Thursday, 20 November 2014

17 things I don't like about hotels


I love staying in hotels, I like the non-commitment of it. I love to explore the room, the features, the amenities, the hospitality, the view, the local surroundings, the fact that for once I'm not the one doing the cleaning. But some things do irritate me and here is a quick list.
  • No free wifi. Or no wifi in your room but only in common parts (this is so frequent). Wifi is not a luxury, it's a necessity. Difficult wifi where you need a million logins and passwords to get into it in the first place (we aren't all paedos) and then jumps out if you pause for a minute. 
  • No bottle of water next to the bed. So many hotels don't. People get thirsty in the night.
  • Early breakfast hours.  As a freelance, I don't have to get up early at home why would I want to do that in a hotel when I'm ostensibly supposed to be having a holiday or at least a nice time. Stressful.
  • Crap breakfasts: unimaginative muesli. Discount yoghurts. Cooked breakfasts. Sunny Delight rather than proper orange juice. They always assume everyone wants a full English cooked breakfast. No. I don't want to eat a big fatty meal at that time of morning. Small cups. I like big cups, mugs. And the worst: no marmite. There is never any marmite. Pretty much never. 
  • Awful vending machines. If you are going to have a vending machine then stock good stuff. I actually think fizzy drinks like coke should be banned or only used on special occasions. (It's incredible to think that some people drink sodas several times a day: this would also be on my list of why young British people have bad teeth and bad manners. None of them drink tea anymore. Badly brought up.)
  • Over-fussy bedcovers. So depressing. They are probably chosen to hide the dirt. The bedcovers in Alaskan hotels were particularly grim. You'd want folky patchwork covers or bear skins or something, but you got old lady nasty fabrics.
  • Noisy air-conditioners. Air-conditioners that you can't figure out how to make work.
  • Noisy fridges. I just pull the plug out.
  • NO conditioner. Anyone would think the world was run by men. Women often have long hair. When you have long hair and you shampoo it, it becomes a tightly-knit fuzz around your scalp. You need conditioner to untangle it, if you try to do it with a comb or brush you tear it. Conditioner is a medical necessity. Oh yeah, and if you were thinking 2 in 1 shampoo/conditioner was sufficient, think again. It's not. It's crap at both shampooing and particularly at conditioning. Again I've noticed that's a short hair/man thing.
  • Bathroom mirrors placed too high. Anyone would think builders are all men. A mirror where I can only see the top/dome of my head is no good to me.
  • Too high showers. Anyone would think the world is designed by tall people (i.e. men). If I stand in a tall shower, by the time the water gets to my body it is a but a thin mist-like spray.
  • Hairs in the bath or sink. Yuck. They are so often left there by the cleaning staff. 
  • Terrible dining. Most of the worst and overpriced restaurants in the world are attached to hotels. Often you get that corporate businessmen's dining: mock Michelin star crap. It's nice however when the hotel restaurant agrees to serve you pudding in bed as recently happened to me. 
  • A fixed TV in the corner that is miles away from your bed. I mean c'mon. One of the luxuries of staying in a hotel is TV in bed. 
  • Good in-room snacks that aren't too expensive. The Ace hotel in Portland had great snacks: artisanal nachos, great salsa, a boutique chocolate bar, some home-made peanut butter cups. 
  •  No tea facilities, particularly in foreign hotels.  In America you sometimes get coffee facilities (but often unworkable). And too few milks. Or even, as in America, no milk. If they know the guest is British, they should put tea and milk in the room.
  • Freezing swimming pools. I stayed in a Cape Town hotel this year where they had an outside pool which was literally ice cold, even though the weather was good. Torture. Plus they had loads of horrible splashy kids threatening to splash you with said ice-cold water. An ordeal. 
  • Being treated as if I don't exist just because I'm a woman travelling on my own. This doesn't frequently happen but it does often enough to mention it here. Standing at reception and being ignored because they think you are the little woman behind the suited-up man standing there. So even if there is more staff, they ignore you.

What drives you crazy about hotels? What do you like to see in a hotel?

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Bloomsbury Secret Tea Party

To celebrate my forthcoming book MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party (pre-order now, out November 27th), which has a directory of UK secret teas in the back, I will occasionally be featuring other secret tea parties, that is private tea rooms in people's homes. I did my first secret tea party back in April 2009, a few months after I started my underground restaurant. I've always loved the ritual, the prettiness, the sandwiches and the  baking of afternoon tea. I like to drink multiple cups of tea, from a pot, intermingled with the odd glass of champagne or teapot cocktail. I adore the gossipy potential of afternoon meetings, dressing up for the occasion. 
One such secret tea room is run by Australian cookbook author David Herbert from his house in Norbiton, London. David is a collector and devotee of the Bloomsbury period of art. When you visit his tea room, you are surrounded by valuable china, ceramics, paintings from the Bloomsbury era. You even get to sit on Virginia Woolf's chairs, the seat cushions were sewn by her.
Plus you get exquisite baking, dainty smoked salmon fingers, the lightest sponges, a beautifully decorated cake (David decorated cakes for the Downton Abbey set and this was a similar example) and relentless silver pots of tea (keep 'em coming, that's how I like it). The table was dressed with delicate linens, original Edwardian glassware and enormous brightly coloured dahlias from his garden. 
David has a wonderful eye, he chose the props and backgrounds for the photo shoots for my V is for Vegan book due next spring. It was an education visiting prop houses with him. 
Below is a photo gallery, an unashamed visual feast, a riot of colour and texture, just because his house is so gorgeous, every little bit of it, down to the teaspoons.
Bloomsbury ceramics, stained glass door, David Herberts secret tea

Hand painted lampshades, bloomsbury era,David Herberts secret tea

Mini Victorian sponge, David Herberts secret tea

Blackberry friands, David Herbert's secret tea party

Bloomsbury ceramics, David Herbert's secret tea party

Edwardian glass, David Herbert's secret tea party

Edwardian decorated cake,  David Herbert's secret tea party

slice of cake David Herbert's secret tea party

David Herbert in his garden

salt and pepper collection, ceramics, David Herbert's secret tea party

smoked salmon sandwich,  David Herbert's secret tea party

tiny chocolate croustades, David Herbert's secret tea party

Textiles and colour, David Herbert's secret tea party

Bloomsbury ceramics,David Herbert's secret tea party

Bloomsbury ceramics,  David Herbert's secret tea party

David Herbert meets the Duchess of Cornwall

Virginia Woolfs chair,  David Herbert's secret tea party

bloomsbury ceramics David Herbert's secret tea party

Beautifully laid tea table, bloomsbury ceramics,  David Herbert's secret tea party

Quentin Bell painting, David herbert's Secret tea party
David Herberts Bloomsbury Tea can be booked via davidherbertfood@gmail.com

Monday, 10 November 2014

Food/cookbooks to buy for Christmas

This is a selection of books that I have been sent over the last few months rather than the last word in Christmas gifts. But here at least there is more variety than just buying Jamie's latest Christmas opus (he certainly needs no help from the likes of me). This list only has one blockbuster, a reissue of Nigella's Christmas book.
For women who like pretty books:
Nigella Christmas by Nigella Lawson (Chatto & Windus reissued 2014)
Love the new cover of this reissued book.  This is a cookbook that feels like a friend holding your hand, helping you through Christmas, the toughest meal of the year. She may be a cocaine-sniffing, spliff-smoking, mustard-carrying, downtrodden billionaires ex-wife down to her last 20 million quid but Nigella Lawson is a sensualist who loves eating as much as cooking and her writing has an intimacy that makes you feel like you know her. I really like those modern British nature goddesses Nigella, Diana and Cheryl.
What to cook: Christmas sprouts, eggnog syllabub, gleaming maple cheesecake
Three Sisters Bake by Gillian, Nichola and Linsey Reith
As a person who has a fraught relationship with my own sister,  I am starting to think there are altogether too many sisters (and of course they all 'like' each other just like real siblings- NOT) around in the food world right now: those Welsh birds that pretend to be Italian, the Hemsleys and now this lot from Scotland who I've never even heard of. I'm sure they are lovely but their book is soft-focus lifestyley and 'look at us, we are sweet unthreatening girls in every flavour: a blonde and two brunettes'. One for fans of their cafe probably. Nice photos though.
What to cook: giant Empire biscuits

For serious cooks:
Egg by Michael Ruhlman (Little, Brown 2014)
I already have Ruhlman's book Ratio and I enjoy his approach to food writing and cooking. I already have a great book on eggs by Michel Roux, but Michael Ruhlman's heavy and well illustrated volume features many tempting egg recipes, which is saying something, as I don't particularly like eggs.
He divides the recipes into whole and separated eggs, in the shell and out of the shell. He writes about what to do with the yolk and what to do with the white and what to do with a blended egg. He opines on the correct way and difficulty with cooking an omelette or an egg salad, both exquisite examples of simplicity that is hard to get just right. He puzzles that while an egg is perfection design-wise, it is also one of the cheapest ingredients we can buy.
What to cook: Nougat (using the white), traditional Bearnaise sauce (using the yolk), traditional egg flower soup (blended)
La Patisserie des Reves by Philip Contoncini and Thierry Teyssier (Grub St 2014)
Really intimidating super glossy professional patisserie cookbook. One doesn't even dare attempt any of the recipes. Maybe I'll have a bash one day, see if they work. The Japanese love this sort of stuff: tiny, pastel, cute, shiny, perfect pastries and cakes. Unreal. Not sure why the slightly shitty picnic in the park photos are there either, they don't go with the rest of the book.
What to cook: Brown Sugar waffles, Rich coffee log, Sugared almond cake (love sugared almonds).

Books to slip inside your suitcase:
Fragrant Heart by Miranda Emmerson (Summersdale 2014)
This is a first book by Radio 4 journalist Miranda Emmerson recounting a year living in China with her boyfriend before returning home to the UK, settling down with marriage and kids. She also travels to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. At the end of each chapter there is a recipe, relevant to the part of Asia she is visiting. Now, we all want to write Nora Ephron's Heartburn or Jorge Amado's Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, both of which combine love and recipes seamlessly and wittily. But this is surprisingly hard to pull off.
As a single mum, I have a hard time with books that talk about partners, it's literally the last thing I want to read about, so for me the boyfriend stuff was off-puttingly co-dependent.  As a first book, it is  bravely honest, and Miranda comes across as rather lonely and vulnerable, making the best of things in a high-rise flat on the outskirts of Beijing while her boyfriend is out at work all day. He irritated me, seeming distant and a bit heartless towards her. (Whether this is a fair reflection of their relationship, I don't know, but I was mentally urging her to be tougher with him). I also felt that the book could have done with some editing. As someone who earns my living from food, I was wondering why I should be following her recipes. Only halfway through the book was the importance of food in her family properly explained, this should have been the first chapter of the book. I found it weird that, as a vegetarian, she was listing meat recipes. (More boyfriend-pleasing behaviour?) Good gift for young marrieds who are going travelling.
What to cook: Pineapple rice, Fish fragrant aubergine
The 100 foot journey by Richard C. Morais
This is currently my tube book. It's so beautifully written, the descriptions of food preparation, cooking and buying at the market are virtuoso. I hate unnecessary adjectives but Morais knows how to make them work in prose, he paints pictures with words, you can see the scene before your eyes as you read. I saw the film which was a lovingly photographed, feel-good couple of hours.
What to cook: no recipes, but you will be dying for a curry the whole time you read it so stock up and prepare.

Sous chef by Michael Gibney (Canongate books 2014)
This is the kind of book that blokes really like. It's all macho cooking, male bonding, gee I'm so tough stuff, over the steel counters of a pro kitchen, then getting drunk afterwards. He only gets to see his girlfriend for about five minutes a day. It is well written and takes you through 24 hours 'on the line' in a high pressure kitchen; the hierarchy, tasting the ingredients, the suppliers, the cliques (the latinos basically running the whole caboodle). This is updated Kitchen Confidential land but you get the feeling Michael Gibney takes himself more seriously as a writer and a cook than Anthony Bourdain. I did feel like yelling at him 'go home and get some sleep you silly billy' at the end of the book when he's burning the candle at both ends.

For your Christmas stocking:
The Kitchen Magpie by James Steen (Icon books 2014)
Being a small handy size, with a hardback, this is a really good Christmas stocking/loo book. You can dip in and out, gleaning intriguing bits of info, cookery tips from famous chefs, lists and handy hints. A good present for dads who like to cook.
What to cook: Earl Grey sorbet, 3 types of Mauritian chutney
Sushi at home by Yuki Gomi (Fig Tree 2013)
Well designed with clear instructions, this is the best book I've read on sushi making. One for fans of Japanese food.
What to cook: beans with black sesame sauce, soba sushi, pressed trout cakes with bamboo leaves
Perfect Preserves by Thane Prince (Hodder and Staughton 2014)
The gorgeously statuesque Thane Prince (woman of a certain age who is still stunning) is a presenter of The big allotment challenge but also a veteran cookery book writer and columnist. Here she brings all her experience to the subject of preserves. There are interesting recipes which I'm going to spend some of the winter tackling. Fantastic for those with allotments who need to use up excess fruits and vegetables. I've always wanted to write a book on condiments, I'm a bit condimental, and this book is very much along the lines of the book that I would have liked to have written. Well done Thane!
What to cook: Spiced pumpkin and maple syrup butter, chestnut and vanilla conserve, rhubarb and custard curd, to name but a few.

For stove-side travelling cooks:
Morito by Sam & Sam Clark (Ebury 2014)
Intriguing but at the same time fairly simple Hispanic/North African recipes from the 'Moro' duo.
What to cook: squid ink rolls
 Pizza, a slice of American history by Liz Barrett (Voyageur Press 2014)
a) I love the idea that you can be a 'pizza journalist'. b) pizza is actually quite hard to make well at home c) she talks about the different types of pizza (New York Neopolitan style pizza; Chicago deep dish; Newhaven, thick Sicilian 'grandma' pizza; topping-heavy Californian) that exist in America. There are chapters devoted to the sauce, the cheese, the dough plus interviews with chefs and other pizza journalists. A fascinating read by an expert in their subject and while the photos and design leave something to be desired, this is a great gift for dads, pizza freaks, food anthropology students.
What to cook: St Louis style pizza, tomato pie

For hosts and hostesses:
Treat Petite by Fiona Pearce (Ivy Press 2014)
Beautifully designed little gift book with canapes and miniature versions of dishes, including a 'life-size' photo. I haven't cooked anything from it yet, but I can see myself delving into this ahead of a party.
What to cook: miniature Victoria sponges, polka dot lemon shortbreads
Party-perfect bites by Milli Taylor (Ryland, Peters and Small 2014)
Again, a great book, with gorgeous photography, for inspirational ideas on what to make for parties. The book is divided into chapters based on regions such as India, Asia, North African, The Americas, Scandinavian, Mediterranean, dips and sweets so it's very easy to find something appropriate to the occasion. Milli also does Secret tea parties, see her site here to book.
What to cook: borek, pani puri (dying to try these)

For drinkers:
Natural Wine by Isabelle Legeron (Cico books 2014)
I've been on a couple of natural wine trips (Georgia, Slovenia) with Isabelle Legeron and so have seen up close how passionate and knowledgeable she is about natural wine. Therefore I was excited to see this well designed book explaining the history and provenance of natural wine. She divides wine into the classic sparkling, red, white and rose but also expounds upon 'orange' wine. She explains the difference between natural, organic and biodynamic wines. In the wine world natural wine is rather a controversial subject, it can be a rough and ready shock compared to the bland homogenised modern wine industry. Natural wine is like punk rock to the wine industry; young, uncultured and raw; like punk, its influence will filter through to the mainstream, no doubt.
Artisan Drinks by Lindy Wildsmith (Quarry Books 2014)
Beautifully styled and photographed book. There are recipes for alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks including cordials, shrubs, syrups, liqueurs, nogs, fizzes, sherbets, waters, beers, spritzes, digestifs, punches, cups, coolers, sodas, cocktails, infusions, tisanes and wines. Fascinating!
What to make: Venetian eggnog, May's dandelion, ginger and liquorice beer. Everything!
For gardening cooks:
Kitchen Garden Experts by Cinead McTernan (Frances Lincoln 2014)
If I were to write a gardening and food book it wouldn't be dissimilar to this lovely volume. There are visits to famous kitchen gardens such as that of The Ethicurean, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons (Raymond Blanc), The Pig hotel, River Cottage, L'enclume (Simon Rogan) to name but a few. This book is just as foodie as green-fingered so a great gift for cooks while giving advice on gardening. It's also nicely illustrated with photographs with an easy-to-read lay-out.
What to cook: The George and Dragon's baked gooseberries with lemon verbena icecream and flapjack, Skye Gyngells' plum and almond flan

What books on food or drink have you bought this year? Any particular recommendations? 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

What wines match with curry?


I've written a post for winetrust100.com on what wines go with curry, a contentious and difficult subject about which many people have very strong opinions. Most people opt for white wine or beer but with certain dishes, red wine can also be good. Read more here.
I also give a fabulous recipe for a coconut and fish curry. I served it to friends a couple of weeks ago who declared it the best fish curry they had ever tasted!
Continue reading....

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The best curry

My friend Jim from Manchester was down visiting me in London. We were discussing, while drinking tea beside the Aga, our favourite foods, our ultimate dishes, our desert island dinners. Jim said there was one dish that he dreamt of, that he couldn't stop thinking about. He had it at Akbars, an Indian restaurant in Manchester. He told me this story about when he tasted it.
'I was going out for dinner with my half-sister Sam and her friends. I tagged along. We were just going out for dinner, there was no reason for the dinner other than a get-together. It was the first time I’d been to Akbars. Sam had been before and I’d heard good reports from other people. We sat down and had our starters, calamari, which was absolutely fabulous. Then I went out for a smoke. 
'From our table in the back room, I had to walk along a corridor that led towards the reception and the outside. As I was walking toward the exit, I noticed a large group of waiters gathered around the table nearest to reception. I thought it was curious but didn’t give it too much thought. But when I got to the door, a member of staff said, "You can’t leave". 
"Why?", I asked.
"There has been an incident."
'So I stood in the reception area asking other people what had happened. No one really knew and the staff were being cagey. Finally someone at the bar said that there had been a problem with the guy in the corner, that there had been an altercation. I looked over to the corner, there was a man being held there. When I say held, I mean a member of staff had his arm against the wall, blocking him, so the cornered guy only had a square metre to stand in and couldn't leave without a struggle. This member of staff, the assistant manager, was backed up by some of the waiters from the restaurant. 
'The guy in the corner was in his early thirties, white, short blond hair, normal looking. If I'd seen him in a different situation I would have thought he was just a nice average guy, a little bit trendy but not over-dressed. 
'I also noticed he had a mate standing nearby the reception who was talking to staff as if he was explaining something. There weren’t many other customers in the room.
'His mate looked completely different - he had red cheeks, was more boyish, with dark hair, although he had the same height and build. He looked worried, stressed, anxious. Weirdly the guy trapped in the corner didn’t look look stressed. Neither struck me as aggressive people or particularly drunk. 
'The person on the door changed, I guess he went away to do something, and a younger man took his place. I was desperate for a smoke so I thought I’d try it on again. The new young guy let me out for a fag. 
'Once outside, I walked to the left to have a view of what was going on. I could see into the restaurant through the large plate glass windows. 
'The table had two large benches. I saw a guy laying down on one of the benches, he had a bald head, a thick-set frame and someone was stood over him, pumping his chest. I was stood less than a metre from the man's head. I got told later that there was a doctor or a medical person who knew how to do CPR. It was at that point that I could see the faces of the crowd leaning in. Most of them just looked absolutely incredulous. Quite a few were crying. A lot of the girls, one of them was the receptionist, they were all Asian and worked at the restaurant, were distraught. I saw strong emotion in their faces; worry and concern. It was only the assistant manager that looked angry. But he was responsible for keeping everything together. 
'I stayed outside smoking and two lads passing by came over to have a look. They seemed to know the guy laying on the bench was the manager of the restaurant.
'On the bench, they were trying to restart his heart. I could see him getting paler. After 15 minutes of CPR, the police turned up, they arrived before the ambulance. There were two policemen. They came in and stood just inside the front door. They clearly had a procedure in place, that of protecting the crime scene. It was interesting to watch the professionalism of that. The policemen didn't rush in, they paused for a beat to survey the scene first. One policeman stayed on the door, the other went to look at the man. They talked to the assistant manager. Then they took the corner man and put him in the police van. I could overhear the policeman saying to the corner guy "this is just precautionary, you aren’t being arrested". I could also hear the guy responding, "I didn’t touch him". He seemed fairly calm. 
'The two policemen didn’t go over to the dying manager for the first couple of minutes. Presumably because they were told that the doctor was dealing with it. After a while though, one of the policemen took a shift at the CPR. 
'Then the ambulance and paramedics turned up. Two people, a man and a woman, after a briefing from the police, went straight to the body.  The man got his things out of his bag. They decided to put a stretcher on the floor and put the manager on the floor. Then the paramedic took over doing CPR while attaching a mask. It was at this stage I realised the manager was pale as fuck. The whole thing took ten minutes. From life to death. Four minutes is a very key time, your brain starts to get injured by the lack of oxygen, it starts swelling. I knew he was dead and wouldn’t be coming back. 
'The ambulance guys were there only two minutes before transferring him to the ambulance where I assume he was given shocks. Then I went back inside.
'I returned to my friends at the back of the restaurant. All of the customers at the back, which was the dining part of the restaurant, were completely oblivious, eating, chatting, carrying on as normal. That was bizarre. My four friends, when I sat down, were in the middle of a great anecdote. I couldn’t interrupt. I had to let them finish talking and laughing which felt strange. 

'Meanwhile the restaurant continued to serve the customers. The show must go on. The cooks continued to cook, push out the meals, the waiters continued to wait tables. It was like a ballet, a choreography, they didn’t miss a beat. Dinner were served, meals were completed, drinks poured, vapour swirled up from metal dishes, poppodums were dunked into chutneys, giant naans swung from hooks. It was a different world from out front. The only thing that betrayed what had happened was that, if you looked closely, the waiting staff had red eyes. One had tears rolling down his cheeks as he served. 

'When their funny story had finished, I told my friends what had happened. They couldn’t believe it. None of the other tables knew. It was just our table. And then our dinner came. All of our food came. Plates and plates of steaming spicy curries. I had to eat this massive curry. A fish and potato curry, freshly spiced, not too hot but with just the right amount of heat. It was the most amazing curry of my life, it tasted so good.
'As we finished eating, ten minutes later, a policeman came and stood in the centre of the room and asked for everyone’s attention. He explained briefly that there had been an incident at the front, and that, if anyone had seen anything, could they come and speak to the officers. I debated whether I had any useful info. I decided as I hadn’t actually seen anything that I didn’t. Nobody else got up to talk to the police either.
'No one was allowed to leave. The whole front area were cordoned off. It was a crime scene. Guests had to leave out of the back door. On exiting the back door, there was a policewoman there who asked us to talk into a police camera as each person left. She asked for people’s name, address, if they saw anything. 
'Everyone, one by one, in the restaurant, finished their dinner and left by the back door. The restaurant wasn’t taking new customers. Nobody ordered dessert.'

A few months later I visited Jim in Manchester and we ate at Akbars. I ordered the amazing fish and potato curry. I asked the waiters how things were going, that I’d seen the obituary on the website. They said, smiling sadly: "It was just a heart attack. It was nobodies fault. He was very nice. He was a part-owner of this restaurant. His family work here. He had a two year old daughter. Everyone liked him. We miss him.”


Akbars

73-78 Liverpool rd
Manchester M3 4NQ