Friday, 11 February 2011

Mary, Mary quite contrary

I just love Mary Portas Secret Shopper

Frankly all other business programmes have fallen short for me this season. The Apprentice claims the creme de la creme of business talent actually consists of childish man boys who shout, stamp their feet and pun, badly.

Stuart Baggs, whiny manchild and Apprentice loser, said: "When i was born my first word wasn't mummy, it was money." Wow - give this man a job.

Dragon's Den lost my attention about three season's ago for the repetition and predictability. The worst part is watching the dragon's compete to get the final pun in rather than focusing on the trembling entrepreneur before them. I'd much rather watch the Harry and Paul version nowadays.

So on to Mary.

Mary has passion for retail and that is why she is so good to watch. She believes that retail businesses can be better and the customer should be no more worse off. This isn't be rocket science...

A happy customer = spends more money.

But somehow the UK retailers and us consumers lost our way.

Her first episode, aimed as fast fashion, highlights that just because a product is cheap doesn't mean the business isn't raking in the profits. Why should we have to put up with a dirty floor, untrained staff, long queues when a nicer environment would encourage us to spend more, feel good about how we look and what we have bought. A feeling i know i never get when walking out of Primark.

Mary stomps into mobile phone stores, estate agents, sofa stores and takes no hassle. She is a joy to watch even if she does throw in the odd pun once and awhile.

Bravo Mary, I salute you. you are doing for retail what Jamie did for school dinners.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The Secret Experience

Well it has been year's in the making but I finally got myself to a secret restaurant last weekend along with my boyfriend Russ and his best mate Steve who happens to be dating my sister, Jade. Two couples, two best friends, two sisters - yet there is only four of us - go figure.

The Huddersfield based Birkby Lodge Dining Club exceeded my already high expectations.

As we drove over the pennines to our secret destination the realisation of going to a stranger's home for a meal suddenly dawned on us. We were putting a huge amount of trust into something we had limited knowledge about and actually that was quite scary! Before I pulled a U-Turn and headed to the nearest Nando's, we had arrived.

The house was a lovely white painted detached cottage, with smoke bellowing out of the chimney and a welcome sign on the door. We gathered our bottles of Tiger beer (and M&S non alcoholic cider for me, the DES for the night) and we headed, albeit slightly apprehensively, in.

From stepping through the door into a welcome seating area complete with roaring fire and ambient music, I felt at ease. We were shown by our waiter to the table for four which was beautifully set out with homemade pickles and poppadoms and a frosted glass bottle of water that would usually be an extra charge in any other restaurant.

Our waiter explained that the table was ours for the night and the chef, his wife Mithu, was working on our starters. We had already pre ordered our food from a menu of authentic Indian cuisine so we relaxed into the evening, in disbelief we were sitting in someone's living room. The large room held three other tables, the diners were obviously regulars and they resisted gawping at the surroundings. Unlike us newbies.

Without going into details of how spectacular the food was (I do want to leave some things to the imagination!) here is what we ate, all to a restaurant standard if not better, because it also had that touch of home.


Verity and Russ: Tandoori Chicken

Jade and Steve: Selection of Aubergine, Potato and Courgette Pakoras


Jade and Steve: Spinach and Paneer (Asian Cheese) Curry

Verity and Russ: Lamb and Chickpea Curry

(Both options served with pilau rice, naan, side dishes of Indian coleslaw, cauliflower and pea curry and mixed dhal)


Jade: Mango and Lemon Syllabub

Verity: Kulfi (Asian style ice cream)

Russ and Steve: Rich Chocolate Fudge Cake

The meal cost a mere £20 with £1 going to Cancer Research, it was a bargain at double the price and an experience I'll remember forever.

Down to every last detail we were looked after, even the toilets were clearly marked out by hand written chalkboard signs with a polite 'mind your head'.

Mithu joined us at the end of the evening with a well deserved glass of wine in hand. She was trying to persuade me to host my own evening but after seeing her high standard i think I'm a few years off that. But I'm completely in awe of her and all she has achieved after launching the restaurant only a few months ago.

She is keen to spread the word and asks all her guests to tell their friends! For those of you interested in seeing the Birkby Lodge Dining Club for yourself, the following dates are available.

Tapas night: Saturday 26th February 2011

Chinese Night: Friday 25th & Saturday 26th March

Great British Menu: Friday 29 & Saturday 30th April (to celebrate the royal wedding)

Viva la difference! French night: Friday 27 & Saturday 28 May

If interested get in touch with her here

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Sound of the underground

I have been interested in going to an underground restaurant for a couple of years after seeing a great documentary on London's Secret Ingredient. For those of you that don't know, a secret or underground restaurant is a dining experience in someone's home, generally a price per head is confirmed up front and it is BYO.

I've been told its a fantastic experience not only for the food, cooked by talented and passionate home chefs, but for meeting and dining with strangers that have a shared, glorious food.

At the time, I tried to find out more about this apparently explosive trend by googling 'supper clubs Leeds' (tipping up OAP social events), 'secret restaurant Leeds' (showcasing Leeds centre finest outlets - nothing secret about that) and 'underground tasty time' (I cant say in polite company what those google results were!).

So if it was a trend, it was staying well and truly underground, I couldn't find out a peep.

It wasn't until I joined Twitter last year that I began to hear more about the craze actually alive and thriving in Yorkshire*. So this week I have booked my first underground experience at the Birky Lodge Dining Club in Huddersfield (my soon to be stomping ground after a house move in March). The listed cottage has 24 places and an open fire and will be serving traditional Indian cuisine made by a mother-daughter team.

Other Yorkshire beauties include Leeds based Secret Tea Room which is impressively booked up until 2012 and Huddersfield's Cafe Nouveau At Home. Both of which I intend to visit as soon as possible but until then the colourful blogs and recipe tweets keep me entertained on a daily basis.

A special mention should also go to anarcho-restaurateur, founder of The Underground Restaurant, @msmarmitelover who started this UK craze and is incredibly passionate about spreading the news of events outside of London.

It would be a dream come true to host an underground evening in my own home. I have experience in catering and let's face it, I love to be the hostess.

My new house is the perfect venue and I have a good network of friends - I'm talking to you Cupcakery Bakery - that have the talent and the passion to join me in this little venture.

Hmmm, it's a thinker and one I really will consider.

Since attending as many underground restaurants as my belly can cope with will technically be research, I better get to work!

*by ekkers!

Monday, 10 January 2011

Friends are for life, but better at Christmas

May i introduce you to my lovely group of friends?

We are a group of people who met through school, university, siblings, partners, work and hobbies.

We make each other laugh, we enjoy each others company, we enjoy a tipple, we randomly break into rounds of applause, we have punning competitions and we enjoy a high five. Even though distance and commitments could tear us apart as we grow older, one thing has united us for the past decade....... Friends Christmas.

Imagine that famous Wham video, Last Christmas, and you're halfway there. We get together from Friday until Monday, usually the middle weekend in December, we swap gifts, eat a dinner with all the trimmings, play party games, have naps, watch Christmas films, take a walk, catch up on the year gone by, build a snowman and laugh.....alot.

A tradition so great i wasn't even there for the first one, it proceeds me. If my calculations are correct the first Friends Christmas, or the REAL birth of Friends Christmas, came in 2001 which means we are approaching our 10 year anniversary.

So i have created a little timeline to show the major landmarks of a decade of indulgence and pure pleasure.


In Germany - three boys sat longingly round a bratwurst.
In UK - a gaggle of ladies enjoyed a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings


Currently a mystery though people did meet and it was good.


So now we start to get serious. Three days, one epic dinner, secret santa and 20 people in one living room.

As two friends were also neighbors, this Christmas consisted of cramming into a flat and running to and from next door with roast potatoes and turkey making use of two kitchens. This was my first year, and one i look upon with great fondness.

Also an important year as it was the birthplace of our Christmas song. We decided - as a group that loves Christmas - to write a Christmas number one. Surely that was easy to achieve given the bile that gets released every year?

We named ourselves the Electric Blunketts - don't ask me why. (though i know i contributed the Electric part as I demanded the band be called Electric Sheep after the book 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' which the film Blade Runner was based on. Yes I know I'm a geek)

With the help of the Ward brothers on lyrics and Martin Willers on guitar, the most awful, yet catchy Christmas song was created. One that has been a theme tune to every Friends Christmas since.

Highlights for me: singing, singing, singing, seeing two comedy greats - Steve and Marv together for the first time, meeting many of the people I was to share the coming Christmas's with


Rhys managed to persuade his parents to 'lend' us their four bedroomed detached farmhouse in Retford for a full three days. If memory serves we had 24 people tip up.

The weekend set the standard for years to come, a beautiful setting and a place big enough to fit the growing hordes.

This weekend will go down in history for the Ward/Olive/Roper quiz which was an epic (insert over exaggerated number here) hours.

Highlights for me: Sausage roll dance, 'well' puns, wine sloshing, Marv granitegate


Chris McGinty took the reigns and he raised the bar. Undertaking all organising, shopping and cooking himself, Chris booked a Vivat Trust property called Stonegarthside Hall. We were used to kipping on the floor and sitting on camping chairs but now we had a manor house! Complete with a REAL fire, a pool table and a kitchen that could fit food for 14 hungry people.

Chris dutifully hosted the weekend, even coming up with a spectacular game of Deal or No Deal, complete with Noel impression (I was a student at the time and therefore found it hilarious).

From that weekend, we could never go back. The Friends Christmas tradition was set in stone.

Highlights for me: Seeing the house for the first time, sickbag, ketchupgate, knickergate


Beth & Nick took a chance this year by booking a property that wasn't quite finished. A gamble that certainly paid off. Wynnstay Hall is an amazing place, grand piano, grand fireplace and a secret cinema screen that appeared from behind the library bookcase.

It was also the location for the filming of our music video, Isn't Christmas Great? (rhetorical)

Bringing in the role of tasks, Beth & Nick cleverly distributed a challenge to each attendee from cooking breakfast to creating entertainment, which ensured the chores were shared equally. This may seem like 'organised fun' but the tasks were a great way to make sure the weight of the weekend was not put on a few peoples shoulders.

Highlights for me: Yoko Ono - who's he?, Ed Olive, improv Blind Date, Chris and his JD, creamed corn


With a corporate theme, Marv brought in rules to Christmas 2007 to frimly bring us all in line. SFC was born at Sallat Brow nr Sallat Hall in Kendal.

With a Welcome presentation (still talked about today), the Triangle of Success and a bridge building team building exercise Marv certainly put his own personality into the weekend.

.....which also saw the invention of Assball. A game Shack will certainly win at every time.

The rules of Assball are: When throwing a ball around a group, if you are the last person to hit it, you lose a body part, eventually you will be left with only your face or your ass to hit the ball. Genius

Highlights for me: Pizza competition, Ant and Dec, Name the Dr, A Wolive video


Future husband and wife team Mike and Bek took on this epic task in the same year they got married. They will do anything to be centre of attention.

We stayed in a bunk barn near Kilsney which had a real character. After a year of weddings, hen and stag do's - it was the year of the credit crunch but our budget provided more than apt surroundings for us.

By this point we were pretty well versed in the Friends Christmas tradition so i look upon 2008 as a classic, textbook year. Although some new elements were introduced, such as the REAL santa coming to visit and the first annual awards ceremony highlighting highs and lows of the year.

Highlights for me: Scotty's first keg, 3am dancing, transformers quiz, Saturday hangover


Our first White Christmas!

The snow provided a perfect setting for building snowmen, boys vs girls snowball fights and having a play in a tree house and playground. (I told you it was like a Wham video).

Complete with karoke and a 90's disco, I remember 2009 as a retro year, i think we all recaputured a bit of our youth, especially with the opportunity to meet the real santa and his angry elf.

The weekend finished with a lovely walk to the local pub, a perfect round off to the weekend

Highlights for me: Getting there early to decorate, karaoke, "we left the toaster on", Mike cake face


Well here we are, the last entry.

A sterling effort from Rhyshack brought us to the Peak District holiday barn accommodating up to 24 people.

Co-organiser and teacher Shack introduced the weekend with a quick science lesson and assembly setting the standard for a night of games including 'who is on your face' and 'line up assturds'.

For the second year running Claire took to the kitchen like a swan in water, well a swan who caught her foot in a beer ring, Claire had a netball injury but cooked despite the hobble.

Complete with snow, it was another picturesque weekend where none of us wanted to leave, and due to the snow some of us couldn't!

Highlights for me: Dog pub, kitchen dancing, guess who, ghost castle, epic trivial pursuits, Marv drunk


So what is to come for 2011, our 10th anniversary? I have nominated myself and my unknowing sister Jade to take care of the organisation.

We are looking for a property to suit at least 18 people which would be the location for Christmas enjoyment, if you are aware of any such place, please leave a comment here. We're looking for recommendations. I would love for our location for 2011 to find us through the power of like minded people reading this blog.

So you know what we are looking for, please get in touch to help us make Friends Christmas 2011 the best yet.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Mad Men: an ode to Joan

I might be three years behind the crowd but i have recently, thanks to my sister and boyfriend, 'found' Mad Men.

What i absolutely love about this show, based in the 1950's and 60's in an advertising agency on Madison Avenue, is how on the surface it may look like it indulges in the sexism of the era. I know people who have turned off by the frustration of seeing how woman are portrayed.

The men are promiscuous, alcoholic, chain smokers, the woman are house wives or gossip gathering secretaries. But dig a little deeper and you will find the strongest female characters ever portrayed on television (and yes i am including Buffy).

Take Joan, for example, wonderful Joan. Tackling the barriers and challenges of the era both in the work place and home life, she manages to stay in control by a) being a complete bitch b) manipulating everyone using her feminine wiles c) still keeping in line with what 'her' society expects of her. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying she should be a role model, but she is strong, intelligent and independent - Sex and The City characters should take note.

Plus, this is perhaps the first time that a curvy woman (and by curvy she is probably a size 10) has taken a lead role and is the sexual icon of a show. The Los Angeles Times quoted the actress Christina Hendricks as having "a rump as big as a holiday ham" in the article 'Is Joan Too Plump For Primetime?' which sparked a multitude of outcrys.

It is striking how different our society is from the 60's but if this is the first time a curvy woman has managed to really become a sexual icon in favour of the size 0, maybe we are not as far on as we thought?