Archive for Chocolate

Networking nightmares

In my last employed job almost everyone’s role included some networking, the success of which was measured not against the potential benefits of making the connection but against the length of time (the longer, the more impressive), the venue (if a Michelin star was involved, all the better) and the wealth of the guest (Times Rich List members preferred). I still remember the black look thrown at me by the chief executive when I declined to join him for some “hobnobbing with four millionaires” at a celebrity chef’s restaurant.

Yes, of course I built strong relationships with the organisation’s members and, no, my answer wasn’t driven by arrogance. I needed the time more than I needed to support his ego boost.

When I went freelance I decided to liberate myself from networking lunches believing that, with so many independent cafés a short walk from my front door, mid-morning or mid-afternoon hour-long sessions over a cup of delicious coffee would be more productive.

Inevitably, freelancers desperate for work have to network wherever and whenever – and compromise (what, me?) has to be faced.

Well-known organisations (chambers of commerce, BNI) tend to meet at breakfast which, for anyone who washes their hair every morning, means a five-thirty alarm call for a seven o’clock sharp start. Business gained by me (I gave them all a good go)? None – probably because my “one minute to win it” was spoken in tongues, the only language I can manage after a short night.

So I was thrilled when I discovered a couple of networking groups which deliberately avoided power breakfasts. Recognising how women prefer to work, they met in the evening over high-class nibbles and drinks. Business gained there? None. Be warned. If you admit to having organised anything, you will be roped in … I seldom networked for me; I networked for the group.

Out of the blue an email invited me to the launch of a new group.  In my town and for women. We met … over lunch (yes, yes, but it was informal and infrequent – monthly – and it worked). Business gained? A sizeable commission at the second meeting on the back of which I gained another through which I got a third – and the first came back for more.

Four years later, it happened again. An email bounced in announcing a new networking group. Several emails followed – from friends, all asking if I’d heard about it and would I be going. Held in a local restaurant, the cost brought two drinks and a range of nibbles. Will I go again? Despite it being at lunchtime, the buzz was energising and the potential – well, who knows, but some useful contacts were made. It’s time to eat not lunch but my words.

Eating my words (drinks party small eats)

No recipe for this one. No photograph either (I forgot to get out my camera). I hope you can picture the scene …

  1. Mini croques monsieur – three-bite rectangles, slightly burnished from a very buttery frying, with a generous dollop of proper creamy béchamel sauce wobbling on the top
  2. Blinis, lavishly buttered when warm, with smoked salmon and a sprinkling of lumpfish roe (I’d have added a coffee spoon drop of crème fraiche and a snip of chives)
  3. Tiny pastry cups of an unidentifiable veggie mix with raw onion (why raw onion when trying to make a good impression is the priority?)
  4. Rounds of fried bread (yet more more butter) with a generous twirl of rare beef on top (they never reached me, stuck in the centre of the room with much of the food passing round the edges)
  5. Small choux pastry lozenges filled with cream and drizzled with melted chocolate (easy to scoff, as many did though not savoury-toothed me)
  6. Slivers of flaky pastry with slices of strawberry layered above crème patissière (very hard to pick up and eat, leaving many with sticky fingers and gloopy lips).

My mother called this sort of food “small eats”. I find the term so much more reassuring, and wholesome, than “canapés”.

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It’s easy to achieve nothing

Freelancing is unpredictable. It’s not just that it’s feast or famine – far too much to do or, more often, nothing at all – it’s the days during which you don’t stop doing but, when you look back for a sense of achievement, nothing counts as work.

Today was one of those days.

I’d had a busy weekend – a training workshop all day Saturday and a long, lazy lunch on the Sunday which, because we ate outside in the shade of an early heatwave, left me good for nothing for the rest of the day (the effect of even a light rosé is long-lastingly debilitating, even when drunk with as much water as wine).

So Monday started late. With someone due to call round at 10.30, I argued that being ready for that was early enough; I deserved a no-alarm morning having spent Saturday with my work brain in gear.

I say someone. It was Suzie of Suzie’s Yard on her way to my local deli to tempt them with her Tuscan treats. I’d offered her a visitor’s parking voucher and expected her just to ring the doorbell and dash off. Instead, I spent an unexpected, and unexpectedly pleasurable, half hour salivating over her latest finds (www.suziesyard.co.uk).

Back to my desk. Check for urgent emails (ever hopeful of a sudden request for something leading to an invoice) before nipping out to the shops. Having been out all weekend, my cupboards were bare and, after drooling over Suzie’s offerings, my tummy was rumbling for its breakfast smoothie the ingredients for which were missing from my kitchen.

And then the phone rang. An hour later, after another “quick look” at emails and sending a “quick reply” I set off. It’s Monday! My favourite (independent) supermarket is closed! So I diverted and started dashing to the only other supermarket I’ll enter (Waitrose).

Inevitably, in our villagey town, I bumped into a local friend and another half hour was lost in enjoyable but non-earning chat. I made it back in time to … well, not to make my breakfast smoothie. With only a few minutes before I had to leave for my twice-weekly remedial knee/back class, there wasn’t enough time. But I needed something.

At a meeting with a colleague last week, I’d been re-introduced to a nutritionally naughty nibble from my childhood and the distinctive packaging caught my eye in Waitrose. With six in a box, I told myself I’d be disciplined, hiding them for every-now-and-then-indulgences when I felt I’d earned it. I unwrapped one for a bit of an energy boost (“I’ll probably work off the calories in the gym”, my head said) and gloried in its gloriousness.

Four thirty, I’m back and it’s time, at last, for lunch. The phone rang. You can imagine what happened next. Perhaps just one more – really, only one – would be ok. It was so good, so dreamily light and smoothly fluffy – what does it say on the packet about calories? Never mind the fat content (surprisingly low), ignore the sugar level (shockingly high), just the calories. Because I’m so, so hungry. And that was three gone. And then, because the photo would look better, a fourth.

Freelance life is like this. Undisciplined days when you are never idle but you don’t achieve anything either – and when the lure of fridge or, given mine is often empty, the box-I-should-never-have-bought, takes over. Tomorrow will be different, won’t it?

Mini clouds as light as nothing (Tunnock’s Tea Cakes)

And then there was one ... immediately after the camera had clicked.

I remember Tunnock’s tea cakes from my mid-childhood. They are nothing like the supermarket own-brand versions. As light and as heavenly as clouds, they transported me to a much higher place than my top floor flat– and I’m sure it wasn’t because of the sugar rush. http://www.tunnock.co.uk

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When work is snatched by play

It’s the Real Food Festival and I’m off, following my taste buds, with Gill Thomas who is the brainchild behind the Chiswick Food and Drink Festival. She is testing the potential for a full-blown festival in 2011 by organising a smaller food and crafts fair before Christmas, so we were on the hunt for local (to us) producers or specialist, one-off products that would appeal to west London’s greedy foodies.

Why was I there? Keen to work with restaurants and food businesses I was on the hunt for clients. So, this was genuine work. Until my stomach – and greed – took over. Yes, I came home with a heap of business cards and as many good intentions but I’d spent more time sidetracking myself when there was good tasting to be done (as well as, sadly, when it fell a bit short of expectations).

Attending trade fairs or exhibitions is part of every freelancer’s life. Going with a sense of purpose – and achieving it – requires planning. And that means arriving early to scour through the exhibition guide, marking the stalls you want to visit on the map and planning your route through the hall – and then doing that first, before your feet start complaining. Indulging yourself visiting stalls for personal purposes is a reward served best as afters.

If only I could do as I say. When the subject of your work is your passion, the passion can overwhelm the work. Resisting the urge to stop on my journey to taste and taste again proved hard, especially as it was all presented to me on a plate. I lost focus; I gained weight.

I waddled out well after lunch – annoyingly having forgotten to buy one thing that really grabbed my tongue by the throat – a silky olive oil from Tuscany made by Suzie Alexander. She didn’t lose focus and now lives the dream having moved from St Margaret’s (just across the river from Richmond) to buy an olive grove in Val di Chiana (near Siena) where she is surrounded by other family-run smallholdings making artisan products. She had brought with her the local Pecorino cheese which even had non-cheese loving Gill declaring it delicious. Depending on the season she might also bring farro (spelt) flour, lentils and chick peas, Prosciutto, saffron, truffles and sweet treats such as panforte. You see how I get sidetracked?

So, on this very untypical day, snitching my way round the Earls Court exhibition centre (wood shavings on the floor, livestock in pens – all very Good Life), this was my lunch …

Snatching snitches at the Real Food Festival (Cholesterol and calories)

  • thin mini-slices of ciabatta steeped in Secolare olive oil from a grove of mature olive trees, some of which are hundreds of years old, and a nibble of Pecorino: Suzie’s Yard (www.suziesyard.co.uk)
  • tiny slivers of Organic milk chocolate infused with cardamom made by Hove-based Holly Caulfield. Holly is also an artist and designed the gorgeous packaging which she makes up herself. She produces 100 bars of chocolate a day, one flavour at a time, and golly, Holly, was it good: Chocoholly (www.chocoholly.com).
  • small cubes of Winterdale cheddar, plain and smoked, made by hand from Fresian cows’ milk by the farmers who own the herd. The milk goes straight from the cow to the cheese vat in under 20 minutes which makes the Betts family the nearest farmers to London who make cheese from their own cows’ milk – instead of what most cheesemakers do: use milk bought from other farmers. Not only that … the cheese is matured on their farm in an underground cave deep in the chalky soil of the North Downs in Kent, giving it a rich, nutty and long-lasting flavour. It was obvious to me why it was a gold World Cheese Awards winner in 2009: Winterdale (www.winterdale.co.uk).
  • curls of smoked sirloin steak (unusual and delicious, giving bresaola a run for its money) and smoked salmon (gloriously mild, moist and moreish), a knob of smoked Cropwell Bishop stilton and a drizzle of smoked olive oil (delicious as a marinade or for dipping, too strong as a dressing in my view). The steak was moist and the smoking subtle; it could easily feature in another lunch on these pages. They also produce smoked garlic, but had run out by the time we reached their stall: The Artisan Smokehouse (www.artisansmokehouse.co.uk).
  • smears of pickles, chutneys and sauces on tiny bits of cream cracker, zinging round my mouth and, in the case of the Scotch Bonnet chutneys, bringing tears to my eyes. The sweet lime chutney was a delight – nothing like a lime pickle, more like a tangy, spicy marmalade. I’d met their maker, Chris Smith aka The Pickle Man, about six months’ ago when having a coffee in Munson’s in Ealing with a foodie friend; he was at the table next to ours and, intrigued by our non-stop talk about food, joined in, giving us each a jar of Brinjal pickle to try. Everything he, son of St John and Dolly Smith whose names are on the labels, produces (to his grandmother’s original recipes) is authentic and far better than any other pickle I’ve ever tried: St John and Dolly Smith’s pickles and chutneys (www.thepickleman.co.uk).
  • a sip of Sipsmith gin and barley vodka – all the way from Hammersmith where it is distilled in a copper-pot still called Prudence. Look out for it in the smartest hotel bars in London: Sipsmith (www.sipsmith.com).

Showing great self-control (by not eating the brochures or packaging).

Snitching was what we did as a family, when no one was looking. In the days of having a larder, there was usually something hanging around just waiting to be snitched – the remains of a roast or a steak and kidney pud, one of my mother’s legendary beef curries, cold roast potatoes, carrots or marrow in a white sauce, gravy, sprouts sprinkled with buttery toasted almond flakes left in the pan after the trout meunière had been devoured. And then there was the snitch box – an old Quality Street tin with “Snitch Box” stuck on the front, a Dymo label willingly punched by me aged about nine (and I still have it – the tin and the Dymo kit). We never knew what my mother had left for us but it was always worth the anticipation.

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