How to talk about wine, without sounding like a wanker

I grew up watching the peerless Jilly Goolden inhaling glasses of wine and gesticulating about how she could smell old leather watchstraps, romps in sun-ripened hay bales and elderflower-draped forests; so naturally, that’s just how I thought most people chatted about wine.

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That was until I found myself working in wine, specifically writing about it for M&S, and I quickly realised how much of a complete pillock you sound if you fall into the common traps of wine wanker chat.

Here’s a starter for ten: don’t use industry words like ‘mouthfeel’ or describe a wine as ‘turgid’ and never give it human characteristics like ‘confident’, ‘brave’ or ‘sexy’ – not only do they sound inherently stupid, they say bugger all about what the wine actually tastes like. I’ve done all of these before and now tread that precarious journalistic line between informative and douchey on a daily basis.

Somebody who drinks wine pretentiously in the company of others to show off their knowledge and try to make other people feel inferior.”
“It was really embarrassing seeing Declan complain about all the wines we drank just to get attention. What a wine wanker!”

Most people can say they understand a bit about wine these days and have an inkling of what they’re buying. You tell people you’re stoking the fires for a BBQ and they’ll crack out a full-bodied red from the safe regions of Rioja or an Argentinian malbec. Basically, it boils down to three things: what does it taste like, what can I eat it with and (if you’re a connoisseur of the supermarket wine aisles) is it in the gifting appropriate price bracket of £10-18.

So, how do you talk about an event and tell people about wine they haven’t drunk and food they haven’t eaten if you can’t rely on a bit of Brontë-esque frippery in your writing?

But there I was a month or so ago, elbow-to-elbow at the Andaz hotel for the Bacchus on a Knife Edge (no, I still don’t know what was on-edge about it) with a roomful of writers and bloggers doing just that.

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After the crab and cucumber canapés and delicate rounds of buttery cod fishcakes with Scandi remoulade from Italian-Norwegian duo Nordish, the wine chat began in earnest.

And I was right in the thick of it, crossing from Brontë to bullshit in an instant as I compared the canapés matched to a salt-laced, citrus-spiked Petit Chablis as “like breathing in the seashore in winter.”

It got worse. There followed a starter from Pickled Plates of cod with roasted baby radish salad and tempura samphire paired with a La Boissonneause chablis. I distinctly remember describing it as “tasting like an English garden smells. It tastes green: like the first slice of spring.” What. A. Prat.

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There are far more interesting things to talk about when it comes to La Boissonneause, like how it comes from one of Chablis’ first organic and biodynamic vineyards; or how they mix nettles, sage and lavender with manure from their on-site, free-range cows and, come Equinox, bury the brew in the vineyard in the cow’s horns to be re-discovered the following Equinox and homeopathically applied to the vines.

Now, in my defense, if you’re going to wax lyrical about a wine, it might as well be a chablis. It’s the kind of beautifully complex white that comes with its own hazy semantic field of delicious words swimming around it. Chablis is aniseed, fennel, lemon and sherbet. It’s lime and salt and oysters. It’s earthy and buttery and mineral. It is, in short, worthy of pratting about over.

And even its own producers agree. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for blood to be spilled over terroir territory wars, or for famous chablis-producing families to marry off their kids to improve their grape stocks.

So I could, in theory, take you all the way to wanker town, where we talk about crisp whites shivering with freshness like a milky-white virgin in a dew-slicked meadow. Where we describe chablis as a sibilant sylph of a wine, lisping lemony with the siren call of the French coastline. But that probably wouldn’t tell you much about the wine we drank.

So let’s leave the clay and the chalky soil and the sweep of the shore and talk instead about the room in London near Liverpool Street station, where, against the bottle-lined walls, people sat and ate and drank. We could talk about how we all argued over whether or not the Japanese rice that the soy and mirin-doused pork steaks came on was meant to be served as soft and slippery as rice pudding comes in boarding school – amniotic and squelching and slopped out by lunch matrons with arms like mutton: russet-veined and marble muscled…but then we’d be heading back to wanker town.

So let’s talk about the wine that came after A Little Lusciousness‘s punchy pork instead, which was a slurp into the big boys of the region:

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“Cru” is used to indicate a named and legally defined vineyard, which grows on a reputed terroir; by extension of good quality.  The term cru is used within classifications of French wine in Bordeaux and Burgundy, as others have indicated in their answers.

The terms “Premier Cru”, “Grand Cru” are translated as “First Growth”, and “Great Growth”. These designate levels of presumed quality that are variously defined in different wine regions.”

So, I suppose the salient point you’re after is why should you care about chablis. Well, apart from being a universally crowd-pleasing white with the sort of gravitas that means it’s never out of place at a party or as a present, it’s also about to hit a dry patch.

2016 has been, so far, an annus horribilis for the region. Following hail and floods in May, there’s going to be around 50% less chablis produced than expected this year. So, if you’ve got nothing else from this, the main take away is: it’s good, get some now. Cheers!

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To The Lighthouse: A Day at Trinity Buoy Wharf

As I’m sure you already know, (what with all the pictures of kids dressed up at their favourite fictional characters being posted all around the world) yesterday was National Book Day and, in honour of one of my best-loved books, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I decided to go to London’s only lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

“She felt… how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.”

So I ventured far out east, through the scrabbling phalanx of suited office workers scuttling like ants around Bank station and out on the DLR to East India Docks.

Walking past the mud-churned waters of The Thames, along the edge where tiny moorhens and hulking seagulls were nosing through the debris that surfaced as the water peeled away from the mud at low tide, I discovered that it’s actually quite hard to miss Trinity Buoy Wharf.

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Even more so now considering that the whole area here near London City Island is undergoing a major facelift and the under contraction areas are currently fenced off with iron gates and patrolled by high-vis wearing sentries.

The site has been a workshop for crafting beacons, marks and signs for the sea since Trinity House’s corporation of mariners and shipmen moved in in Tudor times. TBW was closed more than 450 years later in  1988 when it was purchased by the London Docklands Development Corporation.

In 1996, Urban Space Management took the site on a long lease and today, this industrial enclave has taken on a decidedly cultural edge with everyone from design students at the University of East London to opera companies making their home in the cavernous warehouse studios, old stone houses and Crate City – lego stacked and primary colour painted metal crates. It’s even home to the London Parcour Academy.

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As I wandered around, the brackish breeze with its edge of burning rubbish rising up from the water and swirling around me, I realised that TBW has managed to achieve something rare in London.

They’ve made a place that’s interesting without being heaving with tourists; historic without being pretentious; gentrified without feeling privileged and cool without feeling remotely hipster.

I could have spent all day here, but only had a morning, which was just enough time to squeeze in the following.

10 things to do at Trinity Buoy Wharf

1. See London’s last remaining lighthouse

Designed and built by James Douglass in 1864, this elegantly-wrought lighthouse is the last one standing in modern day London.  The caramel-coloured stone edifice with its honeycomb hat of metal and glass was dubbed the Experimental Light house after the work done in its eaves by the scientist Michael Faraday.

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2. Experience The Faraday Effect

Designed by Fourth Wall Creations, The Faraday Effect is a tiny, multi-sensory and interactive museum and one of the smallest collections of curiosities in London. Despite its diminutive size, you’ll be surprised at how long you can spend in this tardis of a museum learning about the life and work of Michael Faraday, the famous Scientific Advisor to Trinity House.

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3. Seek out the sculptures

Alongside the wood that’s been painted cobalt and burgundy and around the scarlet and banana yellow metal crates, there are softly rusted and worn metal sculptures to be found.

Many of these are moving machines made by Andrew Baldwin and are scattered around the wharf, but below piece was created by Yoshie Jujioka using items found lying around LBW and now sits on the side of the Boiler House.

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4. Check out the big red boat

This colossal crimson ship moored behind the Big Boys Diner isn’t quite what it seems. It’s owned by Ben Phillips, an engineer who bought the 500 tonne lightship at an auction and converted it into an audio recording studio, renaming it Lightship95 along the way.

You can’t exactly just hop aboard if you feel like it, but you can book a recording session on the boat by emailing ben@lightship95.com.

Besides, even if you aren’t a budding musician, this brute of a boat makes for spectacular viewing from the safety of the dock.

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5. Liston to tides of The Thames with the Floodtide Listening Post

As I was standing and admiring the view in front of the Aluna clock, I was jolted out of my reverie by the metallic whispering that grew in volume until it sounded like the chirping of a steam engine. Turning around I realised that the noise was coming from a rust-covered post that dripped gleaming steal pipes like a trident.

The ingenious Floodtide Listening Post is a mechanical music machine that plays notes determined by the rise and fall and the sweep and wash of the river Thames’ tides.

The sweet, reedy lament of the pipes wasn’t exactly how I imagined the oily, clouded depths of The Thames would sound if it spoke, but this siren song shouldn’t be missed.

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6. Take in the view

From the docks, across the chocolate-coloured water, the sky opens up and you can see the spindly, latticed bridges stretching out and clutching on to cobalt blue cargo boats; the hive of activity smashing around the adjacent industrial sites and the spikes of the O2 building stretching upwards, where the cable cars of the Emirates Air Line dip and sway between fat, fluffy shreds of cloud.

It may not be the prettiest view of London, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting.

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7. Spot the details

My favourite thing about TBW was its smattering of curious objects and adornments, from the abandoned carcasses of super-sized letters and sumo wrestlers locked in battle on barrel lids to easy-to-miss carvings and decorations.

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8. Go on a graffiti hunt

As well as Electric Soup – the zany under the sea mural painted by New Zealand Artist Bruce Mahalski over a former shop front on Orchard Place – there are lots of ever changing and vividly-coloured tags and paintings all along the walkway from East India Docks DLR station to the water’s edge at TBW, just keep your eyes peeled to spot them.

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9. Learn to tell Alunatime

Sticking up from its stone foundation like a rusty lollipop, the Alunatime is the city’s first (and probably only) moon and tide clock.

Powered by the tides, the intricacies of the lunar phases and tide cycles are etched into its circular base and chart the natural rhythms of the Earth. It’s rumoured that this Alunatime is acting as an early version of the huge one that’s planned for Greenwich Peninsula, so you’d better get to grips with your lunar cycles now.

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10. Satisfy your hunger pangs at Fat Boys Diner

Nestled amid the box crates and beached boats is Fat Boys Diner, an American incongruity that seems curiously at home at TBW.

Designed and decked out like a real diner with cream and maroon leather booths, table-sized jukeboxes and a long stretch of formica bar, this natty little place serves up Americana classics like cheeseburgers, malted milkshakes, grilled cheese sandwiches and, of course, gigantic slabs of apple pie.

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Fatboy Diner

As the weather was so gloriously lovely, I couldn’t resist filling my camera’s memory card with a whole reel of colourful images from the docks.

Here are just a few more of my favourites.

 

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.

In Pictures: Word on the Water

I’ve just opened a book that I levered off the heaving shelf in the next room, unconsciously perching on the threadbare pew that’s nudging the backs of my knees as I turn the bruised and pleasingly used pages.

“The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda. The hour was approaching six, and up in the compound’s solitary tree the sparrows began to call. Gustad listened to their chirping every morning while reciting his kusti prayers. There was something reassuring about it. Always, the sparrows were first; the cawing of crows came later.

From a few flats away, the metallic clatter of pots and pans began nibbling at the edges of stillness…”

Certain pages are bent and folded; stained where fingers have traced over the ink of complicated passages or favourite phrases that have been memorised and pocketed away for later. Music from Porgy and Bess is spilling around, warming the whisps of the dank, winter’s day that are seeping in through the open door, dragging themselves along the dark floorboards to sit grey and heavy on my chest.

When the wind changes the air is flooded with an acrid tang of burning fuel that briefly masks the comforting smell of old dust and second-hand paper. Someone’s feet startle me out of the corner of my eye, stamping through the passage I was reading as they pause, somewhere between my head and the low ceiling.

As they continue past, I realise that the floor underneath me is moving. It lurches gently as the books on the shelf that were once perfectly level are suddenly and disconcertingly skewed and my stomach takes a slow tumble. Although I should have anticipated that really, because I’m on a Dutch book barge, where words float on water.

Keats’ chosen epitaph was “here lies one whose name was writ in water”, but luckily this watery writing hub has a little  more permanence. Founded by affable owner Paddy Screech as a solution to the threat of rising overheads involved in owning an independent shop in the capital,  this 100-year-old barge has been converted into a book-lovers’ paradise with shelves groaning under the weight of reasonably-priced (two paperbacks for £5, if you were wondering) books penned by everyone from philosophers and criminologists to Booker Prize winners.

Word on the Water changes location every so often, but for the time being it can be found moored on the murky canal just below Granary Square in King’s Cross. Marooned on the greyish waters, this is a little shop quite unlike any other and is full of little eccentricities that make it disarmingly charming – like the resident little buddha with its tattered prayer flags or the forlorn Noah’s Ark bookends propped against the encyclopaedias above the old, coal-blackened stove.

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Word on the Water might not have such a happy ending, however. The Canal & River Trust, which awards permanent moorings to worthy applicants, has just decided to give preciously rare trade moorings in Paddington away to a multi-billion pound property company British Land instead of this floating world of literature.

There’s a petition on Change.org you can sign if you think the council should reverse its decision. I’ve already signed it and urge others to do so – they only need 313 more signatures and it would be a real shame if this unique shop had to close.

Last Words…

The book barge is cash only – I stupidly forgot to bring any so couldn’t leave with the book I started.

If you get peckish, there are lots of brilliant places to eat a stone’s throw from Word on the Water. Try Caravan for exceptional coffee and brunch grub; The Grain Store for interesting all-day nibbles like spiced lentil cake with cucumber salad and banana ketchup or my favourite, Dishoom.

Sitting in one of their summer house cane and leather chairs sipping chai and smelling incense feels like visiting the days of the Old Raj. Don’t leave without trying one of their impossibly creamy mango and fennel lassis or their chargrilled paneer and green chilli Roomali roti rolls.

Review: Paying Homage at Homage, Waldorf Hilton

The Waldorf Hilton London, Aldwych, London WC2B 4DD /  www.homageatthewaldorf.com

I don’t make it into the West End of London much these days, that is, unless someone lovely has splashed out on a couple of cut-price theatre tickets and wants to share the frustration of taking turns to peer around an inconveniently placed pillar with me; or an out-of-towner who doesn’t know London decides that meeting ‘somewhere on The Strand’ would be a good idea.

But everytime I do venture out West, I’m always struck – and not just by the surging crowds of tourists armed with telescopic camera lenses, golf umbrellas and fun-size Primark bags – but by just how bloody beautiful this corner of grand old London really is. So I was delighted to hear that one of the grandest old dames off The Strand in Aldwych had a new chef and wanted someone to eat their way through its new menu.

3. Homage Grand Salon

The Waldorf Hilton has been welcoming glitterati like Dame Judi Dench and Elizabeth Taylor through its doors since 1908, but their new chef in the hotel’s Homage Restaurant, Richard Prendergast has only been around since May of this year and he comes with an impressive CV, with stints at hotels like The InterContinental Park Lane and The Grosvenor under his culinary belt.

The setting is as you’d expect: a smiling doorman, a dimly-lit, plush interior that’s more Mad Men than Middle Eastern opulence and a relaxed atmosphere that practically propels you into the nearest sofa and puts a glass of wine in your hand.  Homage itself is a homage to the roaring 20s, all cream pillars, nut-brown parquet floors and chandeliers that dripped crystal from the double-height ceilings.

My dining partner S and I were barely seated before the meal had begun, with waiters as silent and discreet as well-oiled ninjas appeared with freshly-baked bread and chunks of chilled butter, water and wine and barely missing a beat before arriving with our starters. S opted for a perfectly pleasing but unremarkable goats cheese and fig salad while I had the Carpaccio made from 30 day hung Scottish beef and served with a wild rocket salad and aged Parmesan, which appeared on the plate like two ruby-centred meat doilies with seared, feathery edges and were delicious, if a little thicker and tougher towards their chubby centres.

S and I hadn’t seen each other for a while, so the very fact that the arrival of the main courses actually caused a prolonged concentrated conversation break as we dissected our food, polished silverware flashing, must surely be a testament to the quality of the food, well that and we were hungry – expect to find refined potions here, not plates that are full to bursting. S’s pork came soft and unctuous, glistening with a sort of prune jam that proved, in the end to be that touch too sweet while my little fillet of butter-soft trout came with a tasty if sparse buttery, creamy sauce and some delicious little shrimp and was strewn with summer veg and pillowy blobs of herb gnocchi.

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This was swiftly rounded off by Homage’s famous Amalfi lemon tart. Lipsmackingly zesty it was, but exceptional? I think I need to go back and have another slice to be utterly sure as I’m not sure the flavour lingered long enough to warrant the ‘acclaimed’ accolade it has garnered.

It’s hard to innovate a typically classic hotel menu, especially when your clientele generally come with inherently classical tastes. The menu is about presenting fresh, delicate food with clever seasonal inflections and the occasional foray into modernism. S’s desert, for example, was a curious cubist confection of pressed layers of celeriac and berry mousse enrobed in white chocolate that was about as daring as I would expect this perfectly-executed array of British and Euro favourites to get, which is impressive…even if it did still taste a little bit like a chocolate-covered vegetable.

For more information, booking and to see what’s currently on the menu at Homage at the Waldorf Hilton, check out their website.

Review: Herring, Hooch & Huldufolk at Fika

Fika, 161 Brick Lane, London E1 6SB / 020 7613 2013 / www.fikalondon.com

Sitting on a roof terrace in Fika’s grove surrounded by autumn-hued foliage with the sounds of Commercial Street’s traffic bubbling and hissing in the distance and sipping intoxicatingly strong concoctions that tasted like the forest floor, N and I agreed that the Swedes have this Fika way of life down.

The term Fika is used as a noun and a verb to describe the uber Swedish occupation of taking time out to sip coffee and devour snacks – a very worthy pursuit – and it’s also the name of the achingly cool Brick Lane’s latest summer restaurant experiment. For the last remaining months of the temperamental British summer, this little Scandi eatery has transformed itself into the sort of enchanted forest you hope to find lurking in the pages of Hans Christian Andersen or Tim Burton’s headspace in celebration of the Huldufolk – hidden people.

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Pull up a chair now and you could be sharing your dining space as I did with a topiary reindeer or eating under an industrial lamp that’s choked with a wreath of white-painted vine leaves, although you’re more likely to spot fashion-conscious hipster pixies than anything that looks like it could have stepped out of a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale here. N and I investigated one rainy evening to see what there was to Swedish food beyond meatballs and Kopparberg cider.

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Post pre-dinner cocktail the wander in the forest started dreamily enough with N’s Tre Sorters Sill, a trio of pickled herring and crushed potato, and my Beetroot and Birch. The fish were tender, sweet and mouth-suckingly sour, although N struggled to differentiate between the three distinct pickling flavours or onion, garlic and dill.

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My dish consisted of thin slivers of near-transparent pink-stained beetroot and crumbling goats cheese with a warm, mini loaf of dense beetroot bread, rippled with purple like shot silk and tasting of earth, salt and nutty wood sorrel. The accompanying shot of birch tree water tasted like licking rainwater from leaves…in a good way – a tangy, sweet, fresh taste revelation that I would recommend to anyone.

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So there we were, strolling in the woodland quite contentedly until we got a bit lost in the wilderness with the arrivals of the main courses. N’s elderflower chicken skewers were succulent, generously-sized and flavoured with the merest hint of sweet elderflower and a wash of chili, although the accompaniment of grilled mash (basically the top of a cottage pie) seemed out of place. My main, the slow cooked and pulled ox cheek with black truffle potatoes and seasonal foraged leaves looked intimidating on the plate and proved just as difficult to eat in reality.

It was meat, plain and simple, seasoned but unsauced mouthful after mouthful of meat. The purple, truffle-scented potatoes were nice but there’s no way they could cut through the cloying, fatty richness of two tons of shredded ox cheek. Ditto the undercooked, tough-skinned jerusalem artichokes, which came unadorned and tasting of, well, earthy tubers and little else.  Halfway through, the combination of rapidly cooling meat and mash had almost glued my mouth shut in a savory paste. If you’re a dedicated carnivore with a penchant for slabs of unaltered flesh then this is your ideal dish, but it left me desperately seeking sauce and trying to conceal mounds of uneaten but much prodded ox cheek under thin layers of cold mash so as not to offend the delightfully sweet and attentive staff.

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We reached a woodland clearing with the arrival of dessert though. N’s Swedish pancakes were very much like English pancakes and came scattered with berries, splodges of chocolate spread and what may or might not have been that most unacceptable but childishly desired of pudding toppings – squirty cream.

I went full Fika with the trio of a dense, mildly sweet cinnamon bun, glass of coffee and a shot of Linie Akvavit, which I later decided must translate as either fire water, gut rot or brain killer,despite being, as the waitress insisted, ‘very popular in Norway.’

It might not quite have been a midsummer night’s dream, but it was certainly worth heading down to the woods for Fika’s fresh starters and inventive cocktails alone – on that note, try the Forest Clearing cocktail or Siren’s Call, which claims arrives with a musical touch (forget the exotic promises of cloudberry, samphire and white port, it’s almost worth it just for the look of pure horror that crosses the waitresses’ faces upon ordering, as they apparently live in dread of customers demanding that they sing on delivery). Take a trip before it disappears and is reborn in a new guise.

All Aboard the Afternoon Tea Bus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in Pictures: Open Garden Squares Weekend

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

Gardening Leave

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

Gardening Leave

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

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

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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