Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Brownie tour

I've just returned from the most wonderful holiday. Road trips do it for me everytime. I love the way everything feels so free! No one knows you, the ones that do don't know how to get hold of you, you don't know where you're going to end up at the end of the day and...anything can happen!

One thing that struck me was the light. There is a technicolour vibrancy to the sky that we in England are rarely blessed with. Its gently pink-purple arrival in the mornings, then its brazen stretch over the whole day. Stark, wide, clear clear blue that seaps behind the horizon at night. And the air! It was kind of...marbled, warm in some steps, with refreshing streams of coolness in others.

We met lumberjacks and gold miners, cowboys and naked hippies. We ate beautiful succulent steak and wild salmon, hash browns and omelettes and fresh, ripe(!) avocados. We feasted on porcini lasagne and slurped up creamy clam chowder - and all the time there was delicious wine at hand. 'Clean Zins' and powerful Syrahs...and by day those oh-so-gluggable Pinot Gris'.

Most importantly though - and what with being a professional chocolate enthusiast - I was eager to get my chops round any piece of it that so much as winked at me. It was always catching my eye - from the velvet-like bittersweet chocolate custard at Chez Panisse to the heavenly chocolate haystacks in the Chocolate Haus in Mendocino - and I was up for it all. Black & White milkshakes, chocolate bananas, cocoa nib meringues and chocolate waffles all came into the equation, but it was the brownies that really got me going. It's not that I always physically required one, more that I felt compelled to get one - even if it meant three in a day - just so I knew...

You see, I have this fascination with what makes the perfect brownie (anyone that knows me will vouch for this) - and each one is so different. In London we have a myriad of choice but I can only think of one brownie (Choc Star excluded) that cuts it and this was made for me by a really great pastry chef who I hope to work with very soon! The rest are either delicious but dry, delicious but not cooked, delicious but more like a fondant, delicious but cakey, delicious but corrupt (who puts hazelnuts in a brownie?!), way too heavy on the vanilla, way too heavy on the VANILLIN or just absolutely wrong.

In San Francisco they love to put 100% cacao in them. This way more sugar can be added without being too much, meaning denser, fudgier brownies. My top three of the trip were from Poulet Deli (Berkeley), Citizen Cake (San Francisco), Scharffen Berger (Berkeley), with Recchiuti and Tartine's also very yummy.

I also discovered a hotbed of exciting new chocolate. As well as new bars from Scharffen Berger (loved the Las Islas and Kumasi Sambirano blends), I was delighted to discover new makers through Adam at Fog City News and Michael at Cocoa Bella, both in San Francisco. Just tucking into a Havana Heat 'Bistro Bar' by Chocolat Moderne of New York before my dinner...gotta run!

Sunday, 3 September 2006

Cali calling!

Oh my God, I’m so excited - running around like a nutter getting ready to go away on my research trip / roadtrip to San Francisco and up. The way they do things in the Bay Area is right up my street. Loads of milkshakes, ice cream, cake and chocolate! MMmmmmmm and I’ll be sampling all of it.

My mum and me go off on these great trips and have a right old laugh. She’s so much fun and likes picking up weirdos and freaks almost as much as I do (plenty of them over there). We always end up in these extraordinary situations. Usually it’s to the Deep South where up in the mountains and down in the woods it’s all about moonshine and ‘coon hunting, listening to the blues in rundown old shacks and gittin’ greasy with the soulfood!

This trip will be quite tree-huggy I suspect and I relish the chance to get into that Emerald Triangle up in Humboldt County - gimme some of that good Pacific Coast air….So I’ll write all about it. In the meantime I leave the lovely Millie in charge of Jimmy. The van will be back in position on Brick Lane from now on into the hot chocolate months.

I’ve got to go and catch that plane now - 11 hours of doing absolutely nothing. Bring it on!

Friday, 1 September 2006

Festi circuit

Camping. Still not quite sure how I feel about it. I’m more of a Winnebago girl myself, but the last few weeks have dictated that I get involved with the zippy-zippy, nylon rustle and hot face in the morning thing on a much grander scale than usual.

As we steer Jimmy from motorway to motorway (boy can he get surly on some of them slopes), each new festi presents itself in various degrees of high production/heavy security wonderment. I ain’t gonna lie, the first festi of the summer, Big Chill- the biggest of all - had me feeling terrified. I couldn’t imagine how it was going to be and the unknown had me super-stressed. Luckily I had some pretty hilarious wingmen on my team and together, we figured that what we lacked in professional output and hardcore signage, we’d make up for in good customer chat and lots of bling (not to mention the trustee ‘Gay mic’ which ensured everyone in Herefordshire knew we had some tasty ice cream on us).

What I hadn’t anticipated was the number of ridiculous conversations we’d find ourselves part of as people would get drawn to the van and then seem unmoved to leave. Like a conveyor belt of characters from some twisted fable they’d turn up in their various outfits, have a chocolate martini shot or brownie fudge sundae (let’s not get into what was happening to the frozen choc-dipped bananas), often try and enter the choc-mobile - ‘but it’s so beautiful!’ - and then eventually have to make way for the people behind to have a go.

It is a bit like having a grown-up Wendy house doing Choc Star and it’s very interesting seeing the different reactions to it. The festi crowd are the perfect people to appreciate it and (despite my initial stress at all the logistical demands) we have been having a right old laugh.

The other weekend we went to Cambridgeshire for the Secret Garden Party and got positioned with Jimmy’s ass backed right up against the Up All Night tent. Now I like music. I love it in fact. But what with relations already rather strained between me and tents, plus an advancing lurgy, plus being regularly traumatised by visits to the porta-loos, my sense of humour was tested to the max as the bands did their thing. Holy shit! Forget about ear-plugs - that base was attempting to take over my entire nervous system. It was so horrific it was funny.My mum eventually arrived one morning brandishing a child’s potty - so we could at least conquer the toilet scenario…I couldn’t quite figure out how best to pull it off though - sauntering past the ‘Groovy Smoothie’ lot all nonchalantly, clasping the little plastic vessel and then ducking behind a camper van/hedge/fence. Think I’ll have to work on that idea.

After the Secret Garden I drove home to Suffolk. What bliss! Over to Bury St Edmunds and down to stay with my friends Tash and Noche in their new Southfork-style ranch. I was happy to see that my old pal Gormenghast was still in business and pulled over to purchase some plums from the little table outside her rambling garden. The beard was as fecund as ever. Way past attempting to style it out, it occupies her face as if she has as much business cultivating one as the next man. We should take her to Bestival with us…

Tuesday, 4 July 2006

I love it, I love it! This heat is off the hook!

Jimmy’s been a very busy boy lately and I’m thinking of getting him some TLC at the garage. Plus he had to go through the trauma of having his insides sabotaged, but more of this in a minute.

The fetes and parties have found us in all four corners of the city: Dulwich, St John’s Wood, Kingston, Bow and heading out down the old trusty M4 for a bit of country fun. On the way back from a charity event the other day there were some serious noises coming from the exhaust. Though some of the lads in the yard tried to sort it out it soon became clear that I was going to have to pull out the old AA card. Now I always thought the AA were who you called when you broke down on the motorway and they’d come and tow you home. I didn’t realise there was a role for them with this sort of ailment. And if it’s not that urgent you can even book an appointment to suit your schedule. Discovering this I asked them to come and find me at Bloomsbury Square where we were doing a gig for the Architectural Bienale.

As I set up the wares and my brother Beppo went to find us some pizza, the AA van pulled up behind with the big old (slightly inappropriate for such a tiny job) yellow lights flashing. And who should get out but the most gorgeous AA man you’ve ever seen! Now maybe I’ve been misled by the ads but I thought AA men were supposed to be slightly dowdy fellas with a touch of the anorak about them. Not this one. Tall, dark and rugged with a real glint in his eye… He got straight to work, cutting up some old can, getting under the van and DIY-ing the job until I could get Jimmy raised to have it done properly. Of course I gave him a huge ice cream (Mexican chocolate, MMMmmm) and, not being able to resist, I just had to get his number. Job done, off he went with a toot-toot and I got back to the punters.

There’s a piece in the Metro today about British chocolate. I was called up the other day by the writer and spoke with passion and eloquence about the change in attitude towards chocolate in this country; about how we’re placing our own stamp on chocolate and finally pulling away from the glib reliance on Belgian, French and Swiss as our best bets. And about my attempts with Choc Star to merge good chocolate with familiar, delicious treats. What gets pulled out of all of this? Something about good chocolate being ‘up it’s own arse’. Oh well, I guess it gets the point across.

So I went to pick up my van from his digs on Saturday only to discover to my absolute horror that the delicious ice cream that languished in the freezers inside had been sabotaged! This is the kind of thing that comes to me in my anxiety dreams and it came true! The same thing had happened a few weeks ago when I arrived to find the van unplugged. Talks with all the security guards ensued and I made a big sign which I stuck to the plug saying “Warning! Do not unplug. Freezers must be run at all times”. To happen once is unfortunate, but to happen twice is bordering on the suspicious. Why would anyone want to waste damn good ice cream? Finding secure parking for Jimmy is an ongoing struggle in London and one which often has me pining for a place in the country with a barn next door to plug him in at night….

But for the meantime this heatwave is giving London a real switch in her hips, the St Georges flags remain proud and defiant (’England til I diiie, I’m England til I die…’) and chocolate ice cream and malted chocolate milkshakes are in hot demand. Gotta go!

Thursday, 1 June 2006

Dodgy boiler

Gees, where to begin? I’m in the middle of a major bake-in: fudge brownies (getting fudgier with every tweak and twist), Millionaire’s shortbread, chocolate Guinness cake (can’t get enough of this one and always have to make extra for old greedy chops here). Down the corridor is some serious drilling and hammering action - nothing exciting, just the new boiler being put in. The old one was about 50 years old and finally packed up the other week leaving us without hot water. Nice. Lots of water boiling has ensued including all pots on deck to pull off the arduous task of creating a hot bath. Very pre-war. Quite rewarding actually and you sure as hell need one after all that to-ing and fro-ing with those steaming vessels.

At the weekend we were down in Bognor Regis (I’d always wanted to visit Bognor, ever since I insisted on it being the location of my very first ‘business’ when I was 14. Business Studies GCSE: we all had to pick a project - mine was called Chocolate Unlimited and was a chocolate cake shop (!) I don’t remember a lot about it apart from the break-even chart and being split up from my friend Lozza because we were messing around too much).

We were there for The Rox festival which, I have to say, was not a success. So much of my first year in business is going to be figuring out what not to do and though I didn’t get any closer to Donald Trump status in Bognor, I learnt some valuable lessons and picked up some very good advice from some of the ‘old hands’ in the biz. The Tex-Mex man, North Carolina sweetcorn guy and Bill with the Chinese food trailer were all more than happy to chew the cud with me (whilst we waited for Bognor to find their appetites) about the pitfalls of this trade. There they were with these big, smooth-running operations - all ready for the crowds that festis (usually) attract. And there was my van, gorgeous and cute and everything but…we need to address some logistics before entering that particular arena. Yikes!

Oh, I haven’t even mentioned my long weekend in Havana! Well, what I should say is my week in an all-inclusive in Varadero which was supposed to entail me lying around in the sun recharging my batteries whilst having my drink regularly re-filled but, after a couple of days of resort hell, I was soon high-tailing it over to la ciudad to see what Cuba really had to offer…Damn! That place was doing it for me in a major fashion. I hooked up with a British guy who’d been living there for a while and knew all the best nooks and crannies to get lost in.

If I ever wanted to write a book that’s where I’d go: layer upon layer of questions and fascination and contradiction and SPICE! A bar crawl alone threw up enough to keep me going for weeks but then there’s the music and the dancing. Now I thought I’d seen some crazy dance moves in my time but this was something else. Jaw-dropping - you know, I did my best, I tried to get down but…these people are in another league.

I’m going back to Cuba for a proper stay next time. As long as I get through this summer in one piece. This weekend: the Strictly Dance Fever wrap party. Bring it on!

Thursday, 27 April 2006

Bike ride

There’s nothing like a good old bike ride on your day off and one of my current favourites is cycling along the canal - from Little Venice all the way East. There’s this whole mellow scene going on that’s such a pleasant surprise after the chaos of the streets…well, it’s hardly Calcutta out there but the chance for a bit of respite from the traffic/bendy buses/militant cyclists/dangerous pedestrians is great.

My mate Alanna came by the house and together we headed off for fun and (mis)adventure. You know those friends who you can’t help but get into trouble with? Well that’s her, and as we bounced from one pub to the next, on to a club in the evening and then to this extraordinary party in Kings Cross, our encounters with various characters along the way were just as hilarious as ten years ago when I’m sure we were a lot wilder.

Some things never change and I’m glad. I’m a lot less flighty than I used to be though. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, Choc Star has honed my levels of commitment in a major way. I mean there I am, enjoying my day off, unwinding after a fairly stressful few weeks - and my mind is never far from work…when we cycled past Melrose and Morgan in Primrose Hill I dutifully leapt off my bike and headed in to purchase a variety of cakes for research. Great shop - all kind of calmly functioning and soothing colours. Had a chat with Mr M., polished off the booty (thumbs up to the cake, not overly moved by the icing) and got back on the road.

Later on we found ourselves in Camden Passage where the delightful Paul A. Young has pulled off a great little chocolate shop. I walked in and thought of Elizabeth David…if she’d ever passed a bit of time with Prince and wanted to shooszh up her pantry a little. A nice strapping blonde guy immediately offered us ceramic beakers filled with dreamy hot chocolate and we perused the blocks of Amadei and Paul’s own bars. Very interesting but I’d long ago cycled off the cupcake calories and was in need of another fix. My eyes lit up as they fell upon the table of baked goods: chocolate baguette cake, double chocolate Amadei biscuits, super-fudgey brownies and salted chocolate and caramel tarts. I went for all of them, all wonderfully simple and wonderfully delicious…but the caramel tart was seriously flicking all the right switches for me. A deep, luscious, smooth caramel, sprinkled with bits of salt that gave the sweetness a whole life of its own. If that baby could talk I’m sure it would make a great companion for a bike ride!

Wednesday, 19 April 2006

I love B&Bs!

Last week we hit the North to promote the new Topshop store in Manchester. Jimmy was like a foal let loose in the meadows, whinnying up the M1…or was it the M6? I have a terrible memory for roads and directions. Luckily I had good navigators and after several hours (quite slow lane-focussed) we arrived in Wilmslow where we were booked in to stay at Marigold House with Kate and Bernard. There was the darling Bernard all ready and waiting in the driveway, eager to get the van plugged in and us settled.

The place was immaculate. Gleaming and deeply domesticated. I was delighted to discover that Kate and Bernard’s neighbours might as well have been a Who’s Who of Weatherfield, past and present. There in the village shop as I assessed milk purchasing possibilities, were wall-to-wall signed photos gazing down at us: Jim McDonald, Steve McDonald (what’s happened to his hair?), Deniece and good old Ken Barlow. Back at the ranch Bernard poured us G&Ts and divulged tales of suburban intrigue amongst the locals. It felt safe and cosy and I was kind of relieved to be in a version of the countryside after so long in the city.

The job went really well with lots of Topshop customers thrilled to be being given free chocolate goodies. Elsewhere we traded our wares with builders for power and with the Manchester Eye workers for a ride on the wheel. I can’t believe how much the city seems to have changed…yet going for a spin round the old neighbourhood proved that some things never change. The city centre thrives whilst the surrounding areas sink into pot-holed decay.

It was great to have done the job and for everyone to have been happy with it. My first big out of town event - and here’s to many more.

After returning to London the following week was super-hectic. Lots of Easter chocolate fiends unleashing their desires at the van. Greenwich at the weekend was thronging with people and it was really good to discover quite a few making a special trip because of the piece written about Choc Star in the Metro on Wednesday. We scooped and shook ice cream until we were sold out of everything, then handed round the last few pieces of Millionaire’s shortbread, brownie shots and chocolate gingerbread men before heading home and diving into the bar round the corner for some heavy duty bourbon cocktails. Bliss.

Friday, 31 March 2006

Clutch control

I took the van down to the East Greenwich Market on Saturday. As I swung round Hyde Park Corner, over the Vauxhall Bridge and through the sunny streets of Peckham spring was clearly in the air. I counted three ice cream vans heading out that morning. Each shaking off their winter coats and rousing themselves for soft scoop glory.

After my summer 'market research' experiences I have been privy to the world of Mr Whippy and his sharp tongue, so it is always interesting to clock the faces of my fellow mobilers. Apart from a couple of really sorted looking guys up in Harlesden, the comradery seems a bit bleak. On this morning each ice cream man bore a kind of grim-faced determination to shift some cones and staunchly refused any 'wotcha's with me.

I sallied forth to Greenwich where the market had been set up in a kind of Blue Peter-style garden - all stiles and urban scrubland. Eddie the juice man volunteered to manouvre the van into my spot - essentially some bracken covered earth under a tree - I think he thought we'd be there all day if I did it. I'm actually alright at parking the van, but you know...sometimes there are all these blokes around and they kind of want to lend a hand and it was a bit of an awkward spot...

Before long the place was teeming with locals come to check out the new market. It was great! I felt like I was involved in a village fete. The bunting and the rolling for a pig game weren't there but it was as close as we were going to get so near to the Blackwall Tunnel.

I spent most of today sitting in traffic, listening to old tapes and trying to be as alert a driver as possible after my shock earlier in the week. On Monday I was involved in this really full-on road accident. I was on my bike - wearing my helmet for once - when a very hairy situation occured, rendering the two other people flat on their backs on the road, unconscious and me fine. It was the strangest thing. All kind of tripped-out and slow seeming.

Anyway, the point is, Jimmy needs a good run. He can't be dealing with all this stopping and starting and I'm sure I'm getting a thick left leg from the endless clutch-control. Next week we're heading to Manchester to do a job for Topshop so that should do it. Can't wait to get on the open road!

Monday, 20 March 2006

Bitter Chocolate Tart

Today is supposedly my day off. Not the easiest thing to honour when your head is a whirl of chocolate-related thoughts: stock to order, pitches to chase, baking to organise, bills to pay, mechanics to come and check out my engine (!), bookings to prepare for. And, of course, the obligatory tasting of new products.

It's tough - I'm not gonna say it ain't - but there are a lot of recipes to try and chocolates to nibble, all in the sake of research and keeping oneself abreast of the situation. Take this bitter chocolate tart for instance. It's good. Really good. But is it heavy dependency good, or merely of the quick fix/light titilation variety? It certainly does have something. A simplicity in the deep, dark truffled filling, sitting so pretty atop its crisp, buttery shortcrust.

I'm going to persevere until I'm absolutely sure...

Meanwhile I must really knuckle down and plan for the coming weeks of heavy-duty chocolate dispatches. Things are moving and I need to be right there for every development. Planning, planning, planning...never has been a particular favourite concept of mine and, as March comes over all hostile, the impulse to jump on a plane heading for balmy climes is intense.

But so too is my commitment to Choc Star. It's not just a business for me but, rather, a tool for understanding what life's all about. That and a damn good excuse to eat all the chocolate pies I can lay my hands on...!

Friday, 24 February 2006

Chocking around the block...

I'm pretty excited. This is my very first blog and I'm about to unleash some tales of a life spent pootling around town (London) in Choc Star, AKA 'Jimmy' - the choc-mobile. Most of the time I feel as though I'm on holiday as I swerve round corners and charge down high streets, passing dour faces in pristine SUVs. This is a funny path to have chosen. A childhood dream bent into shape. An anchor for my flailing roots. It has given me a focus that I've never known before and, at the same time, an insight to a huge cross-section of the city.

I've had the van since June when I picked it up from Inverness after successfully winning it on ebay. I'd wanted to do something with chocolate and, in the end, the hot-chocolate-ice-cream-van-idea was born. It just sorta kept on pushing up against the wall of my brain, demanding release. I couldn't ignore yet another notion that presented itself in my imagination. Why the hell not? What do any of us really have to fear in the grand scheme of things...other than the sour feeling of not having taken any risks in our short lives? That, to me, is hell.

And if it all ends tomorrow...well, it won't. Because I've started now and if this doesn't work out 'as planned' I'll just try something else. I'm on the journey, man, and I'm lovin' it!