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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Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens

A day on which it’s snowing in London might not seem like the obvious choice on which to go and see orchids, a notoriously finicky plant. Safely encased in a glasshouse in Kew though are perhaps thousands of them (well, hundreds at least). Kew’s Princes of Wales Conservatory is usually home to a variety of weird and wonderful plants from ten different climatic zones, but until 5 March it’s playing host to the Orchid Festival, a celebration of India’s plants and culture.

Dotted throughout the Conservatory are floral displays made out of orchids, including a peacock, a national symbol of India…

and a rickshaw pulled by a moss man…

Orchids adorn supports, hang from the roof and reflect in pools of water. The tropical atmosphere and sights, albeit not sounds (the promised Indian soundscape wasn’t playing when we got there at 10am) of India filled the glasshouse.

Indian flower garlands dangle above lily ponds containing circling catfish…

and friendly tigers with petal teeth and claws lurk in the bushes…

The most established of the orchids were in the orchid room, the ones below were my favourite – aren’t they gorgeous?!

The Orchid Festival descends upon Kew each year but with a different theme. If you want to catch this year’s Indian-themed display, you have until 5 March to get over there, it’s a visual feast. Plus, it’s included as standard in Kew entry (or free if you’re a Friend of Kew, as we are).

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Another day exploring Tokyo

It’s really strange for me to think that I have been to Japan not once or twice but three times now with work, my most recent trip being in the middle of January. I’d barely adjusted to being back at work post-Christmas but there I was jetting off on my first trip of 2017. Of course it sounds glam, but there’s always a lot of work and not a lot of sleep involved (yes, I know, the world’s tiniest violin is playing just for me…).

This time we were staying in The Marunouchi Hotel which is right across from Tokyo Station. Ideal for train spotters and I enjoyed watching trains snake their way into and out of the station from my 17th floor room. We had a jam-packed week of meetings and work and started each morning with eggs, which apparently the Japanese like square… weird, but not the weirdest thing I ate over the course of the week.

I always remember when I was a child and a somewhat picky eater that my grandad would tell me about the times he would go for business dinners and have to eat things he didn’t like (cheese) because it was served up. Whilst I didn’t not believe him, at the time I couldn’t really put myself in that position. However, after a few work trips to Japan, I now can. This trips culinary delicacies included chicken *mime action for joints* – basically small crunchy balls of what tasted like kneecaps but which can’t have been because I’m not sure that’s really a thing (is it?), chicken sashimi (yes, raw chicken, which tastes exactly as you would imagine raw chicken tastes) and jellyfish, which tastes like a particularly flavourless rubber band. So, in short, square eggs, the least of the weirdness when it came to food.

Where we could, we snatched moments of Tokyo between meetings, including a quick walk around Hama Rikyu Gardens, somewhere I visited on my first trip to Tokyo. This time we were there at a time when the plum blossoms were starting to emerge, pretty and something which made me even more keen to return to see the cherry blossoms at some point.

We lunched a lot with clients and contacts, one of my favourite meals being a great bento box at Nobu. Seriously good.

We also spotted this street on our wanderings…

I had Saturday to myself and as I’d managed to get to Kappabashi Street on Friday afternoon to shop for ceramics and so I rejigged my plans for Saturday to start with a trip to the Meiji Shrine. I had also intended to wander around Yoyogi Park but whilst I’m sure it’s pretty in cherry blossom season, summer and autumn when the leaves are on the trees, in the middle of January it seemed bleak and full of crows, the homeless and joggers. So I made a beeline instead for the Meiji Shrine.

To say it’s located in what still feels like central Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine is surrounded by forest and nature, it’s very calming. A Shinto shrine, completed in 1920, it was built to venerate the Emperor Meiji.

When I visited, the walk up to the shrine was lined with ice sculptures. The biggest downside of not knowing any Japanese is that when I come across something I have no idea why it’s there or what it’s about. So I don’t know if it was part of a competition or a regular thing or something else. Either way, tjere were some pretty impressive carvings.

Much of the shrine itself seemed to be being used for various ceremonies. I saw one newly married couple and entourage and there were also a number of what seemed to be business men partaking in some sort of ceremony. Again, I have no idea what what going on because of the complete lack of Japanese language skills, but it was an interesting place to wander around. There were clearly preparations for Chinese New Year in place and the ema were already themed, even though the start of the Year of the Rooster was a good few weeks away at that point.

In the gift shop I spotted Konpeito, which fans of Spirited Away might recognise as the candy that Chihiro throws to the soot sprites. Of course I couldn’t resist buying a packet.

From the Meiji Shrine, I hopped practically just across the road to the shops of Takeshita Street, the heart of Harajuku-culture shopping.

I was there relatively early and so shops were still opening, but I was quite tempted by some of the food on offer, including some huge rainbow candyfloss (way too early for me to have pure sugar) at around 10am and crepes, which I assume were delicious as even their plastic counterparts looked yummy.

From Takeshita Street I headed along Omotesando, lined with its designer shops and ducked into Kiddy Land just to browse for anything that took my fancy for my nieces.

From there I decided to head over to Shibuya to check out the scramble crossing and to catch the Yamanote line one stop down to Ebisu where Hannah had recommended the yuzu ramen at Afuri Ebisu.

From Ebisu I headed back to the hotel to both drop off a few things I’d bought on the way and also to stop by Les Toiles Du Soleil where I’d spotted, but hadn’t had the chance to buy watermelon-style fabric which I intend to use at some point to make a summery table runner, it just needs hemming off at the ends.

After dropping off my stuff and a little sit down to rest my feet, I headed off out again up to Nippori Station where I intended to head to an area known as Yanesen, made up of a mash-up of three different areas (Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi). I’d heard it was a quieter, more traditional area of Tokyo.

Leaving Nippori Station you come almost immediately upon Yanaka Cemetery. I’m always interested in wandering through cemeteries, especially of different cultures, so I spent some time strolling around. I spotted the odd cat here and there and it seems like cats (both real and symbolic) are a part of Yanesen.

The main route down to Yanaka Ginza (a little pedestrianised shopping street) is lined with little traditional-style shops and also temples, it’s a nice little walk, even when it’s starting to get dark, as it was when I visited. Although it was getting late I still had the chance to browse the small shops lining the streets.

Although by this point my feet were killing me, even in sensible shoes (by the end of the day my fitbit clocked me in at over 12 miles), but I hadn’t yet made it to Akihabara on my travels to Tokyo and so I was determined to explore just a little bit more and willed my feet to keep going.

Akihabara is famous for its shops selling electrical goods, manga and anime paraphernalia and also for its general otaku culture, including arcades, maid cafes and more.

Although I didn’t try any of the hundreds of claw machines, I did delight in the many vending machines, ostensibly for my nieces, of course. There were Sylvanian Families machines selling Japan-exclusive tiny fake baked goods (to supplement the tiny Sylvanian walnut squirrel family and silk cat family we bought our nieces for Christmas) and a whale that lit up and flashed when it hit the water. All were delivered in tiny little capsules and cost around 200-300Yen each (around £2 or so).

Of course I couldn’t resist the lure of Purikura and so found myself hunting out machines in Sega Gamecentre. Of course it’s a bit weird doing Purikura by yourself, but that’s what happens with work trips. When I finally go to Japan for a proper holiday with my boyfriend, I’m totally dragging him into every booth I see!

And so the bright lights of Akihabara marked the end of another successful work trip. I’m getting to know Tokyo a little more with every trip and I can’t wait until 2020 when my boyfriend and I have planned to visit Japan properly for a holiday. I look forward to showing him the things I’ve seen and know and also to discovering new things with him.

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Kappabashi Street (Kitchen Town), Tokyo

It simultaneously feels like five minutes and a lifetime since I was in Tokyo. In reality it was actually just a few weeks ago that I got back. Once again I was there on a work trip for a week (seriously, I am so lucky). After a long week of working I had a planned day off on the Saturday before flying home on the Sunday. My original plan had been to start by exploring Kappabashi Street before heading up to the Yanasen area to explore. As it was, I also ended up with Friday afternoon free so decided to use the time to go shopping on Kappabashi Street, freeing up more time for general exploring the following day.

Kappabashi Street (or Kappabashi-dori, Kitchen Town) is located near to Asakusa (nearest stop Tawaramachi on the Ginza line) and is a mecca for anyone who cooks, bakes or loves ceramics. It’s a street for restaurateurs and individuals alike. You’ll know you’ve arrived in the right place when you approach a large crossroad presided over by a giant chef’s head on the top of the Niimi store. Across the road are little teacup balconies on another building. You can’t miss them!

The street is lined with shops piled high with beautiful ceramics, cookware, pots, pans, brushes, tools and things I’d never seen before.

Shops are piled high with ceramics, seriously, this is not the place to bring large bags. The best thing is that most pieces are really reasonably priced, which means it’s very difficult to not bring everything home. As it was, I limited myself to a few pieces I could carry – small turquoise crackle glaze soy sauce/dip bowls (under £2 each), four beautiful deep blue rectangular plates which will be ideal for serving up little dishes like gyoza (about £3.50 each), matching small bowls for soy sauce/dips (around £2), a lovely grey/turquoise plate (around £3.75 and featured in this Instagram snap, along with the dip bowls) and a couple of adorable chopstick holders (about £7-8 for four). I thought I’d probably end up with at least one breakage on my way home but carried as hand luggage in a cross-body bag, wrapped up in newspaper and bundled in a big woolly jumper, I got them halfway across the world without anything breaking. A small miracle. When I finally go with my boyfriend I want to pick stuff out and get whole sets shipped back home. I have such a thing for beautiful crockery.

Plates ranged from rustic to beautiful and classy to the downright kawaii…

As Kappabashi Street caters for restaurant owners, various shops do a fine line in fake food for sale. From stacked high burgers to sushi, it’s all here and recreated in plastic. If you’re after a souvenir then you can find plastic sushi keyrings or phone charms.

Make sure you keep an eye on more than just the shops, along the way there is loads to see. Including a gold statue of a kappa (a mythical Japanese creature), adopted as a symbol of the street, the statue marks the 90th anniversary of the street in 2003.

Also make sure you walk down both sides of the street, I missed this dinosaur mural until I crossed over to the other side.

Japan is full of beautiful things and it’s so tempting to want to bring them all home. The problem is that a lot of things which look good in the shops in Japan can easily look out of place in a Western home. However, you don’t have that problem with the wares on Kappabashi-dori. Yes some of it is very typically Japanese, but so much of the stuff is just beautiful. What better way to remember an amazing holiday than a set of crockery that reminds you of it every time you serve up dinner for friends or family?

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