Having spent some of the dark hours of my life (which is all of them, when you work nights) browsing entirely too many blogs exploring the confluence between urban exploration, the 80s conception of a cyberpunk future, and sportswear, I’ve come up with this:
I received a “grow your own mushrooms” kit recently.
After the initial, spooky procedure of submerging a bag of substrate in cold water for 12 hours, I managed to misread the instructions and keep the boys sealed in a box for a few days until it was pointed out to me that I’m an illiterate idiot by the Resident Australian.
Fortunately oyster mushrooms are more forgiving than the live-in garderning expert, and with the correct conditions in place the ‘shrooms diverted their energy:
Once underway they made rapid progress:
Quickly assuming classic Oyster Mushroom shape:
It seemed like every time I turned my back they grew:
Making them an ideal kit for me, as I have very little patience! They came out a lovely shade of pink and grew to a prodigious size very quickly:
And as I have very little truck with growing things I can’t eat, unlike the Australian and their featured collection of succulents there:
Mushrooms ended their autonomous existence:
And became instead:
Two delicious and attractive meals!
Espresso Mushroom Kits, then: forgiving, simple, and fast. Results as pictured.
Emma Weakley, my lovely artist collaborator on Bad Boys And Where To Find Them, has miraculously deigned to work with me on something again despite me being an awful pain in the ass who writes very bad scripts.
This is a work I wrote a while back under the influence of a quote by E M Forster.
“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam in the greenwood.”
(E.M. Forster, Terminal note of Maurice – p. 236)
Effectively Morgan says, you must be your own fairytale when there is no fairytale available. Be the self-discovery romance fiction you want to see in the world. And so on.
This would have been even quicker if my Wacom and Photoshop hadn’t developed lag issues that refuse to resolve ever since Windows 10 insisted on being updated! Thanks, Windows, I really appreciate your dedication to Not Working.
Based on a staged photo of a “fight” taken in 1961 in the Horse Guards barracks…
The pink is available here and here, and the grey (with a transparent back) is available here, on a variety of products. I’m eating Finnish soft liquorice (thanks to a Helsinki-based friend who came to experience just how bad British public-use ice skates are first-hand! To the tune of David Bowie night at my local rink), and reading an absolutely insufferable book. I hope everyone else’s tedious, dreary Dry/Vegan Januaries are beginning to brighten.
In addition to the following I have also been recording a somewhat lo-fi radio show, but I’ve hidden that elsewhere on the internet.
This handsome devil is usually located in Room 1, or as I like to think of it “the preview room”, at the British Museum. The newsprint shading effect probably caused more problems than any other single part of this picture put together.
“Gymmiversary,” you’re thinking, “is the worst possible neologism, Derek, and I’m disappointed in you.”
It’s okay, I have an excuse for my execrable lack of creativity. Two, in fact. One: I work in, or adjacent to, the press. I have an NUJ card and everything (it’s good for free drinks and pay negotiation which, considering my current salary, tells you a lot about how much worse things would be without unions. JOIN A UNION). Two: All of my energy is now spent on lifting lumps of painted metal while grunting.
Admittedly in the year preceding my foray into being a representative of the gym-membership-owning classes I already had weights in my house (and still do) for the purpose of clogging up the bathroom every morning with my heartfelt struggles with dumbbells, but since January 8th 2017 I expanded my repertoire to include things like “failing to complete the NHS Couch to 5K programme” (I got to about week six, lost count, got a dodgy knee owing to the complete absence of knee cushioning on one side, thank you 2006-self and your belief that you could do a paratrooper landing on paving slabs, minus the parachute; also lost most of the skin off the back of my foot, a condition I am currently imitating thanks to NYE, borrowed brogues, and champagne. And champagne’s insistence that I can definitely get my knees up to my nipples while skanking. But I digress; oh, how I digress).
I think the purpose of January is probably introspection, reflection, good intentions, repetentitive digestion (so many ascetic dietary changes that don’t last the month), and a purge of all things connected with the previous year. A spring clean for the body and mind; and souls, if you believe in them, which I personally don’t. Leaving more time for things like “what the fuck are you doing with your life” and “why can’t I see my own knees over my stomach”.
Structure is a panacea in a complicated life, or the four or five complicated lives I suspect everyone feels like they’re actually living. Finding the right structure for me has been A Challenge which is still ongoing; no sane person goes to the gym 7 days a week but to begin with I did attempt that. Since – with one blip for a hideous cold – I’ve settled into a happy routine of four days a week, although the year has seen varying tinkering with how long I need to be there (hint: not the TWO TO THREE HOURS I got stuck into for a while), what I need to be doing while I’m there (hint: dear autumn self having a panicked eating disorder relapse after some unexpected weighing-in at a doctor, you don’t need to do 1000kcal+ workouts. You definitely don’t need to try to burn off your entire day’s calorie allowance in the gym. That’s crazy person behaviour), and which exercises were going to make my knee feel like it was falling off.
I’ve been bullied by my own muscles into accepting that stretching, yoga, and foam rollering are not optional but compulsory if I want to be able to move at all the next day; I’ve undergone the mandatory metamorphosis in thinking of breakfast as a huge macronutrient-heavy hit required to fuel whatever’s happening in the gym instead of a skippable nuisance occurring sometime before an abstemious lunch (something the generation which birthed mine is still struggling with: lunch is a meal, not a collection of depressed snacks served at a table, you dysfunctional hippies) and the translation from “cake is bad” to “cake is a really effective way of being able to deadlift 120kg”. I’ve successfully acquired blisters on: my heels, my palms, my armpits, my thighs, my arsecrack, and other areas even less suitable for mention in a publicly-readable blog. My gym kit smells like death pretty much constantly. I know every single song on the gym’s playlist and there’s a massive overlap with G-A-Y Late; I know what all the regulars look like and which equipment they’re not going to put back and which of them is an obvious lunatic and which one is definitely going to be in prison again soon.
For a while I was convinced this was having no effect, as one often is when things are difficult. Then I ran to catch a bus and didn’t die. Then I started marching up the large hill by my house without really noticing it was there. Then, in December, I went for a 19-mile walk purely to see if I could (I can: I regretted it immensely because it was extremely cold and that many hours alone with your thoughts is Not Healthy). I’ve watched in the mirror as my silhouette changes and changes and considered the possibility that my inconsistency, oft-lamented by so many caretakers in the dawning of my life, might actually a blessing after all: the proper term is “chameleonic” when someone changes drastically and frequently.
Aside from all that, time spent grunting around with lumps of metal (and semi-clad sweaty men, let’s not forget) is a refreshing break from being barked at by the news, time when I can’t berate myself for not working on projects, time when my mind is free to concentrate on other things, like how intensely much my shoulders hurt and good grief that man’s biceps are the size of my head.
It’s slow going so far. I’ve only been doing it for a year, and my additional interventions have been few. I don’t – can’t – run much with a buggered knee. I’ve never been a particularly strong swimmer and since exchanging fat for muscle I don’t even float very effectively. My bike’s hidden behind clothes in my wardrobe thanks to some Altercations with the people who own our building regarding whether or not a bike standing out of the way in public storage space constitutes a fire hazard. And I can’t afford as many dance classes as I want to take, or club nights as I feel are my right as an ageing homosexual with no dependents and a flexible work schedule.
But still. I can lift much heavier things than I could before, and less of me wobbles, and I can touch my toes, although with the state of my trainers, I cannot really imagine why I’d want to.
Hello, I’ve written another book which is now sitting in the dusty drawer marked “I don’t want to edit anything oh God” for a little while now as I enjoy my general Christmassing and New Yearishness trying to speed-read some very large books which I foolishly got out of the library without realising that I am not blessed with quite the amount of free time I had at 16.
I did however find the time to finish a long-term project that’s been chugging away forever:
The test run of the Bin Fox Hot Chocolate History Tasting Tour got off to a wobbly start as I discovered that my hasty formatting for the scorecards didn’t hold up over the two separate instances of MS Word it’s apparently necessary to use in my house in order to print things, and my even hastier cobbling together of tour guide text was, it must be said, somewhat lacking in stylistic consistency and grammatical sense.
“I promise there’s a good reason for this,” I told an amused cashier at Wasabi on Oxford Street, having thrown about ten sachets of pickled ginger onto the floor in my desperation to purchase them and nothing else. I was not being entirely truthful. My reason – not necessarily a good one – was that a few months ago I decided that the history of drinking chocolate in London as distinct from the turbulent history of coffee, tea, and gin consumption (all also remarkable), was fascinating in its own right and that our proliferation of chocolatiers in the city deserved celebration.
Like many of the ideas that I have around 3.20am at work, I announced my intention to my friends and promptly forgot all about it, in this case because I was trying to combine writing a book, learning to belly-dance, learning basic Turkish, and getting swole (adj).
Thus it was that on the eve of the test tour I found myself desperately skim-reading Wikipedia and some articles by the indispensable Dr Matthew Green, and making impassioned pleas for categories by which to score hot chocolates – at an hour best described as “a little late in the day for this preparation work”.
But the next day I slogged to The Ship on Wardour Street with determination, printed scorecards, a head full of recently-acquired knowledge, a pack of Bic biros, several sachets of ginger for palate-cleansing and a bottle of fizzy maté as cleansing backup, there to meet my test audience, Mim and Al.
Besides enthusiasm for history, learning, and chocolate, Mim and Al brought differing palates (Al has a preference for the bitter and Mim for the sweet), and touring capability (Al lives in the gym, Mim has EDS). This, I thought, would provide a good test of the route, intended break times, and probably also the limits of my pancreas.
The notion that we were going to share out drinks at a ratio of about one between three had already been agreed upon, and turned out to be absolutely and utterly vital to our survival. I cannot stress how totally and utterly I would no longer have blood running through my veins if we’d had one drink each at these places.
At the first stop on our tour we learnt about the overall history of hot chocolate, its origins as a drink in South America, and the propensity for adding spices – an option still available to patrons of Paul A Young today, with their array of additional flavours available for the connoisseur at no additional cost.
SWEETNESS: Mim 2, Al 4 – some discussion was had over how to rate, with Al going with “I ranked it highly because I like that it wasn’t that sweet” and Mim going with “I ranked it on objective sweetness level”. CREAMINESS: Mim 2, Al 4, revised up from 3 at the end of the tour after some discussion. THICKNESS: Mim 1 Al 4, also revised RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4, also revised MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 4, also revised COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4
OVERALL SCORE: 28 (revised up from 24) out of a possible 35 from Al, while Mim presents a mode score of 4, an aggregate of 20/35.
COMMENTS: Mim: “customisable: add own spice”, Al: “Pick own spice”, shorthand for their belief that the option to create your own spiced blend is a strong selling point here. Historically, too, as we discussed, spices have been added to hot chocolate since its inception. Mim ranks this as her 3rd favourite, Al didn’t provided number rankings.
A London institution and murderously difficult to get into to sit down most of the time, SAID is a wildly popular provider of Italian-style chocolate drink, and rightly so. At this place – and this place only – we had the capability to buy a “small” size, equivalent to an espresso shot. Trust when we say this is all that you need, and even that may prove to be too much, It is a dauntingly rich experience, available in dark, milk, and gianduja (hazelnut).
Price: £2.50 for a small.
SWEETNESS: Mim 3, Al 4 CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 5, Al 4 RICHNESS: Mim 2, Al 4 SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 5 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4
OVERALL SCORE: 29 / 35 from Al, mode 4 and aggregate 24/35 from Mim. The differing scores on “richness” may be related to the choice in hot chocolates (see below).
COMMENTS: Mim: “Om nomm nommmmm”, Al: “Milk also nice”; Al and I plumped for dark chocolate as this is our default, and Mim took on milk chocolate, but was kind enough to let us try. The majority of other comments amounted to visceral noises and trying to lick the inside of the cup. It was not dignified, but it was heartfelt. Mim ranks this as her number one of the chocolates reviewed.
Possibly addled by this experience, and possibly just very bad at reading Googlemaps, we got briefly lost and did a loop through Kingly Court. This is unnecessary – the next place is very close to SAID DAL – but perhaps worthwhile, as it gave us the chance to recover from the intensity.
CWDD is best-known for intricate chocolate sculptures in astounding forms and a pantomime wonderland interior, It is flashy, over-the-top, theatrical, and overwhelming; the branch in Brighton’s Lanes has frequently taken me by surprise as it looms out of the narrow alleys like a fairytale rendition of chocolate heaven or Willy Wonka’s deranged chocolate factory. The Carnaby Street branch, also tucked away down narrower roads, is much the same. The queue here was also enormous and there was a little confusion in communication but in mitigation we’d like to add that the staff here were beyond delightful, friendly and engaging and determined to make accommodation for Mim’s needs in particular, leading to the spectacularly indulgent experience of sipping hot chocolate while reclining on a chaise longe in a towering hallucination of sugarcraft. Definitely one for children and the festive season.
SWEETNESS: Mim 5, Al 2 – sticking to his previous “do I like this” scale CREAMINESS: Mim 3, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 2, Al 2 RICHNESS: Mim 1, Al 3 SCENT: Mim 1, Al 2 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 2, Al 4 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 2, Al 2
OVERALL SCORE: 19 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 2 and aggregate of 16/35 from Mim.
COMMENTS: Mim: “Very, very sweet”, Al: “Teeth-meltingly sweet, great spectacle [but] basically a high street hot chocolate”. Mim ranks this sixth.
Exterior to ChoccyWoccy and over the sound of mysterious fireworks, we enlightened ourselves as to the introduction of chocolate to London in 1657 under the guise of a panegyric (of course), and some of its subsequent development.
The route through Soho has taken us in the opposite direction from the rest of the Central London tour so far, but there is a good reason for this. A large chunk of the history of “chocolate houses” revolves around St James’s Street, which we duly walked down before turning back through the bottom of Soho, with a brief stop to weep longingly over crisps – salty food! SALTY FOOD!
Where is Rococco?
While the majority of my inclusions on this list were based on observations either by myself or by other tour members, Rococco was included after perusing an official list of Best Chocolate Drinking Establishments on one of those infernal listings sites.
As it turned out this was a mistake. Rococco: Earlham Street, said my notes.
No such place, said Earlham Street, which indeed contained not a hide nor hair of Rococco.
While this extremely well-known chocolatier has many, many branches this is the first I had encountered which was selling hot chocolates. Rather brilliantly my introduction came when a man pounced on me with a tray of samples and then instead of muttering shut up when I asked about how the recent cocoa bean glut had affected things on a business level, eagerly told me all about the plantation/company relationship and price-setting structure used with their partners in Ghana.
This joy in all elements of the chocolate industry continued with our visit on the tour; additional cups were provided – as they were in many places – but already pre-poured, and once we had settled in some of the staff came over to ask us about the tour, the scoring and how they were faring so far. Hotel Chocolat has an almost intimidating variety of options, but after the intense sweetness of ChoccyWoccy the team were pining for something bitter, and plumped on this occasion for their 85% dark.
SWEETNESS: Mim 1, Al 4 (revised from a 3, sticking to the “I like it so I will rank it higher” approach as compared to Mim’s “objective sweetness level” approach) CREAMINESS: Mim 1, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 3, Al 3 RICHNESS: Mim 3, Al 3 SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 2, Al 3 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 3, Al 3
OVERALL SCORE: 24 / 35 from Al, with a mode score of 3 and an aggregate of 16/35 from Mim.
COMMENTS: Mim “80% dark”, Al: “Overall better than individual score”, referring to his enjoyment of the drink as a whole but less so in the individual categories. The gestalt 85% dark Hotel Chocolat was held successful, despite Mim’s low score, and ranking of it in 5th place.
While comfortably located and taking a much-needed bathroom break, we also continued our education on the history of drinking chocolate with the infamous chocolate houses of St James Square, and in particular the notorious and infernal Tory hangouts, Ozinda’s and Whites.
Another multi-branch institution, Godiva in Covent Garden is short on space and in the lead up to Christmas short on patience, so they did admirably to accommodate our indecisiveness in choosing between four or five flavour options (including praline!). For a larger group it would certainly be necessary to phone ahead in order to avoid placing excessive strain on a diminutive chocolate heater. We optioned for the Viennoise Praline, on the grounds that variety is the spite of pancreatitis (this is not medically accurate) and that the saltiness might save us from total meltdown.
SWEETNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 (revised from a 3) CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 1, Al 2 RICHNESS: Mim 3, Al 3 SCENT: Mim 3, Al 3 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 3, Al 4 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 2, Al 4
OVERALL SCORE: 22 / 35 from Al, mode score of 3 from Mim and aggregate of 20/35.
COMMENTS: Mim: “Viennoise Praline – nutty”, Al: [N/A] none on the sheet but the saltiness was remarked upon favourably. Mim ranks this 4th.
Close to defeat we joined the queue at this Italian wonderland for another thick and intense hot chocolate and were presented with three clear plastic cups and the beginnings of a sugar headache, an experience I do not think I’ve ever had before and am not keen to repeat. Happily Venchi’s hot chocolate is so good that we laboured on past the pain and consoled ourselves with lemon water; one to undertake by itself for full enjoyment, although it speaks well to the product that even after that much chocolate it stood out.
SWEETNESS: Mim 2, Al 4 CREAMINESS: Mim 2, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 4, Al 3 RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 SCENT: Mim 4, Al 4 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 4 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4
OVERALL SCORE: 27 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 4 from Mim and her aggregate is 24/35.
COMMENTS: Mim: “RICH” which is certainly accurate, Al: [N/A] none on the sheet, mostly because we were too busy chasing the last remaining drops out of the glasses with the plastic spoons and making animal sounds, Bin Foxes to the bitter end. Mim ranks this in joint second place with the next establishment.
“I just want to sit down,” Mim said, as we reached our destination, “and have a cup of tea. Something that isn’t chocolate. Maybe some food.”
We were all in hearty agreement by now. Daydreams of lapsang souchong, and very salty chips danced through our heads. We waited half an hour for a table, because Sunday evening is not a good time to get to the head of any queue in Covent Garden, but at last we were there: jammed onto a sofa, possibly pre-diabetic, ready to take our sweet time.
A French affair, this company is better-known for its macarons and patisseries than for its attachment to chocolate, but the secret is out: they serve Viennese-style hot chocolate in pre-Revolutionary decadence in an attic in Covent Garden, and this is the perfect way to end a tour, in my opinion. We fortified ourselves with bitter teas, prepared our mouths and enjoyed the last of the hot chocolate.
SWEETNESS: Mim 3, Al 3 CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 4, Al 3 RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 SCENT: Mim 4, Al 4 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 3, Al 5 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 3, Al 5
OVERALL SCORE: 28 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 4 and an aggregate of 25/35 from Mim.
COMMENTS: Mim: “Luxury. Poured. Creampot niceness”, Al: “Appearance reflects surroundings”, and indeed the attic tea room is a wonderful spot to end the tour. It was judged “perfect” in conversation, which must certainly count for something. Mim ranks this joint second with Venchi and was in raptures over the curtained chaise on which she was seated for the experience of the remaining tour text:
At this concluding juncture the remaining medicinal claims were debated, and the future of chocolate-drinking hinted at. There may have been a little hint that hot chocolate can cure depression; I like to think the company helps to elevate the mood as much as the beverage.
Over steamed rice and frantically consumed salty rice crackers we totted up scores (an aggregate, rather than the originally-suggested mode), and compared notes on the tour as a whole as well as the individual chocolatiers.
In future we will need napkins and possibly spare cups
More lemon water for palate-cleansing
SALTY SNACKS, we shouted in unison. DEAR GOD SALT.
While ChoccyWoccy received a drubbing here, we acknowledge that different people have different tastes; Al and I in particular have a fondness for the bitter and the rich respectively which leads the very sweet and milky to a disproportionately poor score. And regardless – it’s good to have a “villain” as a point of comparison or contrast, For others, Paul A Young’s spices or uberthick SAID’s rich headache brew, or the admirable pretension of our Parisienne conclusion may fulfil that role – the more tours we have, the more chances there are for receiving improved scores!
There are a number of other well-regarded chocolatiers in London who would be included on a broader-ranging tour – Dark Sugars, Melt, Konditor & Cook among others – and I am eager to give this a spin when my headache and incipient diabetes have worn off.
Personally I find the history portion of my tour currently scant, and as I cribbed a great deal from Dr Green it needs revisions in style so it stops being outright bloody plagiarism. I’d like to make more, too, of the role of slavery & conquest in the provision of chocolate to Londoners and the subsequent association with decadence and depravity, as well as its complex global connections and lingering exoticism. I want to talk about when it acquired its current gendered, feminised associations when as recently as the first half of the twentieth century “a mug of hot cocoa” was considered as much a cure for one’s ills as the true elixir of joy of the Britons: tea.
But on the whole the itinerant Bin Foxes scavenged up a very enjoyable Sunday on International Men’s Day!
I’d like to thank in particular the good-natured staff at all the chocolatiers we visited for their tolerance and in some cases outright enthusiasm in the face of our increasingly hyperglycaemic nerdy bellowing and requests for additional cups like a bunch of misers. With a larger group this should be less of an issue.
I’d also like to tip my hat to Al and Mim for being good sports and risking their bodily health on this absurd pilgrimmage, and to Al for making such a fetching backdrop to my chronicle photos above.
I returned home with a single chocolate ganache profiterole from SAID DAL because I’d happily knife a man in cold blood for choux pastry on any given day and on this given day all I had to do was pay money.
As I was furtively sticking it into my face in the kitchen, the Resident Australian appeared behind me and stared, aghast.
“How,” cried the horrified Antipodean, “can you possibly eat more chocolate after all that?”
I think it will be the last for a little while.
Quite fancy some chips though.
If you have enjoyed this post, why not toss me some coins to pay for a coffee? Definitely coffee and NO MORE CHOCOLATE.
Two days of birthday food in photos with accompanying recommendations:
Sourdough boule, bangers and mash (and watercress and jus), chocolate brownie with hazelnut ice-cream, from The Starting Gate in Alexandra, North London.
Chocolate Chai (unlimited), date and banana porridge (unlimited), bun maska, and sausage and egg naan roll from Dishoom in Kings Cross, N1C.
A limited-edition Halloween Vampire Frappuccino from Starbucks; takoyaki mini portion and a green tea soft-serve taiyaki ice cream from Hawker Street in Chinatown.
Warm strawberry bubble tea, and matcha azuki on brioche toast with flaked almonds, spray cream, and a dipping bowl full of honey.
Dinner at Archipelago, a rightfully multiple-award-winning restaurant that provides an entirely unique culinary experience. Starter: “Burmese Embrace” features python carpaccio; Main: “Rajasthan Snap”, curried crocodile meat with jasmine rice (alas, no bugs. I was promised bugs!); Dessert: “Pharaoh’s Treasure”, a chocolate pudding with excitingly powdered and smeared sweetnesses, a pleasantly spicy ice-cream and some gold leaf; digestifs of Cà phê sữa nóng (Vietnamese coffee) with chocolate “sticks and stones”. The place does a wide and very interesting array of cocktails but as I was somewhat Feeling It after an excessively successful Halloween Party on Saturday I frankly never wanted to see alcohol again at this point!