Monday, August 04, 2014

100 Years

While watching the Westminster Abbey service tonight I got the urge to light a candle. Both my grandfathers fought in WW1, on opposing sides. My English grandfather ran away from home and lied about his age to get into the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the RAF). He survived the war and remained in the RAF for the rest of his career, retiring in the 1950s. My Polish grandfather regarded himself as Prussian and fought in the German army. He survived a gas attack, but his lungs were severely compromised. He was a farmer by vocation and ended up on a glorious smallholding in the hills above Durban, South Africa. He sent me boxes of his home-grown passion fruit when I was a child. Both grandfathers died in the 1970s.

And that was the sum total of our family's history with WWI, or so I thought. Recently my brother and I have been tracing our family tree, and I was pretty surprised to find I had a grand-uncle Percival living at home in the schoolhouse at Slapton Sands, Devon, in the census of 1911 (My great-grandparents were the school teachers there). He was a tailor's apprentice. He was born in 1894, so was peak age for cannon fodder in the war. He died somewhere in 1916. I still have to follow up all the details.

The odd thing is no one in my family ever mentioned him. My grandfather never said a word. I don't think my father or his sister Patricia even knew of Percy's existence - my aunt Patricia had a huge fund of family stories and was interested in all the connections so I feel certain she would have said something about him if she had known.

Poor Percy. In memory of his short life and miserable death, a candle tonight.

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.