Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A riot of a time in Edinburgh

Saying "the month has got away from me. Again." is like saying "the dog ate my blog." It's lame and it might be true but no one wants to hear it.

The first couple of weeks of August were a write off thanks to an exhaustion-induced sore throat that turned into a chronic cough that came with the free gifts of insomnia and snot. It wasn't fun. But thankfully it did mean I was at home on the sofa in my pajamas when rioters set fire to a bus outside the gallery in Peckham. Even from the relative safety of Hammersmith the air was uneasy during those chaotic, sickening 48 hours. Not that I was sleeping much anyway but the lullaby of sirens and helicopters didn't offer much by way of sweet dreams.

On Tuesday afternoon I went up to the chemist on the high street only to find the bus station full of police officers and all the shops and banks along King Street closing up as a precaution. The rational part of my brain said nothing was going to happen after the Monday evening and that it certainly wasn't going to happen in Hammersmith (thankfully, reliably as uneventful as ever) but still I felt this rising tide of anxiety and couldn't help but look at every teenager and wonder if they were going to mug me. I even found myself slipping my engagement ring off and shoving it deep into my pocket as I strode home without looking back. I think that was what horrified me the most - this insidious, invisible threat of menace that vanished as quickly as it flared up. Because it hasn't gone anywhere. It's just wearing new trainers now.

Last weekend we actually got out of town - not for fear of looters but in search of theatrical enlightenment and a laugh or four. We went to Edinburgh for the fringe festival. In the company of Tor and her Hungry One we flew up on the Friday night and had 48 hours wandering around rainy but still beautiful Edinburgh, dodging people in unitards thrusting flyers and ducking into small rooms above pubs for an hour of hopeful laughs.

Edinburgh was teeming with people, a fairly even mix of festival visitors and amateur street performers and with a keen eye there were all sorts of odd, beautiful, carnivalesque moments to be found amongst the crowds and the chaos.

One noticeable trend in the comedy we saw was young, articulate men plying their trade as a form of self-help therapy. Lots of jokes about divorce. Painful funny really - or not funny at all and hence no doubt the divorce.

I think the highlight was definitely the African American comedian W Kamau Bell's show 'Ending Racism in About an Hour' - razor sharp, rich in pathos and deadly accurate without being aggressive or ugly. And fucking FUNNY. I love smart funny. I definitely don't like sketch comedy troupe's where the returning motif is a dick joke and the comedy is light on funny. That and a skin crawlingly awful play about Take That and cancer (and no, it wasn't a sick joke) were definitely the low points. The point where you say, "Really? REALLY? How about we try a grown up job?"

We had a lovely meal on the Saturday where every member of the party (apart from my self-respecting self) ate haggis and on Sunday we moseyed about and crammed in a last few shows (including the Take That cancer monstrosity) before heading back to London.

It was so lovely to get out of the city, even just for a weekend, but it has made me start to really ache for the time and space to stretch out, not even to do anything, I'd be happy to do nothing, but just to exhale and stop for a while. No such luck yet but we're making up for the lack of holidays by planning ones for next year. I've already mapped out exactly how I want to spend my 26 days of annual leave. I just have to wait until March before I can start...

In the meantime there is a wedding to finish planning, work to be done and The Occasional Sunny Day (what I'm now calling Summer) to be enjoyed, even if it is while at work. It could be worse. I could be on a burning bus. Or employed at JD Sports. Or flogging tickets to rubbish theatre while wearing a beige unitard. Yes. Things could be much, much worse.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Fat Duck Tuesday

So last night, just for something different, Lovely Boy, his work friend, a friend of his work friend and little old me went out for dinner. To Fat Duck.

The booking was inspired by a minor Masterchef obsession and the lure of a challenge: Can anyone get a booking at Heston's? The invitation when it came was a rhetorical question in the form of a text message from Lovely Boy that read: "Hey sweets, would you be up for going to Fat Duck on Tues 2nd August with me, Chris and Chris's mate? X" Like I said, rhetorical question.

My experience with whacked gastronomy has never really been fully documented. It was two years and five days ago exactly that I went to Barcelona to meet my dear friend Tori and her husband for a trip to El Bulli, then the number one restaurant in the world. It was a sensory, culinary, emotional, artistic odyssey my mind still trips over and one of those "I can't believe I got to do that in my lifetime" moments, the enormity of which meant I was never able to articulate it, then or even really now. Thankfully though my brilliant friend did manage to - here, here, here and here....

I won my place at that table thanks to my art credentials as Ferran Adria was and is the only chef to have ever been invited to participate in Documenta, the prestigious five yearly art event held in Kassel, Germany. He was 'there' in 2007, the same year I happened to go though I didn't encounter Ferran, his table or his masterpieces as unbeknownst to me, El Bulli had been designated a satellite venue with two Documenta visitors a day flown to the Costa Brava for dinner. God only knows what dreadful art I was looking at while someone was handing out those winning tickets but Documenta proved, as El Bulli did two years later, a confusing, exhilarating, at times exhausting, surprising, philosophical, profound experience. People pooh pooh-ed Ferran's inclusion but as the man himself said, "In the end, the visitor decides what is art and what is not."

And so, since we're on the topic, let me say that I think art, great art, is confounded expectations, it's confrontation, curiosity and revelation. What I didn't know, until I sat down at El Bulli, was that it could also be exploding mimetic peanuts.

All of which is a veeeery roundabout way of getting to Fat Duck. Then number two restaurant in the world, it's currently sitting respectfully at number five and for me the appeal, apart from Heston - obviously - is that thrill of the unexpected and the promise of childish delight.

It was a bit of a mission to get there, with a tube to Ealing Broadway, a train to Maidenhead and then a taxi to Brae and so the unassuming frontage was almost an anti-climax when we finally pulled up. Inside, the decor was unpretentious, warm and the kind of relaxed posh that whispers, never screams darling, EXPENSIVE. But we'll get to that.

There were a number of highlights to the meal - the red cabbage gazpacho with mustard ice cream and the roast foie gras among them but for me it was the salmon poached in liquorice gel with vanilla mayonnaise and the lamb and cucumber. Sigh. And then there was the hot and cold tea, which was exactly that - the art and the magic in the brilliance of the hot and the cold being both in the delicate glass cup at the same time - and split perfectly down the MIDDLE. It prompted a gleeful WTF from each of each and it tasted like the delight that it was.

Much is made of the "Sound of the Sea" dish with its accompanying shell soundtrack of crashing waves and squarking gulls but for me, with its tapioca 'sand', fishy fish and pungent seaweedy foam, well, it tasted like low tide after a storm.

Thank god for dessert - macerated strawberries and a 'picnic blanket' of malleable white chocolate with an olive oil biscuit and chamomile and coriander jelly. WITH a delicate earl grey tea ice cream cornet with a bottom filled with strawberry jam. Love it want it could eat it forever.

By the time the sweet bag arrived I was somewhere between full and completely stuffed so I took it home with me to savour this afternoon. Which I did. The Queen of Hearts playing card beyond brilliant - delicate, delicious, hilarious. Yum.

We didn't get home last night until well after 1am so today has been hard work, not least of all because I've lost my voice and an ear infection is now also surely aknocking but I don't care. The insanity and the extravagance (of the gesture as much as the bill) are part of the whole experience and when I think back to El Bulli I have no idea how I ate 35 courses but I remember every bite and every emotion. I suspect Fat Duck will be the same.

Just don't ask me what I ate for dinner this evening.

Monday, 1 August 2011

A month of weekends

I know absolutely it's been too long since I've written when one of my eight devoted readers called me to ask if everything was alright (sorry Dad - yep, all OK. Just been a little too busy lately but I'm back now and raring to write).

It's been a month of weekends and tomorrow it's August and after next weekend's scheduled nothing it will be non-stop until October with house guests, more weddings, a weekend or two away and just the general chaos of living in London while working full-time and planning a wedding back in Sydney. Is it wrong to be wishing I was already on a beach in Thailand? Or at the very least on a plane home for Christmas? I'm kinda pooped. But the last four weekends have been brilliant and special for a host of reasons so I'm not sorry in the slightest.

Weekend One, July 9-10: Paris

There was something delicious about going to Paris FOR THE DAY with my purse and my passport. The occasion was my dear friend Nina's hen party and while she and the rest of The Girls were there for the whole weekend, there were only enough pennies in my purse to manage a day trip, albeit a decadent one. Grazia got me from Kings Cross all the way to rural France before a nap got me the rest of the way to Paris. I didn't think about packing a map (probably because it offended my alliteration) and so there was an interesting moment of Parisien Marco Polo via text message before I eventually joined the group near Notre Dame for lunch and then an afternoon of vintage shopping and macaroons. It was A LOT of fun. My new 80s Lanvin dress that's just a little bit fabulous and my 50s skirt that LBB is convinced was made from curtain material. And his point exactly?....

A cocktail in the Marais and then I was back on the train and back to London. It was a long day but a truly great one and I still can't get past the thrill of actually being able to GO to Paris for the day. I mean, it takes an hour and a half to fly to Melbourne - it takes a Grazia and a half hour nap to get to central Paris. I love it. And I can't wait to be back in October with Mum and Max.

Weekend Two, July 16-17: Monkey Island, Nina & Steve's wedding.

As is often the case with a hen party, a wedding typically follows and the next weekend LB and I were off to Maidenhead for Nina and Steve's oh so lovely wedding on Monkey Island in the village of Brae...

You get to Monkey Island via a footbridge. Nina and Steve, being resident of a 18th century Dutch barge houseboat, got there via their home up the Thames. The weather wasn't so fantastic but the rain held off for the ceremony and the setting was so idyllic and so quintessentially rural English that everyone was just charmed - though the love for the bride and groom probably had something to do with that also.

The reception was in this great room with this brilliant chandelier and I honestly had one of the best seats in the house - looking straight out at the happy couple and then out through the glass doors to the river.

The food was delicious, we had the brilliant company of my old flatmate and her partner and for LB in particular it was heartening to realise that weddings don't have to be scary and that even a nervous groom with an A4 sheet of paper can still steal the room with his heartfelt, hilarious speech. The dessert bar undoubtedly also helped. If this wasn't an idea we were already considering we would have absolutely filched it for our own little soiree in January. 

We didn't last late into the night because a week of work hell left LB literally nodding in his chair before the dancing had even started and so we left, after the vodka shots but before the disco but in time to see the beautiful paper lanterns lit and sent off into the sky. So lovely. And the full moon was a treat.


The next day was lunch up river (down river?) where we caught a rare moment of sunshine before the rain re-appeared and then it was home to London to collapse. Two weekends down two to go.

Weekend Three, July 22 - 23: Friends from Home

Earlier in the week (in fact the Friday before the weekend before) LB, Tors, her Hungry One and I had dinner and too much to drink with the fabulous Danne, catching up on all things life, love, work and travel and then the following Friday my little Bondi friend Imara came to town. She'd been in Paris visiting her sister and this was her first visit to the UK. She didn't have a phone, she didn't have a map - so I gave what I thought were fantastically precise directions to the Haunch of Venison gallery off New Bond St, where I would meet her once I'd finished my meeting at Louis Vuitton. It turns out my directions were fabulous but til the last street - something I only realised as I myself walked up the street on my way to my meeting. Thankfully she's an exceptionally bright girl and I found her on the front steps of the gallery (a block from where I said it was) and all was well.

Now New Bond St is certainly one way to introduce a person to London and heading to the nearest pub for a glass (OK, bottle) of wine with my boss we walked in to find nearly every man in there dressed in top hats and tails. Obviously they'd been to a wedding but having walked just past Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana et al on her way to meet me, the hilarity of the scene was not lost on me, though I'm still not sure Imara's convinced this isn't a typical Friday in the city.

Moving on to Soho to say farewell to Danne and to collect the Lovely Boy, we then went to dinner in Chinatown, so starving we may have ordered a duck. A whole duck. And we may have eaten it all.

The next day we braved the crowds and went to Portobello Road, via the obligatory stop outside the 'Hugh & Julia' travel bookshop, before then escaping into Hyde Park. After a brief trip through the Michaelangelo Pistoletto exhibition at the Serpentine we took refuge in the summer pavilion, designed this year by Peter Zumthor. It was, as I imagine it was envisaged to be, a sanctuary. Even with the dogs and kids and crowds it was so peaceful and lovely and calm inside, in stark contrast to its rather severe exterior.

Exahusted and foot sore and in need of wine and sofa, we headed home for an evening of food and talk and bad films - all that was missing were the Mint Slices. The next day we headed for Spitalfields for some East London experience before moving on to the Southbank for some sightseeing at the Globe and Tate Modern. Imara is currently working with Bell Shakespeare so there was no way we couldn't pay a visit to the Bard's original stomping ground if she was to go home with her integrity intact. Or without her I Heart Shakespeare keyring, come on, right?

After visiting the engrossing, complicated Taryn Simon exhibition at Tate we then lay on the grass in some rare summer sunshine drinking juice and talking life. I can't articulate how good it was. So good it made me painfully homesick for my life in Sydney where there are lots of friends to lie on the grass drinking juice and talking life with. London has many wonderful things about it - but a gang of brilliant girlfriends....... I miss my gang.

Dinner at Dishoom with OTHER old family friends followed and then LB and I took her to Covent Garden to spy on the Opera House. For my money though the sky was the most breath-taking thing about the moment. The next day I was back to work and Imara had London to herself before heading back to Paris on the train. I loved having her here and I can't wait to be back in Sydney in December in amongst my gals.

Weekend Four, 30-31 July: The weekend just gone.

This weekend has been remarkable for it's lack of remark. I had a haircut. I finished my book. We had dinner at the delicious da polpo in Covent Garden with Tors and the Hungry One to discuss plans for our upcoming weekend jaunt to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival and then we had ice cream. 

And then this afternoon, in the sunshine that's still loitering about from last weekend,  LB and I went to Whitechapel to see the Thomas Struth exhibition after wandering through the madness of East London and Brick Lane, where we came across this brilliant mural and another underway:

And THEN we came home and I have been sitting on the sofa ever since, writing while Lovely Boy has been cooking, inspired by the new Simon Hopkinson food show on the beeb:

Grilled eggplant and fetta. Yes it was delicious and yes I am eating off the cushion while I continue to sit on the sofa. It's been THAT kind of weekend.