In no particular order

1. It’s Movember, and it turns out I’m unintentionally cheating as I decided a couple of weeks ago to grow the ol’ face fuzz for a while. However, screw the haterz – not only will I shame the hipsters who are taking it seriously with my luxurious growth, but in a week or two I’ll manage to achieve this (photo taken last winter and one of my favourite looks, I think you’ll agree).

2. My puppy is now practically a dog, in size at least (most definitely not in behaviour). 18 inches tall at the withers and just under 10kg isn’t bad for a lady whippet, so unless she’s going to be a monster, she must be close to done. And she’s not even 6 months old yet (which won’t be a happy anniversary as it’s when she gets spayed, poor darling).

3. Christmas shopping has started in earnest, and this year I actually feel in control. It’s a good feeling – I have something akin to inspiration, I have most gift-recipients covered, and it’s likely to be my last Christmas for a while when I can be something close to generous, because…

4. I’m in the process of buying a flat. It’s only been 11 days since all was agreed in principle so we’re still probably a month away from exchange, so anything could go wrong, but it appears on the surface that things are as solid and hopeful as they can realistically be in this situation. It would be tempting fate to give too much information at this stage, but it looks like I’ll be living north of the river for the first time since I was 1 year old. I feel like such a traitor (though to be fair, west London feels less like the filthy north and more like an annexe, if you will, of leafy, comfy SW London, so I’ll go with that).

5. For my dad’s birthday, my brother and I are going to take him to learn how to shoot clay pigeons. I am slightly disgusted by my enthusiasm about holding and firing a gun. I loved guns as a kid, and I can’t pretend they don’t hold a similar fascination for me now. That’s not bad, right? Right?

6. Downton Abbey is the best thing on TV I can remember. It’s utterly addictive, beautifully, cleverly written, with a fantastic cast and a storyline which gets deeper and more immersive with every episode. This Sunday see the first series come to a conclusion (but thankfully, there’s a second one on the way) and I can’t wait. Especially now that Masterchef: The Professionals has finished too. Though there are two new nerd-TV shows starting next week that I’m excited about – Giles Coren and Sue Perkins reworking The Good Life, and the BBC2 series Ancient Worlds which will explore the various roots of civilisation. Mesopotamiawesome!

7. I broke my bike! Frame failure isn’t exactly common in steel bikes but I guess I bumped into one too many kerbs/taxis/potholes and that’s the result. I am 99% sure I’ll buy the same frame again – a Bob Jackson Vigorelli – but this time I get to choose the colour. Please feel free to make suggestions – I have no idea!




Coffee shop study, Soho

Over the last few months I’ve been semi-intentionally trying to compare coffees from as many of Soho’s coffee shops and food boutiques as possible, and I think I have enough to put together a reasonably useful list. I must admit, at this point, that I am not a proper coffeephile, and always order a mocha wherever I go. Anyone who actually likes coffee tells me that mochas definiteively do not count as real coffee, and as such this list is redundant. But they’re all rockist stick-in-the-muds and should be ignored.

So, here, in descending order (it’s more fun that way, like exam results at school and the hit parade) are all the coffee retailers I can remember visiting in recent months. I know there are loads more I need to visit, and please please make recommendations (or otherwise) in the comments section.

17. Starbucks — A confession – if I’m not trying to be healthy, I get my mocha with cream on top and spoon on their vanilla powder and nutmeg. And I love it. But I can’t judge it on that basis when every other shop on this list is compared by their naked mocha. And Starbucks’ naked mocha is a weak, miserable cup of coffee. End of.

16. Costa — Too strong. A chain. Just not to my taste.

15. Caffe Nero — Another chain, another low score. Inconsitency is a strange complaint in a chain, but I never know if a Caffe Nero coffee is going to taste good or not, whch is really off-putting. When it does taste good, no complaints beyond its chaininess. When it doesn’t…

14. Pret a Manger — Decent coffee, if too strong, but keenly priced and swiftly brewed. My complaint here is a strange one – what relegates it to this level is the way that the chocolate sprinkled on top doesn’t melt or blend into the drink, but ends up in the bottom of the cup resembling nothing as much as sand. I dread getting close to the end.

13. Crepe Affaire — A bit unfair as coffee is a minority interest here, but the chocolate in the mocha is far too cloying and slightly artifical. It’s tasty but it’s too much and it feel wrong.

12. Le Pain Quotidien — Perhaps this is harsh marking, as the coffee’s really pretty decent (if invariably lukewarm), but I dislike their staff, their pricing and their atmosphere. Really, it’s fine – just an irrational meh from me.

11. The Breakfast Club — High quality coffee that is too strong for my tastes – people who drink mochas are usually those who don’t want such a full-tilt coffee experience. Also loses marks for fancying itself rather too much (this includes the staff) – it’s a hipster hangout and perhaps a bit too self-consciously proud of the fact.

10. Yumchaa — I’d love to put this place higher as it’s an absolute delight – a proper tea shop (I feel like a traitor asking for coffee, and not even proper coffee at that) with great staff and a lovely atmosphere – it’s great for meetings – all less than 50 yards from my office. But the coffee is too strong for me.

9. LJ Coffee House — A mid-table place for somewhere I’ve only been once, and was happy with but I honestly can’t remember anything more… This may be a mover when I’ve had a chance to re-sample.
View Coffee shops of Soho and environs in a larger map

8. Nordic Bakery — Perhaps the mildest of all the coffees I’ve had, and with a certain pleasant nuttiness. Underwhelming if I’m not in the right mood, but I often am in the right mood. It helps that it’s the perfect distance from my office for a pleasant afternoon stroll.

7. Milk Bar — This probably deserves higher, but it’s marked down because I’ve only been there once and it was full of hipsters. Like, really full. Seems to be a Flat White clone (the menu’s the same to I think) but without the charm or, going by this tiny sample size, quite the same level of quality.

6. Reynolds — A real find, though more for its fantastic lunch choices (seriously, check it out). Real coffee, well made, and I’m very happy to patronise (in every sense).

5. Eat — A wonderful surprise, especially compared to the woeful placings of the other chain stores. It’s not artisan coffee, but it absolutely hits the spot in terms of strength and sweetness.

4. Sacred — Sacred will be disappointed to only make #4. New Zealand clearly makes astonishingly good (read – to my personal taste) coffee, and Sacred’s offering is thick and creamy, sweet and potent. But it’s a little bit patchy, which drops it a place or two. They also have a franchise in Westfield in Shepherds Bush which is a Very Good Thing.

3. Paul — Only tried once, and it was the thickest, smoothest, most full-on mocha I’ve ever had. Perhaps a bit too much – it takes perfection and then it overdoes it, hence its #3 rating. I can’t wait to have another one, though, and it has a lot to live up to.

2. Bar Chocolate — A surprise discovery, since Bar Chocolate is a hipster bar whose staff obviously serve coffee as a bit of an afterthought. But it is gorgeous – everything a mocha should be. The only place where I’ve had my change returned to me on a little silver plate.

1. Flat White — Number one among a host of contenders for the consistency of greatness over the dozens of coffees I’ve had from there. It’s a bit trendy but somehow gets away with it because it has a slightly embarrassed charm, perhaps helped by the staff who just seem to get it right.

Torm Torm Torm

Last week, I discovered a new range of cycling jerseys from a new British manufacturer (I assume the ø in “Tørm” is a stylistic device but I may be wrong). To be fair, what led me to look them up was the suggestion that they were a straightforward Rapha rip-off (and it seems Rapha’s designer feels the same way), “made in the same factory to the same specifications [NB I have no idea if this is the case], but 1/3 the price”.

Obviously that last bit was what got me salivating. Rapha is a hyper-premium brand which produces top-quality stuff but has created an entire lifestyle, or even mythology, around its products. Wearing Rapha transforms you into a lean, wiry, chiselled climbing legend, conquering cols for fun, regardless of your actual reality. But in my humble opinion, it goes too far up its own arse, and I’m too self-conscious to wear Rapha without feeling a bit of a branded ponce.

I do own one Rapha garment, though, a short-sleeve sportwool jersey I won in a Bikeradar competition a couple of years ago. And it is a superb garment – beautifully designed and perfectly fitting, made from the ideal cycling material (39% merino wool and 61% polyester) which keeps you warm in winter, cool in summer, and never smells. So the prospect of gear of similar quality, without the subtle yet somehow ostentatious branding and under half the price, was a big draw.

A few days earlier, I had vowed to myself I wouldn’t buy any more cycling tops (I’m approaching 30 of the buggers, not including base layers), or at very least I would save up money I didn’t spend on buying expensive coffee and only then treat myself to some polyester loveliness. It didn’t work. And (in a counter-intuitive occurrence that should make marketers everywhere salivate with excitement), when I noticed that the price of the jersey I coveted had gone up by £10, I could no longer resist.

I bought the T5 jersey for £50 (and a short-sleeved sportwool base layer for luck), had it hand delivered to my office, which is a nice touch, and wore it home yesterday and into work today. It’s getting chilly now, maybe 10 degrees C or so on both rides, and I wouldn’t want to wear this jersey alone, despite its long sleeves (and the fleecy bib 3/4s I had on underneath), in much colder weather.

Having said that, the comfort levels were excellent, the material is soft and cosy, and the jersey fits well. Tørm’s Large size is a little more generous than Rapha’s (I have to admit I was expecting it to be identical), which is a real plus as that means you can actually take the sizing at its word – a rarity in cycling clothing – but it was slightly disappointing that the arms were just a bit too short.

They’d be fine on a civvy jersey, and the T5’s subtle stylings do make you wonder if some of its more, er, confident owners might wear it as such – the base layer even more so, as it looks fantastic on and I’m tempted to co-opt it as a t-shirt, especially when I shift the remaining spare tyre. But on a racing bike where you’re leaning significantly forward, the sleevs are pulled backleaving a gap of almost two inches between the cuff and my gloves. My arms are fairly long, but not that long, so I reckon adding an inch in the sleeve would be a good move.

That said, it is a really attractive top with great attention to detail. The logo is nice and subtle, and the colour is a gorgeous deep grey (not nearly as blue as it looks in the above pic). It’s cut in a very cycle-friendly way (notwithstanding the arm issue), with three open pockets and two smaller zipped ones on the back. The full spec is on the website, so I won’t repeat it, but I will note that it’s fully machine washable and tumble dryable – I’m always buying lovely things that I only later discover have to be dry cleaned.

Tørm also do a jersey that’s supposed to “protect from the elements”, the T6, and if it’s a windproof version of the T5 (I’ve emailed to ask), I’ll definitely get one. One of the pluses of dealing with new companies is you often get very personal service from the staff, and this has been the case with Tørm, with hand delivery, feedback to questions and an email to check all was okay. Add in the bargain price and it’s a no-brainer – as with the Shutt bib shorts I bought some weeks ago (and reviewed on this site), I’m delighted to support small businesses which prioritise value, service and quality.

Cornwall part 1

A couple of weeks ago B and I took our “summer” holiday in Higher Crackington, a hamlet just inland from the wild Atlantic in north Cornwall, primarily because we didn’t want to leave the puppy anywhere for days at a time. For days, calling it a “holiday” felt bizarre – we’d got there by car, we didn’t take passports, and no-one abused us under their breath in an indecipherable accent. Actually, the last one may not be true.

But I’m so spoiled by foreign trips and city breaks that holidaying in the UK was a novelty that felt anything but novel. My brain can deal with the concept of a long weekend in the provinces, but when Monday came around and I still wasn’t back at work, something clicked.

We chose a cottage pretty much at random from the Helpful Holidays website (such a homely name – if a company could be thatched, Helpful Holidays would be) for an incredibly cheap sum, for which we got a 17th century former dairy, all low lintels, wood beams, flagstone floors and the obligatory thatch. It sleeps six (at which point it’d be so cheap as to be essentially free), but it was perfect for the two of us plus pooch, and for our two weekend guests (though being 6’6″ in a cottage where you can only really stand up in the stairwell isn’t ideal).

Higher Crackington is about a mile from the seaside village of Crackington Haven, where we passed many happy afternoons in the local pub, the Coombe Barton Inn, gazing at the omnipresent surfers outside while listening to Michael Jackson (I swear I didn’t mean to play quite so many Jacko classics on the jukebox), drinking the most gorgeous ales from the Tintagel Brewery. Castle Gold was my favourite, just the most fragrant, smooth, delicious pint I can remember, and their brand new ale Cornish Legend was also superb. Track them down if you like beer, or if you have a soul.

(It’s a shame Tintagel itself didn’t live up to the promise – the mythical birthplace of King Arthur was a slightly depressing tourist resort with an enormous cliff-top hotel shaped like a medieval castle. Called “Camelot”, of course.)

Talking of pubs, one bonus of our cottage was that it came with the Good Pub Guide 2009. Unforutnately, having to drive everywhere meant we couldn’t take full advantage, but it was an essential companion on our travels, and led us to gems such as the Blisland Inn in the appropriately named Blisland. It required several miles of driving on single track roads through the most astonishingly green, swoopy, bucolic lanes before we came across the picture postcard village green. The pub was also recommended on the excellent Doggie Pubs website.

One thing we didn’t do in Cornwall was eat out. We visited Padstow, but for cream tea and a long walk on the amazing beach with Ludo, who discovered digging for the first time (she’s a natural, it seems), rather than for Steinage (we also visited Rock, over the water from Padstow, and gambolled among the dunes). Jamie has a place nearby too, I understand, but a combination of puppy and the need to drive, along with the addictive and visceral pleasure of a log fire, kept us in the house every evening, us reading on the sofas and Ludo depositing an eye-watering amount of excrement among the slugs and unusually vicious stinging nettles in the otherwise lovely garden.

Roy Castle moment

Anyone who follows me on Flickr (and if you don’t, please do, I’m brilliantly mediocre with an outstandingly average eye for a good photo) may have already seen this, but the week before last I met someone genuinely and undeniably astonishing – Sultan Kösen, the tallest man in the world and one of only 12 people ever recorded who have stood over 8 foot tall (he’s 8’2″ and reputed to be still growing, and also has the world’s biggest hands and feet).

I had been sent along to a conference which in honesty had little to do with my job, so my expectations were low. The Guinness World Records people were giving a presentation on their brand, which was all a bit slick and showy, and at the end they introduced Sultan to us. It felt uncomfortably like a freak show, but my fascination, based on a deep childhood love of the Guinness Book of Records and the unforgettable Robert Wadlow, overcame my distaste, and I took advantage of the photo opportunity. A genuinely unforgettable moment.

Baking Happiness

So I guess half my readership (hah! I don’t have a “readership”, I only get readers when I nag friends on Twitter or Facebook) has no interest in sport(s).  Which is kind of appropriate, considering that’s what I was whining about. Anyway.

There’s a place in Soho where small businesses go to die. It’s on the corner (or rather corners) of Berwick Street and D’Arblay Street, and every few months a new, excited, plucky foodmonger opens there, no doubt wondering how such prime retail space has become available.

Of course, it’s only free because some other courageous but browbeaten underdog has folded, spewing legions of young, mostly foreign catering staff onto the cold streets with little more than a three-month McJob on their CV. I guess they’re learning how much pragmatism they need to get by in the dog-eat-dog world of filling the gobs of entitled media idiots like me.

As well as the demise of Coffee Republic (north-east quadrant), which I can’t really blame on this small corner of Soho, the latest closure is Pastry Pilgrim, motto Baking Happiness (north-west quadrant). I don’t think so, somehow. I went in there a few times – their fare was decent, hearty baked goods with an English theme which sat slightly uncomfortably within the gastronomic multi-culturalism of the West End. Baguettes? Mais non! You will enjoy your Wensleydale or Stilton in an English Stick! Still, the sausage rolls and coffee were good, and they were noticeably friendly, perhaps tinged with desperation.

Before Pastry Pilgirm was Wrapid, which churned out perfectly acceptable things in wraps. My favourite was the pizza wrap, which was pretty much what it sounds like. I also tried the spaghetti bolognese wrap, equally straightforward but perhaps a slightly less successful idea. Neither was particularly healthy, despite tasting good, but I’m not sure Soho can support too many places you only go for treats.

Which also, I imagine, ruled out The Gourmet Hot Dog Company (south-east quadrant). I was very excited when I saw it appear, having been to the legendary Hot Doug’s in Chicago and marvelling at the choice and innovation that could be applied to encased meat products (though chips covered with cheese from a can? I’d give that a miss). But I only ever went there once, bought an undersized hot dog in a dry bun (I should take some blame here as I forgot to actually add any sauce), and never went back. Six months later, six months of walking past, slightly guiltily, seeing the initial rush of diners dwindling to essentially no-one, it closed its doors for the last time.

But now the shop-front is plastered with signs telling me that Wrap ‘n’ Roll Kebabs is soon to open there! And honestly, I don’t fancy their chances. Nothing about the name (admittedly, that’s all I’m going on) inspires imagining of innovation or deliciousness – yep, I like filthy doners as much as the next ex-student, but I reckon that’s not exactly what they’ll be aiming for. The poor pun also brings out the Cassandra in me.

And the worst thing is, I feel genuinely terrible for all these people! The depressing churn of staff, the fickle disappointment of customers, and the demolition of the owner’s dream of building  a happy, successful takeaway food business – hell, maybe even a chain! – in a thriving part of town. I sometimes (and I’m being literal here, I am that sappy) imagine the final tearful meeting with the bank manager, realising that the debts won’t be repaid, the business plan  isn’t viable, and that the nest egg of capital has dwindled to nothing. Poor sods.

So, good luck to Wrap ‘n’ Roll, and I hope even as I speak there’s a stylish, original food outlet being planned for the old Pastry Pilgrim space. But I fear the curse may be unbreakable.

(In case you’re wondering, the fourth corner isn’t a restuarant and hasn’t been in my memory. It’s Star Jewellery (south-west quadrant), and it’s doing very nicely, thank you.)

On sport(s)

I discovered the other day that The Guardian refers to sport as “sports” à la americaine for some unknown reason, and it brought out the little Englander in me. Well, I made a comment on the article. People power!

I’m struggling a bit with sport(s) these days. I’ve spent 30 years being a football fan, but this season, even more than last season, and that much more than the season before, I just don’t really care about it. I’m thoroughly sick of reading about football – there’s the odd article that uses humour as its fulcrum, rather than trying to find anything interesting or edifying about the game, but that’s about it.

(NB if anyone i still reading this and doesn’t care about sport, I’d skip to the puppy posts, it doesn’t get any more interesting).

I could write a whole nother post about football journalism but I’d just get bitter and unhappy and annoy both you, the reader, and myself. Most of all I resent  the fact that I don’t really have any desire to read the sports pages any more – or at least I flick to the tiny, anonymous articles about cycling or skiing or things I do still more or less care about, even if most of the readership doesn’t.

What bothers me most, though, is that I don’t really want to watch football any more. Match of the Day used to be a massive treat, a distillation of skill and passion into a perfectly-timed 90 minutes on a Saturday night. Nowadays, I seem to use it as a soporific.  As for actual games, well. Even during the World Cup I didn’t really make an effort to watch them, despite, during previous finals, getting all excited about watching the Costa Rica vs Saudi Arabia type matches.

I also don’t like the England team, which doesn’t help (they’re all dicks, it seems, dicks who need one billion words written about them – move on, Mark, they ain’t worth it), and this year Italy were rubbish, basically, so I had no-one to root for. Or rather I found myself following Germany, of all teams – what the hell must have gone wrong there?

I support a wonderful little team who have had massive success (on a small scale) since they were formed 8 years ago, and yet I don’t go to their games any more. I don’t have anyone to go with, admittedly, but that didn’t stop me before – I made loads of friends on the terraces, a bunch of lovely and diverse people who I no longer see or speak to.  It’s all a bit of a shame.

But it’s not just football. I’ve always liked many sports (NB the plural is acceptable in this usage), to the extent that my ex-gf’s mum called me a “jock”, of which I was secretly very proud. But nowadays the number of sports I take an active interest in, to the extent that I will go out of my way to watch and read about them, is two. Cycling, as previously mentioned, is one (though I’m missing the London stage of the Tour of Britain tomorrow to go to a party, bloody fairweather fan), and it’s not like that’ll be a surprise to anyone. And baseball’s the other, which probably deserves a whole post of its own. Watch this space.

I guess I should give honourable mentions to tennis (which I do enjoy following, if not watching so much), and athletics (the reverse), and to special events like the Olympics which don’t really count because even people who don’t like sport suddenly perk up every four years. I’m also intrigued by American football for some reason – getting to actually see a game last year (Tampa Bay vs New England at Wembley) helped a lot, ditto Aussie rules (West Coast vs Port Adelaide at Subiaco), but they’re not *my* sports.

It makes me sad that, for example, cricket only interests me these days when England play Australia. They’re playing Pakistan today, which I had no idea about until I saw the news headlines – I don’t even know what form of the game, and I don’t give a monkeys. That’s bad, right? Rugby (Union, I mean – League is for people who aren’t quite right) is another that I have really enjoyed in the past (and again I lost my virginity earlier this year when I saw Wales vs South Africa in Cardiff), but apart from the Italy games in the Six Nations, I have to rely on the infectious enthusiasm of others to get my attention levels up.

Oh, I still like motor racing. Does that count? Something tells me it doesn’t, not really – it’s more of a circus than a sport. Ah well.