Tea and Peony: Wedgwood’s Secret Garden

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? Miraculously, it seems in central London. There were roses to the left of me, lupins to the right and I was stuck in the middle of a sea of white-painted garden furniture, pastel pillows and piles of impossibly pretty, floral crockery overflowing with fat, feathery peonies and pink lilies in a scene that wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Secret Garden.

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But it wasn’t the blooms that I’d come to admire in this most exclusive of tea salons in Soho (and by exclusive, we’re talking the one day only exclusivity), I’d come for the launch of British heritage brand Wedgwood’s latest range of porcelain and historic teas.

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Wedgwood has been creating ridiculously dainty china since 1759 –  half the country must have one of their distinctive duck-egg blue, gilded boxes knocking around the house somewhere – and their new Daisy range is true to form with a pattern that’s been plucked straight from Wedgwood’s exhaustive archive collection of prints and designs.

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Although, in a rare departure, Wedgwood has injected an almost masculine element with an intricate weave of black glaze against the pastel pink and blue. Almost, but not quite, it’s still about as delicate as a cup and saucer can come.

But it was what was inside the cups that really caught my attention because let’s face it, good tea still tastes good whether it’s swigged from a chipped mug or sipped from a finely-wrought tea cup, and Wedgwood’s range of tea is about as good as they come.

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Their Taste of History range fuses historic blends with design. Each tea is based on different iconic teapot designs through the Wedgwood ages, from the 1709 Arabesque mixing blue petals with black tea and vanilla as inspired by Wedgwood’s milky, powdered blue Jasper range to the 2010 Pashmina – a blend of florals, orange blossoms and jade and mahogany oolong tea leaves.

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I was enchanted by the fruity, apricot flavours in the 1780 Encaustic, which tasted of pure, Italian sunshine and was served with a side of apricot and honey panforte courtesy of food history loving wunderkind Tasha Marks of Animal Vegetable Mineral Curiosities, who, between courses of cornflower cracknels and orange marmalade truffles, I managed to snag for a chat about foodie-spiration.

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“This is literally my perfect project as what I do mixes food, art and history all together so it was about finding historical recipes so each recipe was matched with a tea from the same year that inspired it, but I adapted it to mix the historical with the contemporary,” she explained.

“For example the scones are a Victorian recipe, but you’re putting a sheet of edible lace underneath and crystallised rose petals on top, so you’re modernising them and making them little delicacies with little edible curiosities.”

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What I really wanted the recipe for though was her chewy, almost toffee-like biscuit dragons that came propped up against cups of the 1814 Chinese Tiger tea and apparently the secret is an old marzipan recipe.

“I have been loving playing with marchpane. It’s a really early marzipan that uses more almonds and icing sugar. Contemporary marzipan is very sweet and more like a fondant while old marzipan would be more like a cakey mixture. The white marzipan that we used in the dragon is very similar to marchpane and it’s gluten and dairy free – those are sort of tag posts today but that’s an 18th century recipe!”

Gluten free? Dairy free? A pseudo-healthy historic biscuit recipe for the carb-loving modern masses? I think it’s time to bring back marchpane.

The full range of Wedgwood Taste of History Teas and the new Daisy range is available now.

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In Pictures: Cross Bones Graveyard

We knew we’d found it when I saw the gleaming sign, a washed, weather-wracked white against the blood and sand red of the brick behind it. We’d been shuffling around the back of the station for a while, trying to wind our way around the alleyways, flanked by high, grey stone walls as the trains thundered ahead, wheels shrieking against the sides of the tracks and buffeting our ears with their metallic, greasy roar. But there way no mistaking it when I saw it: Redcross Way. This was the place.

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From the corner of the road it looked perfectly ordinary. There was a pub at the end – the building almost sagging with age and use – and, directly opposite, we could just make out a flash of green and pink against the grey of the steel gates. The faded chalk confirmed it, we were standing in front of Cross Bones Graveyard.

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There’s nothing like discovering a piece of London that you never even knew existed and this graveyard was definitely a first for both me and my flatmate Carine. We’d gone on the recommendation of London blogger Fiona Maclean and, to be honest, weren’t expecting much. There’s also nothing quite like being proved wrong.

On the rusty iron gates of Cross Bones, half-hidden in the twisted bits of ribbon, broken dolls and faded flowers, is a plaque that reads ‘R.I.P The Outcast Dead.’ Here lies the Winchester Geese, the ladies of the night, the women of ill repute…in short, the prostitutes that worked in the Liberty of he Clink – or Southwark as it was technically known.

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From the 12th to the 17th century, The Bishops of Winchester were effectively ruling this patch of seedy London and what was forbidden within the confines the city walls, be it gambling, drinking or whoring, was all go in this quarter. During Shakespeare’s times it was reputedly a seething hotbed of brothels, bear pits, taverns and, most sinfully of all THEATRES. Gasp.

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But there was a problem. The gentle folk of the city couldn’t be expected to share grave space with the unclean Southwark dwellers, so Cross Bones – a ‘single women’ graveyard – was born

‘I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single Woman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.’ John Stow, Historian, 1598

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Cross Bones stayed a graveyard until concerns were raised over it becoming overcrowded and dangerous to public health. The land was briefly turned into a fair ground before being taken over by London Underground in the 1990s and used as an electricity sub-station for the Jubilee Line extension. Archaeologists removed some of the skeletons, but an estimated 99% are still buried at the site and in the last decade the gates and graveyard have become a shrine for anyone of any faith to leave mementoes, messages and gifts remembering those loved and lost. There are monthly vigils and events organised by the Friends of Crossbones, which you can find out more about here.

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Whether you’d like to see a seedier side to London; a portion of it’s shadowy past that’s never been forgotten, or just to stumble across something so colourful and macabre it will make you re-evaluate quite why you love this city, then a weekend wander here is a must.

Happy Syttende Mai: 99p Fish & Chips, The Ritz and Mr Mitch Tonks

£1 fish, £1 fish. Nope, you’re not on a fish stall in east London’s Queen’s market…although let’s remind ourselves of that glorious song once more:

…in fact, quite the opposite. Today is the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution and, to celebrate Norway day, Britain’s biggest seafood trading partner celebrated with a seafood feast in the candy-pink, high-ceilinged salons of The Ritz Hotel and shipped over 16 tonnes of cod so that 99 fryers across the UK can serve 99p fish and chips.

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The great and good from The Norwegian Seafood Council, trade and industry ministries, Innovation Norway and even celebrated British seafood chef, Mitch Tonks, turned up in the pristine, heritage surrounds of the Ritz’s inner sanctum to talk about, promote and gorge on the frozen-at-sea fresh produce that Norway specialises in. All of this is unsurprising really when you consider that 270 million plates of fish and chips are sold in the UK and 7350 tonnes of cod are shipped from Norway’s icy fjords and coastline into UK shops, restaurants and takeaways every year.

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Fish is big business in both the UK and Norway and, as fish-lovers are consistently battered with information on sustainability and exactly what they should and shouldn’t be eating, the question of food provenance and accountability has become a hot button issue.

Even travel companies and tourism boards are getting involved as we were told by Danny Giles from Hurtigruten, who run a surprisingly food conscious cruise called Norway’s coastal kitchen – where 85% of the food served on board is produced locally and is picked up daily as they wind their way through the fjords, meaning that the Arctic Char that’s been caught at 4am will appear on dinner plates at 5pm that evening.

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One chef who needs no convincing of Norway’s fresh fish credentials is Mitch Tonks, who has a couple of celebrated seafood restaurants and fish and chip eateries down in Dartmouth, one of which is taking part in today’s 99p fish meal offer. He celebrated syttende mai (that’s Norway day to you and me) last year with Foodepedia by offering up his very own norwegian fish recipes which you can still whip up here, if you fancy joining the party today.

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Tonks fell in love with Norway’s fishing and production techniques years ago saying that he always nods to the Scandinavian way of life for fish dishes, particularly when it comes to their penchant for pickles: “Pickled fennel or pickled red onions really lift a dish,” he explained. “Norway has integrity when it comes to sustainable fish. In Norway, sustainability wasn’t just a buzz word, it was a way of life.”

photo 2 (16)And if we needed any more convincing of the quality and ‘Arctic freshness’ of Norwegian produce, all we had to do was look at the spread that The Ritz’s executive chef, John Williams, had laid out below decks. In a tiny side room Scandinavian food had collided head on with British heritage and the result was a selection of hot and cold seafood delights that gave me a severe case of buffet blindness as I wandered around levering slivers of hand carved smoked salmon and wedges of crumbling Norwegian cured fjord trout onto my rapidly overloaded plate.

IMG_2579[1]I felt a bit like The Little Mermaid, reeling off a roll call of fishy whosits and whatsits galore: there were bowls overflowing with ruby-red prawns, lumps of king crab leg dressed with dots of wasabi and edible flowers, cushions of scallop tartare and silver cloche-covered dishes of Atlantic halibut drenched in a cream sauce and spiked with asparagus morels. And that was before the livery-clad waiters started ferrying out cones containing golden pillows of battered cod and chips.

 

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There’s only one real way of determining how good and how fresh Norway’s fish really is and that’s heading to one of the fish and chip shops near you to try some for today’s temporary price of 99p. Find out which restaurants are running the deal on the Norwegian Seafood Councils website, here, and get tasting, buying, cooking and eating this guilt-free, sustainable produce now.

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

The Pippa/Telegraph Split: Cause to ‘Celebrate’?

Image: The Telegraph/Clara Molden

I woke up this morning and casually flicked through the updates on my Facebook and twitter, the standard start to most people’s day. One of the first posts I saw was one by MyDaily – the Huffington Post’s style pages – and it said this: “Commiserations! Pippa’s Woken Up To Bad News.” What could this be I wondered? Has her latest moneyed, permatanned Ken doll suitor given her semi-highness the boot? Has that spiffy new bob cut been butchered in the hairdresser’s chair? Has one of those famously peachy buttocks suddenly gained a dimple of cellulite and been rendered unappealing by today’s beauty fat mafia?

Nope, it was none of these things, it was this: “Kate Middleton’s Sister Axed as Telegraph Columnist.” And I’m a touch ashamed to say my first reaction leaned significantly more to the ‘whoopee’ side of the grief scale than the ‘oh no, such a shame.’

I’ve always had a little smidge of a problem with Pippa, but there’s no easy way to say that without sounding like a jealous bitch. It’s a fact of life that any criticism aimed at an attractive young woman who’s doing well, however neutrally expressed, will be met with the comedic sounds of cats meowing or that most offensively ridiculous of statements about handbags at dawn. But then again, some of the time they do come from a catty place and I suppose I did have my claws out for Pippa in a way.

I was cross that people went on about her at Kate’s wedding, choosing to focus more on her athletically toned bum than Kate’s ethereal presence in that exquisite dress. I was amused when she released a book about home entertaining that was filled, by all accounts, with helpful things about putting crisps into bowls and dubbed by Christopher Howse at The Telegraph as “a sort of cultural tea bag for the American Market.” But I was full-blown angry when she then JOINED The Telegraph as a columnist and, to add imagined insult to my presumed injury, she was writing about travel. TRAVEL.

The mildly hilarious, genteel columns in Vanity Fair I could cope with and could largely ignore her thoughts on why she thought men who played cricket were hot and how one should watch rugby (in case we’re getting it wrong), but travel writing was a little too close to the bone for me.

Perhaps it was because travel writing is what I’ve always wanted and tried to do and her first post about a jaunt to the Alps appeared at a time when she had a book deal and wrote for national magazines and websites while I was struggling to get a decent journalism commission. Jealous, moi? YES, obviously! Because I was doing it the old fashioned way of grafting and sending out endless pitches and writing for free while she waltzed into a well-paid (let’s not pretend they didn’t fork out top dollar for her writing) job with one of the best publications in the UK on the back of her face and her name and, probably, that famous derriere. Oh and her previously disclosed “passion” for writing apparently.

Perhaps, Pippa, I should have saluted you for achieving in a year what I hadn’t been able to do in five times that but, at the time, I was buggered if I was going to.

I remember writing a scribbled, vitriolic post about her travel column, which I called: ‘A glorified what I did on my hols that was so dull it made me want to eat my eyes.’ I didn’t publish it because I sounded like a mad woman – the proverbial evil Disney witch, howling with glee at a misused comma or spewing bile at what I deemed was the ultimate in ‘no one cares’ travel writing.

It was the kind of travelogue your friend writes and you read, begrudgingly. I know this because I’ve been guilty of it myself. Take this prime paragraph, for example:

“We ordered rounds of schnitzel sandwiches and würstchen (simple sausage rolls) before attempting a Bavarian jig and a bit of shoe-slapping – apparently a traditional mating dance, in which men hoped to lure their women. We embarrassed ourselves hugely, the lederhosen-clad boys in particular. The rest of the evening was spent as enthusiastic spectators.”

Urgh. Her Alpine piece told us that going up mountains is jolly hard, wine is nice and was peppered with awkward references to remind the reader that she really, really was just like ‘one of us.’ She took cheap airlines “(my easyJet cabin bag allowance ruled out walking boots)” and ate carbs, all the while worrying that she wouldn’t be able to fit in her fetching dirndl for the pictures of her gurning against interchangeable backdrops of snowy peaks and local people.

I think what got me all het up, apart from the good old fashioned jealousy, was the fact that I love Telegraph Travel and think it’s one of the best out there. It’s teeming with quality writers and columnists who aren’t just ‘names’ and column inches, they’re writers who delve headfirst into unexplored fronts; who find new ways of looking at traditional destinations or cover groundbreaking events. They produce written portraits of landscapes that move and inspire you and, while fluff occasionally creeps in – where doesn’t it – I think even they knew the backlash poor Pippa would face for her weekly column. It’s always been very telling that the comments section on her pieces were always disabled, a luxury that’s rarely afforded to most journalists who are often bombarded with unpleasant comments ridiculing their work.

Pippa soon moved on to other areas like Telegraph Lifestyle (cycling underwater to maintain that perfect posterior) and Telegraph Food (tasting pancakes for Shrove Tuesday) and my rage dimmed…although I’m ashamed to admit that I was occasionally tickled to see some of the twitter responses when the Telegraph twitter feed gallantly tried to promote her articles:

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Perhaps the most annoying thing of all is she’s probably a truly lovely woman and an intelligent one to boot and, to be honest, if someone offered me all these wonderful opportunities – like sailing with Ben Ainslie – I wouldn’t have turned them down and who can say if I would have written them up any better than she did. There’s no denying her media savvy in pulling in all those deals with zero writing or publishing experience, but I can’t deny that her success still rankles, hence my initial reaction to her Telegraph departure.

Although, as I’m contemplating it now, what right do I have to poke fun at her? Is she the next Kate Adie or Doris Lessing? Probably not, but then again neither am I and at the very least she’s got more column inches in a national to her name than I have. So despite the sacking I suppose she really is having the last laugh…especially seeing as there won’t be any more columns for me to giggle at anymore.

Pippa, I may not have saluted you before but, in typical British fashion, now you’re down I’ll raise my mug of tea to you and eagerly await your next literary foray…although a guide to Alpine Entertaining that focuses on how to look ladylike in a dirndl or how to moderate ones pretzel intake is guaranteed to reduce me to my former, hulk-like rage. Just saying.

Weekend Bake: Eurovision Chocolate, Amaretto & Hazelnut Tiffin

It might be over and done and dusted for another year, but this year’s Eurovision was bloomin’ brilliant, from trampolining rappers and random anthems about china (“OPIUMMMMM”) to songs about moustaches and more pyrotechnics than a Prodigy gig. And, ladies and gents, we have a ‘wiener’ in Conchita Wurst.

I’ve had last year’s irritatingly catchy winning song stuck in my head for yonks and privately think no one has been able to beat Dana International in the stylish win stakes so far…until last night. I was thrilled, utterly THRILLED that Conchita Wurst won and not just because I’ve been obsessively watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, have had a drag party and think she looked far better in that lace fishtail dress than I ever could. I’m glad she won because a controversial comment on the  modern construct of beauty in the face of some of those eastern block countries that aren’t traditionally known for being pro-gay, pro-drag, and pro anything gender questionable is very brave. And, let’s face it she was good! It was all Bond Theme, fire and power and surprisingly everyone loved it, even some of those aforementioned countries (although I did feel a little bit sorry for the 17-year-old Russian twins who seemed to have no idea why they were being boo-ed after every point).

So, to relive the moment of triumph, here’s Conchita the firebird in all her power ballad glory

Now to the eats. This Eurovision tiffin is a no-bake, dense, chocolate cake crammed with cakey biscuits and toasted hazelnuts that uses ingredients from some of the Eurovision countries.

It combines Swiss chocolate, with their ‘row like a lion’ entry, although with their weird whistling and questionable lyrics – “Like an evil satellite, twisting the truth then leaving us alone / I am the hunter you are the prey, tonight I’m gonna eat you up” – I almost wish Belgium had gone through instead.

With hazelnuts from Spain and Turkey. Although Turkey didn’t make it through this year, Spain had a cracker with this Adele-esque number.

My home-made amaretto cake biscuits made with amaretto from Italy, although their entrant, Emma, let me down with a crap tricolour salad flag and a performance so aggressive it seemed like that uncomfortable-looking glittery dress had ridden right up and was giving her rage issues.

Lots of butter (I love Président butter, which is made from Normandy milk) from France, who, I have to admit, through the power of subtle, subliminal messaging, left me wanting nothing more than a moustache…

And good old golden syrup and apples from the United Kingdom (Tate & Lyle are actually one of the UK’s oldest brands, with founder Henry Tate introducing Britain to the sugar cube in 1875). This recipe certainly won’t help you fit into any Eurovision-ready outfits (let’s face it, it’s 90% solid fat), but, after the UK’s disappointing showing AGAIN in the scoreboards, who doesn’t feel like a bit of Eurovision come down comfort eating?

Eurovision Chocolate, Amaretto and Hazelnut Tiffin

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Ingredients for the amaretto cake biscuits
2 egg whites
100g ground almonds
100g castor sugar
good glug of amaretto liqueur, about 40 ml

Ingredients for hot amaretto apples
2 hard eating, not cooking apples like royal gala or braeburn
1 tbsp soft brown sugar
50g unsalted butter
40ml amaretto

Ingredients for the Tiffin
200g milk chocolate and 100g milk chocolate for the topping
100g unsalted butter
2 tbsp golden syrup
80g toasted hazelnuts, some whole, some roughly chopped
8-10 amaretto cake biscuits broken up

Method for amaretto biscuits

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  • Whisk the egg whites until they’re stiff and mix in the almonds, sugar and amaretto before spooning the soft paste into cupcake tins and bake at 170 for 20 minutes or until deep golden. Leave to cool before breaking into small chunks.
  • This recipe will give the traditionally hard biscuits a soft, chewy centre that gives the perfect contrast to the crunchy hazelnuts in the gooey tiffin.

Method for hot amaretto apples

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  • Core the apples and chop into small chunks, leaving the skin on.
  • Cook in a frying pan with the sugar, butter and amaretto until golden and caramelised and the alcohol has mostly burnt off. You can flash fry to reheat these when it’s time to serve the tiffin.

Method for tiffin

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  • Grease a tin with butter and line with baking paper.
  • Melt the 200g of chocolate with the butter and golden syrup in a glass bowl over boiling water until liquid and set aside to cool for a few minutes before stirring in the biscuit pieces and hazelnuts and pouring into the prepared tin.
  • Cover and leave this to set for half an hour in the fridge before melting the last 100g of chocolate and pouring it over the top. Pop back in the fridge to set for another hour or two before cutting into wedges and serving with the hot, buttery, amaretto apples.

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HouseTrip, a Song for the Day & a Local Hero: Clapham Common’s All-Singing, All-Dancing Shalamar

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been busy working on a special project recently. This project has become very close to my heart, so you’ll have to forgive me if I keep banging on about it over the coming weeks!

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I’ve been working with HouseTrip.com to help project manage their Where to Stay Guide for London. Now this wasn’t your ordinary, bog-standard ‘you can do this, don’t forget to see this’ guide, these were personal, insider journeys all over London, written by some proper Londoners and London-lovers. So, 26 boroughs (yes we made a few up), five languages and near-on 88,000 words later, it’s live and you can delve into it here: housetrip.com/content/where-to-stay/london.

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It was long, gruelling and challenging, (have you ever tried to organise journalists plus photographers, translators and videographers to deadline? They don’t compare it to herding cats without reason) but it was also incredibly fun.

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I got to work with some fantastic London bloggers like Emily Gibson from Curious London, Fabienne Henry from Lost in London, Laura Porter from About.com London, Fiona Maclean from London Unattached, Julie Falconer – the lady behind A Lady in London – Donald Strachan and the lovely Zoe Hedges from The Z-Factor, whose individual guides you should check out immediately!

The last few weeks I’ve carried my camera and wandered around what feels like most of London. I’ve followed paths and alleyways I never knew existed, discovered buildings and parks I’ve never seen before, eaten cake EVERYWHERE and and met some fascinating people. I’ve learned a few important lessons like if you try to take a picture of the hard-as-nails looking florist in an undisclosed south London location she’ll give you the finger; and no matter how much I wish I did I DO NOT live in one of the town houses in Sloane Square and need to stop pretending I do as it makes the real owners uncomfortable.

It’s has forced me to re-evaluate areas I thought I knew, like my five-hour jaunt around Kensington following Fiona’s fantastic recommendations – and yes, we did spend about two hours drooling over the food in Wholefoods before getting lost in the tulips and wisteria of Holland Park, but don’t take my word for it, read her guide here: housetrip.com/content/where-to-stay/kensington.

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My guides were Lambeth, Chelsea, Wandsworth and Canary Wharf, but there was one thing that didn’t make it into my Lambeth guides that I regret – for some reason late night, drunken singing and fried chicken didn’t seem family-friendly enough!

I’m pleased to introduce the all-singing, all-singing Shalamar of Shalamar’s chicken near Clapham Common station – a local legend extraordinaire who, if he remembers you, will do his very own version of a Backstreet Boys hit, complete with interchangeable hats and some sick dance moves.

This video is shaky, loud, out-of-focus and taken at the end of a very long night (I’m really selling it here), so feel free to play the real soundtrack linked below from YouTube if you can’t bear the distinct background sounds of drunken caterwauling. Enjoy your 90s flashback, because it doesn’t get much better than this boy band classic…or at least it seemed that way a few drinks down!

Shalamar! from emma sleight on Vimeo.

In the next few weeks I hope to post more on my forays into London for HouseTrip, from star butchers and deserted skyscrapers to prostitute’s graveyards and hidden street signs – including all the photography that didn’t quite make it in to the official guides, like these from Lambeth that I’ve been dropping in!

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Please do let me know if the guides feature one of your favourite places, or if we’ve manage to unearth a gem you didn’t know about…or even if you’ve seen Shalamar in action yourself!

Dubai Part Five: Sticks at Dawn – How Hard Can Camel Polo Really Be..?

I’ve already written about the madness of Dubai in Part Three: The Good, The Bad-Ass and the Exquisite and the gluttony in Part Four: Five Hotel Restaurants to Try in Dubai, but I couldn’t go any further without writing about one of the weirdest experiences of my life, which happened, yep, you’ve guessed it, in Dubai.

It turns out this Emirate city isn’t just the capital of excess, it’s the mayor of crazy town too, as on the third day of my visit I found myself wedged into a two-man saddle on the back of a prepped and preened camel with a giant stick in my hand and the words of an instructor ringing in my helmet-covered ears: “Don’t let go of the saddle…or the mallet…and keep your eye on the ball…and hit it!” Right. So away we went….

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“Hit it! Hit it!” My jockey, Riaz, pleaded with me as I swung my arms backwards, shoulder screaming in protest and biceps like malnourished grapes straining to bring the leaden stick downwards onto the demon of a ball that had eluded me all morning.

“Ahhhhhrggh.” Out gurgled an underwhelming battle cry as the hammer connected with a thunk, shunting the ball all of two, spectacular feet across the pitch. Unfortunately, the thunk was swiftly followed by a crunch as, unable to control to momentum of the swing, I thwacked my mount, Moussiah, around the ankles. She turned her long, elegant neck towards me, swivelled her regal head and batted eyelashes like spider’s legs in mild frustration.

“Idiot.” Her liquid brown eyes said. “Bugger.” I said. Who knew a game of camel polo could be so difficult to master?

Dubai Equestrian & Polo Club

At the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club there’s a real grassroots sport on the up. In fact, this small but prestigious club-cum-restaurant-cum-spa is the only place in the world where you can try your hand, no matter how inexpertly, at camel polo. Apparently it’s popular for corporate days out and I can see why – there’s nothing quite like getting rid of some lingering office rage by ‘accidently’ hitting a colleague with a seven-foot stick.

Camels, with their reputation for short tempers, bumpy rides and indiscriminate spitting, are worlds away from the sort of sleek polo ponies that you see Princes William and Harry cantering around on at Ascot Park, but these specially (and patiently) trained camels are a different breed.

Moussiah the Camel

It’s a rare day that you’re out groomed by a camel, but against these high class beasts, with their once-a-day shampoos, massages and expertly brushed honey-coloured coats, let’s just say that I didn’t fancy my chances in a beauty contest.

The morning haze was just lifting as the white-hot, Dubai sunshine burnt through the clouds, turning the temperature up to a muggy 25 degrees when I, and five other journalists, descended on the polo club on the outskirts of Dubai. We were met by a smiling row of slender men in harlequin shirts and alarmingly tight, white trousers who proceeded to fit us with hats, chaps and sticks and, before the ink on our safety waiver had even dried, we were released onto the pitch to practice whacking polo balls.

None of us had ever lifted a polo stick before, but after twenty minutes of concentrated swinging we were all managing to successfully aim the white cricket balls at the instructor’s knees. After a few near misses he decided that we were ready for the real thing and handed us the camel polo sticks, which were, sadly for us and luckily for his shins, three times longer, ten times heavier and near on impossible to wield. To put it in perspective, if you played camel polo regularly you’d soon develop one single, hulked arm like Rafa Nadal.

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It was greens versus blues as we mounted up and trotted *cough*lurched*cough* jockeys in the front of the heavily padded saddles for the first skirmish. There’s a switch in me that flicks when I take part in team sports. It’s an embarrassing combination of bloodlust, terror and ineptitude that generally results in me shouting a lot, psyching myself out and missing all scoring opportunities. In short: the worst player in the world. As soon as that ball came into play I started bellowing at my mild-mannered, fifty-something-year-old Sunday newspaper teammates like a mounted Attila the Hun, although a less intimidating version in Velcro chaps and an oversized, tally ho helmet.

The Blue Team

It was carnage in slow motion on the field as we took massive wind up swings only to give the ball a light stroke rather than a smack. As the midday sun started scorching the grass, our jockeys began to get cross, with Riaz making a few underhand swipes at opposing team’s jockeys, catching one with a playful slap around the ear as a polite warning to get out of the scrum and let the blue team get on the scoreboard. All in the spirit of the game, I’m sure.

One of the camels accidently kicked the ball through the posts before I had even managed to score the first of my two goals but, eventually, amid the misses and howls of irritation, both teams managed to win two rounds of three scuffles. The match finished in an amicable tie, although there were mutterings of match fixing, which would make sense considering that a couple of the jockey’s on the green team seemed intent on keeping their increasingly irate players out of the action.

Once it was all over there was just enough time to watch our jockeys in action – and to realise just how rubbish we’d been in comparison to the professionals – before we were sent packing back to our hotel with our swanky polo shirts as a memento.

One and his Camel

It was only when we walked back into the foyer of our hotel that I realised what we must look like – six dishevelled people, me in jodhpurs and boots, and all wearing official-looking shirts complete with the club’s camel polo badge.

A girl to my right clocked us, did a double take, eyes wandering down to the badge and up again to look, suspiciously at my face before she fiddled with her camera, contemplating if it was worth her time to capture what quite possibly could be the Dubai Camel Polo Team. At the last minute she decided against it and we strolled straight past and back to our rooms to nurse our camel thighs and polo shoulders.

The average hotel guest in Dubai is clearly wise, very wise.

A Very Different Sort of Camel Train

Gulf Ventures can organise city transfers, half day city tours and a camel polo experience like the one I tried. Visit www.gulfadventures.com to book or for more information.

 

Here Comes the Summer: Gordon’s Gin With a Spot of Elderflower

It’s official, you can have a Pimms – the sun is out AND it has stayed out for most of the bank holiday. I’ll be personally sloshing some of Gordon’s with a Spot of Elderflower into my gin mug (cause you can’t get enough into a glass, obviously). Ever since I tried it at the launch a few weeks ago, I’ve been waiting for the moment to crack into a bottle of this Summer-ready gin.

The following was written in the stunned hours following the revelation that my taste buds are designated as weird…or ‘super’ if you want to be picky. Crack out the cocktail glasses and enjoy!

Worship Street Whistling Shop, 63 Worship Street, London EC2A 2DU

This just in. Apparently I’m a super-taster, which is either very good or very bad news for me, dependent on whether it’s desirable to be extremely sensitive to the five basic tastes and have an inbuilt sensitivity to the bitter and sweet ends of the flavour spectrum.

According to the test results I should be averse to sour food, neat cocktails and strong liquors like whiskey and gin. Wrong, actually, I love them, which is lucky really as I found out all of this while I was sampling the latest offering from gin giants Gordon’s: the With a Spot of Elderflower addition to their range.

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Within the dark and salubrious confines of Worship Street Whistling Shop, somewhere round the back of Liverpool Street station, cocktail maestro Tom Aske was shaking up summery, pastel-hued drinks designed to be slurped under the temperamental British sun – all containing Gordon’s With a Spot of Elderflower.

I like floral-based gins, one of my favourite summer gin glugs involves Bloom Gin, but I could easily be persuaded to make With a Spot of Elderflower my go-to gin for the coming months. Unlike some flavour ‘hint’ concoctions, Gordon’s comes in waves.

It’s unspeakably delicate, and instead of smacking you around the face with an elderflower encrusted branch, the vague but distinctive floral notes sweep across your tongue, lingering just long enough to leave an impact. Incidentally, if you’re looking for a gin that goes exceptionally well with strawberries or cucumber instead of the tang of lemon or lime in your tonic, this one’s a winner.

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As well as the traditional G&T tasting and cocktail mixing, Gordon’s had invited legendary master distiller Tom Nichol and historian Joanne McKerchar – who both looked right at home tucked into the Whistling Shop’s leather and tapestry gentleman’s study chairs – to talk us through Gordon’s through the ages and the process that creates one of Britain’s best-loved gins.

My history with Gordon’s goes all the way back to some of my first tastes of alcohol with the stolen sips from my mum’s gin and tonic glass. She was always partial to the charms of a small glass of Gordon’s diluted with lots of fizzing tonic and mountains of ice, not exactly a classic example of gin’s reputation as the infamous ‘mother’s ruin.’ But while gin and I might go back a while, Gordon’s goes back far further than I ever knew.

The first brand of Gordon’s London Dry Gin was brewed back in 1769 in Southwark; they released fashionable pre-mixed cocktail shakers in the 1920s and were making flavoured gins years ago. Eat your heart out all those modern gin brands that have popped up over east and south London in the past year as, while producers like Hoxton Gin might have recently released a grapefruit version that’s been marketed as ‘the most distinctive gin in the world,’ Gordon’s did it with their ginger and their orange gins first.

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Also in attendance were the Robin Collective, mad scientists and protégés of the experimental jelly genius’ Bompas & Parr. Sitting into a cramped room with them soon turned from a simple tasting into a sensory exploration where gin wasn’t just sipped, it was smoked, breathed in, chewed and swigged against a background of classical and jarring music.

They even had us stroking scratchy or soft surfaces while we downed spherified balls of gelatinous gin, which exploded and flooded our mouths with a burst of peppery Gordon’s Gin. I’m always a bit sceptical when it comes to these experiments, which inevitably come coupled with the power of suggestion.

The thing is, when someone tells you that what you’re tasting will be sweeter when you’re touching a piece of fur or being lulled by an orchestra of violins your brain, rather than your taste buds, tends to agree. The super-taster test, on the other hand, was genuinely fascinating.

We were all given a tiny clear pouch containing a tiny square of white paper, which was, we found out afterwards coating in a small amount of

 6-n-propylthiouracil. Most people can’t detect the chemical, but to super-tasters it tastes like you’ve swigged from a bottle of nail varnish remover, or at least it did to me and I had to spit the paper out within 30 seconds of it touching my tongue. The Robin Collective informed us that super-tasters have a higher concentration of taste buds than most people, meaning we taste flavours with more intensity and tend to lean towards sweeter flavours. I love sweets as much as the next person…well, more clearly and it was quite nice to be offered a handy excuse for my incurable cravings for sugar, but one thing I will never agree with is the assertion that I don’t enjoy the taste of a dirty gin martini.

“Whilst supertasters often think that they are superheroes, they are in fact typically fussy eaters, not enjoying flavours which are too bitter or sweet such as grapefruit or coffee, preferring long cocktails with a large mixer. Whereas, mild tasters enjoy extreme tastes from sweet to sour as well as red meat and fatty food.” Brandy from The Robin Collective

The super-taster profile (as well as putting paid to any sense of smugness me and my over-zealous taste buds might have felt) told me that every sip of that bitter, potent liver killer that’s sour with onions or salty with olives should be abhorrent to my uber-sensitive sense of taste, but all I know is that when that first sip hits my lips I just taste one thing, and it’s delicious.

Although, after discovering it, I could definitely be persuaded to swap out the regular gin for the sweet and floral touches of Gordon’s With a Spot of Elderflower to appease my picky palate.

Gordon’s Spot of Elderflower is available in supermarkets now.

If you need some gin-spiration, here’re two of the coktails from the night using Gordon’s With a Spot ofElderflower. There’s a sweet one for the fussy supertasters and a stronger one for those blessed with ‘normal’ taste buds.

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Summer Blossom

Easy to make and suiting any drinking occasion, Gordon’s With A Spot of Elderflower, white wine, apple juice and a dash of Earl Grey syrup – it’s a simple and elegant mixed drink, a real crowd pleaser.

Ingredients:

40ml Gordon’s With a Spot of Elderflower

20ml Sauvignon Blanc

20ml cloudy apple juice 15ml Earl Grey syrup*

Garnish: Elderflower

Method: Shake all ingredients, double strain and add garnish

*Earl Grey syrup can be easily made at home by soaking sugar water with an Earl Grey tea bag overnight.

Southwark Sour

The powerful sweet and sour flavour, attractive garnishes and tasty mixers of this cocktail make it the ideal party serve.

Ingredients:

50ml Gordon’s With a Spot of Elderflower

25ml Lemon juice 50ml Citrus honey water

15ml Raspberry vinegar

Garnish: Dehydrated lemon, raspberry

Method: Shake all ingredients with ice, strain and garnish

Method: Stir all ingredients, strain over ice and add garnish

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

The Place Where Cake Dreams Come True: La Patisserie des Rêves

This happened yonks ago, but, in typical fashion of late, I’ve been too busy working on a very special London project that I haven’t had a chance to post it!

But here it is, English cake made by master pastry chef Philippe Conticini at my new favourite Marylebone haunt: La Patisserie des Rêves.

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I’m standing in a close-knit circle of journalists, food bloggers and cake devotees who are all riveted, eyes fixed like cats on a spot of light as Philippe Conticini, the master baker behind and co-founder of La Patisserie des Rêves, waves a slate plate in front of us. It’s holding a sugar-dusted ball of Paris Brest, a light-as-air pastry that oozes whipped praline cream from its golden, crisp sides. He smiles, explaining the hours and concentration that go into each individual element of the bakeries most popular dessert in heavily-accented English, eyes shining as he watches us watch this lone sphere of pastry perfection before he triumphantly brings down a tiny spoon, tearing the dome in two and revealing its inner centre: a melting hazelnut ganache that tastes like sin.  There’s a collective sigh of mutual lust and admiration from the circle focused solely on that piece of butter-filled, sugar-maxed perfection. But that’s exactly what good pastry can do and Philippe makes damn good pastry.

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It’s hard to walk past the Patisserie des Rêves without being drawn inside. It’s like magnetism. From the window all you see is a warm, primary coloured glow and a table covered in things that look far too pretty to be edible, enticingly half hidden by blown bell jars suspended on a weighted mechanism from the ceiling. Pushing open the doors and you’re met with the smell of hot sugar and melted butter that floods the part of your brain that controls the appetite. From then on all you can process is one thing: FOOD, EAT!

The first I heard of Philippe’s cake wonderland was last year, when I watched Michel Roux salivating over his particular brand of French patisserie excellence on the BBC. A London branch of the cake empire was officially opened on Marylebone High Street earlier this year and this shop is currently offering something the others aren’t: a Frenchman’s take on classic British cakes, which is undeniably dangerous territory.

IMG_2095French pastry is all about heritage with generations of French bakers who have started on croissants and confiture and moved onto Mont Blancs and the delicately-wrought croquembouche, but trying to recreate the traditional British Victoria sponge, no matter how accomplished you are, is bound to make any English cake-lover and indeed the ranks of the WI bristle in union.

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Philippe hasn’t just taken on one British classic, he’s worked his magic on three: carrot cake, Victoria sponge and treacle tart. One of life’s uncompromising perfectionists, he made sure he completed rigorous training before he even started tinkering with recipes, mainly by partaking in an afternoon tea marathon around London and powering through as many as five consecutive teas in as many days. No matter how much you think you like scones covered in lashing of clotted cream and child-sized sandwiches, that takes some dedication.

Incidentally, he politely refused to remember the names of the worst teas he encountered along the way, but was happy to disclose that by far the best treacle tart he tried can be found at The Wolseley. It was so good, in fact, that he redesigned his own treacle dessert around the premise that he could never compete with Matthew Haye’s (executive pastry chef at The Wolseley) version so created a rich, sweet molasses paste to be spread over puffed up, flaky scones instead (the recipe for said scones having been adapted from a collection of British grandmother’s recipes, apparently).

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His training continued with cake lessons from food writer and journalist Rose Prince in her own kitchen and his result is surprisingly delightful: a playful take on a picnic sandwich where feather-light layers of sponge are sandwiched with a tender wedge of just-sweet cream and home-made jam as thick and fruity as quince paste. It’s less sweet than our own versions and – like his spin on an under sweet, fruity and dense carrot cake – stupidly moreish.

I’m not sure if these English fancies are enough to tear his loyal Francophile followers away from their daily doses of éclairs and Tarte Tatin, but if the London crowd is in need of a cake palate refresher after working their way through an entire wheel of Paris Brest, these provide an innovative alternative.