31 Dec 2010

Bye Ten, Hi Eleven!

Dear all, wherever you stand in the world right now, Happy New Year!

La Baguette Magique would like to take this opportunity to thank its followers from across all five continents for their continued support, in particular those from the U.S, Canada, U.K, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Russia and China (source: Blogger stats).

Thanks for making the 'magique' happen, and may 2011 bless your dearest wishes.

  • Rio de Janeiro, Brasil - Partial view of Copacabana Beach (4km long), postcard published by Serena Card/ Colombo (CPS-101-08), part of La Baguette Magique's personal collection

26 Dec 2010

Cool Coco Yule Log

Serves 8
Preparation: 25 mins
Cooking: 10 mins

If you decide to steer clear of chocolate in order to pre-empt any potential adverse effects it might have on your already calorie-rich Christmas menu, or to demonstrate that a Yule log dessert needn't be chocolate-based, or if you are simply on a mission to torment your chocoholic guests (for whatever reason this might be!), enters this snow-white delight, straight out of a winter fairy tale!

As light as a scoopful of snowflakes, with delicate Tropics undertones, this log will get temperatures rising! This is white Christmas in edible form, a coconut treat that will light up eyes and get tongues wagging. It will also nicely complement a Cool Yule home décor of white, pastels, silver and gold.

The beauty of it all is that it can be prepared up to 24 hours in advance, either in its entirety or just the biscuit base, with the cream filling & topping whipped up a couple of hours ahead of your lunch/ dinner. You are advised to read the whole recipe beforehand so that you can organise yourself accordingly on the day.

Biscuit base:
  • 4 organic eggs (yolks and whites separated)
  • 80g caster sugar
  • 80g flour
  • 25g unsalted butter + approx. 20g for greasing
  • parchment paper
  • pinch of salt
Filling & topping:
  • 150g desiccated coconut
  • 125g icing sugar
  • 500ml double-cream (very cold)
Boozy syrup:
  • 100g white caster sugar
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 4 tablespoons orange liqueur (ex: Cointreau) or mandarine liqueur
Topping suggestions:
  • Caramelised star-fruit or kumquat slices
  • Fresh physallis fruit
  • Candied orange peel
  • Sugar pearls, sprinkles, hundreds of thousands, etc.
  • Decorative flowers or figurines made out of almond paste or icing
Block of almond paste, ready for use
Start off with the biscuit base. Pre-heat the oven (180°C). Line a non-stick baking tray with parchment paper that you will grease as an added precaution (the biscuit does tend to adhere when cooked). Melt the butter in a small pan over a small flame. Leave to cool.

Beat up the yolks and caster sugar together until the mix pales down in colour and doubles up in volume. Then add the flour and keep blending together. Add the melted butter.

Whisk the whites stiff with one pinch of salt (acts as a stiffening aid). Delicately scoop the whites one spoon at a time into the yolk and flour mix, blending carefully and making sure that the batter remains light and fluffy throughout. Then pour into the lined baking tray, ensuring it spreads evenly across the whole surface. Place in the oven for 7 mins. The biscuit base should turn a pale gold (make sure not to overbake it or it will lose its moisture and elasticity).

While the biscuit is baking, prepare the boozy syrup. Combine sugar and water together in a small pan and boil until the sugar has melted. Then add the orange/ clementine liqueur and remove from the heat. Set aside.

Dampen a clean kitchen towel under the kitchen tap and then place it straight and unfolded on top the biscuit still in its tray, as soon as it comes out of the oven, and hold firmly together over your worktop or kitchen table. Carefully overturn the tray with the towel still firmly on top and deposit the upside-down biscuit onto the towel onto the work surface.

Peel the parchment paper off, ever so slowly and delicately, and then roll the biscuit base into the towel. Unroll and immediately soak the biscuit with the syrup using a tablespoon, until it saturates (you may not need to use up the syrup). Roll up the biscuit without the kitchen towel this time, and reserve in the fridge.

For the filling & topping, make sure that you don't skip on this important next step: you are strongly advised to place the double-cream for half an hour in the freezer before use, together with a freezer-proof blending bowl (ideally the blending bowl should stay in the freezer for a couple of hours). If you choose not to follow those recommendations, do it at your peril as you may experience difficulty in getting the whipped up cream to set (thicken) properly.

Gather the (very) cold double-cream in the (very) cold bowl and electric-whisk until it sets, i.e. forming crests. This process will require perseverance (a good 5 minutes). If you are struggling, the use of a stabilising agent (ex: Kremfix) should help. When you have reached the thickened 'Chantilly' consistency, add to the desiccated coconut and icing sugar combo. Blend all together with a spoon, then unroll the biscuit base carefully, spoon the cream on top as a uniform layer (approx. 1cm thick) and roughly flatten with a spatula. Roll the biscuit and then finish off with the remaining cream spread all over, using the spatula. Then place back in the fridge.

Finally decorate just before serving. On the pictures here, I hand-fashioned roses out of ready-made ready-coloured almond paste that I flattened into a long strip (for each rose), then shaped into a rose by loosely rolling the strip. The cupcake craze has encouraged an explosion of cake-topping opportunities, within the reach of the local supermarket, and I encourage you (and your children if you have any) to experiment with decorations and just have fun together! After all, Christmas is the best excuse to let the child within loosen up! And eh, who said this log was only made for Christmas anyway? Moi?...

23 Dec 2010

Seasonal Light-Heartedness

Christmas is nearing, the weather is drab, my dad is ill, the news on the telly is dire, so I thought we were in serious need for cheering up. Not sure about you guys, but I am in the mood for some topical fun!

While checking out the blogland 'competition' lately for my Week-End Wonderweb project, I have come across some blogs which are being ever so serious - complicated even - about Thanksgiving/ Christmas décor, decking the halls, transcending tree and tabletop ornaments, through to stockings, nativity scenes, exteriors and more, with coordinated colour schemes and themes making up complete room-sets, with the minutiae in the choice of ribbons, hyacinths, candles, elaborate wreaths, cards, name-tags, wall lettering, dedicated glassware and crockery! Hats off especially to our Scandinavian friends who are all go for the Christmas vibe (God Jul! And good luck with the preparations!).

At my parents, Christmas will be a very-low key affair this year, but we'll still make sure that those vintage baubles (some like those pictured below dating back to the early 1960s - I am told) hold pride of place, either up in the tabletop Christmas tree (fake tree dahling, but this is sooo on trend right now) or dangling off the dining-room chandelier.

I wanted to display a photographic selection of topical Xmas baubles 'with a twist', with a strong accent on organic material, therefore excluding acrylics, polymers, plexiglas and other man-made substances! Our baubles are priceless too and won't be found down Macy's or Liberty's or Le Printemps or anywhere else for that matter, oh no... Those I am going to show you here were snapped by yours truly down my Mediterranean neck of the woods. Intrigued?

Pay attention, you may well spot some down your neck of the woods too, guys! So how about snapping them, posting them on your blog and then pasting the URL in the comments section of this post, so we can all have a peek later...

So then, let's have a look at those distinctive baubles, pictured in-situ, hanging off the trees (let's just pretend they are Christmas trees!)...

Clue: Nothing beats nature's own...

Joyeux Noël & Merry Christmas to All!

P.S: Although La Baguette Magique will still operate throughout the festive season, our Week-End Wonderweb projects will break for the holiday, returning to you on Saturday 8th January 2011.

20 Dec 2010

Present Perfect (Part 3)

At your leisure just go through the list I have compiled herein (I am aware that Xmas is near but you can use this list for any special occasion, including birthdays, weddings, St Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, house-warmings, retirement dos, etc.), and you are bound to identify elements for inspiration. At first sight, it may appear as a cash gift list, but it does go beyond, towards the personalised service-based experiential treatment.

It might not be the solution to all of your present headaches, but it will give you ideas. The list is customisable, flexible and you are more than welcome to add to it. In fact, without being limitless, the list will provide you with pointers and ample room for manoeuvre. The price range is wide (expect to pay £10.00 for the cheapest item, up to £hundreds+). Please note that for some of the more personal products, it is advisable to consult with the gift recipient before finalising that purchase.

Ready? Off we go then, with our customisable, re-usable present list. Still sceptical about its helpfulness? Just see for yourself, it may well surprise you...

Personal Care: private health check; private health insurance; hair salon treatment; pampering/ traditional beauty salon treatments (facial; manicure/ pedicure; hair removal; eye-brow threading, body massage etc.); male-grooming session; high-tech beauty treatment (IPL; dermabrasion; permanent make-up session; teeth-whitening etc.); make-up lesson; spa day; retreat; reflexology; aromatherapy; bespoke perfume creation; photoshoot session; --- etc---

Personal Advancement & Learning: Learn-a-Skill (ex: craft course; photography classes; language course etc.); charity donation; Sponsor-a-Child etc; Open University (or similar) distance learning course; society membership; SPICE (or equivalent) membership; Red Letter Day (or equivalent) experience of a lifetime (ex: drive a sports car; hot-air balloon excursion etc.); professional dating services; personalised horoscope; graphology study; professional membership fee; sports membership fee; magazine subscription; online or offline newspaper subscription; free-hand drawn portrait; ballroom dancing classes; sports classes (tennis, ice-skating, scuba-diving, etc.); Sponsor the recipient's marathon run; --- etc---

Food: fine groceries/ delicatessen shop; organic food/ fruit & vegetables hamper; mail-order chocolates (one-off or a year's supply, ex: The Chocolate Tasting Club); crate of selected/ connoisseur wines; afternoon tea experience at a luxury hotel; luncheon vouchers; store vouchers (supermarket/ department store); cocktail-mixology class; cookery classes; baking classes; themed baking classes (ex: cupcake-making, chocolate truffle-making etc.); --- etc---

Home Improvement: interior designer home visit and advice; feng-shui home visit; antique item valuation; home de-cluttering service; garden landscaping/ tidying; DIY course; --- etc---

Culture & Travel: museum membership; National Trust (or equivalent) membership; scenic/ guided tour; themed visit; day trip; exhibition/ expo tickets (ex: Ideal Home, Chelsea Flower Show etc.); public conference/ seminar tickets; theatre bookings, concert tickets; music festival tickets; amusement park bookings; upgrades to an existing holiday booking (ex: flight upgrade; hotel upgrade; excursion/ excursion upgrade); Sponsor a restoration project; Sponsor an arts venture; --- etc---

Lincoln (U.K): castle & cathedral visit, ghost tour... Photo: Andy O. Williams
I.T. & Comms:  internet domain name; software; software upgrade; smartphone apps; MP3 music downloads/ podcasts; --- etc---

Pets & Wildlife: dog-grooming session; agility classes; pet behaviourist; Sponsor-an-Animal scheme; animal charity donation; zoo visit (personalised with: behind-the-scenes tour, getting involved with animals for a day, cleaning cages etc; overcome snake/ spider phobia); safari park visit; Plant-a-Tree sponsorship; finance a conservation project; --- etc---

Motoring: driving tuition (package or customised); car service; car valeting; car maintenance tuition; off-road/ all-weather/ rallye driving tuition; --- etc---

Finance: professional financial advice; shares & bonds; --- etc---

The best thing to do is to copy and paste this list onto a sheet that you keep handy as work in progress. Change the list, add to the list, make it yours and soon enough the gift-buying headache will be a thing of the past.

To be sure you don't lose out either - as a gift recipient - be smart and pass this list around or leave it around as a hint (for added visibility you might have to double the font size and change the colour to bright red!). Soon enough those unwanted shower gels, foot scrubs and tea-light holders should be no more (or at least scarcer), I promise!

18 Dec 2010

A Week-End Wonderweb 18-12 (Winter Wonderland)

Discreet, low-key, traditional, designer-cool, all sparkles, indulgently oppulent... or fashionably absent: Christmas - the star of Winter Wonderland - lends itself to a plethora of creative interpretations and combinations, what you make of it is all up to you!

Sources (top page down):

16 Dec 2010

Present Perfect (Part 2)

Do I have a gift-purchasing strategy in mind that I could share with you? Well, maybe not a strategy as such, although we'll find out in Part 3... Ha! I have been known to occasionally surpass myself and be well organised, spotting a nifty item back in early September and just buying it because it had the recipient's name written all over it (not literally of course). Other times, all I could manage was a last-minute panic trip down my local suburbia (rather than the more exclusive stores of this world)...

One year (2007) I did virtually all my gift purchases online but this resulted in my disappointment once I saw the actual products in the flesh (the recipients were probably too polite to mention theirs). Allow me to mention two anecdotes...

I had ordered my partner a Mathmos Thaw ice candle with a container system that you fill with water and place in the freezer compartment overnight. The next day, place a lit tealight in the middle of the ice circle for that frosty glow effect. I am not sure what I expected really with the whole shebang but this was more Blue Peter than Mathmos, and the 'Designed in England, Made in China' tag did not help the cause or restore my faith either (despite the fact that the Mathmos core products - the world-famous lava lamps - are manufactured in Britain, the consumer may wrongly assume this is rolled out to the rest of the Mathmos range). If 'Designed in England' is presented as an USP, how about 'Made in China'? I doubt this will add any credence, although I am all too aware that in this day and age I'd better get used to the China idea. Dear readers, what are your thoughts on the subject?

Back to my 2007 online Xmas shopping experience, I had ordered my parents what looked like a premium, design-led, solar-powered brushed aluminium garden post, from Plantes & Jardins. It did look impressive on picture, but when I actually viewed it after it had been delivered directly to my parents' address, it looked like a wasted shrunk copy of the 'real' McCoy from the picture. What upset me was that the product (+ branding + packaging) looked dirt-cheap, in fact I might as well have bought it from Poundland. It was neither high-end nor mid-range as per my intentions, despite costing me the equivalent of £60.00. The European engineering patent from the online product description might have caught my eye (and gained my trust and fooled me). Only when the package arrived had that 'Made in China' farce become unwanted reality.

After these episodes, my online gift-shopping came to a standstill and re-centred back to its less adventurous but trusted core values: flowers and chocolates, the tried-and-trusted albeit predictable special occasion void-filler gifts. But eh, who wants nasty surprises? So maybe those people who buy the shower gels, the foot scrubs and the festive socks have a point after all.

Silicon Valley... TV circuit board found discarded in the countryside
Now when we go round the stores looking for that inspired gift, yet are faced with the reality that the stores' buyers uninspiringly rehash the same old items (knick-knacks, shower gels, body lotions, festive socks, tea-light holders etc.) year on year, while we are faced with dilemmas of limited spending budget, clutter phobia, trinket phobia, home space restrictions, well-furnished homes reality (i.e. those recipients who have absolutely everything/ need nothing!), it is time to relegate the old auto-pilot buying habit patterns and start getting creative. I might have no strategy to offer but fortunately I have a few ideas up my sleeve to help you save face this Christmas.

So this is what I suggest: a magic list of presents that take no room, gather no dust, don't run the risk of going out of fashion, don't break, don't age badly, don't spoil the décor, or end up crashing down Oxfam's doorstep come Boxing Day. Although not every single item on my list will be appropriate to you or your recipients (some may even be deemed far-fetched), the presents are centred around the experiential service (yep that key-adjective from Part 1), and each of them is useful, meaningful and - indeed - relevant in its own right. (to be continued)

15 Dec 2010

Present Perfect (Part 1)

Christmas is upon us, and with it comes the [delete as appropriate] heartfelt/ meaningful/ well-meaning/ obligatory/ disinterested/ pointless present-buying (and present-receiving) saga. Bah humbug, Christmas seems an excuse for over-indulgence, with entertaining and all the trimmings. In this article I will endeavour to make sense of it all and share some hints and tips to those of us who are either stuck, uninspired or deflated by the prospect, while taking a leaf out of my book for my own benefit.

Thing is, I have never been the type to over-indulge in the financial excesses of Christmas, despite the fact that the media and peer pressure coerce us strongly into expenditure, at the expense of common sense. I am no tight-fisted moron, in fact I prefer to bestow loved ones with little attentions throughout the year rather than 'focus' them around Christmas. Those thoughtful little attentions might consist of a culinary treat (a trip down a lovely tea-room or reputed gastropub), or a heartfelt spur-of-the-moment purchase that is meaningful/ useful to the recipient, rather than some sort of automated reflex action that turns me into a robot sucked into the shopping parades for that year-on-year commercial Yule splurge.

In our haste for performance, let's not lose out the fact that being amongst family is what should matter most on Christmas Day, maybe open our hearts and show some charity and care towards a relative, friend, or total stranger in need as a welcome seasonal altruistic gesture. I am no puritan or religious freak whatsoever and not exactly one you would call a church-goer, but I believe that Christmas should be treated with more respect, modesty, simplicity and restraint than it is right now.

In an ideal world, we should endeavour to rediscover its true meaning as the religious day it once revolved around, and just stop competing with each other in our materialistic preoccupations through the presents saga, stop giving in so easily to the consumer society's expectations of Xmas, of the correlation between 'care' and 'presents', i.e. translating how much you care about somebody through presents.

Let us demonstrate our care in different ways that do not solely revolve around 25th December (and/ or birthdays, for that matter). What if we just cared every day instead? Maybe even challenge ourselves into creating a personal(ised) Christmas, by making something from scratch: Xmas cards, pudding, cranberry sauce, festive decorations, candles for giving, etc. Let's make it an experiential Christmas. In the meantime hang on to that 'experiential' adjective because we'll come back to it later.

Another side-effect to this 'present at all costs' frenzy is that the probability of you and I ending up with a collection of nasty knick-knacks, multiplication of body lotions/ shower gels/ foot scrubs/ festive socks/ tealight holders, is sadly not nigh, it is high. I am not questioning the act of giving a present but - if we are to buy a present - could we not just put a bit more thought, a bit more effort, a bit more personality and relevance into it? And why not?

I don't want to sound like I am throwing out the baby and the bath water, but like with some of those presents we wish we had never got, let's make sure this doesn't bite us back when we are out there making our own purchasing decisions... (to be continued)

11 Dec 2010

A Week-End Wonderweb 11-12 (Nordic Style)

Gustavian-influenced painted furniture, duck-egg, teal, egg-shell, dusky-pink and mostly snow-white in colour, fresh but never cold, clean lines, understated, unfussy, a clever easy-living encapsulation of timelessness and eternal youth, light, airy and crisp interiors, a breath of fresh air indoors, and a touch of Spring in the midst of Winter, every day is a Northern Light moment when you live it Nordic Style.

Sources (top page down):

    10 Dec 2010

    Chorlton vs. Didsbury (Part 2)

    The Castlefield area of Manchester was once upon a time the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. With the industrial times now firmly behind us, what puts 21st century Manchester on the map? What is its coolest hotspot contender: is it Chorlton or is it Didsbury? In our previous post we covered Chorlton, whose adepts praise its 'boho-chic' appeal, and describe the place as hip, trendy, happening. So where does that leave Didsbury then? La Baguette investigates.

    Castlefield, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Picture by Ed O'Keeffe
    This is subject to debate, yet in my humble opinion Didsbury Village offers a more polished appearance than Chorlton. And of the whole of Didsbury, it is also the trendiest (although closely followed by West Didsbury's Lapwing Lane/ Burton Road), maybe even a tad over-rated, as I'd be inclined to admit. As for East Didsbury, the vast majority of its housing stock (private and council mix) dating back to the 1930s, and sprawling uniform arrangement, make it lack the lustre and depth of character of its neighbouring sisters. West Didsbury is reminiscent in places of Chorlton with those semi-neglected multi-storey Victorian properties broken down into rentals. However the area is sprucing up slowly; and it has certainly improved over the time I have lived in Manchester.

    A walk around Didsbury reveals beautiful residential properties of Victorian and Edwardian splendour set within leafy grounds, the former homes to textile merchants, traders, bankers, lawyers and managerial executives who worked in Manchester city centre at the peak of its industrialisation. And by contrast, if you head from Didsbury Village towards Parrs Wood and Fletcher Moss Gardens (Stenner Lane), you will pick up clues of Didsbury's farming heritage (former farm buildings and cottages, remnants of fields) as the Cheshire village it once was (as opposed to the buzzing Manchester ward it has since become).

    A green oasis: the rock garden at Fletcher Moss. Source: Wikipedia
    With the quaint village life of yesteryear gone, today's local residents and visitors find solace and respite at the beautiful Fletcher Moss Gardens and their not-to-be-missed alpine rockery garden (dogs not allowed), the nearby walled Parsonage Gardens (where we would half-expect to stumble across Hercule Poirot!), or Didsbury Park. Heading for the River Mersey embankments from Fletcher Moss, they can enjoy long family walks past Sale, Urmston, Northenden, Wythenshawe and further afield.

    There are places in Didsbury where indeed you would be forgiven for believing you are not in Manchester. The quaint and the charming come at a price and Didsbury is admittedly the priciest quarter within the Manchester ward boundaries, with properties fetching similar price ranges to those in neighbouring Cheadle (Stockport constituency) or Hale (Trafford).

    Didsbury Park, interpretation design by Mike Pendry Design Countryside
    Sadly in recent years, the vibrant Disbury Village centre has lost some of its independent shops. With the stronger presence of chains (Boots, Pizza Hut, Café Rouge, Hogshead, Pitcher & Piano etc.) and more recent branded additions aimed at young professional residents, and University students to an extent (M&S, Varsity, Costa Coffee, Slug & Lettuce, burger joints etc.), it is feared that the Village may soon become no more than an aseptised miniature version of the typical British high-street identikit, and lose its individual character in the process.

    The threat from corporate retail affects the local public houses too, however these local institutions hold their value in the hearts of the locals. I'll just name 3 off the top of my head: first the tucked-off-the-high-street Fletcher Moss, then Wilmslow Road's The Royal Oak (Robinson brewery) - to visit more for its atmosphere than for its faded décor or the quality of its draught beer and cider, and finally the blink-and-you-miss-it corner pub The Railway (Marston's), just across from the hub of chain bars and restaurants that were erected at the turn of this millennium.

    Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, approx. 1955 (photo: Peter Ward via Geograph)
    Other pubs like The Dog & Partridge deserve a mention too, or further up the road on the right-hand side the stand-alone Didsbury, a popular Sunday lunch destination! Meanwhile in West Didsbury (Barlow Moor Road), let us mention The Woodstock, an oppulent listed mansion converted into a stylish lofty bar with period features retained, complemented by amazing vintage rococo crystal chandeliers (in 2009).

    Sooner or later the noisy crowded bar scene novelty wears off and younger locals are keen to venture into/ return to more sedate surroundings where they can hold a conversation without losing their voice and draining their wallet... Some of the pubs have tried to modernise in order to increase their captive audience, as seen at the Fletcher Moss, and some will dispute whether this has brought any actual benefits to the trade, or the punters for that matter...

    For a lovely dinner in modern surroundings right at the heart of the Village, there is no better place than Felicini's. Back in 2002, I used to go to the adjacent wine bar with my friend Susan on a Saturday night for a spot of chit-chat over a glass of wine, before the place merged with the small restaurant next door into a bigger food-oriented venue. Since the refurb, I have been there once with Andy, my partner, for a special occasion dinner and we were both impressed with the quality of the food, its presentation and the personable service. We always vowed to return some day, but must have got distracted by South Manchester's many other food offerings!

    Source: The Metropolitan
    If you'd missed the boat a decade ago and were still wondering what a gastropub was, then I would advise you to traipse down to nearby West Didsbury's Lapwing Lane. This is a slice of leafy suburb running across Palatine Road, just feet away from Didsbury Job Centre (no less!) and Pizza Express, with a splattering of little shops (inc. delis, bespoke picture framer, interior design consultancy, beauty parlour, fashion boutique etc.), small bars and restaurants (inc. the popular Green's, serving vegetarian fayre, and the handkerchief-sized Railway pub). The area is dominated by the fabulously refurbished Midland Hotel into The Metropolitan bar and restaurant (at the corner of Lapwing Lane and Burton Road), a success story that has now spanned over a decade.

    There, architects and interior designers have refreshingly been restrained and sympathetic to the building's character and most of its original features have thankfully been preserved and enhanced, when temptation would have been to outrageously rip them up and reinterpret the build as witnessed elsewhere through town. The restaurant side of the pub has a classic décor warmed up by its beautiful vintage oak furniture, and we'll note the clever use of antique book shelving in order to partition the dining area from the bar. The spacious conservatory, decorated with hanging plant baskets, overlooks a terrace (popular in the balmy Summer evenings!). Over the years, I have enjoyed a few spur-of-the-moment comfort food dinners there (within close range of the fireplace in winter), and without the guilt trip. A one-course meal is generous enough and will not break the bank. In the depths of winter, their simple yet well turned-out bangers and mash were a pick-me-up! The only restaurant I have ever had on speed-dial was that one. And yes, it is highly recommended that you book your table beforehand in order to avoid disappointment or long waits.

    Detail of a Hazle wall plaque I purchased from Harriet & Dee years ago
    Now for a spot of Didsbury Village shopping... For the best fish in town, I recommend Evans of Didsbury, a reputed institution that caters fish (+ meat and fruit & veg) to local restaurants and the general public alike. I cannot fault their professionalism, friendly service, cleanliness and quality/ freshness of produce. I still remember those plump scallops I bought, I was really impressed. Amateurs of cheese will have spotted The Cheese Hamlet from the get go, right next door to Evans. Further up Wilmslow Road, heading Stockport-way and next to Felicini's is a local florist that has also established a solid reputation, with a good choice of flowers too! Because they have become so rare, haberdashers deserve a mention. This one is near the florist and while it is still (amazingly!) open, pay them a visit: if you are not already a seamstress, you might surprise yourself and start developing a couture addiction. A gorgeous giftware boutique called Harriet & Dee (relocated some years ago from Manchester city centre's Kings Street area to a cobbled alleyway off the side of the Dog & Partridge) will no doubt satisfy your special occasions requirements.

    As a conclusion, I will not dispel the local myth about the fact that you are either a Chorlton person or a Didsbury person, not both. There is an undisputed rivalry between Chorlton and Didsbury over which one is the coolest, and even my random Twitter poll turned passion into a debate. You may have guessed that my personal preference, based on gut feelings and general observations, has always guided me towards Didsbury Village, from that very first encounter. Although I have tried to give Chorlton time, fairness and reflection and I am not disputing its good points and qualities - chemistry just happened with Didsbury. Just like Carrie Bradshaw is unequivocally a NYC girl - I am unashamedly, most definitely... a Didsbury girl!

    Didsbury Flavour:

    7 Dec 2010

    Chorlton vs. Didsbury (Part 1)

    After living in South Manchester for 16 years, I would be inclined to believe that I do know the city centre and its outskirts reasonably well. Having said that, I am not familiar with every single ward although having visited them all (and been in employment or residence in some). Certain areas - not just confined to the inner-city geographics - are virtually off limits, certainly off the tourist trail for being pretty rough to say the least and on the edge; the Shameless TV drama shot on location in Gorton, Collyhurst and Wythenshawe suggests a glimpse of it.

    Manchester, city of culture... Oxford Rd graffiti, captured by Ed O'Keeffe
    However as soon as you know the places to visit and those to avoid, you will be able to get a more positive grasp of the city. Even so, some formerly 'dodgy' areas like Ardwick, Beswick or Benchill are looking up, thanks to private and public cash injections, including through residential property redevelopment schemes aiming to attract young professionals to the areas in order to break up the risk of a ghetto-like system.

    All in all, the city of Manchester has improved in appearance over the time I have lived there, whether or not we agree with the land planning arrangements, the architectural merit of some of the residential or business schemes, or even the socio-economic shifts they bring to the natural fabric of the neighbourhoods, with property prices combined to forced relocations that are driving away poor families, hence displacing underlying issues rather than addressing them...

    Another mill bites the dust in Ancoats... Picture by Aidan O'Rourke (2007)
    But for now, let us concentrate on two areas, south of the city centre, that are equally popular with the locals, young professionals, students and visitors alike, yet each with its own personal character and upbeat vibe. One is Chorlton, the other Didsbury, and you might already be familiar with one or the other, or both.

    If you are after the boho-leaning, arty-farty, Guardian-reading, unpolished (rough diamond, some might say), 'duster-shy' vibe, then head just south of the inner-city belt. Chorlton Green and pretty much most of Chorlton-cum-Hardy will be your destination of choice, despite the fact that the Mancunian answer to New York's Greenwich Village is over-rated in my book. Chorlton-cum-Hardy is a popular multi-cultural quarter with enough semi-neglected converted dwellings sporting windchimes, shelves of house plants, faded bric-à-brac finds and psychedelic fabric scarves hanging off curtain rails to give off that alternative mood (the old 1970s velvet sofa that was plonked on a residential street corner in an 'here-to-stay' sort of way sealed that image in my mind, back in Autumn 07...).

    Postman Pat, a Cosgrove Hall animation feature (Source: BBC Manchester)
    Shopping-wise, the Trafford end of Chorlton - nearby from where the Cosgrove Hall animation studio (Danger Mouse, Bill & Ben etc.) used to be - boasts a well-stocked independent co-operative organic grocery store, Unicorn, that should reconcile you with nature, despite standing at the heart of a two-million-inhabitant megalopolis. Virtually across from the organic store, you will find the Barbakan Delicatessen & Continental Bakery, the address in Chorlton and further afield for foodies in the know, therefore expect the queues as a side-effect of success! Caterers to local restaurants and bakeries as well as to their adoring public, Barbakan bake a collection of fancy breads, bagels and pastries (I used to get a Polish sweet bread similar to cholla, glazed with sticky icing and loaded with poppy seeds). They also sell traditional deli and dairy products (if you are a fan of olives, this is certainly the address too). Chorlton-cum-hardy also boasts a number of trendy bars and cafés.

    Some of the cool little designer boutiques and bars along Beech Road, Chorlton Green, are worth a visit, and some of the houses within the conservation area do look equally charming. However with a fast turnover of boutiques closing, rebranding and re-opening, it is difficult for a non-local like I to keep tabs on their whereabouts; regardless of that, you should expect to find quirky home décor pieces and fashion design accessories (jewellery, woolly bags, fancy mirrors, or even ornaments similar to that cute little plaster heart I bought there a decade ago). I also remember a shop selling some Tom Dixon pieces, a small Italian deli place where I'd purchased some pasta, and also a flower shop, although sadly I couldn't say for sure whether those still operate today. In passing let's mention the trendy Lead Station (gastropub), where local resident songster Badly Drawn Boy has been spotted in the past. The Nose wine bar (now closed, I believe) I visited on occasions, and some others whose names escape me, but my personal favourite Chorlton Green fixture remained The Trevor Arms pub, if only to reconnect with the true values of quintessential Britishness.

    Chorlton Green lych gate and tower, pictured by Aidan O'Rourke (2004)
    Having said that, I have always wondered what the fuss was all about with Chorlton as a whole. Chorlton property is expensive (especially around the Green) and hotly coveted by Chorlton lovers, many of whom end up compromising on their budgets by moving to cheaper nearby Whalley Range, like my friend Séverine.

    Now for a few controversial home truths: I have always found Chorlton-cum-Hardy on the tatty side, dirty (well, someone's gotta say it...), choking in traffic fumes, and many of the properties in urgent need of a refit (and that includes some of the shops on Barlow Moor Road, although the situation has improved in places). Chorlton is also a hop away from problem wards (Moss Side, Stretford, Hulme, etc.) and has its own share of it with the Nell Lane estate. Some of the unsavoury loitering characters I have come across on my way to visit friends have comforted this insecurity feeling in me.

    Of course this is based on personal experience and opinion, and I respect the fact that Chorlton enthusiasts and defenders will beg to differ from my views. So next time you are in Manchester, do make sure to pay Chorlton a visit, for you may well find what you are looking for, after all. Chorlton might just be your scene. (to be continued)

    Chorlton Flavour:

    4 Dec 2010

    A Week-End Wonderweb 04-12 (Saint-Quentin)

    European hub halfway between Paris and Brussels, London and Bonn, a strategic station stop on pre-TGV* international railway lines (Paris-St-Quentin-Brussels/ Aachen/ Köln/ Amsterdam/ København/ Москва), home to artists, free thinkers, formerly known as the French Manchester thanks to its strong textile manufacturing and trade legacy spanning centuries, the most Flemish of French towns is also a beacon of Art Deco style and more, with two jewels in the architectural stakes, namely its magnificent gothic basilica (as a tribute to Quentin, a martyr) and 500-year-old town hall; a no-mercy outpost, taken over by the Prussians in 1870, flattened out by the Germans in WWI, and again damaged in WWII, at the heart of war cemetery graveland, only a few miles away from the notorious Somme Valley, here is a town of contrasts, a land of invasions, a pool of invention, disillusion, vision and reinvention, welcome to my hometown of St-Quentin, Picardie.

    Sources (top page down):
    Additional Resources:
    • Aerial views of St-Quentin from here.
      * TGV = Trains à Grande Vitesse, the French fast trains

        1 Dec 2010

        Little Treasures (Part 2)

        I have built up quite an impressive collection of mish-mash pieces along the years as an idled pastime, not as an avid collector as such, never really taking this seriously, only pocketing my find if and when I came across it, take it home, clean it and keep it. I would show it to mémé (who found it quite amusing that I'd pick what her ancestors and the likes had thrown out as junk!).

        Vintage square and hanging heart brooch, by Kate Hamilton-Hunter, available from Lasso The Moon

        I wish I could showcase a broader representation of my collection to you but the bulk of it is locked away (ha-ha not in a bank vault!) in a cellar (god knows why it ended down there) that is not easily accessible, but the day I lay my hands on those beauties again I will exhibit them for the whole blogworld to see!

        My yet-to-materialise idea was to create a mural, a mosaic if you like with all the pieces carefully encased in plaster, or how to turn junk into art, a theme recurrent with our modern artists (not that I wish to claim any artistic pretensions).

        Small heart pendant by Kate Hamilton-Hunter, available from Lasso The Moon

        Imagine my delight when I came across evidence that I am not the only collector of broken pottery. While visiting the beautiful Lasso The Moon website (exquisite hand-crafted homestyle pieces that I invite you to browse at your leisure), I noticed the clever use of vintage pottery fragments (shown above) by one of their suppliers, Kate Hamilton-Hunter Studio, as a backdrop and prop to add further interest to an item of jewellery, and the complementarity between the two is spot on! Well, I might be biased but just see for yourself. What do you think?

        And while on the pottery pieces idea, I struck gold once more when visiting one of my bookmarked design blogs, Absolutely Beautiful Things and discovered Harriet Damave's handpainted decorative Delftware designs used as pendants, brooches and wall-hanging ornaments that remind me loosely of our pottery fragment treasures (although Harriet's ornaments are of course created as whole pieces). Judge the effect for yourself:

        Harriet Damave's handpainted Delft porcelain heart ornaments, featured on Etsy

        Some people collect seaglass from the shore (and surprise, surprise I do have a few of those!). What pushes them to do that is probably unmotivated, as an idled pastime while on their beach stroll. The colourings from some of the old glass's original pearlescence or the smoothed polished finish certainly catch the eye. Some artists like American jewellery-maker Lisa Hall recycle their finds into delicate jewellery pieces. Read about the origins of the seaglass that Lisa collects, very insightful.

        Silver Cluster Ring by Lisa Hall Jewelery's 'Seaglass Collection'
        Interestingly Lisa doesn't solely work with actual seaglass.

        So all in all, those unassuming broken bits of junk have some nice future ahead of them and I am delighted that the feeling is shared. Meanwhile if you too collect them (from wherever you are in the world), just leave me a note below and I will happily feature, on your behalf, your photographs and stories in this blog.