Saturday, August 16, 2014

One Million Years of The Human Story

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington has been one of my favourite places in London for most of my life. This is mainly because it is home to 'Dippy', a much-loved 110-year old cast of a giant diplodocus who walked the earth about 150 million years ago.

 From the age of seven onwards I was totally dinosaur-crazy, memorising hundreds of dino names and facts, watching The Land Before Time umpteen times (Littlefoot!) and keen to be a paleontologist. I still kind of want to be one. It's probably not surprising that 'Dippy' was basically my childhood hero. The Natural History Museum's permanent dinosaur exhibition is absolutely fantastic, with creepy animatronic velociraptors and T-Rexes growling at unsuspecting visitors in the galleries. The lovely Lisa of Not Quite Enough tipped me off about the NHM's 'Dino Snores' event, where dino enthusiasts who have grown up can enjoy a three-course dinner, live comedy and music, a monster movie marathon, an insect-based midnight feast (!), a dinosaur-drawing class, the current exhibitions and, most thrillingly, a night sleeping underneath Dippy himself. I want to go so badly it hurts. Future birthday present to myself...?

On this particular trip, Alex and I decided to visit the current temporary exhibition, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story. If you know me at all, you'll know that this is genuinely my idea of a perfect date.

Turns out Britain has only been populated by the humble Homo sapiens for the last 25,000 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of years previously, other Homo species crossed a land bridge from Europe to settle here - most notably Homo neanderthalensis, who we know fondly as Neanderthals. The title of the exhibition came from a landmark discovery of a set of Neanderthal footprints. Exposed by chance on a beach at Happisburgh, they're thought to date back at least 950, 000 years. 

England wasn't always a green and pleasant land, either. In the past million years it's been warm enough to host jungle cats, woolly mammoths, aurochs, elephants, hippos, rhinoceroses, bears and more. Did you know that as recently as 60, 000 years ago, lions used to prowl through where Trafalgar Square stands today? I could barely wrap my head around that. The UK has also been subjected to numerous harsh Ice Ages, in which ice enveloped the entirety of Britain and northern Europe, forcing humans to flee south. 

Most interesting was comparing the genetic makeup of short, stocky, heavy-browed Neanderthals and the much longer-limbed Homo sapiens - and finding out that most humans today (aside from those of pure African descent) possess a small percentage of Neanderthal genes. 

One Million Years is a truly brilliant exhibition, absolutely worth a visit if you live in London or are visiting in the next month! It closes on the 28th September and is only £4 for students and £8 for adults. You can book here (absolutely advised, by the way - you have to pay a £1 booking fee but the alternative is queuing for 40 mins or more and getting grumpy and cold in the all too probable wind and rain...) 

After the exhibition Alex and I strolled around the rest of the museum, admiring its architectural details and trying to find a haven from the bustling crowds until closing time. The building is German Romanesque, reminiscent of the Renaissance Hotel outside St. Pancras and designed by Alfred Waterhouse in the second half of the nineteenth century, and in my opinion definitely qualifies as one of the most beautiful museums in the world.

While in the upper gallery Alex made several cool gifs of the crowds milling around the Diplodocus. You see? This is why we're going out.

I pushed for us to go to the Vault, at the very end of the rocks room. Not just for die-hard geology enthusiasts, I promise you.

The Vault holds everything shiny and covetable, from supposedly cursed gems to microscopic star dust diamonds. The latter consists of a tiny smudge of powder at the bottom of a tube. Gleaned from a meteorite that fell to earth, these millions of diamonds formed in the dust around dying stars billions of years ago, before our solar system was even born. They're the oldest thing you'll ever see. Puts things in perspective a bit...

I'll leave you with the image of my beloved Dippy's whip-like tail. So much love for the Natural History Museum. And all this talk of dinosaurs and antediluvian objects has put me in the perfect mood to go and see an open-air screening of Jurassic Park at my local park tonight! 

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Chocolate Beetroot Cake

The idea of finding vegetables in one's cake may be slightly perturbing, but give them a chance. I'm sure carrot cake was met with horror and disdain once upon a time, after all. Well, okay. Maybe cauliflower wouldn't do so well in a cake. Or aubergines. 

Beetroots, however. Little mauve globes of joy, perfect when chopped into a salad with some goat's cheese and walnuts. Gorgeous when roasted alongside a chicken and eaten alongside caramelised potatoes on a warm summer's evening. You might not have thought of putting them in a cake. But believe me, beetroot, when introduced into chocolate cake, makes for the fudgiest, moistest bake I've made this summer. 

I've actually been pretty obsessed by chocolate beetroot cake for a while. Last autumn I cycled to Stickybeaks, a wonderful café tucked away on a back street in central Cambridge, for a little bit of headspace. (Please, please visit if you're ever making a trip to Cambridge - hands down best cake in the city.) I wandered to the counter, ordered a slice of their chocolate beetroot cake and sat down to pore over books for an essay. The waitress brought it to the table with a steaming cup of tea and a smile. I put a forkful in my mouth and swooned inwardly. The combo of chocolate with beetroot works beautifully because the beets, naturally sweet, impart both moistness and an extra layer of flavour depth to the cake. And for those who are wondering, no, the cake doesn't taste like a garden salad - the chocolate almost completely masks the beetroot taste. The beetroots give the cake a gorgeous reddish tinge which is only really discernible in the day time and through photos. It's sort of like a natural red velvet in this sense - you get the lovely chocolatey taste with the scarlet colour, but with no added food colouring!

I mentioned in my post about our homegrown veg and fruit that we've been growing a ton of beetroots this summer. We've been roasting them, slicing them into salad, trying them in pasta... I decided I absolutely had to try my hand at baking with them last weekend. I haven't quite mastered the art of beautiful bakes yet (à la The Great British Bake-Off, which I watch religiously every year), but my family and A absolutely loved the result. The cake was demolished within mere days, and now I'm being begged to make another! Give it a go and see what you think!

Chocolate beetroot cake (adapted from Nigel Slater)

300g beetroot, washed thoroughly
200g good dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
200g butter
135g plain flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
3 tsp good quality cocoa powder
4 tbsp hot espresso
5 eggs
190g golden caster sugar
Crème fraîche to serve

• Cook your beetroot whole and unpeeled in boiling unsalted water. They should be tender in roughly half an hour, though if you're using young ones, keep checking them after about twenty minutes. Drain them, cool them under cold running water, then peel them (this bit's messy - you might want to use gloves!) slice off their stem and root, pop in a Magimix or food processor and blitz to a rough purée.

•While your beetroots are cooking, lightly butter a loose-bottomed cake tin, lining the base with a disc of baking parchment. Set the oven at 180ºC/Gas Mark 4. 

•Snap your chocolate into small pieces and melt them in a bowl resting over simmering water, making sure that the water doesn't touch the bowl. Don't stir. When the chocolate looks like it's nearly molten, pour your hot espresso over it and stir once.

•Cut your butter into small pieces and add to the melted chocolate, using a spoon to dip the butter pieces under the surface of the chocolate. Leave to soften over a low heat.

•Sift together the flour, baking powder and cocoa, and set aside.

•Separate your eggs, placing the whites in a large mixing bowl. Stir the yolks together. Remove the chocolate from the heat and gently stir the butter until it has melted into the chocolate. Leave for a few minutes, then quickly stir in the egg yolks, mixing firmly and evenly so that the eggs blend with the mixture. When you've done this, fold in your blitzed beetroot.

•Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, then gently fold in the sugar to avoid losing the air. Firmly but tenderly (Nigel's words, not mine!) fold the beaten egg whites and sugar into the chocolate mixture using a large metal spoon, using a deep figure of 8 movement. Be careful not to over-mix.

•Fold in the flour, baking powder and cocoa, making sure it's well combined. Transfer quickly to the prepared cake tin and put in the oven, immediately turning your heat down to 160ºC/Gas Mark 3. Bake for 45 mins, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

•Leave to cool (don't worry if it sinks a bit!) then loosen the cake with a palette knife around the edges after about half an hour. Try very hard not to remove the cake from its tin until completely cold (I failed at this because of hungry parents...) Serve in thick slices with a dollop of crème fraîche. 


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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Great British Summer

Put two Brits in a room together and it's likely that they'll immediately start up a conversation about the weather. We can't help it - when our meteorological conditions fluctuate this much, it's a genuine subject of interest! This year we've gone from almost-Mediterranean highs of 30ºC and blue skies to blustery days punctuated by heavy rain and…erm…hail. A typical British summer, in other words. 

What else is inevitable during our London summer?
1) Pimms. The taste of exam liberation and hopeful picnics for the last six years.
2) Men whipping their tops off at the first glimmer of sun.
3) Roasting at 35ºC+ temperatures on the Bakerloo line. Come on now, TfL...
4) 99p cones (that no longer cost 99p).
5) Barbecues!

We brought the old barbecue that's been lying dormant in the garage for the last twelve months out of retirement, gave it a good scrub down, and sent Dad out to the shop to buy firelighters. Whatever it is that makes heat in barbecues. I'm happy to leave those types of jobs to the menfolk.

The men are also allowed to do the things that I don't enjoy so basting raw meat.

Someone caught the whiff of meat and fish cooking and wandered into our garden to get a slice of the action, rolling around in the vegetable patches to get our attention. This little cat has been a regular visitor this summer, playing with the plants, hiding behind the grape vines, searching for frogs in the plots. And I hear that she/he went into a neighbour's house the other day and went upstairs. Naughty.

Licking its lips. The tiger who came to tea?

Home-made satay on sticks, purple sweet potatoes, rolled-up Waitrose chorizo.

I love a good barbecue. Al fresco eatin' can't be beaten! And the smoke and delicious smells wafting through the garden are just the best, even if they do attract little feline friends... Especially because they do.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Notes from the Garden

I love our family garden. A year and a half ago, we dug four big plots for fruit and vegetables, and have been enjoying homegrown produce alongside the standard flowers in the garden ever since. Having an urban kitchen garden makes me fantasise, à la Marie Antoinette, about having my own little farm with greenhouses, chickens and beehives. Maybe one day.

The first half of this summer was fairly slow in terms of harvestable produce, but the yield has just exploded in these past few weeks thanks to the combination of heatwave and rain we've been having in London! In June we had strawberries, pineberries, rocket and broadbeans. July brought rhubarb, gooseberries, artichokes and spinach. This month, we're enjoying absolutely tons of cucumbers, tomatoes, several varieties of courgettes, tatsoi, pak choi, Russian red kale and brambles! We've also had beetroots all summer long (which is amazing seeing as I only planted a few seeds over Easter!) We've also got dill, basil, rosemary, sage, tarragon and French beans in pots and the plots and almonds, olives and figs growing on the trees, but I doubt the latter two will ripen without another few weeks of concentrated sun. It's been a prolific summer. 

Here's a mix of DSLR and phone photos to show you some of the things we've been growing in the garden this year!

Regular basil and Thai sweet basil.

Pretty rhubarb.

White cosmos, planted by Alex.

Essential gardening kit!

Mini tomatoes.


A broadbean as long as my forearm and a tromboncino d'albenga (a type of courgette) as long torso?


Sage flowers and a white allium.

Baby figs.

Beans, an 8-ball courgette, cucumber and tatsoi.

My mother's pride and joy.

A tromboncino d'albenga, so named because it looks a bit like a mini trombone. 

While we were away, the vegetables went crazy. 8-ball and chiaro di nizza courgettes that turned into marrows, and the tromboncini d'albenga grew insanely long!

We filled the marrows with minced beef for lunch.

A tree-like tatsoi leaf.

The garden in the early morning.

Matching my nails to my beetroots. Because vegetables are the best fashion accessories...

Brambles that stained my fingers, with a borage flower on top.

With limited space, gardening can be difficult in London, but it's very therapeutic to look after plants and reap the benefits a few weeks later. I especially love growing vegetables because it means we hardly need to buy them from the supermarket over the summer! 

Do you like gardening, and if so, what do you grow? 

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