Thursday, 22 December 2011

"Tell the cook of this restaurant with my compliments that these are the very worst sandwiches in the whole world, and that when I ask for a watercress sandwich I do not mean a loaf with a field in the middle of it."
~ Oscar Wilde

It’s nearing Christmas time now, and suddenly everything is getting a little busier.  Mandi and I walked towards Waterloo to meet some old school friends, the long way via Holborn.  We stopped at The Book Warehouse on Southampton Row, half way between Russell Square and Holborn stations.  I love books. I buy too many books. Any discount book store or second hand bookshop is always a danger zone for myself and my bank balance, but I went into anyway.  I browsed the Wordsworth Classics section (3 for £5!!) while Mandi read some shmootzy book filled with quotes and profound thoughts on love and stuff. 

Half an hour later, we figured it would probably be a good idea to continue walking so that we wouldn’t be too later to meet our friends.  I foolishly trusted my sense of direction and got lost in some backstreets, but we eventually made it to Waterloo, by which time our friends had moved on to Leicester Square.  Tired, grumpy and hungry, we eventually made it to the restaurant, a small Greek place called Pompidou.  We chose the restaurant because everywhere else was too crowded, and this place seemed quiet.  
Now I know it was probably quiet for a reason. The staff were friendly, and because they didn’t speak much English, ordering our food became a bit of a point-and-nod game, which was fun.  Our hummus starters were tiny and unimpressive: a dollop of shop-bought hummus with a few straggly bits of iceberg lettuce, a couple of pieces of pitta, a slice of cucumber and some roughly chopped carrot. Although my crepe (a create-your-own spinach, broccoli, chicken and sausage combo) was filling, it didn’t really taste of much.  In fact, it tasted of salt and pepper, which I added in excessive quantities, with the texture of watery spinach.  
The best thing about it was the fact that it looked like a face.  I have to agree with Mandi when she says ‘when it comes to eating out in London, the trick is to avoid central, stay away from the obvious.’  This was, however, slightly undermined by the fact that she spoke through a mouthful of a Starbucks Panini, which she describes as ‘just beautiful, breakfast in a bun. It’s on par with a McDonald’s breakfast wrap.’

Still, we had a great evening – it’s the company that makes a good time, right? – and to top it all off I had a McDonald’s cone and flake for dessert. Yum.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

"Food is the most primitive form of comfort."
~ Sheila Graham

Today Mandi and I cooked. Check it out. *Thumbs up*

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

"It seems that the soul... loses itself in itself when 
shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp on to; 
and so we must always provide it with an object 
to butt up against and to act upon."
~Michel de Montaigne, Essais

Mandi and I ventured down Euston Road to the Wellcome Collection, where medicine, science, history and art combine.  This is, according to Nature, ‘London’s brave venue where science, art and culture converge.’  The museum, created by Henry Wellcome, houses over 1500 exhibits documenting six centuries of mankind’s perpetual interest in the human condition. 

The two temporary exhibitions at the moment are ‘Miracles and Charms’, on display until the 26th of February, which explore human reliance on faith and superstition.  The first of these exhibitions, called ‘Infinitas Gracias’, is a collection of Mexican votive paintings dating from the 1700’s to the present which were commissioned by everyday people and displayed on church walls.  Painted on pieces of tin and small plaques, the images recall personal dramas while the words acknowledge the divine intervention which saw individuals and families through crises ranging from ill-health, motor accidents, false accusations and domestic troubles. The collection is a strong reminder of the role which faith has played, and continues to play, in these Mexican communities, from 18th century paintings to modern day interviews in which people tell of miracles in their life.  I particularly liked the video of a woman called Maria from Guanajuato, who tells her story of the difficulty she had as a child learning to cook tortillas. After nothing but failure and with the pressure of a strict mother weighing on her shoulders, Maria eventually prayed in tears to Señor de Villaseca for a miracle. She soon made her first round, perfectly cooked tortilla which she dedicated as an offering to the saint.  To this day, Senor de Villaseca continues to hold an important place in Maria’s faith, as protector of her 15 children.  There was also opportunity for visitors to write their own votives, some of which had inspired artists to create votive pieces of their own. These express gratitude towards supportive families, the skill of medical experts and whatever unknown ‘greater force’ is out there.  One, called ‘Epic Bubble’, sticks out in my mind as particularly affecting: read it here.

‘Charmed Life: the solace of objects’, the other temporary exhibition, put together by an artist called Felicity Powell, emerged from her interest in and fascination with the work of amateur folklorist Edward Lovett. Lovett was a head cashier in Croydon who spent his spare time collecting charms and talismans, and exploring the importance of superstition and folklore in London during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Henry Wellcome knew of Lovett’s collection and in 1916 allowed Lovett to curate an exhibition, ‘The Folklore of London’, in what was then the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum.  

Powell was intrigued by the sense of hidden magic retained by the objects collected by Lovett, and the personal stories, now lost to history, which lie behind each charm.  The exhibition centred around a horseshoe-shaped display of charms, including lucky beans, mole feet, glass seahorses and a real sheep’s heart, stabbed trough with pins. In a small room, two videos play side by side. One video shows various MRI and PET scans of Powell’s body overlaid with images of the Lord’s prayer, written on a disc of paper the size of a small coin by 88 year old George Yeofound in 1872, in a script so small it is only legible when magnified.  The other video, also magnified, shows Powell at work, as she mesmirisingly creates small wax figures, face and hands with impossible deftness and precision.  After watching the video, which had me entirely captivated for the whole seven minutes, I was amazed to see just how small these wax pieces were in real life.

Memento mori
I wandered up the stairs to the permanent ‘Medicine Man’ collection, where an array of everyday items from the past re on display: Darwin’s walking stick, Napoleon’s toothbrush, Florence Nightingale’s moccasins, George III’s hair – it’s all there. Well, not quite all there: only 500 weird and wonderful artefacts out of Wellcome’s original collection of over one million objects are on show. There are artefacts from around the world, which go beyond the purely scientific and trespass upon the sociological and philosophical aspects of health, demonstrating our universal obsession with the human form from conception to death. These objects not only tell us about medical practices throughout history, but also offer an interesting insight into different cultures. 
Tattoo, late 19th century
Objects such as European chastity belts, Japanese sex aids, Peruvian mummies, 19th century tattoos (preserved on human skin) and memento mori figurines, show how different societies have viewed sex, death, health and beauty, sometimes with repulsion, sometimes with joy, but always with fascination.  Unfortunately, I am particularly squeamish, so things started to go downhill for me after the bleeding cups in the ‘Seeking Help’ cabinet, which was first display I came to.  I tried to continue, but only got as far as the shrunken head and shrivelled body on display before I admitted defeat and stumbled, slightly light-headed, back downstairs to Mandi and safety.  I’m feeling a little queasy just writing about it. Still, although my attempts to learn about various medical practices throughout history and around the world were frustrated by my exceptionally weak stomach, the three small sections of the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibition that I did manage to see were fascinating. 

The other permanent collection, ‘Medicine Now’, brings us right up to date with the latest ideas and developments within a few areas: the body, malaria, obesity, genomes and the impact of medical sciences on patients.  The comparison between malaria and obesity – two illnesses which don’t spring to mind as comparable – highlights just how divergent threats in the medical world are.  While the developing world lacks the money and resources to control the spread of malaria, the wealth and abundance of unhealthy foods in developed world led us to create an epidemic of a completely different kind.  

What makes this exhibition so accessible for everyone is the way it brings together scientific, artistic and the plain old every day points of view. The exhibition includes artwork, films, objects tucked away in draws, and ‘sound chairs’, where you can sit and listen to short audio clips of experts sharing their ideas about the different topics.  I chose to listen to a woman talking about her years of failed dieting.  There are tables at the end of the room where visitors could write about or draw their perceptions or experiences of different topics, ranging from war to unicorns, on pieces of card and display them in the ‘red boxes’ which line the back wall.  Around the corner is another room where you could put up drawings or artwork with the magnets provided.  I just played with the magnets for a bit.  Also, they have a Jelly Baby man – how cool!

The Wellcome Collection is definitely a place which isn’t visited enough, and I’d highly recommend going along to look around.  The Peyton and Byrne café in the entrance is also a great place to sit and relax.  And if you do visit, don’t forget to look up as you leave.  While slightly inebriated at the house of a good friend, the eminent scientist Professor Bernal, Picasso climbed onto a chair and drew a man and a woman, both winged and wreathed. The mural, known as ‘Bernal’s Picasso’, is now on display above the entrance of the Wellcome Collection.
'Bernal's Picasso', 12.11.1950

Mandi and I crossed the road to go to Euston station for some late lunch at Nando’s.  If you’ve never had Nando’s chicken liver, I have two words for you: DO IT. It’s amazing, and I don’t even like liver.

The Wellcome Collection and Nando’s were amazing, but this was definitely the highlight of my day:

Monday, 19 December 2011

"Life isn't a tiptoe through the tulips"
~Shannon Hoon

Today was rather uneventful.  Mandi decided to have toast for breakfast, which is somewhat uncustomary since, more often than not, she is content with muesli alone. I, on the other hand, always begin my day with two slices of bread, lightly toasted and heavily buttered.  At this point, as I am very aware that I may have already started to bore you, I would like to apologise and ask that you bear with me. All this toast-talk is for a reason. Mandi and I are currently staying with a wonderful lady called June, who happens to own a wonderful toaster. I just wanted to share this with you (I am also aware that even the most mundane objects delight me, so I understand if this isn't as engrossing for you as it is for me):

Mandi went for lunch at the Sardo Cucina, where she had a frittata and a hot chocolate. I, meanwhile, was left to potter around the house, then around Sainsbury's, and then around the house again.  
Sardo Cucina, 112 Whitfield Street W1T 5EE (map)

Once we were reunited, our minds turned once again to food, specifically an almost out-of-date lasagne and two very much out-of-date chicken kievs with some moderately out-of-date green vegetables. I had been so busy pottering that I completely forgot to eat lunch, and so I had my microwaveable lasagne while Mandi put the kievs in the oven.  
Half an hour later, my lasagne was just about finished and the kievs were just about done.  Today was one of those days when I ate my meals in quicker succession than is perhaps appropriate.  So we all had a plum to make ourselves feel healthier, then a few Munchies that Mandi picked up from the corner store.
Actually, I don't even know why I'm bothering to write anything for today. I didn't go anywhere, or see anything.  I just sat around and read and ate.  Fortunately, Mandi provided some art for me to look at, by arranging some dying tulips in a heart formation on June's kitchen floor, before pressing them.  So here's something pretty for all of you to look at.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

'I never met a color I didn't like'
~ Dale Chihuly

More photos here
After conducting some light research on TimeOut, we decided on the Halcyon Gallery on New Bond Street for today’s destination where the seductively colourful works of the innovative artist-glassblower-entrepreneur Chihuly is currently on display.  I had no idea how enthralled I could be by blown glass until today.  I’ve seen documentaries about Venetian glass blowers and know how much skill is required to make even a simple vase or a glass marble using this age-old technique.

More photos here
The way Chihuly manipulates the glass to create what he does is awe-inspiring.  From the bowls which form Chihuly’s earliest series of pieces to the impossibly intricate chandeliers constructed from hundreds of individual pieces of blown glass, Chihuly creates something truly mesmerising. His love of nature is unmistakable, and as I wander around the gallery it feels like a journey through a glass garden, with its vivid colours, gentle lighting and delicate, floral shapes.  A flick through one of his books shows how seamlessly Chihuly is able to not only incorporate nature in his art, but also incorporate his art back into nature, creating outdoor 'fiori' installations for display in world-famous botanical gardens

More photos here
The eye candy of the exhibition at the Halcyon Gallery is on display in the mezzanine.  The specially constructed Mille Fiori is a 24-foot long breathtaking – and I mean literally breathtaking – masterpiece, which evokes the feeling of being in some enchanted underwater world.  (“It was so beautiful. It made my heart hurt.” – Mandi.)  As well as the glass pieces, Chihuly’s sketches and paintings are also exhibited, which are as lustrous and richly-coloured as his glass works.  There’s not much more I can say, other than to inform you that the exhibition closes on the 29th February 2012 – don’t miss out.

See more photos from the exhibition here

The Coach and Horses, Bruton Street
Mandi and I strolled towards Mayfair, passing the cutest pub ever.  The Coach and Horses pub is a quaint mock-tudor style building at 5 Bruton Street. It used to be one of the oldest buildings in the area until damage meant it had to be torn down and rebuilt. Much of the interior, however, is still original, and - another tittle of trivia for you - Queen Elizabeth II was born only a few doors down at number 17. We walked on to Berkeley Square, where we saw a house which was tied with a giant ribbon to look like an impressive present, before wandering into a little side street with Mandi desperately on the lookout for a loo.  

Carmen and Armando
We stopped to ask a lady sitting outside a small café, called La Strada if she could direct us to the nearest public toilet, to which she replied, ‘Come in, come in, you can use the toilet here... if you buy a drink.’  Deal. This Spanish-born, Italian-speaking woman, who we later find out is called Carmen, is the most fun and loveable waitress I have ever met, and provided us with endless entertainment during our meal.  Walking into this place feels more like receiving the warmest invitation into an open house: it is as though we are being welcomed into a family.  (However, those who use the toilet and then refuse to buy a drink are seen off by Carmen with “next time you do it in your pants!”)  

La Strada's Rambler
Mandi and I both order ‘La Strada’s Rambler’, a huge all-day brunch which was served with the best Americano I’ve had for a long, long time. Even the buttered toast was ridiculously tasty! The menu also includes a selection of traditional, home-cooked Italian pasta dishes, curries, sandwiches, pastries, scones and cakes, all to eat in or take away. Anything you can think of is on offer, and if it’s not, I have a sense that they’ll make it for you.  

By Mandi -
And to think we almost settled for Starbucks – thank goodness Mandi needed the toilet! So next time you’re looking for somewhere to warm your hands and your heart, La Strada in Mayfair is just what you need.

La Strada, 4-5 Lansdowne Row, London, W1J 6DS (map)
On the way home, a Chagall in the window of the Opera Gallery caught Mandi’s eye, and we went in to see what other pieces the gallery was selling. We made the slightly disturbing observations that I’m drawn to artwork with themes death and erotica, usually simultaneously, while Mandi prefers picturesque scenes of efflorescing love.  We rediscovered my soft side in Berkeley Square, where we stopped to read the dedicatory plaques on the benches. These little expressions of love and friendship tell of lasting friendships, family ties, tranquil reflection and rekindled romances.  Reading them created the perfect end to the perfect day out.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

A good painting to me has always been like a friend.  
It keeps me company, comforts and inspires.
~ Hedy Lemarr

Hals' Laughing Cavalier

After quickly showering and removing all traces of any alcohol from my mum’s room (heaven forbid the consumption of any inebriating beverages in student accommodation), I returned home to my wifey just in time for tea and breakfast.  Feeling invigorated by my “early” morning walk, I decided to poach a couple of eggs to eat with my usual butter-on-toast.  I don’t know what it is about poached eggs.  I don’t even like eggs that much normally, unless they’re either scrambled with an obscene amount of butter, or sandwiched inside a double sausage and egg McMuffin. Poached eggs, however, are something else, not to mention far healthier than the other two options. 
I just love them. 
But enough about eggs.

Mandi and I decide it’s high time for a culturally enriching experience, and so decide to have a look around one of London's lesser known galleries. The Wallace Collection is a hidden gem located on Manchester square, ‘a family collection, a national museum, an international treasure house.’  The collection, which has been assembled by a single family over five generations, is pretty astounding.  The gallery, which is set in a beautiful stately home, houses an extensive collection of European and Oriental armoury dating back to the fifteenth century, as well as some of the greatest works of European art, including Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier, Canaletto’s Venetian scenes and Filippo della Valle's charming Cupid and Psyche.
Cupido e Psiche
Filippo della Valle (1732)
What Psyche felt, and Love, when their full lips
First touch'd; what amorous, and fondling nips
They gave each other's cheeks; with all their sighs,
And how they kist each other's tremulous eyes.
L'Amour prêt à lancer un trait
(Love Triumphant)
Qui que tu sois, voici ton maître;
Il l'est, le fut, ou le doit être.
Whoever you are, this is your master;
He is it, or was, or must be it.

Unfortunately, the East galleries are undergoing refurbishment, and so the great Dutch pieces by Rembrandt and… and, erm, all those other Dutch artists won’t be on show until Easter time.  But there is still a fantastic collection including works by Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau. I, of course, am rather partial to a good piece of eighteen century French art and so find myself in oil-on-canvas-heaven.  No, seriously, although I am no art connoisseur, I can at least appreciate that this collection of masterpieces is magnificent (and that’s not a word I use often or lightly).  The paintings and sculptures are beautiful, and the restaurant, located in the courtyard, is a wonderful place to sit down, whether you fancy some tea and cake, or a full a la carte meal (note that smooth link between the art and the food). 

I’m pretty sure Mandi and I are defying the social conventions that such establishments expect their customers to adhere to, as she orders hot water I unpack my laptop, but we’re used to those disapproving looks people tend to throw in our direction.  The selection of cakes looks so appealing that it takes Mandi a good ten minutes to finally settle on the chocolate and banana cake, bravely ignoring the waiter’s well-informed advice that she really ought to try the evidently popular carrot cake.  She doesn’t like banana, but justifies her choice by noting that the cake was still intact and someone would have to order the first slice at some point: it might as well be her.  Thankfully, she enjoys the cake and even finds the layers of banana cream delicious (‘it’s so good I’m going to draw a picture of it’, see below).  Further still, she doesn’t really like cream, so I’m straight in there.  

Mandi's sketch for the Wallace Collection Restaurant (

So, if you’re bored of the National Gallery (so mainstream!) and you want to spend a while gazing at some Gainsborough or Canaletto or Reynolds, this is the place to be.  There’s also a great deal of amusement to be had eavesdropping on conversations.  As I was typing, the man next to me was delivering a monologue on the Dickensian aspects of Coronation Street over a slice of that highly-recommended carrot cake to a very disinterested audience (his wife, I presume).  She, meanwhile, attempted to steer the conversation towards a discussion on the benefits of reading the Harry Potter and Twilight books before watching the films, and that all-important question: were Rachel and Ross really meant to be?

Francesca de Rimini, Ary Scheffer (1835)
And she to me: "There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery, and that thy Teacher knows."

(~Dante, Inferno V)

 On our way home, Mandi and I decided to grab some dinner from Tesco, and emerged from the reduced items aisle proudly clutching two giant chicken kievs, a pair of peppered grill steaks and, best of all, a bag containing 1.49kg of curry.  We now know that 1.49kg of food is too much for a pair of petite girls to munch their way through, but what a feast!

L'escarpolette ('The Swing')
é Fragonard (1767)

Friday, 16 December 2011

Our two souls therefore, which are one, 
Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
~ John Donne, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

This morning brought with it terrible news, as Mandi wandered towards the kitchen saying ‘There’s no food in this house.’ It turned out that there were some scones in the freezer and a jar of mouldy jam in the fridge, so we managed to create a delicious breakfast after all, although I don’t agree with Mandi putting condensed milk in my tea. Some things just don’t need to be sweetened. We hopped on a train back to London and for the first time in a week made separate plans for our evening entertainment. Mandi was to meet a friend for a wander around Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, while I was to grab some cheap Chinese and hang out at my mum’s place with Chiara, a girl I know from uni. 

For the first time in my life, I managed to reach our designated meeting point, King’s Cross station, before Chiara. I have to admit punctuality is not a strong point of mine. We headed over to ‘Chop Chop’ a cheerful restaurant cum take-away opposite the station, for dinner on a budget. I ordered my two favourite dishes to share between us, laksa and seafood sar ho fun, disguising my selfishness by telling Chiara she should just trust my extensive knowledge of Chinese food. Our food arrived promptly, and I at once saw the huge dishes before us as an unspoken challenge. There was no way we could finish all that, surely. 

I have to say, I’m pretty proud of how much we did manage to get through, leaving only a small pile of vermicelli noodles uneaten so that Chiara had something to play with while we chatted. After that, it was on to my mum’s place, where Chiara and my mother decided to gang up against me, and I became the victim of some form of emotional bullying. I knew I shouldn’t have left them alone. So I sent my mum off back to Kent so that Chiara and I continued our dinner-and-drink-on-a-very-tight-budget by finding a 1.5l bottle of cherry Lambrini and a £3.50 bottle of red wine in the local mini mart. I haven’t had cherry Lambrini since I was 18, and seeing and tasting the bright pink liquid foaming away in my mug, I remember why. Memories of those good old student days came flooding back as we drank and chatted and chatted and drank, before eventually falling asleep.

As for Mandi, all I know is she ate a giant cheese and ham pretzel.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

"When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore"
~ Jack Brooks

On the fourth day we rested, opting for a lazy day in.  It wasn’t long before we became restless and decided to go out in search of some food.  I had been craving macaroni cheese for a while, so decided to buy some from Sainsbury’s. Perhaps choosing the tinned version over the fresh, chilled version wasn’t the best idea, but with a bit of salad on the side it almost looked edible.  Mandi was in the mood for Japanese and so popped into Wasabi for ‘those triangles of rice’, which, according to her, ‘weren’t that great, a bit overrated really.  Like some men.’
Evening came and we trundled back to Tunbridge Wells for Mandi’s work Christmas dinner.  I went along as her plus one, because apparently Mandi and I only come as a pair these days. Mandi and Megan, m&m, M2 or something like that. We’re just better together.  Unsurprisingly, quite a few people at the dinner asked if we were lesbians.  We’re not.  But we are both single….
We dined at Prezzo, where the set menu made it much easier and quicker for me to decide what to eat.  Mandi went straight for the Mozzarella in Carrozza with pomodoro sauce, a.k.a. deep-fried cheese with ketchup.  I chose the slightly healthier grana padano-filled baked mushrooms with garlic mayo.  
The Pizza Vesuvio main was… well, a pepperoni pizza.  A really good pepperoni pizza at that, made better with a good drizzle of chili oil. We finished with an ice-cream and hazelnut bombe, with was rather nice: a bit of meringue enveloped in ice-cream and lavishly covered with hazelnuts.  

I have to admit I ended up leaving most of my bombe and helping myself to other people’s abandoned profiteroles, inversed, so that they had a chocolate filling and a vanilla topping – how novel! 

Okay, let’s be honest, there’s not much you can say about a standard high street Italian restaurant.  I can’t make it sound new or exciting or irresistibly tempting.  All I do is fill this post with a disproportional number of photos and say is the food was good, as was the company. Plus, we got to go to the pub afterwards and watch drunk people showcasing their best Mariah and Bono impressions on the karaoke machine.