Non-spoilery thoughts about Avengers: Age of Ultron

I think of all the films that I’ve been excited about so far this year – and there have, ahem, been a few –  the one that I’d invested with the most lip-biting enthusiasm was this one. And here it is, and us British types got to see it A WEEK BEFORE the US (not over how long it took to get Big Hero 6 yet)… and I still haven’t actually written anything about it.

There are reasons. The first is that, as with The Avengers / Avengers Assemble (pick your favoured regional variant), the first viewing was more about getting my head around what the hell was going on; I’ll need to go again to really make sense of things, I think. The second is that practically all the things I want to talk about come with Veronica-sized spoiler warnings. I guess I’m safe enough letting those out of the bag now… Though I won’t.

Mainly, I came out of the cinema feeling like there had been some thrilling moments, some funny moments, some genuinely very touching moments and only a couple of really irritating moments (superhero territory: no matter how good the cast, crew, script etc, there’s going to be at least one clanging great sexist moment or something like it to really get up your nose; also, if Tony Stark is in the film it will involve him because on paper and on screen he is a truly awful person). I really liked that despite SO MUCH GOING ON, SO LOUDLY there was time and space for it to be surprisingly intimate. This was needed, since a mechanical villain is never going to have the emotional draw of a human(ish) bad guy whose motivations can be more complex, more personal and, perhaps, more forgiveable. Well, until he unleashed space-hell’s firey Godzilla-bildschnipe on New York, anyway. And there was the small matter of all those people he killed before that… wait, what was I saying?

Intimate, yes. Sometimes having your hand forced is a joy; being able to reinvent Wanda and Pietro’s background, removing Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver from specific associations with X-Men and Magneto, meant that that part of the story – and the reasons for the siblings’ dubious allegiances – could feel oddly real and plausible. For a film with an Internet robot and a flying city, anyway.

It’s funny, because people who know me IRL will know I can bore people stone cold sober with natter about these films (one poor soul got my full Shakespearean thesis on Thor by text) but it’s awfully hard to be remotely coherent when I try to make my writing sound more like a review and less like some really meandering observational routine from the graveyard shift at the comedy club. Obviously not trying that hard on this occasion, to be fair.

Anyway, sod it. It’s my blog, not a film magazine. I can write whatever I like. So I’ll end with a short and slightly disappointing story:

After the film, we went for a really nice meal in a Turkish restaurant we’d never tried before (no, we didn’t have schwarma). The waitress heard us talking about it and asked me if I could tell her who the voice of Ultron is since her flatmates are all crazy about this film. “James Spader,” I said, with the warmth that only having been alive to be in love with James Spader between 1986-1994 can achieve. “Who?” she replied. And I was just a little gutted.

That has nothing to do with the film per se, but that feeling of love and possessiveness being mildly punctured by someone else’s complete lack of immersion in the landscape? Sort of how it feels to talk about this stuff with people who don’t do superhero movies. So it’s felt pleasantly cathartic to write a little about it here where I have no idea if you care or not, but I’ve got to assume you were interested enough to get past the headline.

Right. Time to book take two, I think…

Great British Chefs #GBCCookSchool with Adam Gray

Adam shows off a tray of bread-wrapped mackerel

Adam Gray shows off a tray of bread-wrapped mackerel

I’ve talked before about the general wonderfulness that is Great British Chefs, and I was again honoured and delighted to join them for one of their fabulous events. This time it was for a cook school – not dissimilar to when Pinterest kindly invited me along to learn from Tom Aikens – at the aptly named Cookery School in Little Portland Street, London.

This time the chef was Skylon’s own Adam Gray; some years back my then-boyfriend (now husband) took me to what was then Rhodes 24 – where Chef Gray was busy earning Michelin stars. It was one of my first grown up fine dining experiences and I still remember elements of that meal very fondly, so it was great to now be learning tips and tricks from a master of the trade who had already contributed to warm and fuzzy memories.

We kicked off with Adam and his sous chef Damon making a fish dish that essentially required making a spring roll out of very thinly rolled slices of bread wrapped around fillets of mackerel flavoured with a dash of English mustard. He took us from filleting the whole fish to plating up beautifully with rhubarb chutney and sea purslane. There’s an alternative, BLT-inspired version of this on the GBC website.

Totes even and perfectly well-rolled, obvs. Ahem.

Totes even and perfectly well-rolled, obvs. Ahem.

Next came the opportunity to get our hands on some beautiful ingredients and mix Ticklemore goats cheese with cream cheese to form a sort of sausage; this was double-dredged in panko breadcrumbs and fried; with the gorgeous, simple tomato salad that made up the rest of the dish it was absolutely delightful. Plus I can now say a Michelin-starred chef has made suggestive jokes while I attempt to get hands-on with a roll of cheese. #lifegoals.

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Dessert before…

Dessert was a fluffy flourless lemon, almond and polenta cake topped with a warmed strawberry jam sauce and served with vanilla-scented natural yogurt. Sugar-free or not, I did take a bite and it was beautifully light yet rich; I might just work out how to do a lower sugar version. There were so many we couldn’t actually finish them and I ended up bringing some home for the family who were very appreciative.

Learning from Adam was really a great privilege; as well as demonstrating dishes and checking on everyone’s progress, he held a little mackerel filleting masterclass and was very generous with his time and his knowledge. He’s very passionate about British ingredients – he only uses locally produced rapeseed oil, for example, and was specific about the British brands, such as Tiptree strawberry jam, he supported when using a ready-made product. He’s visited the sources and investigated the factories. Best of all, he’s realistic about what can be achieved at home, and recognises the role of budget in the average household; mackerel is a fairly cheap fish, and rapeseed oil is much more affordable than some olive oils (though, being Greek, you’ll pry my olive oil from my cold, dead hands, obvs).

The sticky aftermath.

The sticky aftermath.

The Cookery School is a lovely venue; for my pal Christina, it was essentially her home for the week as she’d been on a baking course for three days and plied me with amazing cheese straws and quiche while supplying macarons and sponge cake to the rest of the crew. It’s well-stocked and spotless and founder Rosalind is incredibly, rightly, proud of what she’s achieved.

Best of all, the people who come along to GBC events are always interesting. We’re a very mixed bag, all connected to food in different ways (other than, you know, eating it, that is). Everyone’s always so ready to get stuck in, help out and produce something beautiful; I leave every event with five new people to stalk online, which can never be a bad thing.

Christina, Tiff and Alex. Never knowingly underfed.

Christina, Tiff and Alex. Never knowingly underfed.

If any of the recipes above sound as delicious to you as they should, you can find the cake under Adam Gray’s profile on the Great British Chefs website, plus a number of his other recipes, including a few other gluten-free options. It is all much more manageable than it might look (looks, I think, are half the problem; I’ll never manage presentation like that!) and the other lovely friend who accompanied me, Tiff, has already made the mackerel dish at home. My thanks again to Adam and the GBC team for another very enjoyable event, and for giving me the opportunity to again learn something new.

Edit: GBC has produced a guide including all the recipes which is right here! Handy.

Disclosure: If it’s not obvious, Great British Chefs invited me to the event.

Florida 2015: ALL THE FOOD (featuring Le Cellier, Be Our Guest, Via Napoli & The Leaky Cauldron, among others)

And, as if by strange and sad magic, we’re back. Two glorious weeks in unseasonably baking weather – which wilted but did not wither this fragile British blossom – and it’s back down to (spaceship) Earth with a bump.

I dare say there will be a few things I will be keen to blog about over the next few weeks, but being of Mediterranean origin I’m going the traditional Greek route of telling you about everything I ate since we last met. Food was always going to be a major part of the trip, from classic US diner breakfasts (yes, Brits are obsessed with the likes of Cracker Barrel, Perkins and Denny’s because they might be ubiquitous cheapie chains to you, my American brethren, but to us they’re  ZOMG biscuits and proper pancakes) to a date night in Epcot, because why would a date night involving me be anywhere else?

So, here is a brief(ish) rundown of the highlights, with just a few of my favourite things.

Denny's syrup plate. There were seven of us, to be fair.

Denny’s syrup plate. There were seven of us, to be fair.

Meal: Breakfast

At: All those places I mentioned above

The Highlights: I am most particular about my pancakes. I appreciate crepes, I do, but when it comes to breakfast only thick, fluffy American pancakes will do. Since I gave up maple syrup (I use rice malt at home), I appreciated a good dollop of whipped butter and a sprinkling of fresh fruit as well. Though I love Cracker Barrel for its hokey setting, Denny’s took the prize for me for the best, thickest, fluffiest pancakes; I did appreciate that Perkins did a multigrain and nut version, though, which was nicely savoury and interesting (hell, you could even pretend it was healthy). All were served with a dash of whipped butter. If you like blueberry pancakes, Denny’s sprinkle them throughout lightly, which I prefer, and Cracker Barrel pack them to the gills. All in all, it was a good fortnight for pancakes. As we were staying at a villa, the rest of the time I scharfed on pumpernickel rye bread from Publix with 100% peanut butter and sliced strawberries or whipped cream cheese (insert joke about my fondness for whipped things here) and slices of cucumber. Why don’t we have as much pumpernickel bread here? THIS COUNTRY NEEDS MORE PUMPKERNICKEL.

The Downsides: Sugar-free toppings tend to be sorbitol-laden sugar-free syrups (I’d rather just have maple and suffer the consequences) so take your own rice malt if you’re a committed sugar-quitter who really can’t do without. There will be some sugar in the batter, remember. Also, we didn’t manage to get in a visit to Einstein Bros for pumpernickel bagels and this is very very sad because see sentence in caps above.

The Leaky Cauldron Ploughman's Lunch. Not exactly authentic, but delicious.

The Leaky Cauldron Ploughman’s Lunch. Not exactly authentic, but delicious.

Meal: Lunch

At: Sci Fi Dine-In Theater (Disney’s Hollywood Studios), The Leaky Cauldron (Diagon Alley – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios), Captain America Diner (Marvel Super Hero Island, Universal Islands of Adventure), Be Our Guest Restaurant (Magic Kingdom)

The Highlights: I’m not sure I can even remember much about the food in the Sci Fi Dine-In Theater and I’m almost certainly sure it doesn’t matter – the theming is all in that place, where you sit in rows in drive-in cars and watch 1950s cartoons under a ‘starry’ sky.

Stranded at the drive-in...

Stranded at the drive-in…

I do recall it had some more unusually healthy / less fried options (eg vegetarian shepherd’s pie, although it was made partly with veggie burger patty I think) and had Mickey Check options for the kids, which are a Disney Parks initiative marking out salt, sugar and fat-controlled meals that provide at least one serving of fruit or vegetable. But really, you would eat fried batter with batter on the side just to sit in there – it’s wonderful. Booking is almost certainly essential at busier times of year.

It's a cauldron with a crack in it. So this must be the Three Broomsticks, right?

It’s a cauldron with a crack in it. So this must be the Three Broomsticks, right?

The Leaky Cauldron is also brilliantly themed – like stepping onto the film set – and the British-inspired fare is actually decent; the Ploughman’s for two I shared with my husband had a lovely fresh beetroot chutney and decent cheese, and the kid’s fish and chips had crunchy batter. The chips were nothing like soggy chip shop chips and frankly all the better for it (no, you can’t revoke my citizenship for that; I was born here). Plus there was malt vinegar on each table as standard.

Tale as old as time, but the food is distinctly more fresh.

Tale as old as time, but the food is distinctly more fresh.

Since it opened, Be Our Guest Restaurant has been so insanely popular that you can now only get a table through Advance Dining Reservations and it was an effort and a half to secure a late lunch reservation for nine of us. It was entirely worth it though; we had a choice of eating in one of the three dining rooms; distracted and hungry, we made a beeline for the obvious, huge ballroom (it felt amazingly like stepping into That Scene even in my sweaty t-shirt and denim shorts). We could have dipped into the ‘Castle Gallery’ room, surrounded on all sides by paintings and tapestries from the film, and we should have gone straight to the West Wing, which includes an amazing stormy window in front of which is placed the enchanted rose – from which a petal drops every so often. The hangings are ripped and the portrait of the prince suddenly gets slashed. Gorgeous. Of course, you’re free to wander in there after you’ve eaten. At lunch, the ordering system means you order before you sit and take a plastic ‘rose’ puck with you wherever you go so your food can find you.

Interestingly, the grey stuff is the only thing Belle eats during the entire song.

Interestingly, the grey stuff is the only thing Belle eats during the entire song.

Options were limited but decent; I had a roast beef baguette with horseradish which was so big I gave half of it away. The kids all went for a healthier pasta option. I had to have a bite of the ‘grey stuff’, so ordered the Master’s Cupcake (chocolate with buttercream); it was… well, quite nice. I don’t really do icing anymore, so the rest of it was devoured by my husband and child, but I’m glad I did it! I understand dinner is much more of an event, with a wider menu, proper table service and Beast meet n greets, so try your damndest for a booking if, like me, you’re a big Beauty and the Beast fan. Plus it’s the only place in Magic Kingdom that serves alcohol.

An honourable mention should also go to Katsura Grill at the Japan pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase – which offers cheaper Japanese meals such as quick and tasty udon soup with beef, curry or tempura shrimp plus chicken teriyaki, rice and veg for the kids. People also didn’t seem to notice it was there, so there tended to be available seats even though it’s a pretty small location.

It could get worse than having lunch with Captain America and Loki.

It could get worse than having lunch with Captain America and Loki, I guess…

The Downsides: Across the board, even the most mundane theme park food in Orlando is about ten times better than the quick service Disneyland Paris fare, I’m afraid. However, the weakest meal we had was in Captain America’s diner which had glacially slow service and perfectly edible but distinctly mediocre burgers. But great photos on the wall, and the good Cap’n did a meet and greet right across the road.

My poor photography does this no justice whatsover.

My poor photography does this no justice whatsoever, and looks like a Mr Men character who has suffered an Edward Gorey demise…

Meal: Dinner

At: Le Cellier (Canada – World Showcase, Epcot), Via Napoli (Italy – World Showcase, Epcot)

The Highlights: Disney has steadily and purposefully worked on developing World Showcase’s long-held reputation for the best food on property, and old favourite Le Cellier continues to maintain this. The perfectly cooked to order filet mignon with truffle butter sauce and mushroom risotto was incredible – and so filling (especially after starters and a warm bread basket including a delicious prezel bread stick) my husband didn’t have room to sample the maple creme brûlée for which the restaurant is well-known. It is not a cheap option, but setting is lovely and the service warm and friendly. If you finish dinner early enough you can also dart straight out for a great view of IllumiNations.

Pepperoni!

Pepperoni!

Carciofi!

Carciofi!

Via Napoli was heaving and very noisy, and when we were seated we were told there might be delays due to a new chef in the kitchen. However, we were actually served very promptly and the ‘large’ pizzas – served on big stands and designed to serve 2-3, but easily serving up to 4 if you’re not madly hungry – were incredibly good. The next size up is (literally) half a metre and there’s an individual option too; while the pizzas aren’t cheap, you can extract very good value through sharing.

The classic Neapolitan thin base was a great balance of chewy and crisp, and there were only a few options to choose from (though you can design your own if you’re so inclined) so they were all done really well. I was delighted to see some pizza bianca options – that is, no tomato sauce – and the Carciofi with its gorgeous artichoke topping was utterly delicious. A big house salad packed with Mediterranean leaves and veg was a great side order and I found room for one of the two sugary treats I had for the holiday, pistachio gelato which was rich and yummy with the crunch of nut pieces (ice cream is about the only weakness I have that’s worth the sugar headache). My sister tucked into fried ricotta balls dipped in chocolate sauce which she thoroughly loved.

The Downsides: People lose their minds over Le Cellier’s cheddar cheese soup; I found it pleasant enough but a bit salty and bland. Ash’s scallop starter was absolutely gorgeous, though.

Meal: Snacks

At: Food carts throughout Walt Disney World, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour (Diagon Alley – Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios)

Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. So much promise...

Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. So much promise…

The Highlights: For me, the wonderful Mickey Pretzel (like any other soft pretzel but with ears, damnit). For Miss R, the Mickey ice cream bar she was treated to by a very kind friend. Both around the $5 mark; both worth it for the happy looks on happy faces.

The Downsides: The other sugary treat I decided to go for was Florean Fortescue‘s Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. And look, it was still nice ice cream. And yes, I am really, really hard to please with sugary stuff these days (it has to be SO WORTH IT). But… it was really just very sweet vanilla with cakey chunks in it. I never regretted the pistachio gelato for a second, but this? Well… meh. There are loads of other options though, and the fun of experiencing a Fortescue sundae is undeniable.

I hope that’s whet some appetites for what’s on offer in Florida’s theme parks and slightly beyond (and also convinced a few people who might have thought that all you can get is shoddy fried stuff with plastic cheese, though it’s out there if that floats your boat). Got a favourite I didn’t visit? Fill me with regret in the comments.

A brief personal history of Walt Disney World, with pictures

No-one who knows me IRL can fail to have heard about my family’s upcoming trip to Walt Disney World. It’s going to include quite a few members of my extended family, all packing our noisy selves into a villa barely seven miles from the Epcot parking lot.

I. AM. SO. EXCITED.

Now, I could write a whole lot of actually useful stuff about using My Disney Experience (excellent customer service when something weird – not Disney’s fault – went wrong with the tickets), booking FP+, making our Advance Dining Reservations including a date night at Le Cellier… but, you know, the world is already heaving with places to find that information. I’m totally happy to answer questions and share tips, but there are people who devote their entire lives to WDW holiday planning (not least the Disney Parks Moms Panel) – more people than you can shake a stick at, frankly. And instead, I just want to share my excitement through photos.

Don’t get me wrong, I know things have changed. Obviously things have changed. I mean, my Dad labelled one of the photos below as “E.P.C.O.T. Center” (yes, with the unnecessary dots and yes, he can still tell you what it stands for). There are attractions that are never coming back (we don’t have to name The One; come to think of it, maybe we all have a different One). There are attractions that are changed beyond recognition, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The place that I fell in love with when I was four is not the same place that my daughter, aged four, will now fall in love with. There’s a part of me that’s a little sad about that, but it’s a mistake to ever try to recreate your experience in your child; you are not the same people. It is not the same time. And, as for yourself – well, you can never really go back. I’ve made my peace with that.

But I’m also aware – and, honestly, grateful – that I will carry with me the rose-tinted specs of 1984 and see things through that lens. The new memories I create will be drawn on the top of the ones that are already inked on me, a hundred hidden Mickeys stamped all over, invisible but indelible, each layer smudged, blurred but never wiped out over time.

This week, I found these photos from my first visit. They are the set which went with this one.  They make me very, very happy. I cannot wait to have the uniquely wonderful experience of seeing it all unfold through R’s eyes; I got a hint of it at Disneyland Paris, but this is it – the Mother Ship!

And no, I will not be wearing short shorts.

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IQS: Teaching yourself to like dark chocolate (aka my favourite chocolate to nibble on)

One of the things that a lot of people talk about when you give up sugar is dark chocolate. And it’s often hugely off-putting to people who prefer milk – which is probably most people. Especially younger people with more excitable taste buds who can pick up every hint of bitterness in dark, cocoa-rich chocolate. But it is worth gently leading yourself down the path from milk to dark (if you like white chocolate I can’t help you; it’s also not really chocolate), for all sorts of reasons. These include:

  • Lower sugar content. While there are other things added to chocolate, you can get an at-a-glance idea of how much sugar is in it by how much cocoa there isn’t. 70% cocoa? Roughly 30% sugar.
  • More of all the stuff that people bang on about that’s good for you. (I don’t pay too much attention to this – I eat it cos I like it.)
  • It’s considerably harder to overdose – it’s richer, more bitter, more complex and your palate can only take so much.

I’ve embraced dark chocolate enthusiastically enough that I now have a handful of favourites in the 70%-100% category (yes, 100%). If you are starting from a very sweet-and-milky point, then there are a couple of more interesting options that could start expanding your horizons, such as Green & Black’s 37% milk which dials up the cocoa intensity a bit (compared to the Creamy Milk which is 32%). But if your main experience of dark chocolate is the odd cookie chip or nibble of Bourneville and you’d like to move further down that path, there are some far more interesting options…

70%+

Stage one: embracing the dark. Quite a lot of ‘extra dark’ chocolate bars are still only at about 65%, but things don’t really get interesting until the number starts with a seven. Here are my favourites at this level:

Tesco Finest 72% Swiss Dark Chocolate – unexpectedly creamy; this almost tastes like a darker milk chocolate. And it’s usually much cheaper than the alternatives.

Green & Blacks 70% Dark Chocolate – lovely, rich and dense but still quite creamy.

80%+

Stage two: dialling up the intensity. As a general rule, as chocolate gets darker, it gets a little harder and less creamy.

Lovechock Pure/Nibs Raw Chocolate – a really unusual one this, since the coconut blossom nectar has an oddly perfumed taste. But it’s really moreish, and the cocoa nib crunch is very satisfying. (Min. 81% cocoa solids)

Tesco Finest 85% Swiss Dark Chocolate – just a touch darker than the 72% but still very creamy, and definitely one of the most forgiving options at this level of cocoa content.

Green & Black’s 85% Dark Chocolate – quite a lot darker, more bitter and richer than its 70% counterpart. One of my favourites.

Divine 85% Dark Chocolate – a fraction more caramel sweetness than the Green & Blacks, but very similar otherwise.

90%+

Stage three: I was once accused of “ruining chocolate” by people who simply weren’t ready for it (even though my 4yo has eaten and liked both 90% and 100% chocolate, perhaps because of the novelty of mummy encouraging her to have another piece just to make sure). So be prepared for some adjustment. Hotel Chocolat even recommends taking a little nibble of 100% chocolate to ‘accustom the palate’ before eating a full piece.

Hotel Chocolat Coastal Ecuador Hacienda Iara 90% – gorgeously intense but not outrageously bitter, and still retains a touch of creaminess and a mild hint of fruit. Also comes in a 100% variety that I really like, though 100% is hard work for anyone.

Lindt Excellence Dark Supreme Noir 90% – typically creamy in the way of Lindt chocolate, with a lovely crisp bitter edge.

All of the above are particularly nice combined with a handful of nuts. My husband’s favourite snack is a couple of brazil nuts, a square of chocolate and a few raisins (I omit the last, for sugar reasons).

Am I missing a particularly delicious option? Is there a brand I should try? I’ve tried a couple of Valrhona options I wasn’t in love with (too chalky-bitter), and I was surprised and pleased by Ghirardelli’s darker options, but the above are generally top of my list (and mostly much more easily available).

Disclosure: My very sad disclosure is that NO-ONE SENDS ME CHOCOLATE and I bought and tried all these myself in the service of eating chocolate, rather than reviewing it. I’m open to being sent chocolate. I will be honest, but honest with chocolate, which is better than being honest without it.

Adventures in vintage when you’re size 12+

IMG_5152At the beginning of last year, I had no items of vintage clothing, and I didn’t think I ever would. One of my best friends in the world is a massive vintage hound, and she came over to visit over that Christmas and New Year; still I wasn’t entirely convinced vintage was for me. Wasn’t it all a bit… difficult? And only really for thin people? (Even though my friend and I are similar sizes, we’re different shapes).

I began 2015 with a small but growing pile of vintage, from a lovely 1960s fuchsia Lane Bryant suit to a trio of classic black 50s wiggle dresses. And along the way I’ve learned a fair bit about how to shop, what to look for and why most of the things I believed about vintage were nonsense. I share these now for anyone curious about buying vintage clothing, but especially for those women who, like me, sit on the periphery of clothes sizing – neither plus nor standard, neither big nor small – but for whom vintage might turn out to be the answer to their fashion dreams…

So here are some things that I thought I “knew” about vintage clothing:

  • It smells
  • Nothing is in a washable fabric
  • It’s cut on a different body shape, so all the waists are impossibly tiny
  • It looks mumsy

IMG_5168As you might imagine, it turns out I knew absolutely nothing. I suspect the first point was sheer second-hand snobbery and can thoroughly be avoided simply by shopping from trusted sellers; the last point applies just as much to modern clothing if you pick a style that doesn’t suit. The second point simply isn’t true (I now have a number of cotton items that prove otherwise, though you will likely have to do more hand washing to preserve more delicate garments) and the third point… well, the third point bears some proper examination. Because it’s both true and nonsense.

The true part is that the assumed body shape for clothing does change over time, and anything pre-1990s is largely different from what you’d find on the high street today – other than in reproduction specialists like Collectif or Vivien of Holloway. My areas of interest – broadly speaking mid-40s to mid-60s – see plenty of variation even across 30 years, but one thing that does stand out is that where dress shapes are fitted (in 50s wiggle dresses, for example) the differences between bust, waist and hip measurements tend to be bigger than you might find now. I frequently come across dresses that are around the 40-30-40 mark (my current measurements being 39-29-39) which does assume a considerable hourglass. However, assuming that means that the right shape for you doesn’t exist would be a mistake; just taking a look through some of the key styles within a single decade should indicate that it’s more a question of finding your style than assuming ‘vintage doesn’t fit’. Also, while I tend to be cautious about radically changing the size or shape of a garment and prefer to set it free for a woman who does fit it perfectly, small, sensitive alterations to let out a waist or tuck in a hip – particularly if they’re done in a way that can be reversed – are perfectly possible.

The other point to raise it that yes, people tended towards smaller sizes. These days I’m a size 12-14 in most stores, but in vintage and repro I could be anything from a 14 to an 18. On the whole, I would assume you’ll need to go up at least one dress size in numbers, because sizes were classified differently and bodies have, taking the whole population into account, got a bit bigger. But – and this is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a sizeable but – that’s largely irrelevant, because you never shop for vintage by dress size.

Here’s the thing: before you set foot in a single vintage store or browse a single online swap-and-sell group, you need to get familiar with your measurements. At minimum you need to know your bust size (over bra), your waist (literally the smallest part / natural waist) and your hips. And then when you look at individual pieces, you need to allow for breathing space, depending on the fabric. For example, a foxy 60s lurex dress could probably be bang on measurements, but a tightly tailored number in a non-stretch fabric like taffeta probably needs up to 2″ breathing space or you won’t be able to sit down or eat. But do also ask questions; one of my wool suits has a nipped in 30″ waist, but 1.5″ of fabric excess where the button is placed – so had it felt too tight, I could have given myself a better fit in ten minutes with a needle and thread. I’m no seamstress, but even I can move a button. Also, some fabrics are very forgiving, and a good seller will both go the extra mile in giving you detailed measurements and carefully describe the stretch and texture of the fabric.

Tip: Many vintage sellers give measurements by lying the item flat out and measuring across. So if you’re a 32″ waist, you want to look out for 16″ measurements, or at least 15.5″ with a bit of give.

So, going back to the world of those of us who have some scars from navigating tiny high street sizes, does that mean that as someone with a waist size of 30″ or up, you’re screwed? I thought so, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. You will often find anything with a waist of 29″ or higher referred to as ‘volup’ – so yes, plus size generally starts at around a modern size 12-14. But there is plenty of it, particularly for women in modern sizes 12-18, who will be able to find beautiful pieces with 44″ or 46″ busts, 31″-35″ waists and more. It turns out that, just as now, though the thinner women might have been the ones in photographs, there were plenty of women of all shapes and sizes who left behind some truly beautiful items for a vintage-hunter to pounce on.

So, some more tips and a bit of a summary for getting started:

  • Take your measurements.
  • Watch out for customs; many amazing vintage stores are in the US, and you will need to assume you’ll pay a customs and handling charge which is calculated based on the whole cost, including P&P, so make sure it’s worth it!
  • Seek out friends who can recommend you to private groups – my aforementioned vintage-loving pal made me a member of a couple on Facebook and they’re great places to get lower prices and friendly, direct service.
  • Ask, ask, ask. You’ve every right to ask for extra measurements and details of any flaws (and how significant they might be), stains or smells before you commit to a purchase. Many items are in perfect condition but some are sold ‘as is’ and that’s fine as long as you know what you’re getting and how you’re going to fix / treat / wear it to account for that. Note: smells will come out of many fabrics, but rayon crepe is a serious challenge, so think twice before committing to that…
  • Haunt Etsy (a couple of my faves below but I’m also now building up a purchase list of UK based sellers and a wishlist for each of ‘my’ decades).
  • Check out UK based specialists like Rokit.
  • Don’t assume this means no repro or modern fashions or that you’ll be shunned for not going “true vintage” – dabblers are welcome and mixing and matching pieces is great. However, you might be eaten alive if you radically alter pieces or use the word “upcycling”; people in vintage communities are very, very passionate about the preservation of fashion history.

Some fab Etsy stores:

Concetta’s Closet – I’ve only actually bought once from Dana because her massively high quality pieces mean they are generally out of my budget (with shipping from the US and customs factored in), though they are unquestionably fairly priced; it’s not her fault I don’t earn enough to indulge my habit! She offers really inspiring, beautiful looks, plus she’s a lovely woman who always has time to answer questions or interact on Facebook. And she does at least two big sales a year!

Fab Gabs Vintage – similarly high quality, with regular sales and some stunning pieces; I’ve not yet splurged on a piece from Julie, but hope to one day not too far away. Her specialism is the 1940s and some of the pieces she finds – and the astonishingly good condition they’re in – make me want to cry.

Dipping my toe in vintage waters has done nothing but improve my appearance, confidence and approach to dressing. It really has put a spring in my step in a way that – as someone who has a complex relationship with her body – I didn’t think I could really experience. So I highly recommend that you leave misconceptions at the door and get searching or rummaging; there’s a real rush to finding that perfect item.

Though you will now spend the rest of your life cursing the high street for not selling everything by measurement.

Details for all the clothes in the photos:

Picture 1, l-r:

Actually nothing vintage in the first pic (though the dress was second hand Wallis from a relative) but all vintage-inspired shapes and ideas mixed together | Red Polka Dot 1960s Dress (Concetta’s Closet), Jo Bluebird Cardigan Black (Collectif), Martha Plain White Belt (Collectif) | Black 1950s Cotton Dress (FB Group), Red 2″ Cinch Belt (Vivien of Holloway)

Picture 2, l-r:

1960s Gold Lurex Dress (FB Group – and yes, it needs more era-appropriate undergarments!) | Mustard Retro Wiggle Dress (Di Brooks OuterLimitz sample obtained through a group – still available but only in other colours) | Balloon Shirt (Zara), 1960s Suit Skirt (Rokit – also have the jacket), Red Leather 1970s Belt (Absolute Vintage)

No disclosure needed as this is just my stuff, paid for by me, and things I like.

IQS: What I actually eat – and how to have a sugar-free birthday

Genuinely, I never expected to write this much about sugar – or lack of it. But it seems to now be a Thing That People Know About Me that I don’t, for the most part, eat sugar; although it’ll be a year in June, there’s an on-going sense of curiosity from others and (I guess related to increasing news coverage) questions about how it all works, and why. Across my office, at least three other colleagues have started the process of ditching the stuff – though I’m pretty sure Sherri had more to do with that than I did.

In fact, Sherri and I were having a conversation about this the other day, and the question we agreed we both hear which prompted this post – and that I didn’t mention in my last – is “but what do you eat instead?”. ‘Instead’ is a curious addition, isn’t it? I think it’s probably the first thing I thought when I first started considering quitting sugar, and it’s so telling. Telling that we are so used to eating so much of it, that it’s not a case of getting rid of something unnecessary but of replacing something essential.

I think there are two elements to the ‘instead’, too. It’s ‘instead of cake etc’, yes, definitely. Fully half of each sugar-free cookbook I’ve ever so much as glanced through is packed with alternatives to classic desserts and sweet snacks. I think the people writing them mostly know you’d be better off not replacing them at all, but take the pragmatic view that in a world filled with biscuits, better to have something barely sweetened with a little rice malt syrup and coconut than nothing at all. And there’s probably something in that (though I’d still recommend keeping the habit of eating sweet things to a minimum). And the other part is ‘instead of breakfast cereal etc’.

Breakfast is, I think the hardest meal to imagine in a post-sugar world. Toast and jam. Cereal. Granola. Honey (in, near or on practically anything). Fruit, yogurt and fruit yogurt. But it’s actually one of the most delicious meals you can have after quitting. I’m pretty much obsessed with breakfast, as anyone who follows me on Instagram will know, and I regularly have brinner (frankly, if I had access to facilities that allowed me to make toast and poach eggs at work I’d probably have it for every meal). But once I started thinking about sharing what kinds of things I have for breakfast, just in case that’s helpful, I thought I might as well do a sort of menu for each day of the week, with a few suggestions for each meal. If you’re right at the beginning of a sugar quitting process, I hope it will come in useful. Then I also have some tips to share about having a sugar-free birthday.

Note: I am low-fructose and like to make stuff from scratch, but I’m not a JERF obsessive. I use some processed stuff and spend less money in the week before payday. I work long hours and enjoy a kitchen shortcut. Also, I have a four-and-a-half-year-old to get out of the front door every morning, and it’s only thanks to the fact that I have a husband who is far more of a morning person than I am that I manage to eat at all.

Breakfast

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Weekdays:

  • Quick nut butter porridge (above) – 30g Ready Brek, 150ml almond milk heated for 2mins in the microwave and 1/2 tsp chia seeds, stirred together. A dollop of peanut, almond or cashew butter on top, plus some strawberries or raspberries.
  • Avocado toast – exactly as it sounds. Half an avocado mashed onto two slices.
  • Fancy avocado toast (below)– the above, but with goats’ cheese and raspberries on top, popped under the grill for a couple of minutes.
  • Nut butter crumpets (above) – Usually with a handful of raspberries, a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds or a sliced strawberry on top.

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Weekend treats:

  • Poached eggs and veggies (above) – the above was actually a birthday breakfast from my lovely husband, including fennel, courgettes and mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and crumpets with smoked salmon and poached eggs. We use silicon poachers, hence the perfect egg-boob-shape.
  • Veggie omelette – whatever your favourites are, two eggs and a 20g block of cheese, fried gently and finished off under the grill.
  • Pancakes (above) – yes, really. I use Nigella’s recipes for American pancakes (minus the totally unnecessary spoonful of sugar) or ricotta hotcakes. I also use GF self-raising flour, because it keeps the fluffiness and prevents accidentally chewy pancakes. I top with a small squirt of rice malt syrup, a smear of nut butter and fresh berries; my husband and daughter usually add a little maple syrup too.

Lunch

  • Buying lunch – it’s generally best to try not to buy lunch, for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is expense. But if I do have to I tend to go to Pret or the Japan Centre; Pret has recently started listing the sugar content of everything, which is ace, and the Japan Centre has started doing tonkotsu ramen which is fatty and meaty and noodley joy. (You might find my Eating Out on IQS post helpful here….)
  • Stir-fry, stir-fry and a side of stir-fry – I’m a bit obsessed with throwing everything that’s about to go soggy into a wok full of coconut oil, chilli, garlic and ginger. A splash of tamari, and the basis of any meal is done. I could probably get shares in Amoy Straight-to-Wok udon noodles. I can’t really think of a better way to get your 5+-a-day in than stir frying, and it’s dead easy to pop in the microwave at work. This is also the perfect side-dish for my most common lunch which is…
  • Leftovers – well, obviously. Roast chicken, baked salmon, slow-cooker stews etc.

Dinner

  • Chicken soup – about once every other week I make a roast chicken. If they’re on offer, I make two together, in the oven with a bit of freshly squeezed lemon juice and some whole, peeled garlic cloves (plus some rosemary if we happen to have any). Afterwards the juices and the carcass go into a saucepan with a couple of kettles of boiling water and I simmer the lot for 3-4 hours before straining it. There’s always loads more stock than I can use in a couple of days, so I freeze the rest, as well as some freezer bags of shredded chicken if there’s enough left over. This is about the only domestic goddess-like thing that I do, ever, and it’s totally worth it. Because I’m obsessed with chicken soup in all its forms. A pack of ready noodles (see? I told you I could have shares) and some random bits of veg and the job is done.
  • Everything slow-cooker – a load of (usually less-sugary) root veg, some protein or other and some sort of flavouring. Could be tinned tomatoes, could be coconut milk and curry paste, could be stock. Could be chicken, fish or the cheaper cuts of red meat. Could include potatoes for bulk, could be designed to be eaten with cous cous or rice.

You’ll have noticed I tend to batch cook and make extra helpings. I look for large pieces of fish or meat that will last for several days. We also get through a prodigious quantity of eggs as a household, since they’re a quick, cheap, adaptable and easy source of fat and protein that are delicious at any time of day.

I also don’t really go in for sweet substitutes on the whole – you can go far on cheese, some very dark chocolate and, every couple of weeks, a stack of pancakes – but I do rather rate this salty, chewy, nutty bark from the IQS recipe list. Also, I had a surfeit of squishy looking pears that my daughter hadn’t finished and whipped up this pear and almond upside-down cake which was moist and moreish.

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And now… to birthdays. I recently celebrated mine, and it was very lovely indeed. One of the things that made it really wonderful was having friends and colleagues at work who were incredibly kind and thoughtful. On the day itself, instead of surprising me with a cake, I was brought three immense blocks of cheese – with candles! – and a heap of crackers. It ended up being both treat and lunch, and nearly made me cry as it was such a nice gesture.

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A few days later, my gorgeous friend Christina did make me a cake – which she was prepared to try to make with glucose only until I told her that it was her kind gesture and she should do it as she pleased.  Said cake was absolutely 100% worth the deviation from my low-sugar life. Partly because the generosity of a friend always tastes amazing (especially a friend who is well on her way to being a baking professional) but also because if you give up sugar but stop appreciating when someone makes you a delicious orange, polenta and pistachio cake, then you have given up too much.

The (additional, metaphorical) icing on that cake was that because I knew a gorgeous slice of home-made affection was coming my way, I didn’t feel the need to symbolically over-indulge on our amazing night out at Bob Bob Ricard, which I’ll write about soon.

So, I guess paradoxically, my best tip for having a sugar-free birthday is to accept that some sugar might happen. It doesn’t have to. If the snacks are on you, then a savoury treat disappears just as fast as a cake in an office (possibly faster, due to the novelty). If you don’t want it, then you don’t have to have it. But if you do, it’s not a reason to berate yourself or the opening to go off-track. It’s been almost a year, so for me it’s becoming more and more like second nature to avoid derailing myself; it might well be harder if you’re still breaking the habit. I’m not saying you should feel obliged to eat sugar just because other people expect you to – and if my amazing birthday cheeseboard is proof of anything, it’s that you can set different expectations by being honest with others about yourself – but if you want to  eat something sugary (and I did want to) then so be it. Give yourself permission, and you’ll find it actually gets easier to just have what you want: no more and no less.

I’m always open to a tip or two myself, so if you have any great low-sugar meals or birthday ideas, let’s hear ’em.