Tuesday, 24 February 2009


I hope you are all enjoying your pancakes today.

I always use Delia's recipe, with very hot butter and a non-stick pan, and I'm pretty good at tossing them accurately (and more importantly, catching them).

Different fillings are nice, from time to time, but for me it really has to be the traditional lemon and sugar on Shrove Tuesday, even though the citrophobic boyfriend treats them like tangy yellow grenades.


Monday, 23 February 2009


Leyburn Socks

My Socks That Rock Leyburn socks for the KAL are finished! Done, done, done. And on time, even ahead of time, no less, seeing as the KAL runs until 31 March. That alone is an extraordinary achievement for me.

You might remember from before that the socks had spontaneously generated a grey quilted lattice effect over a coloured background, on the foot. That didn't last on the legs, of course, due to the different stitch count and floats all the way round. It's still cool though. Looking at the socks (and other ones in this colourway on Ravelry) I think I would have disliked the pooling of these colours in a plain sock, but the Leyburn pattern breaks it up just enough. I think I need to be more careful in buying sock yarn as I have a few which are just too contrasty for me. At some point I'm going to convert some of my skein photos to greyscale to see if there's any way of telling by hue what I will and won't like. I have the KAL rules, in that we all had to pick a different colour of STR and this was the only one I had that hadn't been taken, for getting me to knit with it, otherwise it might have languished in my stash forever. Check out the KAL projects in all those STR colours, so much fun!

Details: BMFA STR mediumweight in "Tide Pool" on 2.75mm needles for a very tight fabric indeed. Pattern as written with short row toes and heels (and not many gaps actually) until the leg, where I only increased to 60 stitches not 72. They are a little hard to get on and off, but fit perfectly once on. I finished these off with a picot cuff as I just didn't fancy doing ribbing and wasn't sure it would work all that well with the busy pattern and pooling. I hadn't done a picot edge before but enjoyed the process, even though stitching down all the live stitches at the end was more time consuming than a regular cast off. I think here it gives a crown-like effect which goes with the regal quilting.

There is one slightly amusing mistake in these, though not easy to spot. They were almost entirely knitted whilst watching the Joss Whedon sci-fi series Firefly, and then the follow-on film, Serenity, all on DVD. Not wishing to give the plot away, there is a particularly tragic moment towards the end of the film, and on reflection that has to correspond to the plain row I missed out of one pattern repeat near the top of the second sock, leading to one slightly shallower V. Proves I enjoyed the film, right?

I will definitely make this pattern again and am pondering whether or not it would be possible to do the socks in black and the floats in another colour, but will have to figure out what I'd do across the soles to get the yarns back into the right places. Not a task for just now though. I have promised the boyfriend a pair of socks and so will be working with STR mediumweight again straight away, doing plain stocking stitch songs in man-size. Possibly dull, but I am going to challenge myself by learning to use two circulars instead of DPNs, just to see if I can. Vaguely considered trying magic loop but will have that as next on the list.

I also have some other FOs but these are old, I just failed to do the finishing on them for ages, then failed to blog them.

Oil Slick Triangular Shawl

From back in July, oh, the shame. Worse still, I finished it back at the very start of November and then didn't do all the ends until some time in January. Never mind, I wear it around the house with pleasure now, although it's a bit rustic and bulky to wear out on the streets of London where I have to preserve my gritty urban cool.

It is huge. I can't measure it because my tape measure is AWOL, but it's wider than my armspan and that's meant to correspond to my height of 5'8". So about six feet. It's six balls of Noro Iro which were in the John Lewis sale in the summer. As far as I'm concerned, Noro = KNoto which is why there were so many bloody ends to avoid dealing with. The result is very snuggly though, and I love the striping.

The pattern is my own, just garter stitch starting at the nape of the neck, then increasing in the middle and at the edges until I ran out of yarn and/or would have given my soul to be finished, on 7mm bamboo circular needles borrowed from Ting.

Feather & Fan Silk Scarf

Worse still, I started this back in June, finished it not that much later, and again it sat waiting for weaving in until after Christmas. Sheesh.

There are lots of photos of this one because I adore the combination of the ripples of the pattern stitch and the glowing orange and pink yarn. It's Skein Queen Kimono, a pure silk aran weight, in "Phoenix". I have subsequently bought the same stuff in another two colours for more of these, but nowhere near as vibrant.

Again the pattern, such as it is, is my own. It's just feather and fan over 36 stitches, plus two stitches either side for a garter border. I got to use my favourite vintage 4.5mm Inox metal needles, which always make me happy in my knitting.

The yarn was wonderful to knit with although did shed pink, slightly fluffy silk strands all over me during the process, and it continues to do so now over my black coat. Must get the lint roller out.

But I can forgive the prettiness anything.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Battleship Potemkin

I don't like giving bad reviews. I feel horrible about it. Most of the time, I enjoy gigs, plays and restaurants, because I'm pretty easily pleased. The rest of the time, I just don't talk about them. However, this week I actually managed to have a restaurant experience so bad that I feel the need to write about it as a warning - as well as the mutiny we did, for my first time ever, stage at the restaurant. I doubt the Soviets would have approved of this as much as of the actual uprising.

It all started so well, at Potemkin, a Russian restaurant in Clerkenwell, to celebrate a friend's birthday. The promise of 108 different types of vodka was alluring, and indeed proved to be true:

Does that vodka menu look a bit odd to you? We were told that all their prices had gone up (in a recession? with a VAT cut?) and that a couple of the menus had been marked up with the new prices, but not all. Those of us without writing all over the menus would have to consult with others, or, er, guess what price we'd be charged. I'm not sure that's legal under Trading Standards. Possibly a sign of things to come.

In essence, to make your party of a dozen celebrants happy enough to spend lots of money in your establishment, I would recommend that you, dear restaurant owner, do not:

  • Agree a set menu over the phone when making the reservation then decide that only "a few" of us could actually have it;
  • Take half an hour to come and take our order;
  • Take another forty five minutes on top of that to bring our first drinks (if we hadn't seen the menu we would have lost faith in there being any vodka at all by this point, let alone 140 kinds);
  • Take even longer than that to bring our starters, whilst other tables around us arrived, ordered and pretty much got through three courses;
  • Ignore our repeated reminders that we had a set time to leave (which we delayed once for your convenience when it became clear even the starters weren't going to make it by then);
  • Despite our order being made first, sell out a main course dish to all the other tables so suddenly there was none left for us, especially if you only bother to mention this and ask for alternative choices about ten minutes before we really, really had to leave, thus demonstrating that the mains weren't even in the oven yet; and/or (but definitely not and)
  • Be extremely surly all the way through.
We left. It was just too frustrating for words. Many jokes were made by us about queuing and the stereotypical food shortages... Anyway, we walked out, which I've never done before. It was a shame, because the starters were actually very good, but we had no hope whatsoever of getting the rest of our meal in time to do anything else that night, and we weren't even getting drunk in the process.

We ended up in, horrors, Kentucky Fried Chicken. I don't think I'd been in one before. Actually, it wasn't too bad because the thing I ate bore some resemblance to an actual piece of chicken (although most certainly not free range) and certainly more edible than my place mat and cutlery at Potemkin. Best of all, it was in my hands about thirty seconds after I'd ordered. Magic! Demons!

Thus actually fed, where was this place we were in such a hurry to get to? Karaoke! More particularly, Karaoke Box by Smithfield Market. This was awesome fun. I'm a terrible singer but I do know the words to an awful lot of songs, and I'm a complete exhibitionist who always wanted to be a rock star. Even stone-cold sober, it's difficult to get me to give up the microphone to save the eardrums of everybody else. Luckily Karaoke Box rent you your own private room to do this in so as not to inflict the likes of me on the rest of the punters (and additional benefits of your own computer with 8,000 and waitress service). Here's our gang giving it large to Dancing Queen in our little room:

I had the dignity to sit that one out because I absolutely hate bloody Abba. What did I sing? Well, I rocked Depeche Mode's awesome Personal Jesus. That's a good one to chant along to, if you know the song well enough to avoid coming in at the wrong place.

We had a group mosh to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, just like in my teenage clubbing days. At least I was wearing flat boots for all that hardcore bouncing.

But the highlight of the night? The cod-Welsh singalong to Goldie Lookin' Chain's Your Mother's Got A Penis, which almost caused me to wet myself with laughter.

"Don't come back in huur!" As the owners of Potemkin might say, and we won't.

Monday, 16 February 2009

I'm not a pheasant plucker...

...I'm the pheasant plucker's son. I'm only plucking pheasants 'til the pheasant plucker comes.

For the rest of the tongue-twisting song, go here. I can't even think it without stumbling. Nor can I get it out of my head whenever I'm dealing with said birds. Or as Neil Young might say, "Why do I keep plucking up?"

I am not the hunting, shooting and fishing type. I, personally, don't see the attraction in spending a day out to kill an animal for "pleasure". However, many of my family and the boyfriend's family do enjoy that sort of thing. It is mildly hypocritical, because I am very much a carnivore, and feel that as such I should be willing to kill my own meat - and I am prepared to do that, if the situation demanded it, but I wouldn't do it for fun. That and the fact that I'm such a crap shot, I doubt I'd hit anything, or if I did, it wouldn't be clean and I would hate to cause suffering.

On the other hand, I very much approve of pheasant shooting as a means to an end. Given I am going to eat meat (and I am, many people have tried and failed to convince me otherwise) I want the animal in question to have had a happy life and a swift and painless death. To me, a pheasant, bred and cosseted to a certain age by the likes of my great-uncle, then released into the guardianship and feeding of a gamekeeper for an untroubled, free-range life of pottering about in the English undergrowth, until a brief moment of being startled by a person with a stick crashing around the woods (and that's me doing the beating, on occasion), flying up and getting shot by any of the marksmen in-laws and dying instantly - well, that's a million times better than being a battery hen, surely? It has also been hypothesised that the only reason that so many tracts of deciduous woodland still exist here is that they are managed as pheasant territory and therefore worth more intact than razed for farmland or buildings. That provides valuable habitat for native bird species.

Finally, there's the whole ethos of being closer to one's food. I like to know where things have come from, and how they've been reared. I like to be told exactly when my food has been killed, and who by. When we visit the families, it's therefore not uncommon for me to be presented with a brace of pheasants for my own plucking enjoyment.

Oh, and my great-grandmother would turn in her grave if she thought I couldn't do this, so I have to keep my hand in.

I was going to fully document the plucking activities undertaken last weekend in my garden, and photographed it all as a kind of tutorial, but then when I sat down to edit them I realised that perhaps they were a bit too gory and I might run the risk of upsetting people, so I have only posted my close-ups of the stunning feathers of Mr Pheasant. Mrs Pheasant was lovely too, though not so striking in patterning, and this shot shows her soft grey-brown plumage next to his iridescence.

Instead, I'll tell you about an entirely un-natural food experience during the week. This follows on quite nicely from our Vanilla trip. On Wednesday night, Anna of the cakes took me and the boyfriend to the Dana Centre, an offshoot of the Science Museum in South Kensington, which hosts various interactive/popular science events for adults in the evenings. This one was on taste, and in particular how other senses can manipulate what we think we are tasting. There were some fascinating experiments. The first was to find out whether or not one is a "supertaster", someone with an intense perception of bitterness. This was done by each of us placing a small piece of filter paper impregnated with a chemical, PROP, on our tongues. Anna reacted with violent disgust, indicating that she is a supertaster. Me? I'm a "non-taster" - I could barely detect the mere hint of bitterness. Maybe this is why I like bitter drinks like campari - I simply don't taste the full hit. On the other hand, I don't like things like chili, coffee and grapefruit juice, which supertasters are supposed to dislike. Go figure.

We then dyed our tongues blue with food dye and counted the papillae to be found within the area of a ring reinforcer. Witness possibly the most unflattering picture I will ever post on here:

Then there were a set of vials of coloured, scented liquid - will the perceived aroma be altered by the visual cues? Yes - it was hard to recognise the green one as orange-scented or the red one as lemon.

Water scented with banana odour, or not, and/or with added sugar. Sugar + banana scent = intense banana flavour because we are trained to think of banana as sweet. Just banana scent doesn't taste like banana, but sugar-water alone does if you've had the banana-sugar first.

Blue, ground up mush, very difficult to recognise as rice if you also wear a nose clip to remove taste, texture and colour cues.

The inevitable molecular gastronomy table: textural experiments of Thai chicken soup and a coffee/chili/orange combo mixed with agar and extruded into spaghetti. Ick.

White wine dyed red, and sniffers initially identify "berry" and "chocolate" scents usually associated with red, which magically disappear when you tell them it's really white. Actually, I got that it was white straight away, hooray for my supersmell if not supertaste.

We did get some normal food too whilst we were listening to the talks (I just liked the primary colours here).

On the way out, we passed the beautiful, gothic Natural History Museum in the dark. One day I'll go back and photograph it properly, like this man was doing in the arched doorway.

Back to the bog standard food for a bit now, I think.

Oh, and whilst we were off playing with taste, Gail and Lotta were off playing with crafts at the Make Lounge's pre-Valentine's craft evening. I then had this sweet little Valentine's present in the post from Miss L. Thank you lovely!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Vanilla Ice

The snow is clearing now, at least in London, so everything is drippy. Sleet is expected tonight which isn't half as much fun. There are a few more pictures from the last few days that I want to post while I'm still excited, mainly from a lunchtime hike that my colleagues and I decided to undertake around Hyde Park on Wednesday lunchtime.

You wouldn't think that this was in the middle of a capital city, would you?

Hyde Park is full of web-footed residents who also leave tracks:

I'm not sure if the "Danger Thin Ice" signs are new:

I'd seen so many snowmen over the last few days that I thought I should build my own. However my impatient colleagues wouldn't wait so I had to be quick, and make a mini one. He's about six inches high, with twig arms and bark eyes and buttons:

And to show the scale, here he is in situ on top of a big rock:

I bet he'll be gone faster than this, rather larger specimen (not of my creation):

Less fun were the streets of Mayfair, especially those around us where the footfall isn't high enough to force the melting. We had plenty of ice-rink-alikes around our way. Some had started to shatter into crunchy diamonds:

I believe in America (maybe certain states?) residents are required to shovel their own sidewalks outside of their homes and shops to keep them clear of ice. Not here. We merely complain that the government isn't doing enough about it. Even I, as a responsible citizen, wouldn't even think to go out and deal with the pavement outside my flat. I suppose if we all did... But no, we just all skid along and whinge some more.

During all this, the boyfriend and I did brave the slippery streets to go out for dinner for our anniversary. We chose Vanilla, on Great Titchfield Street (the northern end), because it was one of the most highly user-rated restaurants on toptable. This seemed to be flatly contradictory to a rather amusing but very bad review by Giles Coren. However, it turns out that the chef has changed, and with it the ethos, since Mr Coren's visit, so they are trying madly to shake off the bad reputation from their older reviews. Personally, with a change of chef and cooking style I'd have renamed the restaurant too to sever ties with the bad stuff, but perhaps I'm being too sensible here.

So the "new" Vanilla is a tasting menu-only restaurant along the "molecular gastronomy" lines of The Fat Duck and El Bulli. I've never dared to go to the former, and doubt I could get into the latter, because whilst I'm impressed by the concept, I'm not partial to snail porridge or cock's comb. Thankfully Vanilla do the strange textures and combinations but with relatively normal foodstuffs, and they have a vegetarian version, which is a requirement for the boyfriend. You can choose a four-, six- or ten-course menu - we went for six, but really it's more with the various canapes, amuse-bouches and the additional cheese course we tacked on and failed to finish, so replete were we.

I took a couple of pictures, firstly of the entirely white bar (with pink and blue lighting) - note smooth floor as mentioned by Giles Coren:

And the almost entirely black restaurant, which was very small indeed, maybe ten tables:

I then stopped taking photos, because although the food certainly deserved photography, I did think it was a bit rude. Added to which, one of the few other diners in the tiny restaurant (most of the other tables, we were told, had cancelled due to the weather) was an incredibly loud Californian who regaled us all with tales of her various properties here and there, her separation from her husband who just can't "reach out" sufficiently, and her blog. Oh god, did we hear about her blog. Almost every sentence. She'd been to the restaurant before and has, apparently, blogged it in detail. I rapidly became embarrassed that I'd even considered writing anything about Vanilla, even having a blog at all, if it put me in the same category as her. Actually, it went through irritating and out the other side into hilarity - after all, we couldn't actually hold a conversation of our own above her discourse (neither could her companions) so we mainly listened and fell about with silent laughter.

However the food was too interesting not to talk about it, at least a little bit. As I said, this was all about textures. The meal kicks off with the presentation of a slate rectangle on which appear to be three stones, one shiny black and two matt grey pebbles. The black one is a real stone, very hot so that essential oils can be dripped on it at table to set the mood. The grey pebbles are actually new potatoes coated in an edible clay, to be picked up, dipped in aioli and seeds, then eaten clay and all. The shell is a bit like eating a potato-filled Smartie or M&M. Apparently the clay aids digestion, like the parrots at the clay lick we saw in Ecuador. Other weirdnesses followed, including: a mozzarella injected with cauliflower puree and then inflated to a huge, translucent, puffball-mushroom-like balloon; an egg poached at 64C for 45 minutes, at which temperature the white sets to a fine wibbliness but the yolk (with a higher setting temperature) does not, giving the perfect consistency; cod skin fried so delicately that it was like a faintly fishy poppadom; grapes soaked in soda water to explode with bubbles on the tongue between cheeses; and sauce poured into a vial of dry ice to bubble out and spill over the rest of the dessert, chilled right down. Everything tasted wonderful but the main focus was food as entertainment, and it genuinely was incredibly engaging and fun. Kudos too to the waiter who could answer all of our questions on exactly what everything was, and how, and why.

The most interesting bit? A very small flower bud presented between the fish and meat courses with the instructions to chew it as a palette cleanser. We were told to expect an unusual effect, and to be sure to chew on both sides of the mouth to make it even. Hmm. We dubiously tried it and, wow. The initial taste is astringently lemony, very strong. Your mouth first goes numb, then starts tingling - like a strong, rapid, cold fizziness, not hot like chili or mustard. Vast quantities of saliva are produced - I had to keep swallowing, much like (for me) when I'm about to vomit and have to swallow repeatedly, but without the nausea. The tingling takes about five minutes to wear off, after which your mouth really is completely clear, with no "recollection" of the previous course. It's bizarre. Clearly this flower bud contains some neurotoxic alkaloid as a defence mechanism. If I were a grazing animal, I wouldn't eat it again (I'm glad I did try it but not sure I'd want to repeat it). I'm sure the waiter said it was called a "Szechuan Berry" but I've searched for that and that seems to be a kind of peppercorn-like thing which isn't right at all. Very, very strange, whatever it was called.

After all that, we probably could have slid home on our distended bellies like penguins on the icy roads, but isn't it great that we have cabs for that kind of thing instead?

Monday, 2 February 2009

Couldn't Resist

It's still snowing. At about 5.30pm I broke and just had to go and stick my face into that perfect round snowcake on the table outside, once I'd got the door open that is. Refreshing!

The round circles at the bottom? My boobs. No, I wasn't naked. They really are that big.

Then I decided to take a flash photograph and freakiness occurred:

My face in relief! It's like the Turin Shroud! Scary!

Snow Day!

Overnight, London has had its heaviest snow fall in 18 years. Witness the scene outside my house this morning:

Therefore, everything has shut down. All buses have been suspended. Heathrow airport is shut. The status of the Tube is not great, as this screenshot shows (coloured lines on the map indicate the problems listed down the side):

And actually that makes it seem better than it is because the Waterloo & City line is suspended too but for about five minutes stopped showing as such on the web.

I'm therefore working from home - not necessarily just because I can't get in, as the one line that is still running is the Victoria line which would get me there, but also because our dilapiadated office has no working heating system and it was bad enough there at the start of January let alone today (no, this is not legal). Luckily I can log in from home, so I'm on the sofa with the spare duvet, a cup of tea and the heating on full.

How much snow have we had?

It looks like a Christmas cake! That's about six inches I guess, maybe slightly more (the doors to the garden open outwards so I can't go out and measure). That is all it takes to bring London to a standstill - the intrepid boyfriend who loves his snowsports is walking in and he says there's hardly anyone getting in to work and he's already seen a couple of crashes amongst the cars actually on the roads. Overseas readers may find this amusing, but this is extreme weather for our little island, or at least the south of it. Whenever I hear about blizzards, heatwaves and hurricanes in other parts of the world, I am eternally grateful that being in a temperate climate really does mean that here. When I was living in New York in 2006 there was a record-breaking snow fall overnight on a Saturday of over two feet. Sunday's travel was a bit disrupted but volunteers were out shovelling and the city had big snowblowers to melt it (we'll ignore the environmental impact of that for now). By Monday morning they were reporting a five minute delay on the trains as news. Here that's a normal day's delay - we have no trains today. We're just not set up for this kind of thing, but then most of the time we don't have to be.

It's pretty, anyway. This is the tree behind our garden that's had a blue plastic bag stuck in the branches for months:

And the keyhole on our front door, with its own little dusting of flakes:

Hooray for snow!