Thursday, 11 September 2014

Staycation vs. Vacation- The Cornish Chapter...

A few weeks ago, in between extracting my head from a stranger’s (rather pungent) armpit and desperately trying to control my overwhelming urge to stare creepily at the fellow commuter applying her mascara (I failed...), I busied myself with a little quiz in Stylist magazine. Yes, as everyone else was listening to snippets of Bach or the Beach boys on their Desert Island Discs podcast (ok, that was me too) or looking at pictures of Nikki Minaj’s gigantic assets on the Daily Mail app, I was about to, finally, find the answer to the BIG one.

Staycation or Vacation; that really is the question...

Now, I know what you are thinking, how could I even consider finding the answer to this age-old quandary on a twenty minute, sweat ridden journey on the Northern line? Well, as it turns out, I am the British Tourism board’s target audience absolutely personified. Yes, my fate was decided after the first line of the 4th question- ‘do you own any of the following- Your mum’s cardigan...’ Bingo. I not only own my mum’s cardigan, but my Granny’s, my Granny’s Granny’s and, due to my slightly crippling charity shop addiction, many other Granny’s cardigans in between. So, the UK it was. And I for one was very happy about that.

Yup, avoiding traipsing to Magaluf with a bag of knitting and phone full of Radio 4 podcasts, Mr R and I instead opted for a nine hour drive, in the pouring rain to (as the weather forecast gleefully informed me in the days leading up to our big adventure), a very wet and windy Cornwall. Stopping midway for a brief all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet (well, as brief as unlimited pancakes, bacon, cheesey ommelete triangles and the all-consuming excitement of your own personal table-top toaster can be) at Brody’s in Exeter; we pulled into the field at the back of the Eden project that was to become our home for the next week; tired, full and, if only for the small obstacle of putting up the tent, desperate to crawl into bed.

The campsite, nestled in a small field surrounded by woodland only a few minutes’ walk from the plastic honeycomb structures that house the incredible Eden project, was, despite the slightly stressful hot and cold shower situation, completely perfect. Pale lilac and blue hydrangeas cascading in frothy prongs from the hedgerow enclosed picnic area, we were surrounded by a tangled forest ripe to satisfy the firewood collecting instincts of my action man and, perhaps more importantly, within walking distance of a fridge to chill this city girl’s bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Priorities settled, tent erected, barbeque assembled and airbed inflated, we crawled into bed at 9pm and settled in for a night that, thanks to the invisible hole in said airbed, would end in waking up at 4am lying directly on the very hard, lumpy field. Things could only get better...

And, thanks in part to a smear of superglue and a slightly disproportionate amount Gaffer tape (what else?) things certainly were looking up. After a campsite-classic brekkie of slightly charred bacon and neon yolked fried eggs edged with a lattice of golden brown crispy bits, we set off to explore the beautiful, rugged coastline which dragged this staycation-er the 9 hours from London in the first place.

From the incredible, rocky cliffs and crystal blue waters of Kynance cove, where flamingo pink blooms bordered the pebble strewn beach and cream teas flew in droves from the clifftop cafe, to the never-ending sandy stretches of surfers paradise Gwithians; Cornwall blew my flip-flops off. Falling in love with the fortress like whitewashed port village of Charlestown, where cider on the sea wall is pretty much a legal obligation, slurping clotted cream ice cream and playing Frisbee until we were blinded by the West Country sun; the amazing views, incredible atmosphere and lovely people made this corner of the UK my new number one. Add crisp, peppery, piping hot pasties a-plenty, scones dripping with strawberry jam and gold-topped clotted cream (the Cornish way, of course...), 
incredible piri-piri mackerel tacos from the famous (and hence ironically named) Hidden Hut nestled on the cliffs of Porthcurnick, and the food was the icing on the Cornish sticky cake.

And not one to leave the eating to the confines of spotty table clothed cafes and fancy fish restaurants, the gourmet fayre continued to the campsite. In between smoking our fellow campers out of their tents, and collecting twigs to build fires prime for marshmallow roasting and warming of icy toes; plastic plates were adorned with paprika and garlic rubbed steak, salmon with lime spiked charred corn salsa and chilli flecked, smoky sweet potatoes and parcels of chicken with white wine, wild mushrooms and cream, cooked in the coals with charred asparagus spears and smashed potatoes. A last-night foray to the olive tree packed Mediteranean Biome in the Eden Project, sipping rose and gorging on Cornish crumbly cheese, Eden foccacia and hunks of chorizo, great bowls of paella and creamy twists of crab and broad bean fettucini; if you are hungry for wicked, fresh, exciting food, Cornwall is the only way to go...

‘Ansome. Take me back...

Ps. Apologies for the crappy quality of my photos- Since my camera charger went walkabout my iphone and instagram has had to do...

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Wedding of the Year...

The 9th of August was a lovely day for a Wedding. The sun shone brightly through the paper lantern fringed tree tops, the sky a dazzling blue with barely a wisp of cloud. A soft breeze whispered against the pink and blue stripped pom-poms which adorned the bright white ceiling of the marquee with a flurry of colour, gently rippling the blush pink roses and snow-like baby’s breath blooms that spilled from blue and white striped vintage jugs on sage green clothed tables. Glasses were polished. The bar was stocked. The Bride was padding around, manicured and massaged and in a ‘MRS’ emblazoned dressing gown, with a plate of smoked salmon in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other.

How very idyllic you may think; well, as always, the view from the kitchen was a slightly different story. Covered from head to (not-so manicured) toe in specks of fragrant green coriander, with a smear of horseradish crème fraiche acting as effective war paint, and with an elegant sprinkling of bright pink pomegranates knotted into my hair; while the Bride was blushing, I was drowning in a sea of bilinis, marinated king prawns and parmesan shavings. Yes, as you may remember, I am never one to turn down the opportunity to make anything miniature, but 700? After a week camping in Cornwall? With just one and a half days to shop, cook and get the West-country sand out of my bird nest like barnet? Yes, it is fair to say that I may have bitten off slightly more mini Yorkshire pudding than I could chew...

The blushing bride in question was my lovely Auntie Polly, who, after 23 odd years, a truly fabulous son and numerous dogs, birds and horses; decided with my (now official) uncle Tony, that it was about time to sign the dotted line. Pintrest became her new best friend (along with my little sister Harriet, on the basis of her exemplary event planning skills), finding a job lot of vintage china on eBay became akin to discovering the charity shop Victoria Beckham sends her old handbags to, and I, in a moment of excited delusion, decided that I would play caterer. My Mum, as she calmly volunteered to make the four tiered Wedding cake (and the wedding breakfast dessert to boot), was clearly affected by the same strain of pre-nuptial fever, better judgement clouded by a box of candy striped cutlery bags (of course) and a large glass of prosecco. And thus, in a rose-tinted blur, it was settled; August was set to be a very busy month...

Having unflinchingly delegated the unenviable tasks of perfectly rising and crisping a hundred tiny Yorkshires and cutting the same number of cayenne spiked parmesan shortbreads to my 83 year old Granny (I have no guilt, she loves mini things as much as me...), the bulk of the spreading, sprinkling and sprucing was left until the 24 hours before the ominously named ‘Big Day’. I made more dill flecked bilinis than I thought physically possible. I chopped garlic until I reeked of a Vampire fearing Frenchman. I lovingly beat smoked trout and horseradish pate until the lingering whiff of smoke was less from the fish and more from the rate at which the wooden spoon sped around the bowl. By the time I fell into my bed, a cream cheese splattered heap of oven induced exhaustion, not one single canapé had made its way on to the waiting, doily laden vintage platters.

The 9th of August dawned in a symphony of blue skies and birdsong. Yes, very much the perfect day for a wedding. And the perfect day to pass out, delirious, in a sweaty pile in the middle of the flower (and after I was finished with it, flour) adorned kitchen, arms flailing like a disused windmill, muttering lemon crème fraiche recipes and dusted in a confetti of chopped chives. Yes, while endless bottles of personalised French champagne were being passed, conveyer belt style into the makeshift bar (it certainly pays to have friends in high places, particularly in vineyards...), I was drowning in a sea of novelty cocktail sticks and Marie Rose sauce. Call it madness if you must, and yes, I probably do need to get out more but, I absolutely loved every balsamic drizzling minute. As the hour of the wedding approached, the presentation getting rapidly less Michelin star precision and more at the Jamie O end of ‘arty masquerading as plain effing messy’, I finally set down my trusty coriander plant and ran, barefoot, across the gravel drive, to slap on some makeup and throw on my dress. In hindsight, and with pictorial evidence to back up my fears, wedding makeup in 15 minutes is not to be recommended, irrespective of whether your pear and walnut tarte tatins still need warming in the oven before being topped with stilton and toasted walnuts...

After the deed was done, tissues well used and confetti in every pleat and parting; the hungry guests descended on the sun baked reception like a clan of frenzied foodies at a complimentary pop-up burger joint. Trays of crostini topped with bright green pea, broad bean, mint and pecorino smash; flowery platters of classic rare roast beef, horseradish and watercress Yorkies; corn fritters with spicy mango salsa and sour cream; tray upon tray of popadoms topped with charred tikka prawns, mango chutney and nigella seeds; smoked chicken Caesar crostini; chorizo, fennel and manchego shortbreads; great dishes of sticky and sweet ginger glazed sausages with spicy blackberry ketchup- All my hard work was demolished in seconds.

And, as I sat down with the square of sweet potato, red pepper and chorizo tortilla and the solitary skewer of watermelon, marinated feta, olive and mint that I managed to salvage from the starving masses, I realised that I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Stress? By the vintage enamel bucketload. A reignited (if slightly unconventional) passion for canapés and catering? Roll on Christmas is all I can say...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Weekend, Part 2...

So, as you may have noticed that my last post stated an intriguing ‘Part 1’ in its title. Intriguing I say, as two weeks have been and gone since it was published and still there is not even a whiff of ‘Part 2’... Well never fear, the weekend did not end with hummus and drag queens as you have no doubt been wondering for all this time; oh no, there was much more room for eating than that...

Yup, as you may have gathered, the last post only touched on the breakfast, lunch and dinner (how I like to portion out all of my days), of Saturday, leaving a whole new day of brunch, afternoon tea and midnight feast to get my rumbling tummy, and foodie ramblings on this very blog, engaged with. I mean, come on, you didn’t really think I spent a whole day without batting my boyfriends fork out of his hand as he dared to begin eating before I had snapped his brioch-bunned burger, did you?  

So, after an evening of falafel (see here), followed by fiddles and foot stamping watching Once at the Phoenix theatre, Sunday started the only way a sunny day should- with croissants, flat whites and strawberries on Clapham Common. A few dodgy cartwheels (from Mr. R) and an unexpectedly spectacular handstand (from yours truly) later, it was time to get eating. Our first port of call was Brick Lane, where hustle, bustle and beigels are on the menu every Sunday, easily making it the perfect destination for the wandering foodie with mouths to fill and guests to entertain.

We headed straight to the Sunday UpMarket, held in the concrete floored, rough and ready warehouse that once housed the Old Truman Brewery just off the neon signed, curry scented throng of Brick Lane itself. Open every Sunday come rain or shine, the mouth-watering smells emulating from the bubbling pans of rich, sticky lamb tagine or smouldering hotplates adorned with kimchi stuffed Okonomyaki from Brixton favourite Okan; ensure that you will never leave hungry, and, after temptation no doubt gets the better of you, seldom with a spare pound left in you pocket. This is a hungry person’s Mecca. Yup, as a perpetually hungry person, the giant pans of smoky paella, great hunks of Cuban barbequed pork, cumin rich falafel and spicy pans of punchy Ethipian beef stew make this treasure trove my absolute favourite haunt for Sunday lunch.
The indecisive amongst you (and this includes me...) beware; this hall of steaming pans and vintage Barbours (not roasted; don’t worry- The market does clothes, jewellery and other tempting fancies too...), this is no Burger and Lobster. There is enough choice here to turn even the most decisive into a shivering mess under a rail of beaded 80’s playsuits. An even bigger issue if your lunch-mate professes to suffering from a severe and debilitating food-sharing allergy...

This time around, it was a refreshing cup of pepper spiked gazpacho, fragrant with cucumber and sweet, juicy tomato that tickled my fancy- the perfect partner to a paper plate stacked with golden pork and spring onion dumplings, smothered in spicy chilli sauce, soy and (not entirely authentic) Sarson’s malt vinegar. Delicious. And leaving just enough room for a legendary salt beef stacked, pillow soft beigel from the famous Beigel Bake, heady with bright yellow mustard and still warm from the boiling and baking process that goes on out back 24 hours a day. Follow that with a big slice of the renowned Jewish bakery’s creamy baked cheesecake, crumbling as you bite from the sticky white paper bag, and always managing to pack the perfect sweet, salty, slightly sour punch. A foodie’s dream.

Well fed, slightly soggy from an unexpected (shorts were the wrong outfit choice, as it turned uot) downpour, and slightly tipsy after a near perfect round of mojitos, Bloody Marys and Negroni-esque Rumdog Millionaires from the seductively lit Redchurch Bar at the end of Brick Lane (well, what else do you do in the rain??), the day concluded with a very civilised sashay around the beautiful, flower fronted and couture filled halls of my favourite department store- Liberty’s. With its iconic white and black beamed frontage frilled with frothy, neon pink hydrangeas and fragrant prongs of vibrant lavender plants in brushed metal tubs; this couture playground is the velvet and silk filled sum of every girly-girl’s dream.  The mirror-shined wooden floors, tables adorned with glistening rainbows of pattern splattered silk scarves and shelves stacked with an array of butter-soft, gold edged Charlotte Olympia pumps; this place is what shopping must have been like before Primark somehow made piles of scrumpled vest tops and floors covered in bejewelled flip-flops the done thing.

After a quick stop off for smoky pulled pork and fluffy jalepeno cornbread at the neon lit, cartoon strip wallpapered Jamie’s Diner in Piccadilly Circus, it was time for my guests to go on their merry way from whence they came and for me to pass out on the sofa, comatosed by too much food and too many mojitos.

The. Perfect. Weekend.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Weekend, Part 1...

Weekends, I have come to realise, are much like the buses that stop outside the gym and whizz my tired legs the 10 minutes up the road to my front door, the sofa with a well needed cup of tea. Not only because they are, after a week filled with Legs Bums and Tums induced torture (I am sure that bandana wearing demon-woman is trying to kill me), a very welcome break for said legs, bum and tum, but because no matter how many weeks you laze about in the park with a magazine and a bag of tortilla chips all on your tod, the excitement, and the visitors (like the proverbial bus) all seem to come at once.

 This weekend, was one of those excitement filled ones, with a house full of guests and time to do whatever the hell we wanted. Yup, bustling for attention was not just one visitor, not two, not even three, but FOUR suitcase toting sightseers, all after a bit of big-smoke glamour and, as is my custom, serious amounts of time spent sipping on cocktails and stuffing our faces.

The first through the door, a fully-subscribed member of my VIP guest-list, brunch companion of choice (as you can read here), was my boyfriend. The second was my mum. The third my Mum’s friend, affectionately referred to as ‘Auntie Kim’ (much to said boyfriend’s confusion), and the fourth my best buddie from uni who, when not sunbathing at her swimming pool in Dubai, is gallivanting around the world living the glamorous life of an air hostess. Yes. Very different people. Very different ideas; a sentiment summed up by the speed at which my boyfriend, the rose between four thorns, of course; escaped to the relative safety of the pub, football and some male company on Saturday night...

But, despite spending most of the weekend wishing I was Bernard with his time-travelling watch; I absolutely bloody love having visitors. Not just because I have someone to partake in my sharing bag of Doritos, but because it is the very best excuse to go to, and for the most part, eat at, some of my favourite spots in this wonderful city. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, (not forgetting any elevenses, afternoon tea or midnight feasts in between), I am suffering from a crippling addiction to seeking out hidden, remarkable little places that are dishing up the most amazing, exciting food (and cocktails/wines/G&Ts, of course) across the capital. I spend most of my time researching the next street-food sensation or scanning the Cheap-eats section of the Time Out website (this addiction, like most, is certainly not good for my bank-balance), endlessly searching for the next place to send my taste buds wild and entertain anybody willing enough to be my dining partner.
This weekend was no exception; it all began with, of course, a poacher hash and bubblegum mascarpone rich brunch at my old favourite M1lk, before moving on for creamy banana milkshakes and sour cherry studded, buttery custard tarts at cycle-mad cafe, Look Mum no Hands. This cafe-cum-bike shop, where the slate grey wheels and shining metal spokes of a myriad of racing bikes queuing up to be cured of their ailments in the onsite worshop, contrast strikingly with frothy, bright pink crepe paper pop-poms and polka dot bunting that hang from the ceiling; is, much like M1lk, forever busy. There is a lot to be said for a good queue, in my book.

So if you, like me, can bear the bustle for a table in a queue of lycra clad cyclists and scrunchie-sporting Shorditch trendies, this is a wickedly unique place to partake in a bit of weekend chillaxing. And despite being much too scared to jump on any bike that is not a Borris and confined to the borders of Hyde Park myself, it is one of my favourite spots for a quick coffee from the Square Mile Coffee Roasters, or lunch from their tantalising selection of fresh, colourful salads and golden pies and pasties. The perfect place to watch the Tour de France, you say? Well, funny you should mention it; starting from Saturday they have a big screen which will be broadcasting the whole shebang. Spot on.

Next up, after an afternoon of getting lost in between neon jelly shoes and crochet crop tops in Primark and getting caught up in a very rainy Gay Pride parade, was another very foodie destination- dinner at one of my very favourite spots in Central London; Soho’s favourite Lebanese outpost, YallaYalla.
A tiny cafe of houmous and halloumi filled heaven, this is, yet again, a queuing hotspot (how very English...), offering only just enough velvet cushioned benches to seat around 18 hungry diners. But it is worth the wait, and the squeeze; just get a bottle of Lebanese Rosé (who knew??) and drink from tumblers in the neon signed, sex shop strewn alleyway outside. Which is incidentally how I like to partake in all aperitifs. Not dodgy at all...*

But anyway, once you get inside, this place is the business. Yup, with overflowing plates of smoky, pomegranate strewn baba ganoush and creamy hummus crowned with the richest of lamb schwarma, teamed with charred, freshly rolled pitta and crunchy, neon pink pickles, the food more than makes up for the slightly shifty location. Follow with crispy balls of cumin rich falafel, vibrant fattoush spiked with sharp red wine vinegar, fragrant sumac and strewn with crispy pitta, golden halloumi with the saltiest black olives and the very best, garlic heavy, homemade Lebanese sausages fried with fresh tomatoes and torn flat leaf parsley, and you will be glad you stuck out the moments of unintentional eye contact as customers of the shop advertising ‘models upstairs’ go on their merry, if sheepish, way. The pitta, soft and steaming, arrives in drones, as the food (if turning up slightly sporadically, and often missing a few dishes) fills the tiny room with wafts of coriander, mint and harrisa. It is easy to over-order; the plates are small, but the lamb stuffed, fried pittas drizzled with pomegranate molasses and hunks of chilli rich, paprika coated fried potato make for a seriously filling meal.

We chose two dishes each, and had just enough room to sample the delectable ‘Damascus milk pudding’, a fragrant bowl of rose scented pannacotta-like jelly; sweet, creamy and crowned with jewel like pomegranate seeds in a bright red syrup. Not my boyfriends favourite, he tried it twice and on each occasion did a rather accurate impression of the Churchill dog having a pessimistic moment (Oh nooo, Oh no, no!), but it was a hit with the girls, if being a little teeny bit sickly. Maybe it had something to do with the pink...
Full, happy and slightly delirious from all that pitta, the (extremely reasonable) bill was paid and we too skipped down the unassuming little lane and into the throngs of drag queens and rainbow flags of the West End. Delicious, just keep tabs on what you order so you don’t end up shelling out for fattoush or falafel that never made it up the dumbwaiter and onto your table...

*(If all else fails, they have another branch just off Oxford Street...)

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Tasting the rainbow...

Evenings that stretch out in a pimms-fuelled blur of beer gardens, guacamole and tortilla chips, the constant quest for a sliver of ice-cold breeze to take the edge off humid, sleepless nights, passion fruit mojitos, sticky chicken legs on smoking barbeques, sugar dusted strawberries, raspberries, salted caramel ice cream; Summer is pretty bloody good.

And as midsummer reaches boiling point, it is time for my favourite sunshine induced bonus of all. It is, of course, food related (what a surprise), and namely the glorious manner in which shopping baskets are slowly transformed from a bleak array of tins and root vegetables that were a constant companion through the long, wet winter, into a glorious rainbow of vibrant, fresh and flavour packed fruit and veg. Piled high with glistening, post-box red tomatoes, bright green and yellow courgettes, seemingly polished, purple skinned aubergines and the leafy greens of the tenderest salad leaves, this, if you haven’t noticed, is the time of year that gets me  excited.

Yes, as the long, balmy nights call for full al-fresco dining operations to be deployed at every opportunity, what better way to make the most of all this amazing produce than keeping it simple and showing off all that deliciousness in all its glory. Yup, much to my sheer delight, a fridge full of summer vegetables makes throwing together a gorgeous plate of exciting, vibrant food is as easy as A, B, C. Aubergine, beetroot, calvolo nero that is...

Add just a few store cupboard essentials, a healthy glug of something extra virgin and plates brim with sunny goodness in no time. Big platefuls of sliced, rainbow tinged heritage tomatoes drizzled with nutty olive oil, a splash of sherry vinegar and a scattering of fragrant basil leaves, an array of jewel coloured peppers, courgettes and aubergines, cut into thick chunks and barbequed with lemon, thyme and garlic, the possibilities are as endless as the big blue sky.

But my Plat de Saison is without doubt this beautiful salmon fillet, steamed with summer vegatables, capers, lemon and fresh herbs, topped with a refreshingly minty crème fraiche dressing and a scattering of marjoram flowers. Neon pink rimmed radish slices, delicately steamed in tin-foil parcels (or ‘en papillote’ if you’re posh and/or French) alongside spring onion stems, asparagus tips, fresh peas and crunchy slices of courgette and fennel, contrast perfectly with the salty bite of capers and refreshing zestiness from the lemon; it is perfection- Quick, easy and healthy to boot.

And if you have never experienced the joy of cooked radishes before, go for it. Not only are they the exact shade of pink I like to paint my nails, adding a glorious matchy-matchy element to dinnertime, but just cooked they have a delicious crunch and a slight pepperiness that manages to enrich the delicate green vegetables without overpowering all those subtle summer flavours. I say let them out of the salad bowl and onto centre stage for once, you won’t regret it.

This is also my favourite way to celebrate the very end of the English asparagus season (which officially concluded on the 21st of June), just make sure you keep the parcels in the oven just long enough for the salmon to be just cooked through, and to retain the gorgeous colour and wicked crunch of the delicious fresh vegetables. The perfect contrast to the creamy, mint flecked dressing, and as always, the tailor-made partner to a bucketful of Sauvignon Blanc.

Summer salmon with crème fraiche and mint dressing

4 salmon fillets

1 bunch asparagus, woody stems removed, tips left whole and stems sliced

1 bunch spring onions, halved

1 courgette, sliced and halved

1 handful fresh peas

1 bulb fennel, thinly sliced, including leaves

Small bunch of radishes, sliced

2 lemons

4 tsp capers

Small bunch fresh herbs (mint, parsley, marjaram, chives, etc) chopped

Extra virgin rapeseed oil

Salt and pepper

For the dressing

1 tub crème fraiche

1 lemon, juice and zest

Small bunch mint, chopped

Extra virgin rapeseed or olive oil

Preheat the oven to 180oc. Arrange the prepared vegetables on square of tin foil, drizzle with the oil, a good squeeze of lemon juice and scatter liberally with salt and pepper.

Scatter with the capers and herbs, before topping with the salmon fillets. Drizzle with a little more lemon juice and oil and season well. Wrap the fish and vegetables in the foil to create a parcel, leaving a little room for everything to steam.

Place the parcels onto a baking tray and cook for around 20 minutes, or until the salmon is just cooked.
Meanwhile, mix the ingredients for the dressing, stirring well until smooth and creamy. Season well and serve a top the salmon and steamed vegetables. Add some crushed new potatoes, a drizzle of extra virgin oil and get in there. It’s as easy as that...

Thursday, 19 June 2014

M1lk is good for you...

Weekend brunch is my favourite mealtime of all time. Ever. Without question.

Yup, with ridiculously enormous papers strewn around me like the foundations of an ink covered fort, the unavoidable last minute scrabble in the depths of my handbag for an (almost always) inkless pen to fill the two clues I have any idea about in the cross word, sipping endless cups of rich, creamy flat whites; a few hours of glorious coffee and bacon fuelled rapture after a week of keyboards, boardrooms and boredom, is the absolute ultimate.

 Add the chance discovery of the utopia of what all weekend breakfasts should be in a cafe just a scenic ten minute stroll from my front door and you will begin to understand the enthusiastic manner in which I leap out of bed and into my converse of a Saturday morning. M1lk (note the trendy ‘1’), is the place. A Balham institution that sees queues longer than the line for the clean(ish) toilets at Glastonbury week upon week; it is a mecca of pillowy buckwheat pancakes, smoothies in oh-so-trendy milk bottles and a menu full of foraged, seasonal ingredients that I have not even the faintest idea how to pronounce.

On the corner of Hildreth Street market (where they buy all the seasonal fruit for their delicious pint o’smoothies), the light and breezy, delightfully mismatching cafe is strewn with tropical prints that hang on wooden pegs from a string across the huge windows, and is without fail, totally packed. With a bar scattered with icons of the virgin Mary, vintage books and slightly creepy looking doll’s heads, tempting yuzu and pistachio cakes and coconut flecked, fist sized lamingtons on candy hued cake stands; it is cool. Achingly so, a dead giveaway being the top-knotted waitresses that clearly have to pass a written exam on the history of Reebok classics and the theory of wearing your trousers just short enough to be questionable.

But, although the staff have without doubt been instructed on the trendiest way to describe the weekly changing pancake special (usually making an unannounced bob down next to the table, using lots of superlatives and peppering everything with a few essential ‘ok, guys’), it still manages to steer well clear of ‘try-hard’. I mean, when describing pancakes topped with such delights as blood orange jam, hazelnut popcorn brittle and vanilla bean mascarpone, a little bit of enthusiastic chirping is most definitely allowed, short trousers or not. Add to that elderflower clotted cream, green almond crunch, camomile flowers, nutella caramel and nesquik mascapone (say whaaa?!), and I think it’s fair to say that this place really is deserving of the well rehearsed speech.

It is the best. I have tried avoiding the queues and heading elsewhere, but to be honest, much like heading to the seriously less-clean loos at Glasto, it will undoubtedly lead to massive disappointment. If entirely devoid of any loo-roll related crises. Hopefully...

But seriously, how can you turn down rich, nutty americanos from the Workshop Coffee co., made in an aeropress and served with a miniature milk (sorry, M1lk) bottle of, well, milk? How could you judge that the winding queue of trendies and buggy toting yummy mummies is not worth the legendary ‘Convict’; a toasted proper English muffin stuffed with Burford Brown egg, Noen’s & Sons sausage patty, homemade poacher hash and hangover sauce is worth missing out on? Occasionally (and foolishly) compared to the notorious egg and sausage McMuffin down the road, don't even contemplate skipping the queue and missing out on this beauty. This is a McMuffin fallen from heaven. 

Last weekend, as my perpetually hungry boyfriends and I ventured the few minutes South to partake in our weekly M1lk ritual, I went for one of those tongue-twisting concoctions that make the pre-ordering nerves akin to waiting to be called in to your year 9 French oral. “Turkish baked eggs (I got that bit ok...) with...” and here is where I proceeded to jab at the distressed brown paper menu like a true Brit abroad (well, I am a Clapham girl now, after all). I got there in the end, but for this purpose must resort to inserting words copied straight from the menu, and still without any indication of what “kriskrainer and labne...” might actually mean (Could be a hot new DJ duo headlining the BBC introducing stage at Glasto , for all I know)...

As it turns out, my cast iron skillet of neon-orange yolked baked eggs arrived strewn with buttery, garlic rich sautéed spinach, an elegant blob of sharp Turkish yoghurt, salty hunks of fried sausage and strewn with a whimsical scattering of wild flowers. Word of warning here, by the way- from the sourdough with goats cheese and red clover honeycomb to the burnt butter eggs Benedict, many dishes come with a girly flourish of freshly foraged flowers much to every instagrammers delight and many the burly boyfriend's (including my army commando one's) dismay.  Said boyfriend, avoiding the rose petals and remaining ever the off-piste orderer (he fits in so well), went for charred English asparagus with miso butter and crisp, panko coated deep fried Burford Brown from the seasonable, forever evolving specials board.

As always, it was totally and utterly, 100%, grade A gorgeous. My side of the table, super soft eggs contrasted beautifully with the slightly sharp, creamy yoghurt and meaty mouthfuls of sausage was right on the money (which, I might add here, is not on the cheap side, but totally worth it). The asparagus, lightly charred and the perfect partner to the aromatic, salty miso and crispy shreds of nori, did what M1lk does best- showcasing foraged, seasonal and wonderful British produce in exciting, interesting dishes that never fail to be perfectly cooked, seasoned and enthusiastically delivered by the scrunchie wearing staff.

Wickedly good. And certainly not the place to implement my boyfriend's recent request that I try writing a less than totally positive review for a change. Yup, unfortunately (for him), M1lk, with all it's butternut, feta and sage baked eggs, burnt butter hazelnut cakes and edible sweet pea garnishes, is never going to be the place to bring out the negatives. It is just too. Damn. Good. 

Maybe my quest for pessimism will have to resort to that McMuffin after all...

Sunday, 15 June 2014


One of the many outcomes of my particularly fragrant summer spent living the life of a fishmonger, (apart from a distinct diminution in jumper supplies after sacrificing the vast majority due to a very stubborn fish gut aroma- no way to make friends), was my slightly misguided dislike of mackerel. I know it sounds strange, and a loathing of 4am starts or spending significant amounts of time embedded elbow deep in giant barrels of ice would have been somewhat more appropriate, but no, it was the knock-you-between-the-eyes iron rich pong and slippery brown guts of the mackerel that got it.

I know, I know; with skin boasting delicate metallic patterns that would not look out of place on the catwalk, more health claims than the contents of many a super-model’s fridge, and boasting a price-tag about ten thousand times smaller than what Kate Moss demands just to put her slippers on; it is a crying shame that my eye, as it skips effortlessly from coral pink salmon fillet to bright red tuna steak, overlooks the oily, silver skinned gem of the fish counter time after time. So many mealtimes have been spent unassumingly missing out on all that iron-rich, versatile deliciousness, and now it has finally gone on long enough, I can no longer live on kale and spinach alone. Yes, my diminishing bank balance and desire for swishy, shiny hair without dishing out for a salon hair treatment, finally dictated earlier this week that it was time to face my fishy-fear.

Purposefully striding up to the fish counter, pocketing a packet of peppered smoked mackerel (try saying that in a hurry), I left with big plans for a giant bowl of something fishy and a conquering of the fear that has kept my iron intake down for so long. Now my hatred does have some exceptions, a big one being the old classic; soft, smoked fish disguised as a creamy mound of delicious, horseradish rich pate, sprinkled with capers, a smattering of cracked black pepper and just waiting to be spread on warm granary toast dripping with butter. Piled into a mismatching line-up of chipped ramekins, teacups, jam jars, etc. I have to admit that in this form, I have always had a bit of a soft spot for this silver swimmer. Talk about fickle...

But on this occasion, having neither the friends (sniff) nor the requisite lycra leggings and matching scrunchie combo to face recreating a 80’s dinner party on a school night, I wanted to try something different. Now I still went smoked, let’s not swim before we can paddle here, but I stepped away from the cream cheese and whipped up this super-quick, fresh and zingy Sicilian style smoked mackerel, sultana and olive spaghetti in no time. And, lo and behold, my trips to the fish counter will never be the same again.

Yup, as you may have predicted...

Mackerel. Is. Awesome.

And eating it like this almost sets it off the scale. Rich with super-ripe tomatoes, contrasted with a little sweetness from the plump sultanas and enough zesty lemon to cut through the oily smokiness of the fish, this dish made me see this slippery little character in a whole new light. A healthy, fresh midweek dinner, it’s the perfect way to use up leftovers lurking in the depths of the fridge too; chuck in those olives left over from Saturday night in front of the World Cup, a splash of white wine (if you have any knocking around after the tension experienced throughout said football match...), capers, chilli, toasted pine nuts. The list is endless. Just maybe leave that half can of Stella out on this occasion...

PS. Although my new fish de jour, mackerel is no longer considered as sustainable as it once was due to over-fishing, now gracing the ‘eat with caution’ list, denoting that it should only be eaten every so often. But stick to that, and every once in a while this super-fish, whether subtly smoked or freshly filleted and thrown on to the BBQ with a good smattering of rosemary and lemon sea salt, is not only cheap enough to leave enough in your pocket for a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, but unbelievably tasty too. I am converted. I may even go fresh next time...

Lemony mackerel spaghetti with sultanas and olives, serves 2

200g wholemeal spaghetti

Olive or extra virgin rapeseed oil

A splash of white wine

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 red onion, finely sliced

A large handful ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 tbsp tomato puree

A small handful black olives

A small handful sultanas or raisins

1 or 2 fillets smoked mackerel torn into chunks

1 lemon

Small handful fresh oregano, torn

Small handful of chopped almonds, to serve

First, boil the spaghetti in salted water, leaving to cook for 10-12 minutes while you are making the sauce, until al dente.

In a small frying pan, gently fry the onion and garlic in the oil, until translucent. Add the chopped fresh tomatoes and fennel seeds, and fry gently for a few more minutes until the tomatoes begin to soften.

Add a splash of wine and leave the sauce to bubble gently for a few minutes. Stir in the tomato puree, the olives and sultanas, season and leave to reduce until you have a thick sauce (loosen with a little water from the pasta if it is getting too thick!)

Stir in the mackerel, the juice and zest of half a lemon, and the torn oregano.

Stir the pasta through the sauce, adding a glug of oil and a spoonful of the pasta water to loosen and sprinkle over some of the chopped almonds. DONE.