Tuesday, 31 October 2017

In praise of adventures

Five years ago today, I did something really brave, if I may say so myself. I got on a plane and flew to South Africa, where I spent two weeks on my own.

I say that like it was a spontaneous thing. It really wasn't. It took months of planning. Months of saving. Months of dithering. Months of anxious phone calls to the guys at Real Gap who dealt patiently with each and every one of my amateur, ridiculous questions.

 But, at the end of it all, it was the first time I'd flown on my own. It was the first time I'd been anywhere as culturally different as South Africa. Heck, it was the first time I'd even been to Africa - or to anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere for that matter. And I survived. Not only that, I thrived.

I made new friends, both human and not-so-human. I learnt how to haggle. I got an insight into modern African culture. I learnt more about how other people live.

I was 21 years old when I did that. I'd graduated from uni four months previously. I'd been hopping around various short-term jobs and internships, looking for a break into journalism (little did I know that I had another 14 months of that ahead of me before landing a permanent job). Now, at the age of 26, I can't imagine doing something like that. I'd love to, but I've always got an excuse ready; I can't get the time off work. That's too much money to spend on two weeks. That 21 year old seems like a different person

But if 21 year old me can do it, 26 year old me definitely can. 26 year old me definitely should. Why am I writing this here? I'm making a public promise to myself - that way I can't renege on it - to be more spontaneous. To do more things. To not let the what-ifs hold me back.

Here's to more adventures.

Monday, 30 October 2017

The whole picture: October 2017

Miss my September round-up? Catch up here.

What I've done in October

Freshest in my mind as I write this is my three-day trip to the Lake District with a couple of friends for a hen do. It wasn't your usual hen do, consisting instead of cottages and lakes, long muddy walks and autumn leaves, home cooked meals and whisky by a roaring fire. I returned to London feeling so relaxed, I can only imagine what a full week would have done to me. Suffice to say the Lake District is firmly on my list for a longer visit in future.

I also took the opportunity to visit Knole Park, a National Trust property not far from where I live. It's something I want to do more of - so many people focus on exotic holidays abroad, despite having seen very little of their own country, or even their own county. The house itself is beautiful, and the deer roaming free in the grounds are an added bonus - and autumn is by far the best time to visit this Kentish jewel.

But I think the most bizarre event of my October was my evening at the London Dungeon. It was the press launch of both the London Dungeon's Halloween special Necropolis railway, and of Krispy Kreme's Halloween doughnut range.

To cut a long story short, I found myself on a tour of the Dungeon with Tom Daley, clinging onto a friend for dear life in the scary bits (that Ripper bit, though!) and carrying home a (thankfully not-life sized) coffin full of doughnuts on the train.

What I've eaten in October

At this point it would be easier to list what I haven't eaten this month. A shocking total of three afternoon teas is top of the list, including an afternoon tea for fussy eaters like me, a somewhat disappointing Alice in Wonderland themed tea, and a board game themed afternoon tea to celebrate the launch of Tunbridge Wells Monopoly (full blog post about this one to follow).

Onto the savoury, and my love affair with buffalo chicken really intensified this month. Shortly after declaring the buffalo chicken burger at Meat Mission to be the best in London, my decision was thrown into disarray by this offering at Brewdog. I'm still suffering split loyalties to be honest. Guess I'll have to go back and try them both again...

For work, I tried the new vegan and veggie menu (I'm neither) at American chain The Diner. The overall opinion was decidedly average, but the extent of The Diner's veggie and vegan options is impressive.

My favourite slurp of the month was the enchanting Harry Potter cocktail menu at the Booking Office bar in St Pancras. It ties in with the British Library's new Harry Potter exhibition, but if you want to just sit at the bar and get tipsy in a magical kind of way, that's OK too. Top tip: grab yourself a bar seat, watch them whip up your drinks, and order yourself some bar snacks to soak up that absinthe.

Perhaps I'm finally growing up, but I can finally see the appeal of paying a bit extra for a drink to sit in a serene and impressive setting like this, rather than doing battle with the masses in happy hour at Be At One. For an extra dose of ooooh, order the Camouflage Coupette and watch the candy floss disappear as your pour in the potion.

Talking of playing with food, brunch at Beyond The Grounds in Tonbridge consisted of a delectable stack of pancakes, and this DIY hot chocolate.

The Lake District mainly consisted of delicious and warming home cooked food, but on the the last day we ventured out for breakfast at Granny Dowbekin's, a tearooms/cafe in Pooley Bridge. At this point, the luxury hot chocolate (whipped cream, marshmallows, Maltesers, solid chocolate spoon) had been talked up to me for two days at this point, so it would have been rude not to. I followed it up with a Full English and was good for nothing expect lazing in front of the fire for the rest of the day.

Oh, and then there was the Fireball, but that's another story for another day.

What's coming up

I've not currently got much planned for November, which makes a pleasant change. The main event is a trip up to the top of London's rarely-opened BT Tower - watch this space for pictures. I should definitely get some exercise in at some point if the above food intake is anything to go by too.

Follow me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook to keep up to date with next month's antics as they happen.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

London's best buffalo chicken: BrewDog

Guys, we've got a problem. After months of rigorous testing and dedicated tasting, I recently declared Meat Mission's buffalo chicken burger to be the best buffalo chicken in London.

I, erm, may have been wrong.

I was discussing buffalo chicken with my colleague, the inimitably whimsical Will, who declared Brewdog to have the best buffalo chicken in London (I was sceptical), and dictated that our next lunch meeting be held there so that he could prove it.

Trouble was, this conversation took place in a pub. On a Friday night. By Monday morning, Will had forgotten that we'd even had the conversation. By Wednesday, he was reneging on his BrewDog declaration. By the time we were seated in a booth in BrewDog Shoreditch the following Friday lunchtime, he was making all sorts of mutterings about being drunk when he tried it, and it probably not being as good as he remembered it. After a week of anticipating this burger, he was stamping all over my dreams (and those of the other four people we'd dragged along to settle the argument).

At this point, the burgers made an entrance to resolve the situation. You smell them before you see them, that intense, vinegary smell getting your tastebuds tingling with anticipation. The burger is served with a full on meat knife stabbed through it, which seems a little OTT at first - until you try to get your gnashers around the entire offering in one go, at which point it becomes entirely necessary.

The balance of flavours and textures is spot on, the intensity of the buffalo sauce matched perfectly with the blue cheese dressing, and the crispy chicken bouncing off the soft burger bun. Be warned though: things get messy. Don't wear light colours, be prepared to wear a bib, and stock up on napkins before you get stuck in.

The portion size here is ideal (get a portion of fries on the side), leaving us feeling full, but not so stuffed that we were waddling down the street afterwards. It feels a more satisfactory meal than that at Meat Mission, and the sauce is that bit more intense in flavour, which is why I'm giving it the edge.

Rating: 9/10

It'll be pretty damn hard to beat this one, but I'm not giving up the dream that there's even better buffalo chicken out there somewhere.

BrewDog, various London and UK locations.

Do you know of a better buffalo chicken burger than this in London? Let me at it (let me know about it in the comments, or tweet me).

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

On using special occasions to confuse children

I've been doing a lot of thinking recently, which is never safe. This particular thinking session was triggered by the assault of Halloween and Christmas products in the shops at the moment, and the firework displays which began a month in advance of fireworks night. It seems that on these special occasions, we ditch all our beliefs and inhibitions - fine for adults, but somewhat confusing for children. Think about it:


What we tell them the rest of the year:
  • Always be yourself
  • Be a good person
  • Don't take sweets from strangers
  • Don't go knocking on strangers' doors
  • Don't do anything that might get you arrested
  • Don't waste food
What we tell them on Halloween:
  • Pretend to be someone else, preferably someone really bad
  • Knock on strangers' doors after dark, asking for sweets
  • If they don't give you sweets, egg their house or cover their car with toilet roll
  • Waste a whole pumpkin that could feed a family for a week by chopping it up to make a lantern


What we tell them the rest of the year:
  • Don't take presents from strangers
  • Don't talk to strangers
  • We're not going to bribe you to do as you're told
  • Sweets and chocolate are occasional treats, not everyday food
  • Drinking alcohol is bad
Sure, invite this guy into your house while you're sleeping.

What we tell them at Christmas:
  • Go and sit on that strange, bearded man's lap while we take a photo
  • Write him a letter inviting him into our house while we're asleep. Perhaps feed him with a mince pie or two while he's here
  • Do as you're told or Santa won't come
  • Have some chocolate everyday for a month, in the build up to a day when you'll eat more chocolate than you do in the rest of the year combined
  • Sit and watch while Grandma gets tiddly on sherry

Fireworks Night

We're going to celebrate a massive terrorism plot which would have wiped out the constitutional epicentre of our country.

(Pedant's note: I know we're not celebrating the actual terrorism plot, rather the fact that it was stopped, but surely No Terrorism is the very baseline at which a country should exist - a sensitive topic at present, I know - rather than something to celebrate?).

The Tooth Fairy

The tooth fairy probably doesn't look like this, but why risk it?
Where do I start? You're basically encouraging kids to sell off parts of their bodies from a young age. From a tooth, it's a slippery slope to a kidney, a limb, and finally, a soul. To the devil.

New Year and birthdays

Another year closer to death, son.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

London's best buffalo chicken: Meat Mission

I've tried and tried, I just can't get a decent photo of it.
This is it. I'm finally doing what I've been threatening to do for ages; blogging about London's best buffalo chicken. This is more than just a food review; it's a passion project. I honestly think I might have found my life's true calling. My mouth's watering just thinking about it.

Without further ado, let me introduce the delight that currently sits at the top of my London's Best Buffalo Chicken league table: the Buffalo Chicken Burger at Meat Mission.

This was the burger that first awoke my passion for buffalo chicken, when I tried it on a work lunch. It's a five minute walk from the office (in a former church nonetheless, a history it plays on in its decor). The location was pretty handy until the day I clocked that they do takeaway - my bank balance and my figure took a hit that week, and neither have yet recovered.

 Structurally, it's pretty standard as these things go; a burger bun, deep fried chicken, shredded lettuce, red onions, the buffalo sauce and the blue cheese sauce. Nothing fancy, but it doesn't need to be.

What makes this one is the sauce - a really intense, vinegary, tingly buffalo sauce, balanced perfectly with the creamy blue cheese. Anywhere else, I'd take the lettuce out and eat it separately (I have a thing about rabbit food polluting the pure unhealthiness of a burger), but in this case, to remove the lettuce would risk remove part of that oh-so-delicious sauce with it, and that's just not a risk I'm willing to take. You can't taste the onions at all, which suits me just fine.

Rating: 8/10

'But if it's so good', I hear you cry, 'why not a 10/10?' The presentation of the burger leaves a lot to be desired. I don't expect silver service and a linen tablecloth, but a plate wouldn't go amiss. Service is always prompt, the staff (sorry, 'Burgerettes') always chatty, but your food is served on a metal tray - copable if there's just a couple of you, more problematic if there's a group of you. Cutlery is a no, and napkins come in the form of kitchen roll plonked on the end of the table (trust me, you're going to need a lot of it when the sauce starts running down your arm).

I've always have the buffalo chicken burger when I go to Meat Mission (which really isn't a lot, despite what you've just read), but this time the waiter recommended I try the Monkey Fingers next time. It's basically strips of that delicious, wonderful chicken, without the bun and the vegetables to slow you down. Sounds like a no-brainer really.

Meat Mission, 15 Hoxton Market, N1 6HG. I believe the same burger is available at branches of Meat Liquor too.

Do you know of a better buffalo chicken burger than this in London? Let me at it (let me know about it in the comments, or tweet me).

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The beauty of Knole Park in autumn

The wonderful thing about the National Trust is that whatever time of year it is, and whatever mood you're in, there's somewhere to visit, be it strolling though lush, green gardens in Spring, or taking shelter in sweeping country houses in winter. For me, autumn is all about Knole, a deer park and former archbishop's palace in Sevenoaks, Kent.

As the temperature drops and the leaves turn, Knole becomes Kent's answer to London's Richmond Park. Deer roam the medieval parkland, their antlers silhouetted against the misty hills, their hooves crunching across the orange leaves. You'll know where the deer are - just follow the crowds.

The house itself watches over it all nonchalantly, safe in the knowledge that sooner or later, all visitors stop focusing on the deer, and pay all their attention to its own splendour. It's hard not to - it was built to impress. The palatial front gives way to a tidy courtyard, a overlooked by a Gatehouse and a clock tower, iced with a well-kept lawn and finished off with a couple of sculptures.

Through the clock tower gate is another, smaller courtyard, which, bizarrely, put me in mind of Marrakech's Bahia Palace. I don't know why - there's far less marble and far more mounted deer antlers here. At this point, you can visit the 'Showrooms' - rooms full of rare furniture and impressive artworks. At the time of our visit, some of the Showrooms were closed for renovations (details of which were shown in a recent Channel 5 programme.

It'd been years since I've been to Knole (around 2007, confused French exchange student in tow) and there's a new addition. The Gatehouse is now open to the public - or at least, to members of the public willing to climb the three-story spiral, stone staircase. The tower was lived in by a reluctant heir to Knole until 1940. The first floor bedroom and second floor music room are open to visitors, but of course the main event here is that view from the roof:

Sevenoaks isn't known for its skyscrapers, but you will catch a glimpse of Sevenoaks School's rugby posts in the near distance. Other than that, it's all about those parkland views, another reason why autumn is the best time to visit, when the trees exhibit their full spectrum of colours.

It's free to walk in the deer park, and enter the Courtyard, Conservation Studio and Orangery. You'll have to pay to enter the Showrooms and Gatehouse, but the money will no doubt go back into the current conservation project going on in the Showrooms.

Knole House and Park, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN15 0RP

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The St Pancras Renaissance Hotel now serves Harry Potter cocktails

...and my gosh, they're delicious.

It's not just butterbeer - sorry, Butterscotch Brew - either. The Booking Office bar in St Pancras has launched a whole Mystic Elixirs and Potions cocktail menu, coinciding perfectly with the opening of the new Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library next door.

The menu itself makes no direct mention of Harry Potter - hence Butterscotch Brew rather than butterbeer - no doubt for copyright reasons, but it does offer up some truly good cocktails.

The Butterscotch Brew was my fave - a hot, creamy and sweet cocktail that tastes of winter. One sip and you'll be imagining roaring fires and cosy knitwear. I'm surprised I liked it actually, because it contains rum which I'm really not keen on. A non-alcoholic version is available, but where's the fun in that?

Those who like playing with their food will be tempted by the Camouflage Coupette - pour the liquid onto the candy floss and watch it dissolve, then get the gummy worm involved. It's a potent concoction, not least because it contains absinthe, but the turquoise blue colouring makes it easy on the eyes.

When the absinthe gets involved, you're going to want something to soak it up. We had the 'mini' fish and chips from the bar snacks menu, and found the portion sizes to be not far of that of a main meal. The chips are devilishly crispy - I'd go as far as to say the best I've ever had.

The bar itself is wonderfully charming, all huge high-vaulted windows, exposed brickwork and low-level lighting, a real remnant of the golden age of rail travel. Perhaps I'm growing up, but I can see the appeal of paying more for a cocktail in luxurious surroundings like this, rather than sticking to the cheap, hectic and sticky bars we usually end up at.

The staff at The Booking Office are great, more than happy to chat to you about the drinks and offer recommendations. Our bar tender Geoffrey ended up telling us the story of the afterparty of the first night of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play, which was held in that very bar, with the likes of J.K. Rowling in attendance.

Top tip: grab yourself a seat at the bar to watch the cocktail wizards at work. Top up on bar snacks (trust me - line your stomach before indulging in the absinthe) and work your way through the whole cocktail menu. Finish off with a Minty Toad For The Road (basically, the most Instagrammable After Eight you'll ever eat).

Mystic Elixirs and Potions at The Booking Office, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Menu available until February 2018. See my full review on Londonist.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Afternoon tea review: Alice Tea Party in Wonderland at Taj 51, London

Yep, that's right, two afternoon teas in a week. Not even sorry (read: will definitely be sorry when I have no trousers that fit me for work tomorrow). This time, we've fallen down the rabbit hole to Alice's Tea Party in Wonderland at the Taj 51 Buckingham Gate. This isn't the Alice themed afternoon tea which most people have heard about - that one is over at the Sanderson Hotel. I've not yet tried it, so if anyone fancies treating me...

Taj 51 is a fancy hotel in St James's, just a 5 minute stroll from Buckingham Palace. After having a poke around the exotic courtyard, our prompt arrival saw us being shown into the rather fancy lounge to wait until our 3pm booking. We'd skipped lunch in anticipation, so by the time we were called, a few minutes later than expected, the complimentary apples on the reception desk were looking all too tempting.

The Kona restaurant is an intimate affair, split into three smaller rooms with five tables apiece, people enjoying a mixture of the Alice tea, the Sherlock tea, and the hotel's regular afternoon tea. There are just two sittings a day, so everyone took their seats at the same time, adding to the 'tea party' effect.

Our table was wonderfully decorated, with giant playing cards thrown haphazardly over it, a pearl necklace draped though the sugar bowl, and the mad hatter's hat perched whimsically on the windowsill next to us. We took a seat, and waited. And waited while all of the other tables were served their food... and waited while one table received their second course before we even had our first.

Finally, 40 minutes after our afternoon tea was due to start, our sandwiches arrived, and it was looking like the wait hadn't been worth it. They were served up on a regular plate - not the tiered cake stand expected of afternoon tea. They were cut into rectangles rather than triangles, not a deal breaker, it just looked a bit like the chef couldn't be bothered with the niceties of afternoon tea. The coronation chicken sandwiches were straight-out-the-fridge cold, rendering them dry, but tasty nonetheless. The ham and cheese and tuna mayo offerings were an improvement - warmer, but still dry bread - and the cream cheese and cucumber was disappointingly bland, lacking both the crunch of the cucumber and the creaminess of the cheese. So far, so disappointing.

Things improved enormously with the prompter arrival of our next course, the coveted cake stand, complete with scones, cakes, jellies and all manner of other sugary goodness. Unlike the sandwiches, the Alice theme positively shone out of these offerings. Highlight was the clock face macaron, probably the most photogenic food item I've ever eaten, although the bubblegum flavour didn't quite hit the mark - strawberry or raspberry would have done quite nicely instead.

The 'eat me' and 'drink me' signs were a nice touch, although the yoghurty type substance was an odd addition to afternoon tea, and one we could have lived without.

Finally admitting defeat halfway through the second tier, and not having even given separate the Victoria sponge cake a second glance, we asked for the rest to be packed up and taken home, which the staff were more than happy to do for us. Our goodies were returned to us in Tupperware boxes, which, on closer inspection, were missing our untouched watermelon jelly chocolate cups.

When we asked for them back, the waiter said he'd return to the kitchen 'to see if they were still available' - we'd paid for them so we'd flippin' well hope so! A few minutes' later he returned, second Tupperware box in hand. Makes you wonder how many people leave with only half of what they've paid for.

The staff were all very friendly and more than happy to help, but as a whole, the afternoon tea felt rather badly executed. A slow and disappointing start blossomed into a rather enjoyable (and oh-so Instagrammable) afternoon tea, although from the reviews I've read, you might be better sticking to the original Alice tea at the Sanderson.

Alice's Tea Party in Wonderland at Taj 51. There's also a Sherlock-themed tea available in the same restaurant.

 See also:

Friday, 6 October 2017

Travel tales: dolphins in the Black Sea

Riding the trusty fishing boat over the blue waters, jellyfish floating past below like ghosts of the sea, the whole set-up felt more like Greek Island hopping than catching a local boat down the coast of Bulgaria. Our destination? The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nessebar, 15km or so down the coast from our hotel in Elenite.

The captain's mate did little to quell our island-hopping fantasies, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Captain Birdseye; the slight paunch, the jaunty red neckerchief, the weather-beaten, silver-sprinkled face. All that was missing from the seafaring cliche was the sailor's hat (and perhaps a smarter pair of trousers).

As we got out into the deep, inkier waters of the Black Sea, the teeming resorts of Sunny Beach and Sveti Vlas mere toy towns on the distant cliffs, Captain Birdseye began gesturing pointedly at me - or more specifically, at the camera hung around my neck, there as always like an extra limb. A stream of excited Bulgarian tumbled out of his mouth as he pointed repeatedly between me and the front of the small boat, leaving me in little doubt that myself and my camera were being summoned.

Using the closest thing I had to sealegs, I wobbled my way to the front, clinging to the railing, unsure why I'd been singled out among the 10 or so passengers on board. I assumed Captain Birdseye was showing me that I could take better photos of Nessebar up ahead, so I stayed put for a couple of minutes, snapping away - mainly in a bid to placate him than out of any real urge to take photos of the vast and misty sea, before heading back to my seat after a polite amount of time had passed.

But my bum had barely met the plastic before he was in front of me again, gesturing; diving, swimming - the man was a charades hero - before we made out the word 'dolphin' in his broken stream of Bulgarian-English. He was trying to tell us that there were dolphins up ahead. By this time the whole boat, no doubt drawn in by the convoluted game of charades, was paying attention. Cue a stampede to the front of the boat to try to get a glimpse of the dolphins.

But there was nothing there. A small boat broke the flat horizon a couple of miles ahead, but other than that, there was nothing between us and the distant shore of Nessebar. We had misunderstood his gesturing.

Then I saw it. What it was exactly, I couldn't have told you, but a black shape briefly broke the surface next to the other boat - a fishing boat, as it transpired, whose very purpose lured the dolphins towards it.

As the inky gulf between us and them dissipated, more and more dolphins leapt out of the water, disappearing and porpoising over and over, as if performing for us. Our captain killed the boat's engine and we idled through their territory, carried only by the the wind and the tide as they played around us, surrounding the boat on all sides, swimming right alongside the boat for metres at a time.

Taking photos of them was tricky, never knowing where they were going to surface next, but we all snapped away hopefully. I managed to catch a few shots of black blobs that may or may not be fins and tails. But this one was about the experience - all the better for having been spontaneous - rather than the Instagram shot.

Once we'd made our way through the dolphins' territory and left them safely behind, our captain powered up the engine again, speeding us towards Nessebar. We kept our eyes peeled the rest of the way, but the Black Sea offered up little more than the occasional jellyfish. On our return from Nessebar a few hours later, we craned our necks left and right, hoping to catch another glimpse of a tale or a fin, but the fishing boat was long gone, taking the dolphins with it.

One of my favourite things about travelling is the spontaneous events like this, things that all the maps and guidebooks in the world couldn't help you find. See also:

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