Music in my kitchen: the weird & wonderful world of K-Pop

Recently I fell down a deep, dark hole. Its name was K-Pop.

It started with a joke on American Dad about boy bands with ridiculous amounts of members and lead to this video.

If I felt anything after watching EXO’s Overdose, it was deeply perplexed. I had so many questions. Did the pretty lady make it out of the maze? How many people are in the band and who’s the main singer? Did they steal that opener from Labyrinth? Who thought that a blonde bowl cut was a good idea?

This lead to more videos and more questions, but, slowly, one video at a time, I’d worked my way through BIG BANG, 2NE1, Girl’s Generation, Orange Caramel, B.A.P, SHINee and finally BTS. And so began my love affair with K-Pop – a sort of socially inappropriate boyfriend that you’d call if you were home alone but would never dream of introducing to your friends.

Quick facts about K-Pop

  • K-Pop is an entirely manufactured industry. A conveyor belt of pop that recruits future stars in their early teens using country-wide auditions. They’re then sent to bootcamps and rigourously trained before the best are divided into man-made groups, given a makeover (which can involve the K-Pop plastic surgery triple threat: eyelid, nose and chin surgery – yes, there are sites dedicated to spotting the surgery) and then debuted. Sort of like The X-Factor on steroids.

“We’re sick with work for half our days
We live sickly in our studios, our youths may rot away
But thanks to that, we’re running to success.” – Lyrics from BTS’s Dope

But hey, sacrificing your youth in pursuit of your popstar dreams, being put into a group with strangers that you have to share bunk beds with and spending evey minute of your life either training or performing must be worth it for the cash, right?

  • With Korea’s leading record label, SM Entertainment, posting a reported annual revenue of $1 Billion in 2013, you’d think that its stars would be banking the mega bucks. Not true, apparently. Unless you’re a megastar like BIG BANG’S G-Dragon (the undisputed daddy of K-Pop who, at 27 is worth around $8 million), the average K-Pop idol income is around 47 million won (£26,718) so, less than a London tube driver…and K-Pop stars will work nights.

Ah. But, when that magic formula works, it REALLY works. According to Forbes, SM entertainment’s artists played to a total audience of 2.5 million in 2010-2013 and their YouTube page got 1,000 views a second.

  • One of the most recognised K-Pop songs ever, Gangnam Style, has more than 2.5 BILLION views on YouTube. To put that into perspective, that’s more than Beyoncé’s Put a Ring on it, Love on Top, Run the World, Drunk in Love, Crazy in Love, Halo and If I Were a Boy combined.

And, with armies of fans across the world – due in part to the fact that Korean popstars can perform in multiple languages, including English, Japanese and Chinese – K-Pop is only going to get bigger. So you’d better brace yourself for the bonkers bubblegum, bullet-ridden onslaught.

10 reasons to love K-POP

The styling


To be honest, this could have just been a gallery of Korea’s leading trendsetter, the solo artist and BIG BANGer, G-Dragon, but that wouldn’t have been fair to some of the other exceptional efforts from bands like EXO, 2NE1 and SHINee.

The high production values

No one watches music videos anymore right? Well, we would if they made them like the Korean’s do. All you need is a loose theme, an acre of glitter, six costume changes and, as my friend put it, a banging donk. Oh, and an absolute ton of cold, hard cash. Some of the most expensive music videos outside of America have been K-Pop ones, like T-ara’s Cry Cry – a 20-minute musical soap opera that cost around $1,000,000 to produce or B.A.P’s gangster-themed gun-toting kidnapping montage for One Shot

The elaborate dance moves

It isn’t enough to be able to sing in a K-Pop group, you have to be able to dance like the lovechild of Michael Flatley and Usher. Every music video has a complicated routine, often involving some sort of gimmick like the shiny-gloved human centipede dancing in a pool of milk in TVXQ’s Catch Me

And, even when only a fraction of the actual routine is shown in the resulting video, the bands still release their full practice videos. You know, incase you feel like learning them of an afternoon…

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Let’s take a moment to appreciate this beautiful moment of symmetry from BTS’s Boy in Luv studio session

The obligatory rapping

Every K-Pop band has at least one rapper. It’s imperative, because how else would they sample American tracks and channel that oh so 90’s desire for, as Suga (BTS) puts it: “Big house, big cars and big rings” (and bitchin’ hood threads, too, obvs).

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However, no one does it better than Korea’s answer to Busta Rhymes, Outsider, or T.O.P from Big Bang. At least, I think so, I still have no idea what he’s saying, but I appreciate the Twin Peaks madness of his video.

The sheer volume of members in bands

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If K-Pop had a motto, it would be more is more. I mean, why have five people in a band when you can have ten and up the choreography difficulty to infinity? Also, bonus, with that many members, fans are bound to find someone to obsess over and, if a couple have to drop out to complete their obligatory military service, you’ve still got enough to maintain the vocal harmonies. Smart K-Pop, smart.

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The cultural mash-up

It’s no secret that K-Pop likes to imitate American and British culture. Sometimes it’s a little nod like a Sid Vicious T-Shirt or an overuse of the Union Jack, and sometimes they take it to the edge of too far, a la Big Bang’s gorgeously garish bedlam that is BANG BANG BANG.

The glittery gimp on a leash and THAT lacy shirt aside, this track is packed with a back catalogue of cultural appropriation, from Indian headresses and cowboys to lowriders, astronauts and American football shoulder pads.

It’s like a drinking game – take a shot every time you see a piece of Americana.

The English language fails

K-Pop is littered with token English words…usually used incorrectly. But then again, what isn’t sexy about being told “I really want to touch myself”, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know but I’m hard” or “you look like a door”.

The fan service

K-Poppers are treated almost like public property in Korea. On top of their shows they do endless promotional TV stints and behind the scenes programmes, from a wacky show invoking random choreography challenges and a plastic toy hammer called Weekly Idol to embarrassing shows like Intimate Moment, where stars who are perceived to not have close relationships with other brand members are forced to play games with each other all day until their pride is battered into non-existence and they’re the best of friends.
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Can you imagine any Brit pop star letting anyone have this much access? although…I wouldn’t mind seeing Noel and Liam Gallagher being forced to re-assess their relationship through two-person limbo and feeding each other…

Oh, and then there’s this advert from EXO-K for Baskin’ Robbins, which deserves a special mention…Strong.

The fact that they’re idiots

There’s a universe of #derp memes and macros out there celebrating the stupid side of K-Pop.

And can we talk about Aegyo?

Aegyo (Korean: 애교, hanja: 愛嬌) in Korean refers to a cute display of affection often expressed through a cute/baby voice, facial expressions, and gestures. Aegyo literally means behaving in a coquette-ish manner and is commonly expected for male and female k-pop idols to behave this way

If anyone was worrying about BTS’s mental state after their ‘we work like slaves’ lyrics in Dope, don’t. They’re fine.

Their videos MAKE NO SENSE

One of the most appealing things about K-Pop is that their videos. As beautifully produced and choreographed and manufactured to within an inch of their lives they are, they’re also, sometimes, bat shit crazy.

The most obvious example of this is Orange Caramel’s Catellena, which involves mermaid sushi, tears and cannibalism. I’ve watched this five times and am still none the wiser but have become unnaturally disturbed by the octopus and the feminist in me has become increasingly annoyed at the fact that they’ve slapped a price tag on their sushi bodies.

Surrender to the K-Pop, you know you want to…

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My Favourite Things: February

The book I couldn’t put down; the drink I could drink forever; someone’s wise words that stuck with me; the place I didn’t want to leave…sometimes all you want to do is fall in love all over again with the things you lusted after, adored and coveted last month.

The Album

Jungle by Jungle has been the backing track to everything this month, from drinking and dinner parties to frantically typing up work at my kitchen table.
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The Book

I rediscovered my love of Angela Carter in this little masterpiece. Beautifully written, heartbreakingly raw and fully explored in my review for February’s books coming this weekend.

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The Drink

There was no contest last month, it had to be this ridiculously healthy yet naughty tasting Sloe Beet cocktail from my favourite new south London haunt, London Grind.

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The Food

Last month it was more of an ingredient that I simply couldn’t stop eating, pomegranates!

The Images

In February I rediscovered Pinterest, which has lead, naturally, to hours being spent creating and curating colour-coordinated boards and little collections of dreams and loves. The board that grew the most was my pink one, Pretty in Pink. For some reason I couldn’t stop finding endless images of beautiful rosy things, so here are a few of my favourites.

The Movie

Last month I finally caught up on the final few Oscar nominated films I was yet to see. The last one I watched was Whiplash. I had put it off until the end, honestly thinking that I wouldn’t like it much.

I was wrong.

Whiplash may just be the best film I have seen in years, let alone a month. A powerful, brutal, bloody war epic of a music film with a throbbing, insistent and unflinching soundtrack that left me breathless and my jaw on the floor in awe. Full Metal Jacket with drums…although much better than that sounds.

See it. Now.

The Place

It was a close call between the wonderful The Word on the Water and Keats House in Hampstead, but in the end my happy place last month was in the salon at Keats House listening to historical flautist Yu-Wei Hu and guitarist Johan Lofving perform a programme inspired by Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale.

The Video

How could it be anything else other than this heart soaring video of Sergei Polunin dancing his flesh coloured tights off in an abandoned church?

Sergei Polunin, “Take Me to Church” by Hozier, Directed by David LaChapelle from David LaChapelle Studio on Vimeo.

The Want

I want these Alice High Heels from Boden. I want to wear them with ripped skinny jeans and a chunky cream knit and with black cigarette trousers and a crisp white shirt or worn-out denim dresses.

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The Words

From the mouth of the wonderful Angela Carter. Amen.

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Header Image: Julien Haler/Flickr

In pictures: Ten stories from Postman’s Park

I’ve been meaning to visit Postman’s Park ever since I moved to London but, somehow, something has always got in the way. Sometimes the weather, sometimes work, sometimes my own laziness. But last week, I finally made the trip to this little slice of solemn London to read about stories of sacrifice from ordinary, extraordinary people.

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Just a short walk from St Paul’s, this tiny park sits wedged against the walls of The Aldersgate Talks church and got its name because the workers from the old General Post Office used to eat lunch there everyday.

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In 1900, Victorian painter and philanthropist GF Watts installed a memorial to recognise and commemorate the heroic acts of Londoners and set their stories into glazed Doulton tiles for all visitors to see.

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On the day I visited there was a cold, weak sun like an undercooked egg leaking frigid light through the bare, skinny trees. Council gardeners were spreading fertiliser, striding through the damp and undernourished flowerbeds in eye-searing high vis jackets; wheeling barrow loads of foul-smelling muck to throw over the churned, red and raw scented earth.

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Workers were hunched against the benches in front of the plaques, scattering crumbs and sweet wrappers to the breeze and shifting either with irritation or discomfort as tourists, like myself, leaned over and looked past, studiously ignoring them to focus instead on the people pinned behind them.

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As I read about people I didn’t know and has previously never heard of, I became drawn in by simple, shared emotions: grief, fear, admiration. I read about children who died saving siblings and friends. Mothers who gave up their lives saving their babies. Men who sacrificed themselves in a single, split second decision to save someone else’s life.

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As I stood there and stared, slowly absorbing these lives, I started to forget the other people around me. I forgot to be annoyed when someone’s son started screaming about chocolate to a mother who was half-heatedly trying to interest him in the stories of kids not much older than her own who were suddenly, all in a moment, not here anymore.

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Instead I looked left and caught the eye of the elderly woman next to me and we smiled. Short and sad. A shared, paper thin sort of smile that acknowledged both how wondrous and wretched these stories were.

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It’s hard to read these stories yet you consume them tirelessly standing there in that small little patch of ground. It’s also hard to not to cry in Postman’s Park, not only from the sheer selflessness of it all, but also because of that awful, sneaking question that bubbles up and that you can’t quite quiet: could you do what these people have done?

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I couldn’t take pictures of all of the stories in Postman’s Park and these aren’t by any means favourites or ones that I have somehow deemed ‘most worthy’, they’re just ones that caught my eye.

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!

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.

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.

In Pictures: Cake making with Cake Boy’s Eric Lanlard

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It’s not everyday you get taught how to make a proper cake or truffles by a master in the field, but that was exactly what was on offer at Cake Boy, tucked away in the steel and glass playground of the renovated Battersea Reach for a pre-showing of Eric Lanlard’s upcoming P&O Cruises collaboration.

Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.

The award-winning pastry chef and chocolate expert offers regular chocolate work and cake decorating classes throughout the year at Cake Boy, and his patisserie pedigree is indisputable – only Lanlard can turn an ordinary eclair into a work of art – so who better to set sail with for a masterclass in The Cookery Club – the first cookery school that can be found on board a British cruise ship.

Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.

In fact, if you take a Food & Wine cruise on P&O’s ships sometime in the next few years you won’t just be shown how to make the perfect ganache torte by and award-winning patissier like the king of the macaroon Eric Lanlard, you’ll have the chance to go sailing with one of a fleet of newly-resident food experts as part of the cruise liner’s Food Heroes concept.

Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.

Lanlard is part of a nautical-cum-culinary roster that also includes Atul Kochhar, James Martin, wine expert Olly Smith and the formidable Marco Pierre White – with whom Foodepedia’s founder Nick Harman has recently been sailing to test his high seas cheffing metal.

Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.

My taster masterclass in the candy floss pink and prussian blue surrounds of Cake Boy was a slightly smaller affair than the 24-person maximum that P&O guests can expect on board, but it gave a flavour of things to come from the chef who’s famous for once working his way through the great Carême’s ancient ‘grande cuisine’ cookbook.

Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.

Lanlard in person is full of smiling chocolate-fuelled energy and determined to fix your cake-related woes offering advice on everything from cracked macaroons to flat sponges and, half-way through learning how to layer the perfect raspberry ganache cake using ladles of thick, creamy chocolate and some pre-made (I’m not sure Lanlard trusted a bunch of journalists enough to let us loose in his chocolate prep stations) chocolate swirls and scrolls, it’s obvious why he was top choice to join this new cruise and food concept.

Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.

Aside from being one of the most personable chefs I have ever met – he didn’t even flinch when I started squeezing my piping bag full of buttery sweet hazelnut goo onto a spoon destined for my mouth instead of my dark chocolate truffle casings – there isn’t much Lanlard doesn’t know about sweet treats and desserts, just take a look at some of the impossibly pretty jewelled cakes and tarts that cover every surface at Cake Boy for evidence of the breadth and depth of his craft.

Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.

Alongside his masterclasses, guests will be served an orginal afternoon tea in the fine dining restaurant Epicurean that’s been created by Lanlard especially for the seafaring occasion. Forget scones and clotted cream and think more along the lines of Persian candy floss, lychee pearls and air that’s been spritzed with Earl Grey perfume. Post ganache cake making and delicate, hazelnut praline truffle piping, we were given a taster of this intriguing afternoon tea, which could probably be summed up in two words: sinfully good.

Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.

My favourite image: me trying to ram my pretty cake into a box with all my usual delicacy and dexterity!

Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.Eric Lanlard Chocoalte Masterclass.

Eric Lanlard’s inaugural voyage sets sail in March 2015, see the P&O website for dates, booking information and more detail on their series of Food & Wine themed cruises.

Article originally written for the lovely chaps at Foodepedia.co.uk

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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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.