15 September 2014

In Cannes, Life's a Beach

I've travelled to some awesome places this year and have really enjoyed all of my adventures. Sometimes, though, you just want to go somewhere for a few days with good food and a good beach. Luckily, Cannes has both in spades, and even more luckily, my parents have a flat there, so I jetted off there last week with a couple of friends for a long weekend. There are interesting things to do in and around Cannes, but all we really wanted to do was eat delicious food, hang out on the beach, drink gin and play cards, so we didn't really venture more than about a five-minute walk from the apartment all weekend.

September is a great time to go to the South of France, because some of the crowds have dissipated, but it's still very hot and sunny. Well, on Friday morning it was rainy and cloudy for about an hour, but soon that tiny patch of blue sky took over, and we hurried down to the beach.

When the food in the local shops is so good, you don't really need to eat out. We picked up a rotisserie chicken from the local traiteur, Chez Pierre, for a princely sum of €12, added some perfectly ripe avocados, fresh bread and a few gin and tonics, and we had the perfect picnic. Pierre's chickens are delicious: so juicy and with the perfect crispy skin. The best bit was dipping the baguette into the leftover juices at the end. On Saturday night, we switched gears and bought some fillet steaks from Pierre — they were about €12 for each 250g steak. Add a bottle of Champagne and some salad and that's dinner.

The breakfast offerings and sweet treats are pretty damn good too. Our local boulangerie is called Césarine and they do the best pastries and cakes. I enjoyed my shark-shaped croissant, but the trilogy of desserts we shared was amazing. I ordered the chocolate praline mousse cake, which was awesome, although I did also covet the neon-pink raspberry offering.

On Saturday night, we went to the Quirly ice-cream shop on the Croisette, where there are far too many flavours to make choosing easy. In the end, I went for the lavender-honey ice cream, which was a bit different, but very tasty. We ate in on the Croisette, listening to a saxophonist busk and watching all of the Yacht Festival party-goers, and then went for cocktails at one of the slightly less pretentious bars.

Other than that, we just played a bit of paddle-ball, tried to burn off all of the calories with periodic swims along the Croisette and rediscovered the underwater camera. Every time I take underwater photos, I hope I will look like a mermaid, but somehow I usually end up resembling a drowned rat. A great ending to a fun-packed — if not action-packed — weekend in the sunshine.

11 September 2014

The Caffeine Chronicles: Black Sheep Coffee Review

My day job doesn't often overlap with my blogging — science communication and writing about food and films don't have a huge amount in common — but occasionally the two worlds collide a little. Last week saw the publication of the genome sequence of Coffea canephora, also known as robusta coffee, which happened to coincide with a review post I had lined up about Robusta Revival, a coffee from Black Sheep that I tried recently and that is, of course, leading the robusta revival.

When I travelled to Cuba in 2005, back in the early days of my caffeine-junkie status, I couldn't work out why the coffee was so mediocre, but most of Cuba's arabica coffee is exported, which meant that the bitterer robusta variety was usually the only one on offer. I've avoided robusta ever since, but when Black Sheep's PR team sent me a bag of their coffee to review, I was intrigued. Maybe it was finally time to get over my arabica snobbery.

As you can tell from their name, their URL — www.leavetheherdbehind.com — and their FAQ, Black Sheep doesn't care for herd mentality. I hope, then, that it won't offend them that I enjoyed their coffee as much as some of the other coffee-by-mail services I've tried. The taste was quite distinctive, though. I ground the coffee at home and tried it in both my home Aeropress and my office V60 dripper, and yes, it is quite bitter and quite strong, but not in a bad way. I think I would prefer to drink Robusta Revival on a cold winter's day rather than in the height of summer because it does have quite a heavy, full-bodied and, er, robust taste. I also though the coffee tasted better brewed in the Aeropress.

With great bitterness comes great caffeine content — Black Sheep say their coffee contains twice as much as "your average cup o’ Joe" but I'm not entirely sure how Joe takes his coffee. In any case, I didn't feel any more of a buzz with my mug o' robusta than I usually do in the mornings, but at this point it takes quite a lot of caffeine to give me the shakes, so that doesn't mean a lot.

Black Sheep's coffee is sold in a few London locations and you can also buy it online: a 227g bag of whole-bean or ground Robusta Revival coffee is £5.40, which is a fairly standard price for coffee delivery services. They also have handy brew guides on their site. Check out their Twitter and their Kickstarter campaign to fund a Black Sheep café.

Here's the science bit. For those who are interested in finding out more about the coffee genome, I would recommend Carl Zimmer's story for the New York Times. Essentially, though, the researchers found that the genes involved in producing caffeine in the coffee plant are different from the caffeine-associated genes in the distantly related species of chocolate and tea, suggesting that caffeine has evolved twice among plant species. The authors also suggest that the evolution of caffeine may have helped the coffee plant to survive and thrive (long before coffee bloggers started religiously Instagramming their daily brew) — the plant's caffeine-laced leaves and berries could have served as a deterrent against predators, perhaps, or to make the neighbouring soil less inviting to would-be neighbours.

10 September 2014

"What's the Welsh for Lesbian?"

I got the chance to attend a preview screening of Matthew Warchus's new film Pride on Sunday, and it was great: moving, thoughtful and funny. If you can imagine a hybrid of Brassed Off and Gus Van Sant's Milk, Pride would probably be it. Armed with a superb cast, Warchus tells is the uplifting story of a fascinating part of 1980s British history about which I knew very little.

It is 1984 and a group of London-based gay and lesbian activists, led by Mark (Ben Schnetzer), want to do more to help other oppressed groups: specifically, the striking miners. They manage to raise a fair bit of cash, but the miners' union isn't interested in taking their 'gay' money, prompting them to pick a Welsh village almost at random and call up the local miners' lodge pledging their support. Gethin (Andrew 'Moriarty' Scott), in whose bookshop the Lesbian & Gays Support Miners (LGSM) group usually convenes, is from Wales (hence the choice of the village) but estranged from his family, who never forgave him for coming out.

Following up on a garbled phone message left at the Welsh village, Dai (Paddy Considine), who runs the local union lodge, shows up in London to meet the LGSM group. He is surprised at first to find that the L in the group's name doesn't stand for London but he is game, and even plucks up the courage to interrupt the entertainment at a big gay club to thank its patrons for their support of the Welsh miners.

The LGSM gang then travel up to the village to try to help out. Unsurprisingly, as the two 'tribes' emeet, there is quite the culture clash ("How can that be a village — it doesn't have any vowels," one of them asks as they enter Onllwyn). Many of the villagers, including Maureen (Lisa Palfrey) and some of the lads, aren't happy about the arrival of their guests, but others are more open-minded, most notably Hefina (Imelda Staunton), Cliff (Bill Nighy) and Sian (Jessica Gunning). And once the lads have seen the effect of Jonathan (Dominic West)'s dance moves on the ladies, they form a line to take dance lessons from the posh and most flamboyant member of LGSM.

There are a lot of characters in Pride and a lot of ground covered. Another member of the group, Joe (George McKay), is barely out of the closet and still lives with his parents in suburbia. He is recruited into LGSM by accident, but his character's story arc becomes quite central to the plot. Meanwhile, the threat and fear of AIDS dominates some of the others' thoughts. Some characters are based on real people: Jonathan, for example, is based on Jonathan Blake, one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed as HIV-positive. Sian, meanwhile, is Sian James, who goes on to be an MP for Swansea.

Although Pride is a serious film, it is also funny. A lot of the humour stems from the "goodness me" reactions of the Welsh villagers to their new friends, and suffice to say, everyone learns a lot from one another. You probably won't be able to erase from your mind the image of Staunton waving around a pink dildo. The film could easily fall into the trap of being too earnest, but it doesn't, and this is primarily down to the great performances. West, who looks like he's borrowed a wig from George Michael in his Wham! days, is brilliant and a far cry from the more serious roles I've seen him play. Staunton steals a lot of scenes too as the straight-talking, take-no-prisoners bossyboots who soon becomes the biggest defender of the LGSM. And of course Considine, Nighy and Scott are all good. There are so many strong performances in this ensemble cast, it's a little tricky to keep track.

Suffice to say that Pride is a fun, engaging film that will make you feel good, while also learning something.

8 September 2014

A Place in the Sun: Sun Café Review

Saturday was another one of those London weekend days where my friends and I just ended up wandering between places to eat and drink. The day started, as usual, in Maltby Street for gin bloody marys and "little pink cocktails" (AKA the Hummingbird Martini) at Little Bird. Much, much later, we found ourselves in a new pizza restaurant called Sun Café in the Camberwell–Peckham borderlands. I didn't have my camera with me, and my iPhone died during the meal, so the photos aren't the best, but you get the idea.

Some of my friends now live in Camberwell, and they tend to be my best source of new openings in their neighbourhood. Sun Café is on the corner of Havil Street and the bustling Peckham Road. It's also just across the road from Theatre Peckham so there's a lot going on nearby. The restaurant was pretty quiet on Saturday night — it's still pretty new — but because it was a nice evening, we chose to sit at one of the tables in the spacious courtyard at the back rather than in the spacious, well-designed interior. The courtyard has a built-in arch at the back, which would be great for live music.

Although there are a few salads — including the pun fans' favourite, You Feta Believe It — pizza is the main deal here. They have six well-priced regular pizzas and a pizza of the week. The special pizza last week was a bolognese pizza with green mozzarella (made using the colour, but not the flavour, of celery). I was very tempted, but I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to pizzas, especially in a new restaurant where the Margherita represents an excellent baseline to measure the restaurant's pizza quality.

To start, we shared some olives (£3) and a mini marinara pizza (£4), and got some drinks in. The cocktail menu is short but carefully curated; everything sounded creative and delicious. I ordered a Monsoon (£6.50), in which the coriander made a fab twist on the standard Dark & Stormy. It slipped down way too easy, but the strong, fresh smell of the coriander also gave me the impression that I wasn't being entirely unhealthy. They also do juices, a few wines and Prosecco (£5 for a glass or £22 for a bottle).

Between the four of us, we sampled three Margheritas (£7.50 each) and one Sorrentina (£8), which featured parmesan mousse, homemade pesto and parma ham. The pizzas were huge, but had quite a thin base and with the chewy, puffy crust that I always enjoy. The base also tasted a little like sourdough, but I'm not 100% sure about that; either way, the pizza was really good and we had to get a doggy bag for the extras. I say we but actually, I ate pretty much all of mine because I really like good pizza and because I'm greedy!

Afterwards, we went for a nightcap at The Pigeon Hole, which I've visited before for coffee, but not at night. A nice little Old Fashioned in surroundings that are like being in the living room of a very cool, stylish friend was a great way to finish the night.

As for Sun Café, I hope it does well. The food and drink were great and very reasonably priced. There isn't a huge amount of competition at present, but it may even be the best pizza I've had in south-east London. Praise indeed.

Sun Café. 29 Peckham Road, London, SE5 8UA (Tube: Denmark Hill or Peckham Rye Overground). Facebook. Twitter.

5 September 2014

"This Rotten Town, It Soils Everybody"

When Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City came out nearly a decade ago, I was the only girl among my group of university friends who went to see it. It was violent, sure, but the violence is so stylised, and, in any case, I will watch pretty much anything that stars Clive Owen. I don't remember much more about the movie, but I gave it a 9/10 rating on IMDb so I must have enjoyed it. Sadly, the long-awaited sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, didn't quite live up to the high standards of its predecessor, mainly because the characters were making the same old mistakes and the plot didn't really go anywhere. Also, there was no Clive Owen: his character Dwight was portrayed by Josh Brolin instead, as Owen was too busy filming The Knick.

Two of the anti-heroes from the first film — Marv (Mickey Rourke) and Dwight (Brolin) — are joined by a third, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Johnny, for the sequel, but they don't share much screen time as they roam the streets of Sin City, getting into fights, delivering their own versions of justice, lusting after their favourite dame. Marv still has a thing for Nancy (Jessica Alba), while Dwight is pursuing the beautiful but manipulative Ava (Eva Green), who seems to care little for her husband who she says beats her. Meanwhile, Johnny has some serious daddy issues — the illegitimate son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), Johnny decides the best way to win the approval of his father is to beat him at poker. He succeeds, winning poker-chips piled high like the Sin City skyscrapers, but then soon wishes he hadn't as Roark's goons send him into a world of pain and regret.

The film flicks between these three stories. Sometimes, they intersect. Neither Marv nor Dwight seems to grow or to learn from the previous film, but at least new characters Johnny and Ava add some interest to the story. Ava, it turns out, is the eponymous dame: a real belle dame sans merci if ever there was one. Eva Green is playing the role she does best: the stunning beauty, who drips with honey and then, seconds later, spits bile. Ava has a killer instinct and is the opposite of a damsel in distress, as most of the male characters learn to their cost.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is as visually striking as the first film and has some great performances, especially from Green and Gordon-Levitt. It's violent and OTT, but that's kind of the point. It's also quite funny in places, and nice to see the kick-ass Old Town girls kicking the asses of the many heart-broken dudes who populate the film. All of this adds up to nothing very substantial. Although the real protagonist is Sin City itself, there are too many characters for us to be able to connect very well with any of them. You almost wonder why they brought back Marv and Dwight at all. It is a perfectly adequate movie, but nine years after the first Sin City was released, I'm just not sure I know why they bothered.

4 September 2014

Aim for the Stars: Harrods Presents Stelle di Stelle

I was having a bit of a hectic week at work when I got an email that cheered me up no end: my friend invited me to join her for dinner at the Stelle di Stelle fine dining pop-up in Harrods on Tuesday night (she got tickets through work). Stelle di Stelle will, over the next five months, feature chefs from five different Italian restaurants with a total of 13 Michelin stars between them. Each chef has put together a four-course menu that highlights some of their signature dishes. The dinner sitting costs £160 — or £180 including a matching wine with each course. Stelle di Stelle, then, is an extremely decadent treat and I felt very lucky to have been given a complimentary ticket. [My ticket was given to me in a personal capacity and I wasn't there as a blogger; I just wanted to share my experience. As ever, my opinions are entirely my own.]

For the first month, the featured chef is Carlo Cracco from the Milanese Ristorante Cracco. We were dining the later sitting (8.30 pm), and after working up an appetite in the Harrods Food Hall, I was seriously hungry. The restaurant space itself is traditional and elegant: white tablecloths and exposed brick walls. We took our seats, chose the matched-wines option and waited as the food began to arrive. The September menu is available online here.

First, we were treated to some Grana Padano cheese and prosciutto di Parma, served with a glass of sparkling wine. I love Grana Padano and could probably have eaten more than the small serving, but it was probably for the best that I saved room for some of the other delicacies.

Next up was a 'deconstructed Caprese': a sorbet-like scoop of tomato pulp, served with basil and tiny chunks of mozzarella. It looked beautiful in its martini glass, and was accompanied by a glass of sparkling rosé. I'm a sucker for Caprese salads and this was a tasty and creative twist.

Dish number three was a Cracco speciality: the chef's marinated egg yolk. It looked a little like a regular fried egg, but the yolk had been marinated in sugar–salt solution for five hours, which gave it a unique, firm texture: quite unlike all the other eggs I've ever eaten! It came with a few tiny slices of courgette, which I don't normally like, but which was perfectly al dente. This course and the next were paired with a delicious 2011 Gavi di Gavi white. I don't like some white wines, but this was crisp and smooth, and I was glad we got two glasses. The next course was a langoustine risotto with pine nuts and green tomatoes. It was the most beautiful pink colour and the flavours were subtle and comforting.

The last savoury course included a veal fillet, capers, licorice, red onion and celery. I was worried that I might start to get full at this point, but the portions were, er, well-proportioned and so I was able to keep on enjoying my food. The veal was cooked perfectly, and the flavours in this dish worked very well together. As it was only a Tuesday, I started to get behind on the wine-drinking at this point, and although I didn't manage much of my Barbera, I did like it a lot.

Finally, it was pudding time: my favourite time. The featured dessert was a white chocolate panna cotta with a parsley sorbet and salted caramel. Yes, parsley. Yes, it does sound weird but the pepperiness of the parsley made a great contrast with the sweetness of the chocolate and the salty-sweetness of the caramel. Plus, it looked strikingly pretty on my plate. The matched drink for this course was a beer, which I didn't drink. It seemed like a bit of an odd pairing, but by this point I don't think I could have handled the sweetness of a dessert wine either. Just when we thought it was all over, they brought out some petits fours, a small glass of grappa and some coffee.

All in all, we had a great evening, with delicious and superbly presented food and drink, and Stelle Di Stelle would be a fantastic place to celebrate a special meal and to sample the work of a chef whose food is is not normally available in London. The price makes it a real splurge, but if you like fine Italian dining, you won't be disappointed.

Harrods Presents Stelle di Stelle (open until 31 January 2015). 87-135 Brompton Road, London, SW1X 7XL (Tube: Knightsbridge). Website. Twitter.

2 September 2014

"Whatever I've Done, I Have To Remember"

Rowan Joffe's new film Before I Go to Sleep is a faithful adaptation of the S.J. Watson novel of the same name — it's a tense, taut psychological thriller that employs one of my favourite narrative devices: the unreliable narrator. Usually, though, unreliable narrators are trying to deceive their audience but in this case, Christine (Nicole Kidman) has "atypical psychogenic amnesia" and as such, she wakes up every morning with no clue who she is and no idea about anything that has happened in the 15 years since the accident that caused her memory loss. As a result, Before I Go to Sleep is a sort of hybrid of Groundhog Day and Memento.

Christine's husband Ben (Colin Firth) seems at first to have the patience of a saint. Each morning, he explains to Christine who she is, who he is and when they got married. He shows her a wall of photos and tells her where she can find everything. A few weeks earlier, and unbeknownst to Ben, Christine has started seeing a neurologist, Dr Nash (Mark Strong), who is trying to help her recover some of her short-term memory. He gives her a video camera and tells her to record messages to herself each time she manages to claw back a glimpse into her past, and then he calls her each morning to remind her to check out the camera so that she doesn't have to start from square one.

Christine starts to discover that Ben is hiding things from her. Why doesn't he want to talk about her accident, for instance, or about her friend Claire (Anne-Marie Duff)? Of course, the trouble is that Christine doesn't know if he really is keeping secrets for malicious reasons or because he can't face the pain — both his own and Christine's — of telling the same traumatic stories from scratch time and time again. In many ways, the audience is in a similar position: a lot of the time, we have no idea whether or not Ben is telling the truth.

Before I Go to Sleep is tightly edited, clocking in at just over 90 minutes, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout, thanks to an ever-present, unsettling tension. In fact, some of the more excitable members of the audience at the preview screening I attended last night had trouble staying on their seat during some of the more violent moments. And there are a fair few shocks and violent moments, and enough twists and turns to keep those who haven't read the book guessing.

These things all make Before I Go to Sleep a decent, watchable thriller, but the performances elevate it into something more interesting. I don't always like Kidman's characters, but I think she was a good casting choice on this occasion. Christine is a role she often plays — the highly strung, fragile femme who is forced to draw on an inner strength she never knew she had. Firth, meanwhile, is getting very good at playing creepy, and it's impressive how his Ben switches from devastated, devoted husband to something that, in Christine's eyes, is highly sinister. Strong doesn't get as much screen time, but he's a nice contrast to Firth's character as the good doctor — or is he?