Category Archives: Food

Mmm is for mocha, muesli & Mouse and de Lotz

Read how I bravely conquer my NIMBYism over a bowl of nourishing oats, under cover for The London Review of Breakfasts in Dalston’s pioneer cafe- Mouse and de Lotz.

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Bedtime Stories for Grown Ups

There’s something potent about breaking accepted sartorial conventions by appearing in your nightwear, in public. Who hasn’t either thrilled or squirmed at the thought of a sleepover, a slumber party, a pyjama pub crawl? Favourite Christmas nightdresses giving way to trendier frocks, fit to be paraded in front of one’s peers whilst pouring over one battered copy of Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes; undercut by the compulsory heavy PJ wearing during swimming survival lessons; only to be eclipsed by the raunchy debauchery of dressing-gown clad freshers laying waste to Wetherspoons. To say nothing of shoppers in Cardiff pushing the supermarket boundaries, or Guy Ritchie on his Mayfair doorstep, for that matter. The exquisite mixture of vulnerability and comfort, allure and embarrassment, innocence and experience inherent in making the private self public; the nightie or PJs more revealing, in a sense, than the garments that take us to nightclub, gym or beach.

It was in just such a frilly frisson of satin and chiffon that two of my best friends and I trotted off to Bedtime Stories at 40 Winks, a sumptuous boutique hotel (allegedly the world’s smallest) situated on the still rough and ready Mile End Road. The house dates back to a more genteel time, being a Queen Anne townhouse of 1717, to be exact. Each of its four storeys have been lovingly and expertly dolled up with the most opulent interior embellishments that the mind of designer and resident host David Carter could dream up. Avid Notes readers will recall this from my audio preview back in December. The toast of Vogue and Time Out since 2009, the Bedtime Stories events enforce a strict nocturnal dress code.  Indeed, there was something of the night in the formal, inquisitorial crossing of the threshold at which guests were required to offer an answer to a riddle (‘What has eyes but cannot see?’ Mole/ bat/ potato/ needle/ storm/ blindfold house guest…?) before gaining admittance and being assigned to either Heaven or Hell, according to the aspect of our countenance. Charming! These domains turned out to be the polarized literary salons to which we would either ascend or descend for our evening’s entertainment, only to have the hierarchical spheres turned upside down as the evening wore on.

We were ushered to girls’ and boys’ dressing rooms, past a statue of Christ’s Passion sporting a top hat and a sculpted head of Medusa, up winding stairs to the respective boudoirs that had already taken on the theatrical ambience of backstage preparation, with lovely creatures beautifying themselves in every corner. Such effort for one’s night-time ablutions! I myself had thrown on a slinky M&S number and concealed it under a pink mac, to spare the blushes of my fellow passengers on the 106.  It was tempting to linger in the luxurious wings, but wary of missing our share of the gin we hurried downstairs once we were all, er, ready for bed. We stood in the grand basement kitchen, sipping Hendricks cocktails from Hendricks teacups (I can swallow any amount of branding when it slips down this easily). Feeling slightly sheepish in our duvet-dress, everyone took the opportunity to eye up just how sexy/structured/cosy/authentic everyone else had pitched it. I was dismayed that the rumoured Godiva chocs were nowhere to be seen but pleased to find smoked salmon bagels cut into dainty portions and proper jelly babies for afters. However, the accurately promoted ‘yummy nibbles’ didn’t meet the glamorous expectations one of my companions, who consoled herself with another teacup refill. Suitably refreshed, we were called to order by Mr.Carter playing the dour schoolmaster in his kilt and blazer, complete with cane (or was it a wand?). After a gracious if absent-minded preamble, it was time for the heavenly and the hellish to retreat to their allotted chambers.

Sally Pomme Clayton beckoned us into the cloud-coloured music room with whimsical percussion and a twinkle in her eye. Under a golden-hued night sky to rival the Hogwarts ceiling, we settled in an upholstered window seat for the first instalment of Stories for the Beautiful and the Damned. With a nod to F.Scott Fitzgerald’s saga of riches and ruin, we were reminded to be careful what we wish for by the cautionary tale of the Wish Tree. With the room of PJ-posers in the palm of her hand, Sally then steered us through the perilous fortunes of The Bear- a penniless soldier who makes a Faustian pact with the devil in a green jacket. In exchange for the garment, the pockets of which produce endless gold coins, the soldier vows to go unwashed for seven, long years. Ms.Clayton was as rosy and cosy as sherry trifle, but she conjured skin-crawling disgust and duplicity with the ease of the demonic magician of her story. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of the pleasure of being told a story is the soporific power the voice exerts, but just as you felt yourself lulled into a mist of fairy dust, you’d be snapped out of it by a blood curdling scream, a violent double take or a spine-tinglingly pregnant pause. Even the prospect of more gin couldn’t quite slake my appetite for the next instalment.

With well-judged casting, Nell Phoenix who occupied the elegant ‘opium den’ drawing room was the Black Swan to Sally’s white. Raven-haired and rich-voiced, she lavished us with altogether darker, sultrier tales once ensconced in her velvet-cushioned hell. ‘I need to see the whites of your eyes,’ she told us before launching into re-spun folklore of a hubristic fisherman who fell in love with a sea nymph, only to be cursed by a jealous sorceress and doomed to swim the ocean, tethered to lost souls, for all time. Not being much of a classicist I was easily swept up in the lyrical, tragic moments that tripped off Nell’s tongue like water off the proverbial merman’s back, but my more knowledgeable contemporary caught every mythic reference and was transfixed all the same.

Before being cast out into the wilds of Whitechapel, wide-eyed and impressionable, we were treated to the talents of Tricity Vogue, a cabaret singer in our midst who gamely stood in for the indisposed Robbie Boyd. It was the first and perhaps only time I’ll ever hear Edith Piaf strung on a ukulele by a turbaned, oriental-robed chanteuse (especially one that I’d just ‘robbed’ of the Most Glamorous Nightie Award- Benefit Cosmetics here I come!), but the impromptu, eccentric flourish of the set was entirely in keeping with the whole mad affair. So with that, we tottered into the night with enough stories to sustain us through the summer ahead, be it beautiful or be it damned.

Bedtime Stories returns in September.

A Little of What You Fancy

I recently made my debut as a food critic of the Ready-Brek variety- a long-held ambition, as the first meal of the day has always been my unashamed favourite.

Click here to visit the ever-discerning London Review of Breakfasts for my brief, brunch dispatch from Dalston’s latest fine-dining experience. Under cover of a brekkie-inspired pseudonym, of course.

The Arnold Bennett omelette

                                            Homemade baked beans, egg & bacon

Greek yoghurt and fruit compote

The WI Gets Hip

If you’ve 7 minutes to spare, have a listen to my City MA Radio Project, featuring none other than the world-renowned feminist and academic, Professor Germaine Greer.

NB. Best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a slice of Battenberg, as these were the circumstances in which it was conceived!

The Dalston Darlings Tea Tent at Field Day in Victoria Park, London 2011

96 years of ‘jam and Jerusalem’ is a hard act to follow for the Women’s Institute. But armed with cupcakes, hot pants and pedicures, it seems the WI is finally getting hip. Kirsty McQuire reports… 

It wouldn’t be the WI without a Victoria Sponge

Market Forces

It’s on those wretchedly wet weekends that we’re so prone to in this oft grey and unpleasant land, that you console/ torment yourself with the vision of a fine spring day (as you clasp your hot water bottle in broad daylight, for fear of losing feeling in your extremities). A day which you might spend wantonly skipping through a bustling street market, making idle chatter and gathering rosebuds and frippery while you may, satisfying your every whim with each passing stall… I can smugly and contentedly report that this weekend I revelled in just such a day, eschewing housework and coursework to go and gape at the handiwork of other, more enterprising folk for whom Sunday is just another daily grind. 

Sunday 20th March marked the eagerly anticipated return of Chatsworth Road market for 2011. It had all the buzz of a neighbourhood favourite (or Notting Hill Carnival, as one of my accomplices put it, getting ever so slightly carried away), despite this only being its fourth ever outing since the series of trials before Christmas.  The Traders and Residents Association of Chatsworth Road E5 waged a long and vocal campaign to win the right to reinstate a weekly market after over 10 years of absent pavement trade. In 2009 I interviewed spokesman and architect of the early plans Ashley Parsons, when approval from the council was still an uncertain prospect.

Fast forward 18 months and the handsomely proportioned Victorian thoroughfare is gratifyingly alive with ambling feet, discerning eyes and perusing hands, as leisurely shoppers saunter in from Clapton, from Homerton, via the streets of Elderfield, Rushmore, Glenarm and Dunlace. A residential artery of East London connecting Lea Bridge Road to Homerton Road, Chats Road is a fiercely independent high street, albeit less well-heeled than Stoke Newington Church Street or Exmouth Market (the campaign argued that bringing a market back to the community could have a positive impact on social deprivation). With incremental expansion in size and scope (growing from 20 to 40 stalls) the market now boasts everything from gourmet cheesecake to artisan beauty products (with the odd sausage roll and sugar cane shot thrown in). The plan is to run fortnightly markets until September and move to a weekly set up thereafter, pending review.

Turning the corner off the main drag on to Glenarm Road, punters could also happen upon the main market’s smaller sibling- Hackney Homemade, itself making a comeback after a bleak mid-winter break. Nestled in the cosy courtyard behind Book Box independent children’s book shop, there was a distinctly domestic feel to the wares on offer. Locally-based travel writer Jane Eggington felt there was room for homegrown vintage and craft items alongside the mainstays of fresh veg and coffee and cakes, so gathered a collective of creatives to set up shop with their latest finds and creations.

Spilling out of the yard and on to the street were all the dressing up box delights a gaggle of over-grown girls could wish for, and after a minute or two of polite cooing over the rails we had a good rummage through crocheted cardies and tea dresses galore. Thankfully there appeared to be no ‘look but don’t touch’ policy. One of our number showed incredible restraint in passing up an All Saints black pencil skirt trimmed with gold piping that she’d spotted with magpie-like swiftness, which was surely snapped up as soon as our backs were turned. Among Irregular Choice canary yellow heels, swathes of print scarves, an enticing MOMA brand wristwatch and a gloriously kitsch purse emblazoned with amorous pairings, I settled on a pair of metallic-pink flower studs (yes another pair), that I felt struck just the right balance between Barbara Cartland and Bjork. For 3 quid, I’d rather choose my Christmas cracker gems off a blanketed-flagstone than out of a locked cabinet any day.

Once inside the mini market square we enquired about an elegant wooden lamp stand from stall of collectible and vintage homeware and furniture, and lusted after a matching pair of silver candlesticks until we remembered the mantle piece was already awash with tea lights.

We had a chat with Adam Cobbold about the exotic provenance of his exquisite blankets (Morocco, Iran, Cambodia and India) and admired the cushion covers handmade from his grandmother’s collection of early 20th century screen-printed fabrics. Student budget constraints prevented us from investing in these textile treasures but its gratifying to know they’ll be soon be adorning another elegant living room, just as grandma intended.

I now wish I’d bought one of jewellery designer Hazel Thomson’s funky laser cut plywood and acrylic pieces- all art deco geometric shapes and angular avairian beauties that would have been perfect for a friend’s birthday this week. Oops. More classic tastes were catered for by the ropes of amber and peridot beads, cut-gem pendants and bracelets glistening in the pale March sunshine at the far end of the yard.

Hidden behind pin cushions and foil wrapped chocolate eggs, Hannah in the house provided me with just the striking piece of statement jewellery that will do the job for Mother’s Day- a pistachio coloured ceramic broach with embossed lace detail for only £8. Shh…

It’s safe to say the selection on offer was heavily swayed towards the feminine, but the Manga-esque hand printed hoodies of White Monk were a nod towards more masculine, monochrome preferences.

Cursing myself for already falling prey to L’Epicerie deli, I saw that Evi, the only pit-stop stall in the yard, had been doing a roaring trade in traditional Greek foodstuffs- Cretan courgette pie (kolokithopita), spinach pie (spanakopita) and moussaka. Lots of crumbs by the time we’d worked our way round. 

But it’s not all sheer-indulgence. Hackney Homemade and the Book Box have pledged to donate a stall to a good cause at each market.  This week’s was Akany Avoko, selling a rainbow array of bags, baskets, shawls and toy cars made from recycled tin cans. All profits go directly to supporting abandoned babies, children and young people in Madagascar.

Still in its infancy, the compact Hackney Homemade is a charming concept proving that E5 can do vintage chic and quirky design just as well as your Spitalfields and your Broadways (and cheaper, with more elbow room). Don’t go expecting acres of choice, but do go with an eye for bargains hand-picked or hand-crafted on your doorstep.

Photographs by Kirsty McQuire

Olympic Ambitions

Since the bid was settled in 2005, politicians and pundits have been promising that the Olympic boroughs of East London will inherit the legacy of aspiration and investment conferred by London 2012. For our assessed TV news package at City, Anisa Kadri and I went on the trail of small businesses attempting to cash in on the kudos of the Olympic Games. Are they merely resourceful entrepreneurs or opportunistic ambush marketeers? The Olympic  Games Organising Committee and Newham Council have the deciding vote on which local venues have to re-brand before the tourists arrive.

Filmed 23rd February 2011.

Clandes-dine

My first taste of Stokey Secret Supper on Friday 25th February wasn’t my first experience of underground dining per se (oh no- see/ hear my Bruncheon Club post from last year). But as I’d already met the chef-hosts of that particular home-catering outfit, this latest escapade was arguably the more authentic of the two. However, I’d turned up to eat those delectable blueberry pancakes somewhere on Amhurst Road entirely solo, with no choice but to immerse myself in conversation with my fellow diners- whereas this time I had an ally.

Being seated next to your friend of 9 years standing whom you feel you never see often enough, at an event expressly designed to thrust you into sociable confluence with a random assortment of people you’d otherwise be unlikely to spare the time of day on tube or train, is undoubtedly an impediment. And a huge, welcome safety net. Sense a line of conversation run dry, a joke back-fire, an anecdote spiral into irrelevance or a gag tangibly deflate? Fear not, turn to your right and there’s a familiar face with ready and easy small talk to gloss over the faux pas. Or with deep talk to distract you, for that matter. Arriving at the Church Street flat ahead of the other mystery guests, we’d already cracked open our offie bottle of Chenin Blanc and were deep in the emotionally-rich depths of career development and family finance by the time our table was populated by seven other hungry mouths, all with eager smiles and forthcoming, if formal, introductions.

As cutlery was handed round and momentary acquaintances stifled their rumbling stomachs in anticipation of the 6 course feast, the first ten minutes or so were undeniably stilted. Luckily it transpired that everyone at our table had sensibly come as a pair. Cursory forays into table talk were made, politely: recent holidays, wished for holidays, the comparative merits of bus v.overground to and from the tubeless territory of the ‘restaurant,’ currently our only common ground. As a collective we soon turned to an appraisal of the living room in which we’d found ourselves- ‘Ooh, I like that print- I’d have that… is that a bird or a spaceship?.. I’ve read that… do you reckon he’s got a thing for cars?’ I think it must be a testament to our host Tom Nixon’s self-assurance that, whilst the table wear was spotless, he obviously hadn’t fretted so much about the domestic critique he was laying himself open to to bother about a few stray Christmas cards still adorning the bookcase.

By the time the starter of root vegetable bhajis and sag dahl was served, Jenny, Ben, Jazz, Miguel, Marco, Juan, Esther and myself were all on tentative first name terms, and grateful for the ready-made talking point in front of us. The bhaji was gratifyingly non-greasy and the dahl kicked off the meal with a spice sensation- too much for my compadre but the rest of the company licked their plates clean.

As we awaited our chorizo and tomato soup (which tuned out to be warmingly wholesome, once again with a kick), the conversation became a little more expansive- how much was Facebook worth? Was the original recipe for Coca Cola still secret? Had anyone ever been mushroom picking? What was it like living in Peckham?

The pallet-cleansing homemade lemon sorbet was welcome refreshment for some, a little too bland for others- the lads opposite had already emerged as the class clowns and took great delight in dousing their crystalline mounds in glugs of red wine. I declined the DIY touch but was istantly transported to that inexplicable hilarity of school and college hall dinners, where the jokers always relished breaking the ‘don’t play with your food’ rules parroted at us since we were in high chairs.

Next up was the mango and prawn salad, definitely my favourite of the savouries and really thoughtfully put together- loads of contrasting textures nestling in the bed of seeds, beans, shoots and leaves to compliment the lightly marinaded kebab.

It was a long wait for the main, but thankfully the assembled party were well-oiled enough by this stage in the proceedings to amuse each other with anecdotes of Communist-sympathising fathers newly returned from Cuba, Mad Men work-wear pretensions and the unlikely frugality of bankers, to name but a few.

The lamb massaman curry arrived to a chorus of salivated murmuring as the punchy aroma preceded the plates. It was a chunky vegetable medley and the squash was universally praised (once identified), but only one or two morsels of meat per portion led to some grumbles and suspicion that the neighbouring table had been better fed: cue much cross-table rivalry throughout the remainder of the evening.

After another lengthy interval -it was a very small kitchen and a two-person operation- out came the strawberry pavlova roll- a fun variation on a classic, with a marsh mellow rather than meringue swirl, dotted with pomegranate gems. The banter had risen to surprisingly raucous levels (fueled by a judiciously timed trip to the off license) with riske racial jibes being exchanged and exploded in good faith between the ethnically diverse company- we were as picture perfect a cross-section of contemporary London as the editorial team of Come Dine With Me could hope to engineer. Barbers and bankers, an ad exec, a journo, a student and a chef (he outed himself later), all shared the same grub and gossip, more or less (we could split hairs about the upscale vintage being drunk at the financier end of the table, but that wouldn’t be in the spirit of the bread and boundary breaking palladore, now would it?).

The clock had struck 12 before coffee and brownies were proffered- too late for my supper pal who made a Cinderella-style departure and too late for a caffeine hit for this insomniac, but no one could decline another moist brownie bite. Encapsulating the supping-style of the evening, they were delicate, playful and lovingly made.

After finishing the lion’s share of mine and my absent mate’s BYO bottle, I was then coerced into a round of after dinner drinks at The Lion pub round the corner. Never particularly adept at making polite exits under peer-pressure, and reluctant to break the convivial bond that had sneaked up on us over the last four and a half hours, I happily, if self-consciously, (if incredulously), raised a glass to the kindness of strangers.

Stokey Secret Supper runs a monthly series of dinners and costs £25 a head.

photographs by Kirsty McQuire