Five ways with a photo frame

GOSH I’m really pushing the creativity boat out today. Photo frames.

This post is about dressing your home up without having to spend a fortune. We’re all on that slippery slope into spending lots over Christmas, and we’re being extra cautious at the moment with the wedding and house extension looming.

ribbaBut there are cheap and simple ways to show your home some love – especially as long lost relatives start popping round for mulled wine – and one of them is a black or white photo frame. Who needs a £50 high street canvas when you can make your own and refresh it with every season, or mood? With A4 Ribba frames starting from £6 at Ikea, there are loads of ways to lift your interior:

Wallpaper
If you fall in love with a wallpaper pattern but it’s way too out there for the living room, why not stick it in a frame? It provides the pattern or background you want without you needing seven tubes of paint and a fine art degree to create it yourself. Why not:

  • Cut a slogan, word or shape out of it, and stick it in the middle of your white background?  You’d be surprised how arty and cultured some words can look when typed in Cooper Black and flowered up.
  • Fill your frame with it and draw over it, to liven up a simple pen sketch. The artwork below was inspired by a graffiti drawing of a girl on The Calls in Leeds. I did the black and white version first, on the basis that she was an arty city girl, and reworked her a few months later for a friend who wanted a retro look. You don’t have to do a canvas – just use a thick marker on your wallpaper and pop it into your frame.

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Glitter

Glitter – as much as I would like to shower in the stuff – doesn’t always scream class. But take it easy, and match it with enough crisp white, and you’re practically designing for The White Company. Gold or silver will make the most timeless design, as will going for a simple shape over anything too complex. Try a glitter heart in the middle of the page, a great pout, or a word. Not great at drawing cool letters? Write the word you want on a desktop/laptop, turn the screen brightness up, and pop your paper over the screen. The outline will show through most paper thicknesses, so that you can trace it.

Create your own quote

You don’t have to live life according to someone else’s inspirational quotes. If you have your own, you can easily make something of it using (LOW tech) Microsoft Powerpoint or (lovely tech) Canva.

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It’s a free tool that allows you to create an image of any size to suit your frame, and add in a huge range of fonts, symbols, lines and images. Find a design you like and download a high quality version, then print it off on a decent printer. Hey presto. And it’s a simple enough process to create a new piece whenever your mood changes.

Words

Do you have a favourite poem, or song verse? Use it to create a shape on your page. As beautifully demonstrated by the lyrics to Baby Got Back below, (what can I say – it’s been a busy Saturday) you can pull your words into a long strip down the page, or group a verse into the centre of your frame. Sometimes words are enough.

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Greenery

fernWho needs a needy plant when you can pop some faux (or dried) greenery into a frame? I love the idea of layering strands of fern, or even cuttings from your Christmas tree, into a frame. Without any fuss, words, contrast, or glitter, you’re creating a frame full of lovely green texture that doesn’t just have to sit on a windowsill or table. Arrange your cuttings over green paper, or so that none of the white behind shows though, for a lush frame that takes the lovely feeling of having house plants up onto your walls, too.

Have you lifted your look with a quick and easy interiors trick? I’d love to hear about it and see the results – feel free to share below or on Twitter @a1ex_b.

 

 

 

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The greatest love story of all time, maybe

Tea is surely the down and dirty proof that you are British. Give us a cuppa and we’ll keep calm and carry on, or don’t and we’ll struggle to function first thing in the morning.

I am one of a strange group of people who, despite coming from a pro-tea and coffee family, and an annual tasting session to check for any signs of becoming a tea drinker, have never fallen in love with it. 

Paul doesn’t drink it, either, which I thought was a cute ‘meant to be’ coincidence when we first met, but soon realised it just makes us difficult house guests. We will always opt for water (read: boring), hot chocolate (read: early onset diabetes) or squash (read: are you seven?). We will always seem slightly awkward in work meetings when tea doesn’t cut the mustard, and can never quite deliver on the work tea round.

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I know we’re not alone – several people lately have revealed that they too aren’t fussed about tea, and there are hundreds of alternative options for a comforting brew out there. There’s only so much joy you can get from green tea (read: basically pond water).

So, here are five alternative tea options – with a little tea education on the side – that may be worth a try when you need a cup of something hot:

The one that’s nothing like tea
Who knew that you could flavour tea with chocolate, and chocolate flakes? Ooh la la. When you don’t drink ‘normal’ tea, hot chocolate becomes one of the easiest alternatives, and just about stops you seeming like a fusspot. But given the recent war on sugar, and the fact that I’d quite like to have my teeth in ten years’ time, a healthier halfway point would be great.

This tea, by Teapigs, is made by combining black (read: normal) tea with cocoa beans and chocolate flakes, and happy customers recommend drinking it with milk or cream, and a biscuit. Minus the milk and biscuit, you’re looking at one calorie and the merest hint of sugar and carbs, so you can indulge in this one without having to worry about the consequences.

Other indulgent teas out there include cherry bakewell, fudge, salted caramel and chocolate and coconut.

Chocolate flake tea, £3.99 for 15 teabags, from teapigs.co.uk

The one that will score you wellbeing points 
Wandering the streets with a cup full of something that looks like it’s been scooped from the bottom of a pond seems to score highly with the wellness crowd these days. A cup of matcha tea will definitely score you some points.

Pic: well-beingsecrets.com

Matcha is green tea on steroids. It’s made by grinding green tea leaves down into a powder, which you then mix with hot water. Unlike green tea which you’d usually infuse in hot water, you drink the whole of the tea leaf, and so get a much higher dose of its nutrients and natural caffeine. Typically, you can expect twice the caffeine of coffee, and ten times the antioxidants of green tea. Antioxidants, in case (like me) you need a re-cap, protect the body from damage by harmful free radicals, which are believed to play a part in the development of conditions including blood vessel disease and cancer.

Rebecca Straus, a writer for Women’s Health, spent a week drinking matcha tea instead of coffee and felt the benefits: “Caffeine makes my thoughts race and my stomach queasy if I have too much. With matcha, I felt alert, but less jittery than I do with coffee.” This all fits together perfectly, as a phytonutrient called l-theanine, which is found in matcha, is known to lift mood and improve concentration.

The one that will rival the Pumpkin Spice Latte

Pic: hebdentea.com

There’s got to be something in this pumpkin and spice combo, if it gets Starbucks customers foaming at the mouth in the run up to launch every September.

This tea version, which jumbles up pumpkin pieces, apple, rose hip peel, beetroot, cloves and other wintery allies, delivers the same nutritional benefits as black tea, but with a fruitier taste.

Winter warmer pumpkin tea mix, £5.40 for 100g, from hebdentea.com.

The one that eases you into tea life
White tea uses young buds and leaves, and is the least processed of all teas. If you’re a trainee tea drinker, this is a good place to start. Like green tea, white tea doesn’t go through any sort of oxidation process, so it keeps hold of its antioxidant polyphenols. According to Twinings, “white tea is seen by many cultures as the crème de la crème of the teas and they only serve it at special occasions”.

As you might expect, then, white tea has a subtle but fragrant taste. The experts advise that you skip the milk, but do try brewing for different periods of time, and adding sugar, honey, or a slice of lemon, to work out which you like best.

Clipper’s range includes a plain, organic white tea, along with versions flavoured with lemon, orange and vanilla.

The one for the weekend

If you’re a natural born dinner party host, but spill the beans (in more ways than one) a little too often, there’s a tea alternative to serve alongside your meal. Sonoma’s ice tea flavours include cabernet, chardonnay and rose.

The chardonnay uses grapes from California’s Sonoma County, along with pineapples and peaches to create a calorie and sugar free drink. As you would expect from any white wine, it’s recommended with cheese, salads, white meat and fish.

Sonoma Chardonnay Iced Tea, $7.99 for six large pouches, from The Republic of Tea

Based on this, and some initial panic over the state of my waistline after an indulgent holiday, I’m going to try out some matcha. How about you?

Holiday expectations vs. reality

This post goes out my lovely friend Beth (@livingcolourful), whose recent holiday photo spurred me on to write about holiday expectations vs. reality…

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We fly to Croatia in *squeal* two days, and have been looking forward to a sunny break for months. Naturally, with this level of anticipation, a humble week away has slowly morphed into the holiday of all holidays. It has become the M&S ‘this is not just a…’ equivalent of holidays. If Carlsberg did holidays then this one, my friends, is it.

But, as with anything that gets wildly built up in anticipation, there is (of course), a serious case of expectations vs. reality waiting for us in the arrivals lounge. Cloudy skies, stomach upsets, the works.

So here they are. Classic holiday expectations vs. reality – which ones are you familiar with?

Dream: A whole new, European you – yoghurt for breakfast, fruit snacks and, who even needs dessert?
Reality: Gelato. All day, every day.

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Dream: Going travelling to who knows where with little more than a backpack and a book, because you’re going to meet new people and find yourself.
Reality: Waking to find a stranger’s feet in your face on the sleeper train.

Dream: Trying all sorts of fresh, local foods and discovering a new-found (and slightly smug) love for lobster.
Reality: Trying all sorts of fresh, local foods, and discovering a new-found love of heaving the night away in the hotel bathroom. Especially horrific if you’re away with a new partner.

Dream: Going on a lads’ holiday and expecting the bars to be filled with undiscovered Victoria’s Secret models.
Reality: Going on a lads holiday and meeting the same girls you know (and love), just in fewer clothes and clutching fish bowls.

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Dream: Night after night of romantic, carefree sex.
Reality:
Night after night of sex which becomes progressively more sweaty and awkward as you work around the sunburnt patches.

Dream: Glamourous evenings out drinking cocktails.
Reality: A drink in the bar next to the hotel, before you stagger to bed having walked the length of the city in a day.

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Dream: Seven days of immaculately planned holiday outfits, complete with shoes and accessories. Instagram filters, you are not required.
Reality: The playsuit is too hot. The shoes? Woah. That’ll be seven days of wearing the same two vests, shorts and sandals on rotation, then.

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Dream: Discovering your inner Martin Lewis and haggling up a storm in local shops and markets.
Reality: Feeling pretty pleased at yourself for saving the equivalent of 20p on a donkey-shaped rattan bag, then stuffing your ‘steal’ at the back of the wardrobe for a couple of years until it’s acceptable to throw it away.

Dream: Finally, a refreshed, sunkissed complexion that does not scream ‘air conditioned office’.
Reality: Three days of melted foundation, a make-up mirror meltdown on day four, followed by a begrudging barefaced and sunglasses approach for the rest of the holiday.

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Despite the negative (but totally true) vibe of this post, it’s not meant to be. Half the joy of holidays is the expectation – switching your out of office on, buying indulgent snacks at the airport. You LOVE your meal on the third night because of the dodgy pasta dishes on nights one and two. We all need a comedy and/or shocking tale to tell when we get back. Don’t we all want a more spontaneous life? Well bring it on, frizzy hair, and unpredictable weather. Show me that tourist tat. And the food poisoning? Well I’d rather not, but any travel buddy worth their salt will never tell a soul.

Small dishes at Skosh, York

We’re on a serious spending ban at the moment, with our looming wedding, holiday and (casually thrown in for good measure) extension plans.

But we broke the rules on my birthday – thirty flippin’ one seeing as you ask – and went for a meal at the highly acclaimed Skosh in York.

The first question I asked – and so the first answer I’ll give – is what does Skosh stand for? Well, the word is an abbreviation of the Japanese word sukoshi (“skoh shee”) and means “a tiny bit” or “a small amount.”

As the name suggests, this place is all about small, shareable dishes, from beautiful sourdough bread and ‘puck’ nuggets, to chargrilled octopus, cured trout, and onion seed lavash.

I didn’t know where we were going to eat until we walked onto Micklegate, and had no idea what to expect in terms of atmosphere. You get all sorts in York – from the lah-de-dah to the casual and understated. Luckily, given the questionable state of my nail polish, it’s like a wholesome, relaxed, but ‘we do things well’-type cafe.

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The dishes may sound quite fancy to some, but everything is done incredibly well, and you know that there’s no way anything is going out if it doesn’t taste amazing. We could tell this from the start, so ordered several things without really knowing what they were – like ‘Cauliflower manchurian’.

You can order six or eight dishes to share, initially, but if you are still hungry, you can just add extras as you go along. Here’s what we went for:

House sourdough, acorn dairy butter & ‘gunpowder’ spice
Quite simply, lovely squashy bread with a decent crust, lovely butter, and – if you want to take things up a notch – a light spice mix to sprinkle over before you nibble.

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Cauliflower manchurian
This was very much like a sweet and sour cauliflower. Although there aren’t many visible components on the plate, the sauce was beautiful and had a real depth to it, as well as a great kick.

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Skosh fried chicken with brown butter hollandaise
Fried chicken – what’s not to like? This is a serious case of KFC – AND THEN SOME.

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East coast crab and lobster with sweetcorn, tarragon and green papaya
The most delicious looking dish, with the freshness you expect from crab. The little crunchy bits on the top, which had a prawn cracker scent to them, added a nice extra texture.

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Chargrilled octopus with tandoor spices and pickled lime puree
I don’t eat a lot of octopus, or in fact seafood other than the standard white fish and prawns. This was lovely – great big meaty chunks with a charred coating and a punchy lime puree to make it pop.

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45 day aged beef fillet tataki with sour cherry, mustard and kohlrabi
I was just the slightest bit hesitant with this dish – is it steak tartare, isn’t it steak tartare? It’s not. Tataki is a method of searing beef very quickly over a high heat, so that the outside is cooked but the inside remains rare. I knew it would taste great so dug in, and there were no issues!  I’m not usually into cherries, but they worked perfectly, and the kohlrabi (part of the cabbage family) was DELICIOUS. These tiny little cubes were so fresh against the beef.

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Puck nuggets with plum ketchup
‘Puck’ is a combination of pork and duck, shredded and then shaped into little nuggets, and set off with a lovely sticky plum sauce.

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Mango lassi with saffron custard donut
Who can resist a little dessert? I wasn’t sure about the idea of saffron custard with this one, but it was great. As with every main dish, this dessert turned what could have been a big, stodgy, greasy donut situation into a refined bite. The saffron was there, but could be taken a bit further. I’m up for more!

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72% chocolate slice with fennel and black olive
This was complete deliciousness. The hero was the little chocolate tuile, which has that almost burnt flavour and sticky-but-crunchy texture. The fennel and black olive? Nowhere to be seen. I explained to the waiter that I didn’t really like either and this is what they rustled up with no fuss whatsoever. YES.

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All in all, for seven main plates, two desserts and a cider each, we spent £75. Dishes vary from £3 to £15, or, for larger groups, there’s a set menu for £35 a head. You will need to book in advance, though.

Find Skosh at 98 Micklegate, York YO1 6JX.

ALERT: Summer

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel pretty behind on Summer. It’s mid-June, I’m wearing tights, and my scorecard looks like this:

Barbeques: 1
Sunburn: 1 bout, mild, on the shoulders
Afternoons spent laid out on the grass: Half
Times at which sunglasses were genuinely needed: 1
Magnum ice creams: 756*

So, amen to this. And amen to Nathan Rao at The Express for saying it:

weather

Get the razor and fake tan out, gals.

Apparently “temperatures are poised to skyrocket over the next 48 hours as a plume of sweltering air sweeps in from the tropics”. Say no more, Nathan. If you, like me, are now panicking about your lack of Summer preparation, here’s a selection of lovely fun items you can pick up from supermarkets and retail parks on your lunch break, for emergency barbeques and frolics that are long overdue. They’re all pretty cheap, too.

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Strawberry napkins, Sainsburys; BBQ napkins, Sainsburys; Grey picnic rug, Wilko; Pink faux plant tray, Primark; Citronella bamboo torch, The Range; Fruiti wine goblet, The Range; Three ice cream cones, Wilko; Havana stripe bowl, The Range; Pineapple glass jar, The Range; Glow in the dark mushroom stake, The Range; Floral bunting, Wilko.

* Never weather-dependent

Forget burgers: The tasting menu at Marmadukes Town House Hotel

I’m never one to turn down a big greasy burger or a pile of pie and mash after work, but this kind of indulgent dish that makes you want to hibernate, then diet for the next year, seems to dominate city centre restaurants these days.

Last night, to celebrate five years since we first met, we treated ourselves to something completely different – an eight course tasting menu at York’s Marmadukes Town House Hotel. The chef is Adam Jackson,  who serves up a selection of complex, seasonal dishes that change every month or so, and with them he has recently been awarded a 3AA rosette by the AA Restaurant Guide.

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Without wanting to sound over the top or tell you something you don’t already know given the 3AA hint above, it was immense. We got to try a velouté, I conquered my fear of mussels and just got to CHILL over amazing food for three hours. We felt like John and Gregg on Masterchef.

On arrival, we were shown to ‘the red room’, full of ornate old sofas, side tables and chandeliers, and served drinks from a selection of wines, spirits, classy cocktails and – if it’s your thing – a selection of more expensive rare wines. Each course on the menu has also been carefully matched to a wine, and these can be included with your meal for £48 per person.

We went for a modest beer and glass of wine, keen to save space for the main event – a feast featuring oriental nibbles, marmite butter, cookie crumb, and ‘hen of the wood’ to name just a few. They were all presented so beautifully that I can’t not include photos of each and every one:

Nibbles: one of the best miso soups we’ve ever tasted, along with tuna tartare and a lovely chicken bite with puffed riceMarma1

Lancashire Bomber – Marmite – Cucumber: A just-right warm cheesy bread roll with a fresh pickled cucumber and marmite butter. I’m not a massive cheese person, had never tried pickled cucumber and can’t say I crave Marmite, but this was delicious.

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Pork – Hen of the Woods – Peas: This was one of my favourite dishes – tender pork ravioli with a gorgeous meaty sauce, the velouté, small but really great crispy croutons, and mushrooms.

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Salmon – Asparagus – Mussels – Samphire: And this was Paul’s favourite. Beautifully cooked salmon with the best crispy skin, topped with what seemed like salty shoestring fries and resting on a bed of samphire, mussels and a delicate creamy sauce.

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Beef – Provençal: This was a beautiful, lightly cooked cut of beef with an oxtail sauce and hints of flavours from the French region of Provence. Olives and baked tomatoes nestled among green beans and lovely squashy gnocchi rolled in parmesan.

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Lemon – Mint – Blueberry: All I could say about this dish, after slowly weaving through the different elements, was that it was so interesting. Not at all in a sarcastic ‘interesting = weird’ way, but in a way that the chef combined so many different flavours and textures. There was a blueberry compote, chewy mini meringue, a sugared crispy mint leaf, a minty mousse, a sharp lemon custard and a citrus ice. It was great.

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Chocolate – Beetroot  – Hazelnut: I was looking forward to this *shock* The treat in the middle is a beetroot and chocolate sorbet on top of the richest dark chocolate cookie crumb. On top of the creme fraiche is a kind of beetroot crisp, which was sometimes crispy and occasionally chewy. The best bit for me was the crumb and the little hazelnut dots, which had a great smoky, almost burnt taste that added yet another element to the dish.

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And finally, for Paul only, was a cheese course with crackers, truffle, almonds and the most amazing carrot cake. It’s inspired me to make some this weekend, although maybe I shouldn’t given the size of my stomach after all that.

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The service and surroundings have to get a mention, too. Each course and every little detail was described by the restaurant team and we were given plenty of time to let each one settle (and/or undo our top buttons) before moving on to the next. I’d happily eat out less often to try more tasting menus like this.

We paid £60 each, plus drinks, and would highly recommend a trip. Find it at: Marmadukes Hotel, 4-5 St Peters Grove, Bootham, York YO30 6AQ.

Revealed: The new bathroom

It’s been a couple of months since we nervously chipped the first granny tile off the bathroom wall, and – after a lot of grouting, a leaky toilet and two attempts at choosing flooring – we can now declare this new, fresh bathroom officially open. What we had was perfectly fine, but tired and old fashioned. Here’s a reminder:

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And here’s what we have now:

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bathroom

Paul and his dad deserve a special mention here, for tiling, grouting and laying the floor, and generally saving us loads on the cost of professional fitters.We also got the trendy metro tiles really cheap, having seen exactly the same design for much more in shops like Topps Tiles. We haven’t had any issues with the quality and they look great.

We also removed and scrubbed the taps as they were clogged with limescale, so bath time is officially back on, and added some aqua accessories to lift the blue.

Tiles: Metro white wall tiles (16p/tile) from Stone Trader
Grout: Silver grey ready mixed grout (£7.69/1.5kg) from Topps Tiles
Vinyl flooring: Carpetright (£13.49/m2) from Carpetright
Paint: Maritime Hush by Valspar
Towels: From a selection at Home Sense
Handwash and toothbrush pots: Asda
Artificial plant: Asda
Candles: From a selection at Home Sense