The Last Three Weeks

I’m writing this ensconced in a booth at Le Pain Quotidien for breakfast. Two days home from Paris and I’m already craving baguettes, croissants and all things unhealthy.

I’ve just come from my US Visa interview (approved – I will be flying out to the States this weekend after all) which was scheduled for the ungodly hour of 8am on a Monday morning. No-one in their right mind would want to accompany me, so I am consoling myself with baked eggs with salmon and an iced “americano” because I have a sense of humour. I’m also surrounded by people I recognise from the interview waiting room – including the guy who chose to whip out War and Peace then spent more time waving it in people’s faces than actually reading it.

This post is so delayed because the last three weeks of my Parisian dream were a whirlwind – I can hardly remember the ongoings the working week because it was happily interspersed with dinners, drinks, sunsets on the Seine, yoga classes in Marais attic rooms, cinema trips and pilgrimages to the weekly flower market. I also had the girls to come and visit, over a month ago now! In the meantime they have graduated and become (semi-) serious adults.

We started with a Sunday brunch, hosted at mine. I discovered previously untested quiche-making skills, and that 15 people is too many in my little studio. From there, we went on to the Marais, where after a restorative cocktail at Le Mary Celeste we nipped in and out of boutiques and I proudly showed off Paris’s beautiful garden squares.Photo 04-06-2015 19 18 13Monday meant back to work for me, but I met them later to go to the Luxembourg Gardens for a stroll in the warm weather. All a little weary from a long day, Anna then proved her unquestioned claim to being “The Fun Mum Friend” when she whipped out the Lindt 70% dark chocolate with sea salt – my drug of choice.Photo 04-06-2015 19 25 18Photo 04-06-2015 19 22 28We returned via Ladurée, before a picnic dinner in the bohemian AirBnB the girls had found themselves in. Followed by drinks and people-watching at Le Comptoir Général, my all-too short time with the girls did not disappoint.Photo 04-06-2015 18 46 18Photo 08-07-2015 09 52 58Cressida and I also made time to visit the Musée de l’Art Ludique, where the current exhibition is none other than a showcase of Aardman productions: most famous as being responsible for such classics as Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, and Creature Comforts. The exhibition featured original sketches of ‘Shaun le Mouton’, and clay models from The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. You could say it was A Grand Day Out.

The following weekend, Pip and I finally got the opportunity to try a restaurant that had been on my wish list since before I even moved to Paris. After a (rather heavy but no less brilliant) French film, and a stroll rough the Palais Royal at dusk, we settled into our spot by the window at Ellsworth and enjoyed six courses of true culinary art. Once again, we see the last ones in the restaurant when we finally finished our two desserts.Photo 14-06-2015 10 35 12Photo 14-06-2015 10 29 13Photo 14-06-2015 10 26 12Later that week, Pip and I had another stunning meal; this time of foie gras, chilled asparagus soup, squid risotto and veal. We dined a stone’s throw from Les Invalides at Bistrot Belhara, a tiny restaurant so intimate it feels vaguely like you are sitting in the proprietor’s front room.

All too soon, my final weekend in Paris was upon me.After a disastrous trip to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, I promised myself that I would really take advantage my final couple of weeks in Paris and not spend it indoors unless I was eating, sleeping, or in a museum. Fortunately, the heatwave enabled me to do that with relative ease.

Saturday morning was spent sunning myself in Parc Monceau, before heading to Les Invalides to beat the heat in the Musée de l’Armée, an enormous exhibition space stocked with ancient weapons, suits of armour, military uniforms and one rather dodgy taxidermy of one of Napoleon’s Arabian horses. I imagine he was beautiful in real life, but two hundred years later, his glass eyes had a rather uneven look and his once-palomino coat now looked an undignified dusty grey. I also paid my respects to the Emperor himself, whose tomb occupies the spectacular space under the recognisable golden dome of the Invalides. Buried in six coffins of six different materials, each more elaborate than the last, it is no surprise people suggest he suffered from an inferiority complex.Photo 10-07-2015 12 26 00Photo 10-07-2015 12 06 17The museum was fascinating too – with ornate jousting armour, mother-of-pearl inlaid pistols, and even a recreation of Napoleon’s camp on his ill-fated Russian campaign with his original briefcases and – my favourite detail – his hat.Photo 10-07-2015 12 20 45I cooled off at Café Coutume with an iced chai latte before wandering to Le Bon Marché to brave the seasonal sales. Despite my best attempts, I walked away empty handed after I was informed by my mum via Snapchat that I was not allowed to spend triple figures on silk and lace pyjamas. The beautiful bright weather even at seven in the evening meant I couldn’t resist walking home, but not before resting my feet in the Tuileries as the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower. Cliché? Moi?Photo 10-07-2015 11 44 33Then, on a baking hot dry Sunday, my last in Paris, I decided on a whim that I would go and visit the Chateau de Chantilly, most famous for its spectacular grand stables. It was a beautiful day, and after reading and picnicking at the temple of Venus, I returned to the stables where two of the chateau’s famous riders gave a demonstration with two stunning and very obedient stallions.Photo 08-07-2015 10 01 52Photo 10-07-2015 10 25 03Photo 10-07-2015 10 43 46Photo 10-07-2015 11 07 18Finally, after a peach ice cream and one last wander around the moat, I returned to Paris in the early evening, sleepy and “sun-kissed”.

My last week raced past in a heat haze of 37° sunshine and leaving parties on the banks of the canal, before my final move on Saturday. While it’s lovely to be home, and I have plenty to look forward to, I have left a big part of my heart in the world’s most romantic city, and cannot wait to return in the very near future.

In the meantime, though, Selfridges has opened now and I am spending the afternoon at Wimbledon – Siena out.

Bisous, S. X

Chanson du jour: Great Summer – Vance Joy

Tickets

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A little over two months ago, on a mild September night, I was perusing the internet when an idea struck me.

I’m here for three months.
The waiting list for a reservation at Tickets is two months.
If I don’t act now, I’ll never make it!

If you aren’t interested in food, you will never know the sense of accomplishment I felt that night. Purely by chance, I checked the reservation website and BAM! 7.30, table for two, Thursday 27th of November.

So two months went by and I thought little of it – too busy enjoying poached eggs with truffle oil and Brie, fig and caramelised onion toasties at Brunch & Cake. Then, suddenly, I realised I didn’t know who I was going to take! Who would be the lucky guest for this Michelin-starred spectacular?

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This lovely woman, that’s who. Mama Morrell came out to visit me (not just for this meal, I hope) and we celebrated in style.

Here begins the gratuitous food porn.

We started with cocktails, naturally. Fiona went for the family drink, a Caipirinha – two was not too many this time, you’ll be pleased to know. I went for a pink lemonade, with gin and shiso, a fragrant herb often used in Asian cooking. It tasted like fruity shisha, and, crested with curling tendrils of smoke, the illusion was complete. It was delicious.

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At Tickets, you can choose between ordering à la carte, or having your waiter choose for you. As a strong, independent woman (read: stubborn) with a picky eater for a mother, we did à la carte, and boy did we go to town.

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We started with fish crisps: we worked out that it was merely a crisp with calamari dust shaken over it, but that didn’t matter. It set the bar high for what was to come.

Next, the Tickets “olive”. This is world-renowned, as Ferran and Albert Adrià, the family who used to run El Bulli, are masters of the art of spherification. This magical little “olive” is really a soft gelatinous shell filled with olive essence: we had one that was rosemary and citrus fruits, and one that was salt, pepper and garlic. Pretty traditional flavours but an extraordinary experience as they burst in your mouth.

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Already the restaurant was filling up, even though it was early by Spanish standards. The ambience was buzzing, alive with oohs and aahs and animated chatter. And, as dish after dish of exquisite tapas was brought out, we had to spy over our shoulders to sneak a peek at what other tables were going for. Fortunately though, that was how I discovered this.

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This little cocktail was a juice of orange, carrot and pine, and was quite possibly the most delicious drink I have ever enjoyed. My pink lemonade was light, refreshing, and fairly potent, but this was fruity and flavourful and felt almost healthy.

Then came “manchego airbags”: these crispy puffed crackers encased a smooth truffled manchego cream. The first one I didn’t like so much, but the second, third, fourth, fifth… A different story. Rich in flavour and a satisfying crunch of textures, this previously unexciting cheese really packed a punch.

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Next up was, sadly, my favourite dish of the night. I say sadly because it came early in the meal and I also only ordered one. A grave error. This is nori mille feuille with tuna tartare, avocado purée and puffed balls of tapioca that were not dissimilar to Rice Krispies. It was sensational. Like it actually made me a bit emotional when I finished it. I know how tragic that sounds but my favourite thing in the world is tuna tartare, and this was just exquisite. I’m putting aside any professionalism in describing this, I know, but omg. Just look at it. So pretty. I’ve probably just lost the last remaining non-foodie who managed to read this far.

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After that, my expectations were higher than ever, so it was fortunate that it was followed by this beauty. This is an avocado cannelloni: wafer-thin slices of perfectly ripe avo stuffed with snow crab. Dreamy. Mama Morrell doesn’t eat avocado, but she swore that the crab was the best she’s ever eaten.

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We had ummed and aahed about ordering oysters, as Tickets does a variety of sizes and flavours. We had originally planned on going for a one with a pink cider vinaigrette, but our charming waiter suggested we try the Thai-style. Couldn’t tell you what was in it, can only say it was delicious.

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Next up was Fiona’s favourite, the crispy octopus. This ENORMOUS tentacle was so meaty, and rolled in Barcelona’s trademark fried onion crisps it had a delicious strong flavour. This was accompanied by a pak choi forest that was vaguely Seussical, and distinctly ordinary relative to the show-stopping octopus – anywhere else it would have been a standout side dish.

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Sadly, this was followed by my least favourite dish, the truffled mozzarella patty. Sort of like a delicate cheese toastie, it was tasty but forgettable. Again, at any other meal, I’m sure it would have been incredible, but after “olives”, tuna tartare, and two-inch diameter octopus, it fell slightly flat.

Photo 01-12-2014 19 52 39But, we weren’t finished there, oh no. Next we chose chicken: a rogue choice from both of us – as neither me nor Mama Morrell would ordinarily pick chicken in a restaurant – but such a good one. Crispy chicken-skin crackers topped with very thin slices of rich, succulent chicken, washed down with a consommé tea bag. Bonus points for theatricality.

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And, to finish up the savoury courses, classic us, we went for the biggest, baddest steak we could have. If you were wondering, this is what 60€ of steak looks like. Cooked in a Josper oven, our entrecôte was the perfect way to end a delicious meal.

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Except, of course, everyone knows there’s savoury full and sweet full! So, when our waiter offered us the dessert menu, of course we took it. “Well, we might as well have a look…” BS. I knew EXACTLY what I was going to order for dessert as soon as I checked the menu two months previously.

First, (yes, first dessert) we went for tarte tatin, Tickets-style. A crispy pastry cone is filled with delicious cooked apple chunks, and smooth vanilla ice cream, and, served from an ice cream cart.

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The next was a treat for Mama: tiramisu. Except here, it has actual coffee beans in, and is served in the most extraordinary way, in a sawn-off coffee cup. I went for the banana waffle: an airy light waffle topped with caramelised banana, vanilla-bean cream, and white chocolate shavings.

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And, our final dessert, the Tickets corks. You can’t end a meal without chocolate, and we finished up with these delicious Swiss-roll pralines. Plus, don’t they look good.

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So, fifteen courses, six cocktails, and three hours later, our time at Tickets came to an end. If only I were in Barcelona another two months; it’s worth flying for.

November Weekends – A Picture-Heavy Post

Okay, so it turns out I’m really not great at keeping this up to date. It’s been another three weeks since my last post, and so much has happened since then I’m probably not going to be able to fit it all into just one blog post. But, naturally I thought I might as well try.

So the first weekend in November marked my return to Durham for Bailey Ball. While the night didn’t exactly go according to plan – still sheepish – I had a wonderful weekend catching up with all the familiar faces. After a post-ball recovery brunch over England-New Zealand and Wales-Australia, I headed out for a Flat White (where else) for a lovely coffee with Sam to swap stories of life outside of Durham. After the Grey College fireworks Saturday evening, Anna cooked us a delicious roast dinner (my first in months!) and fully warrants the title of domestic goddess after plying us all with copious quantities of Ben & Jerry’s.

my main "men"

my main “men”

all the laydeez

all the laydeez

Sunday morning I was treated to brunch at Nikki’s before the Remembrance Service in Durham Cathedral, which really was quite something. We were lucky enough to be seated surrounded by police and armed forces personnel and the service itself was very humbling. I’ve never been that big a fan of our national anthem (can I say that? Is that treason?) but hearing it sung by over a thousand people in a space like the Cathedral was inspiringly patriotic. We also watched the parade of armed forces walk from Palace Green to Market Square, where the new centenary statue stands.

Limes House girls like plaid and polos

Limes House girls like plaid and polos

Sunday evening, after a lovely drink and all-too-brief catch up with the Benenden girls (we did all turn up in the same outfit, completely by coincidence), Ed and I took a trip to Whiskey River and topped a great weekend off with some Urban Oven – I finally got my pizza. The next morning, after a slightly teary Starbucks with Flo and Paddy, and some complete miscommunication with Anna that left her stranded in the cold on Newcastle station platform – sorry, AJ – I hopped on my train south and returned to Gatwick for my flight. To console ourselves after our return, Liz and I made a beeline for Bacoa, for beers and burgers and a good, old-fashioned gossip.

I slotted right back into Barcelona life very easily – I’m a serious creature of habit and so having a fixed daily routine is fairly easy for me. That said, I haven’t been getting out of work until gone 7, so the weekend after my trip to Durham was incredibly leisurely. Liz, Alicia and I enjoyed cocktails and red velvet pancakes on Thursday evening, then on Friday after the gym I managed to pass out at 10.00 – great success. I had planned to spend Saturday ticking off all the food places I’d flagged up, but only made it to two, having slept late and eaten too much at the first to continue my food tour of Barcelona. Pathetic.

La Glace, for breakfast, because I forgot to eat

La Glace, for breakfast, because I forgot to eat

Copasetic, for lunch on my food tour

Copasetic, for lunch on my food tour

La Donuteria, second stop on the food tour

La Donuteria, second stop on the food tour

This past Tuesday I had the pleasure of meeting up with Claudia, Danielle, their American friends from uni out here, Monique and Mikaela (from, of all places, Montana), and an extra special surprise, Bean! We had such a lovely meal at Copasetic (possibly the new Brunch & Cake, but that’s a bold statement) just catching up and swapping stories. The rest of the week passed fairly uneventfully, except, of course, bumping into Hot Guy From Work at the gym, post-beating my personal best time for a 7.5k. I have learned a new French phrase: je ruisselle de sueur – I’m running with sweat. Gross.

Friday we were blessed with the return of Luce from her exile at home while she’s been poorly, so we celebrated it in very appropriate style that is very much not appropriate for the internet. My intended leisurely Saturday was slightly corrupted, in the best way possible, so rather than take it easy and make a dent in my book (still The Goldfinch, still would recommend) I headed out to meet Liz, Maddy and Edris, from John’s, for some recovery churros. We spent a lovely afternoon taking the piss out of Renaissance art at the MNAC and tucking into a Spanish-style late lunch of pintxos and restorative beers.

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I had the added excitement of plans to see Emma, at dinner with Danielle and Hen. While I had absolutely no intention of going out, after two glasses of white wine and the most incredible dinner at BarcelonaMilano – out of the way but sensational, cannot emphasise enough – all of a sudden going out seemed like a brilliant idea. Made it to the hilariously named “Sutton”, which the Spanish pronounce like “futon”, which transpired to be a Mayfair-wannabe club with champagne girls and middle-aged men. Nevertheless, after not paying a thing to get in, we danced like freaks in the flamenco room then called it a night after raiding a 24-hour bakery – never has a pastel de nata tasted so good.

A dreamy Sunday was spent strolling Ciutadella Park with Luce, and Anna and Steph, who were visiting from Toulouse. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life as we swapped woeful stories of our Bridget Jones-esque antics and watched an Adonis on a bike try to impress us with his BMX skills. Safe to say, it worked – Luce didn’t quite curtsy this time, but she did manage to stumble her words trying to say “Adios”, which was embarrassing enough to set all of us off in fits of giggles. It was like we were thirteen again.

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Then, Luce spontaneously whips out four tickets to a daytime party at Shoko, down on the beach. After convincing us by saying “Guys, it’s just like Gospel Project!” we swapped comfort for sparkles and headed down to Barceloneta to discover no, it was not at all like Gospel Project. Instead, Luce had negotiated us access to a salsa party – never have I felt so embarrassingly out of place in my life. We capitalised on the free cava and extraordinary people-watching, before calling it a – very early – night. An all-girls sleepover at Luce’s topped an excellent weekend off, watching chick flicks and eating macaroons. Just don’t tell them where they were from…

This week was slowwwww – after possibly my favourite weekend yet in Barcelona, returning to real life was a bit of a blow, and I spent much of Monday completely distracted, watching the window cleaner on the building opposite mine and pondering the legitimacy of pathetic fallacy as the first raindrops in quite some time struck the windows.

Fortunately, I’ve been treated with another amazing weekend this week – Mama Morrell was visiting from London, and we celebrated Hamish’s birthday, too. I’ll try and write a post about it, but don’t hold your breath; it might be another three weeks.

Bisous et besos. S. X

Adventures in Girona

We spent Sunday, October 19th in Girona, a small city north east of Barcelona. Having planned to get on the very exciting Alta Velocidad Española network, which runs at over 200km/h, we managed to turn up a the station two minutes late for the last train for two and a half hours.

We toyed with the idea of renting a car (such adventure!) before the boys got distracted in the FC Barcelona store and ended up buying match tickets for the AFC Ajax game. Sufficient time wasted, we bought our tickets for the slow train and hopped on fairly hassle-free.

Once we arrived in Girona, we realised quite how half-baked our plan was. We had no idea what was actually in Girona, let alone a map of the area; all we had was Dave reassuring us, “It’s supposed to be the Venice of Spain!”

Safe to say, when we finally came across the river, we were less than impressed: a dribble of water about five feet wide does not a Grand Canal make. Nevertheless, we powered on, and started climbing the wall that surrounds the city.

From here, we began to understand what there was to see in Girona: stunning views over the city and neighbouring mountains. I regularly made the team pose for cringe-worthy group shots. They endured them. What troopers.

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From where we started, the wall is modern and purpose-built, with rather lovely typical Spanish villas set into the hills behind it, but the further we walked, the older the wall became. On the inside of the wall, Girona sprawled out higgledy-piggledy in front of us: apartment blocks from all eras and in all shapes and sizes squeeze in next to countless ancient churches along hilly, winding streets.

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The main attraction in Girona is its spectacular cathedral, and we came across it almost by accident. Following the old wall (sounds like Game of Thrones, looks like Game of Thrones…) we wound up in a cool, shady garden.

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Photo 19-10-2014 23 50 23After following steps up, down and in all directions, we finally came to the cathedral. From the back, it is impressive in scale, yes, but not beauty. Then we made it to the sides and front of the building, and were blown away.

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Inside it was a bizarre mix of sombre grey stone and vast blank spaces and the ornate, decorative Catholic shrines with flickering candles reflecting in the gilded ornaments. Unsurprisingly, no photos were allowed inside – a crying shame because the stained-glass windows were spectacular.

I spent more time than others in the cloisters partly because I love a good cloisters – they always remind me of my favourite spot at school: lame, I know – and partly because the others managed to lose me and so while I was peacefully snapping pigeons drinking from the fountain, they were getting ready to eat their own arms off on the sun-warmed steps in the square outside.

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When I realised I was abandoned I had that horrible lost-your-mum-in-the-supermarket feeling and had to do that awkward brisk walk characteristic of an English person in an uncomfortable situation. Fortunately I didn’t have to look far, but by the time we were reunited we were all ravenous, signalling it was time to make the difficult decision of choosing a place to eat. Settling on an incongruous Mexican restaurant, we greedily tucked into nachos loaded with chilli con carne, guacamole, and sour cream. I’ve learnt a new phrase this week which is “J’ai un coup de barre” which literally means ‘I’ve been struck by a bar’ but the French use it to explain a carb coma or food baby – that sleepy sensation you get after a delicious meal.

Thus sated, we wandered the streets for a while, before rediscovering the river. All right, it is *slightly* Venice-y.

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After a quick ice cream pit-stop, we wandered through the streets in the early evening, and like any Spanish city, the town began to buzz with after-hours activity, which added to its charm. Plus, we got to take the AVE back to BCN. Such a good day.

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