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

There were more cocktails… March 18, 2013

Filed under: Places to go,Travel — lauravw @ 2:23 pm

towerbridgeFor much of the last week I was in London, enjoying a bit of a holiday during some of the coldest weather we’ve seen all winter. Not great timing.

Megan (also known as Not Martha) and some of her friends had flown over from Seattle to visit people. They spent some time in Bath and then Cornwall before they, and I, travelled to London for a few days. Unfortunately a few of them had or were getting over a cold, which curtailed activities slightly, but we still had chance to see some of the sights.

Almost as soon as I arrived, I headed out to meet Melissa (also known as Fehr Trade): it was nice to meet her in person at long last, and I also enjoyed having a tour of her houseboat – during which I asked about some of the more pratical things like where your post is delivered if you live on a boat, and how your rubbish is collected (by boat!).

Dusk was falling as I walked back along the Thames, and that made for an interesting walk – I enjoyed seeing Tower Bridge in the twilight.

The following morning I went with Megan and her friends to have a late breakfast at Nopi, which was an interesting experience – our table was right by the kitchen, and so we could all watch as our food was prepared. Also interesting were the loos, which are covered in mirrors! There are so many mirrors, in fact, that an arrow on the floor points you in the right direction when you have finished admiring your many reflections and are ready to leave.

Then there was shopping – I think we should be grateful that this group of tourists made such a contribution to the economy while they were over here! The next day (Monday) I caught a train out to Wivenhoe in Essex, to meet up with an old friend who has moved there. I have very little experience of Essex (I think I had only been there once before, to visit a university) and didn’t expect the place to be so charming! It was covered in snow, and we trekked along muddy footpaths through fields to collect her daughter from the local village school. I was sent back to London with homemade cake to eat on the way.

Tuesday was our last full day in London, and contained two highlights for me. The first was an exhibition I hadn’t wanted to go to: Light Show at the Southbank Centre. I get a lot of migraines and so was anxious it would trigger one. Luckily for me it didn’t, and I found the whole exhibition really enjoyable – they don’t let you take pictures inside, but there is a video on their website that’s worth a look. (I would have loved to take pictures, but I think not allowing photography is a wise choice here, as people standing around with their cameras would have altered the atmosphere in the space.)

And finally, we ended our holiday with Not Afternoon Tea at OXO Tower: no tea, and no cake – just four puddings and a cocktail. It’s not cheap, but the food and drink were excellent, and I felt very well looked after. And the view is worth paying for too. Be warned if you go that the cocktails are strong – so strong that I quickly stopped worrying about the cost and ordered a second one…


Vermont October 30, 2012

Filed under: Travel — lauravw @ 11:43 am

It’s only been four weeks since we flew home from New England, but it looks like the landscape we enjoyed so much will have changed significantly already. Hurricane Sandy is making her way north today, with Vermont in her sights.

While we were there, we saw areas that had been badly damaged when the last hurrican blew through – bridges that had been destroyed, homes that had been cut off, roads swept away and trees downed. They said on the news today that Hurricane Sandy is a storm the size of Europe, which my little brain can’t really take in.

This picture shows the view at sunrise from one of the bed and breakfasts we stayed in. A nice side effect of the jet lag we experienced was that we got to see the sun come up over the mountains, illuminating all the trees. (Jet lag also meant that while we were in Boston, I was able to get up and go for a swim in the hotel pool before the sun came up. One morning I saw the dark pre-dawn sky turn pink and red through the pool’s roof-top windows, which was a nice start to the day.)

Vermont is a lovely place – definitely somewhere we would like to go back to. The scenery is beautiful, with so many waterfalls and gushing rivers all over the place. One morning we drove past a large lake which was draped in clouds of mist, floating just above the surface of the water.

Farming is an important part of the economy, and we were able to visit two farms and meet the animals that lived there. The first was a small alpaca farm, where cuddly (and apparently very valuable) alpacas roamed around in a lush green landscape. Later that same day we went to Shelburne Farms, close to Lake Burlington. The farm buildings were of such extravagant construction that they wouldn’t have looked out of place at Hogwarts, and they were filled with goats, calves, sheep and hens – and sparrows, who flew in and helped themselves to the animals’ food.

The following day we headed further east and ended up in the sort of small town that shuts down on Sundays. And of course it was Sunday. Just when it seemed that we’d all have to spend the afternoon and evening at the hotel playing cards and eating snacks from a vending machine, Megan found a restaurant for us in the next town, and I spotted that the local bowling alley offered a discount to people staying at our hotel. From its name, the restaurant did not sound promising, but it was actually very good – I wish we’d paid more attention to what went into the meal we had, so that I could try to recreate it at home. And the bowling alley was exactly the sort of experience I always love to stumble across on my travels, a glimpse into how local people live. It was an old-fashioned place, and many of the bowling balls had people’s name engraved on them. There were noticeboards filled with pictures of veteran bowlers, and a bar serving generously-poured drinks. And, unlike any bowling alley I’ve ever been in at home, there were signs up advertising the local gun shop.

It was dark by the time we finished bowling and drove back to the hotel. As we got out of the car to head up to our rooms, we noticed how clear the skies were – there were plenty of stars on display, more than we usually see in our urban surroundings. Megan and Scott are exactly the sort of people you want to be friends with on an evening like this: Megan immediately got us all back in the car, and directed Scott to drive us to a spot even further away from the city lights so that we could see more of the sky. We parked on a fairly remote lane, and all got out of the car to take a look. Within seconds we saw a shooting star.


Inside America’s Test Kitchen October 9, 2012

Filed under: Food,Travel — lauravw @ 1:37 pm

While we were in Boston, our friends Megan (Not Martha) and Scott flew over from Seattle to spend time with us, which was a real treat as it had been two years since we’d last seen them. Megan had been invited to tour the offices and studio of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated while she was in Boston, and we all got to tag along.

They are not brands we’re familiar with in the UK, but there were some similarities to Good Housekeeping. The recipes are tested and tested and tested – I was interested to see how rigid their processes are for doing this. They produce everything on a domestic scale, using domestic ovens – because all the recipes are aimed at the home cook. I loved seeing a noticeboard by the kitchen featuring photos gathered from Flickr and Twitter, each showing people’s successes at following the recipes. One of their founding principles is that they test everything, from ingredients to tools, and then use whatever their tests reveal to be the best – steering very clear (with a few noted exceptions) of product placement and freebies.

The site they work from is not huge and not fancy – I was amazed at how much they produce from what seemed to be fairly limited surroundings. (It’s something I’m trying to keep in mind now I’m home and back at work!) They seem to get an awful lot done – magazines, books and TV programmes – we were lucky enough to be given copies of some of their newest books. One features a recipe for Boston cream pie, which I may try out over the winter to remind me of our holiday. I make Boston cream pie occasionally already, using a Nigella Lawson recipe, so I really should try a more authentic version. I may still buy the creme patissiere for the filling though – I’m not sure I can face the effort of making that.

Speaking of Nigella Lawson, has anyone else got the new book, Nigellissima? I pre-ordered a copy and so it was waiting for me when I got back from Boston. As a vegetarian reader, there’s not a great deal in it for me – I had expected more, since Italian food is so varied. There are certainly recipes in it I will be trying, but not as many as I’d hoped. And, reflecting the changes in Nigella herself over the past year, this is a much slimmer volume that her previous books.


Back from Boston

Filed under: Travel — lauravw @ 1:26 pm

I’ve been far away from Busywork Towers of late, spending a couple of weeks enjoying the spectacle that is New England in the fall (autumn, to those of us on this side of the Atlantic).

We started out in Boston, a city we visited once before, almost exactly ten years ago. This week I dug out our photos from that holiday, and was interested to see I’d been drawn to take pictures of many of the same things this time around. It’s quite a compact city by American standards, and so if you like walking, you can explore much of it on foot. (Though admittedly there was one particular day when, having walked too far, I was on the brink of just lying down and refusing to take another step. Luckily there was a cafe across the road and we were able to recover in there for a while.)

As ever, when I travel I like to investigate the food on offer – and no holiday is complete with time being spent in a foreign supermarket. There were a few good ones to explore this time, particularly the Whole Foods close to one of the hotels we stayed in. Another food highlight for me was Flour Bakery – I am envious of the many office workers and students we saw there, who seem to be able to use the place as their regular lunch spot. It’s famous for its cakes, and the Boston cream pie I tried was so good that once I’d eaten it, I joined the back of the queue so that I could buy something else to try. They had such a huge range of stuff on offer, from cakes and meringues to breads and soups. Fortunately they have produced a book of their recipes, and heavy hints have been dropped to certain people about how I could easily find a space for that on my bookshelves.

I took a lot of pictures – they are all on Flickr if you want a peek. I’ll write some more soon about the other places we visited while we were away – it certainly beats dealing with the enormous pile of laundry that threatens to topple over and crush me…


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.