Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sunset over the Thames

Midsummer evening, London. From Hungerford Bridge

Friday, January 31, 2014

BBC Horizon: Fat vs Sugar

This BBC2 documentary on the Fat/Sugar debate was dismally poor science, if entertaining TV.

Doctors Chris and Xand van Tulleken, who are identical twins, go on month-long diets comprising high volumes of fat or sugar to find out which is worse for the human body.

The two good doctors are exceptionally telegenic, and of course are medical professionals, but don’t appear to be driving the science behind this show - instead they are merely pretty faces and guinea pigs. I would like to know who was the scientific brains behind the show. Some of the experiments - like the low blood sugar bike race up Box Hill - just show something banal, and which the sugar industry has been promoting since at least the 50s - “Sugar gives you energy”. Not a whisper about high / low GI, or the fact that refined sugars are empty nutritionally.

To be fair, neither diet appears to have been a fair reflection of current recommendations from nutritionists in either camp. Going to extremes is good for dramatic effect, but little else. The adverse effects of too little “sugar” are interesting, but I can’t think of anyone who would advocate eliminating carbs in this way - even the dreaded Dr Atkins. The diet tested for ‘zero carbs’ rather than for ‘zero added processed refined sugars’ and therefore missed testing the specific diet the zero-sugar camp is particularly focussed on. An interview with the high-priest of zero sugar, Robert Lustig, was about 10 seconds long and mainly jokingly asked if he’d like a bucket of doughnuts.

While the conclusions seemed reasonable - moderation in all things - I think the programme let refined sugars off the hook. Beeb, we still await a serious investigation of the claims of the no-sugar camp.

Monday, January 13, 2014


It’s the time of year when you realise with a start that all the major exhibitions you’ve been meaning to see all winter are about to close. Pearls at the V&A ends on the 19th.

It wasn’t a particular “must see” of mine, but a friend wanted to catch it and I tagged along for the ride.

Reader, if you have been meaning to see it but haven’t got around to it, I would avoid the last weekend absolutely. There will be an incident.

Lesley remarked that the V&A seemed to have spent more time considering customer flow patterns in the shop than in the exhibition. It really is the most cramped exhibition I have ever attended in London, and that is quite a competitive field.

Museum exhibition designers just don’t appear to think about crowded conditions. The experience is just so miserable.

Here we have a quite frankly awesome collection of gems from all over the world - featuring some unique and historically very important examples. They are all, obviously, tiny and need close observation.

So let’s put them in a dark room. Why the dark? Does electric light fade pearls? - and then place screeds of text in small fonts at the bottom of each display case. Viewers will then cluster round the display case blocking the view of others behind them. Meanwhile, those others are casting shadows across the text panels, making them hard to read and making sure that the people in front spend even longer in front trying to work out what number 6, 7, 8, 24 is and what it all means. Cleverly, I had picked up one of the large-print exhibition guides (with all the exhibition texts) on offer at the entrance - it helped a bit, but it still was so dark that reading even this had difficult moments.

There was no room to move about on your own volition - visitors are funnelled though from start to finish. Think Ikea, but in the dark and in rush-hour tube conditions. I started to panic halfway through.

One feels that fewer exhibits given more space to breathe might have helped - but it would have been a pity to miss some of the really wonderful examples the curators had assembled. The V&A really need to have given this whole show more space.

This issue does seem to recur in recent V&A offerings. I recall desperately cramped sections of the Hollywood costumes show. Very clever, varied design helped the David Bowie show a lot (also, I went to this multiple times so could skip bits that were too crowded, catching them on a second or third visit as necessary. I’m a Friend and can do this - my sympathies to those to have to shell out quite a lot nowadays for a single ticket).

Rant over.

The show is beautifully curated and the organisers seem to have gone out of their way to be super-educational on all aspects of the pearl industry. I noticed this trend at the Museum of London’s Cheapside Hoard exhibition as well - almost as if there is some guilt involved here; the educational content makes up for all the luxuriating in the frivolous trinkets of the super rich. Actually, comparisons with the Cheapside Hoard show are apt here because their display was far better organised than the V&A’s Pearls. But I reckon security is the big unspoken issue - the Museum of London has turned its entire exhibition room into a strongbox; here at the V&A each display case was its own safe - no doubt locked up every evening for protection.

Two things I learned about pearls:

1) No pearl is created by a grain of sand irritating an oyster. Instead, pearls seem to be a response by the animal to parasitic invaders - usually tapeworms. The oyster captures the invader in a cyst which continues to grow until it becomes a pearl.

2) Every shellfish can make pearls - but most usually and frequently bivalves. And not just oysters - the humble mussel can too.

I was quite staggered I hadn’t known about the parasitical origin of pearls before. But I suppose it’s not in the interests of the industry to promote that knowledge - not something their customers would enjoy knowing, wearing a pearl necklace!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Au Bon Accueil

One of my first trips to Paris was with friends, in the winter. I remember we made our way to the Trocadèro and walked down to the Eiffel Tower and up the Champ de Mars to Les Invalides. It was beyond freezing, with a vicious wind and grim lowering leaden clouds. However, we were young and foolish and high on an exciting journey to the most glamorous city in Europe.

Yesterday, I retraced that walk with my friend Nicolas. We were in Paris to catch the Masculin / Masculin exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay and Nic had arranged for us to eat lunch at a friend’s restaurant near the Eiffel Tower. We got off the Metro at the Trocadèro to be welcomed by a sublimely beautiful winter’s day.
You just don’t get light like that in London - crisp and high-keyed and blindingly clear. The Trocadèro’s polished marble platform bounced it all around amazingly - heaven for two amateur photographers. In the distance, the tower shimmered like a mirage in the miraculously blue sky.
After walking down across the Seine to the tower we explored the bottom section of the Champs de Mars a bit before heading off to the restaurant: Au Bon Accueil - ‘The good reception’. And what a reception it is.
I was excited as although I’ve been a fairly frequent visitor to Paris I’ve never eaten at a smart contemporary restaurant at the top of its game. Au Bon Accueil has a deliciously lacquered maroon frontage onto the street, and is a calm refuge within - simple and luxurious textures of stone and wood enclose intimate spaces. One of the stone columns had been carved by a grateful customer - a Bacchus or vaguely Assyrian monarch surveys the room. Front of house staff were friendly and efficient - you just immediately feel in very good capable hands. We quaffed a delicious glass of champagne and consulted the menu.

It seems I have good luck with fish in Paris. On that earlier trip a waiter at La Coupole (of course) suggested a fish dish different to my initially ordered salmon. As it was cheaper I went with his suggestion but if my French was up to the menu I might have avoided it: I seem to remember it was mullet with red wine and bone marrow (??!) However, it came, and was totally wonderful. On my last trip - a work outing with colleagues - I was desperate to eat at the hottest, smartest place in town and spent the day trawling my trade fair consulting restaurant guides and barking instructions to Angela (who spoke French), to try to get a table. Sadly, everywhere was booked and when we got back to the hotel that evening the colleagues were too exhausted to go out, and suggested we eat at a place next door. This turned out, hilariously, to be a celebrity hang-out from the 1950s totally fossilised in its time. Our table was treated with disdain until we ordered a second bottle of wine. Jo didn’t want a starter and I fancied two on the menu, so ordered tuna tartare for her for me to eat. It came and it turned into a tuna stand-off, it was so delicious.

But my salmon starter at Au Bon Accueil trumped all: a generous slab of salmon fillet, briefly seared (basically, sashimi). Breathtakingly gorgeous - a real work of art, with delicate dabs of different sauces, condiments and vegetables arranged as if by a florist or a jeweller on the plate. Lovely textures and flavours, really leaving me wanting more: a perfect starter.
The arrival of our poached and roasted chicken breast main course was heralded on our table by a culinary implement I have not seen before: a “pelle à sauce” (sauce shovel). This is something I can get behind! Especially when the sauce in question was the unctuously smoky mashed potato accompanying the chicken.

Again, achingly beautiful composition was backed with flawless execution: the chicken was tender, flavourful and juicy, with skin crisped to perfection by the roasting. A drift of blanched brussels sprouts leaves across a smear of sweet potato added a touch of wit and colour to the plate.
For pudding I fancied the brioche perdu, which Nicolas informed me was French comfort food (he went for the chocolate tart). My brioche was lovely, a squidgy yet fluffy square of caramelised eggy goodness, punctuated by the sharpness of mango and passion fruit. It came with a separate jug of caramel-topped whipped cream. So perfect.
We ordered from the lunch menu and both thought it offered excellent value for the price. Although we both felt that nowadays one can find similar quality food in London, it typically comes at three times the cost. Also, in my experience the lunch menus in London tend not to be as generous or imaginative.
After this wonderful meal we said our goodbyes and hurried off to the Musée d’Orsay for Masculine / Masculine. All I can say is the quality of the reception at Au Bon Accueil is mirrored superbly by the quality of the food. I’d love to go back.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tweet of the day

Monday, July 01, 2013


A weekend in London on the hinge of the year - bookended by two photographs -

Taken from the balcony of a stunning 17th-floor apartment in north London on friday evening. Night was falling but the looming clouds are deceptive - they were clearing rather than gathering:

This is Clapham Common late on Sunday afternoon - flaming June finally arrived, if at the last minute.

In beween the two moments was Pride weekend, and I'll cover my Pride activities in forthcoming posts.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


The most Guardian headline of all time has recently been awarded to:

Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

I suspect the Guardian’s #guardiancoffee wheeze is going to generate some close competition.

The hashtag has already been amusing the twittershere for days. Huffpost claimed punters could meet Edward Snowden there for a latte; wags wondered if #guardiancoffee had anything to do with British intelligence’s faux internet cafes to spy on foreign diplomats.

Alex Hern of the New Statesman is insightful:

“If there was one thing the #guardiancoffee hashtag revealed, it’s that the Guardian starting a coffee shop in a container-based pop-up mall in Shoreditch is entirely unsurprising. It’s pretty much the perfect brand extension for them, reinforcing their image in the eyes of their target audience, middle-class metropolitan liberals, while only really damaging it for people who weren’t too hot on their politics anyway. … A coffee shop in Shoreditch is small fry. The Guardian is not. Clearly, there are reasons beyond simple revenue maximisation at play here.”

I think the idea is rather endearing, and hope it will work for them. Alex posits the location and environment will be good for techie types to meet in; the space could also operate as a quick ’n easy studio. It also serves as a space to meet the Guardian’s journalists for a coffee and a chat.

It seems the Guardian believes the future lies in the past - what they are doing, no less, is to reinvent the politically and socially activist 18th-century London coffee house for the 21st century.

I had no idea about all of this when I saw the invitation to apply to come for a morning coffee with Polly Toynbee. I’ve never won anything in a newspaper competition, but this time I did and an email from Guardian towers arrived with instructions to bring it to gain entrance.

The Shoreditch Boxpark concept is great - basically, a pile of reconditioned shipping containers are let out on a short-term basis to pop-ups, so there’s always something interesting and new going on there. The park is sited on Shoreditch High Street around the corner from the overground station and across the road from Shoreditch House. #guardiancoffee fronts on to the street, with massive Guardian branding on its glazing. It’s impossible to miss.

Inside, cut-through openings link the three adjacent containers which comprise the cafe. Inside is pretty cosy, with simple, wholesome wooden furnishings, techie-cool graphics wallpaper, and big screens wiring you up to the world on the walls (and iPads on the tables). A sort-of deconstructed cross between a Starbucks and an Apple shop.

The wall screen shows which coffees are most popular - the flat white had it by a mile, followed by the latte. I missed the reading for soy-based coffees.

There looks to be a good selection of cakes - as I was on the ‘2’ part of my 5-2 diet today I’ll have to sample them on another occasion. My invite swiftly, efficiently and politely dealt with at the door, it was a bit harder to get a coffee. Service seems to be provided by earnest young media intern types, not your usual Starbucks/Nero baristas, and I felt they were just getting into the swing of things. I eventually got one though, and took my seat in the throng around Polly. As one would expect, the Guardian is aiming at the artisan, quality end of the market. While good, the coffee is more expensive than Starbucks and comes in smaller cups.

The completely charming space doesn’t work that well for meetings of this sort - there were only thirty of us invited and some in the third container down struggled to catch comments made by those of us up at the front near Polly (and vice versa). However, the discussion did get going and developed a good flow - this concept could definitely work.

I was a bit nervous of trolls turning up but the group turned out to be very core Guardian-reader. They did a quick hands-up poll and interestingly the vast majority us were digital readers, and only a small minority CiF commenters. Polly asked who of us were political party members and a fair few were (I imagine not Tory).

So, amongst us lefty coffee drinkers the views were impassioned yet frustrated. There was definitely a feeling the left’s message wasn’t breaking through, and that in fact the left doesn’t appear to have a message at all. Poor Ed Milliband seems to bewilder and disappoint his natural supporters at the moment, and even Iraq made an appearance - all I can say is Ed apologised for the war at the best and earliest possible opportunity, but it is still unfortunately an albatross for the Labour Party several years later. Amidst all this angst Polly was a voice of calm and reason. Obviously, as a journalist with privileged insight into the daily mechanics of politics she is aware of how parties have to work hard to position themselves and not to give their best ideas away too soon before an election. But she strongly believed in the value of individuals participating in whatever way possible: clearly, campaigns such as UK Uncut have succeeded in setting the political agenda with even David Cameron now seeing the necessity to appear to do something about tax avoidance. Individual participation in group actions; independent discussions amongst friends, family and colleagues, all permeates out and moves the argument forward.