Sunday, November 18, 2012

Write on?

It’s a still, frosty Sunday morning in November, and most of the world around me hasn’t woken up yet apart from the bright sunshine and my cat, who has found a patch of golden warmth to sunbathe in on the window sill. I don’t have any deadlines to chase; that kind of pressure won’t hit me until tomorrow. I don’t have anywhere to be until at least 1 o’clock, and that’s just a Sunday lunch that somebody else is very kindly cooking, so I don’t even have a menu to think about. I have, however, got a project to start: that chick lit novel that’s been bubbling away on a back burner in my overheated imagination needs writing, and it needs writing now. So why am I spending valuable time pottering around at the Animal Disco? I’ve either forgotten or haven’t had time for procrastination of late, but that old familiar foe is keen to remind me just what it feels like. But like all professional procrastinators, I have my excuses to fall back on.

Being paid to write is a luxury that I never take for granted. But as much as I am entirely grateful for being lucky enough to earn my keep (albeit a minimum wage that a 17 year old living at home probably couldn’t survive on) doing something that I really, really love, it’s sometimes easy to forget why I signed up for the freelance life in the first place. The plan was that earning money from selling words would buy me the time to write what I really want to write. I’m not saying that I don’t want to write about the restaurants, plays and shops that people apparently want to read about - I do, and I want to continue to do it for a long time yet, even when The Big Plan finally comes together. But doing such an activity on a freelance basis is a double-edged sword: I’m either madly busy meeting deadlines or so devoid of commissions that panic, self-doubt and paranoia about the future (and in this instance I mean real, tangible paranoia, such as the rent payment due in five days time) that I can barely eat, sleep or even talk coherently - as you’d expect, such a state is hardly conducive to confident inspiration.

Today, though, I can’t complain about being in either of those tricky situations. Forthcoming deadlines are manageable. Commissions are healthy. Heck, even the flat doesn’t particularly need tidying (although you might argue that point were you sitting in the middle of the detritus rubble-mountain that is my kitchen). So here’s the real reason that I’m allowing procrastination to set in: writing something that isn’t already commissioned, that hasn’t already been sanctioned by an editor, that is utterly, completely, totally currently existing only in my own head, is darn scary - terrifying, in fact. I’m about to embark on a project that’s likely to take up all of my free time for the foreseeable future, without any kind of safety net at all. I’m going to have to be very selective about social commitments, consider turning my phone off and learn how to say no to that fifth glass of wine at midnight on a Tuesday evening (the horror!). I’ll need to relearn the kind of blind confidence in my own ability that I must have had as a baby, when I took my first steps. And trust me when I tell you that even writing the phrase “confidence in my own ability” resulted in at least five minutes of frozen screen-staring, but I’m going to leave those five little words there anyway, because I’m pretty much also going to have to act as my own cheer leader; while I’m lucky that my friends and loved ones are wholly supportive of my, erm, creative ventures, they can’t write my best-selling novel for me - and it sure isn’t going to write itself.

If you’ve read this self-indulgent ramble so far, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. But really, the sole purpose of this post is to get myself into the swing of what I’m about to do: write something that isn’t just to pay the rent, that makes me (and, if I’m lucky, somebody else) think about what they really want to do, and rattle out those 700-odd words that most ‘real’ writers say is the bare minimum that ‘real’ writers should make themselves do every day.

A ‘real’ writer. Imagine that! Gotta dash now; there’s a Cheers rerun on TV - needless to say, I have to watch it.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hot Dogs, Cupcakes, a 'hidden' microwave and cheap meat

Just to recap: Sunday 16 September
An excerpt from Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries ii is published in the Observer Food Magazine. I am beyond ecstatic (see previous post).

Saturday 22 September
I yearn for a hot dog. Not an English sausage-in-a-bun, nor a bratwurst on a Sheboygan or a chilli/corn dawg the like of which Gordon Ramsay is scraping the barrel to promote as the food of the Gods in his current TV series, but a slippery, salty, pink tube of mechanically recovered meat smothered in burnt onions and slipped between two rectangular pillows of long life, white hot dog bun, the like of which one used to be able to purchase from dodgy guys who used to push mobile braziers around the street (and who never - according to my mother - washed their hands after taking a pee break). Boo and I go to the Moscow State Circus in the park, where I expect my cravings to be satisfied. The ‘Refreshment’ stand is indeed selling hot dogs: the Babushka sausage ‘experience’, no less, for £3 a pop. That wasn’t really what I had in mind and anyway, they stop serving hot food after the interval because the girls behind the counter have to swap their aprons for silver leotards and dangle by their toes from a trapeze for most ot the second half of the show.

The following day, I buy a tin of six Ye Olde Oak American Style Giant Hot Dogs from the Co-op for 99p and an enormous packet of the prerequisite marshmallow buns at a similar price. Boo overcooks three onions to the point where the once sweet-smelling tangle is no longer identifiable as being even closely related to allium cepa and I boil the sausages (and yes, I use the term loosely) in their brine. We eat our hot dogs slavered with ketchup and mustard, and afterwards vow to never, ever give into one of my impromptu cravings again, but we both know that really, it was one of the best meals we’d ever eaten. The only thing that was missing from my original vision was the tang of je ne sais quoi that always came as standard from the mobile brazier version. Boo said that can easily be rectified; next time he makes us hot dogs, he won’t wash his hands after taking a pee.

Tuesday 18 September
In his new book, Nigel Slater claims he doesn’t have a microwave. I spend a whole afternoon making and erecting a stylish, unobtrusive curtain for mine to hide behind (which is what I suspect Nigel has done for his).

Wednesday 19 September
Yet another cupcake company has taken it upon themselves to send me a gratis box of four cupcakes in, I’m guessing, an attempt to bribe me into signing into Twitter immediately and declaring them to be the best cakes I’ve ever eaten in my life. But it ain’t gonna happen: what fashionable foodie in their right mind would be caught dead eating an afternoon tea ‘treat’ that’s so passé? Everybody knows that the macaroon has long since replaced the cupcake on the chic food chart; even Primark has consigned cupcake-emblazoned tea towels to the 50p bin, making way for ‘premium’ home accessories (ie, cake tins for £1) with the must-have macaroon print on the lid on the shelves. But both cupcakes and macaroons are, in actuality, nasty, over-sweet, vile little bullets of negative nutritional value. Cupcakes are fairy cakes badly dressed in the manner of Disney princesses, crooned over by folk who worship style over substance and women who slavishly purchase fake Cath Kidston kitchen accessories (Primark again, from 84p). Cupcakes are the emperor’s old clothes of the food world.

Sunday 30 September
There has been a fashion for “forgotten” cuts of meat of late: former ration book staples such as neck of lamb, beef brisket and offal have been gracing supper tables and dominating TV food shows across the land as the ongoing financial crisis cuts ever-deepening swathes of misery and despair through the household grocery budget. Yesterday I braised two kilos of oxtail in a deep broth of beef stock enriched with tamarind paste and Burgundy for six hours before serving the resulting sinewy gloop with tagliatelle at a supper party. The result was a sweet, sickly, super-fatty, unctuous melange that tasted of exactly what it was: cheap. Some cuts of meat have been forgotten for a very good reason and you really can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (despite what Fergus Henderson would attempt to have you believe).

To be continued....

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Disco Kitchen Diaries

Sunday 16 September
An excerpt from Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries ii is published in the Observer Food Magazine. I am beyond ecstatic.

Tuesday 18 September
I can’t be the only one breathing a sigh of relief that broad bean season is over. There’s something about those bitter, tough, kidney-shaped pale green beans that come enclosed in jackets reminiscent of a freshly dead caterpillar yet to lose its fur to the invasion of maggots that really gets my goat. They are the emperor’s new clothes of the fashionable food world.

Thursday 20 September
My father and I are in search of something hot, savoury and filling to munch before we go and drink too much house wine in the cheerful hostelry adjacent to the Theatre Royal. There’s a glorious French bakery on the lane opposite the Bath branch of Waitrose, where I enquire about the two fat, golden pasties lounging resplendent under a glass dome on the counter. They are, I’m told, wrought from Salt Marsh lamb, organic Maris Piper potatoes and fresh rosemary, and wrapped in all butter pastry made to an authentic Normandy recipe. They are £4.20 each but can’t be served hot, due to health and safety regulations. We go to Gregg’s instead and buy two jumbo sausage rolls - the sticky, salty, gristly, unctuous filling as hot as volcanic larva, the pastry so flaky it all but fails to do its job at all - for £1.20, and eat them sitting on a bench opposite the Disney Shop.

Friday 21 September
Autumn is softly creeping into our tiny third floor flat, which can only mean one thing: the central heating still doesn’t work properly. In the search for supper, I take a stroll around the larder in the corner of the spare room and stumble across a Fray Bentos pie, bought on a whim several months ago. The tin is dusty, but I’m confident that the contents are nowhere near the end of their seasonal best yet; the pie can happily sit amongst the bottles of mouthwash, boxes of Paxo stuffing and packets of Haribo that thrive in our makeshift store cupboard, waiting for their time to come as they relax in the gentle darkness of a makeshift cupboard next to the cat litter tray. Back in the kitchen, the fridge reveals the remains of last night’s speedy chicken curry (chicken, frozen peas and a jar of Co-op low fat Korma sauce) and two eggs. While the eggs are scrambling, I heat the curry up in the microwave to the exact point where the sauce around the edges of the bowl have turned a crusty dark brown. I serve my eggs on top of two pieces of toast spread with Dairylea cheese. Boo devours the curry with one hand while stroking the cat with the other. He has 4 Cadbury’s Roses for dessert. Later on that evening, he will eat slices of Cathedral City Cheddar with a double whisky.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Your love was King?

A review of the King William in Bath (below), circa 2006-ish. I came across it while writing another review of the same glorious eaterie a couple of weeks ago, and decided to give the original another airing ‘cos it sort of reads like a diary entry... and what’s wrong with a bit of nostalgia?

The King William, Bath
Until the zeroes really started to get underway, describing an eating out experience as “like going round to a friend’s house for supper” was an insult (and if anyone were to liken such an experience to supper at my house at the time, it would have been). These days, though, it’s likely to be the formal starch’n’snoot philosophy that brings on the disparaging sneers (“They still do white linen? You’re kidding!”). A decade of global unrest and the constant threat of recession has killed the £400 dinner date stone dead; chefs who cling to Novelli aspirations in the hope of hearing the squeal of the Michelin man’s tyres on the (raked, herbaceous-bordered, floodlit) driveway end up in AA, dress codes (along with which-fork-should-I-be-using paranoia) have been consigned to the ‘fine dining’ compost heap and the gastro-bistro is the new pub. A handful of smart, local, down-home diners with major foodie appeal flourish on every neighbourhood corner, and the King William – situated on a none-too-glamorous London Road junction – is vying to wear the Bath crown.

Once a really grim, grotty pub, now a smart little bar with a cosy snug in the basement and a gorgeously pretty supper room upstairs, the King Billy is the epitome of right-now chic. Yes, the upstairs experience is indeed a bit like going round to a friend’s house for supper – if, that is, you have friends who have a tastefully decorated, airy dining room that seats 40 and a couple of mates who happen to be kitchen gods. The furniture is artfully mismatched, the staff look really happy, the welcome is natural rather than rehearsed. Within seconds, even the traffic that thunders by below the window starts to feel like a whole world away.

From a beautifully understated, thoughtfully balanced set menu that further bolsters the zeitgeist theme (local organics, seasonality and impeccable sourcing skip lightly around the otherwise plain descriptions), we went for potted English lop and crab risotto starters, followed by red mullet and roast sirloin mains. Our wine arrived with a saucer-sized taster treat (you can’t say amuse bouche in a place like this) of Serrano ham and something figgy, swiftly followed by a basket of chunky home-made bread; ah yes, the yum-yum ball was rolling. The lop (it’s a sort of rustic pork pate, you plebs) was a totally flavoursome babe, served with succulent pickles and yet more fresh crusty slices, while the risotto was a perfectly gooey plate of sweet, sumptuous grains emboldened in all the right places by very fresh lozenges of crabmeat. The starters brought on a personality about-turn at our table: he began to wax gushingly lyrical while I was lost for words; suddenly I knew how it felt to go out for dinner with me (god, how do those ‘guests’ stand it?).

Next up, my roast sirloin was absolutely massive: a wholly carnivorous, juice-oozing, boldly fatty slab of beef, topped with fresh horseradish and teamed with a real, proper Yorkshire pud. It was a big man mountain of a meal that put a whole new spin on the notion of a roast – and further shut me up. He, meanwhile, was moved to prose now, uttering some sort of sonnet in praise of his mullet – apparently a juicy, plump oceanic goddess with shell-on prawns and mussels lounging against her lascivious flanks and spinach providing a bed on which the whole, moving experience took place. Crikey! That old adage about the way to a man’s heart, etc, must be true. While he continued to articulate his delight, I quietly ordered myself an English cheese platter that, even though it was a perfectly fitting doll’s house selection of top faves, I couldn’t finish, and instead just gazed on in awe as his rhubarb fool turned him into the bard of the King Billy supper room. I’ve never seen him so animated, so excited, so inspired – god damn it, I've never seen him so sexy*! If only I'd known, months ago, that all I had to do was fix him up with a lop and a mullet, the course of my personal history could have been rewritten. All hail the King Billy. It rules.

*Update: the King William is stil very, very good but the dinner date man turned out to be the very opposite of sexy.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Most definitely not a single regret!

And so it came to pass that Venue magazine – my main outlet for outpourings of words – went to good old fashioned press (remember that?) for the last time this month. Much has already been said on the matter, most notably by golden wordsmith (and Venue stalwart) Eugene Byrne and the magazine’s last editor Tom Wainwright (who, weirdly enough, I’ve yet to meet). Really, I need not add anymore – it’s all been said, done and dusted; all that remains is the send-off party, at once an event to look forward to and one to wear the waterproof mascara for. So, all that’s left for me to add to the eulogy is a massive thank you to Venue for having me: if it hadn’t been for their faith in me, I’m not sure if I’d have ever found the courage to mouth off in public, establish myself as a ‘real’ Bathonian (the local doors that the Venue key opened were truly amazing) nor meet a group of unique people who influenced – and, I hope, will continue to influence - my life in a variety of ways. And I certainly wouldn’t have been gifted with the opportunity to discover just how much I love to write about food! But hey, this apparently cheerless discord is far from any sort of swansong. In freelance writer terms, I’m well aware that I’m definitely one of the lucky ones; I’m proud to say that I will continue to write for Bristol and Bath’s utterly gorgeous Folio magazine, and our food supplement (Eating Out West, don’cha know) continues to go from strength to strength. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of other stuff partying in the pipeline too... and I’ve made a vow to myself to blog more when the devil (that’s the word-spewing devil, natch, not the nasty, fire breathing one with the goatee and the goat’s legs) drives – a bit of time on one’s hand isn’t always a bad thing, particularly if you’re a girl who just can’t keep her mouth shut... Onwards and upwards? Indeed! But before we get on with that, let's have a little bit of this

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Be careful what you ask for this Valentine's Day...

“Every breath you take, every move you make, every step you take, I'll be watching you”. “You’d better run for your life, little girl; I’d rather see you dead than with another man”. “Whatever you do, I’ll be two steps behind you”. Eek! Is this a transcript from the diary of a deranged psychopath? Well yes and no; we are in fact plundering lyrics from the Great Love Songs playlist in the name of Valentine’s Day. Lurking close to the surface amidst the inevitable tide of bland, saccharine-sweet ballads that a Google search for ‘love songs’ vomits back at you, the macabre melodies just keep on coming, in this instance courtesy of the Police, the Beatles and, erm, Def Leppard. But then again, even the less sinister chart toppers have a distinctly – well, sinister theme going on. I can’t help falling in love with you. Hopelessly devoted to you. I will always love you. Crazy in love? I’ll say! Are we a nation of romantics...or a barmy army of obsessives?

At this time of year, I actually feel a bit sorry for all the healthy, balanced, genuinely nice guys (and despite the vile, murderous activities of the not-so-sane ‘brotherhood’ who have dominated the headlines of late, there are plenty of them around) who are attempting to quit the single life this V-Day. What’s a guy to do? Buy her flowers, and you’re old fashioned; pay for dinner and she’ll accuse you of attempting to buy time in bed; send her a Valentine’s Day card and you’re a cliché; turn up to meet her unexpectedly and you’re a stalker; play hard to get and you’re an egomaniac bastard – seriously, guys, you just can’t win. So how does New Millennium Man woo a Thoroughly Modern Miss without being accused of misogyny? Ha! Even quantum cosmologist Stephen Hawking can’t shed a light on this particular conundrum; the nation’s favourite geek recently declared that even he thinks women are “a complete mystery” – and I don’t blame him for such confusion.

When it comes to the dating game, the contemporary sisterhood bends the rules faster than you can say Chardonnay. Flowers? We all love them. Pay for dinner? At last! A Valentine’s Day card? How charming! He turns up to meet you unexpectedly? Thank goodness for touché eclait! He plays hard to get? Oh swoon, he’s Mr Darcy! So unless we have firm proof that the wooer in question has a reputation for ominously creepy behaviour, why all the accusations of him offering anything other than a brave attempt at attention-grabbing? Because to politely accept his advances would be to suggest that we need a man to flatter us, feed us or generally lighten up our lives – Emily Pankhurst would surely turn in her grave! So ‘Mr Perfect’ gets the heave-ho, and obsession on both sides starts to fill the inevitable void. Men – battered by rejection and challenged by the threat of obsoletion – turn into Patrick Bateman, while women – confused by unrealistic expectations and images of perfection perpetuated in the media alongside those vile, cautionary tales that grab the headlines – turn into Bridget Jones; the result is hardly a marriage made in heaven. Considering almost 2000 years have passed since the original St Valentine(s) bit the dust, we haven’t come very far, have we?

And yet, the ritual that marks the anniversary of the death of numerous early Christian martyrs continues to thrive. Creepy love songs will dominate dance floors across the land as restaurateurs curse all those tables-for-two, Clinton’s Cards prepare to have their dwindling profits bolstered and cheap confectionery in heart-shaped boxes ensures that lovesick behaviour comes with a side order of quease. Meanwhile, men and women across the land prepare to get their Mars/Venus passports renewed in readiness to take flight as crushes, flirtations and unrequited love turn into very unhealthy pastimes indeed.