Monday, 30 March 2009

how to argue...

I am a very strong believer (and this blog is indeed proof) that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, on any subject in the world. But there are ways of arguing your point that make you look intelligent and that your thoughts are worthwhile, and there are ways that make you look like you are having a kiddy strop and have thrown not just your toys out of the pram but the blanket and mattress as well.

I think I witnessed the latter whilst watching the latest hour long special edition of Gardeners' World last Friday.

This special was arguing the case for whether to use or not use peat, a subject close to my heart as you may well imagine. Although my mind was made up from the beginning as to what I would continue to use on my little bit of England, I was looking forward to seeing the case from both sides. This is what a debate is, and boy do I love a debate.

The programme rolled on quite well, highlighting the massive decline of the peat bogs, but also how critical it was for especially large scale horticultural growers, who rely on the qualities of peat to produce good plants in huge numbers. I empathised greatly with the dilemma they were faced. They understood the problem, but expressed their own problems with the planned Government switch to 90% peat free by 2010.

My issue with the programme came when dear old Peter Seabrook was brought to the table.

Now, before I get accused of attacking a national treasure, I love Peter Seabrook - what he brought to our screens in knowledge and passion was incredible, and maybe it was the editing, but I'm afraid it sounded to me that he was having a full on kiddy strop when approached on the peat subject last Friday.

He accused the environmentalists of lying about how peat bogs can regenerate, and exactly how much peat is laid down by the spagham mosses each year, and therefore how much we could use sustainably (along with MANY other strops...) I was shocked at how badly he came across when asked his opinion - instead of arguing the case for peat by calmly explaining the benefits, as others had successfully done earlier and later in the programme, he seemed to have a wide eyed rant at poor Toby, who defended the no-peat camp with a look of somewhat disbelief at the barrage being fired from Peter.

Not only was the mattress out of the pram, the pram itself was enduring a battering.

I think this is such a shame - every other argument, on each side, highlighted issues that each party has with using or not using peat, and you could sympathise with each person, even if you sat there and exclaimed that they were speaking drivel.

Poor Peter. Even when you are passionate about a subject, you need to know how to argue your point, lest you be labelled badly. True, passion can sometimes manifest itself in a rant - I myself have been rightly accused of ranting, but there are definite ways to argue. I think we can all learn from this as an example of how not to argue...

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Italian Job...

I very rarely go out for dinner, and I never do anything remotely exclusive or even vaguely posh, so it was with both surprise and delight that I found myself last night at the spanking new Jamie's Italian in Brighton for the first public evening service.

I have long been a fan of Jamie Oliver (a forthcoming subject of my hero series...), as I think he, along with others, are doing wonders for the way we look at our food production in the UK. His sometimes shocking channel 4 programmes were completely necessary to illustrate exactly what happens to our grub before it is shrink wrapped and whacked with a bar code. Some people know what happens, others do not, but only with education can you make an educated choice about how you live your life and fill your belly.

Now I have to admit something here. There are real reasons why I was out and about and not at home tucking into my planned jacket potato - my wonderful little sister is the office manager for the restaurant, and it was my Mum and Dad's pearl wedding anniversary. A good reason for a celebration dinner, so off we went.

So here is the official but personal review of the restaurant, decor and service, as seen by me, last night, in jolly old Brighton.

First, location - there is a general hub of restaurants in the Lanes area of Brighton, but maybe surprisingly, Jamie's Italian is slightly off the beaten track, down a dark street that is used as a cut through to the seafront. But, it is a newly built building, and is easy to seek out for those who know it is there, which will be everyone very soon.

Also, as the restaurant does not take bookings (apart from large groups) there is a long stretch of blank office faced buildings for people to queue outside while they wait for a table. Much nicer than waiting for table whilst queuing outside another restaurant...

First, as a designer, I looked at the decor. Lots of timber cladding (which I believe is reclaimed?), eclectic mix of lights, proper solid tables, and strong colours - imagine an Italian marble counter with a chunky bread board and a tin of tomatoes on top - take the essence of these items, apply to an interior and you get the idea. It was honest without being too twee and stereotypical.

This honesty was brought through to the open Antipasti counter (complete with large hanging hams), where two chefs prepared the 'planks' in full view (more of this later) and the booths flanked by a ribbon window straight into the kitchen. We had one of the booths.

It was within the booths that I saw the only real bit of the interior I didn't like - a series of black, white and neon spray painted panels of Pippy longstockinged legs and Nike air force one trainers. I understand that it is supposed to be 'fresh, funky and young' but I did not like how this sat with the honest palette of the rest of the ground floor.

Anyway - the menu - not too much and not too little to choose from, wonderful ingredients and an option of portion sizes - all in all a good spread.

We had 'the worlds best olives' (and for someone who does not like olives, I can profess that I think they are), a couple of Italian bread baskets and the meat antipasti plank for four people. A fantastically huge chunk of timber laden with selected meats, buffalo mozzarella balls, pecorino cheese (which I love as well) and chilli jam, amongst others, all prepared in the above mentioned Antipasti counter. It was wonderful, and this was just for starters...

Mains - again a fab choice, with an option of a large or small portions. I opted for the smaller portion as I was determined to have a dessert as well, and my eyes popped out of my head when I saw a black truffle tagliatelle. Some girls like diamonds, I love black truffles - what does this say about me? I don't know. The portion size was perfect, the pasta perfect as well, and the black truffle sent the lot into the realms of possibly one of the best things I have ever eaten. The fact that I could see it all being made literally feet from our table made it even better.

The dessert had to be done, and I chose 'Gennaro's Amalfi Orange Tart', which was served with marscapone and honey. It was great again - full but not dense and packed with flavour.

Even though Jamie was not there (and I feel sorry for the poor waiters and waitresses who will be continually asked if he is in the building) it was a wonderful evening, and I fully recommend a visit. The ground floor interior is pretty honest (I am yet to see the upstairs and the terrace), the food wonderful (excellent quality, local and in some places, organic) and considering the staff are all new and still learning, our waiter was excellent, friendly and knowledgeable (the only slip up was when he asked where the tart was when he was handing out the dessert cutlery... I could not let this divine opportunity pass me by, so I put on a face of disgust and proclaimed 'are you calling me a tart?'. Poor bloke. He did know I was joking though, even though he did have a flash of 'Oh-my-god-what-have-I-said' first. Oooh I am awful.)

So - a somewhat biased review I know, but it is worth the visit. (will get some images up here soon as well.)

All in all, pretty pukka.

Monday, 23 March 2009

a natural high...

Any programme with the title 'Grow Your Own Drugs' is going to get a lot of attention. I don't think it is a coincidence that the title is so provocative and liable to draw interest from both young and old alike. But a title like that is very dangerous - like bark without a bite, will the programme live up to edgy gardening that the title portrays?

To be honest, I have only managed to catch a couple of this recent series, but I have been pleasantly surprised.

Following the same style of the zoomy fast camera format of new cookery programmes (which I can just about cope with, but gives my Nan a migraine), Ethnobotanist James Wong conjures up medicinal and cosmetic treats from the contents of an average back garden, fruit bowl or local supermarket.

From scrubs and lotions to creams and potions, the funky Mr Wong convinces us that triple boiling Lemon Balm in oil to make a lip balm for cold sores is a good idea.

Except it is a good idea.

I do find it quite shocking the amount of gunk is in the everyday stuff we slather over our little bods everyday in the search of smelling the best on the block. So I find it ultra pepperminty refreshing when someone comes along to tell us how we can ditch the forest of plastic bottles in our showers for something more natural.

This is not really new knowledge, just the rejuvenating of old knowledge that would have been passed down through the generations. Now we have a Boots in every town we do not need to know that plantain leaves are great to soothe a sting, we are already armed with our travel pack of Anthisan stashed in our pockets. Like a lot of things at the moment, we should regain this knowledge before it becomes so alien that we cannot even fathom how or why we should.

So - take a look at this, find something you like and is relevant to your medicine or beauty cabinet and try it, then go any find a good herbalist book and try some more.


Because you are worth it.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

as mad as a bag of frogs...heroes part 3

Well, here we are in another posting in the little series I like to call Heroes - people who inspire me and make my brain get all tingly and excited.

So, who do we have today?

This gentleman has gained the reputation of being a bit of a wild card in the cookery world - seemingly mad concoctions of food linked with the most extraordinary theatre and performance.

My next hero is...Heston Blumenthal.

Now, anyone who has been awarded the coveted title of 'the best restaurant in the world' must be pretty good. Sling in three Michelin stars and you have got a pretty sound guarantee that the food will be up to scratch.

But what I adore about Heston is the way his brain seems to work in ways that other chefs brains do not. For some, food is about food, for Heston the meal is an experience - taste, sight, smell, and sometimes sound. We are often told that we eat first with our eyes, and true enough, you can go to many fine restaurants across the land and sample some beautiful looking plates of grub.

But what about the rest of the senses? In one dish at The Fat Duck you are given a seashell containing a recording of the sea to listen to as you tuck into your wave like foam and sand like crumbs. It is this sense of delight and surprise that takes the eating experience to another level.

Unfortunately I have not had the eating experience for myself yet, but the whole concept of his 'performance food' appeals to me as a designer. Can I get this element of delight into my own designs? How can I lift a space from the nice to the extraordinary?

In some of his recent 'Heston's Feasts' he has lifted this performance and delight to new levels. My particular favourite was the 'Mock Turtle soup' course in the Victorian Feast episode.

Based on both a real recipe and the book 'Alice in Wonderland', Heston created a super concentrated beef stock that was set into life size pocket watch moulds with a tea bag string dunker. These were then coated in edible gold leaf and served sitting in a bone china tea cup. Diners then poured boiling water into the teacups and dunked the watches a-la-Mad Hatter Style until they had dissolved to form the soup, which was then poured into an awaiting bowl filled with illusionary mock turtle eggs and accompanying vegetables.

And don't get me started on the magic that was the 'drink me drink'

Food as theatre - meals as performance and not just sustenance. Fun and delight. Heston is a true genius of the experience of eating.

If I can get even a glimpse of this delight into my own designs I will be happy...

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

like a kid in a sweetie shop...

Today was a good day, an educational day, an inspirational day but a tiring one. I got to catch up with people I knew, got to meet people face to face that I had previously only talked to via email but got battered by crowds of teenagers on jollies trying to get as much free stuff as they could. Where did we go?

We went to Ecobuild.

Ecobuild is hailed as 'the world's biggest annual event for sustainability and innovation in design, construction and the built environment' Wow. That's quite a claim, and true to it's word, the two adjoined Earl's Court exhibition centres were packed almost to the rafters with some amazing eco toys.
For me, it was like a child being given free run of the Cadbury's factory.

Where to start? What to see? What seminars shall we go to? It was very mind boggling the amount of stuff we had to stuff into the small window given to us by our uber cheap 'super off peak but miss your window and you are stuffed' train ticket.

We started at the 'Green Shoots' area, and saw our chums from BioTecture and Quercus. After having a good old cynical chat about some of the suited and booted stall holders in the 'big boys' area (our term, not the official one) we ran round the smaller section of the exhibition halls and grabbed a load of interesting bits of info and wee samples. Found SureSet (recycled glass permeable paving as seen in our last show garden), and had another nice chat.
Heading into the larger of the two exhibition halls we turned the corner straight into the wonderful SCIN area. Here we met a very interesting company at the other end of East Sussex to us who recycle glass bottles from along the stretch of coast between us into tiles, worksurfaces and other sexy bits. Next door was Smile Plastics, and it was great to finally meet Colin, who I have spoken to on the phone and email but never seen. Face and name connected, we had another chinwag about the big boys, but also about the cool stuff in the smaller sections.

I then realised we were running late for the seminar I wanted to attend, 'Outdoors insight: sustainable public spaces'. Dr Bill Addis was brilliant with his seminar on 'Materials: selection, recycling and reducing waste'. Lots of talk about reducing the use of virgin aggregates, adopting a closed loop mentality and utilising local materials - right up my street. It was incredibly encouraging to see that the seminar was massively oversubscribed, with people standing up and sitting on the floor.

Grabbed a glass of organic carrot and apple juice (my favourite and bloody nice), then whizzed around the remainder of the show, chattering to people about recycled paper insulation, zero carbon prefab houses and wildflower carpets grown on waste fibers from the British textile industry.

By the time we arrived back at BioTecture to say toodaloo we were knackered. Even though the show is brilliant, there are only so many ground source heat pumps, heat exchangers, triple glazed units, composting loos and biomass boilers you can look at without feeling glazed yourself.

But if you have ANY sort of interest in the sustainable built environment, go next year, and in the meantime, visit the website which has a great list of all the exhibitors.

Back to Brighton within the afore mentioned window (just) and fell asleep on train.

Even jollies can be tiring. Jolly? Sorry, meant market research (just feels like a jolly... hee hee...)

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

keeping our organic heads afloat...

As a general rule, news is not considered worthy unless it is terrible.

It is easy to get depressed about the vast awfulness in the world as you sit with a cup of tea between 6 and 7.

Last night was no exception, but one particular story jumped out at me after being introduced by Sally Taylor on BBC South Today.

To paraphrase the report completely - will the credit crunch kill the organic movement?

This is something that both shocked and saddened me, but tugged at the inklings I had had for a while.

It is easy for people to spend the little extra for organically produced meat when we are in times of plenty, but when the belts are tightened, that little extra may be needed elsewhere. This I understand and sympathise with completely.

And this is the problem for the farmers themselves - feed prices have rocketed, demand has slowed and you do not need to be an accountant to see this little equation is not balanced. The report stated that many were considering giving up the organic tag they had worked so hard to gain, and downgrading to free range or similar.

Now, they will all still care for their animals in the same way as they always have, but something would have to give - for example the feed they have would not be organically produced.

I have another worry - the supermarkets have long been accused of dropping suppliers the minute they become surplus to requirements (take strawberry suppliers at Wimbledon time) - if we do not buy as much organic chicken say, would some suppliers be dropped from the shelves?

So what can we do? If you can, please continue to buy as much organic produce as possible. If things are tighter, consider eating less meat (which will save money anyway), and then buy mostly organic meat. This should help to level out the pennies. Even one organic purchase is better than none, so please do what you can.

Don't forget to support your local butchers and farmers markets - they will be cheaper than the supermarkets and offer a better variety of cheaper cuts as well.

It would be awful if this damned credit crunch made us go backwards with how we think about our food production - lets keep the organic movement alive.

Monday, 2 March 2009

green eggs and ham anyone?...

Good old google informed me in the most wonderful way this morning that it is the fantastical Dr Seuss' birthday.

I love Dr Seuss books and have done since I was small. What supreme wisdom we are giving our little (and not so little ones) when we tell them such golden nuggets as:

'oh the thinks you can think up if you only try'

'from near to far, from here to there, funny things are everywhere'

'I can read in red, I can read in blue, I can read in pickle colour too'

well, maybe not the last as this seems to encourage playing with your food, which was pretty bad when I was a nipper.

So, have a squiz at Dr Seuss' home and get mesmerised by the cracking pics and demented cartoon music.