practice, but if you force yourself to write for a few hours each day you’ll be surprised at how naturally it begins to come…perhaps even as naturally as the leaves to a tree.

Food for Thought: Ethos Review

It’s takes me about three minutes of arriving at Ethos before I realise that this veggie, vegan, pay by plate weight concept is truly genius. Three minutes, that is, of feverishly sprinting around a buffet table, ladling spoonfuls of rainbow coloured salads and mysteriously named, steaming morsels of vegan goodness onto said plate; frowning as I scrutinized a tiny sliver of white porcelain left still exposed as a vague sense of panic at missing something that could, theoretically, run out before I get to it set in.

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Ethos is a little place tucked away behind the shopping hordes of Oxford Circus and still feels like a little secret, despite its growing popularity and notoriety with London vegetarians. I dropped by on a Tuesday for lunch and was surprised, not only by the unusually warm greeting I received (I’ve been to places in Oxford Circus that have left me fearing for my physical well-being after facing the ferocity of serving staff) but also by the sheer range of delicious food on offer here, from hot and cold mains to a dessert cart and full drinks menu with everything from green smoothies and wine to ostensibly healthy cocktails like the Sweet Pea – a mix of muddled vodka, sugar snap peas and sugar syrup and fresh lime juice.

Mind you, everything looks good here, including the interior, which is all silver birch tree centerpieces, leather seating in shades of opulent blue and gold and onyx marble tables that gleam as brightly as the outrageously healthy looking people who visited to cram takeaway boxes or plates full of delicious looking good stuff.

Ethos has grown out of my passion for great, meat-free cuisine and out of my frustration at the lack of creative and exciting food options available on the high street. I want to share good, deliciously different food with everyone, in a friendly, open and inviting environment. Welcome to Ethos. — Jessica Kruger, Founder

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I’d been invited to try Ethos’ latest additions to their menu – a selection of dishes that had been timed perfectly with the obligatory January detox and incorporated the latest 2015 food buzzword: fermented. Fermented foods are meant to contain live cultures to aid digestion, just ask the Scandinavians, who have been eating fermented food since the dawn of civilisation and look pretty damn good for it.

With the aim of having a slightly healthier 2015 than the 2014 that preceded it, my dining partner – who has visited Ethos before and came home raving about it – and I were quick off the mark to delve into these new fermented, salty and pickled plates.

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Beet Kvass, a Russian concoction of sliced beetroot with salt, made a significant appearance on my plate. Beetroot is supposed to be packed with probiotics and enzymes that are meant to help purify the blood, boost energy and potentially improve liver function, but all I noticed was how these prettily pink, candy cane striped discs tasted refreshingly just of themselves.

Other standouts on offer included a deceptively simple salad of delicately wilted spinach, ripe mango, raspberries and meltingly soft avocado; a huge, freshly fried and golden brown halved scotch egg filled with a sort of aloo gobi spiced potato mix and a fat busting, ridiculously good for you tasting chickpea and green bean detox veg mix. Alongside exotic salads and grains there were also slightly more unusual veggie supplements like Seitin, a mock meat protein made from wheat gluten that was sliced into convincingly rib like pieces and smothered in bbq sauce – something that confused both my mouth and brain with its oddly meaty texture but distinctly un meaty flavour.

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The desserts were also a surprise. I’ve often spoken (ok, ranted) about how I detest what I describe as ‘substitute’ desserts, one that sacrifice taste in favour of cutting out fat and sugar and all the good things cakes and puds are meant to be packed with. The desserts here, while still retaining a semblance of their healthy label, were genuinely delicious. While I was tempted by the Coconut Yogurt with Forest Fruits i sucummbed to the siren call of a fat piece of moist, ginger spiked carrot cake smeared with a thick, pink icing that tasted of mashed strawberries and natural yoghurt and still had room to squeeze in a spoonful of my dining partner’s nicely tart, cloud like baked berry cheesecake.

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Paying by weight might not be the best idea if, like me, your eyes are often bigger than your stomach or if you suffer from buffet syndrome (the need to compulsively stack your plate with a an indecisively weird mixture of food). But all I know is that post weigh in at the till (which came in at a worrying £14.22 by the way, which was topped only by my dining partner’s stonking £18 spend – we’re blaming the heavy scotch egg), when I looked down at my piled high plate of fried halloumi, Israeli couscous salad and seared aubergine, I STILL found myself glancing longingly at the banks of bowls heaving with bejeweled salads, fermented root veg and asian curries, thinking maybe I can squeeze on just a little more…

The new fermented dishes are available at Ethos from 5th January 2015 and, as well as the Beet Kvass I tried, include the following:

Kim Chi – You’ll love ETHOS’s version of this fermented Korean side dish (made of Chinese cabbage, carrot, daikon, chilli, chopped tomatoes and salt). Rich in fibre and vitamins and low in calories, kim chi is leading the way as a virtuous feel good food.

South American Pickles with Herbs – Bursting with enzymes and nutrients, with a powerful punch, this delicious pickle dish (baby cucumbers, dill, fennel seeds, peppercorns and vinegar) has a healthy measure of probiotics and flavour to match.

Rustic Salsa – A zingy, fresh tomato salsa made with Jalapeños and Serranos chillies. Packed with probiotics, vitamins and (you guessed it) those good-for-you enzymes, this is one dish to pile on your plate at ETHOS this Spring.

Sauerkraut – Kick-start the New Year with a dose of ETHOS fermented cabbage. While it may not sound appealing, the traditional German dish has a powerful impact on brain health and has been known to help combat depression and anxiety.

48 Eastcastle Street, Fitzrovia, London W1W 8DX http://ethosfoods.com

Written for Foodepedia.co.uk

Life lessons and writing wishes: Looking back at 2014 and forward to 2015

As a wise man (or character if you want to be pedantic) once said: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”, so here are my five life lessons learned from 2014 and five writing and personal goals for 2015.

This morning, when it was still dark enough to hide my shambling form from the new year resolution joggers on Clapham Common,  I dug around under my bed and pulled out my old trainers – and believe me they were rammed back there so far it involved a lot of digging and crawling.

And so I went for a run, something I never do but have decided to do more of in 2015 as I feel one’s exercise shouldn’t just consist of opening biscuit tins or tottering in high heels as you approach your thirtieth year.

As I rambled along, breath white against the murky black of a London morning and ripped from my unsuspecting lungs by a bitter January breeze, I decided it was about time I addressed one of those dreaded yearly round up posts – very slow off the mark I know, but then I’ve always been a late bloomer.

There was also a lingering fear of actually writing one and officially letting go of 2014. I’m silly like that. You see, 2014 was a very good year. A year of travelling and food and friends and consistent work and new houses after a disastrous 2013; and I can’t shake the feeling that a bad year MUST follow a good one.

But then my vaguely more sensible side kicked in and I remember that there’s no point in moping around at my kitchen table sipping endless cups of tea and waiting for good and/or bad things to sweep into my life this year. As a wise man (or character if you want to be pedantic) once said: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”, so here are a few life lessons learned from 2014 and some writing and personal goals for 2015.

Lessons learned in 2014

Early on in 2014 I travelled to Dubai, somewhere I have never wanted to go and thought I would hate with a passion, but, after a little digging through the brash and the bombast, I discovered that Dubai can be a beautiful place if you look hard enough.

….and it’s also home to massages that can transport you to nirvana, the height of decadent eating and one of the strangest sports I have ever been given the chance to try.

That some of the most challenging projects can be the most rewardingeven the ones that feel like they might kill you in the process.

That Malaga is more than just a gateway to the horrors of the Costa del Sol 

That it is possible to see too many musicals, plays and operas. I took on a role late in 2014 as the interim editor of the Ticketmaster UK blog, which meant that I spent my days doing fun things like chatting to Lulu and going backstage at Urinetown and my nights watching back to back shows, from Wicked and Cats to The Marriage of Figaro and La Boheme. After a while, all this lovely theatrical stuff gets under your skin and you start to wonder why no one is singing on the tube or why you haven’t fallen in love by 10am and been torn apart from your new beau an hour later in dramatic circumstances.

By the end of it all not only was I exhausted, but every morning was starting to feel as though it should begin like this:

That cooking keeps me sane and I love writing original recipes for tasty treats like pain perdu, lemon polenta cake and ice cream sandwiches and that Rachel Khoo is one of the most fun people to cook with.

That London can still surprise me with secret jazz salons and hidden, half-forgotten graveyards.

That there is such a thing as the perfect girly weekend destination…and it’s Cologne…more on that in 2015, but for now, here’re some pictures of that fabulous city.

Wants and wishes for 2015

To run more, which is, as goals go, the one I’m looking forward to least as I am miles away from breaking through that barrier and starting to enjoy it.  On the other hand, I still have the ‘run a marathon’ goal on my ancient 30 before 30 list hanging over my head…let’s see how close to this I get by the end of the year…

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To cook more, and I’ve got two new projects about food in the mental pipeline that I’d like to tackle…more on that soon.

To read more. I lost my ability to devour books in a single session somewhere midway through last year. Instead of automatically reaching for a book, I’d find myself ploughing through box sets on Netflix or Amazon Prime or playing Candy Crush on the tube instead of leafing through newspapers and scribbling in journals.

This year I’d like to try getting through a minimum of four books per month, and here are the chosen ones for January:

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I’ve decided that 2015 will be the year I try my luck at living in another city, perhaps just for a few months to start with. High on my wish list is Paris, so I can finally improve my French and simply because writing about it for Flight Centre made me realise just how much I love it.

And it’s being in that foreign city for a few months that will, hopefully, help transform my ideas for a book into an actual book. Which brings me round to another goal: to finally write up all the snatches of short stories I’ve collected from all my travels, starting with a series scribbled in a succession of Viennese coffee houses.

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Finally, my only other personal goal is to stop letting London life get to me. London is a strange place. It’s beautiful in parts, heartbreakingly ugly in others. It’s a place of random kindness, but also of horrible brutality. It’s a place that simultaneously throws you into contact with an international crowd yet holds you apart and often alone from making any real connections.

I often find myself teetering on the edge of agony and ecstasy, one brilliant exhibition or one mind numbing commuter crush away from happiness or depression. It’s the sort of city that offers you everything on a platter then holds it just out of reach unless you’re that magical combination of cash and time rich. It makes you feel bad for spending evenings and weekends indoors and berates you for missed opportunities. Well…it does me anyway, so this year I’ve decided I need to give London a break.

– I will be patient and understanding when tourists block any and every road/station/escalator in the capital

– I will smile when shop assistants/cashiers/waiters are surly to the point of rude and act as though helping you is a massive favour, not their actual mode of employment

– I will stop rushing. I will stop running for tubes/dates/dinners and leave earlier and start walking more instead of grabbing that lazy bus or train

– I will stop beating myself up if I miss exhibitions or if it takes me a little longer to see the latest films or if I can’t always afford to eat at that ‘must try’ restaurant. These things are not a necessity but a treat.

– I will visit different boroughs outside of my comfort zone

And finally, I think I will definitely make a ‘Good Things 2015 Jar’ – an idea that I stole from Frankie (As the Bird Flies):

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Image: As the Bird Flies

In the spirit of my new, slightly more magnanimous and London-loving self, a happy new year to you all. Bring on 2015.

Reaching Sugar Nirvana with Paul A. Young’s Salted Caramel Afternoon Tea

Paul A. Young, Heal’s 196 Tottenham Court Rd, London / 020 7636 1666 / www.heals.co.uk

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” – Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

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I don’t think I will ever tire of afternoon tea. Especially when sugar wizards like master chocolatier Paul A. Young keep coming up with new ways of increasing my risk of developing diabetes with seductive offerings like a salted caramel twist on the classic tea and scones combination.

It was buzzing with gleeful anticipation that I swooped down onto the tiny chocolate alcove of Paul A. Young’s shop pop up on Tottenham Court Road. Sandwiched between the eye-wateringly expensive soft furnishings of Habitat and Heal’s, it is an oasis of sugar. A narrow room that’s filled to the rafters with trays, racks and piles of chocolate that glisten under the mellow lighting and exude a smell so potent and intoxicating it feels like you could bite it.

But although there are enough sweet treats and unusual truffles (Marmite ganache, anyone?) to keep even the most dedicated of chocoholics busy, I’d come here for the tea. A very particular tea that featured one of Young’s most delectable creations: his salted caramel spread. This spread is so thick and so insanely sweet with a curiously moorish, salty tang that it should, quite frankly, come with a warning label that reads ‘Caution, will probably cause addiction and, eventually, obesity.’

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This sumptuous spread is served alongside a sea salt caramel truffle, espresso-sized cupfuls of clotted cream, huge geometric ceramic pots of loose leaf tea and a beautifully made, golden brown puff of a brown sugar scone, which was just sugar-free enough to carry that thick layer of fudgy topping.

This is a brief afternoon tea – you won’t find and finger sandwiches here or and delicate pastries – but, for a heart stoppingly good afternoon tea indulgence, you can’t get a better sugar high that Paul A. Young’s impossibly sinful offering.

When afternoon tea meets chocolate: five of the best sugar fixes ahead of National Chocolate Week from 13-19th October

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at One Aldwych
This teatime treat might be inspired by the famous Roald Dahl children’s classic, but the fare on offer is most definitely made for adult chocoholics. My picks are the golden chocolate egg, which arrives filled to the brim with vanilla cheesecake and mango and the light as air homemade candy floss.
£34.50 per person

The Landmark London Hotel
This 5* hotel caters for the sweet of tooth with an opulent chocolate afternoon tea that reads like a sugar addicts idea of heaven: freshly baked chocolate chip and fruit peel scones, Chocolate and passion cream “financier”, Caraibe chocolate and peanut tart and salted caramel, Chocolate ganache and milk chocolate Chantilly and coconut nougatine and Chocolate crème brulees infused with chilli.
£41 per person.

Chocolate Afternoon Tea at The Hilton London Green Park
Escape the city for a chocolate fix at The Hilton London Green Park hotel. Nestled in a cluster of Georgian buildings in the heart of Mayfair you’ll find a tea that features luxury chocolate and walnut brownies, chocolate French fancies and white chocolate panna cotta alongside fancy sandwiches, scones and oodles of tea.
From £28 per person.

Chocolate Afternoon Tea at The Royal Park Hotel
Enjoy The Royal Park Hotel’s limited edition chocolate afternoon tea throughout October, a heady mix of death by chocolate cake, chocolate and caramel shots, manjari and szechuan pepper chocolate macaroons and praline scones served with clotted cream, strawberry jam and nutella.
£25 per person.

William Curley’s Dessert Bar
Why not skip the scones altogether, drop the pretence and just tuck into pure, unadulterated desserts at master chocolatier William Curley’s decadent Dessert Bar. Only available at the weekends, pudding aficionados can pull up a chair at the Belgravia boutique at indulge in a five-course dessert banquet.
From £25 per person, excluding alcoholic drinks.

Article originally produced, in full for Foodepedia.co.uk and can be read here.

Sugar Rush: When Plum + Spilt Milk met Gü Puds for National Chocolate Week

Plum + Spilt Milk Kings Cross St Pancras Station, Pancras Rd, Great Northern Hotel, N1C 4TB www.plumandspiltmilk.com

Chocoholics unite, because National Chocolate Week is just around the corner and pudding extremists Gü Puds and Mark Sargeant’s Plum + Spilt Milk have combined their culinary skills to create a three course menu masterclass on cooking with chocolate.

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I’ve never met anyone who’s as passionate about creating desserts as Gü’s mastermind Head Chef Fred Ponnavoy is. Shop bought puddings used to be the taboo of the dinner table, but when a brand like Gü comes along and manages to create impeccable offerings like that key lime pie, which, incidentally, took multiple visits to ginger and sugar farmers all over the world to craft, it’s time to let go of your prejudices and simply indulge. Anyone who can successfully sell souffles to even that most discerning of home chef markets – the French – is the perfect partner to join Mark Sargeant and his Executive Chef Mike Denman in creating the ultimate chocolate menu.

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And there’s chocolate by the bucket load in this offering, with the sweet treat appearing in every course, from the welcoming cocktail – a mind-bendingly potent muddle of sour plums and sticky chocolate liqueur – to the finale, a restaurant ready version of Gü’s latest pudding creation: Melting Middles home bake fondants.

National Chocolate Week Menu (13-19th October)
Pan-fried scallops, white chocolate and cauliflower puree, sherry vinegar caramel

Loin of venison, cocoa nib roast squash, bitter chocolate and red wine sauce

Gü Head Chef Fred Ponnavoy’s ultimate White Chocolate & Tonka Bean Melting Middle with caramelised white chocolate ice cream and mandarin confit

Nestled inside the seething transport hub of King’s Cross Station, Plum + Spilt Milk has all the ambiance of a first class carriage, with muted airforce blue walls, acres of white leather banquettes rippling across the polished wooden floor and a ceiling dripping with bell-like lights.

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The feast began with some of Plum & Spilt milk’s menu staples, which perfectly demonstrated the restaurant’s predilection for simple yet effortlessly punchy flavours. Dorset crab croquettes came piping hot alongside deliciously piquant curried mayonnaise and trumpet shaped fresh radishes that were served with their leaves on so you could grab them and dunk into tiny pots of blush pink taramasalata.

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But then it was time to get down to business and see just how many ways you can get chocolate into what are, generally, savoury courses. On paper the starter read too sweet, too sickly and too overpoweringly dessert-esque, but in practice this dish is a masterclass in delicately balanced flavours and textures. The plump, perfectly seared scallops were meltingly soft and rich; the sherry vinegar caramel drenched samphire gave just enough acidic bite to slice the sugary edge off the creamy cauliflower puree. One course down and I’d already reached my sugar high.

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The main arrived much later, which was lucky really, as another quick injection of sugar at that point might have tipped me over the edge into diabetes. When it did arrive, the loin was nicely cooked, the squash had a naturally charred caramel edge to it and the teeny tiny, almost pickled wild mushrooms that were hidden in the dish added an unexpected dimension to what was, essentially a very sweet main. The real star here though was the sauce: a rich, thick, heady and impossibly silky concoction that poured like melted chocolate and was cut with a glug of spicy red wine that gave it enough depth of flavour to carry the dish from good to excellent.

The final course in this chocolate extravaganza was a symphony of sugar: a fondant with an oozing, black as night bitter chocolate centre served with a bitter-sweet marmalade smear of mandarin confit that made the whole thing taste like an elevated form of Jaffa Cake and a silky smooth quenelle of white chocolate ice cream.

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Sometimes mistakes happen in professional kitchens and just occasionally those little errors can create something spectacular, which was exactly the case with the caramelised white chocolate ice cream. Gü Head Chef Fred Ponnavoy explained that a chef at the prestigious Ecole de Grande Chocolat was melting white chocolate in a warm oven and forgot about it; the result in the morning was a toffee-like, fudgey mess that just so happened to be the most heavenly addition to ice cream that I have ever encountered.

As a celebration of the versatility of chocolate, an example of the staunch british gastronomy that underpins Plum + Split Milk’s food ethos and an insight into the impeccable pudding work Gü do on a daily basis, this chocolate week menu is right on track (sorry, couldn’t resist the lure of at least one train pun).

National Chocolate Week runs from 13-19th October

Gü’s Melting Middles are on sale now in all major supermarkets and come in two flavours: Salted Caramel and White Chocolate.

Article originally written for Foodepedia.co.uk and can be read here.

A Song for the Day and a Short Story Extract: The Electric Chair

I was recently in Vienna on a strange, pre-birthday solo trip; pushing the boundaries of how comfortable I felt being in a foreign country on my own in different circumstances. Seeking out a dimly-lit jazz club is something I try to do in every country I visit and, luckily for me, Vienna has Porgy & Bess, one of the best venues I’ve ever sloped into after dark. This red-lit pit of a place is lined by plush, velvet stuffed chairs and benches that are filled, nearly every night, with dedicated locals and a smattering of curious tourists.

What I loved most about this place was the sheer diversity of the acts on show. You’ll find more on stage there than just crowd pleasing swing jazz and cuban beat classics, because this Vienna haunt supports a slew of local and lesser known international artists of the more avant grade variety. The Vienna Roomservice session I dropped into had three acts, the frighteningly hypnotic Manon-Lui Winter, who doesn’t exactly play a piano…she strums it, the heart stopping funk of No Home For Johnny and a solo guitarist called Julien Desprez.

Desprez’s performance wasn’t exactly comfortable for me. From his first clashing roar of sound I was taking sneaky peeks around the room to see if anyone else was a little nonplussed by this violent synth mash up. But soon I was overpowered and pinned to my chair, transfixed by the force of his playing. Mainstream it wasn’t and still, even after the room burst into expected, rapturous applause, I was left shaken and vaguely disturbed by his music; by this electric man and his strangled guitar. So I did the only thing that I knew would make me feel normal again, I grabbed a pen and scribbled this little chunk of rambling prose into my Vienna guidebook.

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The Man in the Electric Chair

His arms contort, thrust themselves forward to tear at the empty air as his body is taken up by the infernal machine. The rhythm he writhes to is a twist and a shake, a scatter gun of shudder and stutter like a broken toy soldier. Every twitch is agony, but that sound, that sound must be fed. Deep and raw and brutal it gushes from his quivering limbs, moving and clenching as it creeps its way upwards, up from his locked knees, his rigid stomach, the sinews in his throat taunt as a bow’s string with the tension of it, with the musical rigor mortis.

His eyes are shut against his corporal horror, his mouth stitched closed by the sound. The sound that hits him, beats the hands that are throttling the neck of the guitar. It’s a violent sound, a red sound. A wall of vibration from the guitar he clutches, the guitar he is lashed to by wires the colour of old veins.

He stabs at it, a glancing blow to the sound, but he comes back again and again. Slicing until the next convulsion of that sodden sound ripples over him again. And then he’s still, heaving into the absence as the sound stretches out and away into the darkened room beyond.

If you’re heading to Vienna anytime soon I urge you to check out Porgy & Bess. You can book tickets, in English on their website: www.porgy.at

And here is the man in action on youtube:

A behind the scenes song for the day with a digital difference: The Kronos Quartet

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“Virtually any composer that we’ve encountered has said that the string quartet is the most personal and expressive medium that they know of.” – David Harrington, Artistic Director and Founder of Kronos.
Listen, delve into and experience the physicality of a the brilliant Kronos string quartet from the outside in with this beautiful virtual rendering of the communication between symbiotic performers, which reveals a visual representation of how the individual players connect as one.

“When four people are doing very complex rhythms, we talk about a heartbeat right in the center of the group, and I do think of that image, too.” – John Sherba, Violinis

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/bcvideo/1.0/iframe/embed.html?videoId=100000003125760&playerType=embed

Full and original article on the Arts section of the NY Times, found here.

Weekend Bake: Sage, Walnut and Sweet Potato Bread

I was looking around for a savoury sweet potato bread for ages this morning, something that would offset the sugary, toffee-like  consistency of the potatoes with a more lunchtime friendly flavour. I found recipe after recipe for sweet bread with pecans, cinnamon, honey, raisons and even a carrot-cake style cream cheese icing, but nothing that could pass as a savoury version, so there really was nothing for it; I’d have to create my own.

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This bread is a dense, sweet and filling loaf that uses spelt flour, so happens to be easier on wheat intolerant tummies. I added chopped walnuts and the last of my summer tricolour sage that I delicately plucked (ahem, yanked) from my window box to give it deliciously warm, nutty flavour that counteracts the perfumed sweetness of the orange potato flesh.

This bread is perfect served warm from the oven, sliced into thick slices and slathered in butter or served alongside winter vegetable soup and it also freezes perfectly. It’s the ideal autumnal loaf!

Don’t throw away the skins from the roasted sweet potatoes. Instead, drizzle them with olive oil, sea salt flakes and chilli flakes and bake them to make tasty little crisps. They’re a great snack on their own or are lovely when sprinkled on soups.

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Ingredients

300g spelt flour
1-2tbs olive oil
good pinch of sea salt
100ml warm water
7g fast acting yeast
500g sweet potato flesh
50g chopped walnuts
small bunch of sage, washed and chopped

Method

  • Roast the sweet potatoes in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees centigrade for about 30 minutes until soft. I used three of varying sizes to get the 500g I needed. Scoop the cooked flesh out and let it cool on a plate.
  • Pour the flour into a large bowl, add the salt and yeast at opposite sides of the bowl add glug in the oil and warm water. Mix this around with a wooden spoon before dropping in the sweet potatoes.
  • You can mix this with your hands but this is an extremely wet and gloopy dough so using an electric mixer is a little easier. If you do decide to knead it by hand, drop it onto a lightly floured surface and make sure you have a dough card to hand as it helps to scoop the mix up and around.
  • Knead or mix for around 20 minutes to help build up the gluten strands before plopping back into the bowl and covering with a tea towel. Leave to rise for around an hour in a warm place. This loaf mix won’t ever get very big as it will be held back by the sweet potato and heavy spelt flour, but a little proving stops this loaf from being too stodgy.

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  • After the first prove, chop the walnuts and sage and knead into the dough on a lightly floured surface for five minutes before dropping into an olive oil greased and lined loaf tin. Pop in the oven at 180 degrees centigrade for about 40 minutes to an hour, until the loaf is burnished sunset colour and sounds hollow when you tap the bottom.
  • Try not to cut it when it’s too wet as the dense, almost caky mix will tear and concertina down, although I must admit, it’s quite difficult to resist this loaf when it’s ready!

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Review: Searching for the filth at Grimeborn: Madame X, Arcola Theatre

With a name that pokes unsubtle fun at one of the UK’s most elite opera festivals, Grimeborn is the Arcola Theatre‘s annual opera festival that has quickly grown a reputation for showcasing fresh adaptations of traditional operas and rarely seen operatic works and providing a receptive platform for new composers, musicians and artists.

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I have had plenty of grime this year so far and have wallowed, like a pig in muck, coating myself in some brilliant modern opera, from Benjamin Britten’s sea-lashed epic Peter Grimes to the five-hour odyssey of shit, spit and silver semen that was Matthew Barney’s bonkers and beautiful River of Fundament (and believe me, when you’ve seen a man reborn through the feces-smeared anus of a decomposing cow you can assume that you’ve become fairly immune to good old fashioned filth). So I went to Grimeborn in Dalston to see Tim Benjamin’s Madame X, hoping for another lashing of brutally brilliant modern opera, with a name like that, what more could you expect?

Inspired by Handel’s operas and Jacobean tragedies, but also littered with references spanning everything from echoes of La Traviata to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and with a score that takes you from lyric Italian operetta to Baroque chamber music with a spot of hugely effective off stage Gregorian-esque chant for good measure, Madame X is a postmodern critique of how consumerism and consumption destroys art.

It’s root, however, comes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, stealing the identity of the opera’s lovers, the artist Masetto and his fiancée and muse Zerlina, and transplanting them in his new world as immigrants, starving and near-desperate and at the mercy of their unscrupulous agent Botney. Masetto, the next big name of his generation, is forced to open his studio to a braying mob of would-be art appreciators, the aristocratic Lady Brannoch, who wants Masetto to immortalise her on canvas, and the lecherous financier Mr Wilmore (Marc Callahan).

The dastardly Wilmore – whose appearance practically screams one dimensional baddie, from his outfit of leather strangler gloves and swinging, silver-topped cane to his repertoire of threatening bass notes – takes a fancy to Zerlina and, when he can’t woo her, turns her into his own Coy Mistress by buying all of Masetto’s paintings of her. Later, he returns to offer the struggling couple an Indecent Proposal of money for an evening with Zelina, which she accepts, only to be left mutilated and murdered in the river in Act II.

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Tom Morss and Laura Sheerin sing prettily enough as Masetto and Zerlina and Morss plays Masetto’s grief with enough restraint to keep it the right side of schmaltz but both are restricted by the plot line and the libretto, which constricts Masetto into communicating solely in the titles of paintings and sends Zerlina to a conveniently sticky end.

When Zerlina’s body is discovered offstage it feels more like a plot contrivance to allow Masetto to become a more three-dimensional character than a driving force in the story line. It also seems monumentally unfair to reduce Zelina to a pliant victim and silently bump her off when she’s previously shown enough knowing sarcasm and moxy to easily avoid the advances of the amorous financier and outwit the squawking party goers.

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Jon Stainsby’s Botney (he’s the one sporting the unmistakable sign of the cad – red trousers) was one of the highlights of the performance and, despite being similarly restricted and speaking mainly in proverbs, he thrust through the melodrama, spewing cliches like a macabre agony aunt. The other was Taylor Wilson’s statuesque Lady Brannoch (if you aren’t pronouncing that like you’re clearing your throat then you aren’t doing it right), the wealthy Dowager who paid Masetto to create a flattering portrait and who had low notes that throbbed with her aching but intangible desire for youth and beauty.

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The stripped back staging probably hinted at the metaphor of baseless, empty consumer culture and worked well in the Arcola’s claustrophobically intimate setting. But I was left wanting more from this primitive and almost schoolish stage, which felt, with its jumble of blank canvasses and empty frames, not strong enough to anchor the opera’s sea of allusions and emotional histrionics.

It’s a clever concept with brief flashes of brilliance – the harpy chorus, for example, acting as figurative culture vultures, circling Masetto on his opening night and demanding: “Is it modern? I don’t like modern / Are you famous in your own country? / Is it expensive? How much is it worth?”

The singing is uniformly good, as was the score and conductor Antony Brannick’s small ensemble orchestra, it’s just a shame that it’s hampered by a sometimes mawkish libretto. Take your chances with Madame X, it’s at the RNCM Opera Theatre, MANCHESTER before it goes on tour.

Tickets are £15 (£12 concessions), contact the box office on 020-7503 1646 or visit the Arcola theatre website.

Review: Paying Homage at Homage, Waldorf Hilton

The Waldorf Hilton London, Aldwych, London WC2B 4DD /  www.homageatthewaldorf.com

I don’t make it into the West End of London much these days, that is, unless someone lovely has splashed out on a couple of cut-price theatre tickets and wants to share the frustration of taking turns to peer around an inconveniently placed pillar with me; or an out-of-towner who doesn’t know London decides that meeting ‘somewhere on The Strand’ would be a good idea.

But everytime I do venture out West, I’m always struck – and not just by the surging crowds of tourists armed with telescopic camera lenses, golf umbrellas and fun-size Primark bags – but by just how bloody beautiful this corner of grand old London really is. So I was delighted to hear that one of the grandest old dames off The Strand in Aldwych had a new chef and wanted someone to eat their way through its new menu.

3. Homage Grand Salon

The Waldorf Hilton has been welcoming glitterati like Dame Judi Dench and Elizabeth Taylor through its doors since 1908, but their new chef in the hotel’s Homage Restaurant, Richard Prendergast has only been around since May of this year and he comes with an impressive CV, with stints at hotels like The InterContinental Park Lane and The Grosvenor under his culinary belt.

The setting is as you’d expect: a smiling doorman, a dimly-lit, plush interior that’s more Mad Men than Middle Eastern opulence and a relaxed atmosphere that practically propels you into the nearest sofa and puts a glass of wine in your hand.  Homage itself is a homage to the roaring 20s, all cream pillars, nut-brown parquet floors and chandeliers that dripped crystal from the double-height ceilings.

My dining partner S and I were barely seated before the meal had begun, with waiters as silent and discreet as well-oiled ninjas appeared with freshly-baked bread and chunks of chilled butter, water and wine and barely missing a beat before arriving with our starters. S opted for a perfectly pleasing but unremarkable goats cheese and fig salad while I had the Carpaccio made from 30 day hung Scottish beef and served with a wild rocket salad and aged Parmesan, which appeared on the plate like two ruby-centred meat doilies with seared, feathery edges and were delicious, if a little thicker and tougher towards their chubby centres.

S and I hadn’t seen each other for a while, so the very fact that the arrival of the main courses actually caused a prolonged concentrated conversation break as we dissected our food, polished silverware flashing, must surely be a testament to the quality of the food, well that and we were hungry – expect to find refined potions here, not plates that are full to bursting. S’s pork came soft and unctuous, glistening with a sort of prune jam that proved, in the end to be that touch too sweet while my little fillet of butter-soft trout came with a tasty if sparse buttery, creamy sauce and some delicious little shrimp and was strewn with summer veg and pillowy blobs of herb gnocchi.

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This was swiftly rounded off by Homage’s famous Amalfi lemon tart. Lipsmackingly zesty it was, but exceptional? I think I need to go back and have another slice to be utterly sure as I’m not sure the flavour lingered long enough to warrant the ‘acclaimed’ accolade it has garnered.

It’s hard to innovate a typically classic hotel menu, especially when your clientele generally come with inherently classical tastes. The menu is about presenting fresh, delicate food with clever seasonal inflections and the occasional foray into modernism. S’s desert, for example, was a curious cubist confection of pressed layers of celeriac and berry mousse enrobed in white chocolate that was about as daring as I would expect this perfectly-executed array of British and Euro favourites to get, which is impressive…even if it did still taste a little bit like a chocolate-covered vegetable.

For more information, booking and to see what’s currently on the menu at Homage at the Waldorf Hilton, check out their website.

Review: Herring, Hooch & Huldufolk at Fika

Fika, 161 Brick Lane, London E1 6SB / 020 7613 2013 / www.fikalondon.com

Sitting on a roof terrace in Fika’s grove surrounded by autumn-hued foliage with the sounds of Commercial Street’s traffic bubbling and hissing in the distance and sipping intoxicatingly strong concoctions that tasted like the forest floor, N and I agreed that the Swedes have this Fika way of life down.

The term Fika is used as a noun and a verb to describe the uber Swedish occupation of taking time out to sip coffee and devour snacks – a very worthy pursuit – and it’s also the name of the achingly cool Brick Lane’s latest summer restaurant experiment. For the last remaining months of the temperamental British summer, this little Scandi eatery has transformed itself into the sort of enchanted forest you hope to find lurking in the pages of Hans Christian Andersen or Tim Burton’s headspace in celebration of the Huldufolk – hidden people.

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Pull up a chair now and you could be sharing your dining space as I did with a topiary reindeer or eating under an industrial lamp that’s choked with a wreath of white-painted vine leaves, although you’re more likely to spot fashion-conscious hipster pixies than anything that looks like it could have stepped out of a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale here. N and I investigated one rainy evening to see what there was to Swedish food beyond meatballs and Kopparberg cider.

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Post pre-dinner cocktail the wander in the forest started dreamily enough with N’s Tre Sorters Sill, a trio of pickled herring and crushed potato, and my Beetroot and Birch. The fish were tender, sweet and mouth-suckingly sour, although N struggled to differentiate between the three distinct pickling flavours or onion, garlic and dill.

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My dish consisted of thin slivers of near-transparent pink-stained beetroot and crumbling goats cheese with a warm, mini loaf of dense beetroot bread, rippled with purple like shot silk and tasting of earth, salt and nutty wood sorrel. The accompanying shot of birch tree water tasted like licking rainwater from leaves…in a good way – a tangy, sweet, fresh taste revelation that I would recommend to anyone.

Elderflower chicken

So there we were, strolling in the woodland quite contentedly until we got a bit lost in the wilderness with the arrivals of the main courses. N’s elderflower chicken skewers were succulent, generously-sized and flavoured with the merest hint of sweet elderflower and a wash of chili, although the accompaniment of grilled mash (basically the top of a cottage pie) seemed out of place. My main, the slow cooked and pulled ox cheek with black truffle potatoes and seasonal foraged leaves looked intimidating on the plate and proved just as difficult to eat in reality.

It was meat, plain and simple, seasoned but unsauced mouthful after mouthful of meat. The purple, truffle-scented potatoes were nice but there’s no way they could cut through the cloying, fatty richness of two tons of shredded ox cheek. Ditto the undercooked, tough-skinned jerusalem artichokes, which came unadorned and tasting of, well, earthy tubers and little else.  Halfway through, the combination of rapidly cooling meat and mash had almost glued my mouth shut in a savory paste. If you’re a dedicated carnivore with a penchant for slabs of unaltered flesh then this is your ideal dish, but it left me desperately seeking sauce and trying to conceal mounds of uneaten but much prodded ox cheek under thin layers of cold mash so as not to offend the delightfully sweet and attentive staff.

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We reached a woodland clearing with the arrival of dessert though. N’s Swedish pancakes were very much like English pancakes and came scattered with berries, splodges of chocolate spread and what may or might not have been that most unacceptable but childishly desired of pudding toppings – squirty cream.

I went full Fika with the trio of a dense, mildly sweet cinnamon bun, glass of coffee and a shot of Linie Akvavit, which I later decided must translate as either fire water, gut rot or brain killer,despite being, as the waitress insisted, ‘very popular in Norway.’

It might not quite have been a midsummer night’s dream, but it was certainly worth heading down to the woods for Fika’s fresh starters and inventive cocktails alone – on that note, try the Forest Clearing cocktail or Siren’s Call, which claims arrives with a musical touch (forget the exotic promises of cloudberry, samphire and white port, it’s almost worth it just for the look of pure horror that crosses the waitresses’ faces upon ordering, as they apparently live in dread of customers demanding that they sing on delivery). Take a trip before it disappears and is reborn in a new guise.

Bites of travel, food, culture and creative writing peppered with reviews and the occasional rant. Generally soused in gin

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