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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sunshine and Stuffed Hot Dogs @ Foodies Festival, Syon Park


Hello! How was your weekend? We had a long one here in the UK (and in the US) - John was watching the cricket at Lord's on Saturday and I tried to catch the last of Chelsea in Bloom (and totally failed, as it was raining and half of the floral displays had clumps of dirt trying to cling on for dear life), but on Sunday, we managed to squeeze in a few hours at the Foodies Festival in Syon Park before John had to leave for Helsinki on a business trip. I was super lucky and managed to score two tickets to the festival via a contest that Yelp was running on Twitter, so we made the hike from North London to the beautiful park in West London. I hadn't let anything pass my lips that morning, so by the time we reached the festival at 1 p.m., I had a major case of "hanger" - you know, hunger-induced anger (sorry, John!).

The vibe at the festival was buzzing - with families (and dogs!) abound. Despite the presence of a Pimm's tent, I had chicken drumsticks for eyes by this point, so I charged about aimlessly in search of the most filling, outrageous meal I could find ...


 ... which eventually arrived in the form of this truffle mac 'n cheese hot dog from Gourmet Griffin.


Handing out double-stuffed hot dogs from the window of a vintage 1966 Bedford camper van just might be the classiest version of a food truck that I've ever seen.


After wrangling with the unruly macaroni and cheese (with perfectly al dente pasta, I'll add!) and smashing down the delicous herbed pork sausage sandwiched between the brioche bun, my blood sugar levels still hadn't quite been restored, so I went charging around again in search of our next conquest, all at the same time yelling at John for not giving me enough time to take the photos I wanted (helpful, and not at all rude, right?).

After making a couple of loops around the festival, we finally settled on a stall that had quite an exciting looking menu (sadly, we missed out on the rainbow fries, but I'm still intrigued!):


The Wandering Bun's pork belly bun with Thai mayo and slaw filling looked downright mouthwatering. I watched them put together two of these famous buns before deciding that I needed one ASAP (sidenote: check out the sheer intensity of the mayo-squeezing down there ... I mean, I seriously need to adopt that level of concentration in the kitchen, rather than the haphazard aim-and-misfire method that I typically employ).


But the bun itself ... oh my goodness. Some seriously intense flavors, with an interesting tangy, chilli kick! That crunchy slaw was epic, btw.



But I skipped a step. In between "courses", I'd stopped by The Brownie Bar to ogle their selection of brownies. Question: when asked to choose between over 30 different flavors, including salted caramel, millionaire, lemon meringue blondie (!!!), and s'mores ... which would you go for?? I almost always pick salted caramel anything, so went with that in this instance.


We also bought one of these incredible brownie-stuffed cookies ... yep, you read that correctly: a brownie within a cookie.


It just had to be done. The brownie was lovely and gooey, encased by a soft and chewy chocolate chip cookie. Must. Find. Recipe.

By now, my blood sugar levels had satisfactorily restored themselves, but I couldn't help purchasing a little tub of toffee waffle hazlenut ice cream from Simply Ice Cream, which is based in Kent.



Throughout the day, there were food demonstrations being given by top chefs and cocktail-making masterclasses ... all which looked interesting and fun. If we had more time (and - let's be honest - had I been in less of a mission to quell my hanger), I might have sat down to participate. But I was too busy stuffing my face with brownie-cookies (or, "brown-kie", as someone suggested over on Instagram?) instead.

Honestly? I would have liked to see a few more adventurous recipes and items on the menu at the Foodies Festival - some were pretty run-of-the-mill items, such as hog roasts and paella. I think we're pretty spoiled with the food markets near us in Dalston/East London e.g. Broadway and Netil Markets in London Fields and Sunday (Up)Market near Brick Lane/Spitalfields.

What's the best food festival you've ever been to? I really liked Smorgasburg in Broolyn, which is self-described "flea food market", rather than a festival, though I've been to Bite of Seattle in the past, which was a lot of fun too (not to mention, free!).

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Problem With Niche Blogging (And Why I Won't Be "Going Niche" Anytime Soon)


If you're reading this right now, then I'll bet you're either:

a) a friend
b) a fellow blogger
c) a combination of the above
d) none of the above

or, finally:

(e) my mom.

And, I'll also bet that my blog is one of five, ten, or fifteen other blogs you'll visit on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Right? (Unless you're my mom, who only reads mine, duh.)

You might regularly visit a beauty blog that you love, a food blog you're obsessed with, a travel blog for inspiration, a fashion blog that's just fun, or a lifestyle blog that's pretty.

I do.

But what this blog doesn't have is a niche. Food, travel, shoes, expat stories, whining (and wining!), Bach ... I'll write about whatever comes to mind (specifically, whatever comes to mind while shaving my legs in the shower because - I'll tell ya - that's prime time for inspiration).

I can't write a blog about The Best Spots for Truffle Scrambled Eggs in London. I can't write a blog about Pointy-Toed T-Strap Shoes (they are very in right now, Instagram tells me). I can't dedicate an entire blog to perfume or art or tiny aluminum sculptures of geese (I'm staring at one right now).

It's just not me. It's not my voice.

Five years ago, I started writing this blog to help me figure out whether I wanted to live in the US or the UK. I thought it'd help me make up my mind (it didn't). I called it "Angloyankophile", because I wanted to highlight the best of both worlds. I wrote about cakes and nice Irish tube drivers and books.

Fast forward five years later, I've amassed a few more followers (other than my mom), gained recognition in the Travel category at the UK Blog Awards, worked with some incredible brands and companies, and - most importantly - made some very special friends.

But still, I attend blogging workshops and events - Muji pen poised above the pages of my Moleskine journal, ready to absorb, ready to learn - and I'm crushed when the first words out of the organizers' mouths are, "Get a niche. Stop whatever you're doing and get a niche. You'll never be successful otherwise."

And, you know, I'm not writing this blog to be successful. But I'd be lying if I said that I didn't want anyone to read my words either. 

I try to post 3-4 times a week. If I wrote that blog on tiny aluminum sculptures of geese, I'd probably post once a month. "Drop the sarcasm," I hear you say. Okay, I will. But even if I wrote a blog about vegan beauty products, for example, just how many posts could I realistically write about vegan beauty products per week? In an online arena that is saturated - I mean, dripping like the french fry fat at the bottom of your McDonald's cardboard french fry holder (sorry for the gross analogy) - with beauty blogs?

And that brings me to my next point: the sheer volume of bloggers that exist.

Sometimes, I become so disheartened about blogging. I'm a teeny, tiny drop in what feels like an infinite ocean. According to this 2012 survey, there were an estimated 31 million bloggers in the US alone. Now, just think about that number and imagine how it would be multiplied worldwide - and we're now in 2015.

But then I have to remember my audience - and I was thinking about this for a while. My mom might read anything that I write (even if it's about tiny aluminum sculptures of geese), but you probably wouldn't, unless it was interesting, right?

And I don't want to alienate any readers. I try to make my posts as widely appealing as possible: regardless of age, gender, geography, ethnicity, or where you're at in life. Sometimes I fail at that. I know, and I'm sorry.

But I read these lovely comments below, and the emails I get - from Brussels to Arizona to Seattle to San Diego to Hong Kong; from 20-something students to 60-something women (HI MOM! SORRY I REVEALED YOUR AGE! SORT OF!) and I think, no. I don't want to "go niche".

Goodbye, success; hello, my small group of lovely readers.

I'm so glad to have you here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

London From Above: Brunch at Duck & Waffle and a Visit to Sky Garden


I'm an all-or-nothing type of person; I don't do things by halves. Blame it on my American enthusiasm, but I basically want everything to be the best ever - like, all the time. So when my friends made the long journeys from their respective corners of the US, I wanted them to have the best time.

Ever.

So I took them to brunch at Duck & Waffle - a restaurant on the 40th floor of Heron Tower which, despite being blogged/Instagrammed/toured to death - saves itself from clich├ęd status because of its genuinely innovative and delicious food, not to mention its unsurpassed views of the city.

I was in a rotten mood when we headed out - mainly because it had begun to pour outside. Not drizzle, but pour. By the time our cab dropped us off to the entrance and we began our ascent to the top in the glass elevator, though ... the clouds parted. It looked incredible.

On my last visit to Duck & Waffle, John and I sat at this table:


Can I just say? Anyone who walks into the restaurant and has an air of, "Ok, cool, whatevs," about the view is such a dummy. There's just no point in playing it cool. In fact, I think I literally clapped my hands together when the hostess said, "We reserved a beautiful table for you!" and showed us to our gorgeous booth, which directly faced the Gherkin.

We ordered coffee and spent forever deliberating over the menu - alternating between reading the mouth-watering descriptions (peanut butter, bananas brulee, and chantilly cream, anyone?) and glancing up at the spectacular view in front of us.


Finally, we settled on this:


For me, the Full Elvis: waffles with the aforementioned peanut butter, bananas brulee (you can crack the sugar on the top of the banana with a spoon, just as you would do with creme brulee - HOW COOL IS THAT?!), chantilly cream, and "all the trimmings".

Kara fell head-over-heels for her duck egg en cocotte, with its soldiers to dip into the runny eggs and truffle shavings. And would you blame her?



Then, of course, we all had to share this - Duck & Waffle's signature dish:


It was even better than I'd remembered!

After having our fill of the amazing food, we sat around talking (the staff there are lovely - they leave you alone to chat and enjoy the view, until you're ready to leave ... of course, it probably helped that we were there on a fairly quiet weekday!) before making a pit stop for photo opportunities in the reception/bar area.

Then, thinking that we hadn't had enough of the gorgeous views of London yet, I marched us toward 20 Fenchurch Street, the home of Sky Garden, where we underwent some serious, airport-style security checks before being transported to this magical place:




It was fun to look out the windows and to retrace our steps from the day before ... our walk from Borough Market, to Tate Modern, to St. Paul's, then Covent Garden ... we realized (from above) that we'd walked a lot!

Finally, I usually avoid posting photos of myself/friends/family on this blog, but couldn't resist this ... which will definitely be framed and looked upon for years ahead.


Love these girls and their smiles. The best, the best, the best.

Have you been to Duck & Waffle or Sky Garden? What did you think?

Click to add a blog post for Duck & Waffle on Zomato

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Surprise Trip to Oxford, Woodstock, And Blenheim Palace


Happy Monday. How was your weekend? I was just scrolling through the photos (again!) from my friends' visit last week and thinking about putting together a photobook of their trip to make the memories really last.

Before they arrived in London, I'd planned a surprise trip to Oxford, with a stay in Woodstock and visit to Blenheim Palace - just so we could get out of London and also so that they could have a sneak peek at what the English countryside is like.

I also wanted to show them around Oxford because it's a special place for me: I studied abroad there as an undergraduate at St. Catherine's College, which is where John and I met (and then subsequently held one of our two transatlantic wedding receptions!).

We stayed in sweet little town called Woodstock, which is about a 20-minute drive outside of Oxford, and where I prefer to stay when I'm visiting Oxford with friends or family. I chose it for its proximity to Blenheim Palace (one of my favorite places in the world!), and also for its quaint, village-feel.

I'd love to share some photos with you, if you'd like to see!




When we arrived in Woodstock, I was starving, so we dropped off our bags and sat down for some cream tea (and a tiffin bar for Deborah!) before taking the bus to Oxford city centre to explore some colleges and familiar sights, like the Radcliffe Camera, Sheldonian Theatre, and Bodleian Library.

It was hard to believe that John and I met here over 10 years ago!



If you're familiar with Oxford and haven't visited the Bodleian recently, the new Weston Library has just opened (it was covered in scaffolding during my and John's time there as students) and I am so glad that we stumbled in - the most amazing exhibition is on at the moment called, Marks of Genius, featuring original manuscripts and first folios by Jane Austen, Kafka, Donne, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson and so, so much more. It's an English (and History) major's dream come true!

After spending far too much time gawking over the original letters that inspired The Wind in the Willows, we wandered to New College and admired their beautiful gardens and peaceful cloisters.



Even though it was the weekend, very few students were around, so we walked around in silence, listening to the breeze run through the trees. It was blissful.

The sky had been a little grey and threatening to rain, but by the time we'd left New College, it brightened up a bit, so we decided to ... go punting. Have you been before? I used to go with John and his friends in the summer, especially after exam time. We'd usually grab some Pimm's and snacks and grab boats from Magdalen College, spending all afternoon floating along the Cherwell.


I'd never fallen in, but did deliberately jump into the river once ... and had to be hoisted back into the boat by one of our friends!

John proved to be an expert punter that weekend, though we all had a try: Kara did pretty well, I kept steering us into the wall, and Deborah almost fell off - grabbing a tree branch (I kid you not!) to save herself. It was hilarious and stressful all at the same time. So glad that John was there to help! Otherwise, I'm not sure what kind of trouble we would have gotten ourselves into ... I think I was much better at doing this 10 years ago than I was last weekend.

After a yummy pub dinner, John had to go back to London for work the next day (boo!) but I stayed on with Deborah and Kara. We ate chocolate and cookies in bed until late and watched a movie before I finally decided to clamber into bed in my own room next door ... which is when the laughter started. I'm not sure who started what, but all I could hear was hysterical cackling coming through the walls next door in some kind of tag-team sychronization. Then I'd get a text telling me what happened and I'd start howling with laughter ... I'm really surprised that we didn't get a knock on the door from hotel management. We were all too hyper to sleep that night.

The next day, we ordered some sandwiches and took them to Blenheim Palace, where we also scored a student discount (YAAASSS!) on our tickets (not because we looked like students, mind you, but just because the ticket guy was being extra nice).



If you haven't been, Blenheim Palace (and its grounds) is one of those places that's picture perfect no matter where you look. I like to bring visitors from out of town, because I'm certain that there's really nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. I've been about four or five times (the first was when John took me on my last day in Oxford all those years ago ... I remember it being such a happy but sad time all at once!) and it's just as magical every single time. I felt so grateful to be able to share the experience with my friends.

We walked until our feet were ready to fall off and managed to catch the local bus back to Oxford, where we took another bus back to London ... and snoozed on the way back.

It was the happiest time; the best time.

Have you ever planned a surprise trip for your friends or family? I'm the worst at keeping secrets! I almost gave the location away about 5 different times. Oops!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friends + Humble Grape Wine + Cheese = A Winning Combination


I love wine. Slight problem: I'm kind of allergic to it. Not in a "oh, you're such a lightweight!" kind of way, but in a oh-my-goodness-I've-had-one-sip-and-I'm-sloshed-and-turning-red-and-oh-look-I'm-completely-hungover-now kind of way. That way. 

So, I can't really drink on my own. Or finish a drink on my own. Like, ever. Luckily, my friends' arrivals last week meant that I had an excuse to break out the good stuff from Humble Grape - an indie, boutique wine merchant in London that's on a mission to make wine "socially inclusive and approachable by anyone". 

Which is funny, because coincidentally, my first landlord in London (whom I adored, and also lived with) was a sommelier at one of London's top restaurants. And boy, did he know a LOT about wine!
Due to my, erm, inconvenient wine allergy, his explanations were kind of lost on me, though he let me sample a lot of delicious (not to mention, insanely expensive!) wines and he also passionately believed that good wine should be accessible to all - and that, as long as you liked it, it was good.

John orders wine with confidence (and he always chooses the best ones!) but insists he doesn't really know what he's doing. I tend to go for what I know I like (practically any Rioja, Brunello di Montalcino, and on occasion, a Pinot Grigio), so I love trying new recommendations, like the bottles that Humble Grape selected for me:  Galfano Nero d'Avola, 2011, Sicily and a First Drop Mother's Milk Shiraz, 2012, Barossa Valley, Australia. With a carefully curated selection of wine imported from 44 vineyards across 7 countries (!!!), Humble Grape a pretty special little place - somewhere I'd turn to when I'm next in a dinner party oh-what-should-I-bring rut, rather than a desperate grab-and-go from my local Tesco. Not that I do that. Sort of.


Before we unscrewed the cork to the Galfano Nero d'Avola, however, my friends and I collected "supplies" from Borough Market i.e. meats, cheese, and olives (duh!).
 
Borough Market is one of my favorite places to explore in London: the sights, the smells, the sounds! I can never leave without at least sampling three different kinds of cheeses and walking away with jamon Iberico that cost more than my weekly lunch allowance - fact.

After some hilarious banter with stall holders (Deborah: "Oh wait, let me pay, you guys! I have SO MUCH CASH!" Cashier: "Great! That will be five million pounds, please.") we walked away with links of saucisson from Une Normande a Londres, a hunk of mortadella (my favorite!), and two delicious, garlicky pots of olives from Borough Olives, and two types of cheese. 

It was kind of an amazing spread (it also gave me an excuse to use our new Laguiole cheese knives, plus the gorgeous charcuterie board Kara gave us!).





We held a mini wine-tasting party at our flat, which was so much fun. We kind of just huddled around in the kitchen instead of heading to the dining room - I forgot how social nibbling and sipping wine in a kitchen can be!


The first wine we tried was a 2011 Galfano Nero d'Avola - a beautiful, fruity (think: cherries) red wine from Sicily, where John and I had visited last year. We fell in love with the cuisine and wine while we were there, and this particular Nero d'Avola (which is Sicily's most important grape variety, according to Humble Grape!) went really well with the saucisson and olives.


I'll admit: I was a little intimidated by the tongue-in-cheek name and comic-strip label of the second wine ... 2012 First Drop Mother's Milk Shiraz from Barossa Valley, Australia (apparently, the winemaker behind Mother's Milk, Matt, was about to join the army when he broke his wrist and decided to make wine instead. As you do.).

But ohmygoodness, it was SO GOOD.


Super full-bodied, smoky, and powerful (plus, it has a hilarious tasting note on Humble Grape: "a hint of wombat rolled in allspice"). Really easy to drink and it went like a dream with the cheese we bought. Most of us liked the Nero d'Avola, but we all loved the Mother's Milk Shiraz.

I had a few too many slurps of this delicious red and ... yup, ended up drunkenly stumbling to our local pizza hangout, where afterwards, we decided to walk home while balancing pizza boxes on our heads - just to see who would last the longest. No joke. 

Such a fun evening (though I can barely remember it). Just kidding. (Not really.)

Our delicious wines were generously provided by Humble Grape, whose mission and ethos I love! Check out their wines and wine-tasting events here. All opinions are my own.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Expat Talk: When Best Friends Come to Visit


I'm not even sure where to begin.

Yesterday, before my friends left, the sun was out: consistent and strong. This morning, they were gone: the rain started and just wouldn't stop. Last night, I returned home to an empty flat, though it'd just been filled with side-splitting laughter and crowded (though tidy!) with suitcases and new purchases the day before.

After my parents' first visit to London, I spent an hour scouring the flat after they left for evidence of their stay - a crumpled receipt, a forgotten toiletry, a misplaced charger, perhaps ... anything tangible enough to trigger the memory of their presence.

And that's what I did last night: I scoured the flat in the same way, wanting to preserve the memory of laughter, of joy, of friendship. Of course, there are always photos; a journal I kept of all our favorite (and funniest) moments; and memories of the time spent at the end of each day "airdropping" photos between iPhones. But the days passed like a blur, and all I have are the photos to remind me that it all really did happen - that my friends (including my first-year college roommate!) travelled from three corners of the US (San Diego, Houston, and Madison) for a reunion in London.

The Friday after they arrived, we had coffees and arepas at one of my favorite local haunts, Arepa & Co., on the canal in Haggerston, before heading to Buckingham Palace. Can I just tell you how refreshing it is to see London through a visitor's eyes? I can't remember the last time I walked down The Mall.


It didn't take long for us to find ourselves in fits of laughter and I, snapping a photo at just the right time, caught two of my friends bent over double in hysterics, with the other gesturing behind her in a who-are-these-people stare. It quickly became "The Photo" of our time together.

From there, we headed to Fortnum & Mason (my spiritual home!), where we indulged in some retail therapy (Kara bought a gorgeous Smythson journal) and I ogled handbags and bracelets that were much too far out of my price range.





(Aren't these Halcyon Days bracelets beautiful? I think I need to start my collection ...)

I fell in love with this beautiful biscuit tin/money box and ... when my back was turned ... (which seems to be a reoccuring trend!) it was purchased for me.


We finished with afternoon tea and a bottle of prosecco at The Criterion, as we re-hashed the funny moments of the hours before and reminisced about the last time we saw each other, which was at my wedding reception in Seattle two years ago.

Seeing these kinds of friends again - these "best" friends - is like saying, "So, anyway ..." Everything in-between those moments when we're not together is just a breath, a pause. And although I have wonderful, dear, close friends in London, I just miss those friends who know me. Like, really know me.

I miss having friends nearby who make me feel like nothing else in the world matters - like we have a secret that only we're in on.

Don't you?