Friday, June 30, 2006

High Culture

I love the early-evening atmosphere of jolly anticipation in the West End at any time of year, but a sunny Summer’s evening is pretty special. The pic was taken in St Martin’s Lane yesterday. Avenue Q has just opened opposite the Coliseum, where I went to see Nixon In China.

I have to confess the last time I was at the ENO was to see Parsifal – this was pre-renovations, so must be more than five years ago. Goodness. (the renovations have improved front-of house tremendously)

Anyway, for Parsifal I was in the grand seats in the dress circle – how the mighty have fallen! (upwards and away) - for Nixon I was in the gods. This was my viewpoint:

Literally, second-last row in the house. I used to sit up here when I was a student, and I don’t remember the seats being quite so cramped. I would not call myself fat, and am 5’10”, but really had to sit very straight-up to squeeze my thighs into the space available. The poor guy next to me couldn’t manage to sit down at all and had to stand at the back for the performance.

This was super – the performance clearly was a hit with the capacity crowd. My very favourite bit is Madam Mao Tse-tung’s aria at the end of the second act: ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung’. Opera at it’s highest pitch of music and drama – to me it’s almost like an modern-day version of an aria for the Queen of the Night. Madam Mao bangs on in a state of righteous dogmatism to a crescendo-ing orchestra while the stage around her explodes and everything falls apart. Terrific.

Friday, June 16, 2006

I eat London

Had lunch at the Taste of London event in Regent's Park today. It was a beautiful day for it - really sunny and hot. Every London park has its own personality, and Regent's Park is the grandest. It's my favourite. I thought lunch would be more fun and less crowded than dinner.

The idea of the event is to gather together chefs from a variety of London's restaurants in one location - under canvas tents - and they cook and serve sample-size portions of their signature dishes. The punters can walk about, using 'crown' tokens to buy the dishes they fancy. So its a real mix-and-match experience. As Fay Maschler the Evening Standard's restaurant critic put it more elegantly: "The wide range and scope of the restaurants confirm that London is definitively the most diverting city in the world in which to eat out."

I knew it would be fun, but I worried the food would suffer being cooked in quite challenging conditions away from professional kitchens. Among the chefs attending the event are some of London's most celebrated, so reputations were at stake!

I had printed out the menus from the internet previously, and chose items that I definitely wanted. This turned out to be advisable, because choosing on the hoof is difficult, and you could end up with quite random stuff, or miss out on something you'd want more.

I started with grilled scallops with pea puree, pea shoots and mint vinaigrette from Kensington Place

Pretty divine. The fun started with the chef cooking the scallops on the counter in full view, and final presentation happened before your eyes as well. Their scallops seemed very popular, and deservedly so. Perfectly cooked and fresh with peas, puree and mint. Flavours and textures worked brilliantly. Summery and so prettily served: I would rate this as my dish of the day.

Next up was braised pork belly with chick peas and salt cod brandade by Tom Aikens,. Mr Aikens is probably one of the hottest chefs working in London today, so I was delighted to spot him in his chef's outfit working the stand. I didn't snap him, as he has a combustible reputation and didn't dare upset him. His stand was the best presented at the show - really sophisticated and smart, almost completely triumphing over the 'tent' situation.

Again, all the ingredients meshed so well - this was silkily rich and subtle. Perhaps, for the roasting day, a little too rich and subtle - I would so much have preferred to enjoy this in an air-conditioned room!

My plan was to have crispy friend squid from Zuma, but they were experiencing a squid availability problem, so I went off piste and tried Bank's spice encrusted tuna, Israeli cous cous, and Chermoula dressing. This turned out to be a bright, summery dish with big flavours and lovely tuna, just seared and luscous.

Going back to Zuma, the squid was now available and they were handing it out quickly to a crowd of eager eaters. Tender squid, crispy peppery tempura nicely cut with lime rind and sliced green chili. Delicious, and Zuma wins my Most Generous Portion Award too.

Time for dessert: my first choice was vanilla mille feuille with roasted peaches, by Angela Hartnett at the Connaught. Crisp pastry and intensely flavoured roast peach; again beautifully presented. Yum.

Earlier, while I was at Tom Aikens, I saw a woman getting his mango rice with mango parfait and mango mousse - this looked so pretty I had to have one too. A really good desert; I love mango and this was so inventive with the mix of formats and textures.

I still had a few tokens left, so I decided on Roka's strawberry and jasmine flower ice cone. Unfortunately, they had a temporary fridge malfunction so I got a smoothy from Innocent instead.

All in all, I'd say this was a super afternoon out and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in food. By and large, the chefs coped wonderfully away from their kitchens and those I saw seemed to be enjoying the jolly fairground atmosphere. And one covers such wide culinary territory so easily. I'm quite keen on going to Tom Aikens and Angela Hartnett, and the Kensington Place scallops are definitely something worth doing again!

On the way out picked up a welcome bottle of ice-cold water from the flirty boys at M&S. Then staggered homewards.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Elderflower bomb

Originally uploaded by hedgiecc.
It’s still officially Spring (just), May’s monsoon is fading into memory now that the drought is back and the sun is beating down. This time of year, I always plan to make a batch of elderflower cordial.

Elderflowers are really almost weeds, and to be honest the tree/shrub/large bush-type plant-thingy is not outstanding from an aesthetic point of view. The best part is the wonderful scent of the elderflowers, wafting around on the breeze: absolute heaven, purest England.

The plant itself has had major significance in folklore and myth: Judas was supposed to have hanged himself on an elder tree; Christ was crucified on a cross of elder wood. Burning elder wood is supposed to summon the devil. Ancient European tribes used hollow elder twigs as bellows to make fires (without allowing the twigs to burn, because that would be BAD). The very name Elder is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for fire.

Anyway, the recipe was given me by my friend Nuala. She’s a wild-child party animal, so this interest in nature is itself pretty noteworthy. She was walking one day along the Thames at Richmond, and came across a young man picking elderflowers and putting them in a bag. Nuala’s curiosity was piqued and she asked him what he was doing. After some conversation he gave her the recipe. I tasted Nuala’s cordial, and asked for the recipe. If I remember correctly, it required soaking the flowers in a bucket of sugar solution for a few days, and then boiling the whole thing up and decanting into bottles. Ivan did the boiling for me, and he strained the flowers out first: in Nuala’s version, the flowers were strained after boiling. I must say, straining first gave our cordial a distinctly more refined flavour.

You can google for a recipe: there are hundreds out there, and some don’t require boiling at all.

One of the worries about making the cordial out of free-range London elderflowers is that they are somewhat compromised by all the pollution and traffic fumes (but then so are we).

The other worry is that a key ingredient in the cordial is also highly sought after by the UK chapter of al-Qaeda: citric acid. This has made it virtually impossible to purchase in any good chemist here due to security regulations (and I suppose we must be thankful for that). So, no more homemade cordial. This makes me sad.

It’s such an innocent, quaintly English thing to do – one half maiden aunt cycling in her twin-set and pearls over the cricket field to choral evensong, the other half crusty anarchic hippy shaman, brewing up a batch of something potent. And now there’s a third half: mad jihadist terrorist.

Ah well, we can always buy it ready-made.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Nero, let loose those lions

Common summer saturday
Originally uploaded by hedgiecc.
Phew it was hawt in London today.

The Common was carpeted with happy, semi-naked humanity – sun-bathing, brunching, reading, gossiping, watching the world go by. Londoners are a simple people. A bit of sun, some free time, the game against Paraguay on the horizon, and hey presto! - the world is a gorgeous place. Everyone smiling, everyone chilled.

Except for the individual with the mike, preaching to the naked heathen. Annoying electronic chant. However, nobody else seemed to be really bothered by her. But I wonder, do these Christians ever audit just how many souls are saved this way? Because my guess would be zero.

They need to readjust their tactics – maybe learn a little from the Hare Krishnas. On a day like today, what would go down well with the heathen would be a stall handing out free iced teas and bottled waters. Or maybe specially trained Christian missionaries could do outreach work, applying suntan lotion on heathen shoulders, or massaging tired backs.

With spiritual ideas like these, I should be Pope!

Friday, June 09, 2006

X-men 3

Just seen X-men 3. Fun film. I don’t do comic books, or indeed action/adventure movies in general, but I caught the last half of X-men 1 (or was it 2?) on a ‘plane somewhere and found something about it rather appealing.

The whole gay parallel thing is very emphasized, with all the characters fighting about the rights and wrongs of a ‘cure’ for mutancy. The wonderful Sir Ian McKellen just brings it blatantly into focus with his ever-so-light and tasteful Shakespearian shading on his character’s words ‘homo – sapiens’: but maybe that was just me. He clearly was having a ball and did not leave much scenery unchewed. He acts everybody else (well, maybe not Hugh Jackman) off the screen.

His subtlety actually makes Magneto thrillingly seductive; unlike his hench-X-wo/men, who are all evil cardboard villains and not worthy of him.

If I had mutant powers, I wonder what they would be? – hopefully something psychic; don’t fancy the physical mutations much!

Hot Chip: The Warning

Hot Chip: The Warning
Originally uploaded by hedgiecc.
Thanks to Hot Chip for a really great album – I’ve had it on loop on the iPod while I’ve been zooming around London on the tube the last few days. My summer soundtrack, for sure. I love the singles ‘And I was a boy from school’ and ‘Over and over’, but ‘Colours’, ‘The warning’, ‘arrest yourself’, ‘So glad to see you’ and ‘No fit state’ are easily as good – and ‘Colours’ and ‘No fit state’ are probably even better.

It’s definitely one for the earphones – you need them to appreciate all the subtle sonic detail.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Defective Gaydar

A roomful of people – mixed, with a clear majority of gay men. Our hostess is partial to a good bit of ‘mo. The evening progresses, and after dessert a new guy arrives, by himself. He is the gayest man in the room: a designer, working on a forthcoming project by some rock group. Tight white t-shirt visible through the open zip of a pleated petrol-blue satin hoody/jacket type-thing (whatever, very fashion-forward). Yards of creative silver bracelets heading up one arm; earrings; sharp, precise haircut. No rings. We are chatting amiably a deux (for a bit) when a woman comes up and links arms with him; glowering at me deadpan. It’s his heavily pregnant wife.

For some reason this reminds me of my first visit to Greece.

Ivan and I were romantically island-hopping (or that was the intention). We were ferrying from Santorini to Amorgos, and had to change at Naxos. There was a two-hour wait, and I insisted we use this time to travel to the centre of the island to look at an abandoned kouros in some ancient Greek quarry. This turned out to be an adventure, and we got back to the harbour just in time to catch the boat - a tiny rust-bucket with a small tarpaulin rigged over the stern for shade. As we were almost the last people on board we were left out on deck in the sun.

I was aware of three well-built German guys – I took them for divers. Amorgos was where ‘The Big Blue’ was filmed. Obviously straight.

We hadn’t eaten since breakfast. We had missed buying food in town, and were now trapped on the rust-bucket which didn’t sell any. Some American back-packers behind us tucked in to their picnic. Ivan wasn’t happy, and it was all my fault. After some discussion we decided on some time-out and he headed off to scour the vessel in search of sustenance.

Tired, hungry, and emotional, I wiped my sunglasses and tried to blank out the Americans. Sudden movement immediately to my right – one of the Germans: now shirtless, leaning languidly against the ship’s funnel, his sun-bleached locks tumbling down across broad shoulders (I do love long hair on a man). The torso of Apollo (and I should know; I’ve just seen the kouros).

My heart leapt into my mouth. I was overcome with confusion. I desperately, helplessly tried to not keep glancing at him – don’t stare, don’t stare, don’t stare’ don’t stare – I didn’t want a face full of straight German fist.

He continued practising his poses for his forthcoming Bruce Webber photoshoot. It was almost – almost as if he was trying to attract my attention.

I only started wondering if he might be gay when I caught sight of his mate trying to hit on Ivan across on the other side of the deck.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

On London

Will Self : “We live in a two-millennia-old metropolis of unrivalled diversity. From the pinnacles of Neasden Temple to the minarets of the Whitechapel Mosque, from the vibrant purlieus of Brixton Market to the twee precincts of Hampstead Village, London is the entire world, and truly, he or she who is bored with it must be tiring of life.” (From the Evening Standard last week.)

I haven't read any of his books yet, but enjoy his journalism and appearances on Newsnight Review on BBC2. He has a new book out - The Book of Dave - which I quite fancy: about the ravings of a half-mad London cabbie unearthed in a far-distant post-apocalypse future and used as the basis for a religion. So, very much about fundamentalism, global warming - ie very "now". The premise is slightly reminiscent of the central section of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (perverse as I am, I enjoyed this part the most of that wonderful book) so this makes me even more eager to explore Self's.

Unfortunately, I have quite a pile of unread books by my bedside at the moment, plus financially I need to cool it, so this might have to wait.

Clapham is 60ft above the Thames, so we should be able to cope with a mild bit of sea level increase. However if Greenland melts the sea will rise 7m, which is a bit too close for comfort. Must remember to check the flood insurance.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Lunch Date

Wow it’s a real sunny summer’s day here in London: Amazing! England looks so fantastic in the spring when the sun shines – it’s that wonderful, lush green everywhere sparkling in the sun, even in the Big Smoke.

Late last night my neighbour invited me to lunch today – I had to think of a gift to bring. I have heaps of wine left over from the split last year (and I don’t drink much), but I thought it was a bit cheap to recycle wine in this way.

My neighbour is a very grand lady who lives very well: food bought from all the right shops, organic everything. I know this because several times now when she and her husband have gone away they’ve left the contents of their fridge with me. She’s also a suberb cook – I had her mince pies last Christmas and they were stupendous (and I don’t even like mince pies!).

Anyway, my task was to purchase a suitable gift in a very limited amount of time. Chocs or flowers from Sainsbury’s were just not going to cut it. Then I had a wonderful idea. L'Artisan du Chocolat is just off the King’s Road. I could bus in, pick up a box, and tootle back in time for lunch. Hoorah! Good thinking batman.

Caught the 137 from the Common, which was already thronged with hotties with their tops off. Yay! I love summer. Arrived at L'Artisan to be served by the sweetest little French girl. I made up my own box – the chocs look gorgeous; you have to choose great flavours and arrange them beautifully in the box. They have things like banana and thyme, tobacco, green cardomon, passion fruit, rose, salted caramel, and lavender. Yum. As usual when buying a gift, I had to buy myself one too so I bought a small bag of the most attractive chocs.

Then I caught the bus home. Despite lunch on the horizon, I opened my bag of chocs and had the Moroccan Mint one. Oh my God. L'Artisan is my new favourite chocolate shop in London. This was the best mint chocolate I have ever eaten, so fresh and naturally minty, with a terrific balance of chocolate and mint. Usually, flavoured chocs have that choc shell with a soft centre – L'Artisan seem to do theirs differently, almost like a solid soft choc with the flavour in the chocolate. Also, all their chocs are dark – I have to admit my taste is quite downmarket and I’m usually happy with a milk chocolate Cadbury or Galaxy. But these were awesome. I quickly finished my whole bag.

The bus stopped on Queenstown Road and a gorgeous guy wearing an Abercrombie t-shirt got on. Gorgeous Guy sat at the front at the top. The day was getting better and better. I remembered that Abercrombie are moving into the old Jill Sander place in the West End and apparently they have massive billboards featuring their usual models outside – I made a note to go and check this out soon.

Whether it was the weather, or the chocs, or both, I started getting an irritated throat – my allergy strikes! I started coughing. I’m really worried that my hayfever is morphing into asthma. Then we arrived at Clapham Common. Gorgeous Guy got up – I held back so I could check him out when he turned around – and then followed him down the stairs and out.

Then I remembered – The chocs were still on the bus! Hell! 137 pulled off and headed off on a mission into South London. I ran after it, but clearly it was going to get to the next stop before I was. Damn! Moron! Gorgeous had disappeared too.

What a bloody idiot. So now it was wine for the neighbour after all. I rang my brother to find out if a Rioja Marques de Arienzo 1996 (Gran Reserva) was still OK. He thought it was. It has to be.

Whoever found those chocs, I hope they enjoyed them