Finding work for idle hands: making, baking and more.

My Michelin-starred lunch June 27, 2012

Filed under: Food — lauravw @ 8:07 pm

As a child, I was a very fussy eater. I survived for several years on little more than beans on toast, scrambled eggs, fish fingers, and chips, supplemented by chocolate and crisps. Fortunately I was quite hardy, and it didn’t seem to do me any harm. I was wary of trying new foods, and it was only really when I learned to cook for myself that I was able to get over this – if I knew exactly what went into something, I was more willing to give it a try. I was almost 20 by the time I first tried Chinese food of any description (and it was only a few years ago that I tried Indian food).

This week I was fortunate enough to be invited to lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant: Sat Bains, on the edge of Nottingham. It has not just one Michelin star, but two – I’ve never eaten anywhere like this before, so I can’t tell you what it is that lifts the food from getting one star to two, but I can tell you about my experience. And I can tell you that I feel quite proud to have tried every single dish I was offered – it’s not so long ago that the thought of sitting down to a meal like this would have terrified me.

The lunch, which was yesterday, was being held to promote the Slow Food Movement in and around Nottingham – most of the guests were chefs, as well as representatives from Slow Food. I took a taxi to the restaurant, and as I approached the door, it opened. There was a member of staff always positioned near the door, so that whenever you entered or left the building, they opened it for you – it seemed impossible to get near the door without someone helping you through it.

I was ushered into the bar area (always a good start), and offered a whisky-based cocktail (even better). It was made with local ginger beer, Highland Park whisky, and lime – and it was delicious. (They even sent us home with a bottle of the whisky, so I’ll be making this cocktail again at the weekend!)

Once everyone had arrived, we went into the restaurant proper. There were tables of six, with smart white linens and plenty of cutlery and glasses – I think we were served four different wines during the course of the meal, each carefully matched to the food in front of us. (I was a bit sorry to miss out on the wine – I have an allergy to wine and so don’t drink it, but I had a sip of each one with my food so that I could enjoy a bit of the experience of having wines and foods so carefully chosen.) We were served six courses (!), starting with one I’d read about: NG7 2SA. This is the postcode of the restaurant, and everything in this dish is foraged from within that tiny area. I don’t know what it was that we ate, but it started with something described by the server as an ice cream sandwich. Alongside that, we had a small glass jar filled with something white, and there were also crunchy bits in it. Just before we started to eat it, a server poured a warm green sauce into the jar. (I don’t think there is a career for me as a food writer – but honestly, I think you’d struggle to know what it was as well!)

Next up, while the meat-eaters had scallops, I was served a dish of roasted watermelon – which actually looked like a piece of very rare meat. It was very sweet and had an interesting texture to it. That was followed by turnips and mushrooms, served with goats’ cheese and lemon. I tried the goats’ cheese first, and found it a bit too strong. But when I tried it with each of the other foods on the plate, it blended perfectly. And the lemons were the thinnest slivers of whole lemons I can imagine – so thin you could eat the whole thing, rind and all.

Then there was a cheese course – which was the only thing I couldn’t finish. I found the cheese just too rich and strong for my tastes. It was served with a small fruited bread, which had been soaked in port. We then had a break from food to sample an older vintage of the whisky we’d tried before dinner, learning a little about what made that particular one so unique (it’s made on a remote Scottish island).

If you’ve been reading for a while you’ll know that I have a serious chocolate habit, and I was delighted to see that the first dessert was chocolate based – I had expected the restaurant would be far too grown-up to serve chocolate. And yes, I did say ‘first dessert’ – there were two dessert courses, something I could get used to. It was a small chocolatey disc, topped with a similar disc that was described as being yogurt-based – but it was more solid in texture that a yogurt, and mousse-like. On top of those was a droplet of cumin-flavoured caramel. An odd-sounding combination, but one I enjoyed very much. The dish was dressed with coriander.

Dessert two was blueberries and ice cream – but not as you’d expect. The ice cream had been freeze-dried, and there were tiny little meringues mixed with it. Underneath it all was a spoonful of a gooey vanilla-scented marshmallow, which was a real treat. As the plates were cleared away, I started to feel a little bit sad that the experience was over, but there was actually a bit more to come: tea and coffee were served from pots that resembled old-fashioned metal diving helmets. And I was excited to see they were accompanied by significant amounts of chocolate – thin sheets of five different kinds of flavoured chocolate, with tastes ranging from orange and cardamom to aniseed. Even though I’d already eaten six courses, I still managed to put away more than my fair share of the chocolate…

It was a particularly memorable meal – and as a guest of the event, I was allowed to take plenty of pictures, something I would not have felt comfortable doing if I’d simply been visiting the restaurant for a meal. I’ve stuck a whole set of them on Flickr if you fancy a peek. The room we dined in had rather atmospheric lighting, which wasn’t great for photos, but I’m glad to have pictures as a souvenir of my experience.


Summer Colours Week June 26, 2012

Filed under: Flowers and plants,This and that — lauravw @ 10:41 am

Thanks to Ali for pointing out that it’s Summer Colours Week on Flickr. As a result of reading her post, I decided to take part. So far I’ve added this picture of the gardens at Hampton Court Palace for the green day – yellow is today, then pink, red and blue take up the rest of the week.

Whether you are taking part or not, I highly recommend having a look at the Flickr group – I really enjoyed looking through all the green photos from yesterday, and found it’s relaxing to look through lots of pictures of the same colour (particularly true for green, I suspect). Thanks to Poppytalk for organising it!

Now I’m off to find something yellow to photograph…


Shopping in Marylebone June 21, 2012

Filed under: Places to go,Travel — lauravw @ 3:03 pm

As much as I loved being in London, I was happy to get home to our quiet streets and to our garden. A life of crowded pavements and pushy pedestrians is not for me. Not all of London is like that though – you only have to venture a little way off the tourist track to find yourself in more civilised surroundings. We made a trip to Notting Hill (to visit the Hummingbird Bakery – more on that another time!), and also to Marylebone High Street, where you can potter around to your heart’s content. It’s a narrow road, with plenty of pedestrian crossings, and there’s a lot of good stuff to see within a short distance – a bonus if you have already walked a lot, as we had.

We started in the Conran Shop, at the north end of the street. This kept us busy for quite some time – Mum and I are both fans of the Conrans, and there were three floors to explore. They sold my favourite mixing bowls – Rosti Margrethe, two of which I carried back from Paris on my lap some years ago. (They only had white ones in the Conran Shop – my collection of five bowls are in more colourful hues.) They also sold Kusmi  Tea, which I have wanted to find for a long time since I saw it on Decor8 three (!) years ago. I had no idea whether the tea would be nice; for me, it was all about buying the pretty tin it came in. (I’ve tried the tea now though, and yes, it’s good tea. And the tin! The tin is pretty.)

As you work your way south, you can visit Cath Kidston, Skandium (a whole shop of Scandinavian homewares), and an excellent kitchen shop called Divertimenti. There are plenty of other places to browse as well, mostly selling luxurious things for your house (Emma Bridgewater pottery, a bookshop specialising in travel, and fancy eateries are all right there). If you are someone who has a thing for ribbon, VV Rouleaux is close by as well. We had lunch at Strada – an upmarket chain that I thought we didn’t have here in Nottingham, but it turns out we do, so I expect we will go there again before long.

After lunch we headed for St Paul’s, which I think is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s not cheap to get in, and be warned that they no longer allow photography inside. This was a bit of a disappointment to us, especially since the ‘no photography’ signs aren’t visible until after you’ve handed over your admission fee. I can sort of understand their reasoning, but I think a ‘no flash photography’ option would be more appropriate. We very much enjoyed exploring the building though, and I love the fact that the cafe is in the crypt – it is all too rare that I get to eat coffee cake and drink tea whilst sitting in a crypt.

Mum and Andy then went to the National Gallery, while I took a walk along the Mall, as I wanted to see all the flags. It did look beautiful, although I must admit that I am starting to experience bunting fatigue. The Queen must be sick of the stuff by now too.

So that was the last full day of our trip. We managed a walk around Hyde Park and Kensington the next morning – I’ll write about that next.


Boat trip along the Thames June 20, 2012

Filed under: Places to go,Travel — lauravw @ 2:27 pm

Thursday was boat trip day, a special request from my mother. We took a bus from our hotel to Westminster, and walked around Westminster Abbey and Big Ben before heading to the dock. (I love Big Ben, it’s my favourite London sight and I always love to see it. Plus it reminds me of National Lampoon’s European vacation, which is the sort of low-brow film I love to watch on rainy days.)

Frustratingly, you can’t get a boat that calls at both Tate Modern (Bankside Pier) and Greenwich, so we took a boat to Greenwich, and then changed at St Katharine’s Pier on the way back (the pier right next to Tower Bridge, which is another of my favourite London sights). From there we took the very useful RV1 bus all the way to the Tate. (If you’re a tourist in London, I really recommend looking into the bus routes – the traffic is horrendous and so it can take a long time to get from A to B, particularly around Oxford Street and Regent Street, but it’s nice to be able to see where you’re going and to jump off if you spot something you’d like to get a closer look at. And so many tube stations involve lengthy underground walks before you reach the platform, so a bus is better if you are already tired from walking around all day. The RV1 bus links up a whole loads of things that, as a tourist, you’ll be wanting to see – some of which are not so easy to get to on the tube.)

The boat trip itself was nice and relaxing, other than the fact that an entire primary school was on there with us. The children were very excited and noisy, but in a nice way – it all added to the atmosphere.

And as for Tate Modern… I had been several times before and so knew exactly what I was letting myself in for, but Mum and Andy were a bit disappointed by the art. (Something they rectified later in the week with a visit to the National Gallery.) We all like art, but much of the modern art is just a bit too out there for our tastes. I must tip my hat to the ‘artist’ who managed to sell the gallery a pile of bricks back in the 1970s, described as a ‘minimalist sculpture’…

Anyway, whether you appreciate modern art or not, it’s still worth visiting for two reasons: the shop and the cafe! The shop has a great selection of art books (many of them featuring ‘proper’ artists, rather than the sort who simply move a few bricks into a pile), and the cafe does excellent food. Higher up in the building (the 7th floor, I think) is another bar and cafe which has wonderful views across London.

Again, the rest of my pictures from our holiday in London are here. Next up: shopping on Marylebone High Street, and exploring St Paul’s Cathedral.


Hampton Court Palace June 19, 2012

Filed under: Places to go,Travel — lauravw @ 11:25 am

On our second morning in London, we woke to sunny skies – a very welcome sight, since we had planned to visit Hampton Court Palace.

None of us had been there before, and we all loved it – the gardens are incredible, and we saw them at a time when there were plenty of things in bloom. There is a walled rose garden, and as you walk around it, the perfume from the roses hangs in the air. The buildings are impressive, and some of them are almost 500 years old – King Henry VIII even lived there!

There is a lot to explore inside, but most of our time was spent in the gardens. I’d love to go back there, and if you’re planning a visit to London, I would whole-heartedly recommend a visit. I’m sure there would be plenty to see later in the year too, but to see all the flowers in bloom and the trees in leaf really makes it look wonderful.

I took so many photos on this trip – you can see the rest here. Next up: our boat trip along the Thames, and a visit to Tate Modern.


London called June 18, 2012

Filed under: Places to go,Travel — lauravw @ 1:54 pm

For most of last week, I was in London. The weather was a lot kinder to us than the forecast suggested, and we only got rained on once. Happily, that happened as we were passing a restaurant we wanted to visit, so we simply headed inside and had an early lunch.

It’s the first time I’ve had a holiday in London, and it was great. Our hotel was in a good location, on the top edge of Hyde Park, which meant we were close to two different tube lines and lots of buses.

We arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and as soon as we’d unpacked, headed out to Covent Garden. I wanted to have dinner at Wahaca, an excellent Mexican restaurant with a good atmosphere. I don’t think my mother had ever had Mexican food before, but she seemed to really enjoy it – particularly the hot sauce!

After our meal, we shopped in Covent Garden, which was festooned with bunting. Did you know there is a Moomin shop there? I certainly didn’t know about it, and pretty much squealed when I spotted it. Having said that, I didn’t actually buy anything – I already have Moomin key rings, pencils, and a Moominmama cake slice (that’s my favourite item). There’s also a Laduree shop, selling their favour macarons. I’ll warn you now that you’re not allowed to take pictures in there – so if you must have a picture, you’ll have to do it covertly!

Our main port of call for the evening was the Royal Opera House, where we had tickets to the ballet. We found out when we booked our trip to London that it is possible to get very cheap tickets, so long as you don’t mind sitting with a bit of an obscured view.

The pricier tickets were beyond our budget for this trip, but I liked the idea of going to the Opera House and soaking up the atmosphere, so we bought the cheapest tickets they had and crossed our fingers. Our seats were very high up, on the front row of a precarious little balcony. I felt a bit dizzy, and a little bit in peril – I was a bit nervous of suddenly plummeting over the balcony and falling onto the people below. Luckily that didn’t happen! And, while my view wasn’t great, I still think it was worth going, both to see the show and to see the inside of such an amazing building. I also enjoyed people-watching, particularly in the bar during the intermission, which looked down onto a spectacular glass restaurant (there are already plans afoot to return later in the year, and I think a trip to this restaurant would be an experience worth saving up for).


Just add water June 10, 2012

Filed under: Flowers and plants,Nature and wildlife — lauravw @ 3:35 pm

We are going to add a pond to our garden! A pond! I’m very excited about this, as you may have spotted. I don’t do gardening as such, but I take the Don Draper role in that I creative direct the process: put one of these there, add more purple plants, that kind of thing.

And while I love for our garden to look beautiful, which it does, for me the main goal is to encourage wildlife. So we have plenty of birdfeeders, a birdbath, shrubs that have berries on them, and parts of the garden that are left somewhat wild and untidy. We have two compost bins, and we don’t use pesticides, much to my father’s disappointment – he would love us to do something about our lawn, but for me the fact that it is made up of all sorts of clover and mosses and daisies is a much better thing than if it were grass alone.

We’ve had regular visits from foxes, and on warm evenings at dusk you can see bats flying around. For an all-too-brief period last year we had a hedgehog (who sadly has not been seen this year – we suspect a new fence that was put up two doors down may have blocked his route to our garden. I’m still looking out for him though, and it would make my year if he reappeared).

Even though we don’t (yet) have a pond, we occasionally see frogs, and I have a little ceramic house for them to shelter in. It’s tucked inside a flowerbed and there is greenery growing over it, so I like to think it’s a nice environment for them.

But we’ve decided we can do better, and so a pond is planned. There is a good spot for it go in, away from the sort of trees that will drop leaves into in, and with a good amount of sun reaching it. We read that wildlife ponds don’t need mechanical aeration in the way that fish ponds do, which is good news. We found some pre-formed pond shells that you can buy, and then you simply dig the right shape of hole and put the pond into to it. (When I say that you simply dig the hole, I expect there’s a lot more to it than that – but happily this bit of the project will not be falling to the creative director…)

Then you need plants, ideally native ones. I found a supplier online who does starter kits for ponds containing native species, and I think that’s what I’m going to order (they’ve won awards at the Chelsea Flower Show, an event that unfortunately passed me by this year).

Ideally a wildlife pond needs to be 40cm or deeper, but unfortunately the space we have available limits the pond size we can use, and the smaller pre-formed ponds are less deep than the larger ones. We could build our own pond, but the pre-formed ones are appealing to us (we’re new to this, and so don’t want to take on too much), and they have a couple of features that I think will be really useful. One is a wildlife ramp – a sort of sloping bit that provides an escape route for any animals who are unlucky enough to fall in. The other is the fact that the pre-formed ponds have several different levels within them, which is useful for planting on – some plants are better suited to the shallower part of the pond, while others float on the surface.

We hope to get everything ordered in the next two weeks, and then work can start. I’ll be taking plenty of pictures – I’ve already taken a few showing the spot the pond is going to go in. And if you’re thinking of creating a pond for wildlife, there is an excellent (and free) leaflet available on the Natural England website.