Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Wine for Christmas: an idiot proof guide

And by idiot proof, I mean that I have personally (and selflessly) tasted all of these wines. If luck will have it, I'll be tasting them all again on Christmas day too.

1. First up, and my absolute Christmas favourite, is the Bolney Wine Estate Cuvee Noir 2009.
They say: an exciting and different wine, offering the drinker a break from the norm with its lovely colour and pairs well with pates and cheeses
I say: Buy now! This is Christmas in a bottle. Not only is it unusual (it's a sparkling red wine), the fruit flavours and hint of spice will have you full of festive cheer in no time

2. For the perfect pairing with your turkey, get a nice, creamy oaky chardonnay. Like Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay, 2010, Adelaide Hills.
They say: The M3 shows complexity of flavour, with both youthful primary fruit and some savoury notes, and has a long and layered palate.
I say: Vanilla, toast, pear, cream, fudge, butterscotch.. all of the good things in one bottle. But man it's expensive...

3. ... so for a cheaper alternative, try McWilliam's Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2005.
They say: Sherbety lemon, lime, passionfruit and hints of straw on the nose
I say: Easy drinking, an ideal introduction to oaked wines at a bargain price

4. For something to sip on while eating your smoked salmon canapes, try Hacienda Zorita Vega de la Reina Verdejo, 2011.
They say: An intense aroma, during the white fruit with a recall of herbs
I say: This wine is difficult to track down, but well worth it for the excellent price. And it was voted best white wine in the world 

5. Finally, the perfect mince pie accompaniment, RM Nicholson 2010 Rustenberg, Stellenbosch.
They say: Blackcurrant aroma complemented by notes of dried herbs and black pepper
I say: Rich and full bodied, exactly how I'll be feeling after Christmas dinner

Christmas shopping, one for me, one for you

Only 14 days till Christmas! Although I might not have sorted out an Advent calendar yet (and my idea of a scratch card a day was so promising too..), I have finished all my shopping. At least I think I have. I officially finished last week but then  a beautiful children's shop in Greenwich market encouraged me to buy a few more bits and bobs for the new babies in the family.

For example, these amazing finger puppets from United Ideas.

I bought a jungle animal set and "Three little pigs and the big bad wolf", which was quite possibly the best present I have ever bought. I nearly bought one for myself. 

I also managed to squeeze in a little present buying for myself, coming home with this beautiful print of the Old Royal Naval College, which also happens to be one of my favourite buildings in Greenwich.

The print was from The Flood Gallery, a fantastic boutique gallery in the heart of Greenwich.  As well as being exceptionally well priced (the above print was £20 which included a frame), they have a fantastically varied range of prints and other bits and bobs. I was tempted to buy a notebook with a dodo screen printed on the front and a mug with a fox on it. Definitely a great shop for gifts, the website doesn't do it justice.

All of this shopping was topped off by some excellent chorizo and chips from the market, and a glass of mulled wine. The perfect winter's day of shopping.

More information about Greenwich Market and the surrounding shops can be found here.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Random rain

Despite mixed reviews, I was curious to check out the latest instalment from Random International, a design group based in Chelsea. And it seems I wasn't the only one - on a Thursday night I queued for 90 minutes to get the chance to experience the Rain Room at the Barbican, an exhibition which allows visitors to 'control' the rain.

The installation itself is actually pretty simple - it's essentially a massive shower. However, through in some light / motion sensors, a dark room and a bright light, and all of a sudden the exhibition gets a little bit cooler. 

Visitors were able to walk through the rain and watch as the rain magically stopped wherever they were. It looked, and felt, as though you were in the middle of a storm and yet miraculously you were dry. Or dry enough (there was a little bit of drippage).

Was it worth queueing for 90 minutes? I wouldn't do it again, but I am glad I saw the exhibition. I just wish there had been fewer people in the room at the same time as me, as it struck me as a great place to contemplate anything on your mind.

On the plus side, it's good fun and completely free. And gives you a great excuse to visit the Barbican, see the architecture, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a drink or two.

The perfect dress?

Dress with combination sash, £49.99
New Zara dress for Boxing Day, veering away from my original navy blue theme. Skims the body, decent length and a flattering colour. Pretty much perfection in a dress. Buy it here.

NB: If you find you are usually between sizes in Zara (I never know if I am a small or a medium), I would advise buying the smaller size for this particular dress.

I also picked up a pair of jeans for £19.99. Unsure how they will wash over time, but a great price. They are from the TRF diffusion line which I rarely look at, but they have some interesting pieces in at the moment, especially this tiger print dress and my favourite, this Aztec inspired dress with diamantes. Perfect for a Christmas party.

The Magistrate and the Mezzanine restaurant

After booking the tickets seemingly years ago, last night was finally the night to see the Magistrate.

"With his louche air and a developed taste for smoking, gambling, port and women, it’s hard to believe Cis Farringdon is only fourteen. And that’s because he isn’t. Agatha his mother lopped five years from her true age and his when she married the amiable Posket.
Well, when I heard the new dad was a police magistrate, I was scared. Said I to myself, “If I don’t mind my Ps and Qs, the Guv’nor – from force of habit – will fine me all my pocket-money.”
The imminent arrival of Cis’ godfather sends Agatha incognito to the Hôtel des Princes to warn him of her deception. But it’s also where her son has cajoled his otherwise staid stepfather into joining him for a binge. High-spirited carousing leads to a police raid and a night of outrageous mishap as the trapped guests make desperate attempts to conceal themselves from the law and from each other. Indignities escalate at court the next day where Posket, the police magistrate, must preside."
This was a truly outstanding performance from the National Theatre, and I think it may have earned its place as my favourite play ever. 
I was particularly impressed for the following reasons:

1. The characters were all very likeable. Usually, I have one favourite character, but here I was torn between Posket, Cis' and smaller roles too - such as the waiter in the Hotel des Princes. I think it takes a lot of skill for the audience to be so engaged with comparatively minor roles.
2. The singing. The songs were well interspersed between the scenes, and actually added something to the play, rather than detracted as can be the case. The Singing Dandys did a great job and the lyrics were well composed and witty.
3. The scenery and costumes. I'd say the National Theatre always has great sets, but I thought this was truly exceptional. But it wasn't just the look of the set that impressed me - the way the set moved between scenes was really quite something to watch.

After the play, Harry and I went to the Mezzanine Restaurant at the National Theatre for the post-theatre dining deal. For £15, you got a flat-iron steak with frites, bearnaise sauce, a small tomato salad, bread, and a blackberry bellini. An absolute steal. The steak surpassed my expectations, being a good inch or so thick, and nicely pink in the middle. The portion was generous too.
All round, a great evening at the National Theatre. I can't recommend it enough.

Monday, 19 November 2012

It's a (navy) blue Christmas

Every year I get something new to wear for Christmas. It's become something of a tradition. Either I ask Santa kindly for a new dress (something I have tried on and approved of course!), or I frantically scour the shops the week before, hoping to get a bargain in the sale. Inevitably, the latter tactic is usually less than successful and results in me wearing something I've already bought.

This year, I am seemingly super prepared, having bought all my Christmas presents bar one, and so that leaves more time to ensure I look my best on Christmas day. It's not like my family are competitive about who looks best on the day or anything. Not at all.

For Christmas day, I'm thinking the navy blue silk blouse (£42.99, Mango), with some very pale yellow waist pleat trousers (£79, Cos). I'll probably wear it with my nude pink pointy toed shoes from French Connection from the SS12 collection.

For Boxing day, I'd like a dress, but nothing too clingy. There needs to be room for all that Christmas buffet after all. This tunic style dress (£135, Whistles), fits the bill perfectly. Worn with slightly sheer black tights and my beige studded ankle boots, it will look casual, but with a dressier edge.

I've ordered the blouse but yet to take the plunge on the Whistles dress. £135 seems quite a lot of money for what is essentially a simple dress. I know I'll wear it lots, but just need to get over that mental barrier.

I've also realised that my outfit choices have some kind of sub-conscious nautical theme. In fact my other option for Boxing day, at a more palatable £34.99, is also navy and white!

All I want for Christmas is... homeware

I cannot wait for the day I can furnish my own house. In the mean time, here are some updates that I'd love to see in my rented flat.

1. Grid Throw, £80
2. Coloured Enamel Tumblers, £5 each
3. Coco Bowls, £10 each
4. Spine Drop Pendant, £230
5. Table lamp, £26
6. Bird Nestles Cushion, £75

All I want for Christmas is... jewellery

Who doesn't love receiving jewellery? I already have a growing collection, but surely Christmas is the ideal time to help it grow some more?
I'm torn between big, bold costume jewellery (H&M and Zara have some great high street alternatives) and delicate, teeny-weeny pendants (Etsy has, literally, thousands of options).
Here are my top picks..

Marrakech, Mountains, tagines and table tennis

This blog was supposed to be a joint endeavour, a way for my boyfriend and I to have some kind of outlet outside of work. As you can probably tell that hasn't happened!

Even though I enjoy writing, having a blog is harder than I expected. It's a commitment and can weigh heavily on you at times. I also don't really take photos, and so getting in to the mindset of taking them all the time is a bit of a drag. I hate being one of those people who photographs their food before they eat it or spends time composing photos to look like they're having fun, when actually they're not - they are posing for a photograph. Unless you have paparazzi stalking you and catching those 'natural' moments that so many bloggers love to share, you have to continually interrupt your day to capture those pictures. Without photos, blog posts are dull and people tend to skip them (at least, I do), so luckily, although Harry may be a lousy blogger, he loves photography, and enabled me to do a great post on our latest trip..

Last weekend, we went to Marrakech for four days for some sun and relaxation. My first tip would be: do not go to Marrakech for sun in November. The weather forecasts may look inviting, but we actually had a mixture of rain and cloud, with a sprinkling of sun thrown in. At night it was actually really cold too. However, I can thoroughly recommend going for some relaxation and adventure.

Quick PR - we stayed at Kasbah Igoudar which was fabulous. It's about 45km outside of Marrakech, so more suitable if you plan on visiting the Atlas Mountains (or, if the weather is nice, for total relaxation as their pool area is lovely), but the people are really friendly, the rooms are comfortable and food, cooked by a local Berber is really tasty. We travelled with Voyage Prive, which gave us a great deal on accommodation and easyjet flights.

Here's a few snapshots of our visit.

Much colder than it looks - see the snow in the background

Final day, after becoming table tennis champions
The hotel and grounds were beautiful. The Kasbah, although new, has been built in the traditional style and has rooms coming off a central courtyard, like a Riad. In Summer. the roof can be opened. We spent a lot of our time in the snug, where the kind hotel employees built us a fire and served us dinner. Dinner was mostly tagines, but also a delicious pastilla, which is a sweet-savoury pigeon pie. Delicious. Word of warning - alcohol is comparatively expensive to food and everything else in Morocco, at around £16 a bottle. It's also not widely available due to Muslim law, so stock up in duty free if you plan on having wine with dinner. 
We also played a lot of table tennis, winning some Moroccan tea (very sweet mint tea) after beating the other couples. A very proud moment!

Marrakech, and indeed any where you visit, is a shoppers delight. Not only will the locals do their best to persuade you to buy anything and everything, you'll probably want a fair bit of it too. Generally aim  to pay about 60% of the price in the souks. While we were there, we bought a shisha pipe, a small trinket box made from coral, a bracelet, a reflexology session (inadvertent purchase), some nuts and some fruit. If I'd had more money and luggage allowance, I'd have loved a tagine and a traditional rug.

At the Royal Palace

Lunch at Tangier
There's plenty to do in the centre of Marrakech; we only visited for one day but would have liked longer. The Royal Palace is definitely worth a visit, and at 10 Dhs (less than £1) for entry, it's definitely worth it. I would also recommend visiting a local hammam (only for the brave!) and la Jardin Majorelle, a beautiful garden designed by Yves St Laurent and full of some unusual plants. We had lunch at Tangier, a traditional restaurant specialising in.. tagines! The honey and almond chicken was sweet and moist, and the couscous with caramelised onions and chicken was also delicious. If it's warmer, it's worth eating in the main square, the Djemaa el fna, which has lots of food stalls where you can eat with locals. Be warned though, sheep's head is highly regarded here!

Cycling on the road to nowhere

Abandoned village
The Kasbah had bikes available to use for free, so we spent a morning cycling around. We had no idea where we were heading, and followed a pretty remote road for an hour or so, passing plenty of donkeys, shepherds and sheep. We ended up at an abandoned village which was pretty cool. By this time, the sun had also decided to come out and play so it was a pleasant morning that resulted in sunburnt faces.

Finally, I cannot recommend a trip to the Atlas Mountains enough. I would love to go back and spend a few days there hiking and exploring, and you can even ski there. The highest mountain, Mount Toubkal, is over 4,000m.

Climbing up a waterfall

Berber village in the Mountains
We had a day trip to the Mountains, and a local guide took us on a two hour walk which involved scrambling up a waterfall and visiting a few Berber villages. We then had a traditional meal of tagine (of course) in a Berber house, followed by the requisite Moroccan tea. The place we visited was called Imlil, and was about 90 minutes drive from Kasbah Igoudar (~ 2 hours from Marrakech). The drive itself was spectacular, with views for miles. Imlil is a relatively big village and had a thriving back-packing scene, with plenty of walkers. Ironically, there were more restaurants / bars / shops in the 'remote' mountains than near our hotel!

So all in all it was a great trip. The culture is really like no other, and although you will inevitably get fleeced by the locals, that's all part of the fun. It was my second visit, and I'm so glad I made it to the Mountains this time, it was my favourite part of the trip and one I am keen to repeat. So if you need a walking partner Dad, let me know!

I love Berlin

Yes I know I've been absent. In my defence, I have been on two trips, been super busy at work arranging a secondment and been ill (still am ill s).
Anyway I will share some of my photos from my recent visit to my oldest (as in most long-standing) friend in Berlin. It was an amazing weekend and left me feeling incredibly jealous; not only is Berlin a really cool, cultured city, everything is also SUPER cheap!

This can be confirmed by my latest obsession, Expatistan. Expatistan compares the cost of living in different cities and tells you how they compare. Berlin is apparently 41% cheaper than London, with food, transportation and entertainment being streets ahead. Come on London, time to up your game.

Anyway, on with Berlin. Street art is massive in Berlin. There is graffiti everywhere. But not cuss words and scrawl, actual art. Even what remains of the Berlin Wall has been turned into and outdoor celebration of street art, named the East Side Gallery.

Start of the East Side Gallery
Even if you're not into art I would say it's worth a go. This section of the wall stretches for over a kilometre and is a nice walk on a sunny day. The other side of the wall, which faces the river, is also a gallery, albeit the 'unofficial' one. I didn't get chance to see that, so definitely one for next time.

The Kiss
 This is apparently the most famous part of the gallery, and I'm a shameless, sheep-like tourist for photographing it like everyone else. It was painted by a Russian artist in 1990, and is of the Soviet leader Leonard Brezhnev kissing the East German president Erich Honnecker. Full story is here.

Parrot postbox
I photographed this purely because I loved it. A parrot postbox! I'm not sure if the parrot was some kind of graffiti that inspired the post box or vice versa, but either way, where can I get one?
Becca, posing after much persuasion

Huge sculpture that came to life when you put a coin in

The locals didn't seem too impressed with me..
The last few photos were taken near a shopping area, which I believe was called Potsdamer Platz Arcades, although I could be wrong. The shopping in Berlin was in general quite good. There were lots of predictable European brands (H&M, Zara, Mango...) but some smaller local shops too, which were mostly found on side streets. Timeout has a great feature on shopping if you are planning on taking advantage of the excellent exchange rate and highly competitive prices.

Another thing I loved about Berlin was the cafe culture.

I had my first mulled wine (Gluhwein) of the year, along with the darkest, richest chocolate torte and a carrot cake. The carrot cake wasn't quite as good, but still a beast of a slice and with great icing. These were both from Anna Blume, the ideal people watching destination, situated on a cross roads. And although it was raining and cold, they have patio heaters, an outdoor canopy and blankets on the back of every chair for when you're really cold.

A Vietnamese cafe, enjoying some jasmine tea
I also visited a couple of markets over the weekend. I think Berlin is most famous for its flea markets, which sell everything from second hand clothing, to records, food, paintings and furniture. A lot of the stalls look like someone just pitched up with whatever they found down the back of their sofa, but there are also some excellent handmade goods to be had, from native American jewellery, to art. 

 I bought this limited edition print of a water buffalo for only 20 euros, from an artist called Palefroi. It's probably a good job I had to pay with cash else I could have come away with a lot more!

Flower market
Finally, one of the best things about Berlin, is the weird 'Berlin-isms'. Such as the Berlin bear:

And the Ampelmann, basically the 'green man' you get a traffic lights. East and West Berlin used to have different figures, and so the one that got chosen is a bit of a national obsession. There's a whole shop dedicated to him where you can buy signs, socks, sponges, luggage tags (like me), clothing, sweets... it's really quite mad.

Now I will leave you with some food recommendations courtesy of Timeout. I can definitely vouch for The Bird, possibly one of the best burger places I have ever been too, and it seems, so have all my friends who have previously visited Berlin.

I'm sure you can tell I absolutely fell in love with the city. It's very green and spacious, and so vibrant. Apparently the clubbing scene is one of the best in Europe, so even though I am not much of a clubber, that's definitely something to try next time I'm there.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Lifestyle diet (currently in testing)

I am on a diet. 7 - 10 pound weight loss, asap, but while still being (relatively) healthy and being able to enjoy food. 
I've never been able to stick to a diet plan before, too restrictive, too boring, too expensive.. my main problem has always been how often I eat out; I don't want to be the person in the restaurant asking if their soup has double or single cream in it.
So, I have devised my own plan, taking bits of well-known advice, some less well-known (respected) advice, and a few things I'm doing because they suit me. Hey, maybe it will be the key to weight loss and I'll end up writing a diet book. You heard it here first.

Basic Principles

  • Your weight is mostly determined by how many calories you eat. Exercise helps, but unless you have time to spend three hours a day exercising, you are going to have to watch what you eat. Some people may disagree with this, but from personal experience, my body shape stays pretty much the same irrespective of the gym
  • Caffeine is not necessarily bad for you. A few cups of tea or coffee, or cans of diet coke, a day are not going to kill you. They might help you control your appetite and caffeine can have a fat burning effect. So just don't overdo it
  • Fruit is only good for you when consumed with something less sweet. Apples, oranges, berries.. they all make my blood sugar spike and rapidly fall, leaving me hungrier than before. I find apples are the worst. Fruit is touted as healthy when actually, it is full of sugar and acid that erodes the enamel on your teeth. Far better to have more vegetables and have fruit as a healthy dessert
  • Snacking between meals is also bad. For someone like me, it's easier to completely forgo the snacks and just deal with the hunger. Have a cup of tea. Drink a glass of water. Chew some gum. The snacks will likely make you hungrier
  • Wine is not all bad. Some days I really want a drink with dinner. Most diets cut out alcohol entirely but I think this is unnecessary. Instead, have a glass with dinner, but have at least a couple of days a week with no alcohol
  • Allow yourself a small, low calorie treat a day. This could be a few squares of chocolate, a nibble of cake (if you have the willpower to keep it to a nibble!), or for me, Shapers chocolate or caramel yoghurts. They're around 120 calories but super sweet. Mini Milks are also a good option and only 30 calories each
  • Know when to make sacrifices. If you know you are going for a big dinner, try and skip lunch to save on the calories. This is easier on the weekend when you can also breakfast later. Initially skipping meals may not sound sensible but emerging advice about the benefits of short-term fasting suggest this may not be completely crazy
  • Don't overdo it on the weekend. It's easy to be strict and ordered during the week when you're at work, only to blow it all on the weekend. Don't adopt an 'all or nothing' approach at the weekend, try and keep your diet healthy for at least two out of the three meals a day, and know when to cut back (see above)

Now, I'm not saying this is the perfect diet and that you should follow it. I'm only just testing it myself. I've listed some standard week day meal options below. On the weekends, I tend to eat whatever I fancy, but in smaller portions.


  • Greek yoghurt with mixed berries, a small handful of nuts and a squeeze of honey (Greek yoghurt is thicker than natural yoghurt and has more protein, so helps keep you feel fuller for longer. Nuts are also good for protein. Berries provide one of your five a day and make this feel like more of a treat. Honey is good for warding off colds and takes the edge off the berries)
  • Healthy carrot cake muffins (I'll try and get round to posting the recipe at some point. But basically, they're made with whole wheat flour, dessicated coconut and yoghurt. Whole wheat flour keeps your blood sugar levels more stable than white flour, the dessicated coconut adds sweetness and fat and the yoghurt provides moisture and fat. There is still some butter and oil in this recipe but less than in traditional carrot cakes)
  • Microwave scrambled eggs (super quick and easy, crack two eggs into a bowl, add a splash of milk and whisk with a fork. Season with salt and pepper, and add some seasoning if you like. I usually go for paprika or cayenne pepper. Stick in the microwave and zap on high for about a minute and a half, pausing halfway to give them a quick stir with your fork)
  • Low carb salad (basically, any fresh vegetables you have lying around the kitchen and some protein. I usually include some kind of lettuce, chicken / prawns / chorizo [please note: higher fat than other options] / tuna, along with cucumber, peppers, onion, spring onion, shredded carrots, avocado, quartered tomatoes... Also experiment with adding fruit for a sweet touch, such as grapefruit, pears, apples, mango. To dress, either use lemon juice, mustard, red/white wine / balsamic vinegar. Steer clear of shop bought dressings and anything using oil. That includes mayonnaise)
  • Omelette (two egg omelette, jazzed up with a filling such as chorizo, mushrooms, peppers or onions. Serve with a large green salad and balsamic vinegar)
  • Grilled fish / meat with salsa (try to get used to eating your regular meals but without the serving of carbs. For me, that means a piece of grilled fish wish a bit of garlic and chilli, along with a simple salsa made from quartered cherry tomatoes, avocado, spring onions and sweet corn. I would usually have rice with this, but instead make more salsa or have a green salad)
  • Soup (soup can be quite high in carbs however as this is primarily about eating lower calorie foods, I think soup fits the bill perfectly. I usually have it with some carrot sticks and low fat hummus on the side)
  • 'Spaghetti' Bolognaise (this doesn't have to be really high in calories. I use finely sliced courgette for the pasta, boiled briefly in salted water. Make sure you drain it well. For the bolognaise, use extra lean mince and tip out the fat as you brown it. Bulk up the sauce with lots of vegetables, such as fresh tomatoes, small pieces of pepper, celery, carrot)
So, that's a brief look at what I eat during the week. Weekends are far more varied - last weekend included pancakes, croissants and lobster. It's all about knowing when to make sacrifices, food-wise, to make up for calorie consumption later that day.
Anyway, if all goes to plan you will be seeing pictures of a newly svelte me... I'll keep you posted.

The perfect watch

Is it too early to be making a Christmas list already? I think I almost like making a list as much as receiving some of the items on it! My friends and family know to never deviate from the list. It is usually long, expensive, expansive and includes pretty much every item I have seen and want. Not that I expect to get it all of course, but so that Santa can pick which gifts to get me!

Top of the list this year, is a new watch. I've wanted  a watch for years. I think the last time I owned one, it was a plain silver affair from M&S and it fell of my wrist when I was visiting King's College open day before applying to university. Since then, I've come to rely on my phone but it's increasingly annoying, and sometimes feels rude, to be constantly checking your phone, even if it is just for the time.
A couple of years ago, for my 21st, I spent a long time looking for the perfect watch - leather strap, rose gold, not too large but still with a decent sized face; not one of those bracelet watches 90% of women's watches seem to be. Sadly, it wasn't to be. I didn't find any watches I liked, except for an £11,000 Omega watch. Significantly over budget.

This last weekend, my parents were visiting and we decided to go to Selfridges to look at watches. And I found The One. It didn't have, as I expected, a leather strap, but instead a rose gold strap and a dark mocha-coloured face.  It's this one below, a reasonable (ish) price at £525, which, for a Swiss-made Burberry watch seems pretty good value.

Other items currently on the Christmas wish list include Jo Malone's perfume "Crisp pear and freesias" - which really does smell like pear - a new hairdryer (maybe the Hershesons one?), and the 'Jerusalem' cookbook from Ottolenghi.

No doubt nearer the time there'll be a fair few more books on there (I tend to pick seven or eight of the Man Booker prize long list), some make up (I get a top-up of Benefit 'Dallas' bronzer every year) and maybe some new bedding - my room is looking a little tired and having seen the beautiful sets available in Zara, I think it's time for an update.

How about you, do you write a Christmas list? How far in advance do you start thinking about it? And what's top of your Christmas wish list this year?

Columbia Road convert

Yes, yes, I've been a bad blogger. I've not got back into it properly since after holiday, a combination of being busy at work, and well, dare I say it, lazy. I've also been wondering about what this blog should focus on, and I think, as a life style blog it needs more photos of life, which, I guess, means more photos of me!
As I have lamented many a time, I don't have a (working) camera, and so most of the snaps are coming from my BlackBerry, the quality of which leaves a bit to be desired. However, I am going to make a more concerted effort to take more photos, if only because my Mum, possibly the only reader, will appreciate it.

In the mean time however, I want to share with you my new favourite shopping destination: Columbia Road. I've known about Columbia Road for ages, but just never got round to going. I thought it was just a flower market and a couple of shops. I suppose arguably it is just a flower market and a couple of shops, but the shops sell some really unusual things - like these coco bowls which I absolutely love - and there's a great atmosphere, with hipsters, students, families, and er, young professionals like me all mingling. There's even a little oyster stall.

Beautiful cabbage roses and delphi
More roses and only £5 for all of these!
There's lots of great galleries; I particularly liked this picture
Cute children's toys from Nom, I was tempted to get one myself!
There are a couple of clothing stores, plenty of home / garden stores and lots of galleries. Hands-down my favourite shop is Nom for its unusual home accessories all sourced from Cambodia and Vietnam. There were also several pieces of art I'd have liked in my home, mostly pictures of animals!

I didn't go home completely empty handed though, as well as the beautiful flowers I also bought this new oyster card holder, from Jane de Bono; check our her shop here. She doesn't have her own shop on Columbia Road, but there are a few stockists.

So, all in all I am a real convert to Columbia Road. There are plenty of nice cafes when you are tired of shopping, my favourite was an Italian deli, Campania Gastronomica, that did excellent coffees for under £2 and was the ideal people-watching spot.
There's also going to be late night shopping on Wednesdays for the last 4 weeks before Christmas, complete with mulled wine and mince pies, to really get in the festive spirit. More information here.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Great British Bake Off

I have some good advice for the workplace. Do not bake a cake to bring into work. Your colleagues will then expect you to do this on a regular basis. You might find yourself being made the 'designated baker'. You might even find that you are entered into a baking competition without your knowledge.

I have the dubious pleasure of representing my project team in the client's version of "The Great British Bake Off". I have been told to bring the biggest, fanciest, best cake I possibly can. After much deliberation, I settled for the Konditor and Cook "Curly Whirly" cake, which I made earlier in the year for a friend's birthday.

Unfortunately, it has just dawned on me that due to the cream cheese frosting, this is a cake that needs refrigerating. I need to get the cake to Glasgow on Monday morning, via a BA flight. Hmmm, possibly not the best choice of cake although a bit late now as I've already made it! I do feel that this competition is not on level pegging, given my offering has to travel 500 miles and hopefully come out the other side intact. The airport security people at London City had better be gentle with this!

The actual recipe is here. It's a little bit more complicated than my usual attitude of "stick everything in a bowl and whisk it", but don't let the steps put you off as it's actually quite easy. I won't repeat the recipe here but show some pictures instead:

Ingredients all lined up

Mixture before the melted chocolate, sugar and milk is added

Mixture afterwards - the batter is very runny, but it's supposed to be like that

Cake just after baking. I found they needed closer to 30 - 35 minutes

The iced cake

Finished cake, complete with swirls and "Deloitte" on top

Duck and kiwi Thai curry

Sorry for the absence, I disappeared for a week to sunny Cyprus. The holiday itself was great fun, although the destination left a lot to be desired (over run with cats, run down shops, terrible food). On the plus side I've come back tanned and thinner!

For the week I was away, I mostly ate plain chicken and chips. Apparently in Limassol, if you order "chicken souvlaki", what you have actually ordered is overcooked chicken on a skewer, with a big side of fries. So, when I did finally get back, I was desperate for some cooking.

As always, the Times proved to be an inspiration, with an unusual recipe for "Duck and kiwi thai green curry" (original recipe here).

The finished dish, it tastes better than it looks!

It was a real hit with my housemate and I, and if it wasn't for the fact duck is so expensive it would be added to be regular meal rota. The kiwi adds a sour tang to the dish, which complements the fatty duck. It tastes more savoury than a usual thai curry too, although that could have been because I was a little heavy on the fish sauce.

2 shallots, about 125g
1 garlic clove
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 Gressingham duck breasts
1 tbsp Thai green curry paste
1 tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
160ml can coconut cream
250ml chicken stock or cube and water
1 lemongrass stalk
2 kaffir lime leaves
50g coriander
200g fine French beans
3 firm kiwi fruit
1 lime
Rice or rice noodles to serve
Chop the shallots and crush the garlic, then add to a frying pan and cook until soft. Keep stirring to make sure the garlic doesn't burn. 
Meanwhile, skin the duck and slice into thick strips, across the grain. Add to the frying pan and brown the duck on all sides.
Next, add the curry paste, fish sauce and a dollop of coconut cream. Stir thoroughly to make a thick sauce. Then, bash the lemongrass to crush the root end (but keep in one piece) and add to the pan. Also add the rest of the coconut cream, stock and lime leaves.

Chop some coriander and add to the pan. Turn the heat on the pan down so that the mixture is simmering gently. The pan can be left for about 25 minutes now while the sauce reduces. Give it the occasional stir, but it should be fine.
Top and tail the beans, then halve them. Peel the kiwi and chop into chunky pieces. Add the beans to the mix and cook for 5 minutes, then add the kiwi and cook for another minute or two to warm through.
Add the lime juice to the curry (to your taste), along with salt and maybe a little sugar if, like me, you were a bit liberal with the fish sauce.
Chop a red chilli (if you have one to hand), and use as a garnish, along with some coriander leaves. I served it with plain basmati rice and it was delicious. I think next time I would serve it alongside a Vietnamese papaya salad, to make the most of the sweet / sour / savoury mixture.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Topshop FAIL

I used to love Topshop. One of my first purchases as a teenager was a turquoise blue v-neck jumper for £18 from Topshop, and how I loved that jumper! Although I remember thinking at the time that £18 was expensive! These days, you'd be lucky to get a jumper for less than £30.

In recent years, I've really gone off the store. A combination of younger cousins shopping there (you don't want to be wearing the same clothes as a 15-year old), the poor quality clothing (buttons falling off, embellishments unravelling) and just downright unappealing clothes. They seem to veer from down right tacky (completely sheer tops, micro mini bodycon skirts) to the plain weird, looking more like fancy dress than 'fashion'. I realise that I am not the most 'fashion forward' of people, being a fan of more classic, timeless pieces. However, there's a difference between thinking "that looks great but not for me" and "who the hell would wear that?!"

When it comes to sale season, the sale rails at Topshop are always crammed full of neon, lycra, shiny, sequinned cast-offs, designated to end up as fancy dress or land fill. Personally, I think one of the reasons that Topshop has become increasingly expensive is to subsidise the design and production of some of the more 'out there' items that are only worn by a handful of people. Browsing the website earlier today, I certainly came across some rather, ahem, unusual items.

 Firstly, their bridal collaboration with Richard Nicoll. How many people would buy their wedding dress from Topshop? How many people would buy the wedding dress below?
Even as a cocktail dress, it's unbelievably naf and tacky. It's a terrible fit on the model too. Unsurprisingly, it's in the sale - available in every size.
Richard Nicoll bridal collection, £150 (from £250)

This skirt is from the collaboration with J.W. Anderson. I like the print, but a quilted skirt? Really? How many people would wear a quilted skirt? I suppose it's handy if you sit at an uncomfortable chair all day.

J.W. Anderson, £69.99
I don't really know what to say about this final item. Even my 15-year old cousin would think she was too old for it. A reviewer said the fabric was so thin you could see your underwear through it. Nice.
O.M.G. Yours for £32
Of course, Topshop still has a few good items. But I feel like other stores, such as Zara and Mango, are the same price, better quality, and with many more interesting, unusual yet wearable items. Maybe I've just grown out of Topshop, but I can't be the only one who wonders if their designers are on acid?!

Easy peasy chinese chicken

One thing that really annoys me about being in Glasgow during the week is not being able to get Stylist magazine. Not that they don't have it in Glasgow, just that I don't go anywhere that I'm able to grab a copy before they've all gone.

This week, fate was in my favour and I found a copy at the airport, with this great recipe in it: Chicken with plums and soy. So not only was I entertained on the plane home, I also had something to cook on Saturday night. Staying in a hotel all week might sound like fun, but actually I miss choosing exactly what to eat (Glasgow isn't exactly a restaurant mecca), and I also find the process of cooking very relaxing, and ultimately, very rewarding.

Photo from Stylist.. scroll down for my poor photography!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Exploring the neighbourhood

I've lived in Dalston for over a year now, but only just started exploring London Fields. Barely a ten minute walk from my flat, London Fields is an area of Hackney named for its large park. 

As well as having a fantastic park, complete with Lido serving excellent falafel wraps, the area is home to many good, small neighbourhood restaurants and foodie shops, such as the Brightfield Cafe and E5 Bakehouse. And of course, the famous Broadway Market is also next to London Fields.

Broadway Market turned out to be a mini Borough, with less tourists and a more local feel. There were still plenty of food stalls to choose from, and some good looking eateries lined the street.  I was particularly torn between a salt beef bagel and a scallop and bacon sandwich, eventually choosing the former as the man  at the stall was so charming. Here are a few photos from the day...

Sunny day at the lido

Roast chicken sandwich, self styled hipster sunglasses