The romance of train travel

Faster than fairies, faster than witches, bridges and houses, hedges and ditches“… there’s a certain romance associated with trains, a romance which has managed to survive in a way that the romance and pleasure of travelling by air really hasn’t.

Travelling by trains has always had an element of romance for me personally too (perhaps because I’ve never had to commute by train). Other than a boyfriend from school, my first real adult relationship was conducted by train. In the summer before I went to university I got chatting to a guy I’d ‘met’ on an online forum. It sounds super dodgy but it wasn’t, he wasn’t 45  or a weirdo, just a normal guy (and I took all the usual precautions, taking a friend with me to meet him and that lot). The only obstacle? I was at university in Sheffield and he was at university in London. So, I started travelling by train in order to visit him. The funny thing is that whilst we were ultimately incompatible (although we had fun while it lasted), I did fall in love, with London. I realised that I exhaled when I was in London, in a way that I didn’t anywhere else. I felt like it was meant to be. I’ve been gradually moving my books down from my mum’s garage to our flat down here in London. A lot of them have been in storage for nearly a decade and sometimes I get them out and flick through, only to find that there’s an old train ticket tucked in the back which had been acting as a bookmark. It instantly takes me back to another time and discovering my first (and enduring) real love.

Trains have continued to bring me closer to my loved ones. Before I moved down to London I somehow ended up in a relationship with my boyfriend. I was offered my job in 2008, a few months before I met my boyfriend, so I always knew that I’d be moving down here, in 2011 I finally did move down to start my job (a two year period between offer and starting is normal in the legal profession but then my start date got deferred due to the financial crisis). It sounds bad now (nearly nine years later) but I’d always assumed that we’d have fun while it lasted but that when I moved down to London things would probably drift apart with the distance. However, without any real discussion we decided we would just see how things went and every other week one of us would travel up or down the country on a Friday night to see the other. It turns out that things didn’t drift, in fact, he ended up moving down and now we travel back home together to see our families and use the train to explore the country on a series of mini-breaks. We have a Two Together railcard which is the ultimate romantic train commitment in my view.

This year we celebrate our ninth anniversary – the question is, where to go?

But, we aren’t the only ones celebrating an anniversary, this year. On 9 March 2017, Virgin Trains celebrates its 20th birthday on the West Coast route, where passenger journeys have grown to 37 million a year.

To celebrate the occasion and give back to their customers, Virgin Trains hosted a ‘pop-up musical performance’ at London Euston which saw choir Urban Voice Collective sing legendary pop song ‘Ain’t Nobody,’ by Chaka Khan (and here was me thinking it was by Liberty X, you learn something every day). Customers travelling in the midst of rush hour were delighted by the impromptu singing and dancing performance which lasted around 5 minutes.

The celebrations will continue onboard throughout March with the introduction of five films onto BEAM for a limited time only (Virgin Trains’ free onboard content service), all of which are celebrating their 20th birthday. These include Titanic, Men in Black, The Full Monty, LA Confidential and Boogie Nights.

Umm, sorry, but how is Titanic 20 years old?! Time flies. Happy 20th Anniversary to Virgin Trains!

This is a collaborative post. 

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Pan Chai restaurant at Harrods

Possibly the thing I love the most about London is that (almost) anything you want can be found here. The whole world is here, brought to you. Nowhere do you get more of a sense of that than when standing in the food hall at Harrods. Under ornate tiled ceilings are counters featuring just about every cuisine you could think of – the world under one roof and a sandbox in which to try new things and also old favourites. It’s also a place where you can introduce others to your favourites and that’s exactly what I got to do at Pan Chai the other weekend.

I’ve been super lucky to visit to Japan three times now for work and whilst I love it and relish the opportunity to see a country that has always fascinated me, I have to experience things there either with my colleagues or alone. I always come back with tales of the things I’ve seen and eaten that I can’t wait to share with my boyfriend when we go together (we’re planning on exploring Japan together in 2020). However, until then, we’ve found a great substitute in Pan Chai.

With counter seats and chilled glass cabinets housing an assortment of fresh fish, it mimics the sushi counters I’ve visited in Japan. However, unlike most sushi counters in Japan, they do a mean line in cocktails and we decided to partake in a Kir Royale and Bellini while we perused the extensive menu.

The menu is split up into several sections: nigiri/sashimi, salad, grill, tempura, platters, sushi rolls, ramen and more. We started with a bowl of salted edamame to nibble on.

As a starter we chose, with the assistance of our lovely waitress, an assortment of sashimi and when it arrived it was just the most stunning thing. It was placed on the top of the counter and its billowing dry ice attracted stares from everyone both seated and passing by before it was placed in front of us.

As the dry ice cleared, the sashimi was revealed, beautiful slivers of fish emerging from the mist. It was stunningly presented. We’d ordered some old favourites – sake (salmon), suzuki (sea bass) and maguro (tuna) and some new ones which I was keen to introduce my boyfriend to – otoro (tuna belly), tamago (a sweet Japanese omelette) and unagi (eel).

Salmon and tuna sashimi can be fairly easily found now both in sushi restaurants and chains and also as takeaway sushi, but otoro isn’t something you really see other than at the best Japanese restaurants. It’s from the fatty belly of the tuna and is the fish equivalent of wagyu beef. It’s marbled with fat and you can see the difference in the photo below, between the otoro (front right behind the ginger) and the maguro (back left by the tamago). The otoro melts in your mouth, it’s delicious.

When I was in Japan in January, we were taken out by some of our clients for a kaiseki dinner (a multi-course Japanese dinner), which we enjoyed in a private room in a traditional restaurant. One of the starter courses was a selection of beautifully presented little mouthfuls of vegetables and fish. One was unagi (eel – if you don’t see Ross from Friends when someone says unagi then we can’t be friends). Now I would never normally have tried eel, but when it’s placed in front of you as part of a client meal then you try anything to be polite. However, unlike with some of the other delicacies I tried (like chicken sashimi), the eel wasn’t something I had to pretend to like, it was delicious. So, when I saw it on Pan Chai’s menu I had to introduce my boyfriend to the delights of eel. It’s blowtorched and rich but so tender. My boyfriend was an immediate unagi convert.

We followed up the sashimi with a some of Pan Chai’s signature sushi rolls, the Negitoro maki, spicy tuna with mayonnaise, spring onions, topped with chopped tuna belly. Again served with dry ice – more heads were turned. The rolls were delicious and came with a little spicy kick

That was all just a taste of what was to come as a main. Enamoured with the unagi, my boyfriend chose an unagi donburi as his main dish – five pieces of grilled unagi on rice and cucumber with unagi sauce. Seriously, if you go then do try the unagi in one form or another, it’s delicious. I had ordered my main with the intention that we would share both dishes but I barely got a look in at the eel.

My choice of main was the Grilled Plum Sea Bass from the grill section – grilled Chilean sea bass marinated in plum juice and miso paste. It was delicious, perfectly flaky white fish with just a hint of the marinade. It also came with an umeboshi on the side, something else I got to introduce my boyfriend to. They’re sort of pickled plums and they are this incredible mix of sweet and sour, it’s a taste unlike anything else I’ve ever had so it’s hard to describe, but I loved this little authentic addition to the dish.

Pan Chai bills itself as a pan-Asian restaurant and in their grill section they offer a Malaysian rendang and a Korean bulgogi, however, their offering is primarily focussed on Japanese cuisine and it’s excellent so definitely go with something Japanese-y. As part of the same group at the Mango Tree, I should have known to expect a great meal, but this blew me away – it was a little slice of Tokyo in West London. We might not be planning on going to Japan until 2020 but we will be going back to Pan Chai for a taste of Japan before then!

Our meal was provided on a complimentary basis but the views expressed here are my own unbiased opinions. Thanks Pan Chai! 

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February 2017: This month I have mostly been…

Feeling: Like I have a plan

After spending a while feeling a bit like I was floundering and not making any progress with the big things in life, you know, like buying a house and that sort of thing, I feel more like I have a plan. Because I do. For the first time in our relationship (nearly nine years) my boyfriend and I have a joint budget and there is an end in sight to us being basically overgrown students, footloose and fancy free. It means we might be in our little one bed flat for a bit longer, but I’m ok with it as long as it’s not something that will last forever. Plus, I’ve been making our flat feel a little more homey now I know we’ll be here a bit longer. That’s the thing I hate about rented flats, you move in and think it might only be for a year or two and so don’t spend any time or money on them and yet you find yourself still there five years later and wish you’d made yourself at home earlier.

Reading: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I have picked this up loads in the past but somehow it never made it home with me until a few weeks ago when I used a book voucher from Christmas to pick up some new reading material to add to my newly colour-coordinated shelves.

I’m just over halfway through at the moment and enjoying it, although as with any non-linear book, I find myself just getting into one storyline and character and then they change time and/or character. Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it is the story of a blind French girl and a young German boy in the grips of the Second World War.

Watching: Search Party

We’ve been watching season 1 of Search Party this month. It hasn’t taken us long with only 10 episodes. It’s a very modern mystery set in New York and well worth catching. Plus, each episode is only 25 minutes long so it’s perfect for either bingeing or for slotting in quickly in an evening. I often find that by the time I get home from a long day of work and then have had dinner, I don’t really have the enthusiasm to sit down and concentrate on an hour long episode of something new. Small, bite-sized dramas are my new thing.

We’ve also been watching Pls Like. Now, I blog and have always read blogs (from my early days of reading I am Fashion, No Good For Me (now see Strawberry Fields Whatever) and many others I’ve since forgotten, although sometimes I do still hear the voice of The Manolo in my head as I stroll through a London arcade and pause outside a fancy shoe shop), however, maybe because I am just that bit too old, I have never understood the appeal of vlogs or of vloggers. It might be partly that I am always watching TV or listening to something else which means that watching vlogs doesn’t appeal but I think the truth is that, unlike with reading, it’s difficult to skip through the inane and pointless to get to something useful. And, to me, so much of vlogging is inane. I know many will disagree with me, but I have no interest in getting ready with someone or seeing what they bought from Primark, I don’t understand the appeal of watching someone play a video game and I feel patronised by the chirpy tone of many vloggers. Sorry vloggers but 15 minutes of watching someone waffle on about anything and everything that pops into their head whilst sat in front of a cookie-cutter background of a bedroom draped with fairy lights sounds a little bit like my idea of torture (eek, </unpopularopinion>). So I find the concept of Pls Like hilarious, it’s a Youtube vlogger satire and pokes fun at the ridiculousness of the whole thing, the first episode in particular is genius.

Planning: To getaway

Photo by Softeis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

Ordinarily we might have been on a minibreak/weekend away already by this point in the year, but as we’re trying to cut back a bit in order to get ourselves into a better position for buying a house at some point and so although I’ve visited three countries this year already for work, April will be the first time I get away with my boyfriend. I’m also conscious that I have a dissertation to write and that I’m not a full-time student anymore so I can’t do what I used to do as a student which is to do everything at the last minute, so I will probably need to take holiday for researching and writing.

However, in April we have two getaways planned, both using the Bank Holidays so I maximise my annual leave. First we’re off to Germany. We are spending two nights in Fuessen so we can visit Neuschwanstein Castle and then we’ve got three nights in Munich itself. At the end of April we’re off glamping again for my birthday, in slightly more luxury than last time (inside kitchen), staying at The Saltbox in Kent. I can’t wait to wake up to a view of Elmley Nature Reserve.

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Icing Class at Biscuiteers

I am the worst person. I don’t text people back, I keep meaning to respond to emails but rarely do until I get berated for not doing so (mostly by my mum, bad daughter award) and every time I receive a blog comment I’m so happy when it’s insightful or useful or funny and I do have the best intentions to reply but rarely do. Which means that it shouldn’t be too hard to believe that it took me an actual eternity to get around to using a Biscuiteers Icing Class voucher that my nan and grandad bought me for Christmas maybe two years ago now.

I love Biscuiteers biscuits, their biscuit tins are the perfect presents and their biscuit cards are the ideal way to say congratulations for anything from an engagement to a new house. Shamefully thought I’d never made it to their monochrome biscuit-stuffed boutique in Notting Hill until the other week when I traded in my voucher for a Love Birds biscuit icing class.

After arriving we were escorted downstairs in the shop and sat ourselves down in front of bowls of icing bags and bottles along with a selection of un-iced vanilla Biscuiteers biscuits.

With two tutors for a group of around twelve of us, we were shown how to pipe lines in icing – straight first and then circles and other simple shapes. Once we’d got to grips with the basics we were let loose on half of the biscuits. We outlined hearts and little bird bodies in royal icing, to be filled in with runnier flood icing once dry. We had a picture of the official Biscuiteers ones to take inspiration from, but were free to freestyle.

Once the outline was dry we coloured in the shapes we’d made with runnier icing. We were shown how to make dots in flood icing and how to make little hearts using those dots. It’s actually much easier than it appears from the end result (which I think is pretty impressive).

That first lot of biscuits went into the oven for a while on a very low temperature to harden the icing and we all got cracking on the other half of the biscuits. It’s a pretty good system, the first set of biscuits are put in the oven and you start on the second set of biscuits on which you use the flood icing to make designs in itself, once the first set come out of the oven, the second set go in and you then ice designs using the piping bags on top of the first set. Once you get a little beak and eye on the birds they really do start to come alive.

Once our biscuits were dry we ‘glued’ them to sheets with icing so that they could be layered in a presentation tin. As you will see from the biscuits below, the pale pink icing was not my best friend (the green behaved much better).

I definitely need more practice with a piping bag, I was definitely the worst person at it, although that was not helped by the fact that the woman sat next to me had attempted similar biscuit icing before on her own so she had a really steady hand. I saw the other day that Biscuiteers are hiring, I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be switching careers any time soon. However, I did enjoy my class at Biscuiteers and will be practicing at some point on my own – watch this space and my Instagram for more ropey icing!

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