Category Archives: British

Minimalist & Eco Baby Essentials (2018)

Having your first baby is a bit like getting married.  The minute its obvious that you’re pregnant, sales clerks see pound/dollar signs in neon lights on your forehead.  There are so many things to buy.  All of them designed to make your baby smarter, better, faster, happier, cuter…and with a rounder head.  And very little of it do you actually need.  But when you tell the sales clerk you’re looking to buy organic, environmentally responsible products…well…weirdo.  Sadly, I suspect that those of us looking to buy natural products for their babies are in the minority, because even the big ‘healthy living’ stores like Planet Organic and Wholefoods have very little to offer aside from nappies and baby skincare.

As I’ve recently had a baby, and have gone through all the trouble of tracking down these products for my own use, I thought it might be helpful to share my list of essential items to have prepared at home for when your baby arrives.  You can get most of these things from Amazon, however, if there are local eco stores in your town, I would encourage you to shop there…or better yet, see if you have friends and family who could lend you or give you hand-me-downs of the following items. So many of these items are used for such a short time, and not all can be found in environmentally friendly versions or at least in effective environmentally friendly versions.

As a blanket statement, when buying new cotton items, I prefer to buy organic, but if you’re getting non-organic hand me downs or gifts, don’t sweat it and just use those.  Why buy organic?  Because cotton production is responsible for 25% of the world’s insecticide use and 10% of its pesticide use, with those pesticides being amongst the most hazardous and carcinogenic.  Not only do you not want any of that residue against baby’s skin, it’s just more environmentally responsible.

Hospital Bags – For You & Baby

Make sure that you have two bags ready to pack.  It’s much easier to keep your things separate from baby’s things.  This is so your things can be easily accessed during labour and you’ll only need access to baby’s things once he or she is born.  Your bag should be a small suitcase or duffle bag and baby’s bag can be your nappy/diaper changing bag.  My husband bought me this Skip Hop changing bag for Christmas before the baby was born and it was perfect to have in hospital, it was an absolutely fantastic changing bag for the first couple of years, and to be honest, it is so well made that I still use it to this day as a little overnight bag for my daughter when travelling.

A Carrier

When it comes to wraps, it’s probably best to go to a sling library if there’s one near you to try them out.  They just weren’t for me.  But a fitted carrier was perfect for us.  You can get this Ergobaby carrier we used to carry our daughter when hiking in Italy.  We loved it so much, we even bought the Ergobaby Doll Carrier version for our daughter to carry her ‘baby’ around in now!

Something to Sleep In

I know plenty of people who used an empty drawer as baby’s bed for the first few months of their lives.  And others who chose to co-sleep.  But…I wasn’t about to put my baby in an empty drawer.  And despite being a natural mama, I just wasn’t comfortable with the risks associated with co-sleeping (even with safe co-sleeping guidance) because I am a very heavy sleeper.  We were given a Moses basket and I found it useful having her in the basket right beside my bed to pick her up for comforting and late night feedings.  I liked that it was made from renewable resources and would easily biodegrade once it had reached the end of its lifespan.  I found the Moses basket to be convenient, safe, easy to move around the house and inexpensive.  Only you will know how long your baby needs to be sleeping in your bedroom with you, but the Moses basket will contain them for roughly 3-6 months before they outgrow it and need to go into a cot (unless you are a long-term co-sleeper).  To go with the Moses basket, you will need a mattress, fitted sheets and ideally a stand or rocker base.

I’ve included links below to a plain, palm basket (the same one we had), a natural mattress to fit it (it comes with a mattress, but you may wish to have a natural mattress which is free from any toxic chemical residues) and the same rocker base we had.

You may be able to live without the rocker base or stand…but your lumbar region may not, so give it some consideration.

Two fitted sheets should be enough.  I recommend organic cotton jersey sheets.  The jersey is soft and doesn’t need to be ironed.  There are organic waterproof mattress protectors for Moses baskets, but unless your mattress isn’t already waterproof, as most are, you won’t need one of these and it is just an added expense.

Cellular Blanket

You will be given many, many blankets as presents.  Some for the cot, some for the pram.  But just in case these don’t appear until after baby is born, its best to ensure you have one in the house ready to cover your baby in their Moses basket and/or pram.  Cellular blankets are made with a loose weave so if the blanket goes over baby’s face, they should still be able to get air and will be less likely to overheat which is associated with cot death.  The cellular blanket options in the links below are made from organic and unbleached cotton, silk, bamboo and merino wool, so even if you’re vegan there are natural options.

Muslin Squares

Prepare to spend the next six months of your life mopping up poo, wee, vomit and drool.  You will get used to it.  These muslin squares were recommended to me by every parent I know.  And they were right.  They serve as burp cloths, drool catchers, towels, napkins, baby wipes…you name it.  Its best to buy around 20-24 of these.  Organic cotton is good, but bamboo is far more absorbent and the ones below are made from organic bamboo.

A Tippitoes Bath & Sponge

I am recommending this product specifically by brand as it has a raised section in the base and anti-slip back rest that helps babies feel supported and safe.  Everyone told me to not bother getting a baby bath as you can wash them in a sink or the dish pan.  This was bad advice!  I did this for the first few weeks and consequently my little one hated bath time and screamed her way through – first in the dishpan (which was awkward) and then in the sink (which was uncomfortable for both of us)…until my friend lent me her son’s Tippitoes bath that he’d outgrown.  Bath time instantly became fun, for both baby and me.  She felt supported and safe and I was able to have more fun with her as she splashed around and giggled.  More practically, I could finally wash her more easily with the sea sponge now that I wasn’t having to hold her in place.  This product is not natural.  It is plastic and it is expensive-ish for what it is at around £13.99.  Unfortunately I now can’t seem to find it for sale anywhere, so here is a similar alternative which is a best seller on Amazon. However, there are still plenty of the Tippitoes tubs which can be found second hand on eBay.  Don’t bother buying any baby toiletries as they are too harsh for baby’s newborn skin and you won’t need them until later down the road.  For the first year or so, I still only used coconut oil with a single drop of lavender or chamomile essential oil to wash my baby. If you absolutely, desperately need some soap, a drop of Dr Bronner’s baby wash is adequate.

          

Baby Towels

Your baby will need a couple of hooded towels for after bath time.  Lots of shops recommend Cuddledry apron towels which do look really cozy and th309010_baby_hooded_towel_set_enviro__540x540_q85_crop_subsampling-2ey are organic.  If you can afford them at £29.99 each, great.  However we just bought very simple, hooded organic baby towels which we use for bath time and now that our baby is older, we can take them to the pool too. Norwegian company Norwex also do a very deliciously soft baby towel set too, but they aren’t organic and they aren’t cotton or bamboo – but it is embedded with antibacterial silver, to help bacteria from surviving on the surface of the towel between uses and it comes with a little wash cloth. So there are a few options for you to consider, all of them excellent. Heck, I’ve even bought second hand baby towels and just put them in a good boil wash to get them clean.

Baby Wipes

There are some wonderful ways to make your own reusable baby wipes at home and below is a link to my YouTube video on how to make easy DIY homemade wipes in 10 seconds flat using any old cloths you have available.

For when you’re on the go, Norwex do a set of gorgeous thick baby wipe cloths embedded with antibacterial silver with a chic little reusable wet wipe bag. I used to recommend Water Wipes for on the go, but now I think these completely address the difficulties of doing baby changes out of the house.

55bc356915d5af1ae3f2ff97cf0f1991Even if you already plan on using reusable wipes, you may want to make your life easier when baby comes – even just for the first couple of weeks – by using Water Wipes.  I’m not here to judge if you want to use them longer (just please don’t flush them!). You’re going to be so busy at first, feel free to be kind to yourself and give yourself one less thing to think about washing.

The olive oil and cotton wool combo recommended by the hospital is just really messy and you cannot use conventional baby wipes on a newborn – nor would I want to do so at any stage (have you seen the ingredients in those things???) – but Water Wipes are 99.9% water and .1% fruit extract, so they’re very gentle on baby’s skin and they do an excellent job of cleaning even sticky meconium.

Nappies

You’ll need to have some disposables packed away in your baby’s hospital bag anyway, so just go ahead and buy a pack of eco-friendly disposables.  We are a cloth nappy household and I would encourage anybody else to do the same.  Modern cloth nappies are effective and just as easy to use and maintain as disposables.  But for the same reasons as recommending the Water Wipes, you’ll want to make life with a newborn as easy as possible for those first couple of weeks.  Out of the natural brands of nappies, we found the Swedish brand Naty, available here in the UK, worked the best for us and our friends.  They are made from GMO-free corn, are biodegradable and don’t contain the chemicals found in conventional brands such as Huggies and Pampers.  We also tried Beaming Baby Biodegradable Nappies but found them to be consistently very leaky.   Bambo Nature Nappies are great as well and are widely available.  We still buy the eco-friendly disposables for longer outings away from home so I recommend finding one that works for you.  That being said, I would discourage anyone from buying conventional disposable nappies.  The average baby will create around 2 tons of nappy waste in their lifetime and this will take a minimum of 500 years to degrade away in landfills, so please do give cloth nappies or at least eco-friendly disposables a try.

If and when you are ready to try cloth nappies, remember that every baby is a different shape so different cuts or brands may fit them best.  I learned the hard Apple+Cheeks.jpgway that you also get what you pay for with cloth nappies.  Also, if you buy ‘one size fits all’ nappies or nappies that are too big for your newborn, you will get lots of leaks and you’ll be put off the whole idea of using cloth.  For us, AppleCheeks and FuzziBunz brands were, and continue to be, the best.

If you want to cloth diaper from birth then I would recommend Fuzzibunz because they offer an x-small nappy (4-12 lbs) whereas AppleCheeks size 1 only starts at 7 lbs.  That was fine for our big baby but if you know that yours might be a bit more on the tiny size, then Fuzzibunz may be the way to go.  You can also buy your cloth nappies second hand.  eBay has now banned this practice on their site, but there are lots of Facebook groups where you can buy and sell second hand cloth nappies.  It’s not as gross as it sounds and its a cheap way of trying out different brands.

There have also been a few new nappy start up companies within the last year or so, and it might be worth giving one of those companies a go to see how you like their functionality and fit.

Footed Sleepsuits/Onesies

You know that cute little Ralph Lauren mini version of Daddy’s sweater vest and khakis ensemble or the adorable Bonpoint dress with cashmere cardigan you’ve already bought your bump?  Yeah, they won’t wear it.  I mean you might get it on them for a photograph and for meeting the grandparents or something, but your newborn will be much happier in sleepsuits.  And you’ll be happier having them in sleepsuits because they’re so freakin’ easy to get on and off.  No ironing of tiny miniature pleats or ruffles.  Again, I recommend organic and buy a few newborn sized ones, if you can find them.  They won’t be wearing them for long but even if you have a big baby, you’ll still get a couple of months’ use out of them.  You can then either save them for the next baby, donate them to a charity shop, eBay them or sell them on one of the plethora of specialist organic baby clothes buy & sell groups on Facebook.

I say ‘footed’ sleepsuits so you don’t have to use those horrible little newborn socks that don’t stay on and will just clog up the filters on your washing machine.  It’s the same for scratch mitts.  If you can find a sleepsuit with built in scratch mitts, you’ll appreciate it so their little talons aren’t ripping apart both you and them.  (Tip:  If you insist on using newborn socks and scratch mitts, wash them in a lingerie bag so they can’t get into the nooks and crannies…and filters and mechanisms…of your machine.)

Unfortunately when my baby was born, I couldn’t find any organic sleepsuits in newborn size, so we used a combination of second hand normal cotton sleepsuits in newborn size and some 0-3 month organic Toby Tiger sleepsuits.  I have now found that L’ovedBaby make newborn sized sleepsuits and sleepgowns.

          

Bodysuits

Have around 3 to 5 or so of these on hand before baby arrives in newborn size.  If your baby is born during the colder part of the year, they are handy to layer underneath their sleep suit as an extra layer of warmth.  In the summer it may be their main wardrobe staple.  What we found worked best for us were these little kimono style bodysuits by L’ovedBaby which wrap around your baby rather than being pulled over their heads…something which is incredibly enraging to a newborn for some reason.  Down the road they will also be awfully helpful at containing poo blow outs.  The L’ovedBaby 100% Organic Cotton Kimono Short Sleeve Bodysuits come in loads of lovely colours and are available in newborn size which will fit preemies – something normally quite tricky to find in an organic brand.

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A Newborn Hat

Just buy one of these little Newborn Baby Hats.  These little white Engel brand ones look like the one which Princess Charlotte wore when she came out of hospital and they are made from 70% Organic Merino Wool and 30% Silk and they even come in a Preemie size (2-5 lbs).  Little babies only need a hat on indoors during their time in hospital, as they’ve just popped out of a very warm, cozy environment into a cold one.  Once they’ve acclimatised however, don’t keep the hat on all the time while indoors like your mother and grandmother will tell you to do.  Overheating your baby is linked to cot death and unless your house is very cold, keep the hat off until you go outside.  Cotton ones are more common, but wool ones are designed to help regulate baby’s temperature and avoid overheating.  If you do prefer cotton (or if you’re vegan and eschew wool and silk) these colourful Toby Tiger jersey hats are so incredibly soft and are in such fun colours…though we only discovered them once our baby was a couple of weeks old.

A Swaddle & This Book!

Buy something to swaddle with and a copy of this book:  The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp, MD.  It does what it says on the tin.  Key to the whole process is swaddling your baby.  So get a swaddle.  Even if you think your baby doesn’t like swaddling.  Get a swaddle.  You can buy a fancy swaddle like the Gro Swaddle which is idiot proof (I say from experience) and comes in a non-organic option which has recently been redesigned and updated to be better for hip development.  You can also just use a big square of fabric like a blanket in winter or a big muslin square in summer.

     

A Car Seat

If you have a car, you will need a car seat.  If you don’t have a car but ever travel in other people’s cars or in taxis, you will need a car seat.  What you don’t really need is a car seat base.  While they are incredibly handy for easily clicking the car seat in and out of the car, they are expensive (considerably more than the seat itself) and are unnecessary.  It takes about 10 seconds to buckle baby into their car seat with the seatbelt.

Do try to get a car seat which is compatible with your model of pram/stroller.

For instance, we have a Bugaboo Cameleon3 pram/stroller system and for our first carseat,Stokke iZi Go 120330-6921 black_15844 we bought Swedish made, uber safety conscious BeSafe iZi Go carseat with five point locking system which clips on to the Bugaboo base with adapters.  You can use the same adapters with Maxi-Cosi carseats.

Do try to get a car seat with a five point locking system, if possible, for added safety, or buy a five point locking systems adapter to fit onto your existing car seat.  Its available from places like Halfords (here in the UK).

A Pram/Stroller System

Pram and stroller shopping is like buying a new car.  You cannot do it online.  You have to go to the actual store – perhaps several times – and try each stroller out, weighing up the pros and cons of each.  It is a major investment.  It is also probably the only baby-related thing your husband will enjoy buying.

It’s great to enjoy shopping for this item together, but it is whoever is planning to be the primary caregiver who needs to make the final decision on this item.   If you are the one who will be spending the next two and a half to three years pushing the child in it all day, everyday, then you need to know it will be a reliable and comfortable system for you to use.

You will very likely wish to buy something which converts from pram to stroller so you can use it from newborn to toddler stage.

If you live in a city, make sure you buy something lightweight, with a sharp turning radius and something which is not too wide so you can get onto trains and buses easily.  If you live in the country, make sure you get something with heavy duty enough wheels to manage gravel, mud and grass which little wheels can get stuck in.  We went for the Bugaboo Cameleon3 because it managed all of the above criteria really well, but there are other good systems available at a lower cost.  You can get second hand Bugaboo strollers on eBay, and all the parts are available to buy separately, so it means if one piece breaks or is damaged, you don’t need to scrap the whole stroller.  My friend bought the base chassis second hand for £80 and then bought all the other bits, such as the pram and stroller fabrics, new,  which saved her a bundle and got her a very nice pram/stroller system for her little boy.

Newborn Healthcare Kit

At some point within a day of two of getting home with your baby, you will be convinced that your little one has a fever and you will need to obsessively take their temperature, or you will need to suck out the little baby boogers from their sniffly noses, or to trim their tiny talon-like nails that grow incredibly fast and are oh-so-sharp.  Or if your baby isn’t bald (mine was) then you might even just want to brush their lovely soft hair.  This is when you will need a Healthcare Kit.  Its not quite as serious as a first aid kit, but is more than just grooming tools.

Bottles

However you end up feeding your baby, it is helpful to have a couple of bottles on hand.  You don’t need to buy a steriliser or a breast pump in advance.  Unless you’re full time formula feeding, a steriliser is just another big piece of equipment on your kitchen counter and it’s quick to sterilise using boiling water by immersing everything in a pan of boiling water for 10 minutes.  The bottles will stay sterile in a covered saucepan for about three hours afterwards.  While you may end up buying your own breast pump down the road, don’t bother doing it now.  You can rent the really good hospital grade breast pumps from the NCT, your hospital, a variety of commercial companies or your local children’s centre which often rents them for free, with a deposit which is refunded when the machine is returned.

We bought these Nuk glass baby bottles which don’t leach any chemicals into our baby’s milk (there are more endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastics than the now-banned BPA, I’m afraid, so BPA free just isn’t enough).  There are a number of glass baby bottles on the market but we found the Nuk ones were the least expensive, were sturdy (not a single breakage yet) and they have the benefit of the Nuk anti-colic teats which you can buy at plenty of local pharmacies and supermarkets.  Edit:  Also over time we have found them to be useful as snack pots for older baby/toddlers because they come with little screw on lids to replace the teats. So very zero waste…I’ll be using them for years!

If you’re worried about breakage – fair enough – the LifeFactory ones are really cool and come in gorgeous colours (see below) and they are covered in silicone sleeves so they don’t break when dropped.

    

Brasserie Max at the Covent Garden Hotel

 

Girls. Girls work together. They play together. They get their nails done together. They share a glass of wine together. They say terrible things about work colleagues together. And then they go to dinner together.

Which is funny, because I would have thought that in going to dinner together, they would have been able to eat together. I guess Brasserie Max – up until now a particular favourite of mine – has opted to take the Wagamama approach to food, however. (Meh, whenever its ready.)

One of my work colleagues – a dear friend – recently recieved the annual staff award at our office and to celebrate we treated her to an evening out at Brasserie Max, the chic & snug restaurant on the ground floor of the Covent Garden Hotel on Monmouth Street.

The atmosphere of the hotel is everything I love about Covent Garden. In fact, I love all the Firmdale Hotel chain restaurants. They have comfy chairs, grand zinc bars, perfectly cooked yumlicious food (yes, I said yumlicious) and they can happily accommodate any dietary requirement. If you are a lover of cocktails, they all look amazing – and if the never ending stream of waiters carrying trays of martini glasses is anything to go by, they taste delicious as well.

So where did it all go wrong?

We all ordered from the set menu. (The set menu we had to ask for because it wasn’t offered to us when we sat down.) Two of us ordered the salmon and two the shepherd’s pie. The food arrived and the salmons were superb. The shepherd’s pies, however, were tepid. Both of them. So they were both sent back to be heated through. I’m a slow eater at the best of times. I ate especially slowly on this occasion. But bar the last bite of salmon and a stem of broccoli I left on the plate (to seem slightly less rude and like I’d eaten my entire meal while two of the other diners sat waiting for their meals to return  for over TWENTY MINUTES), the other salmon diner and I had both eaten our meals when the two hot shepherd’s pies arrived back at the table. I will give Brasserie Max this – they could have heated the pies through in a microwave, but they did not. They in fact prepared two new shepherd’s pies from scratch. A testimony purely to the integrity of the back of house – that’s not lost on me. However, we did not get to eat our meal together and that felt uncomfortable and quite frankly it was the front of house’s problem to sort out.

But hey, the company was good and it was a celebratory evening, so I tried not to behave as incredibly annoyed as I felt. I assured myself Brasserie Max would do what decent fine dining restaurants do and would comp us some desserts or knock a percentage off the bill. But the bill came and no discounts were given and no comps offered. We were treating our friend and there was no way I was kicking up a fuss at the table, given the circumstances.

I guess what Brasserie Max doesn’t know about me is that I have worked back of house in fine dining restauranst – far finer than Brasserie Max. And when a restaurant does something this appalling and doesn’t try to make it up to you – no matter how friendly the staff and no matter how good the food, they are basically telling you that you don’t really matter as a customer. I don’t mean in some deep and subconscious way – this basic hotel/restaurant management 101 stuff.

And to top it all off, because the message just wasn’t quite clear enough, they had the sheer cojones at the end of it all to tell us that they needed the table back (“Oh, do you mean the table that we’ve had for this long because we ate our main courses in two separate sittings?” I’ll point out there were other tables free at this point and no one queuing to get into the restaurant at 9pm on this fairly quiet weekday evening).

I do a lot of professional restaurant reviewing these days and don’t often have the opportunity to write reviews on my own blog anymore. I was looking forward to writing up a really glowing review of this evening’s experience, but sadly, Brasserie Max, I have got your message loud and clear.

 

Pescatarian Paleo

Okay, like soooooo many others, I’ve jumped on the Paleo bandwagon this January.

But here in the UK the Paleo diet is not quite so much a ‘thing’ yet. In fact, if I had a nickel for every blank look I’ve received when I’ve said I’m doing Paleo, well, I’d have a few nickels at least. (But hey, I live in the UK, so what good are nickels to me?)

So, what IS the Paleo diet? Well, its based on the premise that our guts haven’t really evolved much in the last 15,000 years so we’re really better off eating what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, including fish, grass-fed pasture-raised meats, eggs, vegetables & fruit, fungi, roots and nuts. Things you can’t eat are grains, legumes, dairy, (white) potatoes, refined salts and sugars and processed oils. (Processed oils? Yeah, I know, all oils are processed. I use common sense here: pasture-fed butter, organic raw coconut oil and olive oil are the only cooking fats I keep in the house. If I ate red meat, lard would be on that list as well.) This way of eating isn’t just about weight loss. Done properly, its helped a lot of people with autoimmune issues (Crohn’s, Coeliac, etc) and leaky gut, as well as people with inflammation issues caused by food intolerances they may not even have been aware of before.

The thing is, I’m pescatarian. I don’t eat red meat or poultry, but I do eat fish, so I can’t strictly be called a vegetarian or an omnivore. So I contacted Dr Loren Cordain, an expert on the Paleo diet about whether I could adapt this diet as a pescatarian. I received a fairly prompt, blunt and unhelpful response setting out that in no uncertain terms would they advocate not eating meat. It threw me a little bit, but only for about 2 minutes until I thought about it logically. Whats not to love about this way of eating and why did I need commercial validation to do it anyway? My diet is now filled with brightly coloured vegetables and greenery, fresh organic fish, organic free-range eggs and healthy fats & nuts – lots of unprocessed foods. All I have eliminated from my diet is a vast amount of sugar – by this I mean sugar in the form of bread, pasta and grains, not just refined sugar. So, I say boooo to Dr Cordain and I’m just enjoying doing Paleo the way that works for me.

So, have I lost any weight with the diet? Well, its only been 3 weeks and as I don’t have a functional set of scales, I honestly couldn’t tell you. What I can say is that my stomach is much flatter, I feel overall much more toned and my energy levels are much higher than they were.

Have I cheated? Well, yes. I have. Several times. And I’m okay with that. There have been a couple of mornings when I have really missed my oatmeal, cooked with coconut cream and sweetened with apple and raisins – so I made it. I didn’t feel the worse for having it. I’ve also continued to have a bit of organic milk in my tea and the odd bit of sheep or goat milk cheese. For me its not a competition about being ‘right’ – its a process of finding out what works best for my lifestyle and what makes me feel the healthiest. I lived a low-fat lifestyle for years, but now my diet is full of plenty of healthy fats – yes, including some saturated fats – and as a result, I’m staying full throughout the day and my usual mid-afternoon hypoglycaemic episodes appear to have disappeared.

What do I eat? You know, its much MUCH easier than I thought it would be. For lunch I might pack a tupperware box filled with organic baby spinach, a small baked sweet potato with a tad of feta crumbled on top, a grated carrot salad with raisins, a small bag of nuts as a snack and a couple of pieces of fruit. Or a half an avocado on a bed of quinoa with some greens on the side or cooked kale with a lemon wedge to squeeze over it all. Because I work in an office, I tend to save eating fishy things for dinner at home or restaurants – at the moment I’m really into Alaskan wild salmon, though also am trying to eat more local sustainable fish and also sardines. I’ve also found a fantastic recipe for cauliflower pizza that I have adapted by putting sheep feta in the crust and grating some St Helen’s hard goat cheese (a version of cheddar) on top.

Because I have a sweet tooth, I also sometimes make an um…healthy(ish) sundae for dessert. To do this, I whiz up 1.5 frozen bananas in the food processor with a tablespoon of maple syrup. If it needs more liquid to get creamy, add a tablespoon of coconut water or coconut milk. That makes the ice ‘cream’, which is like the texture of soft serve. To make the chocolate sauce, you’ll need to open a can of full fat coconut milk which has been in the fridge for at least 24 hours (I always keep a few in the fridge now – the coconut cream rises to the top of the can and hardens and delicious coconut water remains at the bottom of the can, so you can use both) and scoop a heaped tablespoon of the coconut cream into a small saucepan. On a low-med heat, melt the coconut cream and whisk in a couple of teaspoons of a dark cacao powder along with enough maple syrup or coconut sugar to sweeten. It will make a thick, fudgey hot chocolate sauce to pour over your ice ‘cream’. Delicious!

There are some wonderful bloggers out there who inspire me with a regular dose of Paleo friendly recipes for meals, packed lunches, cakes, cookies & muffins. Here are my favourites! (And please don’t knock the Mommy Bloggers – these women channel their energies into creating delicious food for their amazing websites and have a better grasp on social media than most FTSE500 companies!)

Against All Grain

Primal Palate

Coconut Mama

Elana’s Pantry

Nom Nom Paleo

The Paleo Mama

The Paleo Mom

Paleo Newbie

In general, I guess while there is a lot I’m enjoying about this way of eating, I’m a little cautious about cutting significant food groups from the diet and probably lean a bit more toward the Weston A Price dietary guidelines than strict Paleo, but we’ll see how it goes. By my next post I may have eased off the Paleo thing a bit. Its not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m not convinced that its necessary to eliminate properly prepared grains from the diet but rest assured there are some tasty recipes in the wings and more adventures of dining in London to come.

the bees at happy hour

Somehow in London, Thursday has become the new Friday. As I walk home after work in the bracing November wind, most pubs are warm inside and are abuzz with City suits and secretaries at happy hour.  I was reminded of this happy little video I put together in the summer, back when I enjoyed warmer days watching the bees at Bello Uccello apiary  having their happy hour.  How can you not be happy watching the little bees enjoying their verbena bee tea?  I hope you enjoy it!

 

Marco Pierre White Steak & Alehouse

Disappointing restaurants.

The world is full of them.  I’ve eaten at disappointing restaurants in Paris, Monaco, Lisbon, Prague, Toronto, New York, Boston, Mexico City, Miami and a myriad of other obscure towns and cities across the globe.  I am sorry to say that London is no exception and I have experienced rather a lot of disappointing meals here in the Big Smoke.  In some places, the food was mediocre; in some, the food was awful.  In others yet, the food was great but the service was awful.  Despite the variations, they all can be described as disappointing.

I feel an almost civic sense of duty to record these episodes, not only as a warning to my fellow gastronomes and gastronomists, but as also as a way of saying to these chefs & front of house managers:  Its just not good enough.

So, on the week we say a sad farewell to my favourite chef of all time, the late, great Charlie Trotter, and on a happier note, we also see Jamie Oliver accept his Honorary Fellowship from the RCGP for his work on childhood nutrition, I turn my eyes, stomach & pen to another celebrity chef:  Marco Pierre White.

So, first off, let me say, my husband loves steak.  I repeat, my husband LOVES steak.  So when I wanted to treat him to a special meal out, I thought “Marco Pierre White Steak & Alehouse – how could I go wrong?”

When we arrived in this basement eatery, I was a little underwhelmed by the interior.  I mean, it was ok.  It just looked a bit like a tired, worn out, MDF, stripmall chain version of a decent restaurant.

https://plus.google.com/104657137246493897888/photos?hl=en&socfid=web:lu:kp:placepageimage&socpid=1#104657137246493897888/photos?hl=en&socfid=web%3Alu%3Akp%3Aplacepageimage&socpid=1

This is what they want you think it looks like inside…

https://plus.google.com/104657137246493897888/photos?hl=en&socfid=web:lu:kp:placepageimage&socpid=1#104657137246493897888/photos?hl=en&socfid=web%3Alu%3Akp%3Aplacepageimage&socpid=1

…this is what it actually looks like inside

I can sum up the rest of the visit in a single paragraph.  The food was fine.  The kitchen was slow. The service was slow. The orders were wrong – twice.  The front of house were obviously not happy (or they made a jolly good effort to make themselves look pretty miserable) and the restaurant was severely understaffed – at many points there was not a single waiter to be found on the dining room floor.

Now – this bit is cruel – but being so close to Liverpool Street Station, the atmosphere reeked of train station pub – a bit Wetherspoons-esque.  Also, the clientele were, well, mostly a bit of an odd mix.  There were a lot of Essex couples (and by that I don’t mean people from Essex, I mean TOWIE wannabees), a few City secretaries on a night out, some oddly mismatched Internet first dates and a couple of wierd American tourists.

Three hours after entering the restaurant, we emerged, feeling both slightly poorer and in a vague state of shock.

So, I was thinking that Marco Pierre White might find my branding experience helpful and I offer him – free of charge – a new strapline which he is welcome to use on any promotional print or web-based material:

MPW Steak & Alehouse

Come for the adequate steak.  Stay because we’ll take an hour to get it to your table.”

The Dance of the Morning Commute

After nearly a decade of living in London, I think its safe to call myself a Londoner now.

I make that rude and fed-up-sounding ‘tsk’ noise as I try to pass people who are walking too slowly in front of me – with the matching aggressive body language and irritated exhalation as I march past.

There’s the ‘don’t mess with me’ face as I walk down the street – to be fair I think I’ve always had that one.

I can also hold my own in the usual rugby scrum to get into the tube as it pulls alongside the platform.

Then there’s the commuter cross.  That’s what I call when two or more commuters appear as if they’re set for a head on collision, but without adjusting pace or losing nerve, they glide past each other with precision perfect timing. With a slight hesitation of even half a second, there would be a bashing of arms or catching of feet followed by the domino effect of the commuters behind all crashing into each other.  But true London commuters never make such a rookie tourist error.

If you want to see the commuter cross at its glorious ballet-like apex, make a rush hour visit to the interchange at Bank Station where the Waterloo & City Line travelator connects with the commuting tunnel leading from the London Underground gates towards exits 8 & 9.  (Stop at the snack bar for one of their giant glazed donuts – I’m pretty sure they’re a million calories and fried in lard.)  Its actually almost beautiful, as the dozens of commuters heading to the exits simultaneously diagonally criss-cross paths with the commuters exiting the travelator in the opposite direction – all gliding past each other – rushed but calm.

And then some salesman from Ipswich ploughs in with their wheelie suitcase and screws the whole thing up.

Tsk.

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Images borrowed from Railway Technology and Times Live.

Nova Scotian Hot Water Gingerbread

rain gearAfter three weeks in the 30-odd degree sunshine of Guatemala and Belize, I have returned to an England which might not be unfamiliar to the Bronte sisters. Its late May, but there has been snow in some parts of the country. In London its 9 degrees Celsius and its raining; its been this way – more or less – over the last fortnight.

The good news about the cold, rainy weather – the only good news about the cold, rainy weather – is that I have an excuse to wear my new wellies A LOT and I get to eat porridge for breakfast every morning. (By now I would normally have switched to a bircher muesli for the summer) The café in my building makes excellent porridge. I know, I could make it myself at home for pennies – but for £2.50 I get a pot of porridge, a skinny cappuccino and a chat with Alvin, fellow foodie and café manager.

I had been desperately hoping to host a BBQ this coming long weekend. In anticipation of that, I had a builder come round last Saturday to construct a wooden deck in the back garden and I employed my husband to put together the John Lewis BBQ we were given as a wedding present last autumn. The rattan outdoor sofa set with matching coffee table has been artfully arranged on the deck and I’ve attempted to give the place that smack of Pottery Barn style with conch shells, pillar candles in glass hurricane vases and throw cushions…none of which have any business being outside in cold, wet English gloom. And as its now looking less and less like BBQ weather, I may be trading in prawn kebabs and sunscreen for central heating and comfort food. In fact, I might make some gingerbread.

This is old fashioned Nova Scotian gingerbread. I’m fairly sure it came off the back of a packet of something or other sometime back in the 1950’s because my best friend Sarah’s grandmother’s recipe is exactly the same as my own grandmother’s recipe.

Hot Water Gingerbread

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup Crosby’s fancy molasses (Brits – you’ll need to use a blend of golden syrup & dark treacle here)
  • 1/2 cup hot water (near boiling)
  • 6-8 Tablespoons melted butter

1. Mix dry ingredients.

2. Beat egg and add molasses, sugar and hot water.

3. Combine the dry and wet ingredients.

4. Add butter

5. Pour in 8 by 8 inch square cake tin.

6. Bake 350 for 45 minutes.

Sarah’s Mom says that this recipe doubles really well (their family is much bigger than mine). Also the old, dark metal tin which used to belong to Sarah’s Nana has gone missing, so if you see it, please send it back to her.

Wedding Breakfast

Last week I went to a wedding breakfast.  Literally.  The ceremony was a short registry office affair which Mr Harris and I witnessed at Chelsea Old Town Hall at 9.15 and by 9.45 we were seated in Chelsea Quarter Café, perusing the menu.

 I thought of saying to my husband, “see, we could have done it like that!” but then thought better of it.  When Mr Harris first proposed to me, I had suggested a registry office affair, followed by lunch with a few nearest and dearest.  I envisioned myself in a chic Italian Jackie O-style ivory cocktail dress ensemble with ¾ length jacket and a birdcage veil.  But that suggestion (the registry office ceremony, not the dress) went down like a cup of cold sick.  And so, we did it all.  The long ivory dress & morning suit.  The Church of England ceremony.  The silver Daimler.  The John Lewis gift list.  The ridiculously expensive floral arrangements.  The champagne reception with live jazz pianist.  The three course Livery Hall dinner, complete with speeches, specifically designed to induce stress to the bride and groom and halt digestion of the large meal just consumed.  We had day guests.  We had evening guests.  And we all danced the night away to the band before my husband whisked me away to a chic Clerkenwell hotel.

But back to the wedding breakfast.  The happy groom suggested ordering a bottle of champagne (perfectly reasonable, I thought) until his equally happy, but 5 months’ pregnant new wife gave him an incredulous glance and we all opted for freshly pressed juices instead.  Probably for the best, as Mr Harris was on a tight schedule – he had to get to Corrigan’s of Mayfair for a client’s retirement lunch by 12.45pm.  (A broker’s life is a difficult one, you see.)

The groom & I both ordered eggs Florentine, served with the thickest and yellowiest hollandaise I’ve ever seen in my life.  But not thick or yellow in a horrible, fake way.  It was delicious.  Mr Harris, ever the traditionalist, went for eggs Benedict.  And the bride went for a sausage & egg butty.  It was all excellent.  I downed the last of my ginger, apple and carrot juice as the groom took care of the bill, and by 11.30 we had all wended our way to Sloane Square tube station and said our goodbyes.

As I made my way home on the tube, I thought about how relaxed and pleasant the whole affair had been.  I wondered why more weddings weren’t like this.  I thought of the newlyweds, and I silently cheered “well done you two”.

Just hide it in the orzotto. No one will know.

January is like pushing the reset button on all the bad habits accumulated throughout the year.

For the average Londoner, bad habits start somewhere around June or July, with long Sunday afternoons spent in a beer garden or alongside the Thames, eating fried or roasted meaty things with chips on the side and drinking bottles of wine or pints of lager.  Autumn comes, and we start replacing fresh salads with ‘warm’ salads – healthy but calorific and carborific (sure, that can be a word).  Festivities continue in the lead up to Christmas and by mid December, there’s a reason to celebrate with a meal or a glass of something sparkly nearly every day.  You can hardly fight off all the greasy little canapés washed back with sickly sweet Bucks Fizz, wodges of stilton chased by lashings of port, and seemingly endless tins of nasty Quality Street at every turn.  And of course Christmas is simply one massive glut, culminating in the traditional New Years Eve champagne & fois gras.  Which is rather appropriate – I suspect our own livers probably don’t look dissimilar by that stage.

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But then 1 January comes and a new year.

*Ping*

The reset button is pressed, and we’re all eating superfoods, drinking wheatgrass shots and joining gyms we’ll only be using for the sauna & towel service by April.

Our bowels don’t know WHAT has happened.

Fibre.  Liquid Fasts.  Detoxes.  And those beautiful, highly pigmented superfoods, which we read about from time to time in the Observer and immediately proceed to Waitrose to empty the shelves of red quinoa, sweet potato, spinach or whatever the trendy superfood of the week happens to be.   The naturally occurring chemical compounds responsible for all those jewel tones and the other sensual qualities in superfoods, such as colour and smell, are caused by phytochemicals. They’re what give turmeric its fabulous colour and garlic its love-it-or-hate-it smell. Preliminary investigations into phytochemicals indicate there are potential effects on diseases such as cancer, arthritis, diabetes and other illnesses. This, of course, is not really any surprise to anyone who subscribes to naturopathy or a variety of other traditional medicinal beliefs from around the world.  I’ll admit – I do love a good evidence base, and look forward to seeing research findings in the coming years.  In the meantime, when did good nutrition ever hurt anybody?

So when my Nana asked me to come up with a good recipe using barley, my mind instantly turned to her favoured spice of choice: turmeric.  Risotto (or orzotto, as its called when you use barley) is excellent because you can use practically any sturdy grain and flavour it with pretty much anything you like.  My recipe below is enough for two generous main courses.

 Barley Orzotto

Orzotto

Orzotto

Ingredients:

250 g dehulled or pearl barley

2 tsp olive oil

Handful of dried mushrooms soaked in 2 cups boiled water

2 tsp balsamic vinegar

250 ml white wine (optional)

1 small onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, crushed or diced

1 Tbs turmeric (optional)

1 tsp dried oregano

Parmesan to taste – I used 3 heaped Tbs for the whole serving (optional)

Fleur de sel & pepper to taste

Method:

  • In a medium-large saucepan, heat 1 tsp of the olive oil and lightly soften, without browning, the diced onion & garlic.  Turn up the heat to med-high and toss in the barley.  Give it a quick stir around for 45 seconds or so, until it has absorbed all the oil.  If you have any wine sitting about, you can throw it in now (it will burn off all the alcohol, you detox nuts!) and there should be a satisfying sizzle noise as the grains of barley suck up all the liquid.  This will happen fairly quickly.  Stir with a wooden spoon.
  •  Add the dried mushrooms and their soaking liquid.  You can turn the heat down to a medium or medium-low now, but keep stirring with the wooden spoon.  Don’t stop stirring.  (Now is a good time for a phone call.  Chat while you stir.)  As each portion of liquid is absorbed and the starches start to leak out into the liquid, add more liquid.  You can add the balsamic vinegar at this stage, as well as the dried oregano and the turmeric.  If you’re feeling particularly decadent, a strand or two of saffron wouldn’t go astray here either.
  • After about 25-35 minutes of stirring, you should have plumped up grains of barley in a thick liquid.  You don’t want the orzotto to get too dry or to resemble a soup, either.  You want it to be…for lack of a better description…risotto-like!
  • If you’re not trying to get turmeric into your diet, then feel free to leave it out.  If there are other spices you’re trying to integrate into your diet for health reasons, add them now – there’s nowhere to hide spices like a risotto or orzotto.  But, if you’re not on a January diet, then, heck, now is the time to toss in some crispy pancetta pieces, small wedges of blue cheese and oven-roasted cubes of butternut squash.
  • Season with salt & pepper and immediately before serving, quickly stir in a handful of parmesan.  Obviously, if you’re vegan or off dairy, leave this bit out – just add a bit more salt.

No really, it was just a trifle

I make an excellent trifle…though I do say so myself…

A full on view of my sherry trifle

A full on view of my sherry trifle

Four years ago I bought a beautiful LSA crystal trifle bowl at the John Lewis on Oxford Street.  The first reaction of my then boyfriend, was that I would never use the trifle bowl and it was a waste of £40 and precious storage space.  At that time, we lived in a one bedroom flat in Bermondsey; a beautifully designed home that by all rights should have been the perfect pied a terre for city professionals with a large country home in Norfolk or Wiltshire.  Just like us…minus the large country home in Norfolk or Wiltshire.  With the absence of any storage whatsoever, it was absolutely essential that each item we owned had to serve a purpose, if not several purposes.

So in order that I would always have the moral upper ground, as least as far as my frivolous purchase was concerned, my trifle bowl spent much of the year, serving as an urn for displaying leafy Spanish mandarins, bright knobbly Sicilian lemons, shiny and jewel-toned pink pomegranates or really whatever happened to be in season.  And once a year, at the great family gathering in Sussex on Christmas or Boxing Day, my trifle bowl would display its true splendour and serve its intended use.

As, I have discovered, trifles are surprisingly sturdy.  I have preassembled and carried them across the home counties on trains, in the boot of my car (bumping wildly over country lanes), and I have jostled them along London streets, wedged into a hemp Whole Foods carrier bag.  It always survives and always looks a masterpiece when displayed on the table or the sideboard.

Eventually the time came to prepare to sell our flat and my boyfriend took great pleasure in placing my beloved trifle bowl in storage.  In fact, last Christmas I never even had an opportunity to use it, as it was locked away over the holiday period.  (While I describe him like a pantomime villain, he really is very nice, and I did in fact eventually marry him, despite his general disrespect for my trifle-related paraphernalia.)

So this year, when friends invited us to their home for Boxing Day dinner…their large country home in Wiltshire, I might add…I didn’t hesitate to shamelessly offer to bring the trifle.  Through politeness, or perhaps a lack of opportunity to refuse, our hosts appeared grateful and accepted.

After feasting on gravadlax on rye toasts, spatchcocked poussin and creamy dauphinoise, my trifle made its appearance.  No one usually holds very  high hopes for trifle.  (I’ve seen many a layered Jell-O, pineapple and Cool Whip creation lurking on British supermarket shelves, claiming trifle status.  I can appreciate the general cool attitude towards it.)  I was offered by my host to be mother, and I took the opportunity, assertively spooning equal proportions of the deep layers into each of the dessert bowls.

“Oh, Kelly” my host gasped, in what I think was genuine surprise, “from now on, you are in charge of all things sugar.”  And I blushed with much false modesty.

So, with some hesitation, I share my precious, yet simple, trifle recipe with you:

Trifle Top

Jewel-like red currants, crowning my sherry trifle on Boxing Day

Ingredients

12  trifle sponges (around 300 g)

1 medium (100 g) sponge flan base (optional)

1 litre of custard (homeade or store bought)

1 litre of whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks

1 x 400 g bag frozen raspberries

200 g fresh blueberries, raspberries or blackberries

1 small jar (around 300 g) raspberry conserve

A quantity of Amontillado sherry, to taste

Fresh raspberries or red currants, to decorate

Method

Step One:  Cut all the sponge fingers in half and make small jam sandwiches with them.  Arrange these in the base of the trifle bowl and drizzle liberally with a good glug of Amontillado sherry – around 4-5 tablespoons.  (You don’t want the sponge fingers to become too wet, though, as the raspberry juices will need to be soaked up later.)  You can do this step the night before, should you wish.

Step Two:  Create an even layer of frozen raspberries on top of the sherried sponges.  This is where I pause if I am taking this dish to someone else’s house.  Placing the raspberries on the sponges around lunchtime will mean that the raspberries will have thawed by dessert, later that evening, and the juices will have soaked into the sponge.

Step Three:  If you have a medium sponge flan case, place it on top of the now thawed raspberries, and fill it with the remainder of the jar of raspberry conserve and the 200 g of fresh berries.  It should help contain the custard and create a layer of sponge which isn’t as soggy as the bottom layer.

Step Four:  I wouldn’t do this step until probably an hour or two before serving.  Pour the custard over the sponge flan & berries and spread the softly (unsweetened) whipped cream in an even layer atop the custard.  I usually finish mine with a small crown of fresh raspberries, cape gooseberries or red currants (as shown).