Monthly Archives: February 2009
I’ve never been one to idolise pop singers or paste posters of the latest Hollywood heart-throb on my bedroom wall. I don’t buy celebrity calendars and I admit to cringing whenever someone sends me pictures of Messrs Clooney, Craig or Pitt in some come-hither pose. However, last week I submitted to the ranks of groupie-dom for one particular person of whom I’m a fan, and now I can’t stop smiling.
The object of Epicurienne’s idolatry? Mr Michael Palin, and just writing his name makes me ask why he hasn’t yet been made a Knight of the Realm. (Apparently I’m not alone in wondering this; the theorists suggest it may be because of certain Python humour being taken a little too seriously by The Powers That Be.)
Mr Palin is probably best known for his acting credits and co-creation of cultish Monty Python skits and films. I started watching these when I was really too young to understand their humour, aside from the fact that the black knight in the Holy Grail really should have given up fighting when he lost the first arm. I loved The Life of Brian with its infectious ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ chorus from the cross and a healthy dose of cross-dressing holy women. Later, said Mr Palin caught my attention when, as K-K-K-Ken Pile, he stuttered his way through the hilarious film, A Fish Called Wanda, scooping up a BAFTA for his trouble. But it’s not for his acting prowess that I so admire this man; Palin has brought something different to the armchair traveller, through the BBC adventures that take him (and us) to all corners of the globe, from London’s Victoria Station to the wilds of Antarctica, from the souks of Morocco to the backwaters of Alaska or from the refugee camps of the Sahara to a meeting with the Dalai Lama or a belly-dancing class in Istanbul. I’ve watched all the shows, we have them all on DVD at home and I am therefore an official, card-carrying Palin fan so imagine my excitement to hear the man himself speak.
The venue for Palin’s talk was Daunt Books, a dangerous place for people like me whose bookshelves already groan beneath the weight of various travel tomes, lest we return home with more. The flagship store is located on chic Marylebone High Street, its carved wooden frontage harking back to Edwardian times and its windows filled with carefully selected literature, drawing customers into a bibliophile’s dream where hours can be lost in the simple act of browsing the stacks. I adore this place. If the Daunt stock were not enticing enough, the staff befriend the authors of the books they sell and, as such, there is a regular talks schedule. For a mere £5.00 customers gather to listen to an author speak as they sip on glasses of wine; in hyper-costly London, that’s what I call excellent value. Well, last week the speaker was none other than Mr Palin and, contrary to his last Daunt fixture when the tickets sold out by the time I’d called to book, this time I managed to get three. I felt just like Charlie Bucket on glimpsing gold in his Wonka wrapper.
From my seat in the gallery, I had an unimpeded view of the speaker’s platform and (ta dah) Mr Palin himself. The introduction was made by a Daunt representative, explaining that when they first opened their doors twenty years ago, the book of the first Palin travel adventure, Around the World in Eighty Days, was piled high on one of the display tables. Could it really be twenty years since Around the World in Eighty Days was on t.v.? I wondered. Yes, apparently it could. Twenty years ago, when I watched this then-brand new series on t.v., I was still a New Zealand schoolgirl, obsessed with French verb endings and the Peloponnesian War.
When Palin took the floor, he told us that in the course of the past two decades, the world had changed sufficiently that, in acknowledging this milestone anniversary of Eighty Days, the crew had decided to revisit certain destinations from that first travel series, noting differences between then and now. For instance, The Persian Gulf is now known as the Arabian Gulf in many Middle Eastern countries and Bombay is now Mumbai, but I digress.
Taking Dubai as one example of a destination appraised, in the past twenty years this city has undergone a massive metamorphosis from a moneyed but relatively characterless town to the glitzy seaside metropolis of today, replete with seven star hotels. Palin recounted for us his more recent experience of Dubai, on this occasion staying at the Burj al Arab, the luxury hotel that looks like a yacht spinnaker in full wind, where each room has a team (yes, team) of staff responsible for the welfare of its guests, and where rates can mount up to thousands per night. So what was Mr Palin’s observation of this swanky environment? That most of the guests looked dazed, sported casual gear and just seemed to want to relax. In other words, the Burj al Arab is wonderfully luxurious but a tad excessive for your regular holidaymaker.
Palin next spent some time recounting a memorable voyage on a dhow called the Al Shama that carried him from Dubai to Mumbai (no longer Bombay). A touch of nocturnal Delhi Belly (or should that be Dhow-y Belly?) saw him rushing at intervals to the basic on-board conveniences of bottomless barrels hanging over the open sea at the stern. On each run, he was greeted by the crew who were excited that he might want to spend time with them as they fished by night. On one such occasion they shouted out that they’d made him a curry, which is the last thing anyone feels like eating when experiencing digestive discomfort. The audience laughed in sympathy.
In post-production, the dhow voyage was supposed to take up a mere seven or eight minutes of film, but the editor deftly crafted it into a 45 minute episode in its own right, and in doing so, the special relationship that developed between Palin’s crew and that of the boat helped turn around some initially lukewarm reviews of the series. The public liked this new take on travel; they wanted to see the reality of far-flung lands, not a string of well-trodden tourist destinations and Hilton hotels. This episode is fondly remembered by Palin as a pivotal point in the development of his newfound reputation as an intrepid traveller and it won’t surprise you to learn that he revisited the crew as part of the anniversary catch up trip, taking a portable DVD player with him so they could see themselves on TV for the first time. Before parting again, the captain suggested that the head of the BBC might like to pay for a new dhow as the Al Shama was no more. According to Palin the request just might be awaiting attention on a certain desk at the BBC so we’ll have to wait to see if it materialises.
(To be continued)
Michael Palin’s website
Around the World in Eighty Days Amazon link
Andy Bargery at Londonbloggers.net has done it again. He has secured generous sponsorship for our bloggers’ meetup tonight, from Bacardi Breezer (the 100 calorie version) and House of Fraser. Epic Brother will be joining me at the meetup because I’m encouraging him to take to his keyboard and blog. It should be interesting for him to mingle with the blog-erati of London, whilst enjoying a low-calorie Breezer or two from the folk at Bacardi.
In anticipation of tonight’s festivities at Verve on St Martin’s Lane, Andy posted a competition. This time we had to say our most enjoyable methods of losing 100 calories and needless to say, because it’s a family-rated site, no indoor games of an adult variety were appropriate, not that I’d know any.
When I racked my brain, I don’t really have FUN losing calories, especially as the Epicurienne waistline has grown since co-habiting with Monsieur, due to our shared love of all things gastronomic and therefore I’ve been working hard recently to lose those extra pounds. None of it has been particularly enjoyable, although I’m happy to say that it’s working and I’ve dropped more than a dress size. My tips? I highly recommend coordinating the move of a large office, working 12 days straight, developing a chest infection and eating sea bass for Christmas lunch in order to kick start any weight loss plan. After that, eating less in the evening and swimming three times a week should work wonders along with a bit of Wii to combat the bingo wings.
When I thought harder about fun ways to lose 100 calories, I could have said that the achievement of climbing Ben Nevis was fun, but it wasn’t. It was bl**dy hard work going up and we got lost on our way down and my group included Little Miss Moany-pants, whom I dearly wanted to kick down the side of the mountain at one point. To make it worse, once we’d checked out the summit, which was freezing and looked like the moon, we realised that going DOWN the mountain hurt our legs more than going UP. It was a complete ankle-cracker. No, it was not fun. The best part of climbing Ben Nevis was the last 200 metres when we could see the pub.
Then I thought of kayaking. I love kayaking and so does Monsieur, but there’s a good reason why they call a tandem kayak ‘the marriage wrecker’. The last time we stepped into one of these boats, Monsieur and I had been engaged for a mere 48 hours. By the end of our little trip down the Dordogne, I think we could both have burned a further 100 calories by beating each other over the head with our paddles. No, I couldn’t put that down as fun.
I don’t ‘do’ gyms, apart from swimming, which I love. I no longer have the stamina for clubbing but I do like dancing around the living room. I can do certain Wii games but I’m embarrassing at others, and when I tried to play PS3 at the weekend, Monsieur got so frustrated with my lack of skill that he had to leave the room. (I think my somewhat vigorous abuse of the console may also have contributed to his exit.) How else can we kill those calories? Well, I heard once that housework burns them off, but I’ve never enjoyed shaking a feather duster or vacuuming, so cross those off the list. However, in the course of my research I found that pretty much everything I do during a typical day contributes to burning those calories, from blogging to cooking. Yes, my friends, you can even lose weight whilst whipping up some dinner.
So that’s what I decided to write in my entry – a Day in the Life of Epicurienne. I also had fun playing around with my avatar and the Paint application. Hmmm. I may not be a whizz at Photoshop but you just may see more Paint-ed pictures here soon. Here’s my entry:
LiKo (Little Korea Restaurant) 2-3 Lisle Street, London WC2H 7BG, Tel 020 7434 1601
In the darkest days of January, when we were still in the throes of post-Christmas empty pocket-dom, a pair of my colleagues and I conjured a carrot to dangle before our noses and lead us out of the gloom: we decided to put a date in the diary for a trip to LiKo, or Little Korea Restaurant, one of London Soho’s culinary gems with crunch-friendly prices.
The time eventually passed and the excitement among us was tangible. At long last we’d be eating the Korean-stroke-Japanese food I’d heard so much about. En route to the restaurant, it snowed, it sleeted and then it started to rain, so entering this initially uninspiring restaurant with dusty plastic sushi in its window and rows of oriental celebrity autographs in scribbled Korean or Japanese (who could tell which?) on one of its walls, was to be rescued from the forces of nature, at least for a couple of hours.
Following Little Miss Denmark, our designated leader for the evening as she knows LiKo well, Mr Positivity and I bypassed the ground floor in favour of the basement, a windowless room filled with non-descript furniture, an unmanned sushi bar at one end with stacks of bento boxes and aluminium take-away trays ready to be filled. Denmark and I were the only European faces in the room; everyone else was Korean or Japanese or Chinese. They obviously approved of this place and I was about to find out why.
We sipped on warm sake and icy Asahi beers as we chose our meal for the evening. Denmark grew up in Japan, so she knows her stuff in a place like this, as does Mr P, whose Chinese background and passion for oriental foods combined to make this an evening worth waiting for.
We started with a shared platter of sushi and several half-moon dumplings (or gyoza) filled with velvety pork and chives. They were delicious. I could probably have consumed three plates’ worth all by myself. Meanwhile, the sushi arrived on a rustic slab of wood with a small mound of ginger on one corner. The maki and California rolls were fresh and good and nothing spectacularly different from sushi elsewhere, but it was certainly an ideal selection for sharing. The conversation turned to ginger – do we like it? Don’t we? With sushi? In tea? To ease nausea? Until now, I never knew that ginger could incite so much passion in a trio of amateur foodies. Now we know.
Soon my attention was tempted away by the arrival of soft shell crab. Anyone who has read about my Malaysian adventures on this blog will already know about my obsession with soft shell crab. On a wet and freezing night in mid-winter London, to eat something so reminiscent of warm, seafood-friendly environments brought the sunniest of smiles to my face. “You can have the last bit,” offered Denmark. “Yes, absolutely,” seconded Mr P as he flashed his signature smile, so for once I didn’t argue and chomped on those last few crispy crab legs with one hundred per cent guilt-free relish.
Little Miss Denmark and Mr Positivity were now discussing the merits of deep-fried tofu. I’m not usually a tofu fan, but wherever I go I’m tempted to revisit such things just in case I got it wrong, or rather, just in case the chef got it wrong on my previous attempt. Boy, was this ever one of those times where that little rule worked beautifully. Denmark had ordered the deep-fried tofu that she’d been craving all week and when the little golden rectangles arrived, they were nice enough but not particularly thrilling. “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant,” she complained, “I thought we’d be getting the smoked tofu cubes in the plate of dipping sauce.” She was so disappointed that Mr P and I could only do the decent thing and insist that we ask for the exact tofu of her desire. This was an exercise in how two tofu dishes can be like chalk and cheese. The new arrival looked as golden-icious as the first, the cubes sitting in a light soy sauce with finely chopped salad onions floating about in it. On biting into them, they were just the right sort of hot, that is, not endangering the upper palate, and there was a delicate smokiness to each creamy bite. Oh yes, I am now a tofu fan; it just has to be this sort of tofu.
Whilst our tofu comparison exercise was gathering momentum, a waitress quietly moved a portable gas stove onto the end of the table. She placed a wok on top of it, already filled to the brim with seafood and vegetables and a lethal-looking red paste. Everything was arranged beautifully in layers and rows, with mussels in their shells fanned around the top. The gas was lit and after a while the sauce beneath began to bubble up around the contents. Mr P started to fill our bowls with ladles of broth and seafood, then adding soba noodles to the mix, just long enough to heat them through before dividing them amongst us. This was the Korean hot pot. More commonly eaten with beef, we’d chosen the equally enjoyable seafood version, although at this point I was finding that my ability to eat much more was fast diminishing. I slowed down, savouring each prawn and mussel and slice of sweet potato and mouthful of squid. In spite of the red paste that had earlier looked so likely to make you flap your hands and pant like a dog, once stirred into the broth it had merely provided a nicely warming zing, as opposed to searing the tongue.
Now contentedly full, I had to decline all else but a tiny spoonful of Mr P’s green tea ice cream. As it was, when we left amidst cheery farewells from the staff, we were satisfied but not stuffed to the point of immovable. Nor had our slowly recovering bank balances been badly dented by the feast. As promised by Denmark, this was affordable, fresh and tasty fare and three happy little foodies were we. At long last we had visited Little Korea and it was transporting, right down to the foreignness of the loos with their dank basement smell and strange-smelling fuchsia pump soap. The people, the food, the unpretentious decor and those dusty plastic pieces of sushi in the window – all made this culinary exercise feel more like a weekend away than an evening spent in London. My only regret? We forgot to try the kimchi so I guess we’ll have to go back and this time, smoked tofu will be top of my list.
Here’s a music video that caught my eye when we were in Sicily at New Year. Even if you don’t understand Italian, I’m certain that you’ll enjoy this clip. It gives choreography a whole new meaning.
Valentine’s Day is one of those occasions that has the potential to fail miserably. If you’re single, it can make you feel very alone. If you’re part of a couple, apart from being the romantic zenith of the calendar ,it can be very expensive, tacky, and can have the opposite of its intended effect by making you realise that no, you’re not the only person in the entire universe that loves someone. Then again, there’s also that breed of folk who deliberately ignore Valentine’s in the hope that it’ll go away, only to incur the wrath of their poor, high-maintenance (I mean neglected) partner. But mostly it’s just another excuse to spend way too much on cards and flowers in the name of commerce.
Many years ago, before my rose-tinted glasses cracked somewhat irreparably, I was invited to a Valentine’s dinner by a young man on whom I had a humongous crush. In preparation, I blow-dried my hair straight and left it long for full flirting flickability. We spent the evening at a Very Cool Jazz Bar where everything was dimly lit and the music so loud that I spent a lot of time leaning across the table, trying to hear what my date was saying. Then, a strange odour wafted up my nose.
“It smells like something’s burning,” I said, trying to locate the source of the stench in the club’s gloom.
“It’s your hair,” replied my date.
As I’d leaned across the table, my hair had dangled straight into the Valentine’s red candle and now a whole, thick strand had burned, had water thrown at it, sizzled, and disintegrated in a mere few seconds. The smell of burnt hair did not leave me for weeks, no matter how often I washed it. As for the budding romance, I think it’s fair to say that this one fizzled out.
Last year, Monsieur and I decided we should make a bit of an effort, rather than hiding ourselves away from the red rose salesmen, heart-shaped chocolate boxesand shop windows full of all things pink or red. Monsieur was decided. He wanted to go to a restaurant; I, on the other hand, wanted very much NOT to go to a restaurant. In the end, being the selfless love goddess that I am, I relented, on the proviso that I choose the venue. In fact, I cheated a bit because I already had an idea of where to book and it certainly wasn’t a place where we’d be an island in a sea of couples, all crooning sweet nothings to each other as they tried to dodge the little men with the buckets full of roses, swaying along to Frank Sinatra singing about flying to the moon. Those are the couples who don’t actually mind that their food is not much quality for a rather expensive quantity, or that champagne costs double the usual or that they’ve had to book weeks in advance to experience nothing short of mediocre. Well, Monsieur and I certainly do not fall into that category of couple-dom. We went to Benihana.
The reasoning behind this was that I hadn’t been to a teppanyaki place for ages and I quite enjoy them. Granted, it’s not the best Japanese that you’re ever going to taste, but flicking knives and flying devilled prawns should ensure that no rose salesmen would get anywhere near us. In case you haven’t yet experienced a Benihana (and admittedly there are quite a few people who don’t like them very much), patrons are seated on high stools surrounding the hot plate, in groups or blended with total strangers. This would surely be the perfect environment for practicing our Valentine’s Avoidance Techniques.
I managed to reserve a special Valentine’s dinner, which just happened to be the only dinner available and which was really just the usual fare teamed with a couple of glasses of fizz. The restaurant was packed and (cringe) there were quite a few couples there, but to dilute the atmosphere of lurve there were also groups of besuited businessmen and several families whose kids were thoroughly enjoying all the samurai knife action. Was it an Anti- Valentine’s success? I’d have to say, yes.
Now it’s that time of year again, when hearts and flowers and greetings cards are everywhere you look. So what do we have in mind for our special day? Well, for once it’s a weekend so domesticity reigns. The aerial guy is coming to fix our TV connection, and we’re (hopefully) going to have a peaceful day at home with some Epic cooking and a DVD or two. No hefty bills and no red rose salesmen in sight. Having said that, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll get any mail tomorrow, and we’re not talking the sort of mail that comes in a brown, window envelope.
*You might want to look up Benihana on You Tube. There are lots of films of Benihana samurai chefs flicking their implements around the place.
Image above borrowed from here: DiscoverNikkei
When a top restaurant website rates an eatery number one in more than one category, you know you’re onto a good thing. When a friend recommends the same place, you know the reviews must have substance. Clos Maggiore is just such a place and really does live up to expectation.
We reserved a table recently for a birthday celebration and I surreptitiously e-mailed the restaurant to ask them to wish Happy Birthday to the Birthday Boy. The General Manager, Jean Kessler, replied courteously that he would pass on the message to his ‘boys’. I started to get that sneaky smiley feeling that happens when I’m planning a surprise for someone, then proceeded to count the minutes to our reservation.
When we arrived at Clos Maggiore, the receptionist exhibited brusque efficiency as she took names, whirled coats into closets and handed us over to the warm and welcoming wait staff. Located in London’s busy Covent Garden, to be led off the street into the warmth of this place is to be led into a very different world. It’s calm, it’s intimate, the artworks have been chosen by someone with a good eye for European painting and (sculptures of winged pigs), and what’s that at the back of the restaurant? A large dining room decorated to feel like an outdoor terrace, replete with trellises and spreading trees, but gladly lacking in threat of inclement weather.
Our table wasn’t in the terrace itself; we were located just outside that area, but our unusually early 6pm booking coincided with plenty of those in the know who were already part-way through their pre-theatre meals. Near us, a pair of girls finished off their meal, one of them sharing at volume unappetising tales of a baby with a sixth toe and its forthcoming operation, but her kind would be a foghorn in even the loudest of environments so this was easily forgiven, especially as we had glasses of kir to enjoy and menus to savour. Meanwhile, I watched the staff out of the corner of one eye to see when the Birthday Boy might be greeted. Or perhaps they’d forgotten? Their manner was so discrete it was impossible to tell.
Now it was time to test the oeuvres of Clos Maggiore’s chef, Marcellin Marc. Formerly of Michelin 2 star, le Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence, the website tells us he “brings a Mediterranean style of cooking to every dish at Clos Maggiore”, with a keenness for seasonal fare. By now drooling in anticipation, we opened our menus and began.
I started with chargrilled wild scallops which were so perfectly seared that they still smacked of the sea, making me wonder if I’d ever before eaten such idyllic scallops. Perched on a crush of Charlotte potatoes, with adjacent nest of something crunchy (potato again perhaps?) to contrast the textures, this small plate offered what some might call an elegant sufficiency. It was just right, providing enough taste and sustenance to carry one over to the main course with room to spare. Having said that, the other starters sounded suitably seasonal for such an unforgiving February, such as pumpkin and pine nut soup with parmesan biscuit and truffle oil or braised shoulder of Loire Valley rabbit. Monsieur settled for the smoked aubergine caponata with basil pesto, murmuring his appreciation until the last morsel had disappeared.
Choosing the next course was genuinely hard work. The various options were all tempting and Clos Maggiore’s reputation for European fusion cuisine was beginning to show. I nearly went for the oven-roasted Maine lobster medallions and mousseline served with etuvée of winter vegetable in a cognac scented lobster bisque, but the Birthday Boy had already chosen that so I had to find something different. The steamed fillet of sea bass with basil sounded good; I love sea bass, but I’d already eaten it that week. Meanwhile, the slow cooked fillet of Cornish cod glazed with ricotta cheese and chive with a fëdûa of shellfish and chorizo cream sounded like a Basque sea front feast. (Fëdûa is a pasta-based paella of sorts). Then, for the carnivorous connoisseur there was the slow-cooked Charolais beef cheek, or the roasted fillet of ‘Duke of Westminster’ venison. I turned them all down in favour of the roasted ‘black leg’ chicken with Burgundy snails and foie gras, served with sautéed spaetzle, wild mushrooms and a sauce supreme. Now, that’s what I call a rollicking combination.
The chicken had been rolled with a farce of foie gras and a sneaky snail hidden in each of its three sections. It was tender, the snails were delicious, almost completely devoid of earthy taste, and the spaetzle appeared as irregular drops of eggy batter, quite different to the long noodles we’re accustomed to. The wild mushrooms were small and sweet, retaining a bit of moisture to give them bounce, and most of the snails had been sensitively pierced by a single toothpick, easy to remove by the less adventurous diner. I was only sorry that two thirds of the way through my main I had to stop, or not be able to try the dessert menu lest I pop with gastronomic pleasure.
For the vegetarian there are a couple of decent pasta options, including the decadent potato gnocchi stuffed with gorgonzola and served with celery, walnut pesto and poached pear, however, if that doesn’t float your boat, a combination of the side dishes of vegetables and salads would make a hearty meal in their own right.
As for the wine list, well, comprehensive is a relatively short word to describe its contents. If you enjoy wine, be prepared to spend time salivating over the Clos Maggiore selection.
Now, back to my preoccupation with the Birthday Boy. Still nothing had been said, no greeting made. Perhaps there had been some miscommunication along the way? Once again, I didn’t worry about this because we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, right down to the friendly banter with the waiters and I say this to all budding London waiters out there: if you want to learn how to do it properly, save your pennies and visit Clos Maggiore. Their training is impeccable.
We hummed and hah-ed a bit about whether or not to have a dessert, but in the end relented, choosing the selection of ice creams and sorbets. As with every dish this evening we were thrilled by the presentation – spoonfuls of a creamy chocolate semi freddo along with lemon sorbet and another fruity variety which I forget now… The portions were well gauged so as not to overwhelm at the end of an epicurean evening, and what was that on the Birthday Boy’s plate? The chef had written Happy Birthday in a drizzle of chocolate sauce around the rim, and a single candle flickered in the central scoop of ice cream. Birthday Boy was surprised. ‘How did they know?’ he asked and on noticing the mischievous twinkle in my eye, he knew it was me. Thank you Jean Kessler and team. Your really made the Birthday Boy’s night, and I’m not just talking about the candle.
NB I didn’t take photos of my food here because somehow it just didn’t seem appropriate in the serenity of this restaurant. There are plenty of images to whet your appetite on the restaurant website. I suggest you have a look… Meanwhile, thanks to the LondonTown website for providing the image above.
I don’t know how people found out that I like cocktails. I do, of course, but until recently I hardly ever drank them. First up, they’re expensive and I hate going home after a Big Night Out, only to wake the following day with drums in my head and an empty wallet because paying a tenner for a cocktail seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course there’s the Catch 22 that once you’ve had a couple of mojitos or mai thais, then shots, glorious shots are the obvious way forward, but it’s really just the fastest way to incredible pain the following day. The last reason behind my not drinking cocktails on a regular basis is the fact that I adore grape products (read ‘wine’).
Having said all that, I have certainly enjoyed some wonderful times with cocktail in hand. There was the university pal who paid his way through his degree by shaking cocktails at a popular bar in Auckland, where I grew up. He was a handy person to know in holiday time because he’d blend us the most wonderful drinks as we chilled out on beanbags overlooking beautiful New Zealand lakes, or as we decadently lazed on beaches or by friends’ pools. This particular cocktail shaker had a full repertoire but, in my opinion, his best concoction by far was the Mississippi Mudslide – a dangerously tasty frozen chocolate milkshake made with Kahlua and Baileys. Years later, when abandoned on Mustique (there’s a long story there) the barman at the boutique Firefly Hotel didn’t know how to make me a Mudslide, so I taught him and thereafter it was on their menu, named after me. Then again, that was a while ago. They may well have changed the cocktail list by now. What a fabulous excuse to go back and check.
Now, it would seem Epicurienne is undergoing a cocktail revival. When I signed up for the London Bloggers’ Meetup, ‘Blogology’, last year, I never knew I’d end up with my very own personalised cocktail named after my blog AND a whole bunch of New Best Friends at Splendid Communications. That night, my fellow bloggers and I were treated to bespoked cocktails and different variations on the Moscow Mule theme. On leaving, our Smirnoff Red goodie bag contained a kit of everything we needed to make our own Mules at home. All I can say is I’m lovin’ it like that and the kit didn’t last too long.
Then, just before Christmas, another Splendid Communications care package came along: a bottle of Margaritas and a super-swish cocktail glass. Epic Brother and I thoroughly enjoyed working our way through that. But now, dear readers, we move on to something a bit more sophisticated: an evening with Smirnoff Black at Plateau’s Ice Bar in Canary Wharf.
Rebecca Graham is the Splendid-ly Bad Influence who invited me along to this particular event, and it was special indeed. For a start, it required me travelling from my workplace in West London all the way across town to Canary Wharf of tall tower fame. In all my years in London, I’d never set foot in Canary Wharf until now; I’d never had any reason to go there. Quite simply, I don’t work in The City, I don’t socialise at Canary Wharf, and I don’t have much interest in visiting at weekends when tumbleweed rolls through its streets. But on this particular evening, the promise of cocktails lured me away from my regular beat and into the warren of activity beneath that beacon of the London skyline.
We met at Plateau, a smart restaurant overlooking Canary Wharf’s ice rink, passing through glass doors into the Ice Bar, a covered terrace that would be home to Smirnoff Black for the night. Behind the bar, top UK mixologist and Smirnoff Black brand ambassador, Tristan Stephenson, shook his stuff. I later learned that he’s one of the foremost cocktail bloggers in the UK. Perusing the list of possibilities, I couldn’t resist something called a Choccochilli which was nothing short of wickedness in a glass, comprising Smirnoff Black, chocolate and fresh chilli. Fellow blog-buddy, TikiChris, raved about his Butterfly Martini, a refreshing blend of Smirnoff Black, elderflower, apple juice, basil and mint. I was even lucky enough to steal a quick glug from his glass and was so pleased I did because it tasted of summer.
Next on my list was a Smirnoff 74, which is termed a shot but which Tristan poured into a champagne flute. This, too, was quite special, consisting of Smirnoff Black (no surprise there), lemon, gomme and house bubbly. TikiChris went for a Strawberry and Basil Mule, made with our New Favourite Vodka, strawberry, basil, lime and ginger beer, and when Monsieur joined us, he tried the Lemon Drop shot of Smirnoff Black, cointreau and lemon juice.
All the while, Plateau staff passed around platter after platter of delicious hors d’oeuvres, my favourite being the mini fish ‘n’ chips in a cup. And just when we’d decided which cocktail to try next, Tristan closed the bar to give us a vodka lesson. By this time, it was really quite chilly so some of the group were huddled under furry rugs on the sofas. Monsieur and I were happy to stand, numb feet and all, as we first sniffed at shots of a Major Russian Vodka Brand and then tasted it. To this ill-educated palate, it tasted just like a shot of vodka should, but when the Smirnoff Black came along I was surprised at how subtle and smooth its aroma and taste were by comparison. In fact, the difference was so severe that on sniffing the Russian shot again, it seemed to reek of something very chemical indeed. In fact, engine fuel sprang to mind.
You can see more vodka fans reviewing Smirnoff Black here… Like one fan on that site I’d recommend trying it neat, because that way you’ll definitely be able to tell the difference.
The evening at Plateau was certainly an interesting exercise, but this was a school night, so we had to get home, and from the outpost of Canary Wharf home seemed like a long way away. As we left, the Splendid folk gave us each a Russian doll with a bottle of Smirnoff Black inside. After all, tonight was Russian New Year (according to the Eastern Orthodox Church and Gregorian Calendar), so clinking shot glasses filled with vodka was certainly an appropriate way to celebrate! Only next time, we’ll have to insist on caviar… dahlink.
Photos by TikiChris (thanks for saving the day – my camera was misbehaving… )
The Smirnoff Black Collins
40ml Smirnoff Black vodka
20ml Fresh lemon juice
20ml sugar syrup
Shake Smirnoff, lemon juice and sugar, strain over crushed ice and top with good quality soda water
Units of Alc.
On Sunday night London experienced its biggest snowfall in eighteen years. It was something else. I knew that snow was on its way but never expected anything this dramatic. I’d spent the weekend in Paris with Monsieur’s parents. Then Monsieur stayed in Paris for an extra day and I returned home like a good girl so I could skip merrily along to work on Monday morning. On Eurostar, I had a total plonker sat next to me with his Very Large Laptop. Having had to disrupt his e-mail filing on two occasions to (a) go to the loo and (b) go to the bar I finally had this exchange with him:
“Please excuse me,”
(Harrumphing sounds. I notice he has a nasty pimple festering in the undergrowth of his fledgling beard)
“Perhaps if you’re going to be getting up all the time you should have booked an aisle seat.”
“Right. Perhaps you could take my window seat then and I’ll have YOUR aisle seat.”
“If you insist.” (More harrumphing sounds as he moves. It would seem there’s just no pleasing some Festering Pimpleheads)
After that, and having spent most of my day seated, I returned to the bar and wrote up my journal on one of the tiny standy uppy table things. Then I got sick of writing my journal but was still not keen to resume sitting next to Festering Pimple Man so I called Epic Mama. She told me it had been snowing in England, and sure enough, once we were through the Chunnel, there was a dusting of snow on all the platforms we passed through.
At St Pancras station my cab was waiting (I always order one to avoid the crowds and save my back from lugging suitcases up and down tube stairs) and huge snowflakes danced around us. By the time I got home, the snow had started to lay and a couple of hours later we’d had about three inches. The snow was blowing about like that of a snow globe collector on a shaking frenzy and parked cars were disappearing beneath the thick, white blanket. Those who braved the weather outside made fantastic crunching sounds as they trudged through the powder. Meanwhile, I watched from the window, absolutely mesmerised. Then, as the snowfall ceased for a while I pulled on my snow boots and grabbed my camcorder. This was historic. It had to be filmed.
I headed along our street, pointing the camera at bicycles covered in snow, (giggling about someone literally running the risk of freezing their backside off), recycling bins covered in snow, cars covered in snow, you name it covered in snow. Then I pushed open the gate to the communal garden and entered a veritable wonderland. Everything was a strange silvery colour and being alone in the garden so late at night, with pristine snow all around me and the mature trees looking like something from a Narnia film, made me want to laugh out loud. It was a feeling of complete exhilaration. Chatting away to the camera about what I was seeing, I filmed it all before realising that I was no longer alone; a couple of neighbours had joined me. We chatted briefly and one suggested I put my film onto the garden website but I don’t think I will because in one part I break into song. (That’s the sort of thing I do. At least I can say that this time it was from the Sound of Music, but I’ve been known to sing Wizard of Oz songs and worse whilst shopping. Ding dong the witch is dead…)
By the time I got home it was obvious that getting to work was going to be a nightmare. If a leaf deigns to flutter onto the tracks here, there are delays. What on earth would happen with several inches of snow? I called my trusty cab company but they wouldn’t take a booking, telling me to call again early the following morning, which I did. It was no help, though. They said the roads were bad and they weren’t taking bookings at all, so I left for work following my usual route and giving myself an extra half an hour to get there. That ought to do it! Or so I thought.
Outside, it was immediately obvious that more snow had fallen in the night and judging by the depth of roof frosting of some cars, we must have had about 7 inches in my neighbourhood. The streets were white with snow and it was deathly quiet. Only fools (or Festering Pimpleheads) would attempt to drive in this.
It took longer than usual to reach the tube and once there, it seemed that everything was okay but I knew it was too good to be true. Further along on the commute, at the station where I have to change, I walked all the way from one end to the other in order to pick up my link, only to find that the line had been suspended. I called work. No one answered so I left a voicemail. Plan B was to take the Circle and District lines and change onto the Piccadilly line somewhere but the C and D lines had also been suspended. Then DING! The big lightbulb in my brain went on. I could take a bus to work, but after standing at a strangely empty bus stop for a good ten minutes, a Royal Mail worker informed me that all buses had been cancelled in London due to the snow. This was turning into one of those films like 28 Days Later.
So, I couldn’t get a cab, my tube links were all down, there were no buses in London… I guess I could walk? But after a few minutes it became apparent that this was not an option. It takes me an hour and ten to walk to work on a fine day; in snow it would take forever.
Back at the station I went to its only operational tube line to try to get somewhere, anywhere that I could pick up a line towards work. To do this meant heading further away from my destination in order to hopefully move forwards. This, too, backfired. First, three trains went through before one arrived that we could fit onto. In the interim, a pushy wench with a suitably ski-jump-ish nose backed into me. Hard. Apparently my huff of discontent was audible to her. She flicked her head round faster than the Exorcist kid and stuck the ski jump in my face.
“What’s your issue, *****?” (Asterisk translation clue – she called me a female dog)
I stood my ground. “My issue is getting a body-blow from your back. Twice.”
But my adversary was having none of it.
“There’s no room here, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
All I noticed was a lack of apology. I reddened with unusual anger.
“How could I have noticed with your huge back in my face?”
The people around us were enjoying the display of tube rage, but just at that point, a train came that we were able to board, so the show ended just before we were tempted to pull clumps of hair out of each other’s heads.
The next part of the adventure was about to begin. I’ve been sardine on public transport before, but this was a whole different can of fish. When I finally extracted myself from said can to make a connection, I was greeted by a sign saying that that line, too, was down. Completely down. It was definitely time for some air so I surfaced and called my boss. He laughed at my predicament from the office, which happens to be a mere stone’s throw from his home. .
“Take the Jubilee Line to Green Park and change,” he suggested
“The Jubilee Line’s down.”
“Oh. Well, go shopping then!” He chortled, quite uncharacteristically. Perhaps the snow was affecting his thought processes? I couldn’t remember him ever telling me to ‘go shopping’ before.
“I’m nowhere near any decent shops and it’s too dangerous to walk.” I argued.
“Oh, well. Just go home then.” He offered.
I didn’t go immediately, thinking (mistakenly) that if I sat with a coffee for half an hour, then some of the tube issues might clear. Half an hour later, they were worse. I tried to get back on the line that had brought me here, to head home. It was now down. In spite of my best efforts to avoid walking, the only remaining transport option was my feet.
On my long, slow, trek back, I realised that most of the schools must have closed because there were kids everywhere, one little darling pelting his front door with snowballs, now smattered all over the finish. From the warmth of the flat I watched as the garden filled with families building snowmen and an igloo. The igloo took all day to make but was quite a success. Meanwhile, I’d been talking with a number of colleagues who’d also been struggling to get to work and then home. It would seem I wasn’t alone. In fact, only a quarter of our workforce had made it in. Our fine mayor, Boris Johnson, criticised people for not making it into work, calling it a ‘skive’. I say, if you want your city to operate in adverse weather conditions, Boris, how about using some of our taxes towards better equipping road and footpath-clearing equipment? The roads in my area of London haven’t been salted at all and the footpaths are treacherous. Now we hear that the country’s salt supplies are running out, so why not simply have a chat with our salt-harvesting friends across the Channel to see if they’d be interested in some extra business?
So what did Epic get up to on her unexpected ‘snow day’? Not much. Couldn’t work because at work the remote connection was down. Couldn’t veg with True Movies because our aerial is down.. Didn’t want to make snowmen because I’d experienced enough cold for one day, so I turned on the gas fire, swaddled myself in a rug and enjoyed a couple of DVDs set on tropical islands – the perfect antidote to such a chilly day. Oh, and if that sounds a bit TOO slothful, I also managed quite a bit of housework and some internet research for a pending HR situation at work.
Determined to return to the Land of the Living on Tuesday, I booked a cab, only to receive a last-minute phone call to say that a bus had slid into it just 200 metres down the road from our flat. To that, Monsieur asked me “Don’t they have snow ploughs in London?”
I later found out that no, London does not possess a single snow plough because it hasn’t needed one for some years, but if the current weather conditions indicate a looming ice age, I think it might be time to invest in one, at the very least. Either that, or take a leaf out of one Londoner’s book and cross country ski to work.
** P.S. If I can work out how to edit and upload my little film, you’ll see it here someday. I’m definitely still in the learner stage of my budding geek-dom!