Monday, 3 April 2017

January 2017 Compendium

We started off 2017 on a high note, with snow, dates, and dogs. 

I continued to walk a lot in January, and even beat a 6-week walking challenge through StepBet. Some days were less than fun, and I had to wrap up tight in scarf, hat, gloves, jumper, coat, and leggings under my jeans. Even so, I fuelled my Whyteleafe walks with Nākd bars and got through it. As a late Christmas present, I got a Fitbit as well!
Feeling that we really should do "the London thing" and see a play at the theatre, we attended a showing of the musical Lazarus near King's Cross. Written by David Bowie and Edna Walsh, it starred Michael C Hall of Dexter fame. We had less than ideal seats and had to strain to see over tall audience members' heads for much of the performance, but had a great time and soaked up Bowie's music while taking in the strange production.

Snow! After moving out of our Whyteleafe house sit, we returned to North Finchley to hang out with Ben the Jack Russell Terrier. His frantic whizzing around the garden was hampered on a couple of days when a thin layer of snow accumulated on the ground. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough to build a snowman.

Our lovely Whyteleafe hosts had gifted us with a box of sokari dates which they picked up during their layover in Qatar. I liked dates before that, but this box started a new obsession for me. I wanted to try every kind of date I could! Having previously only tried medjool and deglet noor, I was determined to increase my date knowledge. Along North Finchley's high street could be found several different ethnic grocery stores, including Ari Foods - a Turkish grocery. I quickly became addicted to Iranian dates (also known as mazafati dates), which cost £2 for a 600g box. During this time I also found out that Turkish Delight is vegan! I had assumed due to its texture that it was made with gelatine, but that's not the case so I would try different flavours every time I went shopping at Ari Foods. Some of my favourites were King Lokum, pistachio, and carrot (sounds weird but was so tasty).

After doing an abundance of reading on the subject of dates, I discovered a magical land in the heart of London: Bateel. Starting with a family of date growers in Al-Ghat in Saudi Arabia, the company had expanded and now operate gourmet date stores and cafés across the Middle East. Luckily for me, they also have a branch in London! Yannick, similarly enthralled by the sokari dates, met me during one of his lunch breaks to partake in an afternoon of fine dining, date style! We bypassed the medjool and sokari varieties and went straight for all the exotic ones that we hadn't yet tried: sagai, wanan, ajwa, kholas and khidri. The ajwa were far and away our favourites, with a deep flavour like golden syrup. (They were also the most expensive by almost double, so we clearly have good taste! The ajwa was also reputedly the favoured date of the Prophet Mohammed.) As well as dried dates, Bateel offers patrons a very rare experience: that of the rhutab date, which is basically less fully ripened than the dry dates. If you want to read more about rhutab dates and Bateel, there's an excellent blog post here. Our lunchtime date tasting was so much fun! I now know that aside from the ajwa date, I still favour sokari and mazafati, which are easier to find and less pricey.

Having received the news that we would be moving to Singapore in early February, I made sure to visit Cookies and Scream in Holloway. I had of course been to their stall in Camden Lock Market many times before, but never to their Holloway bakery as it was a bit out of the way for me. However, I knew that the bakery stocked far more items than the Camden stall so I simply had to sample some of them for myself. While there, I had a hot fudge sundae with a slice of peanut butter chocolate pie. I cannot express the deliciousness! I also picked up several bits and bobs to takeaway, including a ginger cookie, a marshmallow chocolate cookie and a slice of lemon drizzle cake. Everything was amazing, but the ginger cookie was one of my favourite foods ever!

One afternoon, I met my friend Jodi in Soho for lunch and a wander about. I had worked with her in Wellington, and she currently lives in Canada, though she grew up in Bath and was visiting London for the week. We are so cosmopolitan *hair flick*. I introduced her to Wild Food Café, where I ordered my customary sweet potato fries, as well as the raw laksa which was terribly moreish. 

After our house sit for Ben ended, we caught the Tube to Hammersmith to look after another old dog: Sinbad. Though he had a piratical name, he was the sweetest dog you could imagine, and I took him everywhere with me.

We hadn't been to Hammersmith before that house sit, and though we were running out of time to explore, we did our best. I also spent a lot of time inside with Sinbad as the weather became unbearably frigid, reading our hosts' travel books and cooking up warming meals.

During our short stay in Hammersmith, I found the suburb to be lovely and a bit of a mix of hipsters and yoga mums. I'd definitely stay there again in the future, though I doubt I'd be able to afford the rent there - while a bit alternative, it still had that posh feel of West London.

My friend Adam was setting up a vegan food tour in London, so I helped him out while he was sorting everything out. We met up with Sergi, who ran the Barcelona branch of the tour (and the flagship), and went to several different eateries to speak with the owners and managers to see if it would be a good fit. We popped in briefly to Hipchips, a new trendy fast food joint that sold chips and dips! (Chips as in crisps, not fries.) Though a novel concept, it wasn't quite what we had in mind for the tour. Of course we couldn't pass up a meal at Mildreds, where we shared bangers and mash, gyoza dumplings and barbeque skewers. Then at Vegan Hippo we were spoiled by the delightful owner, and showered with every item on the menu! We devoured the jackfruit burger, courgette burger, and mushroom burger. We nommed on the gyros wrap and the hot dog. I was going to eat the croissant, but had to ask for a takeaway bag because by that stage we were much too full to fit anything else! As well as the outstanding food, I loved the Christmas tree that had been set up in the corner with little pigs, chickens and cows adorning its branches.

Following the vein of needing to try loads of great vegan food in London before our departure to a new country, I inquired at Lola's cupcake stall in Kings Cross as to the vegan options and the attendant rattled off so many flavours it was difficult to choose! In the end I decided on the lemon passionfruit cupcake. Sadly, though he pulled a convincing puppydog face, Sinbad didn't even get one little lick of the cupcake because it all went into my face. I wish I had had more time to return to Lola's! However, one only has so many pounds to spend, and one also doesn't want to convert those GBP into pounds on the thighs. 

As Sinbad didn't like to be left alone, we found a dog-friendly (and vegan-friendly!) pub in Covent Garden in which to have one last dinner with Sophia and Andrew, who we house sat for previously. The lighting was dim and pub grub isn't exactly photogenic at the best of times, but the silver lining was that my bangers and mash tasted much better than they appeared! Sinbad sat quietly under our table and peered cheerfully at pub patrons, many of whom were smitten by his dashing neckerchief and snaggletooth grin. 

Squeezing in every last chance to socialise and try new eateries, I foisted Sinbad onto Yannick for the evening (apparently he pined for me the whole time I was away) to dine with a friend from Wellington. First, we met for a quick Pimms in Earl's Court before heading over to 222 Veggie Vegan for an exquisite dinner and dessert. It was definitely some of the best food I've had, and surprisingly the price wasn't too high considering they were fully booked for the evening and we only just managed to snag a reservation. It certainly is a popular place, and I can see why! While there, we noticed three separate groups celebrating birthdays. We staggered from the restaurant, so full but so satisfied. There was no way we would have skipped dessert, although we should have for the sake of our poor bellies. 

Just a few days before flying out, one of Yannick's former Weta colleagues offered to cook us up an Indian feast and we weren't going to say no! Binal and her husband came over to our Hammersmith house sit and laid out a delicious curry followed by jalebi (sweets made from fried chickpea flour dough soaked in sugar syrup). Though Sinbad stared sadly at us for the entire duration of the meal, it was a wonderful evening. On another occasion, we had over another of Yannick's colleagues and his girlfriend, this time with a takeaway meal. While I'm often on the less social side, I loved hanging out with so many people before our departure from London (and it was nice to know how many friends wanted to give us a good send off). 

For one last extravaganza, Yannick and I met up with my group of good friends for dinner at Sagar in Covent Garden. With Jemma, John, Adam and Shane we talked and laughed and curried up a storm. Then before we knew it, it was time for Yannick to head off for his final basketball game. I carried on with the group to Yorica, where we procured vegan frozen yoghurt and ice cream and waffles. John, who had ordered first, foolishly picked the smallest size of cup and was distraught once he discovered that everyone else had gone for a much larger portion. After a meander through Chinatown, which was all dolled up for Chinese New Year, we found ourselves at Bar Italia - an all-night Italian café. I had a glass of the house wine while we giggled at old school music videos playing on the giant TV on the wall in front of us. I also bought a packet of Più Gusto lime and red pepper chips for Yannick and me to enjoy later, which were our favourite snack while travelling in Italy (alongside San Pellegrino of course).

Before our flight, we treated Sinbad to a nice long walk through the Holland Park neighbourhood to Kyoto Garden. Dogs weren't allowed inside that particular garden, so Yannick and I took turns going in to see it while the other waited with Sinbad on the outskirts. It was a bit of a dreary day, and we couldn't wait to experience the Singapore heat. Oh, what a wonderful thing to live on the equator and not have winter! It was difficult to say goodbye to Sinbad, but we will remember the good memories we had with him. This is the most challenging part of house sitting - having to say goodbye to new friends. I miss each and every one of them, but I know that in time the heartache will fade.
Enough sentimentality. Singapore, here we come! (And a fond farewell to London.)