Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Something for every taste...

What to do on dark, cold February nights? Well, I suppose you could always go to the pub, or a cosy restaurant, or just stay in and curl up on the sofa in front of the telly. But it's easy to forget the array of culture on your doorstep in this part of London.

High on the list has to be the Royal Albert Hall. This South Kensington landmark isn't to everyone's taste - the biscuit-tin shape and high Victorian decoration is pretty uncompromising - but there's no denying just what a fantastic venue it is for all sorts of events, from the Proms to boxing. And February's line-up is extraordinarily varied, offering something for virtually every musical taste.

It kicks off with the Cirque du Soleil production of Varekai - 'an explosive fusion of drama and acrobatics'. If you haven't seen this spectacular troupe before, then I would strongly recommend it. This is not just acrobatics (gravity-defying though these are), it's about theatre in the true sense of the word, with stunning, vividly-coloured costumes and visual effects. The programme runs until 17 February.

Striking a very different note - literally - is the Hush performance on 12 February in the intimate Elgar Room. This is part of the venue's efforts to promote new talent, and will feature Liverpool indie-popsters Hot Club de Paris and, hailing from Sheffield, the boy/girl 'anti-folk' duo Slow Club.

For those wanting to sit back and bask in something completely traditional, (and safe enough to take my Dad to) there's the Mountbatten Festival of Music, beginning on 21 February for three days. Expect military overtures, marches and fanfares, as well as popular favourites from films, shows and the odd classical favourite. All these are played by the Massed Bands of HM Royal Marines.

For those who like their entertainment for free, the Friday lunchtime ignite programme in the Cafe Consort allows you enjoy a wide variety of musical styles. On 29 February it features the Buenos Aires duo of Ianina Pietrantonio (flute) and Cecilia Zabala (guitar), otherwise known as Las Morochas perform in a unique style drawing on tango, jazz and modern classical influences.

Finally, the month finishes with a classical flourish, with Tosca. This is the acclaimed 1999 production, sung in English, directed by David Freeman, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Robinson. With prices from £21 to £58, this is affordable, accessible opera and has proved extremely popular in previous years.

With all that choice, there's no excuse for staying on the sofa...

Toast and tea

I've just realised that I'm acquiring one of the signs of old age. No, not greying hair (although a few are sprouting in my beard), but I find that, when I'm out shopping, I have to stop somewhere for a breather. It's one of those things I never understood as a child or teenager: when shopping in the 'big city' with my parents, about 3.30pm we would begin the obligatory search for a cup of tea, usually in a grand department store. Now, older, possibly wiser, but with feet that definitely want to rest up once in a while, I understand.

Maybe it is just nostalgia, but I still like nice cafes in big stores. They somehow seem less frenetic and more of a treat than Starbuck's (and, in any case, we're looking for tea, here). They are something of a dying breed, of course - both the stores, and their cafes. Many of those which have survived have become plastic and soulless, but there are some exceptions: the 'Top Floor' restaurant at Peter Jones still does an afternoon tea, with great views over this part of Chelsea as an added bonus. If you're in Piccadilly and you've money to burn, there's the Parlour Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason, serving famously sumptuous cakes and ice-creams. (If you've serious money to burn, there's always tea at the Ritz, of course, but I'm getting carried away here). If your budget is more modest, then Patisserie Valerie may be a better bet, and the cakes are still creamy and tempting.

There are also nice tea-shops still around if you know where to look. One of my favourite experiences was at The Louis Patisserie in Hampstead. This wonderful Hungarian tea-shop (such cakes!) is a real institution, and the perfect place to rest tired feet after a long winter's walk on the Heath, or after some select shopping in Hampstead's maze of lanes. We went in after looking for mushrooms on the Heath, and we entered carrying a fair collection (most of which were not edible, but it still looked impressive), much to the astonishment of some of the other patrons. I guess the sight of raw, wild mushrooms doesn't really go with pastries and Earl Grey.

If you're in Brighton, the wonderfully-named Mock Turtle comes highly recommended. It's lost a little of its old-world charm after a recent re-fit, but the quirky service, chintzy surroundings, toasted tea-cakes and all the paraphernalia of proper tea (no tea-bags) are still there, and make it a great favourite. If you're desperate for another cuppa on arrival back at Victoria, the Thistle Hotel has the Grosvenor Lounge for tea and cakes, and the adjacent Club Bar if Southern have been playing up and you need something stronger...

It's almost worth going shopping just to have an excuse...

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Travelling trials again...

Time for some more travelling tales - although this time, to places less exotic. At least, I take it that you'll agree that Frome in Somerset is less exotic than Barcelona. (Except, perhaps, that 'Frome' is pronounced 'Frooome'. With a West Country accent. Hmmm - Barcelona is beginning to sound more ordinary by the second).

Anyway, to-day sees me departing underneath Brunel's great train-shed at Paddington. All the services from here are now operated by First Great Western, unhappily the UK's least punctual long-distance operator at the moment. A fortnight ago, I was unfortunate enough to try and get to South Wales, only to be stymied by some wonderfully wintry weather. First a deluge, and then snow. Having reached Swindon on time, we were then sent to Gloucester, back down towards Bristol Parkway (our next scheduled stop) - but not quite: we were then informed by the hapless guard told we'd have to go back to Gloucester, then we did indeed arrive at Bristol Parkway, to be told to leave the train and wait for a bus to take us to Wales.

We waited an hour in the perishing, draughty entrance hall of Bristol Parkway station - not my favourite place at the best of times - with snow falling outside. Some even waited in the snow. Then, once our limbs were really numb, we were told to go back to the train, and continue that way to Wales. It was not a nice surprise to find that another group of passengers was already on the train, warm and cosy, and had indeed been there for half an hour. It wasn't until Cardiff that I had thawed out, three hours late, and five hours since leaving London.

Now, I realise that FGW cannot be held accountable for the weather, and the staff on the spot were doing the best they could. (Actually, full marks to the chap in the buffet who was handing out the sandwiches for free.) But the running around did rather feel like they were operating on the hoof, as it were, rather than thinking things through. And it really isn't on - except in really extreme circumstances - to freeze passengers waiting for non-existent buses. I have, of course, done my duty and written them a letter of complaint, so I shall be interested to read their response.

So, fingers crossed on my way to Bath to-day, or there will be another blog...

Addendum: a response from First Great Western has arrived. There are some travel vouchers enclosed, which are all very welcome (so, thank-you FGW) but they haven't actually addressed the points I made, which I feel are actually more important. Indeed, the letter reads like two standard letters put together - which, I suspect, is exactly what it is. I don't blame the person putting it together - I just hope their managers are taking it in, somehow.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Guess the Exhibition...

One of the things about living in Earl's Court is that the events at the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre become part of the warp and weft of life, especially if, like me, you can see it from your bedroom window, and use the same entrance to the underground station as the punters visiting a trade fair, event or concert.

I can actually hear the music - and applause - from rock concerts at the Centre, though thankfully they have to finish before midnight. They always bring with them a certain number of stretch limousines in their wake, which have to find somewhere to park during the concert - either by double-parking, or simply prowling around the streets for a few hours. It looks eerie, when half a dozen such vehicles, all with their dark glass, are cruising around, more Bronx than Kensington...

But the main impact from all these events is simply the volume of punters themselves, most notably in the long passageway that links Warwick Road to Earl's Court tube station. If there is a Trade Fair on, I like to play a little game of 'guess the exhibition', by looking at the people attending. (Of course, I could just look at the Billboard, but that would be cheating).

Travel shows bring a mixture of smart suits, coiffured and painted ladies, all in a wide variety of nationalities, presumably all plugging their little patch of earth to potential tourists and promoters. IT shows just reinforce the stereotype (sorry, folks) with a mixture of affable, studenty-looking geeky types, and a rather smaller number of very slickly dressed entrepreneurs who have clearly made a mint out of some or other, and have spent some of their new-found wealth at Versace or Armani (possibly both). Book fairs have lots of nice, earnest looking people who resemble my primary school teachers; who else wears corduroy is such quantity, these days? Currently, there's a show on for on-line gaming, which seems to have brought out a lot of designer suits, and very expensive-looking Italian footwear (black lizard skin, pointy toes). Clearly, there's real money to be made in that business - or do they just have to look the part?

Concerts are a different matter altogether. Firstly, there's the crush: trying to enter when the fans are arriving for the start of a concert is rather like trying to go the wrong way through a herd of stampeding wildebeest. The deadly serious look on their faces implies they are on some kind of mission, whereas I seem to become completely invisible. The fans also betray their interests, of course: 40-somethings in smart casuals for any music that predates 1990; lots of well-watered young men downing a last tin of lager before going to watch Oasis; and crowds of seven-year-olds for Boy and Girl-bands.

I was amazed - having never really thought about, if I'm honest - when the Spice Girls came to Earl's Court in the late 1990s. There were crowds of little girls, all in bright colours, all wearing clothes in the style of their heroines: hundreds of seven-year olds bearing their mid-riffs on a freezing December evening, while holding onto their Mums' and Dads' hands. It was slightly surreal, not to say mildly unnerving. I felt rather old-fashioned: at that age, my generation were told to 'wrap up warm!' against the cold, to say nothing of dressing modestly. Heck, we didn't even go to pop concerts at that age.

And finally, there are the regular exhibitions. Lots of well-heeled types, and presumably aspirational families, to the Boat Show; crowds of all sorts to the Ideal Home Exhibition - usually carrying out that year's must-have, but affordable, household gadget (in 2007 it seemed to be some kind of red and yellow floor mop); and an affable and slightly portly crowd, mostly arriving in groups, for the Great British Beer Festival. (No tinned lager for them).

Now, that's one show I make sure never to miss...

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Vegetarians Anonymous

As you may (or may not) have guessed by now, I’m a vegetarian. There: I’ve outed myself.

But before that conjures up all sorts of stereotypes, please be reassured that I’m not one of those crusading types. I’m not really a veggie on the grounds of any great principle, though it does help being able to stand smugly aside from the debate arising from Jamie Oliver’s latest crusade against intensively-farmed poultry. I’m happy with just a plate of vegetables if I’m at a friend’s for dinner, or something easy from the Supermarket that they’ve bunged in the oven. (Such dinners are about meeting friends in their home surroundings, as far as I’m concerned, not some kind of competitive foodie event). I am grateful that I’ve been asked, and that they’ve considered my needs.

I realise that some raise their vegetarianism to the status of a religion. I still remember a meal I cooked, trying to cope guests including one with a starch and dairy intolerance, a coeliac and a vegan. Not an easy task, so I tried to keep it very simple. And everyone was happy, at least until dessert. Then the vegan triumphantly proclaimed over my soya-yoghurt and honey offering that honey wasn’t vegan, and accused me of exploitation. I was more astonished than anything else. She could have simply asked for something different, rather than crushing me beneath the weight of her moral high ground.

That said, I do get a little tired of being treated like some kind of leper by some restaurants, and exploited by others. Clearly, I don’t expect steak houses to cater for me – that’s their perogative. In my experience, it’s the extremes that are a pain actually: Veggie-only places can be either excessive in their worthiness, and incredibly dull: after all, there’s a limit to what one can do with tofu and buckwheat in the same dish. (Though there are some noble exceptions to this, of course, such as Terre-a-Terre in Brighton).

At the other extreme, very posh restaurants can be simply condescending in the nod they make to veggies (after all, they may be part of a larger party whose custom they’d lose if they didn’t make some provision). This occasionally happened to me with work-related hospitality: contacts would take me somewhere fancy, when I'd have preferred something rather more straightforward. The restaurants then felt they had to justify the price-tag with a sophisticated offering, rather than something familiar and nice: I’ve came to dread those oh-so-clever risottos - usually with a single ingredient - where these were the only vegetarian choice.

One of the worst was a Lemon Risotto at a place (which shall be nameless) in Islington. It was made creamy, not by gentle cooking, but with cream added to under-cooked rice. It was al dente to the point of being gritty, and flavoured with the merest hint of lemon, while being incredibly rich. I think it was supposed to sound refined and subtle, but was actually horrible, and at £16.95 an extraordinary rip-off. I would much rather have had something straightforward – pasta, curry, stew, a stir-fry – and robust. Part of the problem, of course, is the French influence in Michelin-starred restaurants, being one of the less sympathetic cuisines for vegetarians – and yet a good Ratatouille can be a very fine dish on its own.

And there’s the rub: medium-priced and bargain restaurants can actually be very good at this sort of thing, as they are simply cooking dishes which are, in any case, vegetarian, rather than trying to cater for vegetarians specifically. And this always works so much better for me. Lots of cuisines – the aforementioned Italian, Indian, Chinese – can be both excellent, and affordable.

So, you’re actually spoiled for choice. In West London for dependable pizza and pasta, there are the chains like Dino’s, ASK, Pizza Express and Spaghetti House. Unfortunately, my favourite local Italian closed last year, and I'm still searching for a replacement. For Asian cuisine, Earl’s Court has Masala Zone and the New Lotus Garden, or Wagamama, if you fancy a Japanese twist.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

More ideas for escaping the damp of West London

OK, so the festive season is well and truly over, and the weather is well and truly foul. The short days don’t help much either, as the post-Christmas gloom settles in. No wonder it’s the peak time of year for relationship breakdowns.

So, what can you do? Well, one idea would be to take a leaf from the books of our Romans forbears, and indulge yourself at a Spa. Coming from Italy’s sunnier climes, they knew a thing or two about dealing with our damp climate: by pampering themselves with lots of steam and hot water, massages, the works, as the magnificent remains at Bath testify. Going to a Spa has the added benefit of feeling indulgent, but guilt-free: there are no calories to put on, and it feels healthy, without the exercise. (OK, I suppose you could go for a swim, but no-one is going to make you...) What could be better?

It’s fascinating how many cultures have adopted the spa culture: as well as the Romans, Islamic countries have a long tradition of Hamams (and, of course, the Turks invented the Turkish Bath). They bequeathed this wonderful tradition to the Hungarians (visiting a Spa in Budapest is a must), but it has also been enthusiastically taken up by the Austrian and Germans. (In Germany, it was even possible to go to a health resort every year, paid for by the health system, until recently).

And the French have their Thalassothérapie, which is essentially a spa using hot sea water. But essentially, it all boils down to the same thing: lots and lots of hot water, steam, saunas, massages, and some nice skin treatments. There’s something very primeval about enjoying yourself with lots of water around – it really relaxes you in a deep, fundamental way – and not just if your star sign is Pisces.

My own favourite spa tale relates to a Hamam in Sousse, in Tunisia. My other half and I enetered not knowing quite what to expect, and not speaking a word of Arabic. The Hamam attendant didn’t speak a word of English either, so we were on equal terms. We started off in a steam room, surrounded by a group of locals. They nodded and smiled their acknowledgements, and continued their conversation with some energy, despite the sapping, damp heat from the steam.

We were beginning to feel a bit broiled and so made to leave, but the attendant firmly showed us back in. We were not ready yet. After another ten minutes, we were shown to a room with a large, hot marble slab. I was getting a bit nervous by this stage, as I’ve been given a very bad back by a few masseurs in the UK before now. But I need not have worried. He placed both of us on the slab, and then started gently pulling our arms and legs and feeling our muscles, testing how limber we were. He then gave us a no-holds-barred massage: rubbing, pulling, pressing, twisting, manipulating, massaging. The piece de resistance was stretching our spines with his feet.

After that, we were vigorously scrubbed down – ‘exfoliated’ doesn’t quite cover it – and hosed with freezing cold water. Just before I recovered my senses, we were plunged into a stone tub of incredibly hot water, and kept there just long enough to understand how a lobster might begin to feel. Just in time, we were hoisted out, dusted down with a towel, and wrapped in yet more hot towels to doze, pleasantly, for half an hour. I could happily have stayed like that for ever. I don’t think I’ve felt quite so rested. Wonderful.

Although we Brits have long neglected out Spa heritage, there are plenty of modern places to choose from around here, if you feel the urge. The Sanctuary has to be among the best known in London's Covent Garden, but many hotels have good spas, such as the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, the Dorchester on Park Lane and the Langham near Oxford Circus. (All are open to non residents, but phone ahead first.) But perhaps the pick of the bunch in West London is the Portchester Spa in Bayswater. This refurbished, Grade II listed survivor built in 1929 (originally known as the Turkish and Russian Vapour Baths) has an impressive interior, and is the best tradition of public spas, with both single-sex and mixed sessions.

Even the Romans would be happy!

Monday, 14 January 2008

Escape the damp of West London with more travelling tales...

And so, well into the New Year and Christmas just a distant memory, thoughts turn to holidays and warmer days ahead, particularly when, like to-day, West London is doing its best to make up for last year’s below-average rainfall, seemingly in the last five minutes. This inevitably means travelling to somewhere warm, sunny and, possibly, exotic.

I think it was Robert Louis Stevenson who coined the phrase, ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’. Clearly, he must have had something more challenging than the 17.28 to Streatham Common in mind, but it makes you wonder about some of his relatives if the trials of mid 19th Century travelling – potholed roads and unheated carriages – were better than the destination. (Or maybe he’d Great Aunts like mine...)

Anyway, these days travelling is far more prosaic. Unless you go for something really exotic, like crossing the Sahara by motorbike or climbing Everest, you find yourself flying in and out of identikit airports, driving along tedious stretches of motorway, or taking Virgin Trains out of Euston, none of which stirs the blood in quite the way I suspect Stevenson had in mind.

Interestingly, though, train travel still manages to excite the imagination, and I’m not saying that just because I’m a bit geeky about it. Setting off from the refurbished St Pancras on a Eurostar is pretty cool, for a start. (Actually, the thought of racing through the British countryside at 186 mph is still hard to believe). But even more so are some of those great train journeys of the world that somehow have survived the competition from air travel.

There’s the Trans-Siberian, of course, either to Vladivostok or Beijing, which must still rank as the number one epic journey. (A word of advice – the Chinese trains don’t always possess no-smoking carriages, so unless you fancy secondarily smoking the equivalent of Navy Rough-Cut Extra-Tar, check you are in a no-smoking carriage. And take your own food).

But there are plenty of alternatives. Amtrak does some pretty cool long-distance trains in the USA, from coast to coast, as do Canadian railways. The Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria is South Africa is still one of the world’s most exclusive luxury trains. (Pub-quiz fact: classed as ‘International’, Blue Train passengers were not subject to apartheid restrictions).

But my best experience so far is the Indian – Pacific, from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide. Booked through those lovely people at Trailfinders in Kensington, this was a three day, 2,900 mile epic featuring mountains, outback towns, kangaroos, silver and gold mines, and desert. Huge great horizons of desert.

My other half thought I was mad, of course. “What? You’re paying more than four times the cost of a flight, for a three day journey you could fly in four hours?”. But that’s not the point. How else can you experience the vastness of this continent on a three week trip, and read a novel or two, all in one go? And acquire a natty complimentary wash-bag decorated with aboriginal art? (Which, I might add, I am still using).

So, one clear, warm April morning saw me at Perth’s East Station, finding my sleeping compartment in one of its fifteen carriages, before, with a suitable blast from the locomotive’s horn, we set off. After clearing the sprawling Perth suburbs, the train heads 400 miles east to Kalgoorlie, home to one of the largest open-cast gold mines on the planet. The trains stops here for an hour or two to load on cars and provisions, and on some runs they offer a night-time tour of the town by bus if you want it. It’s well worth it – the mine (300m deep, 1.5km wide and 4km long) is undeniably impressive, but not nearly as impressive as seeing the tarts waving to the bus in the red light district.

These ladies of the night service the thousands of miners in the town, who considerably outnumber the unmarried local female population. Our woman bus driver was very matter-of-fact and defensive of them: “We’re right proud of our girls here in Kalgoorlie Boulder. They’re kept real clean and Dr Davies gives them a health check every month. Without them, all our local girls would be up the duff.” And this all said in a voice betraying a 60-a-day habit of Navy Rough-Cut Extra Tar. Priceless.

After a dinner in the ‘Waltzing Matilda Dining Car’ - I kid you not – and a restful night’s sleep, comes dawn over the Nullarbor Plain. One of the hottest and driest places on the planet, and four times the size of Belgium, Nullarbor is bad Latin for ‘no trees’. The train makes a beeline straight across it – literally – including longest piece of dead-straight track in the world, all 297 miles (478km) of it. (Geeks, ahoy!). Crossing this vast expanse takes a whole day at 70 mph, an astonishing experience.

The train makes one short stop on the way, to refuel at the desolate and isolated railway town of Cook. Now almost a ghost town, it has a resident population of just four. This place regularly experiences temperatures of over 50C (now you know why Aussie beer is always served chilled). Believe me, you don’t want to be left behind.

After another few hours, you enter South Australia’s bushlands. Cue kangaroos (no-one tells you they are nocturnal, though, as you try to photograph them) and dusty outback towns, before settling into the wine country of South Australia and, after another night, its lovely, leafy capital, Adelaide.

The train then strikes north, towards the picturesque silver-mining town of Broken Hill, famously portrayed in the film ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert'. Depending on the schedule, you can take advantage of an hour or so to stroll into Broken Hill, and visit the famous ‘Mario’s Palace’ hotel with its murals, featured in ‘Priscilla’.

Another ‘Waltzing Matilda’ dinner, another night’s kip, and you awake to the spectacular scenery of the Blue Mountains, named after the blue-tinted mist caused by plant oils evaporating from the eucalyptus forest. (And it really is pale blue). A few hours later, and you arrive at journey's end at Sydney’s splendidly grand City Terminal, a suitably impressive gateway to this most iconic of cities.

Great stuff. Now, where are those travel brochures...?

Travelling Trials

One facet of the Christmas holiday season, alongside the usual festive activities and the following post-festive let-down, is travel. Like lemmings, we all rush around the country (or in some cases, out of it) as if driven to undertake some seasonal human mass migration.

Most travel to visit family, of course, although many find some way to avoid the apocryphal trials of family Christmases by doing the complete opposite, getting as far away as possible, usually with the excuse of seeking some precious winter sun.

But whatever the reason and destination, the common feature is travel chaos. It simply doesn’t make sense to put such huge pressure on airports, railway stations and motorways at the time of year most likely to bring bad weather. Whether it’s security queues at airports, diversions for engineering works on the railways, or motorway service stations cram-packed with fraught humanity, it’s usually hell. (Thinking about it, why do other people’s children reserve their tantrums for public places? Why not get it over with in the car beforehand?)

Last year, my other half and I were treated to the full force of the fickle British weather when we got stuck in fog at Gatwick Airport, two days before Christmas. Problems had been predicted, but heck, we're optimists. And indeed, we thought all was well as we checked in and waited, watching other flights being called and their passengers happily going on their way. (Or at least, as happy as it gets, snaking through Gatwick’s security queues).

No such luck. The delay got longer, and longer, and longer – until they finally put us out of our misery and confessed that our flight was going nowhere that day, or any other. "Please go to the service desk to arrange an alternative flight". Ha! Cue a massive scrum, with hand luggage, arms and legs flaying everywhere. Cue frayed tempers as the Italians queue-jump. (Or perhaps they just played their Joker, Jeux Sans Frontieres-style?).

We, of course, ended up at the back of the queue, exchanging heated words as to whose fault it was that we didn’t bag a better position. But at last, it was out turn, to be told that Gatwick was no longer an option, but would we mind Luton Airport, to-morrow afternoon?

While we deliberated, we were offered some food vouchers as a palliative. This, at least, worked: the thought of a pint of real ale in the Wetherspoons bar and some grub did their trick. (Theakstons has a wonderful way of curing all sorts of ills.) We actually made an evening of it, before going back home with our luggage...

And so to Luton, the next day, bright and early. Rather, that should be 'still very foggy', and early. We were full of trepidation, expecting huge queues, generalised chaos and yet more cancellations. But we were pleasantly surprised. Apart from a bit of a scrum to get on the Airport shuttle bus from Luton Airport Parkway (this time getting our own back on some Italians...), check-in seemed an oasis of ordered calm. Security was a breeze – we seemed to the only ones there – and it wasn’t until we reached the departures lounge that we met the seething throng of displaced fellow travellers. To be fair, all was reasonably under control, but there just weren’t enough seats. So, following some of the new friends we had made on the bus – it’s funny how being crushed together like sardines can engender friendship – we made for the pizza restaurant and ordered a panini and some beers. (Alas, no real ale here). An hour later, and we were boarding happily on our way.

And the moral is? Thank you, Luton! You shall never be the butt of my jokes again. Oh, that and our New Year’s Resolution not to travel again at Christmas - at least, until next year...

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Where to retreat after a bad?

I don’t know about you, but it takes me ages to find restaurants that I like, and once I settle there, they become comfortable favourites – places to go when you’ve had a bad day, safe in the knowledge that the familiar surroundings, friendly service and reliable food will somehow restore order to the world again.

The trouble is, I also seem to have a jinx on restaurants. Either the management changes, never to be the same again, or they change the décor and replace comfy, cosy surroundings with modern, anonymous ‘designer’ décor to attract younger punters. Or they close.

So it was with one of my favourites in Earl’s Court: the Pizzeria Venezia was reliable, good value and comfy, with friendly service. We never had a bad meal there. Unfortunately, it was a little off the beaten track, and never seemed to be as busy as it deserved. And then it closed.

So, we’ve been hunting alternatives. Masala Zone is a venture of the more up-market Chutney Mary chain, and provides affordable, good-quality Indian cuisine, but the interior is large, open and busy, so not good for retreating from that bad day (great for a gang of friends, though). More the thing is New Lotus Garden Chinese restaurant. It’s small and cosy, service is very friendly indeed, and the menu is familiar, with lots of favourites. But it’s popular, and it’s best to book, so you may not get in... Another alternative is the Warwick Arms pub which, as well as serving Fuller’s ales, has some nice snug corners in which to enjoy food from their in-house Indian eatery, which is very reasonably priced.

Alternatively, there’s always home delivery pizza, a bottle of wine, and then snuggling on the sofa watching the telly...

Monday, 7 January 2008

Pooing logs and Catalan Blogs...

It’s fascinating spending Christmas abroad. All the assumptions about what the festive season is all about are gently challenged, as you see how others go about enjoying the great bean-feast (or religious celebration – up to you) in the middle of winter.

By ‘abroad’, I don’t mean some hermetically-sealed hotel or resort catering exclusively for Brits abroad, with turkey, Christmas Crackers and Christmas Pud, and Sky TV to watch the Queen on Christmas Day. I mean letting go and experiencing a full foreign Monty.

So here I am, in Catalonia, eating a Christmas chocolate log rather than a Christmas Cake. The log – a fantastic creation in, well, chocolate – is actually a long-standing Catalan tradition, although with its holly, Christmas Tree, and Santa Claus, this one looks pretty much like any other Christmas confection. Only the little red and white sugar mushroom (an Amanita muscaria, I think) gives it away as something different: the Catalans are big on mushrooms – where else would sell calendars entitled “Bolets de Catalunya” with a photograph of a different mushroom every month?

But back to the log. It seems that every other shop window has a log in it, with a face on one end – think a woody version of Thomas the Tank engine – wearing a red and white cap. In streets and squares, larger versions are set up for children to beat with sticks. As they beat it (usually to music), small presents appear from the other end. The log literally poos gifts. And then you go home and eat the chocolate version. That beats visiting Santa in a tinsel grotto any day, in my book.

The other big difference is how the Spanish manage to spin the whole thing out. First, there are the holidays for Christmas itself, and a week later the New Year. So far, so much like anywhere else. But one week on follows Epiphany, known here at the celebration of Three Kings, or just ‘Kings’. This is when the Spanish traditionally give their presents, and is another excuse for celebration and partying.

Most towns have parades on the Saturday evening, headed by the Three Kings themselves, all splendidly gaudily dressed, followed by trucks carrying the ‘presents’, while attendants throw armfuls of sweets to the assembled crowds. This is followed by dancing and fireworks and another late night of drinking (well, for the adults at least). The following Sunday all is deathly quiet, as everyone is ensconced at home to recover from the three weeks of excess and prepare for the year of work ahead...