Beautiful Books: January

At the start of the year I set myself a challenge to read more in 2015. So I picked five books on everything from celestial signs and teenage abandonment to adulterous wives and mystical circuses for January and got stuck in.

Here’s what I thought of January’s beautiful books.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

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“We spend our entire lives thinking about death. Without that project to divert us, I expect we would all be dreadfully bored. We would have nothing to evade, and nothing to forestall, and nothing to wonder about. Time would have no consequence.”

The Luminaries has been on my intimidating must read list ever since it won the 2013 Man Booker Prize…and also because I knew it was written about a place in New Zealand that I visited all too briefly but fell quickly in love with: Hokitika. Set in the 1866 gold rush, the story navigates around emigré Walter Moody and the twelve, strange men (like the twelve signs of the zodiac, get it?) he meets on his arrival. The twelve are trying to uncover the reasons behind a series of local crimes and, along the way, a rich tapestry of drunks, whores, opium dens, missing men and discovered fortunes weave in and out of the complex story line.

Structured like the waning and waxing cycle of the moon, this book both transported and frustrated me. The sheer volume of plots and characters took time to get to grips with and Catton has an irritating knack of ripping the rug out from under your feet just as you’ve got settled in. At times bewildering, at times brilliant and, at times, frankly boring; this isn’t a book to take on lightly. I wasn’t sure what to make of Catton’s tome when I finally turned the last page on the final, diminutive chapter, but, perversely, I am thinking about reading it again…because something about this extraordinary book has stuck with me.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

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“The denigration of those we love always detaches us from them in some degree. Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.”

After I started this canary yellow copy of the classic French novel I began to wonder why I had never read it before. It was Flaubert’s debut novel and followed a mild mannered, vaguely boring doctor called Charles Bovary, who met, fell in love with and married Emma Rouault – an adulterous, tempestuous woman obsessed with the romance and luxury she has absorbed from years spent devouring fantastical works of fiction.

As she embarks on ever bigger affairs and begins to loose herself to her self-concoted idea of love and luxury, everything begins to crumble around her; while her husband remains staid and loyal to the bitter (very bitter) end. This is neither a story with a happy ending nor a cautionary tale on the dangers of being immoral and lustful; it’s  a beautifully written, tragic story of the pursuit of romance at all cost that perfectly shows off Flaubert’s never-ending quest to find le mot juste – the perfect word.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

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“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

This gorgeous book introduced me to a lovely new word – phantasmagorical – and had me gripped from page one, which doesn’t start with a block of prose but with a poetic stream of consciousness that begins: “The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

In the beginning, two magicians make a bet as to who can raise the best assistant. Prospero the Enchanter chooses his daughter, Celia Bowen and the enigmatic Mr A.H. picks an orphan, Marco Alisdair; sequestering him away in a world of books and rote learning until he is ready to challenge Celia in an epic battle of will, might and magic to the death.  This was utterly immersive, with each story, line and word interwoven with the ever present spectre of the night circus; a place of mysticism and wonder populated by tattooed contortionists, eerie white fires, floating cloud mazes and impossible magic tricks that seems to appear and vanish at will, swallowed into or simply becoming part of the night itself.

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

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“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”

This was the book I couldn’t wait to start reading and one that everyone and their dog had recommended to me. Plus, when you’re given a particularly beautiful hardback copy like the one I was, there’s an extra incentive to want to grab it at the earliest opportunity. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, Jessie Burton has created a historical masterpiece where every detail and nuance has been impeccably researched. The story revolves around Nella Oortman as she settles into the house of her new husband, a rich merchant called Johannes Brandt.

He gives her an exact replica of their house as a present and she begins to fill it with tiny furniture and miniature things, however, as the story moves and the tiny house fills, a sense of some unusual power at work pushes itself to the forefront. I don’t want to reveal or ruin any of this novel’s creeping unease, but all I will say is this is a powerful story – full of exquisitely crafted passages and plot twists – that grabs you and refuses to let go. I demolished this book in two days.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, Haruki Murakami

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“The truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand. As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.”

I have been in love with Murakami since I read Kafka on the Shore while travelling years ago and was over the moon when a good friend gave me Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki for my last birthday. I’ve been saving it for just the right moment, and waking on new year’s day seemed just the right time to start. There’s something about Murakami’s writing; his measured, restrained prose; his pared back explanations of everyday Japanese life; his inscrutable characters and his stark, unexpected injections of frenetic sexual activity, which often pop up in wild dreamscapes.

This book felt very much like a classic Murakami. It follows Tsukuru Tazaki, a high schooler in Nagoya with a close-knit group of four friends, each who have names that mean a colour: Aka/Red, Ao/Blue, Shiro/White and Kuro/Black. Suddenly, without warning or reason, these four friends cut all ties with Tazaki and he is set adrift, grey, depressed and very much alone. The book follows his gradual return to some semblance of normal life and the journey he embarks on to discover just what happened all those years ago.

As Murakami books go, this was a slow burner, seeped in sadness and full of long, drawn out, contemplative discussions. Although it still had all the familiar accents – the frequent simple suppers, the cameo from Cutty Sark whiskey and the background of jazz and classical music – that keep me wanting to read Murakami’s novels.

Getting through these books in one month has been a challenge, especially since I stupidly picked The Luminaries, which is a whopping 832 pages long. To save my eyes, and my face considering how many times I fell asleep and dropped The Luminaries on it this month – February’s five books are all a little slimmer and I can’t wait to get started.

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I’d love to hear if anyone has read anything so far this year that they recommend, I’m always on the hunt for new books to get my teeth into!

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Sun, sea and silver sardines: Malaga memories of El Cabra

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“It’s just down here. Come on, I’m hungry.”

I heard his voice but lost sight of Antonio as his black cloud of curly hair dissappeared around the white-washed wall and his voice floated just out of reach at the end of the alley.

I peered down, my eyes screwed up against the white hot glare of Malaga’s late June sunshine. I shrugged thinking, well, at least he knows where he’s going and padded down after him, pinned to the sliver of shade that dripped from squat houses, which seemed to have slumped against the heat.

As I reached the end of the alley – wondering why I had decided to lug my stupidly heavy DSLR and with the heat from the bleached, sand-worn stones burning through the soles my thin summer sandals – I glanced up and saw a sign for Pedregalejo.

When I rounded the corner, the mouth of the alley opened up and joined the curve of the Pedragalejo beachfront: a narrow strip of greyish sand littered with rainbow-coloured sun umbrellas, the rocky fingers of the manmade reefs pointing out into the bay.

As Antonio led me along the line of shoreside restaurants I read the names that were painted onto beached boats that had been transformed into smoking bbqs; Las Palmeras, Mar de Pedragalejo; La Paloma. We stopped under the awning of one half way along. I had a moment to glance back out to sea and scan the name of this particular place, just noticing a white-haired man in a cap leaning over something that was sizzling over the flames before I was nudged into a seat next to the promenade. El Cabra.

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Nearby, chubby, sweat beaded boys were kicking neon pink footballs on the scrubby grass, and, further towards the sea, I could hear the shrieks of local girls as they were thrown into the foaming, icy waves by sunburnt men with tattooed torsos; the girls’ thick swathes of hair scything the hot air like damp black velvet and showering unlucky sunbathers in tepid rainfalls as they sprinted past.

Tall african men sauntered around, some with at least four pairs of glasses on, clutching racks of knock-off Raybans, eyes scanning the restaurant fronts for tourists; bands of lime green, gold and tortoiseshell pushed up their foreheads like plastic bandanas.

“Only locals come here really. That and tourists if they have good guides.”

Antonio winked at me before waving away the menu and ordering wine for him and beer for me and explaining why this is his favourite place to eat the local speciality: skinny, silver sardines; freshly caught and chargrilled over the flames.

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As I wiped the condensation from my beer bottle, trying not to notice the huge picture of Xabi Alonso that decorated it (I visited after Spain had been knocked out of the World Cup and any attempt to talk about it was met with stony silence), the first plate of seafood arrived.

There didn’t seem to be much of a menu here and no one else seemed to speak much English, but, when the dishes started coming I realised that that was part of the charm. You got served what was fresh that day and were served it in abundance.

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Bowls of impossibly sweet little clams dripping in butter and sharp with white wine; huge, coral-coloured mussels steamed gently open and served with wedges of lemon to squeeze over their tender flesh; salads of bright scarlet peppers with tuna and raw onion soaked in olive oil and sea salt; towers of golden fried whitebait and rings of crispy calamari and, when I was protesting the arrival of more, the ‘sardinas’, their silver skin burnt ash blonde and curling away from the soft, salty meat underneath.

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As the meal was tapering off and Anotnio was trying to force a shot of limoncello down me, promising it was a Spanish lunchtime tradition, a blast of music startled me. I swung in my seat to see a middle aged man with a portable kareoke box that couldn’t have looked more out of place on a beach if he tried.

He looked so incongruous, standing there in smart black trousers, polished, pointed shoes and an embroidered shirt, unbuttoned to the bone of his sternum, wiry chest hair spilling over the top button and hair from his impressive mullet falling past his collar. Without hesitation, he launched into a rendition of Sinatra’s My Way in heavily-accented English, the tinny sound of his jukebox crackling against his surprisingly mellow voice.

Antonio laughed at my bemused expression and explained that the singing man was a regular fixture on this stretch of beach and he’d be round after his performance, asking for tips.

“We should dance.” he said suddenly, his brown eyes dark with mischief, before bursting into fits of laughter at my panicked expression.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding! You British girls are so proper, so easy to make fun…unless…do you want to?”

He was looking at me through a thick fan of black lashes across the table, still grinning as his hand stretched over, palm facing up and reaching for mine.

“No!” I screeched, wrenching my arm back as though he might burn me, blushing furiously and startling the couple eating next to us.

“No one else is dancing; I can’t dance; I’ve just eaten; I’m supposed to be on a serious press trip.”

Even as I said the last one I realised how silly it sounded. I cringed inwardly, sarcastically congratulating myself once again for succeeding in maintaining an aura of professionalism at all times.

Antonio was still making fun of me when the bill arrived.

As we walked back out into the afternoon haze I caught the eye of El Cabra’s grill master and paused, asking Antonio if I could meet him.

He shurgged and helped me down the sand-covered steps before calling out to the man in an unintelligable stream of Spanish. But the man, having clocked the heavy camera poised for a shot in my hands, cut him off, grinned and turned to grab a plate of freshly grilled sardines and posed, his eyes staring of into the middle distance.

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I still look at that picture today, there’s something about it, something that reminds me of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner or The Old Man and the Sea. It’s his eyes you see; scrunched up and burning like gimlets in the lines of his leathery face. That and the memory of the salt and the sharp lemon from the lunch.

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It’s his thousand mile stare and remembering the scratchy heat of the sand under my heels on the bay and the smell of the sea, tinged with an edge of woodsmoke and the faint tang of sweat and suncream.

That meal, that view, that picture and that memory of the silvered fish at El Cabra that afternoon has become the Malaga I remember.

El Cabra, Paseo Marítimo Pedregal 17, Playa de Pedregalejo, Malaga, Spain (+34) 952-291-595 www.restauranteelcabra.es/

I was shown around Malaga as a guest of the Malagan tourism board and Monarch Airlines. You can read all about my sunny Spanish adventuring here.

One big beetroot burger at Brockwell’s Lido Cafe

Sitting by the window as the cold Winter sunlight burnt through, shimmering off the cobalt and chlorine-hued water of the pool; the air full of roasting coffee beans and the shrieks of nearby children, I could have almost convinced myself I was on holiday and not by Brockwell Lido, which is, incidentally, exactly where I was.

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I’m a south Londoner and have braved the unheated waters of Brockwell Lido’s outdoor pool before, but I can’t think why I’d never been to the cafe, especially considering its growing reputation for fresh, accessibly priced British cuisine in unpretentious surroundings. Apparently all it took to lure me inside this small, sunlit restaurant was their latest offer: a Wednesday burger deal that combines the cafe’s bestseller with a choice of beer or soft drink for the very reasonable price of £10.

The afternoon I visited, the cream-coloured cafe was dressed down for a relaxed lunchtime service with brightly-coloured paper balls floating like suspended sea cabbages or jellyfish above the banks of laptop toting freelancers who sat sipping coffee, facing outwards to the sweeping views over the terrace and across the sharp, cold blue of the pool.

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The first thing I noticed was the drinks menu, which caught me off guard with its comprehensiveness. It’s not often you come across a poolside cafe that offers three types of 10-year-old single malt, ice cream milkshakes, craft ales and hot cocktails. Although the hot cocktails make sense when you think about the tenacious winter swimmers who probably head to the cafe post bracing dip to revive their numb muscles with something like the Dirty Chai Toddy – Rebel Yell bourbon, espresso and chai syrup, £7.00.

The lunch menu is filled with bistro staples like smoked haddock fishcakes and charcuterie platters, but I’m here to sample the burgers. Spurred on by a general feeling of sunny well being and my proximity to the pool (which by proxy feels as though I’ve shared in some sort of communal exercise) I opt for the healthy option, eschewing the tempting dry aged rare beef burger for the lighter option: a beetroot burger with a side of buttermilk slaw and twice cooked chips and a huge, violently green smoothie.

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When the burger arrives, sandwiched between a toasted brioche and spilling over with proper gherkins, fat beefsteak tomato slices and fan-sized leaves of lettuce, there’s no lingering disappointment over not choosing the meat option.

The fat beetroot patty is a dense as any beef burger I’ve had and is studded with interesting morsels of sunflower seeds, oats and the sharp tang of feta cheese. The slightly sour, creamy buttermilk covered slaw cuts through what should be a fatty dish and the twice cooked chips are pleasing, if a little more like eating crispy coating than actual potato. It’s so filling, in fact, that I can’t finish it and have to apologise to the smiling waitress as she edges forward gingerly to clear my leftovers away.

As the sun through the window gets stronger and the place begins to fills up with lunchtime parties and grandparents coaxing ketchup smeared toddlers to eat their greens, it’s all to easy to slip into a food stupor. Warmed by a frankly delicious cup of coffee (they use Allpress Direct Trade beans here) I’m already planning my next visit…although next time it might be a wise idea to make it into the pool and work off the burger before hand.

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Lido Cafe’s burger offer of a burger (beef or beet) plus a beer or soft drink of your choice is available every Wednesday in January, see www.thelidocafe.com for more details.

Dulwich Road, Brockwell Lido, London SE24 0PA http://www.thelidocafe.co.uk

Originally written for Foodepedia.co.uk

Beat the block: five things that help me write

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

Writing can be a tricky thing. Especially if you end up writing for a living as well as for pleasure. It can very quickly seem like a chore, one that doesn’t even give you the opportunity the throw an artistic hissy fit and refuse to do anything because, as a freelancer, my words are my bread and butter.

And it doesn’t help that impressively prolific romantic poets like Keats and Wordsworth set their standards for writing so high. I’m not too sure how naturally Keats’ poetry would have come to him if he was on deadline and writing mind-numbingly dull copy on a pay-per-word basis. Wordsworth once called his writing “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, which sometimes it is, but then again there are always times when the words aren’t even trickling out, let alone overflowing. When this happens for me, I try one of the below to help ease that dreaded writer’s block.

b78bea2088c7e3afce571a3472817b55 1. Sort your life out. Trying to write when you’re surrounded by mess that has built up because you’re trying to ignore it while you write is, for me anyway, pointless. If I’m sitting in a kitchen that hasn’t been cleaned for weeks or in my room when it’s decorated with used clothes and empty cups, all I can do is fret over having to tackle the mess at that indefinable point in time ‘after I’ve done some work’, which invariably means I don’t get anything written because I know what’s looming post work.

If you have tidy surroundings before you start you’ve got no excuse to do anything but write.

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2. Get inspired. When you can’t get the words out and you’ve been staring at a blank page for the last hour and a half it’s easy to despair. Sometime looking around my room all I notice is peeling paint or that messy drawer that could be re-arranged…I don’t see potential stories or article pitches. Sometimes I see nothing at all. Everything goes completely blank and not in the pleasing black canvas ideal, more in the black hole of nothingness sense.

If I can’t think of anything I’ll fill my head with the thoughts, images and words of other inspirational people and hope somethings rubs off and I have a eureka moment during the process. When I need inspiring I go here:

BoredPanda.com – like buzz feed but with more art and incredible imagery. It was also where I found the work of Erik Johansson and JeeYoung Lee.

Messy Nessy Chic – a blog on offbeat travel destinations and photo diaries of the unusual and the obscure. See the inspiration vault for an endless source of joy like this post: A Compendium of Abandoned Greenhouses.

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The National Portrait Gallery – From the crowds of tourists and locals who visit to the thousands of pictures on the walls, it’s hard not to loose yourself in these images of faces past and present.

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The British Library’s Reading Room – I don’t think there’s a better way to be inspired to write than being surrounded, from floor to ceiling with words.

The British Library Reading Room inside the British Museum, Bloomsbury, before the move of the British Library to its current location at St.Pancras.

If all else fails, these writers never fail to inspire me:

3. Take a dance break. Ok, so this will probably sound utterly ridiculous, but when I’ve been scrunched up writing furiously for hours I often feel like a corpse riddled with rigour mortis. There are also times when words won’t come; when I’ve spilled a fifth cup of coffee down me or over my notepad; when a feature falls through at the last moment; when I can’t find any work at all and I think about the looming rent…times when all I can do is stand up in my kitchen, put a song on and engage in that most mental of alone time activities: the dance like no one is watching dance.

I’ve been caught out many a time doing these dances. Mainly by flatmates coming home early and once by a bemused window cleaner, but all I know is I feel immeasurable better for having done them…even if I do have all the smooth moves of a chicken having a seizure. These are the songs that never fail to get me moving for three minutes.

4. Get out of the house. When I’m freelancing I can often be found sitting at my kitchen table, usually in my dressing gown, desperately looking for things to do to distract myself from work. I’ve found myself doing everything, including cooking elaborate three course meals for one and scrubbing the underside of chairs, to avoid getting onto the task in hand.

There’s a very unique sort of embarrassment that comes with this territory that often involves answering the door semi-dressed at three in the afternoon to delivery men who assume you’re off sick from work; or facing your housemates who trot in suited and booted from work at 6pm to be greeted by the sight of you, still in your dressing gown (which potentially has food stains down it by now) in the same position they left you in ten hours ago.

There’s only one way I can beat this writing-induced rut and that’s to escape. Nothing clears my mind or focuses me like a walk around one of the Commons (Clapham, Wandsworth or Tooting) near me or an afternoon spent in a coffee shop typing away. Not only will it give you a change of scenery and rescue you from ironing every sock in the house, it will also force you to get dressed, which is always a bonus.

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You wouldn’t be alone either, other famous writers like Ernest Hemingway and JK Rowling have all retreated to cafes to get their work done…although I haven’t quite found anywhere as inspirational to write in as Hemingway’s Les Deux Magots in Paris.

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There are lots of lovely places to hide out in London, my favourites are The Lido Cafe in Herne Hill, where you can watch the swimmers do lazy laps as you type on their sunny terrace; The Black Lab on Clapham Common Southside, which has divine coffee and a quiet bank of seats at the back that’s ideal for freelancers and The Wellcome Cafe on Euston Road, which has the added benefit of letting you explore The Wellcome Collection’s latest free exhibit for inspiration. The current one is an intimate look at sex called The Institute of Sexology and is running until September 2015.

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5. Just write. Write anything. This sounds simple, but when you’re faced with an intimidatingly blank page, that flashing curser can seem as terrifying a spectre as Edgar Allen Poe’s raven  and it’s often hard to scribble anything. When this happens I always try to write around what I am meant to be writing. I write adjectives I like, sensations, memories and names and their surrounding semantic fields. I write to do lists; I pen fragments of short stories, I simply write phrases that I like the sound of; emails to old friends or random thoughts that do – with a little coaxing and a lot of editing – eventually turn into finished articles and posts.

There’s nothing harder than starting to write if you’re out of practice, but if you force yourself to write for a few hours each day you’ll be surprised at how naturally it begins to come…perhaps even as naturally as the leaves to a tree.

Food for Thought: Ethos Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written for Foodepedia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons learned in 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wants and wishes for 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– I will visit different boroughs outside of my comfort zone

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

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Image: As the Bird Flies

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