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10 posts from June 2012

29 June 2012

Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress

 

It’s the school vacation and although summer shows no signs of arriving in Seattle, the Minx and I have been having some fun adventures (hence lack of blogging).

 

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A couple of weeks back we decided to visit my friend Lisa in Victoria, on beautiful Vancouver Island. Victoria is the capital of British Columbia and a proud outpost of the old British Empire. Statues of Victoria, Jubilee bunting, manicured lawns and gaudy ornamental bedding plants abound, so of course I felt right at home. 

 

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Imagine an English seaside town, say Bournemouth, plonked into the middle of the magnificent mountains, islands and water scenery of the Pacific North West; graced with some beautiful old hotels and government buildings; and colonised by a strange combination of Canadian retirees and high-tech hipsters.

We were invited to take afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress, the huge and beautiful hotel modelled on a French chateau that has graced Victoria’s waterfront for more than 100 years. Tea at the Empress is a Victoria institution and as an afternoon tea aficionado (a?) I was naturally hugely excited to attend.

 

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Tea is served in the hotel’s beautiful lobby in front of the Palm Court with its spectacular stained glass dome. Surrounded by gorgeous antiques, sterling silver teapots, screens and chintzes, and gazed upon by portraits of King George V and Queen Mary, it’s like stepping back in time a hundred years. Lady Violet of Downton Abbey would feel right at home here.

 

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First up we were brought strawberries and cream while we perused the tea menu.  Here is the Minx trying, and spectacularly failing, to eat with decorum.

 

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Tea itself is served from seemingly bottomless silver teapots in the extremely pretty ‘Crown’ tea service. We particularly liked the story of the tables, which are beautifully handcrafted from the original tea lobby floorboards. 

 

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After strawberries came the delectable three-tiered tea, which we were instructed to eat from the bottom up.

Firstly a selection of truly delicious finger sandwiches and savoury delicacies, including smoked salmon pinwheels, egg salad croissants, coronation chicken sandwiches and sundried tomato crostini.

The Minx was served the ‘Princess’ tea for kids under twelve and got her own personal little tiered tea tray, with kid-friendly sandwiches and slightly less elegant cakes.

 

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We then moved on to scones, jam and cream.  The cream was an excellent approximation of the true English clotted cream which is impossible to find in North America. I got the recipe from the chef and I’ll be testing and blogging it in an another post.

Finally we tucked into some exquisite little cakes – mini lemon meringue tarts, perfect macarons, Battenberg cake (squee! can’t remember the last time I saw one of those) and chocolate shortbread.

The Minx loved her kid-friendly meal, though she was still struggling with decorum at this point.

 

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In fact the welcome the Minx got was one of the very nicest things about the whole experience.  It’s not at all dumbed down for kids – there’s no shrieking or running about or cartoons  – but kids are very much welcomed and accommodated, with a choice of juice or their own un-caffeinated tea, their own tea plate and extremely solicitous service.  The Minx absolutely loved it and felt extremely special and grown up throughout.

Here we are among the teaplates.

 

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And here she is clutching her ‘Princess of Afternoon Tea’ certificate with a friend from Seattle who was also coincidentally taking tea with her mother.

 

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And here is the Princess of Afternoon Tea, having abandoned all pretence at decorum, sticking her finger in the jam pot.

 

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If you’re going Victoria, you absolutely have to do this. The food is scrumptious, the setting incredible and the service is beyond reproach.  It’s a treat for everyone from eight to eighty and one of those eating occasions which transcends being a mere meal and turns into a fabulous life experience.  I’m sure the Minx will remember this for a long time.

And so in fact will I.

 

Full Disclosure: The Minx and I were the guests of the Fairmont Empress for one night and for afternoon tea. I promise that they have had no influence on the content of this blog post and all opinions are my own.

   

26 June 2012

Hanging on the Telephone

 

Hot on the heels of London’s Faberge’ Easter Egg Hunt comes Artbox. 

You know the drill by now. 85 iconic telephone boxes are decorated by local artists, placed around London and then auctioned off for charity. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

They sure look pretty though.

 

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My faves are the Clash one above and the Twitter one full of birds below.  Which is yours? Anyone in London seen these?

 

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And not to be out done, here’s a view of Canoe Island, here in Washington. 

 

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Here’s the full Artbox phone box gallery.

   

25 June 2012

How to Make a Saint Honore’

 

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Once upon a time Dr Warren Austin, personal physician to the Duke of Windsor, married a Chicago heiress. Together they bought an island, and in 1969 set up a French camp for kids. As you do.

Canoe Island is a little scrap of paradise nestled in among the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state.

We went to family camp there last year and words can’t express how good for the soul this place is.  The little wooded islet is small enough to walk around, with whimsical follies viewed between the trees. Everyone sleeps in canvas teepees, which are surprisingly civilised if you bring enough bedding and thermal underwear, and there’s a lovely clubhouse with a dining room, reading room, games room and swimming pool. Oh and did I mention the kayaking and sailing and archery and tennis courts? And there’s also a superb chef and a young patissiere who work miracles with the wonderful produce of the islands. Yep, the Garden of Eden has NOTHING on this.

Having fallen in love with this place last year, I couldn’t wait to return this year for a more grown up event – Patisserie by the Sea.   In order to raise funds for the camp, two pastry chefs were flown in from France to teach a small group of us how to make exquisite patisserie, with plenty of scope for hands-on participation and eating the fruits of our labours afterwards.

In the first workshop we made ‘Le Saint Honore’ a la rose et aux framboises’ with master patissier Jean-Marc Vareil, who is currently a professor of patisserie at a school in Toulon and who has previously worked at Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons in England and the Bristol and the Ritz in Paris. 

The Saint Honore’ is a traditional French pastry, named apparently for the patron saint of pastry chefs.  You can either make individual versions or one big one. I’m not going to give you all the individual recipes and instructions, otherwise we’ll be here until Christmas.  Instead let’s just treat this as an excuse for a bit of serious food porn.

If you really want to try these at home search for ‘Gateau Saint Honore’ and you’ll find plenty of help, though I’m betting that when you see what’s involved you’ll understand why everyone in France just buys them in from the patisserie instead.

But don’t let me stop you.  One day I’ll make these again too.

 

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First make, roll out and cut your pate brisee (a shortcrust pastry made with eggs, but no sugar)

Then make choux pastry and pipe it round the edges of your uncooked pastry circles and into little blobs (see how blithely I dismiss hours of work in two sentences).

 

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When your blobs and bases are perfectly cooked whip up a little raspberry pastry cream.

 

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And some virulently red caramel.  And then poke little individual holes in all the little individual blobs.

 

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Dip all the little blobs into the incredibly hot caramel, taking care not to burn your fingers (I still have the scars). Pipe the raspberry pastry cream into each individual blob. Yes, you heard correctly.

 

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Dip the bases into the hot caramel (I had retired hurt by this point), stick three little filled blobs on each one and when cool fill the bases with the raspberry cream.

Whip up a quick crème chantilly, coloured pale pink and flavoured with rose water and use it to decorate the Saint Honores.

 

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Decorate with raspberries and blueberries, rinse and repeat.

 

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Pose proudly with handiwork on a small island (please ignore deeply unflattering  picture of me).

 

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Place in gob.

These were DIVINE – crunchy yet creamy, soft,with a little bite to the choux pastry, fruity but not too sweet; with the rosewater adding an indefinable je ne sais quoi. It took Jean-Marc about three hours to whip up twenty five in a standard domestic kitchen with no special equipment. We really have no excuse, do we?

There will be more pics from chocolate afternoon at Patisserie Camp next week. It’s not clear whether they’ll be running another Patisserie Camp at Canoe Island, but if they do I suggest you sell one of your children to get there.

   

19 June 2012

Pinterest Take 5: Colour Dipped Everything

 

It started with these, which you have no doubt seen if you have eyes and a Pinterest account.

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Dipped utensils by Little Bit Funky via Making It Lovely

 

Soon the whole world was dipping things in paint…

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Dipped cans by Maya via Anna Johanson

 

and posting up tutorials…

 

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Dipped chopsticks from Poppytalk via Martha Staples

 

Then the Etsy shops got in on the act.

 

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Neon dipped bowls from Wind & Willow Home via Anne DeOtte

 

And now everything is being dipped in colour.

 

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Cutest ever baby shoes from Schier Shoes via Oh Joy

 

Personally I love this trend. You?

   

14 June 2012

Pinteresting

 

Or a small study in the effectiveness of social media.

This past weekend I had the most blissful time at ‘Patisserie Camp’.

I was hoping to blog my pastries this week, but with the Minx now home from school for the NEXT. THIRTEEN. WEEKS (heaven help me), and with us heading off for a mummy and daughter long weekend in Victoria tomorrow, the processing of the over 800 photos I took is taking some time.

She’s off to camp next Monday though, so normal blog service will be resumed then.

In the meantime I leave you with a small but intriguing study in the power of social media and Pinterest in particular. Remember the cake I made a week or two back?

 

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Well ever since I posted it I’ve been getting a small but gratifying bump in traffic to mirrormirror thanks to a few blog readers posting it on Pinterest (thank you whoever you are). Until this weekend, when it absolutely went through the roof.

I checked back on Pinterest (did you know that if you look at something which has been pinned from your site you can see ‘Also From XYZ.com’ to the left?) and this is what I saw.  Suddenly the cake had been pinned and repinned literally hundreds of times.  It had gone viral.

 

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I’ve been looking back through all the pins and can’t identify the ‘tipping point’ when it all went crazy. Suffice it to say that I yesterday I had 6x the blog traffic I normally get and the craziness shows no signs of abating.  To put it into perspective that’s about 3x the traffic I got when Salon.com mentioned my Kelly Wearstler Go Fug Your Room back in 2008and that abated after about a day.

I mention this not to show off - I’ve actually been feeling like a bit of a fraud since I found the original idea on Pinterest, in a picture that had been repinned maybe two or three times – but because now I finally understand why big brands and big bloggers court Pinterest so assiduously.

I’m fascinated to see where my little cake ends up, what happens to blog traffic over time and whether any of the hordes of people stopping by turn into regular readers/commenters.

And you can probably expect a lot more images of photogenic cakes in the weeks and months ahead.

Update: Yay! I don’t feel such a fraud any more.  The source of the original idea has been tracked down to I Am Baker. The original pin just said ‘uploaded by user’ so I couldn’t get to the source originally.  So happy to be able to credit the right person.

   

07 June 2012

The Story of a Cloak

 

I didn’t mean to write any more about the Queen’s Jubilee outfits – I’m sure you’re all Jubileed out by now – but we were discussing  the cloak the Queen wore at Monday night’s concert in the comments below and it sent me down a delightful little Internet rabbit hole, from which I emerge with these pictures.

Here is the Queen on Monday night wearing a very elegant black wool cloak over her sparkling gold cocktail dress.

 

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It reminded me of the famous Annigoni portrait of the Queen as a young woman wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter.

Here is the portrait in question with the stark dark blue of the robes throwing all the attention on her delicate pale skin (goodness that woman has a flawless complexion) and the wistful expression on her face.

 

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Apparently Annigoni was inspired to paint it this way when he was with the Queen making preparatory sketches for the portrait and she said casually, in French, ‘"You know, when I was a child, I used to spend hours in this room looking out of the windows. I loved watching the people and the cars down there in the Mall. They all seemed so busy. I used to wonder what they were doing and where they were all going, and what they thought about outside the Palace." And as she spoke her face lit up with the exact expression – youthful, almost child-like – which the artist sought.

I then discovered that Cecil Beaton (who had taken her coronation pictures) deliberately tried to recreate the Annigoni magic with this 1968 photographic portrait. He wanted to show the Queen as a person without her jewels, costumes and fancy regalia, and so asked her to wear a simple admiral’s boat cloak, to enormously striking effect.  Recognise the cloak?

 

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Finally we have a picture from the infamous Annie Leibovitz photo shoot in 2008, where the Queen was apparently in a rather grumpy mood, even if she didn’t in fact storm out as was rumoured at first.

This was the last picture of the day (Leibovitz was only allotted 25 minutes of the Queen’s time – imagine the stress!) and the Queen, after being pictured in various sumptuous evening gowns, pulled on the simple black cloak once again.  The resulting image was then digitally superimposed over a brooding picture of the palace gardens taken the day before. 

Yet again it’s enormously arresting, though was famously called ‘vampiric’ by one critic. There are other spectacular photos of the day with the Queen in full rig, but it is in this one, without her tiara, jewellery or furs, where she looks most fearsomely majestic.

 

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One simple cloak. And one fascinating story. Which portrait do you like best?

   

06 June 2012

Queen of Diamonds

 

It’s been a long and gruelling Jubilee weekend here on the West Coast, with 5.30 am starts on Sunday and Tuesday, and the consumption of rather too much champagne, Pimms and Prince William’s favourite chocolate fridge cake.

 

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Early yesterday morning I was sitting bleary-eyed on the sofa with the Minx and my friend and fellow monarchist Lilian, being lulled gently back to sleep by one of commentator Huw Edwards’ monotonous monologues when the Queen finally appeared looking radiant and very, very sparkly.  Immediately the sofa contingent jerked awake.  What was that utterly stunning brooch the Queen was wearing?

It turns out that, when deciding what to wear for the last day of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the Queen recalled that she is the proud owner of the nine major diamonds cut from the Cullinan diamond, the world’s largest diamond discovered in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century and presented as a birthday gift to Edward VII (at the risk of sounding churlish, why don’t *I* get gifts like that?)

Inexplicably she declined to wear either the Imperial State Crown, which contains the Cullinan II diamond or sit in her carriage waving her sceptre which contains Cullinan I, the Star of Africa, the second largest cut diamond in the world. 

Instead, and obviously as some sort of austerity measure, she made do with wearing the brooch made from the Cullinan III and Cullinan IV diamonds, a mere 94.4 carats and 63.3 carats respectively and conservatively valued at some $120 million.

 

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Wouldn’t you be just terrified parading round the streets of London wearing that? Fortunately we were spared the sight of her Majesty crawling around the floor of St Paul’s on her hands and knees looking for the brooch she’d just dropped under her seat, which is undoubtedly what would have happened if I were Queen.

It is an utterly amazing brooch though, with an almost contemporary appeal in its stark simplicity - these diamonds don’t need any fussy curlicues or smaller stones to enhance them, unlike many of the Queen’s other diamond pieces.

 

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You’d be smiling too if you had that brooch

 

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And I loved how the Queen’s beautiful outfit of palest mint green was designed to show it and her off to the max – the heavy embroidery, crystal beading and contrasting soft chiffon drapery were exquisite and it was so refreshing to see an eighty six year old looking every one of her eighty six years and yet still be stunningly beautiful. The shoes were of course dreadful, but we can’t have everything.

 

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For future reference, just in case you find something similar in your back garden, this is what the uncut Cullinan diamond looked like before it was divided into the 9 smaller cut stones. Apparently it was initially tossed out of the window at the mining company where it was found, because no one believed it was possible to have a gem quality stone of this size.

 

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Buckingham Palace is putting on a display of the Queen’s personal diamond jewellery this summer, including all seven smaller cuts from the Cullinan diamond, and some spectacular tiaras. Full details here

   

05 June 2012

Great British Fashion Stamps

 

I miss British stamps.  The Royal Mail puts out some of the most beautiful and best designed commemorative stamps I’ve seen, and the set they produced for the Diamond Jubilee is no exception.

The set of ten stamps celebrates British fashion designers of the last sixty years, including Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell, who both designed some of the Queen’s most iconic looks when she was younger.

 

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It’s a pretty much spot on collection of great names and clothes, though am I alone in never having heard of Granny Takes A Trip? 

Mary Quant has apparently featured on a stamp before, and was thus ruled out of this collection. John Galliano managed to rule himself out for obvious reasons.  And I’m wondering why there wasn’t a place for Barbara Hulanicki of Biba.

 

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The gorgeous photos are by Sølve Sundsbø. Stamps are available for purchase here.

   

02 June 2012

Red White Blue

 

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A world-class energy-efficient illumination system has been installed on Tower Bridge to celebrate the Jubilee and the Olympics and designed to highlight the crazy architecture. All sorts of different colour schemes are planned for the future.

Can’t wait to see this when we get to London this summer!

Tell us what the Jubilee means to you (if anything) below. I’m so excited for this summer in London.

   

Happy and Glorious

 

I am so very sad not to be in London this weekend to take part in the festivities for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, as she celebrates 60 years on the throne.

 

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Until recently I’d never seen a colour picture of the Queen’s absolutely exquisite coronation gown, embellished all over with symbols of the four British home nations. Designer Sir Norman Hartnell’s sketch is below. Fan Bing Bing eat your heart out!

 

Few of us Brits can even remember a time when she wasn’t our Head of State - she’s been a fixture in all our lives since we were babies -  and I’m sure no British person can even begin to envisage the country without her.

It’s going to be a huge four-day party in the UK, starting tomorrow; partly because we don’t have an annual equivalent of the Fourth of July or Bastille Day and therefore have to grab any opportunity we can to show our national pride and patriotism, and partly I think because most British people are, deep down, very fond of the old girl.

I find it amusing that someone chosen entirely through an accident of birth, (in many ways hereditary monarchy is one of the fairest and most truly random ways of choosing a head of state) so perfectly embodies many of the qualities that British people like to imagine they possess. 

Neither flamboyant, showy nor remotely glamorous, like us she can seem reserved, diffident and bit shy on first acquaintance, but underneath seems genuinely warm, honest and friendly and is apparently very witty.  We make her do some of the most boring things imaginable but appreciate that she does them stoically, without fuss or grumbling and without seeming to enjoy her enormous wealth and privilege too much.  We like that she prefers to spend her vacations under the rains of Scotland rather than cavorting on the nudist beaches of the Mediterranean (I just boggled my own mind there) and feel that it is entirely right, natural and proper that she clearly prefers dogs and horses to people.

 

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Funnily enough, in many ways since moving to America I have come to appreciate the monarchy even more than when I lived back in the UK. 

Seems to me that an elected presidency can sometimes be a tricky conundrum for Americans, who have to reconcile their personal feelings for the man (always a man) currently in office with their respect for the office he holds and their belief in the country he represents.

In the UK we have carte blanche to loathe, criticise and disrespect all our politicians equally and without reservation (surely healthy in a democracy) while saving all our patriotism, respect and pride for the little old lady, who with immense good grace and not a whiff of personal scandal, has done everything we’ve asked of her over the last sixty years.  I personally wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Thank you ma’am and have a fun weekend.

It’s going to be all Jubilee here on the blog over the next four days, in between baking for Jubilee parties and getting up at 5.30 am to watch the festivities.

Brits lucky enough to be on the scene please comment and tell us how things are going and what you’re doing; expat Brits and Commonwealth kids, tell us if and how you’re celebrating; I’m fascinated to hear from everyone what the Queen and this weekend means to you (if anything).  Americans, will you be getting up to watch?