Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lovin' it?

Whether you’re lustfully lovin’ it or opting to Have It Your Way, when the urge for a fast food fix hits, nothing fixes you up faster than a trip to your nearest strip-lit purveyor of 100% beef satisfaction.

“I was in a hurry!”, you wail when your other half finds a tell-tale branded napkin wedged underneath the passenger seat. “I didn’t want to miss the start of the film!” you bleat as a treacherous sauce sachet slips out of your jacket pocket just before the lights go down. “They come in handy on days out with the kids!”, you whimper as a double-crossing lemon scented wet wipe ‘mysteriously’ attaches itself to your mobile phone.

But oh, the withering glances, the groans of disapproval, the look of sheer amazement that crosses the faces of your nearest and dearest as your dirty little secret is revealed. “Never again!”, you vow to yourself , as you attempt to erase the grease stain from your cuff, the dry film of sugar, salt and ‘secret ingredients’ from the back of your teeth, the soft white breadcrumbs from underneath your fingernails. And for a while you stick to your promise, convincing even yourself that you’ve broken the habit. Until, that is, you catch a glimpse of your siren’s seductive, revamped lair: leather-look sofas, WiFi hotspots, drones dressed in catwalk clothes. “I’ll just have a salad”, you tell yourself as you walk through the door. “Would you like to supersize that?”, murmurs the guilty pleasure imp on your shoulder. Altogether now: la-la-la-la ...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Say it isn't so!

I returned from WOMAD all hippified and chilled. I slept for 14 hours solid, got up, went and did Medad's shopping, then took off with the gang and made a total fool of myself by attempting Ten Pin Bowling. And while all that was going on, Weston Super Mare Pier burnt down. Tragedy! I love proper piers, and the one at Weston occupied a special place in my heart. 

My grandma spent summer holidays in the town itself as a girl; many years later, she and my grandfather treated me to my very first donkey ride on the beach there before introducing me to the delights of fish and chips on the pier itself afterwards. When I lived in Clevedon, my best friend and I often eschewed the elegant virtues of the pier in our own little wonderland to wander through the shingle beneath Weston's tackier, flashier version instead, where we searched for - and found! - both fossils and the meaning of life. I took my sister's children to the indoor fairground at the end of Weston Pier when they were still in nappies; we went on the mini-rollercoaster, and the littlest one threw up all over me. 

Today, those children are all grown up, my grandparents have gone to the big holiday resort in the sky, my flat in Clevedon is part of a massive redevelopment that includes a luxury hotel .... and Weston Super Mare Pier is no more. Still, no donkeys were harmed in the blaze, I've discovered excellent fish and chips in Bath, my best friend still holds that title and the fossils we found live in my underwear drawer. While  the same can't be said for the meaning of life, this much I know for sure: make the very most of the people and places you love while you can; you just never know the moment when they're suddenly going to disappear forever.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Happy Daze

I'm writing this post with an orange plastic wristband attached to my arm. My hair is full of warm summer dust, the soles of my feet have turned leathery and I'm suffering an attack of the hiccups that, without going into too much detail, remind me of the sweet potato and black bean burrito that I scoffed while joining in with a chorus of "yowzah, yowzah, yowzah." Ah, WOMAD; how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

For a start, the new Malmesbury site is conveniently located just an hour's drive away from my house - no camping for me! (well, not the sort of camping that involves a tent, anyway). This time last year, the rain was torrential - heck, this time last week the rain was torrential! But WOMAD weekend has rolled around, and guess what? So has the sunshine.

Last night we arrived just in time to see Chic on the main stage - actual Chic! The original, ultimate purveyors of ultra-fine disco anthems, the like of which the young pretenders have never been close to replicating. If you think you don't know who Chic are, please, please follow the Wiki link; if you haven't boogied on down to at least three of their greatest hits a thousand times, I'll donate my whole collection of Studio 54 compilations to Oxfam. Anyway, live last night, they shimmied, trumpeted and Diva-ed their way through a magnificent set, the only downside being that they strutted their funky stuff at 7pm, an inappropriate hour for a band who represent, to me, post-cocktail capers and champagne decadence. But that's a minor niggle, for I have now seen actual Chic! Oh baby, I'm happy.

But hang on, I hear you whimper; isn't WOMAD all about obscure bands from southern Guatemala whose names you can't pronounce, with frontmen called something like ee'n skia la tengrode? Well yes, of course it is! But it's also about - are you ready for this? - diversity. So why not throw Chic into the mix? And anyway, it's not like I haven't thrown myself into that mix with gusto. Last night, I also saw a band from Cicily, another from Cambodia and a Spanish Flamenco guitarist, and then I caught the end of a totally shambolic Shane McGowan duetting with Sharon Shannon. This evening, I'll be watching Eddy Grant (like, Oh. My. God) and Martha Wainwright (ditto - fingers crossed the rumours are true, and she's brought her brother with her too) ... but not before I've attended an African drum'n'dance workshop and a Vietnamese food masterclass. After all that, I'm going to the steam-powered fair, where I've already worked out how to spend my £5 pocket money (carousel, speedway and strongman, if you're interested). Heck, I might even have an Indian head massage! And it all goes on in the most gorgeous, pastoral surroundings; the atmosphere is elegant and family-friendly rather than crude and scary and over-branded and full of wasted no-hopers (yup, I'm referring to Glastonbury here). Okay, so the crowd consists largely of Guardian readers who have postponed their annual break in Tuscany to watch the Tashi Lhunpo Monks while swigging organic English wine and chowing down on fair trade noodles with Tibetan cottage cheese. Oh, count me in!

I want to live permanently in the Utopia that is the WOMAD festival. Call me an old hippy (I've been called much, much worse), but I just don't want the weekend to end ...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I shop, therefore I am

In an attempt to reinstate themselves at the top of the financial food chain, Marks and Spencer’s executive chairman Stuart Rose has announced a pilot scheme to stock a selection of items from ‘the nation’s favourite brand ranges’ on shelf space formerly given over solely to products bearing the M&S’ own St Michael label. Okay, I can sorta see the logic - of the millions who regularly log onto supermarket price comparison websites before setting off to do the weekly shop, few are going to choose a food hall that stocks only exclusive, premium products over a superstore that carries not only a dozen different brands of baked beans, but an own-label loss leader at 7p a can as well. But by attempting to turn M&S into just another, run-of-the-mill supermarket, is Stuart serving Great British Tradition a devastating blow?

Crunch or no crunch, the Hyacinth Buckets amongst us do not want to be confronted with Cillit Bang, Fixodent, Mini Cheddars, Flora margarine or Newcastle Brown Ale at Marks and Spencer. You wouldn’t expect to find Coquilles St Jacques, aged organic beef fillet and tarte au citron at the Smile shop up the road; ergo, we don’t expect to see Tampax, Pedigree Chum and Heinz salad cream snuggling up alongside the exotic ready meals, ready sliced courgettes and luxury sherry trifles that offer us a lifestyle to aspire to. What next – a KFC outlet in the M&S cafe (rebranded, no doubt, as ‘Sparky’s Caff’)? There may be a recession on the horizon, but I’d rather live on leftovers for three days secure in the knowledge that, come pay day, St Michael will carry me off to a Branston/Coca Cola/Harpic-free world where, until now, only food angels would aspire to tread. Let’s just hope that Stuart’s not planning to interfere with our knickers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The See Food Diet (oh come on, you know the punchline ...)

Curtain-up time on the Peter Hall season at Bath’s Theatre Royal always leads the restaurants around Sawclose to offer increasingly competitive pre-theatre dining deals; it surely can’t be long before one of them offers a complimentary post-supper digestif to anybody who can recite Nora Helmer’s final discourse to Torvald verbatim (after, that is, you’ve paid around £14 for two courses from a set menu between 5-7.30pm). But just around the corner, real life – meaning, in this instance, a nice, uncomplicated, budget-friendly bit of grub before digesting Ibsen’s late 19th precursor to Coronation Street – continues regardless. Although you’ll find flyers advertising all manner of forthcoming cultural events displayed in windows and scattered on counters of the cafes, casual diners and takeaways on and around Kingsmead Square, the undemanding menus and uncomplicated price structures make the area an ideal refuelling pit stop for those for whom the theatre is just another form of relaxing evening entertainment, not a major league ‘see and be seen’ event booked six months in advance because the Daily Telegraph told you to do it.

So off we go, Papa and I, to Seafoods – the delightful (honestly, it really is), traditional fish’n’chipper that’s been feeding battered, deep fried, naughty but nice yumminess to the Bath hoi polloi for over five decades. You can take your catch of the day away with you or eat it at a pavement table under the big umbrellas, but those who prefer their pre-theatre entertainment live and unrehearsed should sit inside in the cafe area. Fellow diners on the evening we visited provided a people watching feast: an expensively besuited gentleman diddling with his Blackberry, two genteel Canadian ladies bickering over their guidebooks and a girl who looked frighteningly like Jade Goody sitting with a hooded boy for whom that was obviously the main attraction, who each kept dashing off to feed chicken nuggets to a voracious Staffordshire bull terrier tied up outside. There are proper pickled eggs in jars behind the fryers, piles of ready-buttered bread (white sliced, of course) underneath a nylon tent on the counter and promises of homemade puddings on the chalk board. Faggots, pies and vegetarian sausages supplement the fish selection, and most dishes fluctuate around the £5-7 mark, with only the ‘posh’ salmon and chips, wholetail battered scampi and the Desperate Dan-style £9.99 ‘Challenge’ (two massive fish, a mushy pea lagoon and a mound of chips – eat it all, and your pudding is free) putting anything close to stress on the budget. But Medad and I always opt for haddock, chips and mushy peas because everything about it – the fresh, chunky fish fillet, the properly crisp, semi-sweet batter, the thick, satisfyingly lumpy peas – is exactly as it should be in a proper fish and chip shop. Granted, you won’t find microbrewery beer battered, sustainable Pollock served with pea puree and hand cut chips here. But portions are huge, service is swift and cheerful and even the house wine is the good side of palatable. If we were to apply Torvald Helmer’s final line to his departing wife to Bath’s pre-dinner dining scene, Seafoods is, perhaps “the greatest miracle of all”.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

'X' marks the spot (to which I shall never, ever return)

She's got a new bikini; she's gone off on holiday, and I'm (there's no point linking myself - you're already here) supposed to be working. But I'm having a muddy moment - a crisis of conscience, let alone confidence - regarding a current commission, so much so that I can't even go into the details here (if, however, you read between the lines of a previous post, you'll know what I'm talking about). However, I'm sick of the review that's been gracing my opening page since last Sunday, and suddenly urgently moved to do something about it. So ... please find below a copy of a recently published review that, as you can imagine, had the owners baying for (my) blood. As I'm trying to do my very best not to let them have it, we're going to call it Destination X ...

Life’s a journey, not a destination; to travel hopefully is better than to arrive; I would do anything for love but I won’t do that – such are the quotes, homilies and platitudes that inspire me when the (free range) chickens come home to roost. But I’ve yet to find a really good clichĂ© to pacify me when huge disappointment sets in.

I’ve been walking past Destination X for years, and always thought that the cute little caff at the epicentre of Bath at its most picturesque looked rather inviting. I’d perused the daytime menu – sarnies, omelettes, afternoon tea, etc – and promised myself that one day, I’d pop in and check it out. But I never did. Until, that is, I came upon the Destination X website (as you do), and found myself seduced by an unexpected emphasis on Moroccan cuisine. That little cafĂ© turns into a ‘Casablancan Bistro’ by night! White tablecloths are flung over the tables, the candles come out, and dishes such as kemroon m’shermal, kefta m’kaoura, briouats b’kofta are b’writ v’large. Wa-hey! Could this be an alternative destination for the Monday evening curry club that kick starts my social life for the week ahead?

Unfortunately, Destination X is more likely to launch the next series of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares than appease our fevered exotic dreams. You can see the opening sequences now: Gordon sitting at an overdressed table – a cluttered riot of vast, vinyl-backed menus, sugar bowls stacked high with cubes and 65 items of cutlery all wedged between those poor, overlooked flowers and potential fire hazard candles. He has his head in his hands, an untouched plate of baby back ribs (‘The Best In Town!’) beside him and a dessert menu that includes ‘full cream tea’ and ‘toast with jam’ under his feet. His lamb tagine – meat tasting like it’s been boiled with Oxo cubes, the cous cous woefully under-seasoned - sits undigested in his stomach. “What the **** are they doing?”, he mutters to two confused tourists (the only other diners in the room). He picks up his notes, which include a printout from the website information: ‘evocative, colourful, and sophisticated, full of romance and rich with flavours’, it says. “Mexican fajitas! Pizzas! Ribs!”, he wails. “Where’s the passion? Where’s the …”

We know he’s going to find the Moroccan word for balls eventually. But on the night we visited, our chef’s were clearly big enough to give him the audacity to serve three portions of that lamb tagine alongside a weak, sad seafood version, a sea bass incarnation (which was actually okay-ish) and Moroccan brochettes that turned out to be a lamb kebab (“which needed a steak knife to cut”, according to my cute little guinea pig), a chicken kebab and a burger. Before that, we’d shared two platters – sorry, two ‘beautiful selections’ – of unidentifiable Moroccan mezze, which were just about passable … if you’re very, very hungry. With wine, our bill came to £25 a head. With hindsight, we should have gone for a curry.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Get down, you dirty rascal!

Seeing as the aliens failed to land, the fever has long since passed and Dollface has started blogging again, I thoroughly intended to spend my Sunday evening updating you on events that have occurred over the past couple of days (a food festival, a wedding and a rather grand night out - now that's what I call a coming out party). But as a result of so much fun, I'm absolutely knackered ... so here's a recent Venue/Folio review for you to pick over instead. I apologise in advance (and vow to arm myself suitably for Doll's response) about what might at first appear to be a bit of a dig at my home town, but honestly isn't. Honestly. Really! Ah, published and be damned? Here we go ...

The Castle Inn, Bradford on Avon

“Such flattering and suspect beauty, this city: half fairytale, half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once voluptuously blossomed, inspiring composers to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism.” Okay, I’m misquoting Thomas Mann, and he was actually referring to Venice, not Bath. But having just returned from a long weekend immersed in the relentless throb of callous urbanity that is Liverpool, one can’t help but feel the urge to wax lyrical on return to the pastoral peace of my adopted West Country nest. And because deadlines wait for no man, we’re back on the road before I’ve had time to ditch the high pitched, hysterical screech that, after so many years spent being unnaturally subdued, has suddenly re-limpeted itself to my vocal chords.

In a way, it was okay to sound like a tourist (even one that inspires an ominous sense of dread in everybody within earshot), because our little holiday wasn’t over yet. We were off to Bradford on Avon to visit a venture headed up by the same team behind the Lounge chain of cafe-bars. But lovely though we all know the Lounges are, the Castle Inn isn’t just another Porto/Deco/Velo. What was once, by all accounts, a rather dodgy, insalubrious dive is now a Flatcappers freehold pub, fully refurbished to very user-friendly standards (flagstones, beams, chunky furniture; a lovely beer garden overlooking toytown) with four sumptuous letting rooms upstairs. We were to lay our hats in room 4 – a luxurious little love nest decorated in richly sensual, stylish tones of dark plum and gold flock, featuring an absolutely massive bed scattered with bronze silk cushions, from which there was an uninterrupted view of the flatscreen TV. But ooooh, the bathroom! A walkthrough shower, two sinks (each with their own selection of handmade girly goodies) an antique armchair ... and a freestanding, cast iron bath facing a picture window that offers views across the rooftops to Salisbury Plain, Westbury White Horse included. Now that’s what I call a room with a view. On went the TV (even though he’s apparently “not that interested in Euro 2008”) and into that bath I dived, to emerge 40 minutes later thoroughly refreshed and with an appetite for a square meal that only four days spent living entirely on scouse party buffets can give you.

When it comes to Castle food, Lounge touches are distinctly evident on menus that feature upper-crust versions of proper pub grub at extremely wholesome prices. Our starters – a silky butternut squash risotto and a hearty bacon and mushroom salad topped with a poached egg – came in at around a fiver, and either would easily constitute a sturdy lunch or even a nice, light main course, should you be of a less gluttonous inclination than we are. For mains, Fabio Grosso defended his title as Steak King admirably, an 8ozs rib eye dripping with blue cheese butter making for his perfect set piece. As the only thing about me that’s WAG-alike is the fake tan, I opted for a manly portion of roast lamb rump accompanied by roast new potatoes and asparagus – a combination that, for me, says all you need to know about the flavour of Britain in mid-June. After that, we took the remains of our bottle of wine back up to our room to watch the Italian stallions make the Gallic Gods cry before returning to the fray for a massive wedge of lemon tart and a boisterous banoffee pie, after which we yo-yoed back up the stairs for the last time to sink into an undisturbed sleep on the bed of dreams before being woken many hours later by the gentle waft of real bacon floating up from the kitchen the following morning. And did we heed the call? Oh yes we did: a perfect full English and a very imaginative veggie version (including sweetcorn fritters and bubble and squeak) set us up admirably for the 15 minute journey home.

Overall, the Castle is king of the mini-empire from which it has sprung. Even with the Cilla Black-style inflections in tow, one night there made me feel like a queen.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


It's almost 11pm on a humid Thursday evening. The house is quiet (I'm home alone), the sky has a strange, greenish tinge to it (oh I do hope there's gonna be a spaceship!), the gals are scrapping it out in the comments boxes of the previous post and I've recently managed to recreate that Chinese pork chop dish that I thought may have been a one-off (it's really simple: just mix a feels-about-the-right-amount-of-each-ingredient marinade of runny honey, soy sauce, five spice powder, star anise and dry sherry, soak a couple of boneless pork chops in it for a feels-about-right length of time, then grill them until you get lots of black crispy bits on the fatty edges - yum!). There's nobody I need to call (well there probably is, but I can't be bothered), I'm getting over a really nasty bout of tonsilitis (prescription charges: £21! That's outrageous! I wouldn't even spend that on a lipstick!) and most people I know are living it up at the opening night of the Taste of Bath Festival in Victoria Park, quaffing free champers and rubbing shoulders with big butch chefs. So what's a gal to do at a time like this? Blah-blah-blog - so here I am.

Perhaps the really high temperature is to blame, but life has felt a bit too much like the first series of a reality TV show for comfort these last couple of days (I guess that's a case of 'be careful what you ask for' in action). 

When I went to the doctor about the tonsils, we ended up having a really long chat about Yorkshire versus West Highland Terriers; you can probably guess how this conversation came about, but by the time we'd fought it out (there wasn't a clear winner), he'd allowed my appointment to overrun by 20 minutes and he still hadn't stuck his tool down my throat (fnar fnar) - and I'd forgotten to tell him that I can't hear very well at the moment as well as having frog throat ... or maybe he guessed that from the fact that I was having a conversation about dogs when he was actually asking me if I had any other symptoms. I've ended up with three different types of (expensive) antibiotics, anyway - surely one of them will unblock my aural tubes? 

Next up, the blogumentary (their words, not mine) folk are being really funny, but not in a good way; they keep calling me up at all hours of the day asking exactly what I'm doing at that very moment, and querying if I'm going to blog about it. It's a shame they don't call right now, really - but they won't, because the real reality (remember that?) that exists outside a TV set doesn't ever shape up that neatly. 

Next weirdness: I'm meant to be writing a completely anonymous piece for a certain glossy weekend newspaper magazine all about how I didn't leave home but my parents did, and when I tell the section editor that it can't really be anonymous because everybody I know already knows about it (and will therefore know exactly who I am the minute they read it), he just says "No They Won't!" really emphatically, like his life depends on it (perhaps it does, bless him).  

And in amongst all of this, it was my best friend's birthday on Tuesday and I couldn't do anything other than mime "I'll-make-it-up-to-you-when-I'm-better" in a really lacklustre way (I know that this isn't really that weird - or indeed very interesting - but I'm struggling to find a bit of catharsis). 

So why am I here again? I'm not sure really, but if you've come this far with me, I thank you from the bottom of my big, silly heart. I'm off to bed now, to continue reading a really lovely book called 'The Wisdom of Donkeys' - somehow, it makes sense of everything.