Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last Post (of 2008)

This week we're looking after our little four year old nephew, who is (occasional wilful tantrums notwithstanding) a joy to entertain, but leaves little time or energy for such frivolities as blogging. So for my final post of 2008, I offer quite simply a list of all my favourite happenings, cultural, sentimental and culinary, from this past year. This comes with an invitation for you to reply with your own 'Best of 2008' and warmest wishes for a very happy and peaceful 2009 to you all.

Books
1. Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann
2. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
3. The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe

Films
1. Juno
2. In Bruges
3. No Country for Old Men

Gigs
1. Camille at Den Atelier, Luxembourg
2. Scott Matthew at Bush Hall, London
3. Sigur Ros at Latitude Festival, Suffolk

Albums
1. Camille - Music Hole
2. Lykke Li - Youth Novels
3. Foals - Antidotes

Theatre
1. Avenue Q, Noel Coward Theatre, London
2. Power Lunch, Open House, Brighton
3. Bonnie in Brighton, Three and Ten, Brighton

Restaurants
1. Bom Bane's, Brighton
2. Cyrano, Budapest
3. Carnevale, Moorgate, London

Clubs
1. The Magic Theatre at Bloomsbury Ballroom
2. Vive La Fip at Komedia
3. Carnivalesque at Barfly

Moments
1. Nathaniel Aldous Carn (my new nephew) born
2. Getting my teeth fixed
3. Singing on stage for the first time in 15 years


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Vegetarian Christmas Lunch, My Way

There are few things I enjoy more than cooking up a feast for friends and family, so it was a great privilege to be the designated chef for this year's Christmas lunch round at my Mum's on Thursday. Usually I hide in the lounge watching old films with my sister while big bro and Mum do all the food, but with both siblings away this year, I was only too pleased to offer my culinary services, and Mum was delighted to be able to put her feet up for once. I do a roast most weekends anyway, so it wasn't a massive challenge, but I did go a little bit crazy since it was a special occasion. Ant helped me do most of the preparation the night before, so there wasn't actually much to do on the day, giving us all more time to knock back a glass or two of delicious pink Prosecco. The above picture may look like a disgustingly greedy portion, but in my defence, they were unusually petite plates (Mum's not mine). It was also the first year in ages that there has been absolutely no meat or fish on the table, and although not everyone present was a vegetarian (most apart from me are pescetarians), it was so tasty that nobody minded in the least. I always try to make a plate of food as colourful as possible, so the following assortment was conceived with aesthetic as well as gustatory variety in mind.

Chestnut & spinach loaf
This was adapted from a recipe in Leiths Vegetable Bible. I replaced half the nut quantity with a tin of chestnut puree (making for a more moist end result), and added some cheese (Lancashire) to the middle layer with the spinach.

Roast potatoes
My mum is a bit of a traditionalist, so I am never normally allowed roasties with their skins on. To me the crunchy nutty jacket is by far the best bit, and thankfully noone complained when they were served my preferred version of this Christmas dinner staple, complete with skins.

Mashed swede & squash
We'd had a rather large squash (I'm not certain what variety) delivered in our Abel & Cole veg box, so it seemed a shame not to include it. I steamed this together with some swede and mashed them up with lots of butter and black pepper, and a little rock salt.

Oven roasted ratatouille
Not normally something associated with Christmas dinner, but the sharpness of the tomatoes and fresh basil, combined with slowly roasted courgettes, leeks and peppers provided a welcome contrast to the other stodgier flavours and textures on the plate.

Spiced red cabbage
Stewed down with red wine, stock and spices for over an hour, this added a fantastic splash of purple to the plate.

Oven roasted coriander carrots
According to Delia, winter carrots are blander than the summer variety, so she suggests roasting rather than boiling them in order to preserve maximum flavour. The addition of ground coriander seeds and black pepper is also her suggestion, as found on p.198 of Delia's Vegetarian Collection.

Parmesan-coated roast parsnips
A special request from Ant, these were based on another Delia recipe that I'd made once before a few years ago and he had never forgotten.

Peas & broccoli
Unadulterated greens, simply steamed for the best flavour.

Gravy
Made to my own special secret recipe.

Condiments
I am afraid I didn't stretch to making these myself, but we did have a good selection - including cranberry sauce, red onion chutney (my favourite) and mango chutney.

According to plan, there was plenty of everything left to make a substantial bubble & squeak on Boxing Day. We just warmed it all through in a big vat on the stove, whizzed in some extra herbs and spices, then grated over a generous helping of Applewood cheese and finished it off under the grill. Since that second gut-busting blow-out I've been living on a more moderate diet of cheese and crackers, which is honestly my favourite bit of the Christmas culinary indulgences.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Twas the Night Before the Night Before Christmas

Last night as I returned from a semi-successful mission to the supermarket for Christmas food supplies, I was reminiscing to myself about an occasion, eight years ago, when the 23rd December became a ceremony in its own right.

Ant and I were living in Streatham at the time and couldn't wait to escape London for the seaside. We arrived in Eastbourne and spent the evening with my sister (pictured here with me on Christmas day 2006) and her boyfriend, all of us reverting to child-like giddiness about the imminent festivities. Somehow a video camera got into the mix, and before we knew it, our now legendary production of 'The Night Before The Night Before Christmas' was born.

As far as I know, the recording has yet to make it onto YouTube, so I cannot share with you the glories of this bonkers performance. But just remembering it got me thinking about how the anticipation of Christmas is really the best bit, and how rubbish it is when that build-up is eclipsed by annoying preparation traumas (e.g. not being able to get any parsnips in Sainsbury's).

So tonight I am going to stop caring whether on not I have everything I need for the family feast tomorrow. I know that I have two bottles of pink fizz and a good supply of red wine, cheese and biscuits and various chutneys - and as far as I am concerned, that is all the good stuff covered.

My little sis has gone to France with her beau and their new baby this year, to spend It with the in-laws, so sadly there'll be no chance of a sequel to 'The Night Before the Night Before Christmas'. Maybe next year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Growing Old Disgracefully

Saturday night at Bom-Bane's. A celebratory birthday dinner for Ant with 13 of his favourite people (including me). Good friends, hearty food, fancy Belgian beer and cheeky cocktails abound. Led by the performing proprietor and her talented band of waiting staff, we belt out Christmas carols (with descants) between courses. Banter and crackers and silly hats all merry the mood. For reasons unknown, two of our assembled engage in a friendly arm wrestle. "Put your hand in mine" says one; "Don't ever let go-o-o" comes the spontaneous retort from a spectator across the table. "Let the world around us just fall apaaaart" croons another, and as if it had been rehearsed, a word-perfect group rendition of the 80s classic 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' ensues (with gusto). Sometimes our weekends just go that way.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Une Aventure Musicale Supérieure: Camille at Den Atelier, Luxembourg

Driving from Brighton to Luxembourg in an aged Nissan Micra to go to a gig might seem like madness to you, but if you'd ever seen Camillelive, you'd understand why the 800 mile round trip was totally worth it. Even in the throes of a stinking cold, I had a brilliant night at what turned out to be the most mind-blowing gig of the year (and I've been to quite a few).

Fellow Francophile Brian introduced me to Camille a couple of years ago when he was staying with us over the summer. Her second album, Le Fil, had just come out and fitted nicely into my budding Chansonica collection. Then when the latest album, Music Hole, was released earlier this year, it quickly became my most listened to album of the summer.

I'd heard great things about Camille's live performances and when Brian suggested going to see her at the Roundhouse in London, I was keen. Except that it was in Camden on a Sunday night, and ever since a bad experience after a Bonzo Dog gig a couple of years ago, I had vowed to avoid rail replacement buses at all costs. The only other UK date was in Glasgow on a week night, so I idly flicked through the European tour schedule to see if there was anything else within striking distance. Luxembourg on a Saturday seemed extravagant but feasible, and Brian was game.

So two weekends ago, Brian, Ant and I piled into our little jalopy and hit the road to the world's only remaining sovereign Grand Duchy. Poor Ant was stuck with all the driving, while I slept in the back for most of the way, dosed up on Benylin. But after a glass or two of restorative Vin Chaud from the Luxembourg Christmas market, I had perked up considerably, and we rocked up at Den Atelier - an intimate warehouse venue near the city's main station. It was already packed with excitable Luxemburgers, and we found ourselves a spot at the fringes of the action, but close to the bar. Normally I'd head straight for the mosh pit, but wasn't feeling 100%, and the no-photography policy made it seem less crucial to be close to the stage.

Unusually, there was no support band, but the main act was more than sufficient. At first I couldn't work out what was going on - it sounded like a synthesised backing track accompanying the French singer, but when I caught a glimpse of the stage, I saw only seven instrument-free people (pictured above) and a grand piano (with pianist) generating the convincingly electronica sound. A human beat-box duo and a pair of body-percussionists provided the rhythm and bass, while two backing singers and a pianist skillfully embellished Camille's own powerfully dextrous vocals. The effect was mesmerising; I have never heard anything like it in my life.

Performed with astonishing panache, Camille's epic set was a mixture of French language songs from the first two albums, a couple of quirky cover versions and most of the more catchy material from the current (largely English) release. A genius hip-hop reinvention of Camille's notorious Nouvelle Vague collaboration, Too Drunk to Fuck, had the crowd giddily shouting along, but everyone was really hanging on the inevitable encore choice, Money Note - a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of those irritating female crooners (Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston etc). Personally, I would have been happy for it to end there, but the punters were less sated, demanding a further three reappearances from the obliging starlet and her quirky ensemble. Seeing as we'd come all that way, it would have felt churlish to bail before the end, and it was worth it to witness an gentle acousitc finale which seemed to calm the crowd into submission.

We rounded off the evening with a nightcap in the bar next door, where everyone was chattering animatedly (in French) about the gig. I resolved to not see any more bands in 2008, wanting to conclude a prodigious 12 months of live music on what was easily the best show of the year.


Photo of Camille live at AB Ancienne Brussels from kmeron on Flickr

Monday, December 15, 2008

Merry Christmas from the Golden Goat

Either I'm getting snobbier, or Christmas cards are getting tackier by the year. For most of the people to whom I send them (local friends and family are given verbal greetings only), Christmas cards are a once-a-year reminder of my existence, and I want them to say something about me. I don't want them to be particularly religious, overly sentimental, or in any way reminiscent of ironic wallpaper. Also, I prefer them to be recycled and in a good cause - because I always tut disappointedly when opening other people's non-charity cards (why wouldn't you?) and it would be hypocritical not to ride my own high-horse.

Having been uninspired by the cards on sale in recent times, this year I used an online service (moo.com) to get some printed using my own photographs. A little narcissistic perhaps, but much more personal and much more 'me'. My favourite of the four pictures I chose is this rather splendid golden goat (pictured above), who we discovered in a funky little bar in Cologne last December. He says much more about my perception of Christmas than any dusty crib scene or cutesy fluffy baby seals rolling in the snow (much as I adore fluffy baby seals). You can see the other designs I picked on Flickr.

For the reasons stated above, I hadn't intended to send out very many cards, so only had 25 printed. These have already run out (if you got one, especially a goat, you are one of the lucky few!) and so I was forced to scour Lewes at lunchtime today looking for a supply of extras (it's too late to get more printed). Even Oxfam, who can usually be relied upon to offer something vaguely tasteful, left me swaying in wide-eyed horror at the crap vileness of their selection. In the end I had to swallow my pride and pick the least offensive. So, apologies in advance to anyone who receives one of these sub-standard variations - please consider this blog post as your official Christmas card instead.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Santa's Skeletons

Admit it, there's something you've been dying to tell. It wouldn't take much encouragement, just someone to ask the right questions, for it all to come gushing out. Right? As I discovered last night, the annual company bash is the most likely, if least appropriate, forum for confessions to be aired. Cruising the tables between courses, equipped with trusty notebook and a candid agenda, it took very little persuasion on my part to get discretion flying out of the window and skeletons tumbling out of the closet.

It should be noted that I was sat opposite the drunkest and most goadable person (let's call him colleague 'X') there, who actually insisted that I transcribe and publish every shameful detail of his sordid tales, emphatically forbidding me to change the names or places. Any work mates reading this will already know full well who I am talking about, so I reserve the right to keep things anonymous in the cold light of day.

A couple of years ago, I shared a colleague's witty morning after 'whodunnit' quiz , written following various dubious antics at that year's company bash. In a similar spirit, I offer some of the more amusing confessions and allegations told to me or overheard at last night's do.


Before entirely losing the power of speech (this happened later, after the Benylin-snorting incident), colleague 'X' recalled the time when, walking back from a party late one night, he was apprehended, groped and propositioned in no uncertain terms by a frisky Welsh man in tight jeans and silly pointy shoes. Surprisingly, he declined the offer, but would not be drawn on the subject of whether it had maybe excited him just a little bit.

A rumour about someone having a fetish for being whipped with stinging nettles was claimed to have been started by several different tables, until I finally traced it back to my own. Knowing the dry sense of humour of the alleged originator, I somehow suspect that this particular offering may have been in jest. Or was it...?

Clearly there was an S&M vibe in the air (how original), as one colleague admitted to having fantasised about being dominated by a certain other senior member of staff. The object of these hankerings, who was sitting right next to him at the time, seemed flattered by this confession, and actually started to suggest possible scenarios - at which point the rest of the table tried desperately to change the subject.

As is customary on these occasions, plenty of lame and ridiculous stories were doing the rounds - like the suggestion that our Financial Director is a secret smack dealer (he took it in good part), and claims of inappropriate fondling between two (straight) male colleagues. But the most entertaining revelation of the night came from a senior staff member in the pub afterwards, who rewarded my request for a confession with a brilliantly animated tale of the time he was arrested for being Drunk and Disorderly ("but I was only drunk", he professed) after a boozy business lunch in London. This somewhat surprising admission concluded with the person in question sheepishly calling the police station the next day to apologise for his loutish behaviour, much to the bemusement (and presumably amusement) of the officers involved.

Who needs counselling when you can get it all off your chest at the office Christmas party?

Photographs courtesy of Al Wares.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Too Sick to Blog

It's been a long time since I felt too ill to write; usually it's the last of my faculties to fail, often it's a comforting remedy. But since last Friday I have been at the mercy of a nasty bout of flu that has scuppered my intention to blog every day in December. Going to a to a gig in Luxembourg last weekend no doubt made matters worse, but I wouldn't have missed it for all the Benylin in Boots. Certainly our (some would say insane) adventure deserves a post all of its own, and hopefully come this weekend I shall feel chipper enough to wax lyrical about Camille in all her wacky Gallic glory. But for now I am just popping up to say 'hello' and crawling straight back under my snuffly, spangly sickness rock. Make me a Lemsip, I'll be back for Christmas.

Friday, December 05, 2008

My Nephew the Jedi

Usually the first thing that my nephew asks when he comes to stay is "please can I wear my Wall-e costume?". He's been obsessed with the lovable yellow robot ever since seeing the film (four times - once with us) at the cinema earlier this year. We bought him the costume as a special treat and it now gets brought out as a reward for good behaviour (there's nothing wrong with bribery, OK?), although if it were up to him he'd go everywhere in it (including the bath). It pleases me immensely that the little boy seems to have inherited my penchant for dressing up, but I did wonder whether it was more a fixation with that particular character than anything else, so last weekend we tried something different and dressed him up as Luke Skywalker. He already has the blonde wispy hair, so all I needed was an old white shirt and of course one of Uncle Ant's lightsabers (which Isaac very sweetly still insists on calling light savers - I think I did the same as a child). I had to stifle a laugh as he inspected himself in the mirror with a mixture of solemn pride and awed excitement, announcing "I'm just checking to see how cool I look"; he's four. I had already dusted off my Princess Leia wig and gun (originally worn on my 30th birthday), and we proceeded to run around the flat re-enacting scenes from Star Wars, much to his (and my) delight. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Uncle Ant then appeared as Darth Vader in a black cape and cycle helmet and challenged 'Luke' to a duel. Isaac's face was a picture! And all this excitement on top of the Lego Wall-e and M-O (another character from the film) we'd made for him the day before - I'm not sure you could have much more kudos in the eyes of a small boy.

I hope that this little episode will be the start of a new tradition between me and my nephew. My own childhood was filled with ongoing imaginary games played out with my siblings, often involving dressing up and props (provided by our theatrical parents). And we all still get great pleasure from pretending in our own ways - whether it be fancy dress parties or role-playing games. Not surprisingly, Isaac already has a lively imagination; I'm having so much fun helping him to foster it and re-igniting my own in the process.



Thursday, December 04, 2008

Christmas is Boring

I'm not intending to rant endlessly in a 'Bah Humbug' fashion for the entire run up to Christmas, but I do need to get this particular gripe off my chest... Sitting in a festively adorned bar in Mayfair last night, surrounded by rowdy booksellers and publishing people - all enthusiastically exploiting the free bar (nice to know some things never change), I realised with a certain amount of sadness that Christmas just does not excite me any more. The colleague with whom I was chatting at the time agreed that, unless you are a child, or have children in your life, the whole exercise seems depressingly futile.

Naturally, I enjoy getting the extra time off work, doing the seasonal party circuit and spending time with friends and family - but as someone who parties all year round and sees most of my relatives on a regular basis anyway, it's not that special. This year looks set to be the quietest Christmas on record for me; with both my siblings and their offspring being elsewhere it will be just me, Ant and Mum at the familial abode for the day itself. I'm sure we'll have a lovely day, as we always do when we get together, but it won't feel very Christmassy without any littlies running about.

My main problem with the whole set up is that it is the same every year. In all other aspects of life I actively try to keep things as varied and interesting as possible; as I said in my previous post, holidays are all about new experiences and doing something different, so it seems totally incongruous to me to have to sit and perform the same old rituals year after year. But there are traditions to uphold - sprouts (ugh), crackers (woo), the Queen's speech (thanks but no thanks) etc. - and I understand that these mean a lot to some people, so I go along with it. I'd really love to use the holiday time to go on an adventure instead of sitting around in a haze of excess and forced jollity for days on end and am envious of my friend Mat, who has escaped to India this year for the duration. Apparently Christmas is quite big over there, but at least he'll be seeing a new (hopefully sprout free) side to it, and no doubt having a whale of a time in the process (lucky b*****d).

I'm not sure exactly when I got bored of Christmas; I suspect it was a gradual process that happened between me growing up and leaving home, my little sister growing up leaving home and when I stopped working on Pantomime (which leaves you no time to get bored). The last few years have been improved by the presence of my nephew Isaac, whose ecstatic gift-opening expression is enough to put a spark of magic back into even the most jaded of souls. Sadly he'll be spending Christmas with his other grandma this year, so there will be no Lego fire engines to build (unless I buy one for Ant) or new storybooks to read aloud.

I do feel a little bit bad about being such a curmudgeon (especially if any of my nearest and dearest are reading), so I am going to conclude this outpouring on a positive note. One thing that does excite me about this year's shindig is that I shall be doing the cooking for only the second time ever. The previous occasion was under quite stressful circumstances, when mother went and broke both her wrists (I know!) right before Christmas, and I was left holding the fort. I seem to remember a rather disastrous soggy nut roast, though everyone was very kind about it. My culinary skills have come on no end in the eleven years since then, and I am looking forward to letting mum put her feet up while I whizz up one of my fabled nonconformist roasts. You will have to watch this space to find out exactly what this entails (I haven't entirely decided yet), but rest assured, whatever happens, there will be plenty of gravy. And I will never ever get bored of gravy.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sinking City

I was sad to read in the news this morning about the current flooding crisis in Venice - certainly not a new problem for the swamp-dwelling city, but the worst they have experienced in a while. Having been to Venice for the first time recently (for a daytrip at the end of our Hungary-Croatia-Italy jaunt), my interest in the city and its dubious fate is newly aroused. I suppose you have to have been to a place to really begin to care about it. Unfortunately there's no way to avoid the multitides of fellow sight-seers, as Venice is pretty much packed with them all year round. We arrived in the middle of half term, and I'd been expecting crowds, but wasn't really prepared for the total theme-park feel to the place, at least at the major 'attractions'.

After arriving by train from Trieste, we took a picturesque waterbus ride along the Grand Canal to St Mark's square, where we exchanged withering glances, and it quickly became clear we wouldn't be doing any of the 'sites'. I can't understand why people would queue for hours to see a building, however beautiful, only to have to share it with hundreds of other tourists. It's almost like they go armed with a checklist that must be ticked off, rather than any desire to have a unique experience; and why on earth would you want to have identical holiday snaps to everyone else who's ever been? While it's nice to be able to say you've visited famous monuments (Cristo Redentor in Rio was a highlight for me - though the view is more awe-inspiring than Jesus), I would much rather get a feel for the real place, meet some interesting people, see a special something that noone else has found. So we spent most of our day wandering the labyrinthine back streets, popping into beautiful little incense-filled churches, stopping for coffee/ice cream/cake/pizza and more often than not, finding ourselves at a dead end and wishing we'd had a boat. Once you get away from the crowds, there is a wonderfully atmospheric city waiting to be discovered, and it is possible to have an individual expedition.

Inspired by the recent BBC series Francesco's Venice, the one 'attraction' we did visit was the Gallerie Accademia - the the city's main art gallery, whose mind-blowing collection includes works by such luminaries as Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, Bellotto and Longhi to name a few. The sheer staggering proportions of many of these reverential religious paintings is overwhelming. Normally I struggle with sacred art, especially crucifixion scenes (which give me the willies), but by these I was truly moved. Thankfully (and a little surprisingly), the museum wasn't too heaving with tourists, so it was possible to stand and reflect at leisure, which we both did quite a lot. I'd love to go back to Venice some day, preferably with a boat and some tranquiliser darts. I just hope it doesn't sink before I get the chance.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Legwarmers!

My friend Harriet loves legwarmers. I mean she honestly hardly ever goes out without wearing them. She says it's because her ankles are too skinny, but I think there's more to it than that. My theory is that they are a kind of comfort blanket - an endearing idiosyncrasy that says "This is me: Legwarmer Girl. What about it?". Harriet loves birds too (don't get her started), and is a self-confessed nature geek, but I'm not sure if the two passions are connected. Perhaps the legwarmers could double as emergency sleeping bags for injured wildlife - I can't rule out the possibility that she may have at some point considered this. I must remember to ask her. The other night we were at a party where two other girls were also sporting and espousing the virtues of legwarmers. Much girlie bonding ensued and I must admit to feeling rather left out.

To me, legwarmers will forever be associated with dance classes and childish aspirations to be a ballerina, though of course they were also quite popular as a fashion accessory during my schooldays in the Era That Taste Forgot - the 80s. I do remember getting a rather splendid maroon patterned pair for Christmas, possibly the same year that I got my first pixie boots . I grew out of wearing them on a regular basis after their popularity declined and they disappeared from the shops, which was also around the time that I gave up ballet lessons. The last time I actually bought any for myself would have been a couple of years ago when I was thinking about dressing up as one of the Kids from Fame for a fancy dress party, but then never did. One of the pairs I bought was bright garish pink, and have now been donated to Harriet's collection; the other (black) pair, which I have kept, do come in handy on occasion - like when there's that annoying gap between sock and legging, or if I have particularly chilly ankles.

Today it rained here in Lewes, and my shoes fell apart while I was walking about at lunchtime, so that the sole of one was literally flapping around. What's left of them is now drying on the radiator along with my soggy socks. Thank goodness I happened to be wearing my legwarmers, which are now acting as temporary socks and stopping my toes from going numb in this freezing weather. And very cosy they are too. So today I say, "yay for legwarmers" - now I know why Harriet loves you.

N.B. The legs in the above picture are not Harriet's legs (though hers are very nice too). These are actually from a photo by Stellae et Luna that I found on Flickr.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Festive Monsters

It is the first day of December and suddenly the usually modest lunchtime queue at the Lewes Post Office has started snaking out of the door and around the corner. It will be like this now every (working) day until Christmas Eve. The looming deadlines for posting parcels abroad in time for Christmas are no doubt partly responsible, but I can't help thinking that today's date itself is also to blame. Turning the kitchen calendar over to December this morning, I felt a surge of anxiety about the impending festivities - the growing 'to do' list for which I have largely been ignoring for the last few weeks. Not that you could forget about Christmas if you tried, what with it being shoved in your face no sooner than the 'Back to School' retail promotions have finished in September. But now that we're actually in the same month as the Big Day, it's like being penned in a cage with a snarling monster - you know if you don't start feeding it soon that you're going to get eaten! So off they all march to the Post Office, joining hordes of other stony-faced shoppers despatching the usual pointless paraphernalia to out-of-town relatives; ticking the boxes and pacifying the monster. Personally, I only have a couple of packages to send this year, to friends in other countries; thanks to the wonders of online shopping, I shall be delegating the majority of that irksome task to Amazon. And I have absolutely no problem with other people doing the same - I would rather get stuff that I actually want off my wish list than a basket of cosmetics or a gimmicky gadget that will end up Out the Back with the Rest. Birthdays are for thoughtful and original gifts - Christmas is just about getting through it with minimum damage to both sanity and wallet. Bah, Humbug.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I Saw Nick Cave Smile (Maybe)

The last time I did Glastonbury Festival, back in 1998, one of the most memorable gigs was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; the gloomy weather and sullen band suited each other perfectly. It was also the one and only time I've spotted myself on TV at a festival, when I watched the coverage (kindly recorded by my mum) back at home afterwards. Standing there swaying along to 'Red Right Hand' in the rain with Michael (my boyfriend at the time), sporting my delightful fluorescent yellow kagool (which I still own) - I looked thoroughly depressed, but I was having a good time, honest!

The next time I saw Nick Cave live was with his other band Grinderman (essentially a pared-down version of the Bad Seeds) at this year's Latitude Festival, almost exactly ten years later. I was livid with myself when my camera battery died (I have since bought a spare) right at the start of the gig and I failed to get any shots of the eccentrically photogenic star. But it was still a great show, and Cave had lost none of his trademark aloofness - delivering the amusingly titled 'No Pussy Blues' with glorious deadpan sincerity.

Then when the opportunity arose to review a Bad Seeds gig in Cave's (and my) adopted hometown of Brighton last weekend, I jumped at the chance. Usually I would avoid the soulless Brighton Centre like the plague, but was trusting in Cave's profusely theatrical charisma to invigorate even this most dreary of venues, and thankfully he didn't disappoint. Shaking me firmly out of a torpid Sunday hangover state, the ageing rockers delivered an awesome set that was just as good, if not better, than when I first saw them in that muddy field in Somerset a whole decade ago. Seeming noticeably more laid back here on home turf, Cave was on top form, strutting about and bantering with the enthusiastic crowd. At one point I thought I even detected the tiniest hint of a smile beneath that roguish moustache. It seems the scowling goth is mellowing in his old age, or perhaps he was just happy at the thought of sleeping in his own bed after the gig - I know I would be. You can read my write-up of the gig at: www.thedetour.co.uk and see more photos at: www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar.

And should you be concerned that I'm turning all mainstream stadium gig-goer on you, here is a review and photos of Peggy Sue's altogether more lo-fi happening at the Hanbury last week.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Killer Trifle (and Other Delights)

We had a few friends over for dinner on Saturday night, which meant that for most of last week I was preoccupied with planning, researching, shopping for and preparing a feast for the occasion. With so many dietary requirements to cater for (a coeliac, a vegan, one nut-allergic and one lactose-intolerant person), this proved quite a challenge - but one to which I rose with my usual foodie enthusiasm. Rather than serving up a sit-down meal (which makes more work for the hosts and means guests feel obliged to eat what's on their plate), we went for a more informal help-yourself buffet arrangement, comprising of the following:
  • Butternut squash, sweet potato, roasted garlic and ginger soup
  • Spicy roasted vegetable, tomato and rice soup (which was actually more like a stew)
  • Home-made garlic and sundried tomato focaccia bread
  • Home-made granary bread
  • Gluten-free garlic naan bread (courtesy of Waitrose)
  • Cheeseboard
  • Various crackers and crisps
  • Garlic and dill marinated green olives
  • Jalapeno peppers
  • Rocket (delicious sprinkled on the butternut squash soup)
  • Houmous
  • Caramelised onion and goats' cheese tarts (courtesy of Ezinda, via Waitrose)
For dessert, I made three separate trifles (one vegan, one gluten-free and one full-fat-everything-goes version), all of which were eye-wateringly boozy. You may be forgiven for thinking of trifle as a garish retro pudding à la Abigail's Party; but not in my house - I have reinvented this most misunderstood culinary genre and made it my own. Forget any notion of tinned mandarins, bland trifle sponges, sherry or (heaven forfend!) jelly - the main ingredients of the Rowstar Trifle are rum and chocolate, with just a nominal amount of fruit (soaked in rum of course). This version was pretty much made up as I went along, with the odd reference to the trusty kitchen shelf, and went something like this (from bottom layer up):
  1. Chocolate cake soaked in Mount Gay golden rum
  2. Bananas soaked in Havana Club dark rum
  3. Simple chocolate sauce (from Green & Blacks' chocolate cookbook, with added rum)
  4. Mascarpone topping (stolen from Nigella's mascarpone trifle recipe), with a splash of Smith & Wray white rum
  5. White Chocolate custard (made like standard home-made custard, but with white chocolate grated in at the end)
  6. Mascarpone topping, as above but with melted dark chocolate swirled in
  7. Caipirinha syllabub (made with lime juice, sugar, cachaça and double cream)
  8. Dark and white chocolate shavings to decorate
Silence descended upon the kitchen as everyone (apart from Ian, who it turns out doesn't like bananas) devoured theirs with gusto and even, in certain cases (naming no names), came back for seconds. One poor guest (who shall also remain nameless) was overcome and had to have a 'little lie down' afterwards - surely the testament to a great pudding if ever there was one! Most of the meal went un-photographed (I can't think of everything), but I did manage to get the above shot of one of the trifles before it was totally demolished. Do feel free to request further elaboration on ingredients and method should you feel inspired to concoct your own; and I heartily recommend that you do.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sussex Gastro Pubs Series: The George & Dragon at Burpham



The Sunday pub-walk is a longstanding tradition in the Stanfield family, and one that I have continued to observe into adulthood, despite no longer having the obligation of a dog to exercise. I'd thought we must have discovered every decent country watering hole in Sussex in the last however many years of weekend adventures, so it was a pleasant surprise to find somewhere new to fuel up at before braving the elements today. The George and Dragon at Burpham (pronounced at 'Burfam') is tucked away at the end of a long winding country cul-de-sac, right in the middle of a sweet little village. I guess it's what one would call a 'gastropub' - the focus being very much on the food, and with more of a chic restaurant feel than your usual rustic rural tavern. But it's still cosy and friendly, and amazingly buzzy despite being so far off the beaten track.

At around £15 for a main course, the food isn't cheap, but it's good. There was only one vegetarian option for each course, so I went for the soup of the day (onion & Gruyere) as a main course, while the others had roast beef and poached haddock, respectively. We were all impressed with the quality of ingredients, preparation and presentation of our choices and didn't resent paying a little more for something a cut above the usual Sunday roast. Having been so impressed with the mains, it would have seemed a crime not to sample the desserts, which all sounded so delicious that it was difficult to choose. I couldn't resist the 'dark chocolate brownie with homemade vanilla ice cream'; my companions picked 'orange and cinnamon bread and butter pudding' and 'raspberry panacotta' between them. The awed silence that accompanied the devouring of our puds (pictured above) was testament enough to their excellence, and by the end we were all quite blissfully replete.

Everyone was glad of the walk that followed - a circular route that took us out of the village via its Norman churchyard and up onto the ridge behind. Apart from an alarming number of animal corpses along the way, it was a lovely landscape, and you could see for miles from the up on the tops. But what had started out as a pleasantly mild afternoon suddenly turned into a miserable murky evening when a cloud of menacing mist descended, chasing us back into the village at an alarming rate. But it was worth it to see the dramatic sunset that ensued, and we were safely inside the car and on our way by the time it really came on to rain.

Today's itinerary was provided by our rather out-of-date edition of Pub Walks in West Sussex by Mike Power - a very useful guide to finding country pubs which have a decent walk nearby.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rough and Tumble: Big Bad Bond is Back

"As long as there's plenty of man-flesh and a good car chase, I'll be happy" I said as we parked up at the marina to go and see the new Bond film last night, prepared to be disappointed on the basis of mixed reviews. The second half of my wish came true almost immediately as a dogged Daniel Craig trashes yet another Aston Martin in the very opening scene - a rip-roaring chase sequence around a dusty, meandrous Italian town. The rest of the film continues at a similarly frenetic pace, as Bond battles to square some very personal scores left hanging in the previous installment, Casino Royale. Quantum of Solace is effectively a direct sequel, and while wounds are still fresh for our embittered hero, some of the plot details were a little hazy for those of us who had been busy doing other stuff in the two years since Craig made his debut in the role. But with all the brawling, bleeding, brooding and almost nonstop breakneck bedlam, it's easy enough to get caught up in the moment and not worry too much about the finer intricacies of exactly what is going on and why.

What I love about Craig's 007 is that he is HARD, almost superhero tough; leaping from buildings and bumping people off without a flicker of remorse. But he also bears the scars of these intense run-ins and occasionally betrays a softer underside, especially when dealing with vulnerable women. His cold single-mindedness in this particular pursuit thankfully leaves little room for the sleazy conquests of past Bond eras however. Just one (slightly unconvincing) seduction occurs towards the beginning, and even then we are spared the sordid details. The only downside to this is that there is only one, ONE (!) bare torso shot in the entire film. WTF? After that drool-inducing snug swimwear scene in Casino Royale, I was at least hoping for a cheeky glimpse of naked arse, but sadly it wasn't to be. I suspect a subtle marketing ploy directed at middle-aged housewives, ensuring that they (we) will keep coming back on the promise of more. Well it worked, dammit! Lustful thoughts aside, it was a cracking action film that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Perhaps not for fans of the oldschool Bond tradition - no excessive sex, gadgets or puns - but for me the ideal antidote.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Smile Restored

It feels as though I've been going on and on about teeth for the last year or so, and that regular readers must be bored of hearing about them - but people do still seem to be interested and are always asking me about my dental adventures. Well, now that they are all mended (yay!) and the hardcore dentistry is done at last, I can talk about the actual process without too much anxiety. So here is one final post (promise!), in a little more detail, before I put the whole gruesome episode behind me.

For those of you playing catch-up, I lost or broke ten of my teeth in total (as well as fracturing my jaw), in a bicycle accident last year. Having rejected the NHS's offer of dentures, I made my own plans for getting implants done abroad (where they are significantly cheaper), and went on the first trip to Hungary back in April. This involved a fairly intense operation for which I was sedated for two hours or so while metal pegs were drilled into my gum and the surrounding bone that had been damaged in the accident was repaired. I was in and out of the dentist's chair for another eight days after that, getting my stitches checked and having a couple of root canals - these were actually the worst bit of the entire process. The implants and bone augmentation had to be left to fuse to my own jaw bone for six months before the new teeth could be attached, and it felt like a long time in between with nothing to show for all the trouble.

Last month I went back to have the process completed - this involved being sedated again to have the implants 'exposed' and seven broken teeth filed down ready to be crowned. Compared to the previous treatment this felt like a breeze - the sedation is really very effective and you hardly remember anything afterwards. Once they had taken moulds of my teeth, the technicians created the new ones from porcelain in a matter of days, and the rest of my time there was spent literally trying them on for size - checking the fit, colour and bite before they were finally stuck in. For the more ghoulish among you, This X-Ray was taken afterwards and shows exactly what I had done. It was very strange to have a mouthful of perfect teeth again, after so long living with them being such a mess, and although in theory I could use them almost straight away, it took a bit of getting used to the action of chewing again. But I am happy to report that I've since devoured several pizzas without too much hassle, and am working my way up to nuts, crisps and apples!

I can't say that any of it was a pleasant experience exactly, but the level of care and dedication I received from my Hungarian dentist far surpassed any medical treatment I have had here in the UK. Even with the travel and accommodation, it cost a third of what it would have done at home, and all happened to smoothly and professionally. The dental practice was clean, modern and comfortable (you could even watch TV while being drilled!), and all of the staff who looked after me were wonderfully kind and patient throughout. I guess I was fortunate to discover such a great place to get the work done (you do hear some horror stories about dental tourism, usually in the Daily Express) - especially since it was a bit of a random coincidence finding them in the first place. I 'd certainly recommend them to anyone else who might be thinking about getting implants, or any other extensive dental work. Free consultations are currently scheduled in London, Eastbourne and Dublin - drop me a line if you would like further details.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Happy Happy Joy Joy

I didn't sleep at all well last night. Anxious to keep abreast of election progress across The Pond, I woke at one, two and four am, switching on the bathroom radio to check the latest incoming results. In my drowsy state, I vaguely recall coming back to bed at one point and mumbling "Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania" to the unresponsive comatose body next to me. I'd set my alarm for six, an hour earlier than usual, so that I could find out the final result as soon as possible, and watch the news reports for posterity before heading off to work. When I flicked on the TV at one minute past I was confronted with a smiling waving Obama, flanked by his wife and kids; cheers, balloons and streamers filling the air all around them. It was clear from this cheesy snapshot alone that I was looking at a Democrat victory; and the butterflies that had been bothering me all night immediately turned to prickly goosebumps.



The moving montages of overwhelmed revellers that followed - particularly of Obama's Kenyan relatives singing and dancing in the streets (see above) - reinforced my own feeling of sheer elation at this momentous happening. I haven't stopped smiling since (an unusual state of affairs for this usually scowling lady). It's impossible to sum up the weight of hopes, dreams and expectations now resting on America's first black president, but he has already changed so much just by being elected. Let's hope that those who put him in power remain as enthused and inspired throughout his tenure as they are today; he will certainly need their continued commitment and support in order to make a decent job of it. The last thing I heard on the radio before leaving the house was Obama promising to buy his little girls a puppy to take to the White House with them - slightly vomit-inducing, but then I guess he's entitled to a bit of schmultz, for today at least. If you are reading this Mr Obama (ha ha), please do the right thing and get a rescue dog!

It does seem felicitous that tonight's Guy Fawkes celebrations should coincide with the day's exciting news, and though I won't be sticking around in Lewes to partake of its excessive bonfire antics this evening (I don't like loud bangs or big crowds), I shall certainly be raising a toast from afar. After all, the only thing missing from this thrilling day so far is the pop of a champagne cork. Bring it on.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obligatory Election Post

I haven't felt this excited and anxious about an election since 1997, when as a politically fired-up and naively optimistic student I stayed up all night to watch Labour take power from the Tories in that spectacular landslide victory. It is one of the most enduring memories of my university years - from our euphoric cheering as Portillo got knocked off his seat (by a gay Labour candidate no less), to the pop of champagne and our soaring spirits as the final results sunk in, then running out of the house at some ridiculously early hour to buy up all the morning papers and whooping the news in the streets to oblivious passers - it all comes back to me in gleefully vividly detail.

Despite not being a voter in today's US election, the tension surrounding its outcome is as great, if not greater, than on that day eleven years ago. This is not, nor has ever aspired to be, a current affairs blog, and I don't intend to start ranting about the whys and wherefores - though anyone who knows me will be well aware of my political leanings. The world could be a whole different place by this time tomorrow, and I cannot WAIT to find out which way it is going to go. I doubt I'll have the stamina to stay up all night this time (unless these pesky butterflies in my stomach keep me awake), but it will certainly be the first thing on my mind when I rise. Hope is hanging in the air like the teasing promise of a first fairytale kiss; please, oh please let me open my eyes in the morning and find a prince not a frog.

Photo by mdumlao98 on Flickr

Monday, November 03, 2008

As If By Magic...

How appropriate that the first photo of me flashing my shiny new gnashers should be whilst dressed as an evil magician, flanked by Ant in drag as my 'lovely' assistant (who I accidentally sawed in half). Says it all really. The picture was taken on Saturday night during a Halloween party at Sara & Sean's house - my first major social occasion since returning from the recent dental trip. It was a great party, especially as most people had risen to the costume challenge so enthusiastically, and were a real pleasure to photograph. I finally pulled the drag card on Ant, nearly a year after he gave me an IOU last Christmas, promising to go out in women's clothes upon my whim. He was initially a little sulky about the whole prospect, but soon got into character and upstaged me as always. Frankly he's lucky I used it for a fancy dress party and not just a family wedding or something (though I can't say I wasn't tempted)! The other guests included Myra Hindley, Harold Shipman, the Joker, Papa Lazaru, the Devil, and the usual compliment of zombies, freaks, witches and ghouls. If you're feeling brave, have a look at the rest of my pictures from the night at: www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar/sets/72157608596540144

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Alternative Evensong

Lambchop, St George's Church, Kemp Town, 29th October 2008
Around this time last year I wrote about an Iron & Wine gig at which the polite heckle "that was brilliant, thanks!" amusingly summed up the typical contingent at Brighton's loveliest music venue, St George's Church in Kemp Town. Last night we were back at our local house of worship to venerate before Nashville legends Lambchop, at a buzzy but surprisingly not sold out show. Eccentric crooner Kurt Wagner and his mightily accomplished band took a bold risk by reeling off their latest album in its entirety - a rite (as they themselves admitted) usually reserved for classic works by iconic rockers. But it was the perfect setting in which to pull off such a move - the courteous middle class crowd sitting in quite reverence, gracefully accepting the new material, then exploding into appreciative applause on cue. Wagner seemed genuinely touched and surprised at how well it went down, and rewarded us with an extended encore of old favourites plus an unexpected and utterly genius cover of Talking Heads' 'Once in a Lifetime'.



I can't speak for the rest of the audience, but personally I hadn't had a chance to give the new album a listen before the gig - it had only been out a week or so before I disappeared to Hungary. I've always enjoyed the laid-back introspective offerings of Lambchop's previous (and prolific) material, but was pleasantly surprised at the more upbeat selection played last night - loungy and soulful, and peppered with the usual country and post-rock influences, it certainly tickled my own particular musical taste buds. It's not often you get to hear a new album for the first time in this context, and it felt like a rare privilege indeed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Back in Blighty

This time yesterday I was eating marzipan flavoured ice cream from a little backstreet gelateria in Venice (jealous?). It was the last day of an all-too-brief holiday following on from my Hungarian dental excursion - more about both to follow. We didn't have internet access during the holiday bit, which meant I couldn't blog as I went, but it was actually very relaxing to step away from the laptop and live in the 'real world' for a few days. A tiresome sleazyjet flight got us home late last night, and it was straight back to the office this morning, with the usual mountain of emails awaiting. I've yet to shed that post-holiday chilled feeling though - all I have to do is close my eyes and picture the glistening Adriatic sea and I am right back on that idyllic Croatian coast (sigh). It will probably wear off by the end of the week, but I may as well enjoy the buzz while it lasts. Oh, and in case you were wondering, my new teeth are settling in nicely. I would post photographic evidence, but I despite several attempts, we have been unable to capture a toothy-smiled picture of me in which I don't look like a complete loon. I guess I'm more of a natural pouter.

Friday, October 17, 2008

One More Day

Going to bed last night I felt like a small child on Christmas eve - knowing that the next day I would get my shiny new teeth installed at last. This morning we took the now familiar walk down to Dr Ten, only to discover that the dentist was not 100% happy with the bite of my implants and other crowns, and would need to make a few minor adjustments before the final fitting - so I have to go back again tomorrow.

After all the build-up, I was a little disappointed, but then having waited over a year to get to this point, another 24 hours doesn't seem like much, and I'm glad that they are making a thorough job of it. We stopped for a compensatory cup of tea and a cake on the way back to the apartment, where Ant made a much more moderate choice than yesterday's gargantuan confection (pictured). I think he's finally realising that biggest is not necessarily best when it comes to cakes.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Road to Recovery: The Final Stretch

Last time I was here in Hungary I never wrote about my experiences, because it was all too traumatic, and anyway, I was far too worn out to put pen to paper (or rather fingers to keyboard). I came in April of this year for the first stage of dental implants, and various other repairs to my teeth, following a nasty bicycle accident the previous August. Like many other Brits, I was forced to take the 'dental tourism' route because the NHS would only provide dentures, and I would have had to re-mortgage my flat in order to pay for implants privately in the UK. So here I am, back in the little provincial town of Hódmezõvásárhely (pronounced Hod-mez-oh-varsha-hey), a couple of hours south of Budapest, on Hungary's Great Plain. It's not somewhere you would choose to come for a holiday, lacking as it does any real attractions or activities, but is a pleasant enough spot in which to convalesce. We're staying in a comfy little apartment right near the main town square, close to all the amenities, and only a short walk from the dentists' surgery.

As I write this, Ant is off swimming (or more likely laying around in a jacuzzi) at the thermal baths around the corner. I would have joined him, but am not allowed to submerge my head under water at this stage of treatment, which makes swimming far less enjoyable for me. Thankfully, the most invasive part of the implant process is now over, and tomorrow I will have the prosthetic teeth attached, followed by a few days of check-ups and tweaks, before (hopefully) the whole ordeal is behind me. Unlike the last visit, which involved several days of sleeping off sedation and coping with uncomfortable stitches in my mouth, I have been able to get out and about a bit more this time. The weather has been extremely mild, and even though the trees are in full autumnal swing, it feels more like summer by British standards. Next week we are due to travel by train to the north Croatian coast for a little celebratory holiday, during which I plan to eat my bodyweight in pizza, and do very little else. I think I deserve it.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nine Years of Togetherness

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of my first date with Ant, and an excuse (as if we needed one) to drink Champagne (well, Prosecco actually) and reminisce about our courtship. It all began back at Waterstone's in Brighton, where we were both working in the summer of '99 - me on the ground floor in Biography and he right up the top in Computing. It's no secret that I thought he was gay when we first met - the bleached hair, loud shirts and obsession with shoes seemed to suggest as much. But after he returned from walking down to Cornwall for the eclipse, newly shorn, tanned and buff, I was eager to find one way or the other, and initiated some flirty chats over cups of tea in the staff room.

It took him a few weeks to ask me out, and even then it was a casual 'I've got a couple of passes to this magazine launch with free gin, fancy coming along?' I was living in Eastbourne at the time, so arranged to stay with some old friends in Hove, and agreed to meet him at the Ha Ha Bar, opposite the Pavilion. It was the one and only time he arrived before me for a date, and I can still picture him sitting casually on the back of a bench, wearing a green Komodo shirt and his pea jacket, grinning as I walked up to greet him. Bombay Sapphire was flowing (literally) freely inside - I don't even like gin, but on a bookseller salary you couldn't afford to turn down free booze, and I think we were both in need of some Dutch courage. There were no seats available, so we found ourselves a cosy windowsill to sit on, and stayed there chatting until closing time.

Mobile phones were still a novelty back then, and we used that as an excuse to exchange numbers. I seem to remember he had a shiny silver one and mine was a burgundy housebrick with big rubber buttons - I still have it in a drawer somewhere. The only conversation I remember distinctly was a debate over what sort of dog the Littlest Hobo was (it's a German Shepherd, in case you're wondering) - which resulted in a bet being waged by which the loser had to treat the other to dinner at Al Fresco. Clearly this was some sort of cunning plan on his part to ensure that we went on another date - though I don't think we ever did resolve the dispute, so one of us must still owe the other a meal.



Not wanting the night to end, we took advantage of guest list places on offer at the Honey Club, and wandered down to the seafront via the Lanes. Our first kiss was whilst dancing on a podium together; my stomach still flutters to remember it (too much gin perhaps). After the club we sat on the beach until we really couldn't put off going home any longer (we both had work the next day), and I floated off back to Hove, while he headed for his place on Whippingham Road.

A few more dates ensued before it became 'official' - around the same time that he left Waterstone's to start a job working in New Media in London. We moved to London together the following February and spent a year living in Streatham before the lure of the sea brought us back to Brighton, where we have remained ever since. Like any long-term couple, we've had our ups and downs, but when I look back over our relationship it's mostly laughter and adventure I recall. So many fun holidays - India, New Zealand, Sweden, France and Belgium (to name but a few), all those illustrious parties, getting married and buying a flat, adopting our lovely mogs; the list of happy memories is a long and ever-growing one. I'll drink to that!