M: Why is the despair always so thick on Fridays, Emma?
E: I dunno. Because it’s supposed to feel joyful but it doesn’t? If I could be arsed I’d go and buy a cake. BUT I CAN’T
M: I want one of those Marcolini éclairs.
E: I was thinking éclair too, but raspberry as they are closer.
M: Mouais. My feeling on éclairs is that they should be brown. Deliciously brown. Like our much beloved, much mourned cappuccino éclair.
E: On fait avec les moyens du bord.*
M: And I want that hit of salty caramel.
E: I hear you.
M: That soft creamy filling.
E: Damn you, stop making me think about it.
M: The crunch of the praline topping.
E: Bastarding Marcolini and his devil éclair.
M: And his wretched “tartine” spreadable salted caramel, with its siren song. It goes something like this:
Spreeeeead me on a hot crumpet
E: Does Tartine have a voice like Jacques Brel? Or is it more… Axelle Red?
M: I do not know. I do not care. I am too busy stuffing it into my mouth with a spoon.
* We do what we can.
Where: Pierre Marcolini, Place du Grand Sablon in Brussels. Lots of other locations in Belgium and France, including inside the Eurostar terminal in Brussels, conveniently. Londoners, I believe you can buy Tartine at Verde & Co in Spitalfields.
Fries. Frites. Frietjes. Call them what you will. They must be freshly cut from large, floury potatoes. Fried in lard until crispy and golden on the outside, and fluffy and scaldingly hot on the inside. Well seasoned with plenty of salt, and drowned in your favourite condiment. Mayo for the purists, ketchup for the infantile, sauce américaine for those with tastebuds ruined by decades of ready meals abuse and self-loathing.
Yes, this is them, above. The best fries in Brussels. I have been reliably informed of this by not one, but three separate independent native Belgian sources. Such is the power of Frit Flagey, in fact, that someone I have not spoken to since my early teens commented on these very frites on facebook:
Which more or less means tasty, I think.
You’ll find these frites at a fritkot on Place Flagey, the bleak expanse of concrete flanked on one side by Café Belga and the other by Brüsel, a welcoming bookshop filled with a vast and excellent selection of comic books. Frit Flagey is no happy trendy Shake Shack style affaire, oh no. No brushed steel or smiling assistants here. Be prepared to wait half an hour in the freezing cold and horizontal rain for your fries, for the old cranky unpleasant owner is slow. Meticulously, agonisingly slow.
While you wait, admire the excellent illustration of a man holding a cone of fries with a man in it holding a cone of fries with…
Oh Belgium. You surreal crazy little country you. It’s a good thing you know how to fry a potato.
Where: Frit Flagey, Place Flagey, Brussels
Tip: Don’t comment on the poor service unless you want to be shouted at. And stay away from the sauce américaine, you FOOL.
“When,” I asked Emma this morning with some anxiety, “Did I become the sort of person who hangs out in a teepee in Hoxton?”
When indeed. The past year has, without a doubt, been one of upheaval and adventure. I moved countries, twice, moved continents in fact – again – leaving most of my belongings in my mother’s attic in Cambodia. I rode horses in paddy fields, stood naked on a balcony on Marina Bay, got a goddaughter, walked a red carpet, hula hooped in a Victorian hall, and danced the blues in a basement while dwarves played pool nearby. It has been a glorious, unfeasible, miraculous year, filled with laughter and joy and the sort of unreasonable, unyielding tackling of fears I must remember to be proud of.
But back to the teepee.
The teepee sits on the roof of the Queen of Hoxton. It is a pop up, and it is called “Wig Wam Bam”, two facts which would be sufficient to make it a thing of pure loathsomeness. But. The teepee is lit by fairy lights and the glowing coals of a cooking pit at the centre of it. Its floor is strewn with wood chips, the seats are sawn off logs, and it smells of bonfire. It is utterly lovely.
It is cosiness. The boozy drinks – hot fudge toddies, buttered rum and mulled cider – are a very reasonable £5, and every night there’s a different meal on offer: venison, wild boar sausage, leg of pork. If you hover by the spit, the cooks will offer you tastes of juicy, tender meat dunked in gravy. And if you ask veeeery nicely, you may very well get a giant slab of wood smoked crackling all to yourself.
Bring some friends to the teepee. Laugh, gossip, eat, drink, and be merry, and revel in all that was good and right with 2012.
When: Monday – Saturday, 5-10 pm, until the end of March 2013
There’s a visible recoil when you tell someone you’re spending Christmas on your own. A barely perceptible intake of breath, eyebrows rising in suppressed horror, a softening of the eyes to indicate compassion. Christmas? On your own?
You’re welcome to come to my wife’s parents’. They take in strays every year.
said Jamie, my friend’s brother. This was the second time I’d met him.
The thing is, after two Christmases spent in the sweltering heat of Cambodia and the overbearing, sinister commercial mirth of Singapore, I’m looking forward to a Christmas on my terms. Quiet. Cosiness. A complete lack of stress, and guilt. This morning I walked down to Chatsworth Road market and stocked up for the next few days. Then I took a photo in homage to Trish Deseine, who’s had her share of Christmas trauma, and whose Parisian market sprees always leave me aching with longing. Tangerines, like Christmas crack, from the corner shop. Radishes to be eaten straight from the fridge, root and all. Tiny waxy potatoes to go with the tiny wild duck. Apple juice to warm and spice. Chestnuts for the open fire. Apple sausages and black pudding, hiding in the back, for a hearty breakfast on Christmas day before I set out on the bike to see how quiet London really is. And foie gras, of course, because some traditions are untouchable, and that beautiful sourdough loaf will need *something* spread onto it.
Happy Christmas. If you’re in the UK, do watch The Snowman and The Snowdog on Channel 4 at 8pm on Christmas eve. The loveliest, kindest, most talented people I’ve had the pleasure to work with made it, and it’s our little gift to you.
The small woman pulls open the accordion door of the lift.
“The lift has only broken down once in four years, ” she says, twice, and I notice something about her, the dense green sheen of her eyeshadow, or maybe the cheerfulness in her eyes. There’s a soft silence as we push our bodies into the small, metallic space, our eyes fixed on the strips of light and darkness as we move past the floors, towards the soft familiar sounds of old music.
It is dusk and the room is inviting, with its warm dim lights and wooden floorboards. On one side the city skyline stretches out through large and generous windows. It is dark purple and warm pink, at once imperious and gentle, pierced by the sharp lines of the Shard. It’s been a while since I last came to this swing class. A few weeks ago the days were longer, sun streamed through the windows, and I danced, eyes closed, wishing these blissful Sunday afternoons would never end.
The faces in the room are familiar, still. There’s Y, the smiling frenchman, and A with his quiffy mohawk and black piercings. His girlfriend Bug gives me a hug, her pretty round doll’s face framed by a green floral shirt and an inky scarf tied artfully in her short red hair. F is there, of course, with the pale skin and dark circles that have shadowed me from Shoreditch to Farringdon, Angel to Bethnal Green. E stands like a gauche praying mantis, all long limbs and open happy features, a small pork pie hat pushed back on his head.
After class we head for the pub across the road. The barmaid has bottle black hair and orange skin; her accent is thick and heavy. On a stool by the bar sits a fat persian cat, his face screwed up in disdain as I stroke his grey and white fur. “He’s a pedigree, he is. He never leaves the pub,” says the old man on the stool next to him. His eyes are glassy and his nose is bulbous and red.
We are tired and sweaty, and we sit with the awkwardness of strangers who have been in each other’s arms. I am fond of them, these familiar acquaintances, fond of their enthusiasm for dancing and laughing and things that are warm and bright. All around the room are portraits of dogs in military uniform. A lone rubber spider hangs by the side of the bar, a remnant of Halloween. Fairy lights have been strung around the window: red, green and blue – a blinking, colourful frame for the sickly potted plant and the greying man who sit beneath it. He is slumped in his seat in brown corduroy trousers. There are wisps of white hair on his chin and temples, and something in his face, something in the grey papery pallor of his skin and the sunken line of his lips tells me with certainty that he has months, maybe weeks to live. Red, green and blue. Blink, blink, blink.
The old man with the bulbous nose shuffles over to the jukebox and feeds it a few coins. He pokes at the buttons, leans back against the bar, opens his arms wide, and sings:
When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty, will I be rich
Here’s what she said to me.
Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.
Do you ever feel like there will never be enough time in the world? These days are passing by in a blur, one after the other, leaving behind a trail of unreached goals and unmet deadlines, and the searing hot guilt of the serial underachiever.
Nevermind. On Sundays I still take the time to treat myself to a good breakfast and this, my friends, is the breakfast of champions.
Sourdough bread, toasted, spread with a generous amount of butter.
Chard, wilted in a bit of olive oil and garlic and chili flakes.
Duck eggs, poached, using this miraculous method from Delia, which has transformed my egg poaching experience. Before: deconstructed filaments of doom, tears, tantrums, deep seated feeling of inadequacies, self-victimisation (“why does the poached egg hate me? why? WHY?”). After: perfectly formed poached egg, minimal fuss, propensity to call myself an “egg ninja”.
Parmesan shavings, kampot pepper.
Eat while sitting in the sun with the heating turned on and the steam rising from a cup of tea.
What are you having for breakfast today?
It’s been a perfect week end so far, filled with crisp, sparkling sunlight, golden leaves and long walks around Hackney with bellies full of roast hog and burnished apples and endless, irrepressible mirth. Now it’s Sunday morning, the temperature has dropped and I am shivering. Half of my winter clothes are still in storage in Edinburgh, and what sweet, comforting, precious cashmere I have is either worn at the elbows or nibbled by the giant, ominous moths who press their disgusting moth-like faces against the windows at night. Bastards.
Last week I picked up a lovely soft thin gauge cashmere jumper in a charity shop for £7.95. The only problem with it? A rather prominent hole in the middle of the chest:
Like the complete yarn dweeb I am, I spent quite some time looking up darning tutorials online. This one from Makezine is quite extensive with lots of pictures, but I eventually settled on the instructions from Make Do and Mend over on Coletterie. There’s something quite reassuring about these war time instructions and illustrations. They knew what they were talking about.
Step 1: Find some darning yarn that matches as closely as possible.
This one was £2.95 from the little knitting shop on Camden Passage. Optional step: resist buying large skeins of pure cashmere in rainbow colours. (£32.95. OUCH.)
Step 2: Start on one corner on the back of the item, leaving an inch or so of loose thread. Using a suitably sized darning needle, stitch lines across the hole, picking up a few stitches on either side of it. This can be a bit fiddly on thin gauge knit, so put on some music and take your time. You’ll need something underneath the hole to keep the tension right. A darning mushroom is probably very useful, but I used the back of a wooden stirring spoon and it worked just fine. Just pull gently around the hole to even the tension. I used two threads on this piece.
Step 3: Working diagonally across this base, weave the thread in and out of the yarn you’ve just laid, like lattice work on top of a pie, still picking up stitches on either side of the hole. Try to keep these as close together as possible, so the newly woven patch is nice and solid and gap-free.
Step 4: Feel a bit smug.
Tadaa! The darned hole on the right side of the jumper. It’s quite unnoticeable when it’s worn, though with hindsight I’d spend a bit more time tidying up the yarn around the hole before starting next time, and make sure to thread the needle through the existing loops in Step 1.
Not bad for a first attempt, and a lovely warm cashmere jumper for £10? Yes please. I’m off to Chatsworth Road Market. I hear rumours of a vintage cashmere stall there. *rubs grubby hands with glee*
The more perceptive of you might have noticed that Autumn has hit the UK with the full force of a drunken lout running straight into the window of a kebab shop. #winteriscoming, readers, and I am woefully unprepared for it. The sudden change in temperature has left me wondering where my jumpers are (answer: in storage in Edinburgh), why I only seem to have one glove out of every pair (answer: pathological idiocy) and why oh why I moved back to Europe (answer: lunacy).
Thankfully the season does have its charms. We tried to light a fire in the chimney a few days ago, which was wonderfully atmospheric and comforting for the three and a half minutes it lasted. Basic survival skills: we r doin it rong. When all else fails, I say, retreat to the duvet with a hot water bottle and a pile of books. Here are my autumn reads:
What I did, by Christopher Wakling
The adult world fraying at the seams seen from the point of view of 6 year old Billy. The narrative device could have been cloying, but the author, whose sage advice I was lucky to receive on the Curtis Brown Creative course I attended earlier this year, handled it deftly and with a brutal commitment that left me on the edge of my seat. There are also some great stories and drawings on Billy’s blog.
Verre Cassé, by Alain Mabanckou
I tried to read this in English and gave up miserably after the first few pages. The version originale is riotous and unrelenting, a vision of a Congo broken and exultant, grotesque and heartbreaking.
L’Homme à l’envers, by Fred Vargas
Fred Vargas is my literary crush of 2012. I inhaled all of her books in the space of a few obsessive weeks. This is crime writing at its most poetic and subtle. Commissaire Adamsberg solves crimes by taking long walks and observing seagulls, and in this chapter of his adventures he tracks a werewolf through the French wilderness. Eternal thanks to Emma for introducing me to the series. In English here.
The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace
I’ve just started reading this but I am already enthralled by the writing, its buoyancy and radiance. I am forcing myself to read this slowly and to savour every page. I want to lie my head on its shoulder and let it lull me into peacefulness.
I danced to her swingy tunes at last week’s Orphanage Ball and I can’t stop listening to her strange, penetrating voice.
Say Hello Wave Goodbye is entirely stuck in my head. I blame the ukulele.
At the top of the stairs a fat hairy ginger cat lies sprawled on its side, head propped up in the manner of a particularly lazy, disdainful Sphinx, surveying his domain: train tracks heading off towards Lyon and Marseille, the murmur of conversations, the clatter of shoes under the metal beams.
I’m perched on a banquette and my feet hover several inches off the ground. The table is vast, generous; the linen thick and crisp. Our suitcases have been whisked off to the cloakroom and we huddle, dwarfed by the arches and gilding and statues of sirens fainting. At tables nearby the maître d’hôtel is in a constant frenzy of steak tartare: some eggs whisked in a bowl, first, then a dash of condiments, and baskets of golden fries spinning around the room. He is small and neat, alert, genuinely concerned for our comfort.
What do we talk about? The light from the chandeliers hits our glasses of wine and traces delicate lace collars on the tablecloths. We read out loud from the little brochure detailing the place’s history. On the walls we recognise Orange, the banks of the Seine mirroring Venice for the 1901 exposition, an alpine lake. We weigh the merits of butter salted, and not, before wreaking havoc with the salt grinder.
We eat in happy, drunken complicity. We take our time and mop up the rich juices with crusty bread – like peasants, my friend says. There’s fish, mine on a bed of spinach and preserved lemon, and then a fig and raspberry tart. Outside, a lone palm tree curves against the sky – so delicately blue – and the sparkling roofs of Paris. It is impossible, I know, to freeze the moment, to stay there in that grand dream of a place, in that perfect Saturday afternoon.
With a few minutes to spare we walk down the steps towards the waiting TGVs and Transiliens. We say good bye at the edge of the tracks, and everything, it feels, is brushed with sunlight.
Where: Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon, above the old section of the train station.
Forgive me, Fat Ponies.
It has been a month since my last confession. In my youth, this, the very prime of summer, the blessed month between the fireworks of the 14th of July and the holiday klaxon of the 15th of August, would have been spent in a fug of carambars, Picsou Magazine, and Fort Boyard, stewing gently on the old leather sofa of our summer house in a slick of sweat. Instead I have been stewing, in the rolling heat, in an animation studio. Since news of the production ran in a few papers today I might as well link to it. The Snowman and the Snowdog! It’s the Snowman! Again! But with a dog. Made of snow. A snow dog.
What can I tell you about summer in London? Yes, there has been the small business of feats of athleticism, buoyant mayors and surreal ceremonies, but apart from a fairly entertaining opening night I took very little notice of the whole thing.
Which leaves me wondering… what exactly have I been doing with my time? I turn to foggy, fuzzy mobile phone pictures to jog my memory, a thing leaky and broken by long hours of pressing computer keys in the manner of a Chinese virtual gold digging monkey.
Spying on the fox family
They are skinny, belligerent, and have taken up residence in the construction site next to my old flat. I love this picture. If they ever released an album, this would be their cover.
Drinking cocktails from mason jars
Plus ça change etc.
Again at the damp cocktail bar.
Falling asleep at the theatre
Yes. I am officially 105 years old. I can no longer make it through a civilised evening without nodding off in that jerky commuter fashion, like an overworked Japanese mid level manager. I had to run away during the intermission, my cheeks burning with shame. SHAME, I TELL YOU. Mildly incontinent granny shame.
Eating Afghan food
Fried pastry triangles filled with pumpkin and leek and spiced lamb with lentils and dumpling things smothered in a sauce made of crushed halos topped with unicorn dust. YUM.
A bargainous treat at Ariana 2 in Kilburn, named after Ariana 1, in… Manhattan.
Getting a pho fix
… at this hole in the wall on Upper St.
Their banh mi has the works: roast pork, pâté, and pork floss, but at £5.50 it is exactly 18 times the price of the Phnom Penh version. OUCH.
Next up: flat hunting, something about polo ponies, and the joys of Hackney.
But not now. Granny needs her beauty sleep.