Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ostuni

A short apologia to begin. This week has been chaos. I've been running around London like the proverbial headless chicken, trying to keep up with work experience and interviews and plagued by a stubborn cold. It's definitely better than doing nothing, but I've been coming home every evening too knackered to follow through with any of the blog posts I've been planning. It makes me worry about how I'll manage once I actually have a job! Posts from lovely bloggers like Michelle and Sophie come in very handy when I feel that things are slipping out of my control, providing me with tips on how to manage my time more efficiently and helping me to come to terms with the fact that I'm just not super-human. Sometimes, something's gotta give.

Let's step away from the rush hour hustle and bustle for a minute, and cast our minds back to a fortnight ago, when I sat down to dinner at a little local Italian restaurant, Ostuni. It's on Lonsdale Road, just off the street I grew up on, surrounded by narrow roads lined with small Victorian houses typical of Queen's Park. The road itself used to be fairly run-down and industrial, home only by the local surgeries and a car repair shop. The entire area has become much more gentrified over the two decades I've been living here, but with the arrival of Ostuni it seems that it's finally becoming a destination rather than a little pocket of London you happen across on your way to Notting Hill, St. John's Wood or Camden. 


The interior of Ostuni represents a flightless departure from the suburbs of north-west London to southern Italy. Its bar is adorned with rustic tiles, its staff chatter in Italian and the menu features simple, hearty fare from the Puglia region - the name 'Ostuni' comes from a city in Brindisi province. I feel charmed by the decor; the lampshades you see in the picture above are actually potting sieves you'd use in the garden - an original, quirky touch.


We ordered a carafe of rosé - a farewell to the Indian summer - and perused the menu. 


We ordered the selection of antipasti to start. I'm a big fan of sharing small plates or tapas-style eating, especially when mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, olives and cured meats feature! There were also some slightly more exciting dishes like marinated artichokes, truly delicious meatballs, and one plate that was totally unknown to me - a bake of mussels and breadcrumbs. It might sound a bit odd, but rest assured it was the highlight of the antipasti, and an excellent example of la cucina povera - food traditionally thought of as for peasants, with frugal methods to ensure the meal didn't cost too much - like using breadcrumbs as a substitute for parmesan. 


And next, mains. If we were really in Italy we'd order pasta followed by meat, but these bowls were large and very filling! My mother, the birthday girl, opted for her favourite, linguine vongole. The clams were well cooked and seasoned - another simple yet delicious plate, and a hit with my mum, which is saying something. We always quake a little bit when we see her order vongole, because we know she uses it as a way to test the quality of an Italian restaurant!


My pasta of choice was 'foglio d'ulivo' or pasta resembling olive leaves, accompanied by mushrooms, a smattering of burrata and truffle oil, and shavings of truffle. Magnifico. So rich and creamy, I could barely finish it, and so didn't even need to order pudding. There was birthday cake at home, anyway...

This little Italian restaurant may seem humble and homely - and actually, it is. But it's clear that it's a gem, and well worth a visit if you're a fan of southern Italian food. As I got up to leave, I clocked actress Toni Collette sitting at the table behind me. Queen's Park really is going up in the world, and I'm so glad I have a little local to fall back on every time I'm craving pasta!

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Monday, October 13, 2014

The V&A: A Whistle-Stop Tour Through History


Museums are my thing. I'm that person who would much rather gawk into dust-covered cabinets of medieval relics than lie prone on the beach while on holiday. One of my lifelong favourites in London is the wonderful V&A, a.k.a. the Victoria and Albert Museum, founded as the South Kensington Museum in 1852. It's an oldie but very much a goodie, its collection spanning an incredible five millennia of decorative arts and design. So one Saturday, upon realising that Alex had never been, I was so excited that we pencilled a trip in for the very next day.

But Sunday was filled with rug-hunting (oh yeah, my weekends are that cool) and so Alex and I were left with a mere hour and a half to experience the joys of the V&A. But it turned out to be plenty. Here are just a few of the odds and ends that we delighted in seeing on our brisk crusade through time...


Hilarious ivory carvings in the Japanese department.


The atmosphere of a church reconstructed through stained-glass windows backlit with neon lights, a rood screen surmounted by a great crucifix, a chancel chapel lifted straight from Italy and even antechambers filled with metallic treasures that would have once graced medieval sacristies.


Peacocks dancing across these golden earrings from the Byzantine Empire, made in the 7th or 8th century. Still so covetable 1400 years later...


This ornate French crosier (carried by bishops and abbots), depicting the Nativity and life of Saint Nicholas. 


An illuminated plain chant choir-book from the Middle Ages, which Alex duly sight-sang. I love the idea of monks bringing readings to life with these chants, considering the meaning behind the words more deeply for having sung them.


A fourteenth-century gilded triptych that would have once graced an altar, resplendent with apocalyptic scenes of many-headed beasts who are chatting at the sinners (but look like they're actually mid-vom).

And then, excitingly, Alex and I came across some reconstructed medieval togs. Which we tried on, obvs. With our best 'Middle Ages Feudal Noble' faces. 


And then things got a little bit silly. Exhibit a) (above): Alex's peasant face. Inspired by the panel on the mirror, but could also possibly represent a fit brought on by symptoms of the Black Death. You never know with these villeins. Serf's up. And all the medieval puns. 


Apart from being a bit long in the arm, I grew quite fond of the medieval-style robes. Quite comfy actually. Potential loungewear, I'm thinking. Although the stink of being worn by millions of tourists made them a little too authentic.


And next, a 16th century spiral staircase removed from a timber-framed house in 16th-century Brittany. I'd love one...but maybe not this particular one, which has clearly been completely eaten to bits by woodworms. 


And lastly, the amazingly gargantuan plaster casts of famous monuments in the Cast Courts - Trajan's Column included.


The building itself is a beaut too. All red brick and endowed with lots of beautiful arches. That central figure in the pediment is Queen Victoria, presiding over the 1851 Great Exhibition that led to the founding of the museum. 


I really liked this elliptical water-feature in the courtyard, whose curves I reckon mimic the arches of the museum building.


But best of all is the wonderful aphorism carved into the doorway to the café.


I do love a good museum café. Particularly when it's this pretty.


Alex and I just about had time for a florentine and a cup of tea before closing time.


On our way out I had a good perve over one of my favourite pieces in the museum - Dale Chihuly's jawdropping blown-glass chandelier, which takes pride of place in the foyer. Scroll back to the top to see the full extent of its serpentine magnificence.


We walked back along Exhibition Road, passing street performers blowing gigantic bubbles and brimming over with the joy of new knowledge. For better it is to get wisdom than gold. 


There's so much to see at the V&A. I only scratched the surface with this visit and will definitely be back soon - I want to see the Wedding Dress exhibition! And Alex hasn't seen the giftshop yet, which is genuinely one of the best museum giftshops out there. 

Have you got any recommendations for great museums or exhibitions that are worth seeing? If so, I'd love to know - we're into the season of constant drizzle now and I'm compiling a list of outings for rainy days!

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Malaysia Night In Trafalgar Square


I've been experiencing severe Malaysia homesickness lately. I grew up in London so Malaysia isn't technically home - but my mum's from Selangor and my dad's half Malaysian Chinese, so I spent many holidays there as a child, and think of it as a home away from home. I often find myself missing my family out there, the rush of heat that greets you the moment you step off the plane, and the legendary food. In Penang and the Selangor area, there is a glut of simply fantastic open-air cafés lined with street food stalls (and I'm sure the same goes for the rest of the country!) You pick the dish you want - whether that be a plate of sticky, spicy kway teow or a steaming bowl of addictively sour asam laksa - pull up a plastic chair, and get stuck in. And usually for about 40p a bowl - if that. Seriously amazing.

Malaysians love their food, and I'm sad to say that so far I haven't encountered anything quite like the real thing outside of Malaysia - even in London, a foodie destination in its own right and boasting restaurants with some of the best international cuisine in the world. But I came quite close during Malaysia Night, a celebration of all things Malaysian that took over Trafalgar Square one warm evening at the end of September. 


In the environs of the National Gallery, the Fourth Plinth and Nelson's Column, I scurried around excitedly, sampling the wares of various Malaysian restaurants and cafes that had set up stalls in the Square. 


The queues for the stalls were huge - it was Friday night in central London, after all - but finally I whetted my appetite with fish and chicken curries, stir fried vegetables and beef rendang.


On the stage, entertainers performed traditional Malay, Indian and Chinese dances and music - representing the multi-cultural nature of Malaysia, or 'One Malaysia' as they like to call it. 


The square was packed with sponsors, from this car company [I know nothing about cars!] to Malaysian Airlines, Chinese supermarkets and Waitrose. 


I was especially excited when I saw a roti canai mamak stall - my favourite! Roti canai is a flaky pastry made very light by pummelling and flinging it about, which incorporates lots of air into the dough (as you can see above!) It's then fried and served with a selection of curries. Sedaplah! 


The curry wasn't as spicy as I'd have liked, but the roti itself was perfect and I enjoyed every bite.


Somehow the person taking this shot managed to focus on a man in the background instead of my beloved roti canai!


Repping the Lims.


And lastly, I wolfed down this slightly unphotogenic but utterly tasty coconut milk sago pudding, made rich and sweet with a layer of gula melaka (palm sugar) at the bottom. 


I have to admit this wasn't the best Malaysian food I've ever had - the street food in Malaysia is a very tough act to beat and you honestly have to go there to experience it at its best - but I had a wonderful evening which managed to soothe my food cravings, at least for a little while! Thanks, Malaysia Night! 

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Monthly Goals: October


It's October, and our Indian summer has abruptly been replaced by torrential rain, a chill in the air and cold, bright light with little warmth. Autumn's finally here, and with it, a new host of goals to set myself this month. 

But first, let's look at how I did on my goals for last month:

SEPTEMBER GOALS

• Cook 5 new dishes - Done...kind of? 
Off the top of my head, I think I cooked four dishes I'd never attempted before - an easy tomato and beef pasta bake, roast poussins, crab and fennel pasta and a spicy vegetable stir fry. Five, if you count the chocolate and pecan cookies I posted about - though I'm not sure they quite count as a meal in themselves ;) 

• Continue to pursue my love of learning - Done!
This was great! I went to a talk on apps building and website design (and while I didn't learn loads about the process, it was interesting to learn about the career trajectories of the speakers). I've also been beavering away at my Duolingo, revising my rusty French, Italian and German, and getting my Spanish up to level six. 

• Get serious about yoga - Done! 
I think I'm getting better at yoga, slowly but surely. I've been practising a Vinyasa flow a few times a week, helping me to ease into the mornings and wind down in the evenings, and hopefully it's bringing me some inner calm as well as balance. I haven't managed to get my hands on a yoga mat yet, but once I've saved a bit of money I'll buy one!

• Spend more time with my friends - Done!
I spent a lot more time reconnecting with old friends this month. I enjoyed some amazing homemade treats and excellent champagne with a couple of my Cambridge friends at a housewarming party. I fell in love with Broadway Market accompanied by Jess. I saw Inez for some good old-fashioned Ghibli watching (Totoro!) and some calligraphy. And I had a good old catch-up with four friends from school. It was so lovely to see everyone and spend time with people who I have so much in common with - and made me realise that regularly seeing people other than my family and boyfriend isn't as scary as I made myself believe.

I think I was fairly good with my goals this month, and hope to continue with all of them even though September has come to an end, especially the spending time with friends, practising yoga and continuing to learn. Now let's have a look at what I've got planned for this October!


OCTOBER GOALS

• Apply for 5 jobs per week 
The job search continues, and this month I've got four weeks of work experience scheduled at various places. I'm usually exhausted when I come back after a day at my placement and liable to want to lie down with a book or my laptop, so I want to set myself the goal of five applications per week to ensure that my job hunt keeps on ticking away and I don't let October slip away from me.

• Read 5 scary novels! 
To gear myself up for Halloween this month I want to read five scary books! I'll be reading at least one Stephen King novel as well as The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, and have yet to decide on the other three. If anyone has any recommendations for any horror, thriller or true crime novels, please let me know and I'll add it to my list :)

• Continue to learn Spanish 
I'm really enjoying learning español on Duolingo and am currently on a 13-day streak. This month I aim to continue that streak and practice and learn new grammar and vocab every day for the rest of the month. 

• Get rid of things I don't need 
It's a new season, so this month I'll be clearing my wardrobe of summer clothes I didn't wear this year, as well as throwing out battered shoes and anything else that's cluttering my room, including the unpacked boxes that have been floating around my room since I moved back from uni in June. 

• Build up my stamina 
I have the worst stamina in the world. I'm also prone to hyperbole. I probably have the worst stamina in my house, anyway - when I run down the street (to catch a train, usually!) I'm usually left red in the face and panting like an overexcited puppy. I'd like to change that this month by factoring some short runs into my routine. Slow and steady...

What have you challenged yourself to do this month?

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