in Pictures: Open Garden Squares Weekend

Every year, for two days, the inner sanctums of some of London’s most prestigious organisations and poncey padlocked squares are open to the average joe public.

Gardening Leave

There are over 200 squares, gardens, allotments and private grounds open for nosing about this weekend and most of them are absolute gems, from the floating garden barges near Tower Bridge to the too-posh-to-be-true rose-covered Cadogan Square Gardens and the walled peace of Royal Hospital’s therapeutic veg patches, where veterans and Chelsea Pensioners sow runner beans and sweet williams.

Gardening Leave

Yesterday the mother and I pottered all over London oo-ing and ah-ing at the bijoux, blue-painted courtyard outside Rococo Chocolates on Motcomb Street (yes, of course we ate a fair few of the freshly-made, award-winning truffles on offer before we left), we learned about the deadly poisons posing behind the luscious blooms and delicate fronds at the Royal College of Physicians and wandered around the labyrinthine Academy Hotel, stumbling across courtyard gardens that were once the haunt of the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood and the literary Bloomsbury Set.

There are still tons of gardens open today, including the Royal Hospital’s Gardening Leave, Rococo Chocolates MaRoCoCo Garden, The Academy Gardens and Cadogan’s Square and Place Gardens and a host of other places open all over London in 25 boroughs. Check the website for a garden near you and grab your opportunity to see these leafy little slices of hidden London that are normally kept under wraps and away from prying eyes.

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A Storm on the High Seas: Review of Peter Grimes at Grange Park Opera

After the fanfare that surrounded Benjamin Britten’s 2013 centenary and the accolades David Alden’s Peter Grimes generated in its ENO incarnation, transporting this sea-ravaged epic deep into the heartland of Hampshire’s countryside for opening night of The Grange seemed a tall order.

In truth, the Grange Park Opera’s rose-strewn lawns and delicate, neo-classical architecture are worlds away from the setting of George Crabbe’s 19th century poem The Borough that this Britten is rooted in. But any concerns about containing the intensity of Britten’s maritime opus in The Grange’s auditorium were, however, partially washed away by the execution of Jeremy Sams’ production, which managed to be both claustrophobicly intimate in its portrayal of gossiping village life and expansive, with a wall of sound that engulfed the audience emanating from his ensemble cast and an omnipresent sea that became in itself a lead character.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

The seaside setting for the tale of gnarled and brutish fisherman Peter Grimes, who stands accused of killing his apprentice, was in full force from the off with the air full of the shrieks of seagulls and the entire cast already milling about on stage, gathering for Grimes’ trial in The Prologue before most of the audience were seated.

The somewhat stagey authenticity of this pre-brined atmosphere was helped hugely by Francis O’Connor’s brilliant set – a stripped back, wooden affair that unfolded during each act like a Russian doll, revealing interior glimpses of tavern, church and hut against a backdrop of a seething, steely grey digital sea. It might have been almost too stylized and gritty picture-book perfect (sort of like the miserably bleak film set for Les Miserables) for a ‘real’ portrayal of tough, coastal life, but it was hugely effective.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Every detail and nuance, from the worn paint on a wooden pillar where the ship’s ropes were fastened to the puddles that blotted the stage and the incredibly realistic rain drops of light (in fact all of Paul Anderson’s lighting design was superb) that lashed the theatrical town were impressively and immersively done and the nuances didn’t stop with the set design.

Peter Grimes is no light opera. Britten’s score is punishingly complex – the orchestra at The Grange conducted by Stephen Barlow never abated; never fully relaxing into the music and keeping listeners alert and unsettled throughout – and his characters three dimensional, always evoking a visceral reaction. Sams offered something new to Britten’s hard bitten story of Grimes, a gruff bear of a man who is physically harsh to his young apprentices, generally despised by his fellow villagers and redeemed only partially by his love for Ellen Orford – a widow who seems to love Grimes in spite of his mercurial nature and the town’s damning disapproval.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Atypical though Grimes is as an operatic leading man, the writing never fully allows the audience to warm to him. Sams’ theatrical addition of on stage flashbacks that depict Grimes’ violent childhood as he is sold to a terrifying sailor and show a young Ellen’s fascination and desire to protect and befriend this battered little boy add new weight to their love story and hints at the dangerous, cyclical effect of physical abuse, which explains (though does not excuse) Grimes’ mistreatment of his own apprentice. Although the verdict on whether these less than subtle explorations into the character’s psyches helps or hinders the opera is still out.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Carl Tanner’s Grimes came with a pre-performance disclaimer of severe sinusitis and he eased himself into the role, almost struggling with the higher register so much so that the audience was unprepared for the volume he unleashed in Act III when he declares in a bone-rattling roar that he will marry Ellen despite the mob’s opinion of him. Sinusitis or no, there was no holding back that rich tenor for the big notes.

Georgia Jarman’s sweet soprano for Ellen was high and pure and stood out alongside Stephen Gadd’s vibrant baritone Balstrode and the admirably affable Ned Keen played by Gary Griffiths, who was all mad hatter’s hair and lothario’s swagger.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Elsewhere, Clive Bayley made a formidable Swallow and Andrew Rees’ Bob Boles was a convincing moral zealot, whipping the villagers into a baying mob thirsty for Peter Grimes’ blood in Act II after he witnesses Grimes strike Ellen. Rebecca de Pont Davies, who plays the pill popping Mrs Sedly – a pseudo detective who’s convinced that Grimes murdered his apprentice – balances convincingly on the knife edge of shrill hysteria throughout with an expression that’s set in a near-permanent state of despairing horror.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Opera fanatics who yearn for the lyrical gymnastics of Puccini and Verde might lament the lack of pretty arias in Peter Grimes, but there’s no place in this unforgiving, elemental world for superlative love songs. The one piece of musical light relief that sees Ellen’s soprano intertwine with Auntie’s (the local pub landlady) alto and the pretty vocals of her nieces of dubious repute – played Soraya Mafi and Rosie Bell – provided a brief moment of lovely melancholy among the intensity of Britten’s nerve-jangling, beautifully discordant score. But while it took off it never quite managed to soar and left the audience yearning for a less transient reprieve.

As Grimes’ boat set sail for the a final time into the smoke machine mist and the ensemble gathered for one last choral crescendo, walking back out into the soft Spring evening and the rolling countryside surrounding The Grange seemed almost wrong. Yet somehow, despite the disconnection, this immersive piece of theatre feels oddly at home here in Hampshire and is a suitable opener for the Grange’s season. As Peter Grimes declares: I am native, rooted here. / By familiar fields, / Marsh and sand, / Ordinary streets, / Prevailing wind.

Peter Grimes is at The Grange until 21 June, 2014. For performance information and tickets see the Grange Park Opera website.

Originally reviewed for The Huffington Post.

Cooking with Khoo: A kitchen workshop with Rachel Khoo

Last week I was lucky enough to be one of the food writers asked to cook with TV superchef and author, Rachel Khoo at Clapham’s Cactus Kitchens (where they film Saturday Morning Kitchen and yes, I did get the obligatory fangirl photo behind the Saturday Kitchen counter…and opening the oven…and at the guest table, but who’s counting?) to test out some of the recipes that’ll be featured in her two, brand spanking new cookery shows, which start this evening on the Good Food channel.

I’ve always admired Rachel Khoo and have secretly lusted after that little Paris studio apartment and her vie en France for years. I’m delighted to report that she is just as lovely in person as she comes across in the world of TV and, instead of being intimidatingly ‘cheffy’, is reassuringly down to earth, even to the point of occasionally forgetting her ingredients and letting a few expletives slip out.

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And she has a deep-seated love of my favourite food: cheese. So much so that when we (some of the most exciting food bloggers in London apparently – god knows what I was doing there but shhhh in case someone points me out as the impostor in what was an impressive line up that included The Food Urchin, Food for Think,  and Crump Eats and The Cutlery Chronicles) were bombarding her with questions about favourite foods and final meals before a trip to le guillotine the answers generally involved cheese, which makes her alright in my book.

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In her latest series, Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: London, the diminutive Cordon Bleu trained chef has left her little Paris kitchen and been transported to a London venue, before leaving it again to eat and cook her way around some of the best foodie destinations in Europe from Istanbul to Stockholm in Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: Cosmopolitan Cook. Her recipes are packed with simple flavours, tinged with food memories and touches of culinary nostalgia and often based on ingredients that have been gleaned and gathered from her trips around the world and her heritage.

We tried our hands at Spaeztle, light as air dumpling pearls that Khoo grew up on courtesy of her Austrian mother. Khoo’s Spaeztle were stained green with garlic and parsley, tossed in bucket loads of butter, Parmesan and roasted onion petals and served strewn with butter-fried sage and thyme and where, in short, heavenly.

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Next we were tasked with creating a layered savoury Scandinavian cake called Smörgåstårta, which is almost as fiddly to decorate as it is to pronounce, especially when the loaded word ‘competition’ was dropped into the mix by Khoo. The kitchen was notably more quiet as suddenly each blogger started concentrating on making roses out of cured salmon and cucumber balls using that most 80s of kitchen utensils: the melon baller. All I remember at the five minute warning point was sticking parsley leaves and cucumber grapes onto the side of my Smörgåstårta and trying to force a beetroot to look like a flower while almost succumbing to a full Bake-off technical bake style panic.

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As soon as Rachel started taking about making petals with slivers of beetroot, in my head I saw a garden made with shards of dill sculpted along a cucumber base , growing into parsley stalk vines that would twist upwards, topped by whole leaves, delicate seeds of cucumber grapes and ribbons before swirling into purple beetroot flowers and fat salmon roses. What I ended up with was a bit less Secret Garden and more science project, but I was stupidly pleased with it in the end.

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At the moment, Khoo is hanging out in Hackney and getting to grips with the ever changing London food scene, which, as she admits in the video edit below, is a very different kettle of fish to Paris’. You can see the full edit of our inside workshop plus hear Rachel’s take on the London’s love of pop up fast food and find out who took home the Smörgåstårta crown (if you hadn’t manage to guess yet based on my fetching gurn in the below picture with Khoo) in the specially tailored video that the team at Cactus was lovely enough to cut for me.

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Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook:London kicks off tonight at 9pm on Good Food channel, followed by Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: Cosmopolitan Cook at 9.30pm.

I attended Rachel Khoo’s kitchen workshop for Foodepedia, which you can read about here.