Friday, 31 December 2010

Letterpress Gorgeousness

With 2011 nearly upon us (or you may already be toasting the new year depending on where you're reading this) it seems like a good time to tell you about a gorgeous calendar. I'm normally a great one for dithering about spending a lot of money on any item I can get more cheaply, but this year I happily paid close to £30 for a little desk calendar. What, I can hear you all asking - you can get them from the supermarket for a fiver come February?! I know, but let me explain. I have something of an obsession with letterpress stationery that began a year or two ago; and when early in 2010 I spotted a beautiful little calendar produced by the Minneapolis-based Studio on Fire I just couldn't get it out of my head. After the usual shilly-shallying I ordered one and when it arrived a few weeks later I knew I'd made the right choice: small, perfectly formed, and most importantly gorgeous - I loved it.

So a couple of weeks ago, when it came time to think about a new calendar, I did the usual thing of researching other letterpress options online but it didn't take long for me to put in an order for Studio on Fire's new offering. Where last year's calendar was predominantly orange, red and a kind of eau de nil green, this year's is in more subdued shades of copper and grey. Normally I'm a sucker for anything brightly coloured but actually my current grey obsession shows no signs of abating so the new one suits me just fine. As with last year's calendar the 2011 edition features work from six different designers all tied in with the same colour scheme. It's basically fab.

It's only a little calendar, perfect for a desk-top, but I keep mine on my kitchen work-surface as that's where I get to look at it the most. And if that wasn't enough letterpress joy for one December, Coffee Boy bought me a one-day letterpress workshop as my Christmas present. I'm so excited I almost don't want to book my place - it's just so much fun looking forward to it! So if you're looking for a small but beautiful desk/work-top calendar, I'd be amazed if you can find anything more adorable than the Studio on Fire one. And if you've got any late Christmas presents owing to a lover of beautifully-designed things, get yourself over to the Studio on Fire shop right now; but don't be surprised if you end up wanting to keep anything you order for yourself once it arrives.

All images Studio on Fire

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

A Festive Wreath

Since moving to the country this summer (OK it's only zone 2 but I do have a garden) I've had grand ideas about growing vegetables, table tennis on the lawn and brick built barbecues: needless to say they have all come to nought. But my new garden has finally paid off.

As well as having some outside space we also have a proper front door with its own little porch so this year I was determined to have a Christmas wreath. I had a look online but decided I wanted a fresh wreath rather than one of the - admittedly very good - fake ones. Also, much as I love modern, abstract, designer wreaths, what I had set my heart on was a good old-fashioned bit of festive cheer. Having failed to find anything online I had a look in the numerous florists and garden centres in the area but when I saw that the going rate for a large wreath was in the region of £45 I decided I'd have a go at making my own.

Typically, once I'd made up my mind I wanted to do it immediately. This meant that rather than sourcing a cheap wreath ring online I paid (a frankly silly) £8.95 for a vine one from my local garden centre. But to soften the blow they did round-up my entire haul - which included dried oranges, cinnamon sticks, pine cones and dried lotus seed pods - to £10.50. I then purchased 3 packs of florist wire and a pretty deep-pink wired ribbon bringing my total spend to about £15.

And that was the end of the costs as everything else came from my garden. I collected a whole bunch of stuff but in the end just used some sort of pine-type stuff (I never said I was a gardener) to cover the vine wreath and then overlaid some pretty green and white holly which was hanging into my garden from next door (thanks neighbours!). Then it was just a matter of glueing the cinammon sticks together and tying them with some gold ribbon I had already, and then wiring everything to the foliage covered ring. The finishing touch was to make a bow from ribbon and that was it - my very own festive wreath.

I have to admit to being rather pleased with it: in fact I didn't see anything in the shops I liked better - and I'm including some that were in excess of £50. And the beauty is that next year I can re-use the ring and maybe even some of the dried stuff so it will cost me next to nothing. I'd be feeling like a proper Christmas queen if it wasn't for the fact that I haven't yet bought a single present or written any cards. Still, one step at a time.

Friday, 17 December 2010

On Chesil Beach

K & I had been curious to visit Chesil Beach ever since reading Ian McEwan's novel. Natalie, her husband, K & I had been lucky enough to meet said author and hear him give an after dinner speech at the top of the BT Tower last year - and that served to pique my interest even more. So on a whim the week before last, with K in need of some serious R&R, we hopped in a rental car and headed down to the Dorset coast for the night. 'Is there anything in particular you want to do?' K asked as we motored down the M3. My requests were simple: To eat a tasty fish supper; to enjoy a Dorset cream tea and ... to find a fossil.

Three hours later we arrived in Abbotsbury, a little village nestled amongst rolling hills overlooking the eastern end of Chesil beach. I absolutely love London, but isn't it nice, once in a while, to rest your eyes upon an endless blanket of green? We had booked a night in The Abbey House, a beautiful B&B set on the site of a 16th-century monastery. It was off-season and so we were the only couple there but I can imagine how popular it must be in the summer months. Before I had even seen the room I was already planning to come back.

We were already losing daylight quite fast and so after a quick cup of tea we headed back out into the chilly dusk. It was still pretty early but we were both hungry so we drove west toward Weymouth to see the Portland Bill lighthouse and then onto an early dinner. It was blustery and cold when we got to Portland Bill and of course we could see nothing of the sea but it was strangely mesmerising to watch the red and white lighthouse cast its lengthy beam around the darkness.

Grateful to be back in the warmth of the car and a mere ten minutes later we were already seated and perusing the Crab House Cafe menu in anticipation of our fish supper. I'd heard good things about this place. An unpretentious little seaside shack which turned out wonderful, simply cooked fish - it was an apparent favorite of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and recommended by Rick Stein (though I was still peeved at having eaten a small but rather pricey portion of mediocre haddock & chips from Stein's Fish & Chips in Padstow a couple of years back). I'd also read a rather favorable review by Matthew Norman in the The Guardian last spring, and so I was pretty excited to be there.

After studying the concise menu and a quick mental check that there was indeed an 'r' in the month, I decided to start with a half dozen of the excellent Portland Royal oysters from the restaurant's own farm out front. Next we watched the open kitchen prepare two specials chosen off the blackboard: Whole roasted gurnard on mediterranean vegetables & steamed mussels with lemon, thyme and cream accompanied by homemade chunky chips. K declared he couldn't remember when he had eaten a fresher piece of fish, and the mussels were good but I did kick myself for not ordering the whole crab complete with bib and hammer instead.

To finish - a wedge of Dorset apple cake served with a hot baked apple stuffed with currants and a little pot of pouring cream. It was heavenly and I wondered why whenever I had a glut of apples it had never crossed my mind to just bake them. The staff were great, utterly attentive yet unobtrusive - better service I've not had in a long time. The interior was simplicity itself - wooden tables and chairs mingled with some seaside paraphernalia, but make no mistake we were paying London prices. That being said I would certainly go back.

Next morning, after a great night's sleep in a canopy bed, our lovely Abbey House hosts treated us to a delicious cooked breakfast, all sourced from local produce, and some of the best home-made museli I have ever tasted. Bellies full and in need of a walk, we headed up into the hills towards St Catherine's Chapel which afforded us a breathtaking vista of Chesil Beach and its surrounding areas (voted Britain's third best view by Country Life magazine). Then, with the beach within our sights, we ambled down towards the sea. We were greeted by the huge bank of shingles which makes up Chesil Beach, its shore dotted with anglers all after an early morning catch. It was nice to be so close to the sea and we spent some time just enjoying the crunch of the shingles underfoot and watching the foam and the waves crash onto the beach.

Next stop: fossil hunting. The Dorset coastline - also known as the Jurassic Coast - has revealed some of the most important fossil finds in the UK. We headed east towards Charmouth beach - a spot known for plentiful finds. Along with scores of other couples and families walking their dogs, we scoured the small beach and the peaty cliffs for even the tiniest of ammonites. Alas nothing - other than a few keepsake pebbles I had pocketed. K, thinking I was disappointed, suggested we raid the nearby fossil shop for a souvenir but funnily enough I felt nothing but contentment just being at the seaside.

Later we dropped by the resort of Lyme Regis - known as the Pearl of Dorset, though it seems to have lost a little of its lustre. Jane Austen is purported to have enjoyed spending time there and some think the setting inspired her final novel Persuasion. Besides wanting to retrace Austen's steps, we were there for lunch: fish and chips. Last year my sister bought me Valentine Warner's What To Eat Now, a great cookbook all about seasonal food and how to forage in the English countryside. So when I read he had proclaimed the fish & chips at Herbie's Dino Bar in Lyme Regis as his best 'cheap eat' in Britain I had to find it. It's located along Marine Parade, right down the very end of the seafront past the pastel beach huts. At one point we almost turned back thinking we had missed it. But we persevered and then there it was: a tiny white food van with an orange cartoon dinosaur as its logo. Admittedly, we exchanged quizzical looks.

Herbie's only offers one type of fish which is whatever happens to look good on the fishmonger's slab from The Old Watch House around the corner - on this particular day it was whiting. We happily waited fifteen minutes while they freshly cooked our fish and clutching a huge portion each sat on the sea wall looking onto the same harbour Meryl Streep was filmed gazing from in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Maybe it was all that sea air, but it was good. Light, golden, crispy beer batter twinned with the freshness of the whiting, crunchy yet floury chips, salt, vinegar... I have no idea if it's the best cheap eat in Britain but it was one of the best fish and chips I'd tasted.

We wandered back through the cobbled main street which runs through Lyme Regis, picked up some Dorset ginger biscuits and West Country clotted cream fudge, browsed in a few secondhand bookshop and rummaged in a few charity shops.

With a couple of hours still to spare we drove around admiring the countryside and stopped to see the huge chalked figure of the Cerne Abbas Giant etched in the hillside. It was getting dark and with the prospect of a three-hour drive home a Dorset cream tea was in order to keep the energy levels up. So it was off to The Old Teahouse in Dorchester (44 High West Street) dating from 1635, all dark wooden beams and red floral carpet.

I have been lucky enough to accompany my blog partner Natalie many a time on her eternal quest for superior tea & cake over at Afternoon Tea Total. I hope she will be pleased to know that other than just scoffing my face I have actually been paying attention to her words of tea wisdom. So as my eyes scanned the tea things laid out before us I ran through Natalie's little checklist of what constitutes a proper cream tea. Warm fruited scones? Check. Clotted cream? Check. Good jam with real fruit pieces? Check. A pot of hot water to top up your teapot? Check. A nice porcelain teacup & saucer - bonus point. A brown betty teapot - extra bonus points. We wandered back out into the coldness feeling happy, contented - and surprisingly well-rested. Even being somewhere as close to home as Dorset for just one night can make you feel like you've been away.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Snow Boots

 Sometimes I wonder if my fashion compass is set to a different magnetic north to other people's. The success of a company like ASOS, originally built on your average person's desire to have clothes like their favourite star is a mystery to me. I have absolutely nothing against their clothes (in fact I don't own any so can't really comment) but it's the famous person bit I don't get. Once I find out that some item I like the look of is loved by celebrities I just go right off it.

So it is with Sorel boots. I first became aware of these beautiful yet amazingly practical things about a year ago when I saw a woman in the departure lounge at Gatwick Airport waiting to go to a snowy Berlin wearing a pair. They seemed like the perfect combination of rubber and leather and I was so enamoured I actually took a surreptitious photo of them on my phone so I could look them up later.

Fast-forward a year to our current snow and ice-fest and I find myself thinking of these Canadian beauties again. OK so £150 seems like a lot to pay for a pair of boots that are unlikely to get more than a few weeks' wear a year but I'd almost be prepared to go for it; that is until I start seeing the word Brangelina on accompanying blurb. Suddenly that £150 just seems ridiculous and all my enthusiasm has slipped away. I realise this is a somewhat crazy position but it's honestly not conscious - I think it's the thought that anyone would think I'd purchase something just because it's fashionable that immediately puts me right off.

But that doesn't help me with my snow boot problem. So I decided to throw fashion to the wind and purchase a pair of Karrimor boots from Amazon (if that doesn't sound unsexy I'm not sure what does). They haven't yet arrived but I am hoping they'll be just the thing to help me traverse the icy pavements of London and Berlin over the coming months (and at less than £35 it won't be the end of the world if I don't love them). OK, I have to admit that a wave of desire swept over me when I saw a bloke in the office wearing a pair of Sorels the other day (for the boots not him you understand) but at least I can comfort myself that I am no slave to fashion or celebrity. Let's face it, I don't think we're about to see Angelina Jolie kitted out in Karrimor anytime soon. Well I certainly hope not - I'm not sure of the returns policy.

Images from top Sorel Carribou, Sorel 1964 Premium, Sorel Joan of Arctic, Karrimor Snow Boots

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Elevenses | Sea Salt Milk Chocolate

I cannot get enough of this Peyton and Byrne chocolate bar right now. I even love the look and feel of the wrapper. Creamy milk chocolate with a crunch of Cornish sea salt at the end. A couple of squares and a cup of builders - sorted.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Ketchup & Mustard

 Nope, contrary to what it looks like this post is not about condiments but the two colours this season of which I have yet to get bored.

 On a dreary November morning when I would normally pull on head-to-toe black I find myself being drawn, like a magpie toward something shiny, to a splash of ketchup & mustard. Eye-catching hues on their own, they are also weird yet wonderful together.

 Still not convinced? Here are a few of my favorite things. Come on I defy you not to be instantly cheered by this colour combo or at least start to feel a little toasty.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Cycle Helmets Can Be Cool

Cycling seems to be being talked about everywhere at the moment, from the Barclays cycle hire scheme (I refuse to call them Boris Bikes when they were actually Ken's idea) to the seemingly endless fashion shoots featuring winsome girls in floaty floral frocks astride Dutch bikes. Of course I'd love to be the sort of person who just hops on my vintage bike and arrives at my destination looking tousled and gorgeous but the reality of my six mile commute in the the wind and rain means it's a good day if I get to work without mascara running down my face.

Although my London cycling attire tends toward the practical rather than the fashionable there is one part of my look that I'm very happy with and that's my cycle helmet. I don't feel comfortable riding in town without some protection for my bonce but wearing my traditional old helmet really made me feel like a dork. But since buying my Yakkay last year all that has changed.

Designed in Denmark, the home of chic cycling, these ingenious head-protectors feature a basic helmet, available in 3 sizes, and a whole array of covers that fit over the top. When put together the finished item looks more like a hat than a traditional helmet and more than anything I just think they are great fun.

Sadly they're not cheap, retailing at around £60 for the helmet and £35 for the covers, but although that might seem like a lot to pay I can honestly say I don't regret the outlay one little bit. Riding along feeling like a normal human being who uses a bike to get around rather than a Chris Hoy wannabee means that for me it was money well spent.

I have two covers, the Paris Black Oilskin which has the air of a horse riding helmet (a look I rather love); and the Tokyo Pink Jazz which is the kind of thing I like to think Coco Chanel might have chosen to wear if she was fighting her way past double deckers and aggressive black cabs on her bike. Having said all that, I have to be honest: I don't like to think of myself as a fair-weather cyclist but when that icy wind is really biting it takes all my willpower to get on my bike in the morning. But there's good news: Yakkay also have a rather snuggly looking pair of ear warmers that attach to the strap of the base helmet meaning they can be worn with any of the covers. And at around £20 they seem like a little extravagance I can allow myself.

Go on, admit it, you didn't believe me when I said bike helmets could be cool. But try out a Yakkay for yourself and I think you'll come around to my way of thinking.

[Images 1-4 Yakkay; images 5-6 (where you can also buy Yakkay helmets & accessories)]

Friday, 5 November 2010

1001 prints | Celia Birtwell

Ossie Clarke and Celia Birtwell are synonymous with the spirit of Swinging London in the sixties. The then husband and wife team's floaty diaphanous clothes - the cut designed by Ossie, the whimsical print and pattern by Celia - had Twiggy, Bianca et al banging on their King's Road door demanding to wear them. Although I wasn't around in the sixties, I have a real fondness for Celia Birtwell's romantic prints and her signature colour palette of red, cream, charcoal, soft pink, green and blue - inspired, she says, by the paintings of Matisse and Picasso, the costumes of the Ballets Russes and the gardens of Vita Sackville-West.

Forty years on, the woman sometimes referred to as 'the face that launched a thousand prints' has just created her own website, offering all manner of homewares and accessories all adorned with her designs. I particularly love the vintage clothing section where you can buy and sell Ossie Clark/Celia Birtwell originals - each with a certificate of authentication and sketch of the garment by Celia herself. I also like that you can buy her prints in the form of fabric or wallpaper. All in all, I think the homewares and accessories on offer - ranging from notebooks and greetings cards through to mugs, plates and gardening paraphernalia including a cute pair of gardening gloves - are pretty, sweet and playful.

But although I like the new accessories, it's the frocks which always do it for me. Some of you may remember the great stampede at Topshop a couple of years ago for Celia's gorgeous printed tea dresses and blouses based on her own vintage designs. For those of you like me who did not have the patience or the elbows to see one in the flesh, let alone grab one, you still have a chance. This summer, Celia created a capsule collection of clothes, bags and homewares, exclusively for British high street stalwart John Lewis. The collection includes some lovely billowy sleeved dresses and blouses and I have my eye on this little number (below), a Rock Print Silk Dress and... well I'm going to need a lovely green, tasselled, leather drawstring pouch to go with that.

However, the other day I spied a less successful Birtwell collaboration currently selling in Boots. A bizarre mish-mash of cosmetic purses, socks and make-up brushes - Celia Birtwell eyelash curlers anyone? I can see she is probably trying to appeal to a younger generation in the same way she did when she worked with Millets a couple of years ago by creating a range of festival-chic camping gear. But for me, I think the beauty and timelessness of her prints lend themselves best where she ultimately began - clothing.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Industrious in the Kitchen

I love those little coincidences that the blogosphere throws up. A few months ago one of the Berlin blogs that I like to read posted about the Pomeranza Design Ranch which happens to be co-owned by a friend of mine. As well as being pleased that she was getting a positive write-up about her venture, I was also interested to find out about one of their products I hadn't spotted before: Grubent├╝cher. These cotton/linen towels were apparently used by miners in Germany's industrial Ruhr area to clean themselves up after a hard day down't pit. Their absorbency and robust design means they are now finding a new popularity in the kitchen. I made a mental note to check them out next time I went into the shop and then promptly forgot all about them.

Fast forward four months to last Friday where I find myself clutching a beautifully wrapped birthday present from my Pomeranza friend & her partner, and when I open it what do I find but a lovely Grubentuch. Now if that isn't the universe telling me I needed one of these babies in my life then I don't know what's going on.

Certainly, anything that makes drying up more fun (and I'm reliably informed they do that job remarkably well) is just fine by me. Hurrah for beautiful fabrics with a bit of history thrown in (and industrial history too, my favourite), and hurrah for thoughtful friends who know just the right presents to get you for your birthday.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

In Season | Figs

As far as I'm concerned, the fig season is all too short, so come autumn I'm always on the lookout. I picked up these beauties from Brick Lane after work on Sunday morning, and at five for a pound they were an absolute steal.

I like to eat them as they are - fresh. But not everyone in the household finds them as palatable this way. So rather than gorge on them all by myself (a tempting thought), I find baking them with some honey and spices and serving them with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and a sprinkling of toasted hazelnuts (also in season) a simple way to share the love.

Baked honey-spiced figs

Serves 2

4 figs
4 knobs of butter
2 tbsps runny honey
1 cinnamon stick + 2 star anise (or a teaspoon of ground cinnamon if you don't have whole spices handy)
Greek yoghurt
Handful of shelled hazelnuts

  • Preheat oven to 180 C/350 F
  • Cut a criss-cross in the top of each of the figs to about about halfway down the fruit, and open them up slightly.
  • Arrange the figs snugly in a small baking dish, and add a knob of butter to each.
  • Nestle in the whole spices (or sprinkle over the ground cinnamon), drizzle over the honey and add 2 tbsp water to the dish.
  • Bake in the oven for 15 mins. 5 mins before the end of cooking time, spoon the cooking juices over the figs and pop the hazelnuts onto a small baking tray or piece of foil to toast in the oven next to them.
  • Remove the figs & hazelnuts from the oven. Spoon more of the hot syrup over the figs and set aside - I like to wait until the figs are warm rather than piping hot before I eat them. In the meantime roughly chop the hazelnuts.
  • Serve topped with greek yoghurt, a spoonful of the rose-coloured buttery syrup and the toasted hazelnuts.

Monday, 25 October 2010

European Month of Photography

© Peter Lindbergh 

By a happy coincidence I am in Berlin while the European Month of Photography is on. I have to admit I'd never actually heard of it - apparently it's the fourth - but it turns out it's a bit of a gem. Basically, photography has taken over the galleries of the city. There's a little booklet, a website & an iPhone app that list photo exhibitions on subjects as diverse as the changing face of the centre of Berlin over the last 170 years and colourful electron microscope photography of tiny bugs blown up to be the size of monsters.

© Sebastian Klug

There are so many exhibitions it's impossible to see them all but a couple of my favourites so far have been Sebastian Klug's photos of nightlife in Berlin taken on a mobile phone - I think it captures the feeling of clubbing more completely than any other exhibition I've seen; and Ortzeit, a collection of pairs of photos by Stefan Koppelkamm of streets in East Germany: the earlier pictures were taken just after the fall of the wall, and the later ones anything from 10 to 14 years later. It really encapsulates the dramatic change (and in some case the dramatic stagnation) that has occurred in this part of the world over the last two decades.

© Stefan Koppelkamm

The other great thing about this set of exhibitions is that it gives you the chance to go into all sorts of galleries and museums that you would probably never visit otherwise - the German post museum anyone? If you find yourself in this part of the world between now and February (despite being called a Month many events are going on far longer) I urge you to check out at least one or two of these great shows.

Friday, 22 October 2010

A Stitch In Time

What to write in my first ever blog post? Natalie is of course the seasoned hand at this and can reel off the most wonderful blog posts in the blink of an eye. As for me, it’s been a head-scratcher.

So I’m keeping it simple and starting with a fabric keepsake - my grandmother’s Peranakan blouses from the 1950’s. I should briefly explain that Peranakan refers to the 15th century descendants of Chinese traders who settled and intermarried in what is now known as Malaysia and Singapore - and from whom both my parents’ families are descended. One afternoon, on a visit to Singapore over a decade ago, my maternal grandmother and I were poring over old photo albums while sipping Chinese tea. I was particularly taken with the black and white photos of Nyonya (Peranakan women) elegantly posing in their traditional dress of sarong kebaya – a long sleeved buttonless embroidered blouse (kebaya) tailored to skim over the figure and worn over a colourful batik sarong. “I still have my old nyonya kebaya”, my grandmother told me walking over to an old wooden armoire in the corner of her bedroom. Pulling open a drawer she held up to the light several of the most exquisite blouses I had ever seen. I was smitten.

Made from delicate cotton voile each kebaya varied in colour from pristine white to vibrant turquoise, mossy green to buttercup yellow. The intricate embroidery (known as sulam) on each was of flora, richly detailed around the edges of the seams and sleeves either in contrasting coloured threads or matched to the same hue of the cotton voile.It could take a highly skilled seamstress up to six months to painstakingly stitch just one nyonya kebaya and was an expensive outlay even in the 1950’s. It made me curious about the Peranakan culture I knew little about. Rooted in Chinese tradition and strongly influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. They were known for taking great pride in their appearance and for being skilled artisans in needlecraft, ornate embroidery and intricate beadwork that they used to embellish clothing, shoes and all manner of textiles for the home.

My grandmother’s kebayas had lain forgotten in a drawer for decades. A garment once synonymous with Peranakan heritage and identity had long fallen out of favour with fashion (though I now hear they are enjoying a bit of a revival). Surprised by my admiration for her ‘old blouses’ she gave them to me, and said they needed someone to appreciate them. Even at my slimmest there was never a chance I was ever going to fit into them tailored as they were to my grandmother’s petite frame. Instead I see each kebaya as part of a lost art form and have carefully stored them away for posterity. But on occasion I like to take them out of their tissue paper, run my hand over the embroidery, slide an arm through the sleeve to feel the fineness of the fabric, give a nod to the seamstress who toiled over it, and daydream about the stories hidden in their stitches.

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