Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Fashionable Furnishings



 

 

A rising star on the runway for two years now, Mary Katrantzou’s Ceci n’est pas une chambre collection for SS11 was quite literally picture perfect. Images scanned straight from the pages of Architectural Digest and World of Interiors were digitally printed in all their high-life luxury upon a parade of dresses, capturing crystal-clear swimming pools, sprawling gardens and palatial parlours in pleasingly polite pastels of baby pink, mint and duck-egg blue. 

Simply put, the concept was just so…clever. Where photography had flattened the architecture into two dimensions, trompe l’oeil prints played at bringing it back to life. But there's more! Katrantzou then took things full circle, decorating her dresses with physical furnishings - candelabra necklaces, billowing chiffon curtains and, best of all, structured skirts modelled on the most kitsch lampshades you’re likely to find outside of the designer’s native Greece. 

Such hyperrealism isn’t just art for art’s sake though – much like its inspiration, René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, Katrantzou’s re-imagined interiors cast a fresh eye over familiar objects and play with our perceptions of them. Seventies soft furnishings are suddenly seen as objects of beauty, and surprisingly wearable to boot. A room of one’s own? If only...

Monday, 17 January 2011

Tilda Swinton: The Thinking Girl's Fashion Icon

Strapless? Er, no. Smothered in Swarovski crystals? Not a sparkle in sight. Sun-kissed glow? What is this ‘sun’ you speak of?

So what's left? Let's see. Slicked-back choirboy hair, demi-couture Jil Sander skirt, crisp white shirt, furrowed brow. Now THAT’s what I call a cool approach to Golden Globes glamour. 


Saturday, 15 January 2011

Portuguese Custard Tarts


Let me introduce you to the most delicious thing I’ve eaten so far this year: the Portuguese custard tart, or a pastel de nata if you want to be fancy about it. The discovery that there was a Portuguese café about three minutes down my road that sold them for 80p a pop stopped my Saturday right in its tracks. More moreish than your average Bakewell and a bit less in-your-face than a cupcake, my childhood memories are punctuated with these perfect little pastries thanks to yearly family holidays spent in the Algarve.

The first bite was delicately flaky, then soft and chewy as the pastry gave way. The second sank into the cool, creamy custard, scorched on top and accented with a faint egginess below. And the aftermath? An afternoon spent savouring a haze of sunny memories.

My advice would be to find a bakery that sells them and scoff one still warm from the oven, but if you’d like to try your hand at making them then lucky for you the ever-useful Jamie Oliver included a jazzed-up version of them in his recent 30-Minute Meals extravaganza. Recipe below…

Jamie Oliver’s Quick Portuguese tarts with orange caramel

Makes 6 tarts

Plain flour, for dusting
1 x 375g pack of prerolled puff pastry
Ground cinnamon
125g (4½oz) créme fraîche
1tsp vanilla paste or vanilla extract
5tbsp golden caster sugar
1 egg
1 orange

Preheat oven to 200C/ gas mark 6. Dust a surface with flour. Unroll the pastry, then cut it in half so you have two 20cm x 20cm (8in x 8in) squares (put one in the fridge for another day). Sprinkle over a few pinches of ground cinnamon, then roll the pastry into a Swiss-roll shape and cut into 6 rounds. Put these into 6 of the holes in a muffin tin, and use your thumbs to mould the pastry into the holes, so the bottom is flat and the pastry comes up to the top. Put on the top shelf of the oven and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until lightly golden.

Spoon the créme fraîche into a small bowl. Add the egg, vanilla paste or extract, 1tbsp golden caster sugar and the zest of 1 orange. Mix well.

Take the muffin tin out of the oven, and use a teaspoon to press the puffed-up pastry back to the sides and make room for the filling. Spoon the créme fraîche mixture into the tart cases, and return to the top shelf of the oven. Set the timer for 8 minutes.

Put a small saucepan on a high heat. Squeeze in the juice from the zested orange and add 4tbsp golden caster sugar. Stir and keep a good eye on it, but remember caramel can burn badly so don't touch or taste.

Pour some caramel over each tart (they'll still be wobbly). Put aside to set.

The Foodie Revolution


We popped it out of its plastic case steaming hot and treacley, the whole candied orange at its centre peeping out like a jellified jewel in the crown. So what was it about Heston Blumenthal’s Waitrose Christmas Pudding that made it December’s hottest buy? Whilst my canny mother had bought ours in November for what at the time seemed like a rather pricey £13.99, come Christmas these limited-edition puds were selling like, um, hot cakes for as much as £200 on eBay. £200! For some contraband sultanas in sponge? For a nation that once accepted boil-in-the-bag cod and a bowl of Angel Delight as fair game, such frenzy over food seemed like something of a revolution. And that’s exactly what it is.

Jamie Oliver and olive oil, Yo! Sushi, those Marks and Spencer’s food-porn ads, knowing how to pronounce “prosciutto”: 30 years ago this was all a distant dream, a foodie paradise found only in more clued-up countries like Japan or Italy. Over the past few decades however, there’s been a tsunami of a sea-change in the UK's view of food. Whether it's Nigella, Jamie or Gordon whom we have to thank for, it's now considered cool for a man to cook up scallops with a cauliflower foam on a casual night in. It’s de rigeur these days to know your rose from your white veal, your snail porridge from your black cod in miso and your scampi from your langoustine (spot the trick question there). The cultural heights of the Westfield London Shopping Centre alone reveal a Benetton-like variety of eats, including Vietnamese, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Thai, Japanese, Indian and British. Our stomachs may be steadily expanding, but at least we’re letting them have some fun in the process.

And if you needed any more proof that what we eat now is a hell of a lot more exciting than what it was 30 years ago, cast your eye over this restaurant menu from 1981 (click on the picture and zoom to see it up close). 

 

The Beaujolais in Manchester was one of the city's finest restaurants, serving what was considered top nosh at the time, with top nosh prices to go with it. The images are taken from a total treasure of a book, a compilation of menus from contemporary '80s restaurants called Adventures in Dining: The Gourmet’s Guide to Greater Manchester and North Cheshire. I may have only scanned in one menu to show you, but rest assured, each page reads like a gastronomic Groundhog Day. In 1981 it seems every restaurant – and I mean every single one, whether pricey like The Beaujolais or a cheap little bistro – served the exact same blend of bastardised French fare. To paraphrase:

Starter: Prawn cocktail, avocado, melon, egg mayonnaise, pâté, onion soup
Main Course: Steak in cream, chicken in cream, pork in cream, sole poached in cream. Pudding: Crêpe Suzette, baked Alaska, crème caramel.

No sushi, no houmous, no nothing. So when your weekly trip to Wagamama starts to seem a little humdrum, just cast your mind back to a time when noodles were considered nouvelle cuisine and slurp up that bowl of ramen with a smile on your face. 

But returning to the pudding quickly - did Heston deserve the hype? Chock-full of fruit and doused in orange-scented syrup, it tasted delicious, if a little dense. Given it's high-profile past, I’m predicting a pre-emptive August rush on this year’s delivery. Elbows at the ready foodies...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Tea and Sympathy


I’ve gone from loathing it, to liking it, but never quite loving it: for me, a big f**k-off flask of Starbucks will never be as treasured as a nice cup of tea. 

I make no pretence to the contrary that by preferring tea to coffee I lump myself in the fringey, fuzzy, Kate Nash camp of hot drinks. A short and chic shot of espresso conjures up images of kohl-lined eyes and sultry Parisian girls shrugging in café corners. Meanwhile, a steaming mug of Earl Grey sits perfuming the air with a carpeted warmth, enveloping you with softly wrinkled hands delicately dusted with talcum powder. It’s certainly not sexy, but it’s sure as hell appealing. The offer of a cup of tea is Britain’s universal answer to the unanswerable, a comforting filler for unspoken feelings and irreversible truths. Whilst coffee prepares you for the world outside, tea welcomes you back in. With January drizzling miserably at my doorstep, I know which I'd prefer right now. 

Given all this, it's no wonder I instantly loved the concept behind bespoke tea company Blends for Friends. Founder Alex Probyn is what they call a ‘master tea taster’, who spent years blending for one of the world’s best-known brands of tea. Things really took off when he began to make custom blends for friends and family based upon their personalities, and swiftly Blends for Friends was born.



Simply fill in a form online, either about yourself or (as the name implies) a friend, and Probyn will use his expertise to rustle up a tailor-made blend of tea, personally labelled with its own name and description. The form doesn’t just cover preferred flavours, bringing the person’s appearance, their job and any hobbies or interests into the equation as well. I imagine it’s something like that love potion in Harry Potter which has a different aroma for everyone who smells it based upon what they find most appealing - although thinking about it, that casts Probyn as a fictional wizard and me as a massive Harry Potter nerd, so let’s back-track on that metaphor for now. Still, what perfect presents those cute little caddies make! Who said tea couldn't be as cool as coffee?  

And if you need any more incentive to turn over to tea, why not do a Lady Gaga and invest in a statement cup and saucer to sip it with? Pinkies poised at the ready...

Reiko Kaneko Drip & Lip cups, stained with 24-karat gold

Blaue Blume lace and legs cup
Jasper Conran for Wedgwood Chinoiserie cup and saucer


Sunday, 9 January 2011

Strange Fruits

Fashion is a strange fruit, straddling a strange dichotomy. It prescribes what people should wear whilst celebrating personal expression: clothes are at once a reflection of self and a reflection of season. But when it all boils down to it, which is it really? As February’s issues of Vogue, Elle and Harper’s thud softly through letterboxes this week, stacked full of SS11 trend guides, does studying them signal an act of individual interest or one of sheep-like compliance? 

Skeptics seize upon the latter description, scorning seasonal shifts in what is considered stylish as the workings of a mob mentality. Yet fashion insiders have always insisted upon the former, fashion as self-expression, adamant that what they wear is never anything but personal preference. Alexa Chung declares, “I’m not very good with trends. I don’t really know what’s in or out.” But with such pledges of non-allegiance, of unaffected originality in the face of current fashions, where can trends ever come into the equation?

Herein lies what it means to be fashionable today – it’s the trick of being both seen and unseen, to become a part of the crowd whilst at the same time setting oneself apart from it. Chung slips on a new-season Christopher Kane dress, aligning herself with those who can recognise the designer and trend it belongs to, but then diverts the look from its expected editorial direction with a personal twist, a battered men's briefcase or a grandma knit. This roundabout route is the road to fashion itself: an insiders-outsiders club of non-conformity, where entry begins with a trend and ends with the individual. We may all start in the same place each season, with the same magazines and shows and clothes, but where we might end up is a different, far-reaching matter entirely. 

So as a little inspiration for your own individual mapping of the coming season, take a look at these gems from the legendary Japanese street-style magazine, Fruits. Shot by Shoichi Aoki throughout the ‘90s, the resulting book, also called Fruits, is a cornucopia of the weird and wonderful, and one which shows that caring about fashion is never about following, and always about having fun: sheep we are most definitely not. 

 

 

 

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Theyskens' Theory

 

 

 

 

Impossibly flat stomachs slanted skywards, naval-grazing T-shirts draped just so and a blissful blank canvas of clothes to choose from. Could anything be more appealing after a month of so much excess? Although minimalism was already established as one of AW10’s most coveted looks, Olivier Theyskens’ debut collection as Artistic Director of Theory somehow manages to make the trend that much cooler for SS11. It’s less elegant, more urban, and a whole lot more wearable than autumn’s pristine palette and don’t-touch-me tailoring. You could take a ride on the Tube in those perfectly slouched pants without last season's forensic fear of dirtying your just-dry-cleaned camel coat. It isn’t loud, but it’s certainly a collection that Theyskens should be very proud of. I’ll be having one of everything, please. 

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Ottolenghi Detox



Lose half a stone. Don’t lose my iPhone. Take part in a sponsored ‘fun run’ (I’m trying to ignore the oxymoronic resonance of that phrase). Those are mine, and I imagine you might have some too: New Year’s resolutions. The most popular? Ah, of course - get healthy. You can almost taste it in the air at this time of year, the sense of deep, hungry despair as men and women go about their daily lives on a January detox, heavy-lidded with caffeine-withdrawal symptoms and lumbered with a telltale gym-induction limp.

Now in no way am I a pessimist, but I give mostly everyone – including myself – a month. It’s not that I question people’s resolve, but I do question the exclusion of fun from your life for an entire year. Nobody wants to end up sitting on the sofa alone at home, avoiding the pub, watching repeats of The Biggest Loser and nibbling on a corner of Vogue for some dietary fibre. So do feel smug for a few weeks, then please, retoxify as soon as possible - you’ve earned it.

However, there is one New Year’s resolution I intend to stick to: to cook my way through the latest Ottolenghi book, Plenty. Israeli-born Yotam Ottolenghi’s four delicatessen-cum-cafés, dotted around the yummy-mummy districts of London, are vegetarian meccas. Whether marinated in oils, deeply chargrilled, rubbed with herbs or sprinkled with spices, the Ottolenghi approach to vegetables is anything but boring. There is meat and fish on the menu too, but here, for once, roots, pulses, grains and leaves are the star attractions rather than the side dishes - and there isn't a quiche in sight.

Since receiving Plenty for Christmas, I’ve basically slept with its softly padded cover under my pillow every night, so seductive are its detoxifying dishes. The recipes are the perfect antidote to any junk-food cravings – they just exude health, but in an intensely delicious, mmm-my-God-ing manner. Last night I gave the celeriac and lentils with hazelnut and mint dish a go. Oh my. No, seriously. Mmm-my-God. The comforting nuttiness of celeriac paired with the earthy puy lentils, the soft crunch of roasted hazelnuts with the mint biting through in the background. It's heaven. I urge you to try it before all the resolutions go out the window and it’s back to Thai takeouts. Find the recipe below the here's-one-I-made-earlier photo...


Celeriac and lentils with hazelnut and mint (taken from Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi)

Serves 4 (or 2 depressed detoxers)

60g whole hazelnuts (skin on)
200g Puy lentils (I cheated and used Merchant Gourmet’s ready-made packets)
700ml water
2 bay leaves
4 thyme sprigs
1 small celeriac (650g), peeled and cut into 1cm chips
4 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp hazelnut oil
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 tbsp chopped mint
Salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 140C/275F/ gas mark 1. Scatter the hazelnuts over a baking tray and roast in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, set aside to cool down, then chop roughly.

Put the lentils, water, bay leaves and thyme sprigs in a small saucepan. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the lentils are al dente, then drain into a sieve. Remove and discard the bay leaves and the woody sprigs.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, bring plenty of water to a boil, drop in the celeriac, along with some salt, and simmer for 8-12 minutes, or until just tender. Drain.
In a large bowl, mix the hot lentils (make sure they don't cool down - lentils soak up flavours much better when they're piping hot) with the olive oil, two tablespoons of the hazelnut oil, the vinegar, a few grinds of black pepper and plenty of salt. Add the celeriac, stir, taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
If you're serving this straight away, stir in half the mint and the hazelnuts, then pile in a big heap on to a suitable serving dish. Drizzle the remaining hazelnut oil over the top, then garnish with the rest of the mint and nuts.
If you're planning on serving it cold, wait for the lentil and celeriac mixture to cool down, taste again, then make a final adjustment to the seasoning. Add the rest of the hazelnut oil, the mint and the nuts just as you do when serving it hot. 
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