#yellowbluepink

[Full disclosure – expect a post with pictures that basically show, well, nothing! Apart from colour and the odd blurred object!]

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A few weekends ago I visited the Wellcome Collection’s #yellowbluepink installation, a temporary contemporary visual arts exhibit by Ann Veronica Janssens. The concept is simple: a gallery full of opaque coloured mist removes the most normalised method of perception (i.e. sight). In doing so the individual cannot perceive distance, depth or surfaces and is effectively isolated, relying mostly on their other senses to navigate around the gallery. It is partly an experiment with consciousness, too; I had to wait for approximately fifteen minutes and there are iPads with some interesting exercises to do with how perceptions can be distorted based on your dominant expectations.

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I found that much of the anticipation about this installation comes from the actual waiting itself! Secondly, the way in which staff facilitate entry into the gallery builds expectation, you’re put in an “isolation chamber” in between two doors to stop the coloured mist from escaping and you have to walk through some 70s style plastic door hangings to enter the gallery.

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I found the experience really enjoyable and fun, although I spent much less time in the gallery than I thought I would. Realistically my partner and I spent most of the time disappearing into the mist and reappearing from another direction, and getting worried that we were approaching walls. In all seriousness though there is a lot that is very interesting and creative about this art. Some questions I left with were to do with the actual colours themselves – unsurprisingly the gallery is mostly filled with yellow, blue and pink mists, but they are extremely well defined with very little mixing. Visibility between colours is also non-existent owing to the opaqueness of the mist, so in certain spaces of the room you’re unaware that there is any other colour but the one you’re experiencing.

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It’s strange also that voices are audible just as normal. Although the mist feels “heavy” around you, it doesn’t do anything to muffle or blur voices. This had the curious effect of making me whisper, partly because of the self-consciousness of not knowing who might be around you hearing how ridiculous you sound wondering if a wall is looming, and partly not wanting to disturb other peoples’ experience. The only niggle I have is that the room is, well, a room, with windows and strip lights and plug sockets et al. Up close you can still see all of these things and they shatter the illusion somewhat.

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I would recommend stopping by this installation if you can, although my advice to you would be to go early. As with all free things in London, there are a lot of other people competing for the space. We arrived first thing on Sunday when the Wellcome Collection opened at 11am and had a very short wait which was fine. Be warned, they don’t have Disney style queues ready for no reason; during our 10-15 minute wait the wait joining the queue escalated to an hour and a half. They limit the number of people in the room for good reason though, so be prepared to be patient if you can’t get there early. I’m not sure I’d make the pilgrimage to Euston on a weekend morning for this as a standalone event though, so join it up with a look around the Wellcome Collection’s other galleries and their great shop, and have a weekend walk around Bloomsbury. It’s open until the 3rd January 2016 and you can find out more about the installation here.

Brush Lettering: Workshop and Brush Pen Review

In late October I attended a wonderful brush lettering class run by Quill London. The session is for beginners and is hosted by Emma Block and Teri Muncey who both use brush lettering in their careers in illustration, styling and design. I had a great time, met some lovely people, came away with a piece of wall art (!) and some good quality supplies, and indulged this newfound hobby of mine.

The class flew by and over the course of a couple of hours we practiced upper and lower case lettering, numbering styles, pattern-making with the brush (useful when producing cursive letters like S and lower case E) and created our own statement piece. I chose the sentiment “work hard, stay humble” because it’s a solid motto in life (and nice and short in case I was terrible at brush lettering). When I got home I decided I would put it up above the desk as a little motivator to carry on with this hobby and as a small piece of decoration. I think it fits, and seeing it makes me very happy, especially because it’s not perfect.

An evident part of the class was the demonstration of individual style. Everyone’s brush lettering style was different, whether it was through letter spacing, darkness of the ink used, difference between thick and thin brush strokes, slant, etcetera. This is definitely one of the appeals of brush lettering to me; each person’s is unique and I genuinely don’t think you could produce “ugly” script. I’ve definitely developed my own style and I’m not really sure where some attributes of my “font” come from, as I don’t necessarily write with these decorations with other pens. Tall letters like D, L, and H have a small loop at the top, and long letters like G, J and Y have a small loop at their tails.

Although we used a paintbrush and bottled ink during the class, I have actually acquired a few brush pens during my stationery shopping sprees. I have tried them out and doodled with them, but I wanted to hold back on judging their performance until after I’d taken this lettering class so that I could get a better grasp of the basics. I certainly didn’t want to judge my lettering using brush pens in case I could use them for better results; a bad workman always blames his tools, after all.

Since the class though I have been doodling away much more with the brush pens and have put together some thoughts on how they write according to my preference. Disclaimer! I am no expert at brush lettering and very clearly need to continue practicing. These are my efforts after practicing for a couple of weeks.

The pens I’ve been trying out are:

  1. Muji calligraphy pen.
  2. Kuretake brush pen. I can’t actually find a link for this online, mostly because the Kuretake packaging is all in Japanese. Its vital statistics are probably very obvious on the packaging to a trained Japanese eye. I picked it up at JP Books in Soho.
  3. Tombow ABT brush pen. I’ve got this in black, green and cerulean.

I’ve tried these pens out on bog standard printer paper because ink generally has good contrast against it and it doesn’t attract any particular soaking in.

This pen has a very soft, flexible brush nib and is the closest brush pen I’ve tried to an actual paintbrush. The ink is very black and the pen is clad in signature Muji style.

The pen is a good shape to hold and takes pressure well. You need to use this fairly slowly to get a consistent line and the brush fibres are quite obvious, particularly when writing round letters. Writing quickly or getting carried away with flicks means that you lose the density of the line easily and although. this can provide a pleasing handwritten effect, for me I find it makes my script look messier, like my brush was running out of ink and I didn’t think ahead to ink it up.

I found this pen the hardest to control and I think it shows in my script. I find it difficult to keep my sizing consistent and differences in thick lines vs thin lines seems more evident with this pen than with the others.

It is priced at £2.50 so is a good way of getting started with brush pen lettering and Muji shops are quite accessible in London and online. I’m not sure I’m going to continue using this pen for script too often, but I’m going to give it a go with brush sketching; the natural brush look may be better suited to this use than lettering for me.


 

The Tombow ABT is a dual ended brush pen with a fine tip at one end and a brush tip at the other. The fine tip writes very smoothly and produces a very clean line.

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This brush nib is not as flexible as the Muji brush pen, which is better for my style of writing. However, I find it difficult to achieve a striking difference between thick and thin lines to give that authentic brush lettering look. I’ve seen several videos on Instagram of brush artists producing some absolutely beautiful script with these pens.

So far I have found the hardest aspect of brush lettering overall to be achieving a consistent and yet thin line. My thin lines tend to get a little jumpy and broken and the Tombow pen shows this disjointedness. With this pen however I actually really like the effect of not trying to achieve the thick and thin contrast, but instead applying a consistent pressure. I used this pen for lettering my boyfriend’s anniversary card and used this technique rather than an alternating heavy/light pressure. This is how it came out on the envelope.

The ink runs very well and doesn’t jump. Writing at speed does not seem to affect the consistency of the line and it blends well so that if you need to go back and fill in a small line or join two letters together, the overlap in ink isn’t immediately obvious. This is very useful for me because I’m not quite there yet with joining up letters and my natural brush lettering style seems to be more isolated letters.

So far I would recommend this pen. It comes in a huge array of colours which means that getting used to using the Tombow will come in useful for all kinds of writing and crafty needs. Looking at the pictures of all three sets of script I think it’s close between the Tombow and Kuretake as to which pen wins on overall lettering appearance.


 

Is it just me or can you just tell from the lettering of the pen name that I like this one best? Or does the word “Kuretake” just lend itself well to being written and looking pretty? I was a bit afraid of using the Kuretake pen at first because it seemed very stiff and I didn’t want to apply pressure to the nib for fear of bending it out of shape. Once I’d got over this ridiculous fear though and used it as it is meant to be used… I loved it.

For the same amount of pressure as the Tombow and Muji, this pen produces the thickest and blackest line and the blackness does not fade with speed or with less pressure. It has a pleasing squeak against the page that makes you feel like the brush fibres aren’t going to come apart and produce any scratchiness in the letters, and the resultant line is extremely smooth. I’m quite prepared to admit that I like this pen so much because it’s very forgiving and it’s certainly true that inconsistencies in thin lines in particular are not as obvious using this pen – in my opinion this makes it a great choice for a beginner to use and get good results from fairly quickly.

Close up of Kuretake lettering

I also think the Kuretake is most satisfying to use because it has the best contrast between thick and thin lines which gives the script its artisan look. However it seems quite hard to come by, and strangely I haven’t managed to found it online yet.

So those are my thoughts so far! Kuretake is an easy winner, and the performance of the Tombow pen makes me want to keep trying because I’m convinced I will achieve lettering perfection with it if I apply a good few more hours to practicing with it. I’ll carry on trying out the Muji pen but I don’t think it’s for me with my lettering style and pressure. I’m going to keep my eye out for affordable brush pens and continue trying them out as I think they are a very adaptable way of using brush lettering in everyday life, whereas the paintbrush and bottled ink duo seem more suited to large lettering or specific designs. Do you have any suggestions? Which out of the three I’ve tried do you think looks best with my style? I’d be thrilled to hear any feedback!

If you would like to try out Quill London’s workshop you can find them here. They sell out quite far in advance so get your name on a waiting list of pop it in the diary for a few weeks time to look forward to! I’m going to their Modern Calligraphy class this month and I’m excited already!

Autumn is Beautiful

Autumn in London has been ridiculously beautiful this year. I feel like I’ve never really opened my eyes and experienced autumn before! There has been a bit of rain during the working week but luckily the weekends have been mostly sunny and so, so colourful. Apparently today is the warmest November day on record. I can’t express just how lucky I feel to live a stone’s throw from Greenwich Park. It’s alive with red, gold, brown, russet, bronze, yellow, green and purple. Some people speak of October as a time of change when longing starts to set in for the summer gone by and for the sunshine of next year which feels very far away. October in itself though has been a joy to behold and, for me, has eclipsed the mostly humid, grey summer months we had in London. Here are a collection of my favourite autumn pictures so far (many include my shoes, and some are just favourites I’ve snapped during the month of October).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serpentine Pavilion

Every summer the lawn outside the famous Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is adorned by a piece of contemporary architecture known as the Serpentine Pavilion. It is described by the Serpentine Gallery as “an international site for architectural experimentation, presenting inspirational temporary structures by some of the world’s greatest architects”, and according to the website is one of the most visited architectural exhibitions worldwide. This year marks the 15th year of the Pavilion and, over the years, the lawn has been previously filled by architects such as Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. A duo called selgascano are 2015’s architects and are based in Madrid.

Every year the Pavilion brief is the same. It needs to use approximately 300 square metres of space, and should be a flexible, multi-purpose social space with a café. It also needs to be the designer’s first installation in the UK, hopefully to provide a highly-visible platform for their work.

Selgascano’s Pavilion is a series of polygonal structures encased by a translucent plastic (similar to that used at the Eden Project in Cornwall and Canary Wharf Crossrail station) and surrounded by coloured tapes. The steel structure supports the plastic which is stretched to create a series of interconnected “rooms” with a central space housing a pop-up Fortnum and Mason cafe.

There are several entrance and exit points and a corridor surrounding the central structure allows the individual to walk directly around the Pavilion and discover these windows and doors. The architects have indicated that they drew inspiration from London in their design, particularly from the Underground with its tunnels, access points and connectivity.

One of the Pavilion's open doors showing the external tapes and internal plastic walls with steel arch structures.
One of the Pavilion’s open doors showing the external tapes and internal plastic walls with steel arch structures.

Across the internet it’s been described as a psychedelic cocoon, an Instagrammer’s paradise, beautifully childish, a kind of amoeba whose four blobby pseudopodia reach out across the grass, an eye-catching bauble, and a big bag of fun. Having read these reviews before visiting the Pavilion, and now having visited, I tend to agree with all of these characterisations!

The most important part of the Pavilion’s design to me seems to be the interaction between the structure and light. Clearly colour has been used liberally to create an eye catching, bright and playful landmark, and this is very obvious from the outside. The interpretation of the Pavilion from the inside however is very reliant on light conditions and the perspective of light depending on which part of the structure you’re standing in; the vibrant tapes throw different hues onto the internal plastic structure and the reflective surfaces mean that the internal colour seems to morph as you move closer or further from the walls. The Pavilion also simultaneously seems to complement, and contrast against, the surrounding green environment. It sits glowing among the green.

Internally I spotted pinks, oranges, yellows, blues, greens and purples. There are doors and windows to the structure that let natural light in, and there doesn’t appear to be any artificial light to tamper with this effect. The white floor has a reflectivity of its own (and, although it is a little battered after a whole summer of use), is a welcome canvas against the vivid walls. On the outside the plastic moves whimsically with the wind, creating a liquid, globular effect.

I actually enjoyed the exterior of the Pavilion the most. The plastic’s reflectivity is most obvious on the outside where light abounds and the contrast against the bright tapes was more striking. The whole structure also seems much larger when you walk around it in its entirety.

Me and me. Some of the external Pavilion walls are highly reflective which creates a psychedelic effect.
Me and me. Some of the external Pavilion walls are highly reflective which creates a fun, psychedelic effect.

Dipping in and out of the corridor between outside and inside is fun too. A real childishness comes over me when I have the opportunity to play a bit of hide and seek or jump out and say boo. I think this was probably intentional by the architects as the whole structure seems to want to be utilised and explored.

The Pavilion isn’t given a budget by the Serpentine Gallery, but instead uses various sources of sponsorship and the sale of the eventual structure to fund its design and build. This year’s installation is going to become a performance space in Los Angeles and I think it really suits this function. The Pavilion is used for performance and events during the evenings in London and if I hadn’t have left it so late I would have loved to revisit and check out the effect of colour and light in the dark when the green-ness of Hyde Park isn’t all around. Its size means that any performance is going to be intimate and most likely quite organic and stripped back because there isn’t a whole load of space for props or staging. Acoustically, noise carries; the tinkles and chatter of a pop-up cafe is audible but doesn’t echo. When speaking out loud the absorption of sound makes it feel like there is a slight hush on your voice. Although part of the brief is for the Pavilion to host a cafe during the day, it does feel a little of a wasted opportunity the night-time cultural use doesn’t transcend into daylight hours.

Fortnum and Mason cafe occupying the central space within the Pavilion.
Fortnum and Mason cafe occupying the central space within the Pavilion.

Despite being colourful and appealing to my inner child, there isn’t anything comical about the Pavilion. It’s stylish, built at a human scale, and uplifting. It’s interesting and has a naturalness and simplicity about its design that makes the most of its surroundings using (what appear to be) cheap and accessible materials. There isn’t anything fundamentally groundbreaking or innovative about the design, and perhaps that makes it a little safe for selgascano’s first UK installation. I didn’t come away from the Pavilion feeling that I had experienced a unique and overly memorable piece of work, but it was certainly enjoyable, fun and a novel way to interact with colour, light and space as London’s autumn greyness starts to set in. I’ll be back next year.

 

Pistachio Loaf Cake with White Chocolate Cream Frosting

I’m not sure how overtly autumnal pistachios are but I sure do love them. The ritual of shelling salted pistachios and seeing the pile of husks grow rapidly is very satisfying; for some reason my family seem to buy all of the pistachios at Christmas. While in Greece in September, I tried a wonderful bright green pistachio ice cream at Lolita’s Gelato and found out that pistachios are a local delicacy in Santorini, they’re everywhere. I love their green hue and that a handful of them counts as good fat! I recently came across a recipe in the Hummingbird Bakery’s “Cake Days” for this pistachio loaf cake and the idea really appealed to me. I must admit haven’t had the best of luck with Hummingbird Bakery recipes in the past. It was sadly hidden away right at the back of the book before the guidance notes, as if nobody is meant to find it! Well, I found it and had to give it a go.

The cake is soft, with sweetness coming from the frosting rather than the cake itself, well-distributed nuts and it is a lovely pale green against the white frosting. The chopped pistachios on top of the cake add a pop of colour and contrast against the white and easily give the flavour away to whoever’s looking! Just look at this green!

This was another long bake and a lesson I’m taking away is to reduce my oven temperature as the outside was ever so slightly too dark for my liking. When I tucked into a slice I felt that the outer crumb was slightly too hard. A similar timed bake with a touch less heat is one thing I’d do differently next time. Another random but potentially helpful point is that I used a very angular loaf tin. I have three different loaf tins with varying degrees of rounded corners and depths and I chose this one as it was the deepest, but on reflection I feel like the loaf cake looked a little like a brick with frosting on top 😳 (mostly because of the colour of it… but the sharp corners certainly didn’t help).

I can’t get enough of this frosting. It is so versatile. The original recipe called for a simple icing glaze (which I’m sure would work fine) but I wanted to use this frosting to give the cake extra height and volume, as well as a bit of piped decoration. I also judged that the cake was unlikely to be overly sweet based on the ingredients used, and wanted to add a little bit of luxury. I’ve slathered this frosting on blueberry cakes, lemon cakes, cupcakes of all flavours, carrot cakes… it works with many different cakes because the primary flavour is buttercream with a discreet white chocolate, almost vanilla-like sweetness.

This cake earned me a lot of kudos at work! People hear that you’ve baked with pistachio and are instantly interested; I suppose it’s quite an unusual baking ingredient. I would definitely recommend making it as a casual gift, to serve if you’re hosting a cup of tea for friends of an afternoon or to keep in a cake tin for slices during the week. It’s easy to make too (if you have patience for all that pistachio chopping!).

Ingredients

For the cake

190g unsalted butter
190g plain flour
190g caster sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp/5g baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
25ml sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g shelled unsalted pistachios, roughly chopped (for the cake mixture)
15g shelled unsalted pistachios, roughly chopped (to top the cake)

For the white chocolate cream frosting 

100g white chocolate
140g unsalted butter, very soft
140g icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees (fan) or 180 degrees (conventional), and grease and line a 2lb cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together in an electric mixer or with a hand-held mixer until pale and fluffy.
  3. Add the eggs one at a time and mix very well until completely incorporated into the mixture. It shouldn’t curdle.
  4. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together and add to the mixture in two halves. Beat the flour in on a slow speed to avoid overmixing.
  5. Add the sour cream and vanilla essence and mix.
  6. Mix in the 100g of chopped pistachio by hand so that they are well distributed. By this point the mixture should look a little something like this:
  7. Add the mixture into your lined loaf tin and smooth out. The recipe calls for 50-60 minutes before checking it with a skewer but mine needed about 67 minutes!
  8. Remove for the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes or so before turning out to cool completely.
  9. Melt the white chocolate in small chunks in a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. I have read that white chocolate has the lowest melting point of all chocolates and so if it’s overheated it doesn’t incorporate into other ingredients very well or set well. Keep stirring it and take it off the heat as soon as the majority of the chocolate is melted – the remaining chunks will melt in from the existing heat. Allow this to cool in the fridge for about 5 minutes.
  10. Beat together the butter, icing sugar and vanilla extract until fluffy and stiff (about 5 minutes).
  11. Add the white chocolate into the buttercream mixture slowly and continue to beat until it reaches a light and soft consistency. If you want to spread the frosting then feel free to use this straight away. I piped mine so I popped it in the fridge for 10 minutes to pipe smoothly.
  12. Spread or pipe the frosting onto the cake. Sprinkle the remaining chopped pistachios onto the frosting and put the cake on the nicest cake stand you have.

I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for more pistachio recipe as it’s not a common ingredient. I imagine it would go well with a sharp citrus flavour too. Perhaps I will incorporate some into my next lemon drizzle to see what happens!

PS – isn’t my copy of Homer’s “Odyssey” beautiful?! I’m slightly obsessed with it! I can’t take it out of the house as I don’t want to get the edges bent or accidentally spill something on it. It’s a joy to look at. And read of course; I’m making my way through it slowly but surely. I’d be interested if anybody out there has read it and would care to discuss it with me!

Proscuitto, Manchego and Balsamic Onion Quick Bread

Have you been watching the Great British Bake Off? It’s one of my favourite programmes of the whole year. It’s light-hearted and there aren’t really any expectations for the winner at the end, although some of them have gone on to do very well in the public eye, and some non-winners have too. Ruby Tandoh’s weekly column in The Guardian is one of my favourite sources of new and interesting recipes. I am a big fan of Nadiya and Tamal. I’d be very happy if either of them won!

After each episode I always feel very inspired to produce something from the week’s theme. I’ve got a lot of experience making cakes but I feel like cake week is the only one I’d be anywhere near my comfort zone within. I’ve noted down lots of recipes from the series so far that I want to try my hand at, and BBC Food are handily publishing 5 recipes from each week on their website. Today was the perfect opportunity to return to week 3 (bread week) and bake Alvin’s proscuitto, manchego and balsamic onion quick bread which basically sounds like heaven in an oven. I’ve never made a quick bread or soda bread before, and just the thought of the combination of ingredients and flavours here make me ridiculously hungry. They’re the the kind of toppings I’d go for on a pizza, or pull together on a cheese board.

I am very lucky where I live in Greenwich to have a couple of gorgeous independent shops about 30 seconds walk from my house. It’s all very English, there’s a fishmonger, butcher, florist, green grocer and cheese shop. The Cheeseboard is a teeny shop on the corner packed with wines, olives, chutneys, dairy products, bread and baked goods and CHEESE. They’ve never let me down so far no matter how esoteric the cheese is that I’m after.

There was a fair amount of preparation to do for this recipe. All that tearing of proscuitto and basil, dicing manchego and slicing onions. The actual breadmaking part feels very short! I suppose that is the beauty of a quick bread. Take your time over preparing the onions so that they become super sweet and juicy while cooling. It’s the presence of these onions that mean you could almost eat it without butter because there is already a chutney-esque flavour running through it.

After rubbing the butter and flour together, it’s important that all the dry additions are well distributed through the breadcrumby mixture because apparently quick breads shouldn’t be handled too much. You don’t want to be kneading it excessively with the aim of distributing the fillings. The picture above is what my dry ingredients looked like all ready to receive the buttermilk.

I used about 250ml of buttermilk to make the dough just come together rather than the full 300ml. It looked so appetising even before going in the oven! All the different flashes of colour are lovely.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp cooking oil (olive, vegetable, rapeseed etc)
  • 1 large red onion, sliced
  • 3 tbsp (45ml) balsamic vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp (22.5ml) soft brown sugar
  • 450g plain flour
  • 1 tsp (5ml) bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp (5ml) salt
  • 30g cold, diced unsalted butter
  • 80g proscuitto, torn roughly
  • 200g manchego cheese, diced into roughly 1cm chunks
  • Handful of torn basil leaves
  • 300ml buttermilk (or 300ml milk mixed with 20ml of white wine vinegar)
  • 1 tbsp (15g) butter, melted, for brushing over the finished quick bread
  1. Preheat the oven to 200C/180C Fan/Gas Mark 6 and line a baking tray with baking paper.
  2. Warm the oil over medium-high heat and when hot, add the red onions and stir. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and cook for 15 minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar, increase the heat slightly, and cook, uncovered, for a further 5 minutes. Set aside to cool completely (this should take half an hour or so).
  3. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a large deep bowl. Rub in the butter until it resembles very fine breadcrumbs.
  4. Put a small amount of cooked onions, manchego and proscuitto aside to top the bread with when it goes in the oven.
  5. Add the remaining onions, prosciutto, basil and cheese to the flour mixture.
  6. Mix the buttermilk with 25ml water. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and the buttermilk mixture, I used about 250ml rather than the full 300ml and you’re trying to make a dough which just comes together. Add more buttermilk if the dough is too dry, or a little plain flour if it’s too wet.
  7. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, roughly shape and transfer to the prepared baking trays. Flatten the loaf to about 4cm thick. Score the top using a sharp knife and top with the reserved balsamic onions, proscuitto and manchego.
  8. Bake for 40 minutes or until golden-brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the base. I covered the bread with foil 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time to make sure it didn’t get burnt. If the bread sounds hollow when you tap its base, it’s done.
  9. Transfer to a wire rack and brush with melted butter. Allow to cool fully.

The fact that this quick bread already has a handful of meat and cheese in makes it delicious on its own rather than a bread for sandwich-making. I had it with a spread of goats cheese. I was actually impressed by how soft the crumb was, as I was expecting a rather more dense loaf given the lack of kneading and yeast. Quick breads keep well in airtight containers, in the fridge for a few days or frozen when fully cooled down. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the GBBO final next week!

September Stationery and Bookish Bloomsbury

I have been reducing my expenditure slightly on stationery over the last couple of months. I should say that this doesn’t mean the quantity of stationery I have acquired has reduced. The truism “quality over quantity” has probably sprung to your mind, but one of the best aspects of this particular passion of mine is that great, unique and usable stationery comes in all shapes and sizes, for all prices.

One piece of stationery that I love and have decided I can’t live without? Washi tape. Perhaps to some, these decorative tapes appear relatively useless. But since incorporating them into my various written pursuits, I find I can’t get enough of the stuff. Using washi tapes can add instant luxe appeal to the most drab of Paperchase sale cards. It adds splashes of colour to darkly-coloured notebooks and boring office-cupboard plastic wallets. It can be used as page markers or bookmarks. Borders, lines, boxes in a scrapbook. I am a bit obsessed. I have about 20 different washi tapes and I chop and change these in my daily collection just like my pencils and pens.

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Much of September’s stationery I bought in person and on a singular occasion. I went for the most wonderful walk in Bloomsbury recently. It’s amazing what you see when you’re actually looking for it. The British Museum is very famous for its wonderful collection of Greek antiquities, and while I nosed around museums all over Greece recently it’s noticeable how many pieces of Greek art and history are actually on loan from the British Museum… to Greece! On taking a stroll past the British Museum I noticed for the first time that many of the shops nearby have a Greek theme. That would have never caught my eye before my recent holiday. Anyway, my reason for being in the area in the first place and the eventual moral of this story is that Bloomsbury has the most fantastic aura of bookishness and literacy about it. Over the course of about four hours I strolled around with a coffee (Holborn Grind, delicious) stopping off at various independent bookstores and stationers. Best day ever.

One of my first stops was Blade Rubber Stamps. This is a shop devoted to, well, rubber stamps. I love using rubber stamps and often incorporate them into notes and letters. I’ve been lusting after a date stamp for some time, having been patiently waiting for this cute little one (number 11) to come back into stock at one of my favourite stationers’ Present & Correct. Blade Rubber Stamps has a vast range of products; seasonal motifs, short messages in vintage style type, floral designs, black cabs… you name it, it’s on a stamp. They had a great selection suitable for letter-writing, and I was particularly drawn to a tiny snail stamp (as in “snail mail”). But then I found this beauty. So far the quality of the stamp seems excellent; it produces a lovely and extremely fine colonial font. I’ve been inking it up with my Lion stamp pad as the ink comes out brilliantly black. Gorgeous isn’t it?

Onto some of my paper and ink acquisitions over the last month. I purchased a couple of my new washi tapes from Volte Face on Great Ormond Street, and the rest I picked up at another of my favourite stationers’ – JP Books in Soho. JP Books specialises in Japanese products and the display of books and magazines (predominantly in Japanese) fascinates me. Oh the hours I’ve spent in here. It’s ironic because the stationery collection isn’t vast, but they stock products that I just haven’t come across anywhere else. All that testing and handling and reading takes time. First and foremost I bought myself a Tsubame Cream notebook. I have read reviews of the Tsubame Fools range of notebooks online and I know that they are well respected for their bleed resistant, watermarked paper. On opening this notebook you are confronted with the creamiest of papers. The cover is soft-bound and has a leathery effect to it, and there is a great, very lightly woven linen-style binding on the spine.  I’ll update on this when I get stuck into using it properly. Oh and I’m too nervous to write my name on the cover. I don’t want to ruin the look and feel of it by scrawling my name on the front yet!

My other two purchases are disposable pens and came at a snip. These are the Pilot Uniball Signo RT1 in blue black (0.38mm) and a Kuretake brush pen. While I love a good fountain pen I do have a special place in my heart for fine gel pens. The Pilot RT1 is a very smooth pen to write with and I really like the blue black tone.  While it’s not going to win prizes with me for uniqueness, it’s a worthwhile everyday pen and I’ve been using it consistently at work ever since I added it to my weekly collection at the expense of all my other pens, which is actually quite an accolade considering how much thought I put into said weekly collection. The image at the top of this post is a sample of how the RT1 writes, very occasionally I have an issue with the ink skipping (as you can see on the word “mean”) but overall the ink is consistent. I’ve only doodled and jotted with the Kuretake brush pen so far. I’m actually attending a brush lettering workshop later this month for which I’m hugely excited. I’m planning to keep it safe to use and practice with after I’ve picked up some tips and tricks to produce beautiful brush calligraphy!

On my walk I stumbled across Persephone Books on Lamb’s Conduit Street. Persephone Books is predominantly a publishing house with a bookshop attached, specialising in female writers particularly from the early 20th century. I couldn’t walk out of this shop empty-handed. This book, “Someone at a Distance” by Dorothy Whipple, was recommended to me as featuring a meaty plot and having a very literary style of writing compared to some of the more light-hearted books on offer. I proudly walked out with this under my arm and I’m about to start reading once I finish the current book I’m on (“Confessions of a Sociopath” by M.E.Thomas). I’m looking forward to it because it seems to be different to my usual fictional choices which have recently included “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce, “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozens, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou and “A Song for Issy Bradley” by Carys Bray). Persephone Books deserves its own blog post though and I’m popping back soon to meet the staff at Persephone Books to learn more about their publishing style, book selections and future editions.

Have you used any of these products? I’d be delighted to hear your reviews.

Last Days of Summer

Since my last post back in early August I have been snowed under with various events and commitments including a trip to the Royal Academy of Arts for the Summer Exhibition, sailing the Thames for a good friend’s recent nuptials, and a wonderful three week break making my way around Greece. It’s been a great few weeks! It does make for a rather stunted set of blog posts however. Luckily Autumn is bringing with it many more nights in to undertake my favourite things; cooking, writing, reading and generally indulging in various crafts.

Greece is such a beautiful country and I’m so glad I visited. Over the course of three weeks the journey consisted of Athens and four islands in the Cyclades group: Milos, Folegandros, Ios and Santorini. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from Greece given the current political and economic situation but I can honestly say I fell in love with the place. It’s up there in my favourite countries ever. I think it even beats my trip to Bali last year!

Naturally one of the most memorable things about my holiday was the food. Greek food… who knew? It’s not a hugely accessible cuisine, even in London. Apart from the various “mezedhes” type dishes associated with middle Eastern cuisine, I had relatively few expectations from Greek food. I think what makes it so exceptionally delicious is the simplicity of it.  Every day my partner and I tried to order something new and local, which was great on the islands because they have their individual specialities. I think we accomplished this every single day and discovered lots of new flavours and styles of cooking. Some of our favourite dishes included lamb on a spit, saganaki cheese, grilled calamari, souvlakis and gyros, fava beans, rabbit stifado, pies with all kinds of fillings and flavours, spetzofai, feta, feta and more feta. Olive oil on everything, with a side order of Greek white wine. Even the most simple things seemed to be so delicious! It was like I had never really tasted honey, bread, olives or nuts before. I can’t explain it. Needless to say I came back with my suitcase packed full of olive oil, herbs and spices, including local oregano, rosemary, thyme, pink peppercorns, camomile… I can’t actually bear the thought of using any of these wonderful ingredients because I don’t want to risk wasting them! I have a beautiful recipe book called The Islands of Greece: Recipes from Across the Greek Seas (by Rebecca Seal) which contains many of the dishes we tried, and many local dishes from the actual islands we visited. Now that I have a real appreciation for how these dishes should look, feel and taste, I’m going to put a lot of effort into making some authentic Greek recipes. I can’t wait.

Octop-hi! Freshly caught octopi sun-drying at Ammoudi Bay, Santorini. Octopus is on every menu on the Cyclades islands we visited, usually grilled with a simple vinegar dressing. Of course we tried some, and it was very nice... if a little rubbery.
Octop-hi! Freshly caught octopi sun-drying at Ammoudi Bay, Santorini. Octopus is on every menu on the Cyclades islands we visited, usually grilled with a simple vinegar dressing. Of course we tried some, and it was very nice… if a little rubbery

Anyway, I have many things with which to update this humble little website. I’ve got lots of stationery reviews to upload, recipes from my time off (including my first try at making macarons) and a short post about each place I stopped at in Greece. I’m looking forward to getting started! I hope you enjoyed the last days of summer!

No need for holiday blues when you've got Greenwich Park two minutes away.
No need for holiday blues when you’ve got Greenwich Park two minutes away.

Beef Pho with Slow-Cooked Brisket

The last two weeks have been a rollercoaster of various bugs in my house. Stomach bugs, chest infections, colds, earaches. Pho has been on my list of things I want to make for quite some time now and I thought that devoting my downtime at home to a slow-cooked meal would be a positive outcome from a negative situation. Also, I have been reading a lot about how nutritious and mineral-rich bone broth is. What could be better when you’re poorly?!

Let me start by saying I love pho. I especially love pho when I’ve been unwell as I find its deep fragrances so healing, familiar and comforting. Just knowing the time that goes into cooking it instils a heartiness just like good old fashioned chicken soup. As anyone who loves pho can attest to, the bone broth is everything. Luckily I’m used to demonstrating patience with cooking as I spend a lot of time baking, and I settled on a minimum of 7 hours to make the bone broth.

A bit of online research offered some good explanations as to the differences between a stock and a broth. Several sources reasoned that seasoning is added to the broth to make it into a viable dish on its own, whereas stock relies fully on the flavourings derived from the bones and vegetable base. Also, apparently traditionally a broth would be made from mostly meat (or the leftover liquid from cooking meat), whereas stock would be made from mostly bone. Although one of my favourites in Vietnamese restaurants is bun bo hue (a spicier broth-based noodle dish), I wanted to start my pho-making adventures with a genuine broth base and settled on primarily using bones.

Beef bones for the broth. Appetising eh?
Beef bones for the broth. Appetising eh?

I am very lucky to live about a minute’s walk away from a wonderful, locally sourced butcher called Drings. I left my sick bed to go and get 1.5kg worth of beef bones to make the broth. I did request bones with a bit of meat and fat left on them to add to the meaty flavour.

I used Rick Stein’s pho bo recipe to get me started.

Getting started with the broth

Firstly, find the biggest and deepest pan you can. Mine was suitable for the bones, vegetables and about 5 litres of liquid and this yielded 4 generous bowls of pho. The initial stages focus on releasing fragrances and aromas from the spices and softening the broth base of onions and ginger. Then, similarly to making stock, the bones are added to a vegetable base of celery, carrot, onions, peppercorns and the spices and submerged in cold water. You have to watch the broth for the first half an hour or so to bring it up to simmering level and to skim off any scum. Once the broth stops producing scum, you’re good to turn the heat right down, cover the pan, and leave it for as long as you possibly can, with the occasional stir once an hour or so.

Resist tasting the broth as you go along if you can, I had a few tastes after 4 hours and I was worried because I found it bland. Be patient! Give it time, the flavours develop and they develop deeply. The late additions to the broth, including a pinch of palm sugar and fish sauce also add different dimensions to the broth that you won’t get tasting as you go along.

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Serving the dish

Strain the broth through a very fine sieve or cheesecloth so that you’re left with a clear and pure broth. I strained the broth twice to make sure. Discard the leftovers apart from the slow cooked brisket and leave this to get even more tender for a few minutes. Cover, add the palm sugar and fish sauce, and leave over a very low heat to keep warm while you assemble the bowls.

3 minutes to soak the rice noodles in boiling water, arrange the brisket, sprinkle some spring onion, ladle the broth over the top, and serve. Let your guests help themselves to bean sprouts, herbs, chilli and lime.

Ingredients 

For the beef broth:

  • 40g ginger, roughly chopped and bruised

  • 350g shallots, sliced

  • 4 star anise

  • 2 cinnamon sticks

  • ½ tsp fennel seeds

  • 20 ounces beef brisket

  • 1.5k beef bones

  • 2 sticks celery, sliced

  • 2 carrots, sliced

  • 2 onions, sliced

  • 8 cloves

  • 1 tsp black peppercorns

  • 5 litres cold water

  • 1 tbsp salt

  • Pinch of palm sugar

For the rest of the dish:

  • 300g rice noodles

  • Bunch of mint

  • Bunch of coriander

  • Red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced

  • 2 limes, wedged

  • Bunch of spring onions, finely sliced diagonally

  • 4 tbsp nam pla, fish sauce

  • 100g bean sprouts

  1. Add the star anise, cinnamon sticks and fennel seeds to a hot and dry frying pan. Keep the pan moving until the spices become fragrant.
  2. Return the pan to the heat and add the bruised ginger and shallots and fry for 8-10 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the ginger and shallots are golden-brown. Transfer to the plate with the toasted spices.
  3. Place the bones, celery, carrots, onions, cloves, black peppercorns, roasted spices, ginger and shallots into a large, deep pan and pour over the water. Bring to the boil, skimming off any scum as necessary.
  4. Lower the heat, then add the salt and allow the broth to simmer for as long as possible (I simmered it for 7 hours).
  5. Slice the beef brisket roughly and add it to the broth approximately two hours to an hour and a half before you wish to serve the pho.
  6. Cook the rice noodles as per the packet instructions and add to four pho or noodle bowls.
  7. Add the mint, coriander, red chillies and lime wedges into a separate dish to add to your pho as per your tastes.
  8. Add the white part of the spring onions and the fish sauce to the broth.
  9. Sprinkle the green part of the spring onions and the bean sprouts over the noodles and beef. Ladle over the hot stock and serve with fresh herbs and chilli, just as you like it.

Note: I found leftover broth really hard to keep. I would recommend eating it all fresh! I didn’t try freezing it, but I have frozen homemade stocks before.

Learning how to cook pho at home from scratch has illustrated clearly to me that this is not a difficult dish to make. It’s a time-consuming one, but the hardest thing is getting the broth right, and given that I was so pleased with this broth, I feel that it can only get better with practice. If you have a rainy day at home, give it a try! I get such satisfaction from slow food and pho is a real crowd-pleaser. I’m going to try my favourite bun bo hue next. Get practicing in time for winter!

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FindTheGirlsOnTheNegatives / East London Snapshots / Diamine Bilberry Review

 

Has anybody seen Meagan Abell’s Facebook campaign to find the original photographer of some fantastic quality negatives she found in a charity shop? They are ridiculously beautiful, evocative, dreamy, wistful, summery. Here is one of the photos:

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The internet is full of stories about viral reunions. I really hope this one finds its way back to the photographer and subjects. Who knows what other great shots they’ve taken in their life.

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On my wanders this week I’ve found some great pieces of public art. Some obvious…

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Some not so obvious!

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Back to business. I’m a big fan of Diamine inks because they are so affordable and there is such a great range of colours and shades available in relatively small 30ml bottles. This means I get to try out lots of the Diamine range compared to other more expensive ranges, as I go through ink like water.

 

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There’s a slickness and professionalism about the colour, almost a masculinity. I don’t find this ink a novelty shade in any way, it’s attractive for long stretches of writing and I love the contrast against the light shades of paper that I generally use.

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I’m going to get a picture and update this post with a daytime shot of this ink to demonstrate what it looks like against a blander coloured paper. There’s something really natural about its shade that evokes autumn; the colour of blackberries and sloes. Bilberry is so deeply saturated that the colour is very consistent, although as I’ve mentioned above I sway between thinking this is a blue and purple ink depending on any kind of external circumstance! Something I love about using Bilberry is that it’s exciting for me because I appreciate the different tones and saturation, but this isn’t immediately obvious to others, it isn’t for showing off or attracting attention.

If you’re a fan of using deep, inconspicuous and almost surreptitious shades in your writing, give Bilberry a go.

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