Sunday, March 30, 2008

spring forward!

I never really classify myself as suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - in its true medical sense - but phew!, do I breathe a huge sigh of relief, when the clocks go forward and I can relish the prospect of longer, light-filled evenings, and brighter, more temperate days. I think I’m with the majority in wishing that we didn’t have to go through the six monthly clock-changing palaver. What a waste, and oh!, what a difference it would make, if we could have that extra evening hour of natural light, in the gloomier winter months, too. It’s a whole time-worn debate, I know, but along with many I believe it's become an outdated tradition.

What a shame, for the Oxford and Cambridge rowing teams, that they couldn’t have had their moment today, rather than yesterday... On that theme - combined with the delightful anticipation of longer evenings - I have to share a beautiful photo I took, last summer, of a stunning sunset over Putney Bridge.

Monday, March 24, 2008

how do you shop?

Are you an impulse buyer?  Or, do you decide - in advance - exactly what you want before you set-out on a shopping trip?  I used to be a terrible fashion junkie but I think I'm improving... I still love bargain-hunting and find it much more satisfying when I know I have got a good deal that will become a wardrobe staple; an item that will give me pleasure every time I wear it, rather than make me feel twinges of guilt whenever I look at it hanging there - unloved and unworn.

It's curious though now, isn't it, that the seasons have less of an impact, for most of us, on the way we shop and how we plan/organise our wardrobes... Take today for example: here, on the edge of London, it's been snowing and feels freeezing...yet, it's nearly April. If there's less of a dividing-line between seasons, then, I guess, all the more  reason for 'investment' dressing. Fewer, better quality items that will endure and make us smile with every wear... 

Yet... that seems to be going against current trends for throw-away fashion.  Perhaps the best thing is to find a balance between the two, with a few inexpensive high fashion items to update your look, combined with quality staples.  The questions I try to ask myself when bargain shopping is: Am I buying it just because it's  cheap or would I want it at the higher price?  Does it add anything to my wardrobe? Will it just end up in my charity bag?

For a while, I've had a real yearning to buy a beautifully-cut, simple, single-breasted black waistcoat to wear with jeans and a tee shirt or nice shirt, even with a pretty summer dress... Can I find one?  Easier said than done...  Everything I've found so far, on my fashion forays, is too fussy, not so versatile, so I haven't succumbed.  I'll keep looking though and report back if I find it!  

Saturday, March 22, 2008

talking chocolate...

In contrast with my earlier emphasis on healthy food, I'm going to go with the Easter flow and talk chocolate... What's your favourite? I love a good quality, high cocoa solid dark... and yes, it is partially for the health benefits. Chocolate that contains over 70% cocoa solids (I prefer 85%) is super rich in anti-oxidants and will give you a prolonged boost rather than a transient sugar rush.

Did you know that good quality chocolate is also rich in the mineral magnesium, that for many of us today is significantly lacking in our diets. A lack of this important mineral will leave us feeling tired and lack-lustre. That's not an excuse for eating poor quality chocolate though...! When you eat the real dark stuff it's much more satisfying, especially if you don't chew but rather allow it to melt sensuously on your tongue...You'll get far more of the real qualities and true taste notes that way. The reason why many (women) crave chocolate is not only hormonal but because chocolate is rich in phenylethylamine (PEA) which creates a similar impact on the brain as being in love...

London has the most marvellous chocolatiers... Not cheap, these guys, but a little goes a long way and provides a good excuse to treat yourself to an award winner. A particular favourite of mine is William Curley. I love his sweet shop in a pretty lane - off Richmond's main shopping street. William was chocolatier of the year in 2007; many of his products and individual items have won top industry awards. It's a sensory experience to visit here, both visually and on the olfactory level. The staff are patient and helpful; well used to visitors finding it hard to make their choice, then opting for just one single chocolate. When the quality is this great you'll be surprised how satisfying just one flavoursome chocolate can be.

Another chocolatier of note is Marc Demarquette. He produces his splendid products in his 'lab' in Notting Hill and has a lovely shop on Fulham Road. His products are also sold in Fortnum and Mason. Like William, many of his products have won industry awards. He is passionate about his work and fascinating to watch when he demonstrates his skills. The ganache selection are the stars of the show here with an array of unusual flavour highlights.

Whatever you do this Easter, enjoy!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

more Mediterranean sunshine recipes for a healthy, bright Easter

Hope you enjoyed the previous sunny visit and recipes... In case you want to make a more copious veggie meal, I thought I would include some additional delicious, sunny, Greek recipes inspired by the Komis Fish Taverna. Each recipe quantity is for one serving; simply adjust to suit your needs. Kali orexi! Buon appetito! Bon appétit! Enjoy!

3 large handfuls of spinach or your favourite combination of fresh greens (such as dandelion, spring greens, rocket or mizuna)
juice of half a fresh lemon
1 garlic clove, chopped
extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt

Lightly steam, or briefly boil the greens, in very little water. Drain, if necessary. Arrange on a plate and dress with the garlic, lemon juice, oil and salt, to taste.

Grilled Aubergine
1 medium aubergine/eggplant (choose one with firm, dark, glossy skin)
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon ginger root, roughly chopped
extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt

Half the aubergine lengthways. Brush with olive oil. Top with garlic and ginger. Place on a pre-heated grill. Cook until the flesh is soft and the skin is slightly crispy. Remove from the grill and lightly season with oregano and salt.

Yogurt and Fruit Ambrosia
125g sheep's milk yogurt
1 teaspoon Greek runny honey
1 fresh apricot, cut into eight (or two dried apricot halves - soaked, drained and chopped)
2 strawberries, quartered
2 fresh walnuts, finely chopped

Put the yogurt in a bowl or glass dish. Drizzle with honey. Add the fruit. Sprinkle with the chopped nuts. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

bring me sunshine, or... move over Darling!

The weather and Darling's Budget have pretty much been the predominant themes in the UK this week. Yawn! After the strong winds earlier in the week, the sogginess (and flood warnings) are back, so... conducive to a quiet weekend enjoying the pleasures of home. Still, that doesn't stop my mind wandering to warmer climes. In case you could do with an injection of sunshine too, I thought I'd share a recollection (and some healthy, tasty, sun-inspired recipes) from a blissful visit I had to a wonderful, authentic, family-run restaurant on the water's edge on the pretty Ionian island of Zakynthos.

Picture the scene. You're walking along the harbour, inhaling the ozone and enjoying the sights. Fishermen are still hauling in their catch; in the background you can see the white-washed villages, nestling in the pine-scented hills, as a picturesque backdrop to the elegant yachts and cruisers. The sea is a beautiful, soothing hue, serene as the most inviting swimming-pool, with crystal clear blue waters. The sky is deep unbroken blue. To your right is the celebrated church of the island's patron saint, Dionysos. To the left, perfectly placed to take in the blissful panoramic vista, is an elegant taverna with its pretty stained glass windows concealing the tables inside. For a real treat you can opt for a table at the sea's edge and bask in the water's reflective glory while you eat.

Komis Fish Taverna is not just another Greek taverna. You'll probably realise that as soon as you walk in and are welcomed warmly by Yiannis or his brother, Stakis. If you're in the mood for fish you can check out the catch of the day, in the refrigerated cabinet, which will then be expertly cooked by the third Komis brother, Nikos. As a vegetarian, you'll also have many tempting dishes to choose from. If you're anxious about the language barrier there's no problem here, Yiannis, a former frogman in the Greek Navy, is fluent in five languages and very charming. If Yiannis' English wife, Linda, is on-site you'll be in for a truly holistic experience as she is a Reiki master, spiritual healer and yoga guru.

As soon as your order has been taken, you'll be brought an elegant wooden breadbasket filled with delicious local village bread. But first you'll relish the taste of oreganopsoumo, the mouth-watering Italian-influenced appetiser presented to each diner before their meal. The recipe follows together with their delicious house salad.

1 thick slice of dense, country-style bread
1 ripe medium-sized tomato, skinned and coarsely grated
half a garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon capers
1 teaspoon baby black olives
extra virgin olive oil

Grill the sliced bread. Top with the tomato, garlic and capers. Sprinkle over the olives and oregano. Season lightly. Serve and enjoy!

Garden Fresh Salad
1 handful of rocket
1 handful of purslane leaves (or lamb'slettuce)
1 ripe beef tomato, cut into eight
1/4 ripe avocado, sliced
1/2 red onion, sliced
1/4 cucumber, peeled, seeded and thickly sliced
1/2 small red pepper, chunked
50g red cabbage, sliced
2 teaspoons capers
50g large butter beans, cooked and cooled
2 teaspoons sunflower seeds
2 teaspoons pumpkin seeds
small handful baby black olives
extra virgin olive oil
red wine vinegar
sea salt

Don't be daunted by the list of ingredients - they almost take longer to read (and write) than the salad does to prepare.

Place the salad leaves and sliced cabbage in your favourite salad bowl (wooden, preferably). Add the tomato, avocado, cucumber, pepper and beans. Sprinkle in the seeds, capers, olives and oregano. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar, to taste. Season lightly with freshly ground sea salt.

This sunny blog item is partly reproduced from a feature previously published in LiveWell, a healthy lifestyle magazine, I used to edit. ©amethyst

Friday, March 14, 2008

size zero - modern hero?

Is your life dominated by a never-ending quest to be as slender and gorgeous as possible? You're not alone, today's celeb culture distorts the truth and brainwashes us into thinking that extreme slenderity is the ultimate aim. I've worked in the fashion industry and as a health and beauty editor; I'm an ex-anorexic so I've been there too... Today, as part of the Madonna generation, I'm in good nick (mostly!), a healthy, petite UK size 6-8 and no longer obsessed. (Although - take heed - the state of my bones bears witness to some of my past 'extremes')...

If I can prevent one person from succumbing to the 'brainwashing' and resultant damaging effects of unrealistic, distorted images, then I'll be content. Take a reality check and be assured that most models and celebs are air-brushed into within an inch of their lives - what you see is not the absolute truth. Aspiring to that 'perfection' can only bring pain and suffering. True, some of us are blessed genetically and naturally have a pre-disposition to staying slim. Bear in mind though that drugs - of all types - are rife in the 'aspirational' industries and long-term they'll do you no favours. Take many models as a typical case in point. Yes, they look superficially good and might have mega-million dollar contracts but look closer and surely, for many, their lives - beneath the surface - are evidence to the fact that there is something lacking. Close-up it's often clear that they aren't the pure paragons of all things beautiful and perfect - in every respect - they're real with human blemishes and imperfections; un-air-brushed shots provide the evidence. Remember that they are paid a fortune for the impossible truth of their look and the way they 'live' - and tragically sometimes die - in pursuit of that 'achievement'...

True beauty is far from superficial and not simply a reflection of the surface. It comes from within too. If you experience optimum health from a holistic perspective, with happy, balanced thoughts, good wholesome nutrition and lifestyle habits, it will shine through. It's not a matter of being as thin as possible. Look at how ideas of perfection and good looks have metamorphosed through the ages. We all have a slightly different, individual chemical make-up and an exact prescription for what suits one is not a universal ideal; it won't appeal to, or be right for, everyone. Individuality is part of life's rich tapestry and can be a great joy. Try really tuning into and listening to your body's needs; when you do, you'll find the diet and lifestyle that is right for you. You and your body will know it; you'll reap the rewards in terms of health, happiness, beauty, vibrancy, vitality and joy!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

come rain, come shine; hurricane predictions in the UK...

Ah, the weather, it's a national obsession for us Brits and there's plenty of it to keep us (pre)occupied. If ever you should sense a gap in the conversation with a Brit just say: "what strange weather we're having", or any other weather-related phrase, and the conversation will take-off again, like a rocket.

The build-up to and predictions of yesterday's storm/'hurricane' were massive and for many potentially fear-inducing. For most of us the warnings and anxiety were probably far worse than the day itself. Yes, trees and plants did a merry dance and swayed quite manically; there was lots of rain but mostly we came through unscathed, although windswept and sodden. Today seems more damaging though... it's not a relaxing sight to see fence panels or trees swaying back and forth, threatening to collapse.

The floods of last summer were something else entirely. Almost endless rain, gloom and relative chill. Truly horrendous and life-changing for those that were flooded-out and unpleasant for pretty much everyone. Last summer was a complete misnomer: 'sogger' would have been a more apt description.

So, I have to warn you, if you have never set-foot on the shores of our little island, woe betide if you should visit when it is almost anything other than a mild, dry day. If you are using any form of public transport be prepared for delays and potential chaos and mayhem. In autumn, the trains come to a halt because there are 'leaves on the line'; if the summer is warm then the rails get too hot; rain - at any time - slows things to a grind. A mere few millimetres of snow - well - don't even think of getting anywhere...

Still, we are a philosophical lot, us Brits, and we tend to knuckle-down and get on with it. Picture the two weeks of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in June and July. Almost a total wash-out in 2007 (and in many a year) but we got through them, on time, and if you were lucky enough to have a ticket, you waited optimistically as the skies opened, hoping the players would appear on court rather than Cliff Richard in the stands...

Conversely, I have to confess I don't enjoy the grey skies of winter; my senses and general mood definitely revive and lift when the sky is blue and there is plenty of natural light. Spring is almost here and the days are getting longer - yay- all the more time to enjoy London's great and diverse offering and all the good things that the country and nature has to offer us.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

the joy of language

I may not have been on the edge of my seat but I have to confess that I watched Eurovision: Your Decision, last night. Well, it's entertainment, of a kind, with its own unique brand of tuneless kitsch. Nothing to do with having a great voice or a good, the wrong person won. Andy Abraham may have an inspiring story and a beautiful voice but that's not Eurovision! Michelle Gayle was robbed! 'Woo' could have done it for the UK; a memorable lyric, in typical cheesey style and delivery. So, it looks like nul points for Royaume Uni, encore une fois!

While I'm on the language theme, there's something I have to say: Grrr! What is it with us Brits and the reluctance and reticence to conquer, or even really attempt to communicate in, a foreign language? Surely we should have moved-on from the days of arrogance and laziness where we expect everyone else to speak English, so that when we're abroad all we need to do is speak LOUDLY and sloooooowly - cavolo!, zut alors!

This hasn't been helped recently by the announcement that there are plans afoot to do away with oral exams for foreign languages because it stresses students out too much! Poor little petals - are schoolchildren expected to survive - and thrive - without ever experiencing any stress in their lives? How about coping with life in the big wide world? What about the whole point of learning a foreign language? Communication!

If you've never tried mastering at least a few phrases in the language of the country you're visiting, you're seriously missing-out! Scary, it may be but life shouldn't be challenge-free and I guarantee you'll get a far more vivid, richer experience if you just make the effort! Honest! Perhaps the example of James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, will inspire you; he boasted that his language ability allowed him to seduce women in four languages! Take the first steps now, it's never too late!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

je ne regrettes rien...

What to do on a cold, windswept, drizzly Friday evening on the edge of London? The choice is huge, of course, but it provided the perfect opportunity for a girly night-in, with the chance to catch-up on a film we'd long been wanting to see.  My lovely friend prepared the delicious, healthy dinner (Med-inspired baked sweet potato with ratatouille, feta and sundried tomatoes...) with a bottle of rosé; I provided the DVD of La Vie en Rose.  It had special significance for me, as I used to 'do' Piaf, when I worked for Club Med (many moons ago...). Way back then - as a French BA Hons student - I was still naïve with much to learn about life and la môme Piaf.

Even if you haven't managed to catch the film yet, you'll most likely be aware of it, as lead - Marion Cotillard - recently (deservedly) won both the Oscar and the BAFTA for her rôle. 32-year-old, Cotillard, truly lives the part, from the voice to the demeanor, providing a thought-provoking, deeply moving insight into the short-lived, tragic incident-packed life of this tiny-in-stature yet monumentally significant, French cultural icon. Gérard Dépardieu makes a brief but crucial appearance as Leplée, the man who 'discovered' Gassion, (Piaf's real name) and put her on the iconic map. The film is beautifully shot, from the Parisian street scenes to the evocative restaurant settings and the poignant apartment interludes. 

Francophile, or not, if you like Piaf's voice, it's sure to spur you on to find out more about her and realise there's so much more to her than fronting a Specsavers advert (quel horreur!).  Tip: if you want your own copy of the DVD, for less than the price of a film ticket, shop around - Borders and Amazon have great offers currently.