About this blog

The expat has returned from voluntary exile and finds herself with a new domain to discover: London.


Sunday, 27 March 2011

A confession and a mission

You may have noticed I've been uncharacteristically quiet of late. I have a confession to make: London and I are a thing of the past. Following my affair with Spain, London turned out to be no more than a rebound romance, and I'm now back with my long-term love, Oxford. It wasn't London's fault but mine: after overcoming my initial reluctance by throwing myself into city life, I was offered a job in Oxford and said goodbye to the big smoke.

Although I was gradually adjusting to London living and enjoying the city's packed events calendar and the wealth of restaurants and bars in easy reach, I can't say I was entirely sorry to leave. The size, pace and price of the capital were still too much for me after three months, and I was quite happy to return to live in the more manageable 'city' of Oxford and save London for regular weekend visits.

I soon found I missed the diversity of London's dining scene, though. Want a leisurely American-style brunch? No problem. Some good old British grub, perhaps with a gastro twist? You got it. Lebanese, Ethiopian, Russian, Afghan, Eritrean? London can provide for all your international feeding needs. Understandably, the selection in Oxford is more limited, but even so, I find I return to the same old haunts. So, in a bid to shake up my mealtimes, I've launched a mission to eat my way around Oxford in one year, reviewing the city's eateries one restaurant at a time. Beginning on April first, Girl Eats Oxford will see me begin my quest to try out as many of Oxford's restaurants, pubs and cafes as I can in one year. Join me as I lose £ and gain lbs while educating my palate. If you have any recommendations, please leave a comment on the blog or tweet me @girleatsoxford.


Monday, 13 December 2010

East End stories: Songs from the Howling Sea

Just when you thought the East End's history was in danger of being forgotten as the trendies move in, along comes singer-songwriter Ruairidh Anderson with his Songs From The Howling Sea project, bringing historical events and legendary characters back to the public's attention.

Since June 2010, Ruairidh has been releasing a song a week via his website. Each of the songs takes a different episode or figure from East London's history as its inspiration and is accompanied by a video telling the story behind the song. Characters and events immortalised in song so far include pub landlord Charlie Brown, the maritime disaster of the SS Princess Alice, suicide burials, Dr Barnardo and gin, which makes for rather diverse listening.

The project is running for 52 weeks, so sign yourself up to the mailing list to get a free song and video straight to your inbox every Friday to learn about the East End the fun (and easy on the ears) way.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Dial Arch: Regeneration and Rioja in Woolwich

When looking for an inviting pub in South East London, Woolwich doesn't exactly spring to mind. The slightly quaint, villagey atmosphere of Greenwich perhaps, but further east? Forget it, unless you like your boozers rough and ready. All that could be about to change, however, as Woolwich's regeneration process has spawned its first success: the Dial Arch pub.

Situated in the Royal Arsenal Riverside development, which also contains some swanky-looking apartments, the vast Dial Arch is set in the former gatehouse of the old arsenal, a building which dates back to 1720. As it's much bigger than your average pub, there's a risk that weeknights could see the sleek interior sparsely populated, but the wealth of offers on, err, offer seem to have helped Young's Brewery avoid that hurdle. With pizza and Peroni for £8.50 on Monday, Real Ale on Tuesday and wine night on Wednesday, locals are certainly never short of a reason to drop in. Those behind the Dial Arch are clearly trying to make a community hub of their enterprise, evident in the community noticeboard, the Sunday pub quiz and the many reasons to linger, such as free WiFi and a supply of board games.

Although the Dial Arch is a damn sight smarter than many pubs in the area (and, seeing as it only opened in summer 2010, many pubs), it manages to fall just the right side of 'gastro': it's definitely still a pub, with comfy sofas and leather-seated booths, and a separate area for more formal dining. On the menu are pub favourites such as fish and chips and sausages and mash, as well as more Mediterranean dishes such as risotto and of course, pizza. With slightly grating military-influenced names such as Private and Brigadier, Dial Arch is one of the new generation of London pubs that do pizza - and it's pretty good, too, washed down with a glass of reasonably-priced Rioja and followed by a game of Scrabble. Dial Arch, you almost make me wish I lived in Woolwich. Almost.
  • Dial Arch is at Royal Arsenal Riverside, Woolwich SE18 6GH. Nearest DLR/train station: Woolwich Arsenal.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A V & A visit with a difference

As I may have mentioned, I don't exactly know what I'm doing when it comes to art. I'm never sure how long you're supposed to spend staring at each gallery exhibit, and all too often find my interest wandering because of a lack of knowledge about the painter or the period. Audioguides help, but walking around with a piece of plastic clamped to your ear isn't the most elegant way to proceed - and nor can you ask it questions (well, not unless you want to create the impression of having a screw or two loose). For the clueless like me to get the most out of a gallery, no plastic required, a knowledgeable guide is the way to go.

London's Victoria & Albert (V & A) Museum was originally set up as a museum dedicated to manufacture, as Context Travel's Kevin explained to me and my fellow tour attendee. Standing on the steps of the grand Victorian building in South Kensington, art historian Kevin told us that the V & A was established to house the treasures obtained for the Great Exhibition in 1851. It has since moved beyond manufacture to become London's foremost art and design museum, with a vast permanent collection ranging from architecture to furniture, fashion and jewellery and spanning the globe. As only so much of the V & A can be covered in a two-hour visit, our guide had chosen the theme of 'Reinventing the past' in order to present us with a coherent selection of highlights. Making sure to gauge our familiarity with the museum and our art knowledge before beginning (fortunately the other participant was also at 'zero' level), Kevin adapted the tour to our interests.

Our first port of call was the temporary exhibition 'Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel' (free, until 17 October), which builds on the museum's own collection of Raphael's cartoons by uniting 4 of them with their corresponding tapestries for the first time. I must confess that when Kevin mentioned cartoons, I was expecting some pencil scrawls of comic book figures, but these cartoons are actually full-scale images used to create another artwork: in this case, grand tapestries depicting the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Church. The cartoons were often drawn by assistants rather than the masters themselves, but it's thought that the 'Draught of Fishes' was largely the work of Raphael's own hand. The cartoons are reversals of the final product: if Jesus is gazing benevolently at his flock on the right hand side in the cartoon, he'll be gazing benevolently from the left in the finished tapestry. I also learned that we 'read' pictures the same way as we do text: from left to right. Other changes are introduced by the weavers too, most notably to the colour schemes. This particular set of wallcoverings were commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, and feature representations of the ancient world, a time that particularly fascinated Raphael. Although they perhaps weren't the kind of works I would normally have lingered over, Kevin's analysis allowed me to engage far more than I otherwise would have, giving them a sense of purpose and history.

Stepping back in time, the Medieval and Renaissance Europe gallery, which opened earlier in 2010, was significantly quieter than the bustling Raphael room. Here, we were able to get up close to some religious artefacts, including the 'Thomas Becket casket', an elaborate enamel-work reliquary embellished with pictures from the life of the saint. The religious wars destroyed many such examples of Limoges enamel, but this incredibly detailed number remains entirely intact. Also of interest was a sample from the V & A's extensive collection of stained glass, which came from Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: the detailed window section shows how King Louis IX attempted to reinvent world history by putting himself at its centre, as well as another example of a tapestry. Showing how artists continually draw on the past, this French wallcovering featured a depiction of the Trojan War (ever a popular trope in art and literature) - with all the participants looking very much like fifteenth century French folk.

Our varied intinerary swept on to sculpture, with Kevin explaining how Italian Renaissance sculptors reinvented the past for the modern ideal by reworking ancient sculpture styles. These sculptures were surprisingly lifelike, with nothing idealised: bulging eyes, warts and all - if a patron had it, it was represented in stone. Antonio Rossellino's bust of Dr. Giovanni Chellini was one big-nosed example: I've always wondered what these truthful portrayals did for a sculptor's salary, but given that Dr. Chellini was a repeat customer, Rossellino's lack of flattery clearly wasn't an issue for the nosy doc. From sculpture we moved into the era of mass production, when manufacturing processes changed, and both domestic items such as dinner services and even religious items such as alterpieces were produced in bulk. The plates and cups fared significantly better than the altarpieces however: some of the German examples featured big-headed figurines on the verge of caricature, but as ever, the Italian examples were more refined. The museum even houses a chapel that was transported stone-by-stone from the Florence Church of Santa Chiara and reassembled, adding an element of escapism to the visit.

Our final stop was the Islamic Middle East gallery, which centres around the Ardabil carpet. Bigger than your average living room, this elaborate depiction of the garden of paradise holds the title for the oldest dated carpet in the world, not to mention one of the largest. Kevin showed us around the manageably-sized collection, explaining that Islamic art often draws on Roman styles and technique. Although calligraphy is a key element in Islamic art works, Iranian paintings and decorative objects frequently feature people and animals, marking it out from the rest of the Muslim world. Apparently, this can partly be explained by Chinese influence, as some of the collection's vases and bowls demonstrate.

In two hours, we may have only delved into a small number of the museum's galleries, but the 'edited highlights' approach allows for far more detailed exploration than an attempt to tackle the entire collection. Having an expert plan a themed route through the museum and fill us in on the history and significance of the objects under discussion meant that I got much more out of the visit than my usual map-guided wandering. Although not the most cost-effective way to visit, a Context walk is certainly the most time-effective way to explore key sections of the museum in depth, with the bonus of being able to tailor the tour to specific interests or art knowledge levels.

  • Context Travel's 'Victoria and Albert Museum: Art and Design on a Grand Scale' walk lasts 2 hours and costs £45. For details and dates, click here.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Eat Me Magazine's supper club: Not your average Monday evening

It's a Monday night in August. In an eccentrically-decorated converted pub in deepest Dalston, a model reclines on a chaise longue. The other models on the shoot are still having their lips painted, their hair fluffed and their clothes selected. 'Just move your leg a bit to the left', says the photographer. 'And now look towards the door...' No, this is not the latest Britain's Next Top Model photoshoot, but Eat Me Magazine's first supper club. And the model is me.

OK, let's rewind. As I made it very clear when the make-up artist asked 'Are you a model?' (you bet I was flattered), I'm an editor and writer. So what was I doing posing in an expensive dress for a magazine? A few days earlier, I spotted a tweet from new high-end food and culture magazine Eat Me (try asking for that in WHSmith and imagine what's going through the shop assistant's mind) asking for volunteers for their first supper club, which they would be photographing and filming. Always up for free grub, I applied. Although I didn't initially make the cut, I received a reply a few hours before the scheduled event: someone had dropped out, could I make it to Dalston that evening with a pair of black heels? You bet I could. At 7pm, new Peacocks heels in bag, my colleague Stephan (who had also been selected) and I turned up at aforementioned converted pub with no idea of what was in store. Two minutes later I had a Bloody Mary thrust into my hand and was whisked upstairs into hair and make-up.

Along with the 4 other chosen Twitterati, Stephan and I were groomed and styled in this season's finest (well, I think I got the better end of the deal in a sparkly Full Circle dress and Topshop jewellery) before posing for individual photoshoots. Desperately trying to decipher what Tyra means when she says 'Smile with your eyes', I grinned like a fool and hoped for the best. I had been to my first supper club just a few days before, but already turning up at a stranger's house for dinner seemed like a doddle compared with trying to conceal my double chin and appear alluring on camera in front of the magazine's staff and my fellow diners. The fact that we were all in the same boat and the two Bloody Marys I had gulped back helped somewhat though, and when the magazine turned up on my doorstep this morning I was pretty pleased with the result. OK, it probably wouldn't pass the Tyra test ('Girl, you look expression-LESS!' would probably have been her assessment), I could only spot one chin on the black-clad glamazon staring back at me.

4 of the made-over supper clubbers. I'm second from right.

Daunting photoshoots over with, it was time for dinner. We supperclubbers sat down to a vegetarian feast which kicked off with quenelles of feta and olive, poached peach salad, roasted aubergines and apple sourdough bread. It's a good job I made notes, as Eat Me's article focuses on the supper club phenomenon rather than our Dalston dining, which I think is a bit of a shame given they had a captive audience to observe. How will the supper clubbers interact? Which personalities will dominate? Will talk inevitably turn to food? Will awkwardness prevail, or will the guests move the party to a nearby pub once the dessert's been devoured? Once the ample starters were dispensed with, I'd had sufficient wine to share the story of how a tramp tried to sit on me on the Madrid metro. Always a crowd pleaser, that one. As most of the folk who'd spotted Eat Me's tweet were in the food industry somehow, once the tramp topic was done conversation did indeed turn to food, with a bit of borderline pretentious cheese chat and Michelin star bla bla I couldn't really participate in. However, everyone was pretty easy to chat to, and the sense of shared experience was even greater in this case than at your average supper club.

After our starter came a cucumber and citrus cooler, a violent green-coloured drink designed to cleanse the palate. Sophisticated stuff, this. This was followed by a reblochon and courgette tart accompanied with a broccoli and stilton gratin and roasted beetroot in a champagne reduction. Not being a beetroot fan, I'd rather have drunk the champagne to be honest, but the tart and gratin hit the spot and the peg holding my waist-cinching belt in at the back soon began to shift. The cheese theme continued into the next course: dessert was a whiffy cheese selection and stacks of sticky baklava. Preferring my cheeses in the Lancashire or manchego-type forms, I quickly moved the pungent plate away from me and tucked into the baklava instead.

And with that, it was time for the Eat Me team to get stuck into the washing up and the supper clubbers to swap their chic togs for their civvies. Sadly, I didn't get to keep the dress. I'm sure Tyra would have, but humble editors have no such luck. No lifelong friends were made, no pub visits ensued, but it was a fun evening with great vegetarian food and plenty of wine to wash it down with. And it's not every day you get to dress up, have your picture taken and get a free meal now, is it?

  • The results of the photoshoot can be seen in issue 3 of Eat Me, available to order here.