Monday, December 5, 2011

Learning life skills: Raspberry Jam with Kirsch

Really, I'm not biased - it's just a fact that my Mum makes the best jams and preserves in the whole world. Since I was back in the country for the holidays, I told her it was high time she passed on her skills to the next generation, so we had a jam-making session after picking two kilos of fresh berries in the Otways. I can’t wait for the local strawberry farm to start harvesting (usually the week before Christmas) so we can have a crack at Strawberry Jam with Grand Marnier, which is another family favourite.

We stuck these leftover raspberries in the freezer to include in a summer pudding for Christmas

1.5 kg raspberries
1.5 kg sugar (measurements need to be EXACT – sugar acts as a preservative here, so don’t wing it… use scales!)
Juice of 2 large lemons
2 tbsp kirsch (cherry-flavoured clear liqueur that noone outside of Germany ever consumes apart from in jams and desserts)

You’ll need at least 8 empty jars and lids for this recipe, a heavy-based stock pot, a baking tray and a metal pouring jug. A saucer and a metal funnel will considerably minimise mess during the bottling process.
There are several ways you can seal the jars so as to preserve the jam for years to come – Mum only uses wax because her mother used wax; I will use wax because my mother uses wax… you get the picture. (I’ve concluded that jam making is like Judaism – a knowledge tradition passed down through maternal generations.) You can also cellophane moistened with water and vinegar and stretched over the top of the jar and secured with an elastic band.

1. You always hear about the need to ‘sterilise’ jars before they’re filled up and sealed, but washing jars and lids thoroughly - dishwasher is ideal - will do the job; no need to autoclave that shiz. You’ll still need to warm them in the oven while the jam’s cooking because otherwise the hot jam might break the glass, and that would be shattering (har har).

2. Recipes usually say to wash the fruit and leave to drain in a colander, but when you’ve picked your berries that morning, don’t bother – raspberries are not exactly targets for mud or bird poo, and they’ll get pretty waterlogged if washed. Quality control of berries should occur at the picking stage, anyway. Saying this, I will add that my parents brought me up to completely disregard used-by dates, and I generally relax the ‘10-second rule’ out to 3-5 minutes… so suit yourself. If there’s any dirt or foreign matter in the fruit mixture it’ll float to the top and form a scum while the jam is boiling – like when you’re cooking meat bones for stock – which you can remove with a metal spoon.

3. Warm the sugar on a baking tray in the oven – apparently it’s meant to help set the jam, but it’s more likely it helps the sugar dissolve faster when added to the fruit mix. (Expert jam makers will proffer a tonne of secret tips you won’t read in recipe books – sure, their scientific bearings might be questionable, but best follow them anyway to safeguard against crappy jam consistency.)

4. Put the raspberries and lemon juice in a saucepan/big boiling pot and bring to the boil.

5. Add the (heated) sugar and cook, stirring until the sugar dissolves. This should take a few minutes. Resist the urge to lick the spoon at this time, as mixture will have the temperature of molten lava and your tongue will be ulcerated for at least three days. Spoken from experience, obviously.

6. This phase of boiling the mixture (don’t use a lid!) can take between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on your cooking equipment, and will dictate the eventual jam consistency. Mum cooks hers on an Aga slow-combustion stove (otherwise known as her One True Love), which has a hot plate and a simmer plate. “The Aga cookbook says to do the jam on the simmer plate, but I do it on the hot plate. And the jam boiler cooks it quicker than a normal pot,” says Mum.
“Beverly Sutherland Smith says it’s better to have runny jam and retain the flavour rather than boiling the guts out of it so that it’s thicker,” she adds. If Beverly Sutherland Smith (otherwise known as eminent Australian cookery writer) said “jump off a cliff”, I’m pretty confident Mum would be there, jam boiler and wooden spoon in hand, ready for dismount.

7. You’ll see some scummy floaties gathering on top of the mix, like when you’re making stock. Take pot off the boil and use a metal spoon to remove. Mum said some people put butter in the jam mixture, which apparently dissolves the scum. We agreed this was a bit gross, and you should just skim the scum with a spoon. You’ll need to do this a couple of times during cooking.

We have a slight obsession with the Aga stove - note Aga boiling pot, Aga hot plate covers, Aga oven mitt, Aga kettle

8. THE ‘SAUCER TEST’: To test how it’s thickening up, take a teaspoon of the mixture onto a saucer and place in the freezer. Once it’s cool, push the edge of the jam with your finger and if it forms a skin and wrinkles, it’s starting to thicken.

Saucer test 1: no wrinkling

For what it’s worth, we did two saucer tests, then removed scum, kept boiling, then did another wrinkle test and another scum removal. (I was dubious on the degree of wrinkling, but Mum – and Beverly Sutherland Smith – won that battle).

Saucer test 3: enough 'wrinkling' to take mixture off the heat

9. Once it’s reached setting point, stir in the kirsch and remove from heat. Quite frankly I don’t think the kirsch makes any difference, but it looks a bit more exotic on the jam label, and everything’s better with a bit of booze, right?

10. Cover with a cloth (rather than a lid) and sit outside to cool for “about 10 minutes”, says Mum. Ensure any pets or wildlife are kept well away. If you bottle the jam straight off the heat without cooling first, all the fruit will float to the top – not such a problem with raspberry jam, but really obvious with apricot or strawberry jam, and a sure-fire route to disqualification in the Country Women’s Association preserves competitions.

Well-trained dog stays away from cooling jam misture

11. Now you’re ready to bottle the jam. Mum reckons her metal jam funnel is the best thing she’s ever bought. (I would counter that her reading glasses, and children’s private school education were much more significant investments, but that’s just me...) When pouring the jam into the prepared jars, fill to where the screw/lip bit starts (at least 7mm from the top). If you over-fill, spoon out excess with a spoon. If using sealing wax, leave jars to cool for a bit before the next step.

Bottling the jam

12. Melt sealing wax on stove in a metal jug. (We used half a container of wax for this batch; yes, I’m being vague – deal with it.) Pour about 5mm of wax into the top of each jar, and then seal with lid.

Jam jars ready for sealing wax

This recipe comes from Pot O’Jam by Maureen Kirwan (1983, Prendergast McCulloch Publishers). Ms Kirwan deserves mad props for incorporating liqueurs into nearly every jam recipe in the book, including Lemon Butter with Advokaat and Cumquat Marmalade with Gin.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Anzac biscuits: Two world wars and 1,898 world cups

The longer I’m out of Australia the more I’m adopting northern hemisphere vernacular. What starts out as a simple word exchange (in Britain, your undies become ‘pants’ and your pants become ‘trousers’), with enough practice, becomes automatic. Suddenly ‘biscuit’ really does sound like something dry and savoury that that soldiers eat in trenches, and hillbillies eat with dripping and gravy. ‘Cookie’ I have a real problem with, though. Not the word’s American etymology, but the fact it conjures up images of triple choc Frisbee-sized items that you buy from shopping centre food courts. Lately I’ve really warmed to the German word for cookies/sweet biscuits: kekse. It actually sounds like Australian food slang. It actually *is* British slang for undies. I feel we’ve come full circle just in this opening paragraph. We’re so international.

Anzac biscuits are the only antipodean culinary contribution to the world that can most easily be explained to non-English speakers who have not, and probably will not, ever visit Australia or learn anything about Australia’s history before and after colonisation. Trust us: pavlovas are really difficult to describe/translate, and sound Russian, which leads to conversational confusion. Sweet biscuits, cookies and kekse are a universal treat that everyone appreciates with a hot drink in the morning or afternoon, so you’re halfway to selling it.

But Anzacs' origins have more in common with the modern-day breakfast bar: oats bound together with golden syrup and flour and baked into hard dry snacks, with no egg or dairy to spoil. HTML history websites tell us the biscuits were baked back home by wives and mothers of ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers. The biscuits were then distributed to soldiers to keep in their packs, and eat in lieu of three square meals. Which is kind of how my hausmates and friends consumed them when I baked a double batch of these beauties last week. (Swap ‘trenches’ for the WG’s lounge, populated with dossing mattresses, hi fi equipment and musical instruments.) We found two of these and a pot of earl grey tea would keep you sustained from 11am to 4pm, and one after lunch or dinner was equivalent to pudding.

This recipe is adapted from the one in Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery. These should turn out crunchy rather than chewy – as long as the sugar’s not too coarse, you don’t overdo on the coconut, and you flatten the biscuit dough balls nice and flat while they’re baking (doing this 2 mins into baking time worked better than flattening them before they went in the oven… go figure). As is often the case in Berlin when you need some specific Anglo-centric ingredients, it took three supermarkets to find the right oats, golden syrup and brown (‘light muscovado’) sugar for this recipe. In lieu of sugar beet syrup (Zuckerrübensirup) – which I nearly bought for the sheer novelty factor of its label illustration (above) – I opted for honey and some brown sugar, melted into butter. It worked fine, and the golden buttery colour was reminiscent of honey joys – that other great Australian snack made with corn flakes and honey.

1 cup flour/weismehl (plain flour, not self-raising)
1 cup rolled oats (you *can* get these in a regular supermarket, you don't have to get exxy ones from the biomarkt)
3/4 cup desiccated coconut
1/2 cup brown (‘light muscovado’) sugar
125g of butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 dessertspoon brown sugar (for the honey/butter mix)
1.5 teaspoons bicarb soda ('natron', look for the the green sachets by Dr Oetkel)
2 tablespoons boiling water

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius, line baking tray with baking paper.
2. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl: sift flour and sugar, and add to coconut and oats.
3. Melt the butter, honey and brown sugar and stir until sugar dissolves.
4. Mix bicarb soda and hot water (this will fizz like berocca), add to butter mix (this will froth up like a science experiment), and while still frothing pour into dry ingredients.
5. Mix wet and dry ingredients thoroughly, then shape dough into walnut sized balls, and space out on baking tray.
6. Place in oven for 10 mins, but after 2 mins open oven door and quickly flatten balls into biscuit shapes with the back of a spoon. Watch like a hawk because they cook really quickly. Remove when golden brown.
7. Allow to harden on wire racks (they’ll be really soft and fragile straight out of the oven; lift them all off on the baking paper onto the wire racks).
8. They'll take about 20 minutes to cool, at which point they'll be nice and crunchy. WAIT.
9. Store in airtight container when completely cooled.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kaffee und kuchen with lashings of street cred

Some call currywurst the great social leveler in Berlin, because you’ll see suits and labourers standing side by side, scoffing their fried sausage and sauce at any time of the day or night. However, a far more civilized and indulgent tradition is embraced by people of all ages and ethnicities every day. Kaffee und kuchen – coffee and cake – is held in the same regard as the Brits with their afternoon tea. It should not, however, be confused with the Melbourne convention of “going for coffee” which is strictly flat whites or long blacks (and a couple of Styvo blues, if you’re an arts student). As the name suggests, it’s expected you’ll have your cake and eat it too (none of this asking for one plate and two forks). The fact that there are multiple categories of ‘cake’ in German suggests its socio-cultural significance: ‘kuchen’ is the more homely, baked variety while ‘torte’ might involve a fruit filling in a shortbread case, or ostentatious layers with lashings of whipped cream.

The best place to have kaffee und kuchen on an autumnal afternoon is from the footpath infront of Kreuzberg bakery Mr Minsch (pictured above), around the corner from Meringdamm U-bahn. This neighbourhood is a hot spot for cheap eats – including Curry 36 and Mustafa’s – so, theoretically you could sample the best of Berlin in one afternoon (you might need your stomach pumped to enjoy all three though). It’s a lot more leafy and relaxed amongst the outdoor furniture on Mr Minsch’s patch of Yorckstraße. There’s no café or table service, just an open window from the street into the bakery kitchen, where gigantic freshly-baked and rapidly disappearing cakes lie across bench tops and behind glass-door refrigerators. You can eat on the footpath, or the smiley servers will package your kuchen to take away.

Neurotic/greedy foodies will be familiar with the various streams of order anxiety: standing in line to order and seeing the last few serves selling like… uh… hot cakes; furiously attempting ESP over your server so they prepare you a bigger-than-usual slice; and the post-order panic when you see better options plated up and yours looks distinctly stale and plasticky. None of these will be an issue at Mr Minsch. All cakes are €3 per slice, and serving sizes are perfectly judged so that, no matter how sweet and filling your cake is, you’ll hit the skids at about 85% completion. Pacing yourself is top priority; you’ll definitely need some companions (so you can try more cakes, obviously) and you might need a second coffee (€1.50).

Choosing a fruit-based kuchen is no less decadent than the chocolate (Schoko Schoko) or Blackforest (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) options. The plum and almond tart (Zweitschgen Kuchen), blueberry and marscapone torte, and apricot marzipan torte are constructed upon a shortbread base that’s sneakily rich but not sickly sweet. An inferior baker might render the cinnamon cake (Zimtkuchen) dry and doughy like a stale croissant, but Mr Minsch combines the cinnamon swirls of an artisan coffee scroll with the custardy sponge of a bread and butter pudding. We didn’t even make it to the cheese cakes – Käsekuchen mit sauerkirsch is currently top of the ‘to do’ list – or the frankly terrifying Eierlikör torte (there’s something egg-noggy going on there), during our research trips. Not yet, at least – we need to squeeze in a few more Mr Minsch dates before Berlin gets too cold for al fresco eating.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Avoiding the Aüslanderbehörde: Lessons learnt from 12 hours in Prague

Image courtesy of

The Aüslanderbehörde – the foreigners’ office where German visas are processed – has a special status that strikes fear into the hearts of new arrivals. Most non-EU citizens have a three-month grace period (otherwise known as a ‘tourist visa’) where they can live in Germany before applying for a work or student visa. Confirming the requirements for your visa is like searching for a needle in a haystack – the best advice comes from trawling online travel forums. Better still, find a countryman with the type of visa you’re seeking; pray they’ve kept all their paperwork, invite them out for a coffee and make them tell you everything.

Berlin’s Aüslanderbehörde is located in Wedding, and boasts completely inconsistent opening hours, apparently unmanned phone lines, and best of all, a six-week waiting period for an appointment (unless you line up outside at 5am and secure one of the 30-odd same-day appointment tickets). Urban legend has it that the meanest and most short-tempered public servants are drafted to work in this office; they’ll ask for additional paperwork that’s not on the list of required documents, and if you don’t speak German they’ll yell at you until you leave. It took my friend, a Doctoral fellow from the United States, three visits to the Aüslanderbehörde before his application was entered into the system, and that was only because he spoke Filipino to the cleaner, who told him when to come and what to do.

International travel comes cheap
A much better option is to visit the German Embassy in Prague or Brussels, where they’ll process many types of visas on the spot. We chose Prague, given it was only five hours away, and a return ticket on Hungarian bus company Orange Ways is only €25 (no, that’s not a typo; and yes, that’s cheaper than a return ticket from Melbourne to Warrnambool, for all you Western District readers). Leave Berlin at 11:30pm, arrive in Prague the next morning at 5:15am, and come back on the 5pm service that gets to Berlin around 10:30pm.

Ok, so you won’t get your passport stamped on this service, but rest assured “we just popped over to Prague for the day” sounds a hell of a lot cooler than “we stood in line from 5am to 8am in Wedding”.

Your reason for travel is strictly administrational – don’t sweat the cultural stuff
When I lived in London, a weekend on the continent invariably occurred after such frantic tying up of work and domestic loose ends, I’d be lucky if I’d managed to download and print out the Lonely Planet city guide. Given I decided to make this Czech trek on the afternoon of my departure date, it’s fair to say I hadn’t written a Prague ‘to do’ list, and the only Czech words I knew were “Martina Navratilova” and “Karolina Korkova”. Who knew the Czech Repulic didn’t do Euros? Certainly not me. What the hell kind of currency is abbreviated to CZK? For convenience’s sake, we called them Czeckels (rhymes with shekels – as in Israeli). Sounds good, right?*

Embrace the opportunity to explore Prague’s Old Town and the bridges over its picture-perfect Vltava Moldau River, at first light (that is, before the German Embassy opens at 8:30am). By mid-afternoon, the city will be swarming with tour groups – god only knows how busy it must get on a weekend. If you’ve only managed an hour’s sleep on the busride over, when the hysterical fatigue kicks in mid-afternoon, there’s a good chance you’ll actually forget the name of the country you’re visiting, which we found easily interchangeable with Slovenia, Slovakia and Poland (countries I’ve also never visited before).

UK franchises are taking over the world
Prague’s city centre features all the usual suspects – Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds – but it was a surprise to see UK institutions Costas coffee, Marks and Spencer and Debenhams department store also present. Blame it on the tiredness, but we didn’t even think to pick up some knickers and a New York Deli sub from M+S. Rookie error.

You’re basically pulling an all-nighter; pack light
Non negotiables: Passport and entire folder of visa application documents; spare pens and passport photos. Several introductory phrases in German so you don’t look like a complete douchebag when you apply for your visa at the embassy. Camera to document downward spiral into sleep-deprived hysteria.

Unless you’re travelling solo (no need to do this – Berlin is full of expat layabouts keen on spontaneous adventures) there’s no need for paperbacks, Moleskin notebooks, German language textbooks or laptop computers. You’ll just need enough clothing to keep warm on your early morning stroll from the bus station (5:15am is quite possibly the coldest time of the day), which can double as window cushioning during the journey. You won’t regret bringing a toothbrush, baby wipes and spare t-shirt to freshen up before the bus ride home.

Becherovka: a Jägermeister lite
You can’t get a better souvenir to take back to Germany - and to toast to your newly-acquired visa! - than a bottle of Becherovka, a sweet chartreuse-coloured digestif that’s drunk ice cold, or with tonic water as a beton (this name translates to “concrete”). Jäger lovers will dig its herby overtones of cloves, anise and cinnamon, and the fact it’s used as a home remedy for arthritis.

* Currency is actually Czech koruna

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bubble tea in Kreuzkölln: cocktails with a difference

Bubble tea has always been on my list of things that I secretly wish I liked, because of its curious juxtaposition of textures and reconfiguration of sweet vs savoury foodstuffs. It’s usually relegated to the ‘WTF’ basket by conventional (read: Western) palettes, alongside with Vietnamese three-colour bean drink, wasabi peas and Pocky straws.

So I’ll admit I had reservations when, on the hunt for an after-dinner sweet treat, we parked the bikes outside and-dots and found bubble tea the main thing on the menu. The breezy little bar opened this summer on Weserstraße and is a welcoming spot during the day – it opens at 1pm and there’s free wi-fi – or for pre- or post-dinner drinks.

Image courtesy of

My beef with bubble tea – admittedly, cemented a decade ago in the Melbourne University food court – was the whole tapioca bead factor. In my opinion, tapioca’s only contribution to gastronomy was its similarity to sago and quinoa. So why would you stick those gelatinous balls in the bottom of a sweet, cold, milky drink?

How wrong I was. You see, the squishy, al dente pea-sized ‘bubbles’ in and-dots’ teas provide a sweet diversion from the cold drinks. The extra-wide straw you drink the tea through is wide enough to suck up the balls as you’re drinking, so you effectively have a drink and a snack at the same time. I found myself thoroughly enjoying it, in the same way I enjoy eating chicken broth with tortellini. Or chewing a mentos while smoking a cigarette.

And-dots has a row of blenders behind the bar, like a super-hip Boost juice kiosk, and bubble teas are served over ice in sealed, clear plastic cups which you pierce open with the afore-mentioned straws. For the lactose-intolerant among us, many mixes on the menu use fruit juice or soda as bases instead of milk, such as the Houston and Problem – yep, all the cocktails have puntastic names – with Club Mate, peach, and mint bubbles. The alcohol free teas are €3.10 for a small and €3.60 for a large.

But the alcoholic concoctions are really what elevates and dots above your usual bubble tea cafes. Our picks included Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (vodka, kahlua, milk, kahlua-marinated bubbles; €6.20), Kain and Abel (vodka, apple juice, mint bubbles; €4.50), and Hans and Gloria (run, mint, soda, lime bubbles; €5.60). Now, every boozehound knows the fastest route to inebriation is to drink fast and through a straw, so keep this in mind when you tackle these beverages. They’re pretty potent, and the extra-wide straws mean you’ll be prodding bubbles in an empty glass in a matter of minutes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What's long, boring, slightly stressful, and could be improved 200% by providing tasty snacks and a bar?

Here in Germany, you’re meant to register your place of residence at your local residents bureau (Bürgeramt) within a week of arriving, or moving house. The stamped receipt you get once you’ve submitted a special form and had your passport checked is the basis for all further émigré shenanigans, such as opening a bank account or applying for a working permit.
After nine weeks as an unofficial resident, it was high time I ticked this bureaucratic box. My housemate, who helped translate the questions on the form for me, said he didn’t register for two years after moving to Berlin from Munich. Evidently he already had a bank account and no need for hiring videos or library books.
At the Bürgeramt, once they've noted your completed form and passport, you’re given a number and sent to sit in a waiting room until it’s your turn to have your document processed. It’s a lot like the waiting area in Argos, except for completely inconsistent opening hours, and no likelihood of a big cheap parcel arriving at the end. If only it were a fish and chip shop, and my number 98 flashing on the screen on the wall meant I was just moments away from burning my hands on a molten bag of steamed dim sims. Here, even the best-case scenario still involves general incomprehension and it’s a safe bet there won’t be any take-away food exchanged.
The waiting room, being totally devoid of any soft surfaces, amplifies the various toddlers’ squeals and screams to such a degree so as to actually induce a hangover out of thin air. I watch a Turkish lady have a baby wipes wash – armpits and all! – while her husband sits five seats away from her. The only other arrivals who get my attention during the ensuing two hours are an emaciated girl whose starved legs look like metal rods through her thick winter trousers, and a young woman in a tight white top who’s neglected to wear a bra.
Like so many aspects of the international relocation process, this initial task can be all too easily sidelined due to the minutia of bureaucracy. It’s not so much a vicious cycle but a chain of ‘can’t do this until I’ve done that’s which invariably backtracks to an infuriating hurdle that only time will solve. I can’t apply for a work permit until I register at the Bürgeramt, but I couldn’t fill out the form until I had my landlord’s contact details. My housemates had the details, but were away in South America until last week. For a week last month, I was under the impression that my passport expired in September 2012, not 2013. Therefore, before I applied for my visa, I needed to renew my passport. But I couldn’t complete my passport renewal form until I recalled who had ‘endorsed’ and signed my previous renewal application, nine years ago. Furthermore, payment for passport renewal at Berlin’s Australian consulate is only accepted via direct bank transfer. So unless I wanted to be stung an extra £20 by HSBC for an international bank transfer, I needed to find and pay a Berliner to do it on my behalf. The obvious candidates, my housemates, weren’t returning to Berlin for three weeks.
A late rush through the upper 80s and 90s means my number flashes up on the screen at 1:16pm, exactly two hours and 27 minutes after I sat down. Behind interview room 16, it could be any council office from Morden to Mooroolbark. There’s even a not-quite-Franklin-Mint collection of fairy figurines on a window sill(surely the most depressing and most predictable of council staff accoutrements), and pictures of flowers and greenery taped to the wall to compensate for the dreary pot plants.
I hand the lady my passport and form, deliver my most confident “Guten Tag!” and hope for the best. Four minutes and one thump of a date stamp later, it’s all over and my residence is officially registered. Besides flagging two spots on the form I’d failed to fill in, she didn’t grill me – she even translated her questions into English. She didn’t even look at the arrival dates in my passport! Danke schön! Now, fingers crossed for the working visa interview…

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Introducing… The Tegel Injection

Most antipodeans are warned about “the Heathrow injection” when they arrive in the UK for a working holiday. The backpacker diet of toast, plentiful pints, and late-night visits to the chippy usually result in 5-10lb added insulation within the first few months. But you know, it’s easy enough to avoid if you remember that carbs are just one of five food groups, and chips (“crisps”) have no nutritional content whatsoever.
The problem facing a newly-arrived Berliner however, is that the diverse array of eateries on street corners tick all the boxes to justify indulging: 1) “I can’t eat this anywhere else, therefore it’s a cultural experience” 2) “There’s a huge line of German people waiting so it must be tasty” 3) “IT'S SO CHEAP!”. Add to this the drinking culture of popping a frosty no matter where you’re going or what you’re doing, and within three weeks ladies and gentlemen, you’ll be feeling the effects of the Tegel Injection. (Let’s remember this is during summer, when you’re cycling between parks, bars and clubs all day and night. God knows what it’s like during winter.)

Chicken schawarma (left) and falafel (right), €2.50, from Habibis in Kreuzberg, near Südstern U-bahn.

It’s quite timely that the Guardian online posted its 10 best budget eats for Berlin yesterday… timely because I sampled most of the spots on the list in the past week with three visiting friends, and because it provided an explanation this morning for why my summer onesie was feeling a little more snug than what it was three weeks ago.
Interesting to see there’s no döner kebab (or falafel) joint included on the Guardian’s list. Mustafa’s on Mehringdamm str. in Kreuzberg is probably the best-known döner place in Berlin, and a 30-minute wait in line is pretty standard. If you’re looking for less carbs and more chicken/vegetable filling, go for the flat bread wrap (Dürüm, 3.90) over the standard donor ‘sandwich’ (Hänchen donor mit Gemüse, €2.90) which involves a bread roll toasted flat and then cut and filled with chicken kebab meat and salad.

Mustafa’s donors go above and beyond the usual fare – chips, fetta, fresh herbs, and a sweet, smoky flavor from the chicken marinade mingling with the yoghurt and chilli sauces. Another positive is that due to the donor stall’s constant trade, you can rest assured that the meat is freshly cooked and freshly served… always a good thing when you’re talking about chicken of dubious origins.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Unexpected truths: das Handy

It's true.
Germans really *do* say “handy” for mobile phone.
Cue stifled giggles and frenzied web searching for Stephen Fry's audio clip from a few years back, in its hilarious entirety.

So long, London... Hallo Berlin!

All good things must come to an end, including Tier 5 Youth Mobility Visas. So, after two years battling lime scale, tube snot and passive aggressive public transport users in London, it was time for this foreign correspondent to move on or, more accurately, move out of the UK. Fortunately the timely offer of a freelance writing gig in Berlin has enabled me to stick around for the northern hemisphere summer and beyond, and hopefully postpone my first trip back to Australia in time for Meredith Music Festival in December. Here’s hoping Johnny Backhand can become a repository for all the weird and wonderful cultural peculiarities that Berlin has to offer.
London can be a cruel mistress, but there are tons of things I will fondly remember about life in the capital. In no particular order, here are the things I’ll most sorely miss:

Foodie culture – following the fervent community of bloggers discovering the latest cheap eats and much-hyped restaurants
Cockney stallholders – the way the fellas address all women as “darlin’”
Wing Yip – the only thing that would improve this Oriental/Asian mega supermarket is if they chopped the heads off the dead plucked chickens before stocking them in the poultry section
Music scene – whether it's seeing Mount Kimbie for a tenner on a weeknight, or The Futureheads' frontman at the next table over brunch in Dalston, London really is the centre of the universe for indie/alternative/pop music. I miss this.
Night buses – especially the N16 from Hyde Park corner to Staples Corner; it might as well be peak hour
Print media (aside from the NoTW scandal and page 3 girls) – Londoners are spoilt for choice on their daily commute. Add Stylist and Shortlist magazines to this list, too. You won’t knock the Evening Standard if you’ve ever read MX from Melbourne.
Long days of summer – feel like a sketchy badass emerging from a club when the sun is rising (but it’s actually only 4-something AM)
The Tube – specifically, its frequency, and its drivers’ constant PA updates when the train you’re riding is delayed
Worryingly OTT and accessible drinking culture – hey, no matter your location or circumstances, you can always find two cans of cider at 4am, if you so desire
Multiculturalism – at least in the inner city (read: ghetto) neighbourhoods I frequented. I say multiculturalism, I really mean £1.50 lahmacuns in Kilburn, £4 biryanis in Tooting, £5 pho in Dalston and £1 Jamaican patties in Brixton.
Royal Parks Half Marathon – when will you ever have the chance to pass by the city’s most iconic landmarks on the main roads, flanked by thousands of well wishers cheering you on? Besides the London Marathon (too much training, sorry), it's truly the most unforgettable way to see the city.
Spring time – feel like a Jane Austen character ‘taking a turn’ in Regents Park or up Primrose Hill, or along Regents Canal (not very Austean, but you get the idea). Spring in London runs rings around summer in London. Way more flowers in bloom and way less beached whales in public spaces.
British pub culture – especially the Grosvenor in Stockwell and Camden’s Lock Tavern
Brixton Village – thank GOSH it remained unscathed during last week’s riots
London Rollergirls – the fiercest and foremost roller derby club outside of North America, comprising the most inspiring and downright awesome bunch of ladies I’ve ever encountered. Here's some on-skate footage from their bout on the weekend against world champions Rocky Mountain Rollergirls at Earls Court in London:
Video courtesy of London Rollergirls' Henry the Sk8th

Monday, June 20, 2011

Down the rabbit hole and through the secret door: London's newest and niftiest bars

In what can only be good news for those who like an air of adventure to a night on the tiles, we’re pleased to announce that London is catching up to New York in the game of speakeasy-style ‘hidden’ bars. When it comes to old-fashioned pubs and sticky-carpeted venues, obviously London is in a league of its own, but in terms of ‘exclusive’ bars it’s long been a case of West End haunts appealing to Sloane rangers and Chelsea footballers.
Sure, there’s a drinking contingent out there who'll regard members- or reservation-only bars as downright pretentious, but if you call a few days ahead, request an early evening mid-week booking (or suss out the membership options – few actually demand up-front payment), you’ll find they’ll be pretty obliging. These kinds of places go out of their way to avoid attracting douchebags – a policy that generally extends to their staff, too. So whatever you do, don’t go acting like one – banging on the secret door to get a table at 11.30pm on a Saturday night when you’re three sheets to the wind is never a good idea.

The Mayor Scaredy Cat Town
Enter the underground bunker via a Smeg refrigerator in a Spitalfields café/bar, and exit via the premise's My Little Pony-wallpapered toilets in the interests of discretion. Even if they only served cans of Scrumpy Jack and bags of crisps, we’d still be enamored with seven-week-old cocktail bar The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town.
The Breakfast Club’s new Spitalfields operation replicates the winning formula of its Hoxton, Angel and Soho branches – namely, helping diners soak up a hangover somewhere a bit fancier than a greasy spoon – but adds a hidden bar into the mix that’s open til midnight and serves cocktails and snacks that are worth crossing town for. Tommy’s chilli and lemongrass margarita (tequila, red chilli, lemongrass, agave syrup and lime juice, £7.50) looks set to become a signature drink, and a classic cosmopolitan (£7.50) was vintage SATC quality. The mayor’s jalapeno poppers (deep-fried ricotta-stuffed jalapenos, £5 for four) were criminally tasty, and we were particularly impressed with the complimentary cucumber and mint-infused jugs of water. Even more exciting was the bar’s weekend ‘Hair of the Cat’ brunch menu – customised Bloody Marys, anyone? – which suggests we’ll skip the Breakfast Club’s usual fry up and head straight through the fridge for a liquid lunch.

Callooh Callay
There’s good reason why this Hoxton hot spot consistently tops the list of London’s best cocktail bars. Unless you’re hellbent on experiencing exclusivity to the power of ten upstairs in the ‘secret’ Jubjub Bar – membership is invite only, and its bespoke cocktail menu changes weekly – the downstairs bar ticks all the boxes and then some: five-star table service, psychodelic vintage fit out, and a themed cocktail menu you’ll want to take home and frame. Mere mortals can still partake in the ‘Narnia’ experience of slipping through the famous mirrored wardrobe in the back corner of the bar, because it’s the only way to reach the bathrooms (there’s another private room near the toilets, but the Jubjub Bar is up the stairs).
Did we mention the cocktails…? Adventurous drinkers are spoilt for choice – this is not the place for playing safe with a vodka tonic or pinot grigio. The Baby Alligator (a herby martini with chartreuse, gin and velvet falernum, £9) was the smoothest rocket fuel we’d ever imbibed, and Betsy’s Orchard (hennessy cognac, lemon and apple juice, rosehip and raspberry cordial, lavender bitters and prosecco, £9) was a long summer drink with serious balls. We’re plotting a future assault with a crew to take down the Petherton Royale.

The Petherton Royale: Served in a fishbowl on a platter flanked by garden gnomes

Danger of Death
This is the newest offering from the Rushmore group, which has been redefining quality bar service since the early 2000s, and runs Milk & Honey and The Player in Soho, the Starland in Notting Hill, and the East Room which is currently under refurbishment after a fire last year.
The shop front on Brick Lane says it’s an antiques shop, but it’s actually Super Pizza, a café/bar with diner booths and a charity shop fit-out. Through a door near the entrance and downstairs you’ll find Danger of Death; its fit-out is reminiscent of the original Milk and Honey in New York – think low lighting, leather booths and pressed metal ceiling. The ‘death book’ drinks menu helpfully grades cocktail strengths from one (‘no structural damage’) to five (‘ground zero’) and most fall between £8 and £11, but honestly, you’ll struggle to find more personable and telepathic mixologists anywhere, so we suggest telling them your favourite base – tequila, gin, whisky – and letting them do the rest.
For seriously high rollers, an annual membership to the Rushmore Group will guarantee your entry not only here, but to sister bars in London, New York and the French Alps. However, if you apply join the Danger of Death fraternity before June 30, they’ll transfer the £100 annual membership fee to a bar tab. Score! Oh – and make sure you get yourself a salt beef and pickle bagel from the 24-hour beigel shop across the road on your way out (purists prefer the one closest to Bethnal Green, FYI).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Berlin: poor, sexy... and too much for just one long weekend

Arriving in Berlin for an unseasonably warm spring break, the stark contrasts to London are a welcome smack in the face. From the clear and still twilight, and the verdant pockets on every street, to the happy shiny locals reclining in parks on picnic rugs with Berliner Pilsner – around Lambeth’s open spaces we’re more familiar with the drinking schools downing Carlsberg Special Brew. For this never-been-homesick ex-pat Melbournian, the similarities to Australia’s second city were sneaky and a little unnerving: three million-odd inhabitants feels positively villagey and street art is the dominant urban feature; cycling is less a political statement and more just a practical way to get from A to B; and black is the sartorial go-to tone for the locals in neighbourhoods like Mitte and Kreuzberg.

Kaiser Karl looms over the East Side Gallery

It’s not like Berlin as hipster epicentre and capital of cool is a big secret; it’s been crowned the new NYC for its cheap rents and appeal to college graduates, creatives and musicians and, predictably, as the city’s gentrification has pushed the working classes further into outer suburbs, it’s created a palpable ‘anti-tourist’ vibe in pockets of the former East Berlin which makes it even more appealing for the young and edgy.

Hipsters, take note: street graffiti in Kreuzberg

Instant accommodation upgrade
However for Londoners wanting to experience an inaugural Berlin experience it’s easy to put it off, since it’s comparatively freezing in winter and blistering in summer, and boasts too many must-dos to squeeze into a Bank holiday weekend. Given you’ll want five days minimum – we had seven days – forget hotels and hostels and sub-let an apartment through
Air B’n’B – a slicker version of Craigs List or Gumtree, where hosts and travellers build profiles and rate each other for added security. If you’re used to London rental prices and hotel tarriffs, sub-letting in Berlin will be a pleasant shock to the system. We stayed on the vicinity of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, where chic neighbourhood café-bars dot every street corner (perhaps the Brixton equivalent would be a betting shop...) and you could have squeezed half a dozen dossers into our 1BR apartment (obviously we didn’t – we were on holidays, right?).

Apartment block in Prenzlauer Berg

Get your bearings in style
I’m all for the kitsch appeal of an open-top bus around Westminster, but Berlin calls for something a bit more DIY and grungey. If you're interested in a city’s living history – a.k.a. bars, gig venues, art and design hot spots, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll... – the Alternative Berlin Tours’ free tour should be top of your ‘to do’ list. It’s a walking tour interspersed with a few U-Bahn rides and points out the squats, street artists, reclaimed community hubs and ethnic enclaves that characterise modern Berlin. Guides point out all the remnants from Berlin's chequered past that you'd only notice after years in the capital. It’s “free”, but guides well deserve a €10 tip at the end - and a drink if they finish the tour at Yaam reggae beach bar - especially since they'll happily mark their local recommendations on your map.

Tommy-Weisbecker-Haus: squat, community centre and music venue

You can't sit around being a drunk/hungover hipster the whole time you're in town, but there are options for tourists who hate history, museums and antique architecture. Fat Tire Bike Tours’ all-in-one bike tour does exactly that – providing historical context in situ (on your own super-comfy cruiser) and explaining everything from the Third Reich and World War 2, to Checkpoint Charlie and the Cold War - not to mention cruising through the city’s lush Tiergarten and chilling in a beer garden. No matter if your only understanding of the Berlin Wall comes from Scorpion’s Wind of Change (and that’s nothing to be ashamed about, *cough*), once you do get your head around the whole East/West Berlin-Berlin Wall thing, you’ll understand why you never understood it in the first place.

Shop for vintage one-offs
Given its history dotted with political upheaval, a cultural predisposition to design precision, and its contemporary “sexy but poor” reputation, Berlin’s flea markets are a treasure trove of random gems. Prices are, predictably, cheaper than anything you’d find in Paris’ Puces de Vanves or the Camden stables in London. If you’re a shoe-loving lady with 41-42 size feet, you’ll be in heaven. I’ve never seen such a range of vintage footwear in big sizes.
The Flohmarkt in Mauerpark (Prenzlauer Berg) runs every Sunday, with stalls selling vintage clothes, shoes and collectibles, plus new clothes and jewellery most likely made by a Central St Martins graduate who’s moved to Berlin for the cheap rent. I scooped the vintage find of a lifetime here on Easter Sunday: a purple, yellow, red and green leather bomber jacket – think early 90s Cross Colours – complete with padded appliqué shapes, for €35. Just down the road there’s another Sunday flea market in Arcona Platz. It’s smaller – definitely not so overwhelming for half-hearted thrifters – but boasts some great art and antique vendors.

Tempelhof Park: Berlin's revamped airport

Get on yer bike
In May 2010, Mayor Klaus Wowreit – he of the infamous "Berlin ist arm, aber sexy" quote – opened the former Tempelhof Airfield to the public, in doing so creating the city’s biggest park. Hiring a bike and cycling down to Tempelhof – an easy 20mins from Alexander Platz – ticks a ‘tourist attraction’ box as well as well as hanging out like a local. After WW2 Tempelhof was Berlin’s gateway to the West – Allied planes delivered supplies to stranded West Berliners, and East Berlin refugees could depart for West Germany without controls (this will all make sense once you’ve done the Fat Tire Bike Tour, trust me).
The 355-hectare space is testament to Berlin’s knack for reclaiming bleak industrial spaces into community hubs – the runways now buzz with cyclists, skaters and joggers, you’ll see some pretty impressive barbecuing on the grass, and it hosts international trade shows and events such as the Berlin Festival.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The most boring-sounding baked goods in the world (let’s call them "mini carrot cakes", shall we?)

I was doing the hard sell on a Tupperware container of these at the end of our roller derby bout on Saturday night and, while they were appreciated by the considerable vegan contingent, I did have flashbacks to St Mary’s primary school shared lunches in the 1980s. There was always one poor kid whose mum forbade Coke and Fanta, only allowed carob in the house and sent the kids off with sultana and carrot sandwiches when everyone else was bringing fairy bread and yo yos to the class break-ups. It’s hard to make “carrot, sultana and bran muffins – oh, and they’re vegan” sound enticing to normal people who think a bacon sandwich is a good way to start the day. BUT – and this is a big but – these muffins are pretty damn good. The bran and carrots make them really moist – they’re more squigey than cakey inside – and they get a lovely crust which makes them really morish. Apart from a tuna sandwich at 6pm, half a dozen of them sustained me all day long and well into the bout afterparty. I'd go as far as saying they contributed to the Steam Rollers' impressive win over the Ultraviolent Femmes, but more on that later. They weren’t half bad the day after, either – making a nice change from usual ‘healthy’ muffins which transform into cardboard projectiles within 24 hours.

(Obviously I was too busy preparing for the Steam Rollers' bout on Saturday to photograph my baked goods... I think we can all agree Carrot Top pumping iron is a much more inspiring visual than anything I could have created in the kitchen, right?)

I found this recipe via the usual route I use when deciding on a whim (at 9pm on a weeknight, of course) to do some baking. Google ‘vegan bran carrot muffins’, give preference to anything Australian (hey – it’s annoying having to convert to celcius and metric) and then discount all the ones posted by bloggers who sound like recovering anorexics. Umm yeah no – apple sauce is not a legit alternative to oil for keeping cakes moist, OK? Anyway, the recipe I based mine on was apparently based on two by vegan demigod Isa Chandra Moskowitz. Enough said.

The first time I made them I grated the carrots with the big grater but they were a little too julienne for your standard cupcake dimensions. Second time around I used a smaller grater (the one that still give you some curl on your grated parmesan) and could probably have squeezed out some carrot juice but that would have required me to use the sieve which was currently holding all the dry ingredients, so I didn’t. Unlike standard muffins, which will almost double in size during cooking, these don’t expand too much from batter to finished product, so you’ll want to fill your muffin tins about 80 per cent full to get a nice shape. If you were totally desperate to blag these as cakes rather than a semi-legitimate healthy breakfast alternative you could probably even ice them with some lemon icing (I’m talking about the basic ‘icing sugar+milk+lemon zest+tiny bit of melted butter’ icing, don’t start going crazy with that butter frosting shiz because that’s just getting ridiculous). Or, if you’re of the bacon sandwich persuasion, just eat the iced cakes for breakfast. They’re vegan – you’re already kicking goals.

Vegan carrot, sultana and bran muffins
1 ½ cups wholemeal flour (I used one with added wheat and barley flakes, linseed and sunflower seeds; once all the flour was sifted I chucked all the crunchy bits into the bowl too)

2 tsps baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

2 tsps cinnamon

2 tsps powdered ginger

¾ cup bran (I crushed up bran flakes cereal because I couldn’t be bothered buying bran specially for this)
1 cup rice/soy milk
⅓ cup vegetable oil

1 tsp vanilla extract (didn’t have it, didn’t matter)

⅓ cup brown (‘light muscovado’) sugar dissolved into ½ cup hot water
2 cups grated carrot

½ cup sultanas

1) Preheat oven to 200 degrees celcius, grease your muffin tin.
2) Sift flour, baking powder and soda, and spices; add bran and make a well in the middle.
3) Mix wet ingredients together, and add to the dry ingredients. Mix till just combined (remember: over-mixing is the best way to turn fluffy muffins into rubber tennis ball), then add carrots and sultanas.
4) Bake for 20 minutes or until sultanas are burning on the top. (Normally I’d say do the skewer test – if it comes out clean, they’re ready – but it didn’t work too well with these because they were still a bit gooey fresh out of the oven but firmed up nicely after 30 mins.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Best bets in Brixton for a lazy day out

OK, so the Rest Is Noise might have shut up shop, and you might get harassed by the halal butchers’ creepy spruikers every time you walk through the market (if you’re a lady, that is), but there’s no reason to avoid Brixton on your next hot date. It’s lovely this time of year when blue skies and high-teen temperatures are semi-regular novelties, especially on a Saturday afternoon when Brixton Village is in full swing. The hipsters haven’t ruined it yet (RIP, The Rest Is Noise) and £15 will well cover a foodie’s day out with a difference.

Red Stripe
It’s no time for warm ales and uncarbonated ciders as the muggy summer months approach; it’s all about ice-cold lager straight from the can. Given Brixton’s significance as London’s Caribbean heartland, what could be more appropriate than a plastic bag full of Red Stripes? We justify the placcy bag as a nod to the ‘hood’s ghetto origins, but who’s going to argue with ghetto prices (if you’re lucky you’ll score six for £5)? That’s your pre-d’s, dinner and evening drinks taken care of, right there.

Kaosan, Brixton Village
Holy shitake mushrooms, could the jewel in Brixton’s crown get any better?! Evidently, YES, with the opening of family-run Thai restaurant Kaosan (it’s on the right at the Coldharbour Lane entrance to Brixton Village). Visit #2, the Friday before last, was met with a 15-minute wait for a table (boo – the secret’s out!) and a certain south London food reviewer looking pretty impressed with his order (a tweet’s ok, but please – no Observer review).

The so-homemade-it’s-not-funny poh pia tod (vegetarian spring rolls , £3.90) and geaw tod (deep-fried pork and prawn filo parcels, £3.90) make deep frying seem nutritious. Gang keaw warn gai (green chicken curry, £6.90 with rice) and penang gai (red chicken curry, £6.90 with rice) proved to be equally impressive with tofu, and best when ordered “spicy hot, not English hot” (FYI, this didn’t mean retardedly Thai hot). Kouy tiew tom yum Bangkok style (£6.90, pictured above) was a tom yum on ‘roids, with fish balls, minced pork, and topped with two of the most perfectly battered king prawns ever tasted. A starter and two mains should set you back about £17 and, with no corkage or service charge, it’s well deserving of a fat tip with your “kop khun ka”.

Ms Cupcake
Moseying down Coldharbour Lane you’ll stumble on the fairy godmother of London fussy/ethical foodies, super baker Ms Cupcake. Some say the greatest accolade for vegan food is when you can’t tell the difference. We say it’s when you want a picture of the colorful confections (£2 each) tattooed on your bicep after you’ve woken up from the diabetic coma. Don’t play safe with a plain chocolate or vanilla – although they’re great – try the Cherry Bakewell (almond cake and amaretto frosting), the banoffee or the pina colada (complete with cocktail umbrella).

Stockwell Skate Park
Unless you want to trek to Brockwell Park or Clapham Common - no - get to the skate park next to Brixton Academy for a patch of grass in the sun to devour your take away cupcake (pictured above). On a sunny afternoon this is where all the cool kids hang with their ciders and skate gear, and Sunday mornings are primo for perving on hot dads teaching their toddlers how to kick flip on south London’s best bowls. Technically it's a park - there is some grass there - but thankfully you won't be subjected to middle-aged dudes playing rounders in their unmentionables (if that's more your bag, head to Clapham or Battersea Park). If you’re lucky you might even see some London Rollergirls practicing their lateral skating.

The Piccadilly imposter roadtests a five-star pampering deal

The closest I’ve come to staying at a five-star hotel in Piccadilly is waiting out the front for an hour for a night bus home from Westbourne Park. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to hang out for the day at Le Meridien Piccadilly Health Club & Spa, as part of a promotion on The thoroughly pimped-out pool, squash courts and gym are free for hotel guests and club members, and ordinarily the spa’s beauty treatments hover around £60 a pop for facials, massages and mani-pedis. The promotion I trialed included full use of the health club facilities, an hour-long facial, and a cocktail in the hotel bar, all for £50. I really can’t imagine seeking out these services unless I was already holed up in the hotel and someone else was paying the tab, but there are worse ways to spend a day recovering from a large weekend.

Let’s cut to the chase: hospitality operators wouldn’t need to flog their wares on Travelzoo if they were offering a slick, in-demand service. When I arrived on the Monday morning, the white robe I was given at reception was missing a waist tie, there was no orientation tour on arrival, the spa’s treatment room was a rabbit warren away from the change rooms in the bowels of the hotel, and there was no wi-fi. It would have been nice if the spa’s relaxation room wasn’t dimmed into semi darkness, which made it impossible to do anything other than stare at the pretty impressive fish tank.

Now, in terms of facials, the only one I’ve ever had was part of bridesmaid duties for a friend who’s been divorced for five years. When my lady pulled out the fluorescent strip lamp to highlight god knows what kind of crustifarian phenomena lurking in my crows feet and jowls, I felt a wave of anxiety usually reserved for pap smears and dental check ups. But over the next hour, my visage was treated to an offertory procession of scrubs, creams, potions and lotions… I lost count of the number of courses after the eye pads were applied (slathered in burnt-caramel-scented cream – yum!), and the face massage made me melt into the treatment table. The whole-body nirvana was comparable to the final savasana after a 90-minute Bikram yoga work out… actually, to be honest, it was like finally crawling into bed after being stowed in the luggage hold on a long-haul flight from a third-world country. The only technical info I can offer is that all the products they use come from the Gerard’s skincare range – an Italian company used exclusively in the spa on Richard Branson’s Necker Island luxury resort.

When I begrudgingly left the calm oasis of the treatment room (prompted by the “I’m just out here waiting to take you back to reception”, natch), my face had the glossy sheen of an embalmed corpse that’d been shocked back to life. In a good way. 24 hours later, it was impressive enough for my housemate to remark on. A week on, it’s still pretty luminous. I think I’m a convert.

The pool was absolutely epic – luxuriously tiled, wider than it was long, and of the same ilk as Daddy Warbucks’ and Jay Gatsby’s aquatic facilities. The hot tub and sauna had all the bells and whistles, as did the two gym rooms and squash courts.

It’s unfair to judge Longitude 0°8’, Le Meridien’s cocktail bar, off a single visit on a Monday afternoon – after all, who the hell hangs out in a hotel cocktail bar on a Monday afternoon other than jet-lagged agoraphobic hotel guests? Noone, evidently. The ‘First class’ Bloody Mary (mixed with your choice of Chase or Chiroc vodka) is £16.50 – ouch – but is served with a trio of tasty bar snacks which I suspect would be replenished on demand. It does not, however, pose any threat to Bar Off Broadway’s rep as London’s best bloody mary mixers (where a measly £9 will get you the best breakfast cocktail known to man – complete with OTT garnish – AND a soy latte).

So, all in all, a pleasing day out that my face won’t forget any time soon. Sans voucher though, you’d get more bang for your buck (and lashings of TLC) at Spa London York Hall in Bethnal Green, where you can hit Bistroteque afterwards for a dinner and show.