Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Pay Day Treats

Do you take respite in mindless activities when all hell's breaking loose in global politics? It's not like I'm burying my head in the sand - the world's gone to s**t and it's terrifying - but I do think we all need a bit of a refuge from the deluge of worrying news stories and anxiety-filled Facebook feeds every now and again. 

So I'm not at all ashamed to say that I took great joy in indulging in an afternoon of surfing interiors on Instagram and seeing what's new in the shops right now - yes, it's all very superficial when there's a new world order happening around us, but sometimes you've just got to gather your troops around you (in my case, two sickly children), make a pot of tea and take half and hour out from the world to wonder if buying a banana design bag from Zara might bring some small joy into your world right now. 

Here are some other things that caught my eye during my afternoon of surfing - all under £50 and all available online...

Mini Banana Crossbody Bag - Zara, £17.99

I love a fruit motif, do you? But maybe you haven't got a bag with a banana on it - if not, this might bring a pop of summer colour to your wardrobe. 

Lakeesha Blouse - Monsoon, £49

Just the right amount of boho detailing to make this an interesting and versatile addition to your spring wardrobe, plus Monsoon stuff tends to be well made enough to justify the more expensive price tag.

Denim Ruffle Top - Next, £30

Next reported disappointing profits last year which really surprised me - this is one of the few high street stalwarts that I think has really upped its game recently by introducing some really affordable, fashion-forward pieces to its range. I guess retail - like politics - is a capricious and totally unpredictable beast. This top is the sort of thing they do well.

Mocki Light Blue Jeans - Monki, £30

Monki recently opened in Bristol and while clearly its demographic is much younger than me, I'm glad I wasn't put off by the hordes of teenage girls buying crop tops and stick on patches when I made a visit or else I wouldn't have discovered it does brilliant jeans. The Mocki cut are fantastic - I really can't recommend them enough; they're made of quite heavy-weight denim, the cut is great (exactly the right kind of skinny) and they come in really nice washes. And they're £30. Go check them out. 

Embroidered Kimono top - Marks and Spencer, £39.50

This feels like a really good 'transitional' piece - the sort of thing that will provide a bit of respite from the slightly boring grey jumpers I live in during the winter, but which still has long sleeves to provide a bit of warmth on chillier spring days. And it has embroidery on it, so I'll probably end up buying it...

Black Floral Print Shirt - New Look, £17.99

I really love this look, even though florals aren't usually my bag. Granted the gorgeous model can work high-waisted jeans and dewy skin a lot better than I can, but I think adding a flowery flourish to your wardrobe might have restorative powers if you're feeling a little world-weary right now. 

Gina V-Cut Flare Block Heels - Topshop, £56

Whoops. These come in at just over £50 but forgoing a couple of shop-bought coffees justifies them, right? For the high-heel phobic like me, these are perfect - not too high and blocky. And they're animal print which is a print I mainly like to wear on my feet. 

Printed Cotton Sweatshirt - Mango, £19.99

I know, Mars would be a preferable option right now. Alas, we're just going to have to stick it out here on Earth for the time being - I recommend wearing cosy sweatshirts like this one, making cakes and drinking lots of tea. It might help a little bit...


Monday, 23 January 2017

Book Recommendations: Letters of Note

I've been extolling the joys of a book called Letters of Note recently, a two volume compilation of letters that makes for perfect reading if you're looking for a bit of refuge in these strange times we currently find ourselves living through. It's all been a bit confusing, dispiriting and unsettling, don't you think? But this book might help if you're looking for something to let a bit of light in. 

Both a lesson in history and a reminder that humans are capable of the most extraordinary acts of compassion, it's a really fascinating collection of letters written by people from all walks of life, from powerful heads of state to ordinary individuals. With motivations ranging from the globally important (you'll find a plea from Gandhi to Hitler to abandon his march on Eastern Europe "for the sake of humanity") to the more individualistic (there's a brilliant letter by a copywriter pitching for a job as a Hollywood screenwriter) the collection shows how powerful the written word can be. 

With the world currently in tumult, I found it reassuring to read letters written at times when humanity was going through similar upheavals and uncertainties. There are also examples of the incredible kindness of strangers in the book; a particularly poignant letter to the Ciulla family - whose son Frank was killed in the Lockerbie air crash - displays how the written word can extend a hand of friendship and connection that crosses physical boundaries and geographical borders, giving comfort and hope in times of personal tragedy. 

Amongst the poignant notes, you'll find truly uplifting pieces of correspondence - a lovely letter from Roald Dahl to a young reader, a tongue-in-cheek "personal letter" from actor Steve Martin and a hilarious response to a disgruntled reader from Spike Milligan. 

The letters in this first book are a wonderful, diverse and fascinating examination of what it means to be human. A love letter to letters, it's a useful reminder that the world is always in flux, that life is messy and things can seem pretty bleak at times - the writers of many of these letters were looking for answers to life's big questions or simply a ray of hope during difficult times. 

As a new, uncertain year dawns, I found this letter from writer EB White (author of Charlotte's Web) particularly pertinent - it was a response to a Mr Nadeau who sought his opinion on what he saw as a bleak future for the human race:

Dear Mr. Nadeau
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
E. B. White
Find out more about Letters of Note and buy your copy here.
E.B. White letter and page inserts reproduced with thanks to Letters of Note

Monday, 9 January 2017

Creating Recipes with Exeter Cookery School

I've started 2017 with a culinary first - I've devised my very own recipe. Thanks to an exciting opportunity with Exeter Cookery School, I've channelled my inner Nigella (I knew she was in there somewhere!) and turned my mind to coming up with a recipe for the sort of comfort food I crave at this time of the year. It's actually quite daunting devising a recipe - it's one thing to love food and have an appreciation for different flavour combinations but quite a different proposition to come up with something that's a) edible and b)actually enjoyable for your dining companions. 

After thinking about the flavours I love and the sort of food that I naturally gravitate towards, my recipe was always going to look towards the Med for inspiration. And having recently been inspired by Nigella Lawson's programme on the legendary food writer Anna del Conte, I've been craving a taste of Italy as an antidote to all that turkey and Christmas buffet food. 

So, my recipe blends classic Italian flavours with a nod to Spain - I just love chorizo and sherry so I wanted to find a way to include these in my idea. The result uses Orzo, a rice-shaped pasta that creates dishes that look more like risotto. It's perfect when you're craving carbs but want something a bit different to more ubiquitous pasta varieties. 

I've used a picante chorizo but standard chorizo will do - you need it in a ring rather than thin slices. Be generous with the sherry - white wine might also work but sherry gives the dish a particularly special flavour. And you need good quality tomatoes that are really juicy - I used delicious cherry tomatoes from Waitrose. 

I hope you enjoy my idea - if you get a chance to try it, I'd love to hear what you thought of it! 

Orzo with Spicy Chorizo, Tomato & Basil

Serves 2


2 tsp regular olive oil
120g chorizo picante, cubed (regular will do but I used an extra spicy version from Waitrose)
75ml dry fino sherry 
250g orzo pasta
625ml boiling water
Knob of butter
1 heaped tablespoon grated parmesan (and a little more to serve)
Generous handful of ripe cherry tomatoes, quartered
Generous handful of fresh basil


Gently heat the oil in a large heavy-based pan - I used my regular pasta pan. Throw in your cubed chorizo and gently cook without burning. Add the sherry to the pan and let it bubble and absorb. 

Then add the orzo and toss it in the juicy oil from the chorizo, making sure each grain is coated. Add the water and and turn down the heat to a simmer. 

Let the pasta cook for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the pasta doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. You may need to add a little more water from the kettle; a bit like making risotto, you want the water to absorb but the pasta to be cooked properly.

Once the pasta is cooked and all the water is absorbed, beat in a knob of butter. Then beat in a good tablespoon of grated parmesan so your orzo becomes a little creamy. Then thrown in your tomatoes and basil.

Plate up your orzo and add a scattering of basil and perhaps a little more parmesan and black pepper to serve. 

Find out about Exeter Cookery School and the courses it runs here.


Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Trouble With...Lunch Hours

...is nobody appears to take them anymore. I know, it's hardly news - people stopped leaving their desks to have lunch sometime around 1993, but it never ceases to amaze me that not having a lunch hour is A Thing. As the big return to work gets underway this week, I've been reminded how totally unnatural is it for humans to sit in front of screens for 8 hours a day. There's nothing like the Christmas holidays - a time for complete surrender to lack of routine and a life-enhancing break from the tyranny of desk-bound employ - to ram the point home: sitting in front of screens for long periods is bad for your back, your eyes and your general sense of wellbeing. 

So why do more and more of us feel bad about taking a full hour in the middle of our working day to do things that are essential for our personal wellbeing and professional productivity? What's the big deal about enjoying your lunch at a reasonable rate of mastication and perhaps taking a stroll outside before returning to the afternoon's endeavours? 

When I first started working back in the mid 90s, we were pretty much forced to take a lunch break. At 1pm on the dot, everyone downed tools and one of my more elderly colleagues wandered through the office informing us it was 'synching time' - we literally had to 'rest' our computers while things 'synched'...I'm still not sure what this really meant, but I'm grateful that my first experience of work was embedded in pre-noughties technology and a culture that didn't yet follow the American model of 24/7 working where taking lunch is 'for wimps'. Those halcyon days were filled with conscientious working during office hours (we didn't have social media and mobile phones to distract us back then) and fun lunch breaks spent in the park or down by the river in Twickenham. 

But then that aforementioned American way of doing work started to creep in and subsequent workplaces I found myself at didn't seem to have a culture where taking a reasonable lunch break was considered good use of time. Strangely, it seems that it's not necessarily the organisations or senior managers that are to blame, but the staff who impose desk-bound activity upon themselves. I'm truly amazed that so many people deny themselves the opportunity to enjoy their lunch away from the glare of the computer, have a blast of fresh air or simply get a few tasks ticked off their personal to do list. Are there really that many people with that much work to do each and every day that taking a break for an hour just isn't a possibility? 

I think it's interesting that many parents bemoan the time their children spend in front of screens yet we don't apply the same rules to ourselves. Of course, our children's screen use is (usually)conducted during their leisure time; working in front of screens is a necessary part of working life and I'm not denigrating those people with stressful jobs that really do have to put in the hours at their desks. 

But the point remains the same - it's good to take a break from screen time whenever we can. Don't be a martyr if you really don't need to - take a walk outside in the sun, for Chrissakes! I truly believe most working people can allow themselves a full 60 minutes away from the computer more often than not during their working week. 

So, as a new working year commences and the office air is charged with possibility and the whiff of new stationery, I believe we should all be resolving to keep ourselves refreshed and recharged with daily (wherever possible - deadlines and other stressy stuff permitting) breaks each lunchtime. If you're feeling really brave, you could even - whisper it - leave your phone at your desk too...

PS: this rather pertinent article popped up in my Twitter feed as I was writing this piece - take a look and heed its warning:

"Studies have suggested that those who overwork themselves are more prone to myriad health issues that include mental illness, which ought to force us to question our system of values. 

At the end of the Pew report, the authors warn that in 2020 "People will not take the time to enjoy nurture or nature." Welcome to the future..."

© Bristol Bargainista. All rights reserved.
Blogger Templates by pipdig