Tuesday, 23 May 2017

A Love Letter to Music

A couple of months' back I went on Lauren Laverne's radio show on 6 Music, for the Desert Island Disco segment. As an avid listener of the show - particularly that slot (to say it's a bit of a highlight of my working week isn't an overstatement) this was quite a big deal. I was excited. I was bloody nervous; I'm the kind of person who gets anxious about making a call to the insurance company so you can imagine how apprehensive I felt about going on a live radio show...with however many million listeners...including pretty much everyone I know.

Thing is, though, I love music. I mentally compile desert island disc playlists in my mind all the time. Sometimes, when the mood takes me, I can spend a pleasing half hour or so pondering on the music I'd like to feature at my funeral. I know - this is a slightly morbid activity. But I simply can't imagine a life lived without music in the background. Every key event of my life so far - good and bad - is completely and intrinsically linked to a particular song or piece of music. 

I'm in no way unique - everyone has an aural soundtrack to their life, a patchwork of songs that trace our personal stories and experiences, from the music we grew up to to the song we chose for our first dance. 

Just as a whiff of Body Shop White Musk transports me back to the summer of 1989, so does hearing a snatch of Soul II Soul's Keep on Moving. I'm instantly transported to the afternoon I finished my GCSEs and the elation I felt at knowing I'd never have to do maths again. Soulful and uplifting, it's a track that reminds me of being young and optimistic, of feeling that real life was about to begin. Almost thirty years on, that youthful verve might have been replaced by middle aged fatigue, but I still get tingles of excitement when I hear that song played.

A cliched image it may be, but was there a child born in the '70s that didn't spend a boring Sunday afternoon prancing about to ABBA, hairbrush in hand, miming along to SOS as a means of cheap and pleasing entertainment? It's might not be cool but I have no shame in admitting that the first single I bought (in Boots! How strange to think that in the olden days you could buy a 7 inch at the same time as your plasters and Savlon) was either by ABBA or Bucks Fizz.

Like most children, my early musical education came via my parents' record collection, an eclectic mix that wasn't particularly cool (I can't claim to have grown up on Woodstock-era folk or genre-defining rock) but it did include some gems - I spent a lot of time in the family dining room playing the Beatles and The Mamas and The Papas on repeat. The poignancy of some of those Beatles song wasn't lost on me even then; I'd get a lump in my throat listening to She's Leaving Home at age 13 and I still do now. 

It's this music, mixed in with my own discoveries, that takes me right back to childhood and access to seemingly endless free time. As a time-pressured adult, it's lovely to recall those hours dedicated to the important task of recording the Top 40 (a highly stressful activity that - pre Hi-Fi systems - called for absolute silence and a lightening quick finger) or lovingly crafting a mix tape for a best friend. As the grateful recipient of such tapes myself, it felt truly special to have something tailor-made to your tastes.

My other musical memories are too many to list, and not all of them happy (The Miseducation of Lauren Hill will forever remind me of sad coach trips to visit my mum who was poorly with breast cancer at the time of its release). Then there's the sound of London and house music, of listening to Dave Rodigan in my university halls when Kiss FM was good and there was a whole raft of pirate radio stations to tune into (I even DJ-ed on a one such station once, transmitting out of a shed in Staines, a life event that still makes me chuckle to this day.) 

There are the cassettes my boyfriend - who later became my husband - filled with music heard on the decks of the Hacienda and the Ministry of Sound, tracks that encapsulate the euphoria of a night spent sweating it out next to a pounding speaker; play me Todd Terry's Weekend and I'm immediately back on that dance floor.

There's the music of first jobs and stuffy common rooms; Prince's Sign of the Times was played on repeat by the cool, older girl who I worked with in a shoe shop on Saturdays, while Raspberry Beret is the song I associate with hanging about round the jukebox (yes, the JUKEBOX) and drinking horrible coffee during free periods at sixth form. It reminds me of that wonderful sense of liberation that comes with teetering on the edge of adulthood, just before real life - with all its mess and responsibilities - really kicks in. 

And then, of course, there's the music of love, music that soundtracks a first kiss, a first dance, the birth of a child. One of the most joyous aspects of parenthood for me has been sharing my love of music with my children - I suspect when I think back to their childhoods in years to come, kitchen discos and car journey sing-a-longs will feature strongly in my recollections. Hearing my eldest play Hey Jude on the piano makes my heart sing, and whilst my youngest may currently favour music I can't abide, I love watching my boys embark on their own musical voyages of discovery. 

When I was choosing my tracks for the Desert Island Disco show, I realised how difficult it is to really pinpoint the music that encapsulates defining moments in your life. The list I created for the show - which you can take a look at here - is very much focused on the house and disco I love, but that's just one side of my personality. So I got to thinking about all the other stuff that makes up my musical DNA; here are just a few tracks that really mean something to me: 

Stevie Wonder: I don't Know Why I Love You

What an expression of unrequited love, filled with emotion. It's an impossible task to choose just one Stevie Wonder track, but the way his voice cracks with such genuine feeling on this song breaks my heart.

New Order: Thieves Like Us

This one encapsulates my love of everything Manchester. Discovered before The Smiths or Stone Roses, New Order were my first introduction to a city with an amazing musical scene. 

Prince: Raspberry Beret

One of my favourite lyric writers, though this isn't my favourite Prince song. But it reminds me so much of being 16 and indulging in fantasies of being the kind of cool person who would 'walk in through the out door'.

The Beatles: Here Comes the Sun

A song that encapsulates the summers of my childhood - sunshine, paddling pools and melting ice lollies.

Massive Attack: Unfinished Sympathy

I literally stopped in my tracks when I first heard this on the radio. Realising there was a 'scene' in my very own home town takes me back to a very exciting period of musical discovery.

Madonna: Borderline

Nothing beats early era Madonna for pure pop joyousness - this song reminds me of a time when the most pressing thing on my to do list was purchasing the latest edition of Smash Hits.  

Joe Smooth: Promised Land

A perfect encapsulation of everything I love about house - anthemic, inclusive and soul-lifting. This song reminds me of dancing in crap clubs in Bristol and hoping that one day I might make it to Shoom. 

The Stone Roses: I Wanna Be Adored

Menacing yet danceable, there is something so stirring about the opening of this track. It makes me think of the North and my special connection to Manchester. But most of all it makes me think of my other half, singing his heart out and dancing with abandon in a rain soaked Heaton Park, and just forgetting, for a few moments, everything else but the music. 

Which tracks make up your musical DNA? I'd love to know - please share a comment below...


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Making Pasta With Exeter Cookery School

In the space of six months, I've gone from never having been on a cookery course to doing two. That's one of the reasons being a blogger is - despite its sometimes icky connotations - a good thing: it presents you with opportunities that might not have otherwise come your way. I'd often thought that doing a cookery course would be nice but there'd always been some barrier to actually making it happen: time, money, or simply plain old inertia.

So when the opportunity came up to create a recipe and blog post in return for the chance of winning a cookery course, I decided to be a little more proactive than normal...and I only bloomin' won the competition. It was this serendipitous course of events that led me to Exeter Cookery School a couple weeks back, to take up my prize of an afternoon learning the craft of pasta making.

I've always been intrigued by the idea of making pasta. It conjures up romantic notions of black-clad Italian nonnas sitting in sun-soaked piazzas, trays resting on laps, fingers nonchalantly rolling up delicious-looking tortellini and ravioli. The idea of making pasta ties in with the whole concept of 'slow eating', a wonderfully life-affirming approach to preparing and enjoying food which offers an important counterpoint to our busy, 24/7 lifestyles where food is often seen as nothing more than fuel. 

I love anything that calls for a truly manual approach to making food - for kneading and rolling, pinching and crimping. Making pasta is all of these things, and, as I found out on my course, not as tricky as you might imagine.

The school is located on Exeter's quayside, a lovely corner of the city close to the centre where you can have an amble along the waterfront and enjoy a Devon cream tea before your course. It's run by chef Jim Fisher (a Masterchef semi-finalist) and his wife Lucy who ran a cookery school in the Dordogne for 16 years before returning to the UK and opening their new venture in Devon. With experience of working alongside Rick Stein and Alistair Little, I'll admit Jim's credentials did make me worry he might be in the scary chef mold and that if my pasta failed to make the grade I might find myself expelled. 

Thankfully, nothing could have been further from the truth. Our small group was assured that we'd all go home with a box of successful ravioli and no cross words were spoken during the two and a half hour course (even when I couldn't work the pasta machine in a logical fashion.) 

In between demonstrations on making dough and kneading, as well as using the aforementioned pasta machine, we were let into a few tricks of the trade and shown that the key to a good ravioli is making sure there are no air bubbles in your parcel. I was also interested to hear that it's definitely worth the effort to drain your spinach properly - you need around an hour, not the hasty few seconds I though sufficed - when making a spinach and ricotta filling.

After a quick cuppa and a chat, Jim added our pasta to the pan and offered us some delicious fresh basil dressing to drizzle over our cooked ravioli. They were, I'm pleased to report, exceptional. There's something very, very satisfying about eating pasta made from just a few ingredients by your own fair hands - you simply don't get the same feeling from ripping open a packet 0f pasta from Tesco.

But the thing that I enjoyed most about the course was finding myself completely absorbed in the simple process of mixing ingredients, kneading and feeding the dough through the machine. It's pleasingly tactile, repetitive work you can really lose yourself in, the kind of activity that really does help to ease away stresses and calm an over-active mind like mine.
The school runs all sorts of courses so if pasta doesn't appeal there are plenty of other options to choose from - how about trying your hand at spun sugar, butchery, or French boulangerie? There are course for all abilities, whether you fancy learning the art of Indian cookery or just want to learn some kitchen basics.
Great fun, sociable and a really different way to pass an afternoon, my course here was everything I wanted it to be: friendly, absorbing and informative. The fact I could justifiably stuff my face with pasta at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon was just an added bonus... 

Find out full details about Exeter Cookery School here.


Monday, 8 May 2017

A Family Trip to Venice

"Venice is like eating and entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go." So said legendary writer Truman Capote and while I might swap the liqueur bit for, say, a packet of Rolos, the analogy is spot on. A trip to Venice makes you feel like you've gorged on previously unimaginable beauty - it's such a confection of pure loveliness you can't really believe it actually exists. I mean, it's a city built on water, a place filled with vistas that take your breath away around every corner. It's certainly the most exquisite, atmospheric place I've ever visited.

I first came to Venice when I was on an Italian exchange at the age of about 14, then a few years later on a family holiday and more recently on a day trip from the Venetian Riviera. But day trips and school exchanges don't really make for a meaningful experience and I'd been longing for a repeat visit, both to see the city with my own, adult eyes and to introduce my own children to a place that captured my heart all those years ago.

However, you don't need me to tell you that romantic ideals about travel don't always work out when you've got a teenager and a nearly 9-year-old in tow. Then there's the niggling suspicion that your rose-tinted memories might not equate with a city that's now moved into the 21st-century. You'll have forgotten just how busy it gets. But still - you got cheap flights and a convenient Airbnb so there's no need for over analysis. And when I say cheap, our 4 night break with flights came in at just shy of £750 for all four of us (I think that compares very well with a break at Center Parcs.)
We enjoyed a wonderful 5 day break in the city over Easter, admittedly perhaps one of the busiest times to go, but despite the hordes of tourists clogging up St Mark's Square, we managed to navigate our way around the busier areas, taking refuge in places off the beaten track when it all got too much. It's perhaps good to go with the mindset that some of the key sights - San Marco, the campanile and the Doge's Palace, for example - might prove too tricky to tick off the list, but you might strike lucky. We were able to pretty much walk straight into the basilica, though the next day the queue was round the block.
If you can make it inside, though, this is a must-see - a gorgeous confection of gold and glittering jewels that will make your eyes pop out. Piazza San Marco, the pretty Palazzo Ducale, the Bridge of Sighs and the glittering Rialto are also must sees, but you will have to navigate the crowds to experience them.
If you're feeling flush, I can't think of a nicer place to recharge than the legendary Caffe Florian, located underneath the porticos that run along the square. It's a jewel-box of a cafe, founded in the 1700s and filled with ornate features: gold cornices, marble floors and Murano glass chandeliers. But do expect to lose around 10 euros per person to enjoy a coffee amidst is splendour.
The real pleasure of Venice, though, isn't the expensive attractions and queues. It's about getting lost in its complex maze of streets only to stumble upon a light-filled square where you can sit in the sun with an Aperol Spritz. It's about swapping ordinary modes of transport for water buses and gondolas - a much nicer way to navigate a city. Water buses can be quite costly for family travel but you can buy 24-hour tickets that allow you unlimited travel on certain routes. Gondola rates have been standardised so there's no quibbling over prices - currently it costs 80 euros for a daytime half hour canal ride. Even if you're on a budget I'd recommend you just suck it up - it's a special experience you can't get anywhere else.
With five days at our disposal we were able to visit pretty much every sestiere (quarter) in Venice. Our Airbnb was based in a quiet canal-side street in Canareggio, an atmospheric and authentic district with access to some of the city's best cicchetti bars. It was also close to the useful Fondamente Nove water bus stop, offering easy access to the boat that takes in three lagoon islands: Murano, Burano and Torcello.
This trip is a must-do. You can watch glass-blowing on Murano and visit the ancient cathedral on Torcello. But my favourite was Burano - an Instagrammer's dream of tranquil canals lined with multi-coloured fisherman's houses. It's outrageously beautiful and thought it attracts a steady stream of visitors, it doesn't feel over-run with tourists.
Further (relative) tranquility lies across the water from San Marco at the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, one of the most photographed landmarks in the city. Designed by Palladio, you won't find queues snaking out the door, plus its campanile offers just as amazing a view as that from the bell tower at St Mark's (again, without the queues and for a cheaper entrance charge.)
Don't miss the fish market at Rialto to see working Venice in action - it's a bustling, noisy place where tables are loaded with glistening fish and seafood fresh off the boats. At the other end of the spectrum, we enjoyed a lovely couple of hours at the Fenice Opera House, a much more sedate experience where you can take a pew in one of the boxes and feast your eyes on a gorgeous, glittering interior and frescoed ceiling.
Another interesting sight a little off the beaten track is the Bovolo Staircase, off a little side street near St Mark's. It's a real architectural delight that harks back to 15th century Venice and was used in the famous Orson Welles film adaptation of Othello. On reaching the top you're rewarded with gorgeous views across the rooftops of Venice.

Another little known and free way to experience hidden Venice is at the exquisite Casino Venier, currently the headquarters of the French Alliance but once the home of a decadent 18th-century casino, a meeting place for Venetian high society and a den of drinking and debauchery. A fairly non-descript exterior belies the splendour inside where you can explore two lavish rooms almost untouched since the 1700s. Feast your eyes on the most incredible tiles, stucco walls and ornate ceilings. Look out for a loose tile in the main room's floor and watch passing pedestrians as the Casino's former clientele would have done to check out visitors before allowing them entry.
Other free must dos include a visit to the Dorsoduro area and a wander around the church of Santa Maria Della Salute, a baroque masterpiece built to celebrate Venice's deliverance from the plague. Do not miss the chance to capture the stunning view of the church and canal from the Accademia Bridge - I guarantee your photo will look like a Canaletto painting. If we didn't have two tired kids in tow we'd have stopped by the Peggy Guggenheim gallery too - I'm reliably informed this is a must-see for aficionados of modern art.

Do also take a wander through Venice's old ghetto, the first ghetto in the world and a tranquil, fascinating quarter which offers an alternative side to the city. And for something totally different, we followed a friend's recommendation to visit one of Venice's most curious locations - the Acqua Alta bookshop in Castello. Overflowing with books on every subject you could possibly be interested in, this weird and wonderful place leaves no surface untouched by stacks of books - there are even full-size, book-filled gondolas shored up in the middle of the store...your local branch of Waterstones it ain't.
When it comes to eating out, sampling a plate of cicchetti washed down with a glass or two of Aperol Spitz is a non-negotiable. It would be all too easy to find yourself lured into the many restaurants peddling boring Italian standards but to do that would mean missing out on Venice's authentic eating experience - essentially enjoying an Italian-style bar hop, with delicious fresh food thrown in for good measure. The Italian answer to tapas, cicchetti are small plates of local specialties with a strong leaning towards fish and vegetables.
The Canareggio district is a good place to sample this typically Venetian institution, with a good variety of bacari (the name given to cicchetti-serving bars) to choose from. We really liked Ca D'Oro Alla Vedova,  on a little side street off the busy Strada Nuove, where we tucked into crispy fried courgette flower, salt cod croquettes and perfect arancini. A stand-at-the-bar kind of place, it does get busy but has a very authentic vibe and traditional interior - you can see where Russell Norman of Polpo got his inspiration from here. The great thing about this kind of eating is it's relatively budget-friendly and you can move from place to place for a bit of variety.
We also had a really good and - considering the location - inexpensive lunch at Ristorante Cherubino, a stone's throw from St Mark's. A great place to fill up on good quality pasta and pizza, I had a delicious Penne All'Arrabiata here, while the boys tucked into very good pizzas. There were two gondoliers eating alongside us which I took as a reassuring sign.
There are numerous places for drinks with our without the accompanying cicchetti all around Venice - you won't need to stumble far to find a glass or Prosecco or Aperol. The lively square of Campo Santa Margherita is a good place to watch the Venetian night unfold, or if you're feeling super glam (and a bit spendy) then you could treat yourself to a cocktail at the legendary Harry's Bar, much loved by Ernest Hemingway and birthplace of the Bellini.

Venice isn't really a place to take very young children - the crowds and the canals aren't conducive to a relaxing city break - but it's a place everyone should visit at least once in their lives, with older children (ours are 13 and 9) as likely to fall under its spell as the grown ups. 
You'll do lots of walking, and the crowded streets around the main tourist areas will certainly get on your nerves from time to time. But it's testament to Venice's inimitable atmosphere and breathtaking splendour that these irritations fail to cloud your view of this truly unique place. I'm already dreaming of my next visit...

We flew from Bristol to Venice with Ryanair and stayed at the ARTE 2 apartment via Airbnb.


Tuesday, 2 May 2017

South Bristol Arts Trail

There are lots of things Bristol does well - green spaces, independent shops, cool bridges - but when it comes to creativity, the city is a veritable powerhouse of interesting people doing interesting stuff, from street art (Bristol hosts Europe's largest graffiti festival, Upfest, each summer) to screen printing and every conceivable artistic discipline in between. 

I'll admit that when I started working at Aardman, I was pretty overwhelmed by the wealth of creative talent housed in just one building; and in between doing their creative day jobs, my colleagues somehow find time to pursue other interesting side projects too (whereas I usually just go home and do the ironing...)

Through working at Aardman I've had the great pleasure of being introduced to not only some lovely people, but also the interesting projects they work on around their day jobs. Take Jodie, for example, one half of Bristol-based design duo Peskimo

By day, Jodie does a variety of freelance jobs at Aardman but in between she creates the most gorgeous illustrations with her husband David. Appearing on colourful prints and quirky accessories, I was instantly drawn to Peskimo's retro-inspired aesthetic and have a few of their pieces now hanging in my home. 

It was also through Jodie that I got to hear about the South Bristol Arts Trail, an annual event that has become one of the biggest and most popular arts trails in the city. I've pottered around the trail a couple of times now and this year promises to be another fab event, with over 45 homes and public spaces opening their doors in the Southville, Bedminster and Ashton areas. 

On my first visit a few years' back, I really enjoyed exploring less familiar city streets, with the added bonus of having a snoop in some seriously arty houses and taking in the talents of some of Bristol's most inspiring illustrators, screen printers, ceramicists and jewellery makers. 

There's something really lovely about grabbing a coffee and wandering from street to street, popping into artists' homes, having a chat and perhaps picking up something a bit unique for your home - so much nicer than filling your walls with mass produced pieces from Ikea. I've always found prices to be very accessible too - you should find something that brings a little joy into your life without breaking the bank.

But what if you have kids in tow - surely, dragging them from house to house to 'look at art' isn't the most child-friendly activity to fill a Saturday afternoon? Aside from the obvious risk attached to errant toddlers let loose in houses filled with artworks, your little ones are well catered for at this year's event with children's workshops taking place at a variety of venues during the weekend. Make an animal shadow puppet, mask, or head over to the Tobacco Factory for a special Bricolage workshop with the Let's Make Art team and get stuck into an exciting sculpture project.

If your kids love getting creative in the kitchen too, there's the chance to try their hand at some Indian cookery with The Thali Cafe. While you tuck into some lunch, your kids can learn how to make chapattis and lassis, as well as designing and decorating their placemats and colouring in a special limited-edition ice cream bowl, which they can take away as a souvenir. 

And don't miss Roy Gallop's Wonky House workshop, featuring mechanical toys for children of all ages and a human juke-box...that's right, a HUMAN JUKE BOX. If that doesn't sell this event to you, I'm not sure what will. 

Oh, and did I mention that you get all of this eclectic entertainment for free? You can also drop into the Tobacco Factory for music, St Francis Church for choral entertainment and Trika Yoga for some free stretching and mindfulness. 

If that sounds like an eclectic mix of weekend entertainment you can get on board with, you can find out full details about the South Bristol Arts Trail on the website here.

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