Giselle's Online Writing Space

Reviews, Features, Articles

Category: Writing

Afternoon Tea at the Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh: A Review

I visited with two lady-friends on a Sunday afternoon with a plan of spending an afternoon discussing books over tea-time treats – it was our High Tea Book Group session after all. Literature was discussed for a mere 15 minutes, and the rest of our 3-hour stay turned into a social afternoon talking about life and style. We were placed at a corner seat tucked behind some plants near the swinging door of the kitchen. It was supposed to have been a bustling spot but we were hardly bothered by the activity at all. The two waiters for our table were charming, attentive yet discreet. I was not very hungry so one of my friends shared a stand with me. The sandwiches were the classic ones with fresh salmon, honey roast ham, and notably, Scottish beef with red onion marmalade (a winner). The scones sat in the stand from the beginning and were not warm, but I was not very fussed about this; I dove straight for the sweet treats. What a disappointment the mini pavlova was; decorated with whipped cream and raspberries, it looked delicious but black pepper was added within – an experimental dessert by the chef perhaps? The supervisor came over and after I explained the issue, he did not appear to believe me. He took my plate back to the kitchen and returned with the explanation of the chef having tasted it and affirmed it did indeed contain black pepper, and that the meringues were made downstairs and not in their kitchen. What a spiel! He went back and forth to the kitchen a couple more times and then returned with a blueberry muffin which was warm, so presumably made in their premises, but something I did not really want then. The piano, which was situated diagonally to our table sat empty but a harpist played for the whole afternoon. Her music was subtle and created a calm atmosphere in the room. This, along with the sandwiches and company was a highlight, sadly the sweet treats and the staff’s attempts to appease did not suffice.IMG_0152

In between a Tropical Christmas and a Wintry Christmas

If you are experiencing a wintry Christmas this year (and always have), and possess what I like to call “Grass is Greener on the Other Side” syndrome, chances are you’re wondering what Christmas is like, being somewhere hot like South East Asia, the Caribbean, Hawaii – especially when you hear a song like Mele Kalikimaka (Bette Midler or Bing Crosby version – take your pick) being played on the radio. On this subject and in recent weeks, Simon Mayo’s Drivetime show on BBC Radio 2 at 17:05 (during weekdays) has been featuring interviews with people based in hot countries to describe what Christmas is like on the warmer side of the globe (mostly, they gloat about spending Christmas day surfing or setting up a tree on the warm sand) and it’s refreshing to learn what people get up to, experiencing a tropical Christmas (not to mention my need to feature a Christmas-flavoured post!)

Now if you’re geared up for a tropical one this year, I know you secretly would love to experience snow on the day and discover a white Christmas, build a snowman and warm up beside the fire with mugs of eggnog or mulled wine afterwards. The reality of it is, you will have to put on plenty of layers if you’re going to play about in the snow and wear chunky (ugly) footwear like snow boots, and heavy woolly accessories like a hat, a pair of gloves, scarf and ear muffs if you’re fussy.  You could always turn up the air conditioner and take out a cashmere cardigan you own to conjure the spirit of a wintry Christmas as best as you can.

Having grown up experiencing 2 continents – Asia and Europe – I enjoyed both versions of the holidays. It is more or less the same, laced with your own family or cultural traditions, hoards of shoppers at the shopping malls and bumper-to-bumper traffic, Christmas tunes on the radio, plenty of food, gatherings of family and friends. In the Philippines, decorating your house with lights and the Filipino lantern called a parol is the norm. For me, it feels more festive in hot countries with all the brightness (sunshine and lights) and because people mostly celebrate outdoors. On the other side of the coin, I quite like winter and the comfort of warmth is bliss: situating myself next to the radiator with the cat, entering a warm building from the cold, a bed warmed up by an electric blanket. Snow and its whiteness offers so much light.

Have a beautiful Christmas. May you have a warm and merry celebration this season.

Photo 1 credit: http://hikerinheels.blogspot.com/

Photo 2 credit: http://nhs.rowlandschools.org

Elizabeth Blackadder: An Art Exhibition. A Review

Exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery until 2nd January 2012

 

This exhibition marks Blackadder’s art career, beginning with her intense charcoal drawings in her student days in Italy; to her amazing way with watercolour, producing pictures of nature – birds, fruits, cats, orchids, irises – with the most glowing results.

It is apparent that she has a highly energetic analysis of the world. Her keen attention to the fine details is what I love best. She portrays a harsh, cold scene in her early painting of a winter landscape at Assisi in Italy. I truly admired the subtle way she enhanced the picture with the texture of her oils – the fluff on a cloud, and in a separate painting “Church on Brittany”, the embossed ridges on a chimney.

She is harmonious with her use of colour in “Church at Treguer” and in her various paintings of still life, a theme of which she eventually settles on.  Her contrast of colour and movement is evident within “Grey Table with Easter Eggs”. It is a careful analysis and portrayal of space between objects on a table surface. Just brilliant.

She is bold at times, particularly with her use of colour in certain Japanese paintings, emerging with a striking result in a burst of red. There is a contrast all the time within this radical approach. There is domestic peace and happiness, and a sense of looking in, with the viewer somewhat peering privately into another person’s life. Within “Tulips & Indian Painting”, it is honed with atmosphere and drama. She paints the drabness of the wallpaper and peppers it with life all throughout – an image of a living plant, a burst of bloom and Indian musicians.

Her travels developed and inspired her artistic approach. She collected trinkets during her travels – an ornament, a decorated box – which also found their way into her work.

Notable of all her watercolour paintings were of Orchids (1988-89) which displays her immensely observant eye, her (bearded) Irises and Exotic Fruits. In the latter she portrays the fruits atis (sugar-apple) and mangosteen, native to where I grew up. It was a delight to discover this. Here is an image of only the two fruits:

Photo credits:

First image – Allposters.co.uk

Second image – Royal Academy of Arts

Third image – Mcgillduncangallery.com

Fourth image – Mutualart.com

 

Afternoon Tea at the Montague Hotel, London: A Review

Served 12nn – 6pm, Monday – Sunday

The Montague Hotel prides itself on being a member of The Tea Council Guild and having received a special Award of Excellence from the UK Tea Council. This award recognises outstanding quality and consistently high standards of tea service for 2011.

A very good friend recently treated me to a beautiful Autumn Afternoon Tea. This is what it looked like:

Several elements of the meal itself intrigued us both. Among these was the special selection of teas on offer accompanied with a timer to measure the infusion of our tea. This was a thoughtful part of the tea-drinking that we were both unaccustomed to. It was enlightening and reminded us about the possibilities of over- brewing and under-brewing.

The meal began with an unusual opening of jasmine rice pudding with autumn fruit compote, which was lovely and delicate. The round-shaped corn-fed chicken with celery and almonds was a welcome addition to the finger sandwiches, but sadly disappointed after it emerged the filling tasted bland. I particularly enjoyed the smoked Scottish salmon sandwich as this was flavoursome. The scones (covered in the photograph) were served on the tiered stand from the beginning and the timing of this was overlooked by the kitchen. By the time we had finished with our sandwiches, the scones were stone-cold and the plate had to be sent back to the kitchen for warm ones. The cakes on offer were beautifully presented, and the black forest cup was outstanding. It was very light and the maraschino cherries were not laden with alcohol.

Overall the Montague Hotel’s Autumn Afternoon Tea covers a substantial and varied selection of tea and treats and made a delightful accompaniment to a sociable afternoon. Its tiny faults were easily redeemed by the knowledgeable and attentive waitress who was cheerful and open to suggestions. This helped make our afternoon meeting a memorable experience.

Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance FAR 2011: A Review

Performed on 5th October 2011, 1930, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The celebrated choreographer’s show opens with an entrancing setting: a pair of dancers moving in the centre of a barely-lit stage, its four corners brightened up by burning torches. Full of energy and incredible talent, the two dancers set the mood of the entire performance: fluid movements evocative of imagery and subjective interpretation.

McGregor’s dancers were encouraged during rehearsals to invent their own routines. Innovative and passionate, the result is an intimate expression of emotions playing a pivotal part in each scene, rekindling feelings of companionship, deception, isolation, death. Music is refreshing and extreme; the sudden arrival of rock music lends its own textures to a set of dance steps. Technology is an integral element, and compliments the theme of each scene. A board of dancing lights present from the beginning is transformed to a digital clock and appears to measure certain routines.

The dancers are athletes, fulfilling rapid and physically-testing moves. Bringing their individual and harmonious styles to the show contributes greatly to the cutting-edge and futuristic vision of McGregor. The entire production is radical in its approach and makes one consider the immense possibilities in modern dance. It is all at once liberating, a performance expressive of desire and a celebration of being alive.

Degas and the Ballet, Picturing Movement: A Review

Exhibited at Royal Academy of Arts, London until 11th December 2011

Known lovingly in the art world as The Painter of Dancers, Edgar Degas is one of my favourite Impressionists. His paintings of ballerinas in particular are groundbreaking in capturing their grace, movements and form. He has changed the way light is seen and depicted in pictures. The morning sun in the above painting highlights the freshness of the day, the youth and beginning career of the dancers themselves.

This exhibit displays his experiments related to tackling the “figure in motion”. The amount of works displayed is quite astonishing, although there were certain “dance” paintings I expected to see that were not there; I suppose the Royal Academy either could not acquire them, or deemed them irrelevant. There were the different mediums he utilised: oil on canvas, pencil on paper, black chalk heightened with white on blue paper, charcoal heightened with white on green paper, pastel on boards, and in later years, wax and photography. There were images of his subjects with their own props, particularly cords to support their uplift arms, to enable them to remain motionless for hours.

It was enjoyable and refreshing to see Degas recording subtle movements made by dancers away from the stage – resting, bending, adjusting their costumes. He cleverly executes the principle of emphasis in a painting of a dancer posing for a photograph against the backdrop of Paris. He moves the viewer’s gaze away from the dancer herself, and onto the view in the background. In a series of horizontal paintings, he was excellent in depicting a frieze-like view of a scene. In one, the setting is a ballet studio and within it he shows the contrast between the activity of dancers on the left side, and the repose of a teacher on the other side.

He had a fascination with the arabesque and was studious in painting the outstretched arms, diagonal lines and curves of the form. Among his sculptures, the most outstanding for me was Dancer Ready to Dance, Right Foot Forward which I found to be striking, dramatic and captured with exceptional frankness.

It was revealing to learn that in his mature years, Degas also painted the exuberance of Ukrainian dancers: their costumes (lace, ribbons, layered skirts), high kicks and actions. He paints these in stunning vibrant colours, a direct contrast to the muted pastels of his ballet paintings.

Degas was influenced at the time by the works and methods of photographers Felix Nadar, Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge who were equally fascinated by capturing the several phases of movement of their subjects. There were extensive displays of the works and photographic devices of the 3 artists as well.

Dance is linked to music, and Degas is a master of having recorded its richness – its “rhythm, texture and colour harmonies” in his art. I am grateful for the closing film of director Sacha Guitry who secretly (but not guiltily) filmed Degas, almost blind, as he walked past the camera. Lasting seconds, it is a beautiful, moving finish to this exhibition, which is a brilliant performance in itself.

I leave the Academy with a lingering sense of calm and a feeling of having been in the presence of greatness.

Photo credit: www.ibiblio.org

The Blue Book by A. L. Kennedy: A Review

This is A. L. Kennedy’s new masterpiece. It is also, hands-down, the finest book (aesthetically) I’ve ever owned.

I love reading on my newly-acquired Kindle but I cannot embrace purely reading every book on it just yet; the reason is because books such as this one exist!

Here is an image of the finish of the actual pages:

And another image:

Kennedy employs a stream-of-consciousness technique for most of the story, and it is very apt for her subject matter: fake mediums. We gain an insight of the various thoughts that whiz through the mind of main character and ex-medium Elizabeth on a cruise with her boyfriend Derek, and when she encounters a (fake) medium on-board, named Arthur. The wandering-mind-thoughts of the all-knowing narrator also cleverly exhibit the fake mediums’ mind at work: lying (what they do best), and arranging deliberate “ways-out”: deciding upon themselves what made-up readings must be told to vulnerable people.

Last August I attended the event on Kennedy’s new book at the Edinburgh Book Festival and she confirmed the extensive research she did into mediums for the book. What struck me the most in the course of reading was the mediums’ confidence in being generous and giving to save their clients’ lives. They believe themselves to be healers because they prevent harm from coming onto others. There is a very real self-awareness and a charity element in these deceivers, a sense of helping the troubled. Does this make them less wicked or immoral?

The format of the book is well-thought of: from the colour of the book (lilac or blue? – you decide), the title referring to the main book we create for record-keeping, the page numbers found at the top and bottom of each page, somewhat pertaining to a book of spells. The latter are actually a deception – some pages have different numbers on them to baffle the reader even more. The book itself becomes a character in the course of the reading, and at the very first page, offers explanations for its existence: “It was built to welcome your attention and reciprocate with this: the sound it lifts inside you. It gives you the signs for the shapes of the names of the thoughts in your mouth and in your mind and this is where they sing, here at the point where you both meet.” Her sentences are so powerful and hauntingly beautiful that I found myself savouring certain lines over and over again.

I really enjoy the stream-of-consciousness technique in literature and at one point in this book I became particularly aware of a single, long sentence filling two whole pages. Our thoughts are a continuous, running flow of words and opinions and Kennedy is brilliant at executing this.

She is very entertaining writer (she is also a performer; a comedian) and I could not imagine a more hilarious description of a scene she paints of a set of pensioners and couples with ideological reasons for never consenting to walk – all on a boat during the Passenger Emergency Drill – a huge release of the bewildered. Priceless.

A book makes you a “better everything”, and I can attest to that after the amazing journey I embarked upon with this book. Its parting shot to the reader is beautiful. It offered the truth, and a few secrets. It was playful and memorable. It emphasised how it did not wish to try to deceive.

Filipino Cuisine with a Western Twist

*Adobo is a Filipino dish whereby the prime ingredient is marinated in soy sauce, cane vinegar, peppercorns, garlic and bay leaves.

 

We Filipinos are a very culturally dynamic people, and this shows in the versatility of cooking adobo with anything – chicken, beef, fish, vegetables, squid, shrimps, pork. There are also different variations of adobo based on the geographical locations in the Philippines. My husband can only eat adobo with tomato ketchup. He lived in Aklan for a short spell in the 1990s where the locals cooked the dish for him and added ketchup to the traditional soy sauce, white vinegar and bay leaf marinade. When I first heard this story, I thought it was a crime to meddle with the customary marinade with a foreign ingredient, until I tasted it four years ago. The sweetness of tomato ketchup reduces the strong notes of the main ingredients, and it helps create a rich sauce with different layers of flavour after simmering this with the meat. It goes wonderfully well with garlic rice crowned with sautéed spinach and promises a flavoursome, tomato sweet-imbibed adobo flakes the following day.

We both have different viewpoints on this addition of tomato ketchup to the adobo. He maintains this is how the locals always cooked the dish, and I believe it is to do with the locals trying to adapt the adobo to his western palate. Looking back on this exchange, I realised that some natives may always expect our cultural dishes to taste a certain way, but these could also be adapted to suit foreign taste. Foreign ingredients can ruin a dish or enhance it, and a western-infused Pinoy dish certainly requires one to have an open-mind about it. Either way, this adobo with tomato ketchup variation became a welcome addition to our household menu.

Depending on where you reside urges you to make the most out of the ingredients around you. A craving for lumpiang shanghai or fried spring rolls one afternoon inspired me to steal an appetiser called Haggis Spring Rolls from a local bar’s menu. A wonderful snack on its own for afternoon merienda (snack) and beautifully dipped in sweet chili sauce, or even as a main dish teamed with jasmine rice and a whisky-mustard sauce. Filipino, but with a Scottish twist.

One has also heard of improvising with ingredients in the absence of Filipino stores in your area. A resourceful idea includes substituting the sour component in sinigang with rhubarb or lemon in lieu of tamarind or kamias. These foreign fruits do not lend the same sharpness as our native ingredients yet as an alternative, they almost fit the bill.

Attempting to cook abroad, in another country away from your homeland allows plenty of discovery and experimentation with local ingredients. It can take a few efforts to come up with your own version of Filipino dishes infused with western ingredients. Whilst our cuisine continually evolves, new ingredients are always welcomed into the household cupboard that adds a western flavour to our native dishes. There is certainly nobody to stop us experimenting with the local cuisine and adapting this into our cooking. Filipino food is continually evolving throughout the centuries and the migration of Pinoys to different adopted countries has allowed ourselves to enjoy amalgamating the available ingredients in your new country with cultural dishes you are accustomed to. Those with traditional tastes might frown upon this emerging method but bear in mind that our food has its roots in Mexican adobo, Chinese noodles, and Spanish tomato-based dishes. Not to mention a few culinary delights gleaned from our own South-East Asian cousins.

In our continuing movements around the world and globalisation a recurrent theme, our lifelong quest of satisfying the palate results in this fusion of both western and Filipino cuisines.

The Best of Both Worlds (previously published)

The following is an article previously published on the website of Philippine newspaper Philippine Star on the experience of Filipino & Scottish worlds. The original link is here.

The Best of Both Worlds

(philstar.com) Updated February 02, 2010 09:55 AM

It shocks me when a Scottish person I meet tells me they do not know where the Philippines is.

I do not live in the remotest part of Scotland. I am based in Edinburgh, its enchanting capital. This vibrant, historical city is where the very first skyscrapers graced the skies. The place is a fascinating blend of “old meets new” with its ancient and modern feel within the clusters of closes (narrow alleyways) and tenements (apartments). A grand castle and dormant volcano lie at the heart of the entire bustle, and yes, this is where J.K. Rowling is famed to have created the world of Harry Potter.

It is truly more beautiful than any city I have visited in Europe.

When I hear that some poor soul has not heard of Pinas, the country that I love, the land I was raised in, I always think they are missing out. There is a wealth of scenery and more that our beautiful country owns, sure. Yet it is the tiny details that our own tropical paradise revels in, also making it stand out in my view.

I am a second-generation immigrant, born in the UK and raised in Manila. I go through life in a state of “uprootedness,” which is a general neither-here-nor-there feeling. Now that I am back in the country of my birth, I join the millions of kababayans who are nostalgic for home from time to time. I am constantly lovesick for my other country.

In the six years that I have stayed in the UK, once more, I have learned that I cannot brag about the pristine beaches enough, or the scent of ripe mangoes in the heat, the different types of orchids that bloom, the warmth and extreme kindness of the Filipinos.

I hear envious sighs when I speak of how we can freely step out of the house with flip-flops and sunglasses on, as the tropical climate mostly allows. The Scots would love for the sun and 29 degrees (Celsius) temperature to take up permanent residence in Scotland.

Weather is a big deal in this country. It is not an exaggeration when I say there are times when you experience all four seasons in a day. You get the complete package: snow, rain, bright sunshine, and cloudy skies all in just one day. And I smile to myself when I remember some old Pinoy schoolmates asking me if snow is always a star attraction in the UK. The answer is, not after the first few days when you have to venture out and cars in front of you start moving diagonally on the icy roads that resemble glass.

I find it ironic how the white Brits I know wish to avoid the “pasty look” by covering themselves head to toe in tanning sprays or lotions, even going to lengths of owning a sun bed at home.

They raise their eyebrows in disbelief when I tell them of the whitening lotions for sale in a Filipino supermarket. It is quite absurd how they do everything and anything for their roasted skin to remain on the golden standards barometer. Note the love/hate attitude towards “fair skin” from a Pinoy and Western standpoint.

With these illustrations, I have learned that wherever you are in the world, either as a result of your choices or circumstances, there will always be people owning the notion that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. They would always tend to believe that “people are luckier abroad” or that “life is easier in a different country”.

Pride is elusive for some people. However, the lucky ones are those who have tremendous pride in their culture. It saves from nostalgia and homesickness. This Filipino dignity takes center stage when we show off Pinas to the world.

The Scots are comparable to the Pinoys in so many ways, I am happy to report, being universally well-loved, and very easy to feel at home in their company. Their sense of humor reminds me so much of the Pinoy’s.

Their culture is displayed in full glory when they don their tartans and kilts. They are an outstanding country, with a long list of inventions under their belt: the ultrasound, refrigerator, penicillin, insulin, cures for tuberculosis and typhoid fever, golf. Despite these achievements and more, they remain humble and down-to-earth.

In a way, the saying “ignorance is bliss” supports the people I encounter who have no inkling of the tropical paradise on the other side of the world. The less they know, the happier they are. I, on the other hand, am blissful knowing that the tangible experiences of eating lechon, listening to the musical Tagalog spoken around me, coursing down the street in a jeepney covered in streamers are an authentic feeling of being home.

 

On Letter Writing

The art of letter writing is much adored by everyone I know. It has sadly long been in decline and only a handful of people I know practice it. The majority resort to the convenience of text messaging, e-mail, Facebook messaging. In my eyes the art beats those modes of communication on so many levels because of the figurative message it delivers.

Imagine receiving a card or a personal handwritten letter through the post. This certainly brightens up my day, adds a smile to my face. It is above par with having muffins baked for you, receiving a bottle of wine or box of chocolates out of the blue. It is always such a wonderful, special surprise. Perhaps my love for the written word explains why I enjoy receiving and sending letters. Nonetheless I get pleasure from writing a personal message on stationery using a good pen, and imagining my recipient’s reaction upon opening it.

This was spurred from my school days when I exchanged monthly correspondence with a penpal in grade school, talking about random things such as our hobbies and the outings our families went on. One has plenty of spare time as a child, and that is really the key even in our busy schedules nowadays: making the time for it.

My dear mother also kept up correspondence with me when I moved back to the UK, sometimes writing 7-page letters containing everything from recipes to her tips when visiting Spain. We still continue our letter writing, alongside our regular Skype sessions.

In high school, wee notes were furtively handed around in the middle of dull calculus class, in all its glorious forms: post-its, scented onion-skin paper, pad papers written with coloured pencils, black paper scribbled with gel pens (which were glow-in-the-dark, marvellous); or your own name in fancy lettering by skilled classmates. If you were lucky to be friends with an artist, they tirelessly created special postcards and birthday surprises with creative finishes. The card below is one of many produced by my best friend Telly, a very talented artist who creates personalised cards for friends. These are always welcomed with delight. Note the date which shows the timeframe of our exchange.