Last Night’s Telly: Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets

The first series having passed me by completely, it was with greedy anticipation that I snuggled down last night to catch the first episode of Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets. To a confirmed food porn addict like myself, if we see Jamie Oliver’s humble, honest fare as something akin to the cavorting of a ruddy-cheeked farm girl, then the luscious, decadent and complicated dishes promised by Raymond’s adverts are the equivalent of whips, chains and latex. I locked the door and made doubly sure I had a box of tissues to hand – for the drool, you understand.

With the possibility in mind that this was going to be the highlight of my televisiual week, now that Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has ceased to be, you can imagine my surprise to find that Raymond’s show appeared to have been possessed by the departed spirit of said traveller documentary.  As Raymond enthuses about a jus or the succulency of a scallop, the soundtrack of jaunty accordians trips and skips along in a disconcertingly familiar way, so that you half expect a teenager in a blancmange of pink net to stumble past in the background.

In addition, the programme’s makers seem to have shunned the traditional narrator of food programmes, the cook himself, in favour of a lady with a nice voice who tells us what he is doing. Her tone of reverential yet indulgent intrigue is eerily similar to that of BFGW, and it creates a very bizarre effect when attached to the doings of a celebrity chef. ‘Raymond sweats a crushed clove of garlic and a finely chopped onion’ is at once oddly patronising and unnaturally distant; the narrator is neither addressing the viewer with direct instructions (like a cooking show), nor providing information or insight beyond that which is clear for the viewer to see (like a documentary). Elsewhere, ‘Raymond arranges the grilled vegetables’ and ‘Raymond uses a blender’. It’s all very odd. Not quite as odd, however, as the narrator’s attempts to revel in the luxury of the food, trying to put as much sex into the words ‘hand-dived scallops’ as possible, and accidentally making this viewer feel a bit queasy in the process. On any show where the presenter needs to imbue their words with passion it simply has to be the presenter themselves. A faceless, unknown narrator coming over all Nigella is seriously sick-making.

In terms of what pearls of wisdom can actually be gleaned from Blanc’s years of experience at the top of his trade, sadly this first show gave us very few. The Moules Mariniere looked delicious and is certainly one to try at home, but Blanc and his narrator gave very few real hints as to the preparation of fresh mussels other than vague advice to remove the beard and throw away cracked ones. There is then a swift and badly filmed demonstration of the cutting up of a squid, followed by quite a basic recipe for a salad. The next dish of scallops looked great, and you do get a good look at him frying them, which is useful to anyone nervous about cooking shellfish, but I know very few people who will make such a complicated starter, involving three different styles of cauliflower, an infused oil and the scallops themselves. Sadly ‘Raymond’s finale’ of lobster, that seems to have the narrator quivering with excitement, is basically incomprehensible, not to mention impossible in a domestic kitchen.

The comedy music, the unsettling narrator and the fact that Raymond never quite looks into the camera combine to make this a strange hybrid of a cooking show and documentary, and fails to do either particularly well. Add to the mix the scenes in which Blanc has A Great Time with his staff and it seems to show a desperation on behalf of the programme-makers to make him seem intoxicatingly passionate and Really Fun to boot. One comes away with the feeling that this is nothing more than an extended PR exercise for brand Blanc – maybe there’s nothing so wrong with a ruddy-cheeked farm girl after all.

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This week I’m reading: Footsteps by Richard Holmes

After watching the extraordinarily good television adaptation of William Boyd’s gorgeous Any Human Heart, I merrily hopped on the passing bandwagon and read the book just after Christmas. There are so many reasons to love this novel, but most important for me was the fact that it reminded me of how much I love biographical writing, whether fiction, nonfiction or somewhere in-between.

In my opinion, the mark of a really great book is one that fills you with a need to read more, to go back to the bookshelf and see what other forgotten treats are hiding among its dark corners. While at university I did a course called Life Writing and, ferreting around a dusty old pile of neglected books, I came across one from this course that I had never quite got round to reading.

The book is called Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes, and the copy I own has a spectacularly dull cover featuring some sepia trees, which is probably why I didn’t quite manage to read it all those years ago. But the folly of my youthful shallowness has paid dividends as this is a book that must be savoured, with every word allowed the time and space that sadly (and somewhat ironically) just isn’t available to a literature student.

The book is divided into four quite distinct sections that recount Holmes’ literary pilgrimages across Europe from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, in search of some kind of emotional, spiritual and poetic connection with eminent literary figures of the Romantic era, namely Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Shelleys and Gérard de Nerval. Holmes is a passionate, sometimes obsessive, guide through moments of great personal crisis in the lives of these people, walking through the forests, travelling down the roads and haunting the houses that they once passed through. The result is one of the most powerful, moving and beautiful works of biographical literature ever written, and conveys more about the brutal human reality of living out Romantic ideals in chapters of sixty-odd pages than any factually dense biographical brick ever could.

Something about the way Holmes bears the weight of the literary canon with such ecstatic pleasure, leaping among references with such delight and abandon reminded me of Boyd’s merry romp through the literary figures of the twentieth century, acknowledging their contribution as people and writers with celebration rather than reverence or fear. As I read Footsteps I became more convinced of how much Any Human Heart owes to this great and often forgotten little masterpiece. You can imagine my smile when I came across a passage that directly references the same Henry James quotation after which Boyd’s novel is named, ‘never say you know the last word about any human heart’, this time in reference to the enigmatic, and finally tragic life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. It is no coincidence that Logan Mounstuart of Boyd’s novel makes his first step into the literary world with a biography of none other than Shelley.

To anyone who has ever fantasised about selling up and living the romantic life of a bohemian nomad in France or Italy; or anyone who dreams of the intense, really human passions behind the great literary and historical stories; or even those who just love to escape into another, more heightened, more beautiful world through literature, I can’t recommend Footsteps enough.

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Last Night’s Telly: The Brits

Mention The Brits and what springs to mind? National embarrassment? Annual catastrophe? Shambolic kitschfest? For over three decades now The Brits Awards have acted as a sort of emblem of British morosity, representing everything we feel about success, talent and artistic endeavour – namely awkwardness and shame. It has functioned as the most expensive, cringing and pointless display of tediously British self deprecation in the last fifty years and it was with a heavier heart than usual that I pressed the button marked ‘3’ on my remote last night for what was surely set to be two hours of shoddy sound, ‘amusing’ duets and ‘spectacular’ set pieces interspersed with drunk acceptance speeches and controversial hosts fudging their otherwise hilarious lines.

From the outset though it was clear that this was no ordinary Brit Awards ceremony. Confusing as it may be for anyone older than 25 to see Take That performing with Robbie, this ain’t 1995 and we certainly ain’t in Kansas any more. The That’s suitably theatrical opening number, featuring sheild-thumping riot police who stripped off to their lovely white undies for a Tahrir-inspired peace party, was slickly choreographed and accompanied by crystal clear sound. Whether that’s a good thing when Mark Owen is doing his bestest David Bowie impression is a matter of taste, but the sentiment of strength and positivity was undeniable.

Brits 2011

Take That at The Brits 2011

The show was then deposited into the surprisingly capable and unassuming hands of presenter James Corden, who led us through the show with a sort of cheerful earnestness and all-round good nature that is rare in most walks of life, but totally unheard of in the grotesque world of the awards ceremony. The tone of simple, slick elegance continued through most of the performances, particularly Adele’s goosepimple-inducing rendition of Someone Like You, sung alone on a black stage with just a piano for accompaniment.

Mumford and Sons and The Arcade Fire provided similarly raw, if not quite to achingly powerful, performances in an evening full of celebration and confidence rather than the usual apologetic bluster. Obviously there were moments of overcooked nonsense, Plan B’s strangely violent performance (oddly, also featuring riot police) was a low point, and the ad breaks were bookended by nauseating clips of ‘stars’ (The Ting Tings, anyone? No? How about Lulu? Anastasia?) giving their ‘fans’ stinky old shoes and broken musical instruments for the benefit of Mastercard. But on the whole there is a new and long overdue confidence and pride at work behind the scenes of this much maligned national joke and that can only be a good thing.

 

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Guardian Women 100 – Part 1

The Guardian, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, are asking readers to vote for their favourite inspirational women and will compile a Top 100 list at the beginning of March. So who gets your vote?

Some women that exist. Also, Margaret Thatcher.

The only stipulation is that they must be living, and the idea is that you choose a woman who not only inspires other women, but is successful in their own right and has ‘achieved something’ for the fairer sex. Hmmm…

Over the next few weeks I am going to offer up a selection of choice fillies for your consideration. However, feeling cheerfully contemptuous, I have no intention of limiting myself to women who are alive (is it their fault they are dead?), or even women who existed in real reality. Sod it, some might not even be women. In your face, patriarchal binary systems!

First up, is a woman who really is to blame for her own exclusion from the Guardian’s poll, being that she committed suicide in 1941: the incomparable Virginia Woolf.

OK, OK, so she’s come in for a bit of stick over the last 90-odd years (most recently, I think, being William Boyd’s representation of her as a spiteful, neurotic racist in 2002’s Any Human Heart), but on a purely personal level she has inspired and influenced my thoughts and actions since I first picked up Orlando on a free period during 6th form, ten years ago.

In all honesty I was drawn to the romance of the title and what little I knew about Woolf’s reputation – a copy of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf had sat on a bookshelf at home for years and always impressed me with a sense of mysterious, powerful glamour – but with every page I turned I became more and more struck by the sense that my simple, secondary school thoughts about literature were falling away and being replaced by a giddy feeling of absolute, unfathomable possibility. The atom had been split, the Earth was no longer flat and I gobbled every word like a greedy child tasting chocolate for the first time.

I read Mrs Dalloway next, and will always be grateful to Mrs Woolf, whatever her failings, for furnishing my life with some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read:

‘So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.’

I can’t imagine my life without that sentence. For me it is a holiday, a pause, a quiet corner where everything that is beautiful is safe. Maybe that sums up many of the criticisms of Woolf’s work: her withdrawn, too literary, too privileged world view. A matter of opinion, still hotly debated in Literature tutorials across the globe.

For me, however, Woolf was firmly cemented as one of the most inspirational figures in my life when I read A Room of One’s Own at university. If you haven’t read it, do. I you have, read it again. I have never been so inspired to pick up a pen (or laptop) as I was when reading this essay. The reasoning my be faulty, the arguments too neat, but I think its impact on me and many women (perhaps even men) like me shouldn’t be underestimated.

‘Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook I hope you will possess yourself of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream’

Peach xx

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Put On A Happy Face

Dear reader, it is January. It is raining. The Tories are still in power and (your sympathy please) the only thing scribbled in my 2011 diary thus far is an appointment at the Job Centre. In addition, I have accidentally caught part of Chris Evans’ Famous and Fearless EVERY TIME IT HAS BEEN ON TELLY! Oh unholy Universe, are there no depths to will you will not stoop? Will this blighted nation never be cheerful again? Call me paranoid, call me insane, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that a certain Mr Clegg must’ve made some kind of pact with old Lucifer himself in his search for power and glory (phnarrr). How else could one possibly explain the existence of this:

Proof of an unholy alliance, if ever I saw it.

Conrad knew nothing of horror, Marlowe knew nothing of Hell. Her hair! His hair! I was sent by my Father investigate the cost of purchasing some of this Faustian tat (his wife is American) and upon finding it promptly laughed out loud for a full half hour. We are surely doomed.

On a brighter note, in my hunt for commemorative china emblazoned with the puzzled fizzogs of future monarchs, I stumbled across a genuine treat from the people at Royal Doulton. Celebrating 100 years of Royal Albert china, they have released designs from throughout the 2oth Century, all wrapped up in hot pink, hatbox style packaging. Look at them, feel happy and, as the Universe implodes, have a cup of tea. We are British, after all.

Peach xx

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Shirley the Marvelous

As I said in my previous post, a gaggle of friends came down to visit at the weekend and as we hadn’t all been together since Christmas (I said I was a bad friend, didn’t I?) there were all kinds of things to catch up on: births marriages, deaths, that sort of thing. But there is also a thousand, million insignificant, day to day things that, as we talk so rarely, we just don’t know about each other. It made me realise how much time had passed and how little even our closest friends know about us.

Anyway, at one point we were talking about films we watch when we’re down or feeling a bit poorly, and I said that one of my all time favourites was Shirley Valentine. A film adaptation of Willy Russel’s one-woman play about a downtrodden Liverpudlian housewife who’s life’s ambition is to drink a glass of wine at the edge of the sea in the country where the grape was grown, watching the sun go down. It is a gem and I watch it whenever I need a bit of an imaginary cuddle. Maybe because it reminds me of my Mum in the ’80s, or of the family holiday to Crete when, at the age of 12, decided I wanted to live there forever. Or maybe it’s just really, really good.

Yesterday I received a text message from one of my friends saying that she’d had a couple of days off sick, and to relieve the intense boredom she’d driven to ASDA and come across Shirley Valentine for £3. Halfway through watching it she texted me to tell me she was loving it and already felt better. I was so proud of Shirley and so pleased to have passed on something so silly and personal to someone else, so I thought my lovely readers might like a little taster too.

Have a great weekend my pretties, and remember the F Plan if you’re having trouble trying to shift those extra pounds.

Peach xx

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In which breakfast is eaten

This weekend I was lucky enough to be visited by three very old friends indeed. The friends are not old, no no, but the friendships are, which is all the more special for someone like me who can quite justly be called a terrible, terrible friend. In a bid to make up for my appalling lack of correspondence and even worse track record of failing to attend many gatherings and get-togethers, I took them to some of Brighton’s finest eating and drinking establishments. I am, if nothing else, a firm believer that food heals everything.

On saturday evening we went to Pho on Black Lion Street, next to Jamie Oliver’s restaurant. A relaxed cafeteria-style restaurant with a couple of other branches in London, they serve a range of light and utterly delicious Vietnamese treats including delicate little spring rolls and exceptional cold noodle salads. Much chopstick silliness ensued.

Chopstick Silliness

Chopstick Silliness

Then we headed off to the cocktail bar of the Hotel Pelirocco on Regency Square for a couple of quiet drinks. I can’t stand most bars on a saturday night in Brighton (hens in fluro-pink t-shirts and stags in drag are only funny for so long. Not very long at all, as it happens) so it’s nice to have somewhere a bit off the beaten track to go and sample a few choice tidbits from the cocktail menu. Could you resist something called Fur Coat No Knickers? No, me neither.

Toffee Appletini at Hotel Pelirocco

Understandably we were feeling ever so slightly fragile the next morning, and as every good cocktail connoisseur knows, the only cure is a really, really good breakfast. On this lazy Sunday morning in Brighton there was only one place on our minds: Bill’s. Bill’s Produce Store fast became a breakfast institution in Lewes where, after twenty years as a grocery, it started serving food in 2001. A second branch was soon opened in Brighton’s North Laine where the hungover and the hungry flock like ravenous seagulls. This is why:

Eggs Benedict with Spinach at Bill's.

Oh, perfectly poached egg, what would Sunday be without you? Bill’s has been so successful, in fact, that in 2009 the business was bought by Richard Caring (sometime owner of The Ivy and Le Caprice) who is opening branches in select locations across the country. Rumour has it there have been a couple of additions to the menu, including chips and brand-name soft drinks (ahem, Coke), for the new branches outside cosmopolitan Sussex, but I’m sure that the quality of the produce and general atmosphere of cheery, casual gluttony will be unaffected.

Peach xx

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