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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 cub 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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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All Aboard the Afternoon Tea Bus

Forget a ride on the magic school bus (for those who feel a bit generationally challenged, have a look here), the only bus to catch this August is the one featuring the glorious combination of tea connoisseurs from Afternoontea.co.uk and the pastry masters from BB Bakery.

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Because, for one week only during Afternoon Tea Week (11-17th August), this red bus will carry you around the prettiest parts of London and serve you a full high tea while its doing it, including as many glasses of Laurent Perrier that your travel tummy can stomach.

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I hopped aboard last week with a fleet of fellow food writers and bloggers to test our mettle on a portable afternoon tea with a difference. There’s something quite special about this tour, and it isn’t just the array of slightly warm (it was one of the hottest days of the year so far) tea treats that was spread out on tables between the vintage leather seats. It was this very odd sense of delightful privilege you get when ensconced high above the bustling streets, watching London’s seething crowds and phalanx of traffic snake past from the lofty viewpoint of the top deck of a London bus, chilled champagne in hand.

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In fact, it was all I could do not to start waving like a regal berk at the minions below – a sensation that lasted about as long as it took me drop some exquisitely-made coco-rich, black truffle chocolate tart down my skirt. Anyone worrying, as we all were, about the saftey and practicality of trying to pour hot tea on a moving bus will be pleased to know that the teas are all served in sealable china mugs and the waiters seem to have been hired for their ability to say perfectly upright in jolting traffic while expertly pouring champagne – I’d like to know what the interview process involved for that job!

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The route weaves itself around some of London’s best-loved landmarks and iconic sights, from Westminster’s Big Ben to The Royal Albert Hall and Marble Arch – places that are infinitely easier to take in when you’re looking through a bus window than trying to navigate the tourist tornado.

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There’s plenty of time in the one-and-a-half-hour slots to scoff your way through the full range of sweet and savory treats on offer, from cream cheese sandwiches, salmon blinis and light as a feather quiches to cupcakes, macaroons, burnished scones with strawberry jam and Roddas clotted cream and some of the best little lemon meringue pie-lets I have ever eaten. What’s more, you can even hire the whole bus for parties or hen dos, and specify if you need a gluten free or vegetarian tea.

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At £45 per person it falls into the middle ground of high-end afternoon tea prices in London, but what other place can offer you quite the same experience? Exactly! For more information and to book, see the Afternoon.co.ukwebsite.

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As well as the Afternoon Tea Bus, Afternoon Tea Week will be featuring a vast array of traditional and unusual teas. See my pick of the best below.

  • Celebrate the Great British Summer with the Intercontinental London Westminster’s Summer Holiday Afternoon Tea, which features The Beach – a true work of art by their talented pastry team – Chocolate Fudge Beach Huts, Cherry Cheesecake Bucket and Spades, Peach Mousse Sandcastles, Toffee and Chocolate Wheels and Jivara Chocolate Cones all of which sit on an almond sand.

  • Afternoon tea gets the rockstar treatment at Sanctum with the Gentleman’s Afternoon Tea. Forget dainty china and pretty pastries – this is all about attitude and big flavours with Poached Oyster, Lamb Hotpot, Seared Steak, Smoked Salmon served up alongside Jack Daniels ice cream and a cigar.

  • The Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea at The Sanderson includes British food, English ceramics and a large dash of our renowned eccentricity including a tick tock Victoria sponge clock and strawberry and cream homemade marshmallow mushrooms.

  • Park Tower Knightsbridge has put together a special Take Away Strawberry Afternoon Tea for you to pick up and enjoy al fresco in one of London’s parks or back in the comfort of your own home.

  • Top London chocolatier paul.a.young is launching his Cream Tea at his Heal’s store during the week. Pop in for scones topped with clotted cream and his famous Sea salted caramel sauce served with tea by the Rare Tea Lady and an award-winning truffle of your choice.

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Song for the Day: Musical Mondays and New Rooms

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I just moved house. My house has that new house smell. Actually, it doesn’t if I’m honest, because this house is beautifully old and wonderfully dilapidated. It’s a victorian terrace with all the quirks, nooks and crannies that I have ever hoped for in a home.

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I don’t like new houses. They’re too…square. I love places like this, where the floors are stained honey brown and worn from decades of  footsteps; where the walls blister and bubble in odd curves and strange shapes; where the cracks make the house feel like a defiant old women. The Dowager Countess of Grantham who is stuck in her ways and her own style who isn’t the least but interested in your new fangled modern nonsense, thank you very much!

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There’s also a cupboard dedicated to baking and booze, which has become my shrine to gin and sugar.

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It’s safe to say I’ve fallen for this house. I’m sitting serenely at my scrubbed oak table under the unashamedly girly bunting on a white-painted chair and thinking that I can, almost, very nearly ignore my neighbours….just about. Ok, so all is not quite dreamy, but more of those ogres at the end as I’d like to post beautiful pictures of my favourite corners of my new hideaway first, along with the songs that remind me of moving house and finding that little space that’s all your own…well, mine and the two-ton-tessa who lives above me.

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Ah the neighbours. Why is it a prerequisite in London to hate your neighbours? My first night they welcomed me with an all night sprint competition up and down the hard wood floors followed by a sport of olympic-worthy trampolining on the ceiling above my head. 

I have put them into three sections. There’s Mr Stampy, or Mr Tosser, depending on my mood. Now, he’s a tiny Brazilian with a Napoleon complex and a nose like a dorito who enjoys wearing hard-soled shoes and stamping around his domain, long walks down the hall and has a great sense of humour, if your idea of a jolly good laugh is to burp really loudly and with surprising frequency. 

There’s mumbles, who seems to follow Stampy around apologetically and who tries to be quiet but ends up making more noise by dropping things and/or joining in with Stampers Magee.

The third is a new addition. I call her Madame le Squeal. I can never exactly make out what she is saying but the way she drawls and camps it up it sounds like every sentence she utters is a double entendre (in your entendre). She is fond of loud exhalations of high-pitched excitement and is just THRILLED to be living with her new besties. 

They all seem to work varying hours that span 11am to 6am and have set up a pretty effective watch sentry-style schedule, taking it in turns to alternate sleep with stamping. 

If anyone has any decent suggestions for asking someone to modify their walk without sounding like a) a bitch or b) a bitch who cares what other people think it would be most appreciated!

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Weekend Bake: A Sundae for a Sunny Sunday with Movenpick Ice Cream

When I was little my parents used to take me and my brother to a little restaurant in a converted watermill called Bluebeckers. I loved it there. It was my favourite restaurant and always on the tip of my tongue when my parents asked if we wanted to eat anywhere special. Through my nine-year-old, rose-tinted view, the food here was magical. If we were good and minded our manners, there wasn’t a limit to the greasy and sugary delights we were allowed to shovel in on these special occasions.

I remember beaming from ear to ear, straining upwards in my seat, back so ram-rod straight and cutlery so carefully held and deployed that I must have looked like a marionette as plates of steak and juicy burgers dribbling cheese over thick-cut chips were placed in front of me. I remember the violent green of the ‘Vampire Float’ that came topped with a bobbing and writhing puff of vanilla ice cream, slowly dissolving into the fizzing, toxic spillage soft drink. I remember my brother rowing me out onto the little lake they had and smacking me in the face with an oar and the chocolate fudge cake my mother fed me to make the pain of my fat lip go away. But mostly I remember the hot fudge Sundaes they served there.

Before Bluebeckers I don’t think I had ever had a proper Sundae. I’d run for Fabs and Zaps from the ice cream vans that pootled along our road; I’d wolfed down globes of Gino Ginelli’s fudge swirl when I was staying at my grandparents in Dorset and I distinctly remember my first magnum ice cream and the dangerous crack of chocolate that thundered from that first, wondrous bite.

These Sundaes where the real deal: tall glasses with chocolate and vanilla ice cream layered with fudge bites and popping candy that arrived with a jug of warm, fudge sauce. Bluebeckers might be long gone now but I still dream about their baby jugs of fudge sauce.

So when I was asked by luxury Swiss ice cream brand Mövenpick if I wanted to create an original Sundae recipe using their premium range of ice creams, I was elated. And it would mean that I was in for a chance of winning a two-hour master class with The Langham’s head pastry chef, Cherish Finden, as well as afternoon tea in The Palm Court. I might not be able to have another Bluebeckers Sundae but I could still make my own version.

How can you possibly improve on such a winning combination as ice cream, fruit and sauce? The only thing I could think of was to make it more grown up and what do grown ups like? All together now, booze! Well, at least this grown up does and there’s nothing more that I love on balmy, summer days like this than a glass of Pimms, full of chopped fruit and clinking with ice.

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So here it is, my Pimms Sundae where orange Pimms jelly and lemon syrup infused shortcake meets candied cucumber, crystallised mint and as much creamy Mövenpick ice cream as I can squeeze into a glass, all topped with lashings of Pimms and strawberry syrup.

It’s grown up jelly and ice cream with a few little treats and surprises layered in, because everyone knows that half the fun of a Sundae is eating your way down through each layer until you manage to excavate something new.

It may seem like there are a lot of different components to this, but most of them can be made in advance. You can store the cucumber thins and mint leaves in tupperware for a few days until you’re ready to use them and the jelly, syrup and shortcake can be made the night before, meaning that come serving time the only thing you have to worry about is how much you can shove into a Sundae glass without looking like Bruce Bogtrotter on a mission.

for the orange Pimms jelly

6 ripe oranges
1 lemon
300ml Pimms
2 tbsp caster sugar (to taste)
10 strawberries, quartered
3 sheets of leaf gelatine

These jellies pack a hugely alcoholic punch and aren’t overly sweet, which make them the perfect accompaniment to the rest of the sugary ingredients in this Sundae recipe. Most Pimms jelly recipes use pre-made jelly cubes or lemonade, but this easy-peasy one just uses fruit juice and gelatine to set these bronze-coloured wobbly beauties.

You’ll need to start by making the jelly as this can take up to five hours to set in the fridge.

  • Slice and squeeze the oranges, making sure you get all the juice out and add the juice from the lemon – I like to warm citrus fruits in the microwave for 30 seconds or leave them in the sun for an hour or so to get the juice flowing.
  • Pass the juice through a sieve to get rid of most of the pulp and any stray seeds you may have squeezed into the mix and add the 300ml of Pimms – you should have about 600ml of liquid now.
  • Soak the gelatine sheets in cold water until they’re soft while you warm half of the juice mixture in a saucepan on the stove. When it’s warm, squeeze the excess water from the gelatine and stir into the warmed juice.
  • When it’s dissolved, pour in the remaining cold juice and mix. Test to see if you need to add any caster sugar to make the mix sweeter (I like to keep mine quite sharp to offset the sweetness of the Sundae) before pouring into glasses or containers and adding the fresh slices of strawberry. Refrigerate for four-five hours until set.

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for the candied cucumber

As I dreamed this Sundae up, I wondered if anyone had ever made a sweet cucumber garnish. While cucumbers are usually chucked into salads or gin and tonics or pickled and brined, you don’t see too many cucumbers being turned into sweets, which is odd when you consider how naturally sweet a vegetable they really are. A quick internet search revealed one recipe for candied cucumbers using the exact method I was planning to. So I have to dedicate these toffee-like, floral cucumber tuiles to Cluracon from The Indestructables. 

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200g caster sugar
half a cucumber
half a bunch of mint
200ml water

  • Wash your half a cucumber under cold water before slicing thin discs using a serrated knife – the thinner the better as they will crisp up in the oven as opposed to staying quite water-logged and chewy.
  • Roughly chop the mint leaves from your half bunch.
  • Heat the sugar and the water on a low heat until the sugar has dissolved and a clear syrup has formed. Add the mint leaves and give it a stir before throwing in the delicate little cucumber thins.
  • Leave these to poach for about 20 minutes while you heat the oven to a very low 90 degrees and line a baking tray with parchment.
  • After 20 minutes, carefully lever out the soft cucumber slices – which will now look a little bit like stained glass windows – and spread them on the baking tray.

Keep the poaching syrup from the cucumbers as a glug of this minty, fresh syrup makes an AMAZING addition to gin and tonics, glasses of prosecco or simple cloudy lemonade.

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  • Pop into the oven for around two hours to slowly dry out and crisp up as the residual sugar syrup dissolves.
  • Be careful when you’re pulling these from the baking parchment as they can be really sticky and break easily. I like to remove them when they are still warm as they’re a little more pliable.

for the crystallised mint 

the leaves from half a bunch of mint
100g caster sugar
1 egg white

Crystallised mint leaves as easy peasy to make and use the same technique as making edible flower decorations.

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  • Just rinse the mint leaves and dab dry on kitchen towel before brushing them with egg white and wiping them through a bowl of caster sugar on both sides.
  • Lay them on a lined baking tray and you can put them in the oven alongside the cucumbers to dry so that the sugar can crystallise.
  • Take them out after about and hour and carefully peel them from the parchment and you’ll have delicate little fronds of iced mint – so easy but so effective for drink or cake decorations!

for the lemon syrup shortbread

100g softened butter
50g caster sugar
125g plain flour
1 lemon
1 tbsp caster sugar

  • Beat the butter and sugar into submission with a wooden spoon before mixing through the flour. You can use an electric mixer but it’s really easy to overwork this dough, making the resulting biscuits harder and less crumbly.
  • Gather the dough into a ball and roll out to about 1cm deep before cutting out rounds. I used three different sized cutters for this recipe  to follow the trumpet shape of the Sundae glass.

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  • Bake for ten minutes or until just golden at 190 degrees and leave to cool. If the biscuits have spread during cooking you can cut them down to size again with the cutters while they’re still hot and soft.

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  • Squeeze the juice of a lemon with a tbsp caster sugar into a saucepan and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add more sugar if it’s too tart and drizzle over the biscuits when they’re warm from the oven.

for the strawberry Pimms syrup

A punnet of ripe, British strawberries
100ml Pimms
100ml water
100g caster sugar

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  • This syrup is a great way of getting rid of overripe strawberries and goes fantastically on its own with ice cream or shortbread biscuits.
  • Hull and quarter the strawberries before adding them to a heavy bottomed saucepan along with the water, Pimms and sugar.
  • Let the mix come to the boil before leaving to simmer gently for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the mixture has reduced to a deep, rich, ruby coloured syrup with chances of strawberries still floating then you’re there – don’t leave it any longer than 20 minutes though or you’ll end up with jam!

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Now you’re finally ready to assemble your Sundae. Start with a layer of jelly in the bottom before adding the smallest biscuit and a generous scoop of Mövenpick vanilla ice cream. Top with a splodge of strawberry sauce and a few cucumber rounds before repeating until you’ve created a towering, boozy ice cream mountain of lusciousness.

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I used a scoop of Mövenpick‘s deliciously decadent white chocolate ice cream in between the two vanilla scoops for an extra sweet treat – heavenly!

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Mövenpick is available for purchase in Ocado, priced at £8.49 for a 900ml tub. For more information, visit www.moevenpick-icecream.co.uk

Happy Bastille Day: Le Relais de Venise “L’Entrecôte”, Canary Wharf

Le Relais de Venise “L’Entrecôte” 18-20 Mackenzie Walk, Canary Wharf E14 4PH / 020 3475 3331

http://www.relaisdevenise.com

Restaurant image 1

While there might be a few joints in London focusing on one-dish specialties – yes, it’s mostly burger joints and gourmet hot dogs a la Honest Burger and Bubble Dogs that spring to mind – it’s quite rare to find somewhere where the menu consists of one, singular dish day in, day out.

That’s exactly what’s on offer at L’Entrecôte in Canary Wharf, which has gone out of its way to faithfully replicate the original Paris restaurant that has been serving soley steak, frites and salad for over fifty years. So, just ahead of that very French of holidays, Bastille Day, J and I travelled East to see just how good a steak this one-plate place could cook up.

We arrived on World Cup final night, which would explain the empty tables, but I can imagine that this no reservations allowed branch of the small Le Relais de Venise chain (there are venues in Marylebone, The City and New York) with it’s tres Parisian banquette seating, trumpet vases overflowing with yellow lilies and a riot of differently-coloured table cloths gets full to bursting come business lunchtimes and post work peak dinner hours.

Restaurant image 2

I’d half expected to be seated with the mournful sounds of Edith Piaf or Charles Aznavour wafting oh-so-Frenchily around but the whole venue was musically bereft. The lack of traditional, chocolate box Parisien tunes was immediately forgotten as a huge plate of mustard and walnut dressed salad was planted in front of each of us with a plate of sliced baguette (I never thought I’d have to ask où est le beurre in a french restaurant, but the bread here comes butter-free).

Peppery and salty, the leaves softly wilted by the sheer power of the vibrantly-flavoured dressing and studded with shards of walnut, this simple salad might just have become my new favourite thing to eat. A shame, as at £23 a pop for a meal here it doesn’t look like it’s going to become my daily lunch spot.

Of course, I could attempt to make the same salad at home, but I have the lingering and depressing feeling that I’d never be able to reproduce this particular salad. It might sound crazy – as seriously, who couldn’t make a walnut salad? However, while it may have been just a salad, it’s a well known fact that those crafty chefs across the channel with all their cordon bleu wizardry produce some of the best and most difficult to replicate sauces and dressings in the world.

Restaurant image 4

Salivating, it was onto the steak. Our waitress smiled and suggested that we order our aged beef rare to my medium-loving dining partner with an expression that hinted that the chef might just cry/beat her or, indeed us for ruining his meat with a few extra minutes of cooking. And how right she was. This steak, lightly charred, perfectly rested and sliced into fine slivers of bloodless, unctuous, butter-soft gorgeousness, was a revelation to anyone who wouldn’t dream of ordering their steak rare.

The wafers of meat arrived with a cloud of freshly-fried, piping hot fries and came drenched in L’Entrecôte’s most famous of sauces – a greenish, brownish slick that smelled indefinably good. And it was good, so good infact that alongside a half-bottle of the house Bordeaux it managed to conjure up images of sun-soaked Provence, of rustic farmhouses and mustachioed men called Jean-Claude who sweep you into a muscled, garlic-hued embrace.

Too much? Probably, but this isn’t any sauce. This sauce is made to a top secret recipe originally created by Mme. Godillot, the daughter of M. de Saurs who was the founder of Le Relais de Venise “L’Entrecôte” in Paris and hasn’t changed since the original restaurant opened in 1959. The recipe is so closely guarded that it’s rumoured that even the chef doesn’t know what goes into it as it arrives part made straight from France. All our waitress would reveal is that it had butter in it. Lots of butter, which is probably why the bread arrived naked – adding more butter to something so already clearly butter heavy would probably cause some sort of mass diner’s heart attack.

Restaurant image 5

Just when I was nearing the final slice of my rather small serving of steak I turned to see the waitress approaching with another platter of perfectly-cooked beef followed by what can only be described as an Everest of golden fries. They have a neat trick here of ordering your second portion of steak to be ready when you’re about three slices in, meaning that it arrives just at the moment you’re running low – a beautiful concept that can only really be implemented in a one-plate speciality restaurant.

For a place with a that prides itself on perfecting a single plate of food, the dessert menu is pleasingly expansive, with every French fancy your heart could desire from Tartelettes au Citron and Vacherin du Relais to Mont Blancs. J couldn’t resist the Crème Brûlée – she’s somewhat of an expert on them, if only because her sampling count must have surely reached triple figures by now – while I opted for the exotic sounding Tulipe au Framboises: a delicate, flower shaped tuile cup filled with fresh raspberries and vanilla pod ice cream and topped with Chantilly cream and flakes of toasted almonds.

If any reassurances were needed on the quality of the Crème Brûlée here, the only words I heard J utter came as she contemplated the last scrapings in the ramekin as she whispered forlornly: “I don’t want it to end.”

L’Entrecôte is a simple concept, simply and well done. There are touches of real Parisian authenticity here, from the size of the wine glasses and the heavy silver cutlery to the smart little black and white aproned outfits that the waitresses sport. Yes, it might feel a touch onions and breton-striped stereotyped in places, but what keeps it more Amelie and less ‘Allo ‘Allo is the sheer quality of the food. One thats certainly tempting enough to travel out East for this Bastille Day.

As part of the festivities for Bastille Day (14th July 2014), “L’Entrecôte” will be offering its guests weekday discounts of 25% from their lunch or dinner, from the 14th to 31st July; excluding weekends, which will have 30% discounts for lunch and dinner from 14th July to 31st August.

Originally penned (and eaten) for Foodepedia.co.uk

Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

TOZI Restaurant & Bar, Victoria

Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

TOZI Restaurant & Bar,  8 Gillingham Street, London SW1V 1HJ / 020 7769 9771 / www.tozirestaurant.co.uk

Let’s get one thing straight. I’ve never been to Venice and the closest I’ve been to cicchetti before is eating my way through polpo of Soho’s menu while sandwiched between Hermione Crawford and Oliver Franklin and, while geographically it was closer to Piccadilly Circus than the Piazza Del Marco, it all tasted pretty authentically Italian to me.

Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

But when I read that the Evening Standard’s Faye Maschler had waxed lyrical about the scallops on offer at TOZI – the Park Plaza Hotel’s main restaurant in Victoria – claiming that they were as good as any she’d sampled in Venice, my curiosity was piqued.

Paul Winch-Furness / Photographer

There’s nothing chi chi or rustic about the setting of TOZI. Walking through the giant entrance doors, the setting is as slick and cavernous as you’d expect a modern, central London hotel restaurant to be. Consisting of one, wide room, it’s all huge windows and echoing, open-plan eating, but this contemporary joint is far from clinical. TOZI has a fleet of personable, suave waiters that glide around the split-level dining room, a perimeter of food prep stations complete with piles of burnished ciabatta and hanging haunches of cured meat and the flickering flames of a wood-oven (that’s actually as I discovered, ahem, gas-powered).

Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

The menu is a long list of sharing plates, split into sections spanning everything from wood oven dishes and fritti to pasta and counter dishes like meat and cheese. It’s often daunting to start ordering plates for two when you don’t quite know the eating habits of your fellow diner and there’s always the threat of a table-full of wall-to-wall meat dishes or six servings of salad.

Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

Luckily for me I was dining with Mr. H and my and the Foodepedia bossman’s taste buds dance to the beat of the same drum. Our italian feasting banquet started flowing with tomato smeared pizzetti topped with mozzarella, and slivers of highly-flavoured salami piccante; fried baby soft shell crabs dripping with olive oil and scattered with red chillis and violently green parsley sauce; petal-thin folds of Coppa marbled with fine veins of white fat; berry-stained hunks of cheese and delicate pasta puffs, all washed down by a full-blooded burgundy-hued Barbera, which was recommended by the waiter and that swept me half way to The Rialto with the words of Italian-loving Keats ringing in my ears.

O for a beaker full of the warm South!

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stainèd mouth – Ode to a Nightingale

Paul Winch-Furness / Photographer

The Testun al Barolo – cow’s cheese aged in Barolo grapes – was exceptional, as were the much-feted gratinated scallops…although I must admit that it was the thought of my commute back over the murky waters of the Thames and Vauxhall Bridge rather than a gondola ride through the Venetian waterways that was at the forefront of my mind while I ate them.

For both of us, the dish of the day was indisputably the house speciality: buffalo ricotta ravioli with black truffle. There’s nothing I hate more than a dish that promises truffles and delivers a pointless drizzle. This dish of soft, golden pillows of perfectly-cooked pasta with a feather-light filling that arrived swimming in a bowl of butter had an eye-bogglingly generous heap of shaved black truffles balancing on top. Bellisimo.

Paul Winch-Furness / Photographer

I was all proverbially packed and ready to be shipped to Canal Grande when I came back down to earth with a jolt at the arrival of dessert. Mr. H’s affogato was perfectly passable but the ricotta tart with blood orange sorbet that I plumped for was bitterly disappointing. After the flavour jaunt around Italy that came before it, the flabby pastry and nicely sweet and soured, but frankly mealy interior, came as a shock to my mellowed pallette. luckily it was redeemed by a brilliant, softly-perfumed orange sorbet, but the disappointment sadly still lingered a little.

Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness
TOZI is a feast in all senses, one bad pud aside, and even if it didn’t get me all the way to a Venetian waterfront by the close of the main courses I was happily floating half way there passed Portsmouth and Padua and somewhere near il paradiso.

Invited in behalf of and originally written for Foodepedia.co.uk and can be found here.

All pictures from and by TOZI.

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

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