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Life in the big smoke

I might not remember you, but I will remember the meal

So here is the thing. I’ve realised what hooks anything memorable in the vast and messy attic that is my brain is food. If I think back to any travelling I’ve done in my life, the first thing that pops into my head is what I ate.

I went on a holiday to Cyprus with my family when I was eleven or twelve (more than twenty years ago!) and I still have a really clear memory of sitting in a small neighbourhood restaurant with plastic garden furniture tables on a shaded patio, the tables had a white and red checked waxy table cloth, trying dolmades for the first time. I can even recall the taste of the slightly sour and salty vine leaf wrapped around a chewy rich filling. I remember the bread, white, sweet and fluffy, soft and dense at the same time.

What set me down on this particular path was realising that Gerry and I are travelling abroad fairly soon. And thinking about travelling made me think of the food we’ve eaten on our travels.

There was Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village. We lived in an Airbnb nearby and walked over almost every day to pick up a salad, cheese and a few beers. There was this one blue cheese, so salty and tangy that it tasted almost like salty liquorice. OMG. If I lived nearby I would probably spend all my money on cheese.

There was also Tensuke, a tiny tempura place in Koenji in Tokyo. Every lunchtime there was a queue outside. The restaurant was just a bar disk, big enough for about half a dozen people. The chefs stood in front of a vat of boiling oil. The head chef chopped various vegetables at lightning speed, dipped them in batter and threw them into the oil. We were presented with piping hot, crispy and freshly fried dish after dish. The best one was the starter. A quickly deep fried egg, melting over some sticky rice and served up with an almost chocolatey and salty broth.

Then there is the Oyster Shed on Skye, this cold barn on the hill above Talisker Distillery where you can purchase all the shellfish of your dreams. I remember ordering some scallops, struggling to get my freezing fingers to pierce them with a miniature wooden fork. They were hot, sweet and tender, served with scalding chips and a sweet chilli sauce. Just perfect.

So there we are. I pretty much use nice meals as bookmarks in my life. They help me remember where I’ve been and what I’ve done and these memories are so vivid. If I think about a good meal I’m transported back to that place, to the smells and sounds, I can even recall the taste. It’s an odd skill, considering I make a living as a reporter I’m incredibly bad at remembering names and faces. But I do remember food.

*I also seem to get so engrossed in actually eating that I hardly ever take photographs of food. And that’s why I’m sharing this lovely photo of some beaujolais on a messy table in the cute, but tiny apartment we stayed in in Tokyo. You’re welcome.

Finnish forests and London forests

I grew up in a small town in Finland, there was a woodland a couple of blocks from my house. Forests surround the city on all sides, except for in the west, where the land meets the Gulf of Bothnia.

When I was little my family spent a couple of weeks at the summer house in June and July. This is nothing special in Finland where most people have a summer house or a summer cottage . It’s a big country with not that many people, there is a lot of space and 75 percent of the land is covered in forest.

The woods around the summer house were great for playing in. My brother, my cousin and I used to go on make believe adventures, finding trails among the blueberry bushes and the moss, scrambling up big granite boulders and finding the courage to jump down again.

We trekked through what to us seemed like jungles of reeds and fire weed to find new ways to the road on the far side of the forest. We walked around the old swamp that had been filled in with ballast from the ships that once docked in town. According to my grandmother the soil had come all the way from Africa.

In the old swamp we found and collected rocks that were red and brown and sometimes inky blue, some had been hollowed out by foreign waves revealing a milky colour underneath a darker surface, some had holes in them, some were smooth and polished. My grandmother called them moonstones. There are still several of them sitting in a bowl on the veranda at the summer house.

When my grandad was still alive he made my brother a bows from the juniper bushes and arrows out of sticks. In the autumns when the forests turned soggy and soft my granny took us mushroom hunting.

She taught us to look out for grönkremlor and smörsoppar, the yellow-orange mushroom which according to her had to be fried in lots of butter. Often the mushrooms were slug eaten and hosting at least a couple of worms. The worm infested parts were cut away and returned to the forest. Sometimes my grandmother sliced a sliver of a gilled mushroom with a brick red hat. She tasted it, making sure it was a tegelkremla and not the one that would burn your tongue.

It’s more than fifteen years since I went out into a forest to forage for mushrooms, but I can still recall the smell of wet soil. I didn’t realise how precious and special this was until I moved away. I miss the forests now and I seek them out whenever I can and wherever I can find them.

I feel very lucky to have landed in a place in London surrounded by two forests – Oxleas Wood and Bostall wood. Some parts are over 8000 years old, there are oaks, hornbeams and hazel. The forests are split by the A2 and other roads. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but to me it seems like the constant hum of traffic is dampened by all that green.

When I walk to the forest it feels like the crinkles in my soul have been smoothed out. I promise myself I should go more often, but the first time I made it there this year was a few weeks ago.

There are several bits I still want to explore, but Gerry and I have already established “our” regular forest walk up to Bostall Wood. Apparently (according to the internet) the word bostall means “a secure place” in Old English. It couldn’t be more fitting.

 

The shipwreck at the studio

When Gerry and I moved to Thames Side Studios we often had to pinch ourselves. It had everything we had been looking for. It’s right next to the Thames, there’s a great community of artists and makers, a print-studio, an on-site sauna and the site has its very own shipwreck.

I remember walking around the place on a sweltering day in July several months before we knew we’d suddenly get kicked out of Hoxton, looking at the river and the shipwreck thinking, “wow, imagine working at a place like this”.

And now we’ve been here for two years. When it’s not too cold outside we take mugs of tea and stand on the sea wall, looking at the planes taking off from City Airport, the cormorants fishing in the river, the dredgers humming along and the occasional seal swimming by.

The shipwreck is still there, hosting an impressive colony of pigeons. When we moved in she used to float, now she sits on the riverbed at high tide like a stubborn old lady, the water lapping over her deck.

The man who owns her occasionally cycles in and uses an improvised drawbridge to get on board. Two years ago we still heard a generator whirring somewhere at the back. A year ago I spotted a group of people in camo-gear playing paintball on the ferry. Now there just seems to be more and more pigeons.

Once the Royal Iris hosted the Queen and the Beatles on trips across the Mersey. People at the studio have told me visitors from Liverpool have stood on the sea wall crying over the state of her now.

The Royal Iris sailed on the Mersey for 40 years and was decommissioned in the 90s. She came to London in 2002. The new owner found a spot for her in Woolwich and had planned on turning her into a floating nightclub.  It appears not much has happened since.

Although I’m told she once managed to escape, floating out with the tide. After that they cut out her engines and left a hole in her hull. Perhaps she too sits there watching the planes.

New podcast: The crazy tale of teenage mediums in Victorian London

Hi everyone. There’s a new podcast. This episode looks at the life of Florence Cook, a famous teenage medium in Victorian London.

I’ve been reading a lot about the girls who became mediums in the 19th century, why quite a few women suddenly chose this path, why there was a public hunger for séances and how mediumship gave women a voice at the time when they often weren’t allowed to speak in public. The episode is also about sex (and so were the séances according to some writers)

Hope you enjoy this month’s episode.

Five things I’ve learned renovating a Victorian house

We have a new kitchen. It feels like quite an achievement to have come this far, although the walls still need to be painted, the floor sanded (or treated somehow) and the sink drains into the washing machine. (The picture above was what it looked like before the work began)

After intense weeks of things being drilled through and various strangers coming in and out of the house every day, I could almost taste the silence when the work stopped. We’re not even half way through whole redecoration project, but we’re taking a short break. So, what have I learned so far?

1. There will be hidden problems

No house building, renovation programme ever reveals how unexpected problems can lead to delays and escalating costs. No tale about a house redecoration ever mentions “it was all going fine until we found the …”.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that everything should go smoothly and that there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises. Ha!

2. There will be lots of tiny, but very important decisions to make NOW

Suddenly you will find yourself faced with, say, a door-frame that has been made narrower by a previous owner just wedging lots of pieces of wood into the frame and then putting kitchen cupboards over it to hide the mess. And when you have a stressed out plasterer subcontracted by the kitchen fitters telling you he doesn’t know what to do about it, that the plaster will crack if he plasters over it, that the door frame can’t be widened because of stuff that is too boring to go into now, then you will have to take charge and make a snap decision without knowing anything about plastering or carpentry or much DIY stuff in general. There were tons of situations like this.

3. Every big decision is a silo

For each decision you take, there will be a myriad of smaller decisions to be made. You think you’re redoing a kitchen and that feels somewhat doable, but it’s not just redoing a kitchen, within that lurks a myriad of smaller jobs.

The wiring is a world of its own, where do you want sockets, when should they be fitted, what faceplates should they have and so on. What about the door frames, what happens when the architraves (new word bingo!) are suddenly flush with the new plaster, should they be ripped out, if so what should the new architraves look like? Taps, door-handles, colour-choices, every decision contains thousands and thousands of tiny choices that all turn out to be vital to the final result. No pressure at all.

4. There will be dust

My parents and my in-laws have done their fair share of renovating and re-decorating in their time. “There will be a lot of dust”, they said. Somehow it didn’t compute. We thought, “yes, of course there will be a lot of dust. We can live with that, things get dusty and then you just mop it up”. And then both Gerry and I seem to have suppressed this piece of information.

So when the very friendly boiler fitter arrived with a huge drill to install a new boiler in the kitchen we had just removed things from the one corner where he was going to work. He drilled the hole. There. Was. Dust. Everywhere. It was a dustocalypse, fine, particles that just went pooof up in the air and then hung around for days, slowly settling on every surface like someone had dumped bags of icing sugar through a hole in the roof, except this dust tasted like old cement.

We coped with that. Then the kitchen was ripped out and the plaster was mixed and one of the kitchen fitters cut up the wooden worktops indoors. The dust is winning. When my phone charges at night a new fine layer of dust settle on the screen. There is no point fighting it anymore. It’s taken over.

So remember this, when people tell you things are going to get dusty, just laugh and completely ignore it because then at least you don’t have to worry about it before it happens. Then you just have to learn how to live with the dust. Forever.

5. This is an amazing thing to be able to do

Even though its stressful and we lived in total chaos for about a month when the kitchen was being redone (with the occasional night without electricity or hot water) I’ve enjoyed most of the journey so far. I’m learning new things, I’m challenging myself. We’re turning this old, loved but neglected house into a beautiful place to live that will work for us.

The hardest part has been letting go of perfectionism. I’m the sort of person who thinks that I need to get everything right from the start. I’m trying to tell myself that I’m not a failure if I make a couple of mistakes, I’m just learning.

*I wrote this post in May, just after we had re-decorated the kitchen, but the whole experience was probably still a bit too raw since I didn’t post it then. We’ve moved forward at a snail’s pace during the summer. And that’s another lesson… sometimes it’s worth taking a time out, even if that means living with unpainted walls for a while. The electrician comes back this month to rewire upstairs and then it all starts again. Wish me luck!