Friday, July 31, 2009

My architectural inspiration - Skywood House

This is Skywood House, designed by architect Graham Phillips (who at the time worked for Sir Norman Foster) for himself and built in around 1999.

This is a very famous house, situated in 5 acres off the M25 freeway near a town called Denham about an hour from London. It has won countless awards and been featured in a number of books, including the excellent See Through Houses by Catherine Slessor (2001) which I highly recommend if you are into this style of architecture. Skywood House received a lot of publicity in the early 2000s but has not been much discussed in the last few years.

I only recently found that Skywood has its own website. Not surprising for a house which has been used so regularly for location shoots that its owners often have to move to a neighbouring annex. Whilst I confess that took a bit of magic away for me, it is hard to blame the owners for taking advantage of the opportunity.

Anyway it is hard to describe how much I love this house. And 10 years later I think it still looks incredible. It has not dated at all. If anything, architecture has now caught up with it.

These shots are from the website:

This house meets all my architectural requirements for a new build: it is white, clean lined, set in a green oasis, has lots of glass, a completely flat roof, a major water element (the lake is man made) and has a strong Mies Van Der Rohe influence. Graham Phillips built it like a kit home, assembling component structural steel and other parts over a 72 hour period. You can do that when you are an architect and are brave enough to dispense with the need for a builder.

The strange thing is that when we renovated 7 years ago I only had one little picture of Skywood House. All the pictures here made me realise that Skywood House is almost identical in terms of key design elements to the new part of our house. So, whilst we didn't copy it, on some kind of telepathic subconscious level, we in fact did.

A rather grumpy sounding person wrote in a letter to the UK Architects Journal in 1999 that Skywood House is a great house for robots, and speculated on what you would do if you were taking a bath and had to run naked through the house to retrieve your book. I don't think this is an issue at all. It is not as if there is a block of flats peering into the living area. You need lots of storage and you would be set.

What do you think? Impractical or perfect?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Currently eating and cooking: lots and lots of silverbeet

I am having a mad silverbeet (Swiss chard) obsession. Before a month ago I don't think I had ever even eaten it, being more a spinach kind of person. But my local fruit and vegetable people have been stocking baby silverbeet and I have discovered that I rather like it. I love the smooth - lumpy texture of those deep green shiny leaves. I love the fact it actually has a taste.

There must be a reason I crave it. Perhaps all that iron is doing me some good.

Here are the two ways I have been cooking it. You could also use these for rainbow chard (pictured below) or English spinach:

Creamed silverbeet (after a Neil Perry recipe from 'The Food I Love')

Small bunch of silverbeet (this will be about 6 or 7 stems)
Sea salt
25 g of butter
2 tbs of finely chopped brown onion
2 finely chopped garlic cloves
About 100 ml of thickened cream (but see below)

Remove the leaves and wash. Discard stems (or put in your compost). Roll up leaves and slice roughly. Put the leaves and a couple of tablespoons of water and the salt into a saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring until the leaves wilt and shrink (about 4 to 5 minutes).

In a frying pan melt the butter and cook the onion and garlic over gentle heat until lightly browned. Add the silverbeet leaves and cook until tender. This may be up to 10 minutes depending on age of silverbeet. Note that silverbeet does take longer to cook than spinach. Once cooked, add the cream and let warm through. The cream should not drown the silverbeet, but make it pale and creamy. If you add too much it will run out of the silverbeet in the next step. Once the cream is warmed through, blend the contents of the pan - I do this with a stick blender (ie a vitimiser) rather than a food processor.

Check seasoning, it may need freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately.

Sauteed silverbeet (from Stephanie Alexander's 'Cooks Companion')

The best part of this recipe is that the stalks are all used up, which makes me feel like an efficient 1940s housewife operating on war time rations.

12 stems of sliver beet
3 tbs olive oil (actually I usually use more)
1 small brown onion or red shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup currants (or not too shrivelled raisins)
1/2 cup lightly toasted pine nuts

Separate silverbeet stems from the leaves, trim stems and cut into 1 cm square pieces. Wash the leaves and roll up and slice. Heat half the oil in a heavy based frying pan and saute onion until pale gold. Add the stems and garlic and saute for 5 minutes. Add sliced leaves to the pan and trickle over remaining olil. Cover pan until leaves are softened, then remove lid and stir. Add currants and pine nuts and cook, stirring reasonably regularly until the stems are tender but the leaves are still glossy and green.

Images: Martha Stewart

Yum. Last night I found a silverbeet gratin recipe. I will try that tonight. I hope it's not possible to overdose on silverbeet!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What makes a perfect cookbook? Part 1

Ah cookbooks. Aren't they great? Somehow more human and tangible than a recipe from the internet. Not quite as authentic has a handed down from generation to generation recipe.

I have a reasonable number of cookbooks (ie over 80) but I know that that is quite a small number compared to the many cookbook obsessives out there. Barring disaster I don't intend to throw any of them out. They are reminders of a particular stage of my life, in paper form.

Of course, we buy cookbooks for many different reasons and librarian style, I have below categorised them into 8 types.

(Disclaimer - in doing this I make no judgement at all about the quality of cookbook or author - just describing only):

Coffee table cookbooks. With hard covers, glossy pictures, often combined with a travelogue, these are not really that practical to cook with. For a start they are often too big to fit into a recipe holder. They typically focus on a trip to Tuscany or Valencia or Provence with the writer's take on the region incorporated. And as I do not have any coffee tables in my house (file that under forbidden pieces of furniture along with certain categories of Ikea furniture), these sit prettily in my bookshelves and are largely ignored. My example: Stephanie Alexander's book on her trip to Tuscany.

Practical little paperbacks. Which get heaps of use and then fall apart at the spine. My Marcella Hazan and Elizabeth David cookbooks fall into this category. One Marcella Hazan (Classic Italian Kitchen) is in about 10 sections after the gaffer tape gave way. I still use it. My Australian example: Charmaine Solomon's Thai Cookbook.

Gimmick cookbooks. A good example is the cookbook (Deceptively Delicious) written by Jessica Seinfeld which was all about giving your children vegetables by hiding them in the food (eg broccoli puree in a chicken nugget). When I first heard about this I thought this book should be Against The Law. Imagine conning your children like that? Anyway I was then given it and it is not bad at all, even though this women uses 'ingredients' I have never heard of (low fat cooking spray? What is wrong with olive or vegetable oil?) And I confess, I have made the 'chocolate mousse' (brace yourself) which is mashed up avocado mixed with cocoa powder and other unspeakable ingredients. And what did my daughter say? Mummy this is divine.

Wishful thinking cookbooks. These are the ones where you have been to a wonderful restaurant and you later see that the chef has his or her own cookbook. You want to recreate the magic (and tastes) of the evening, so you buy the cookbook. The cookbook is often very expensive. The cookbook is too technical, too complex or not very well written. You never use it but give it an angry glare whenever it catches your eye sitting smugly in its shelf. My example: anything by Stefano di Pieri (chef who runs a wonderful restaurant in Mildura in northern Victoria). Whilst there is nothing actually wrong with his cookbooks try as I might I just can't make the food taste as good as it does in his restaurant. Even wierder example - my Charlie Trotter books. And I have never even been to Chicago.

Celebri-stardom books. Churned out every year or Christmas by those very very popular and famous English chefs, such as Jamie Oliver and Mr G Ramsay. Nothing against them - for instance I adore Nigella Lawson, own all her books, and cook from them often. But how does one keep up? And it is tempting to be cynical about the motives for publishing So Many cookbooks. An Australian example (perhaps not so extreme): Bill Granger.

Embarrassing bachelor style cookbooks. These are not glossy or stylish and their chefs are anonymous. The paperbacks sold in newsagents issued by the Australian Women's Weekly are the perfect example. Nevertheles they tell you how to bake a proper vanilla sponge cake or make foolproof mayonnaise. Delia Smith's cookbooks might also be in this category.

Time poor books - these seem to be ubiquitous these days - books which are all about minimising your time in the kitchen. These books have done a lot to democratise cooking in Australia. They are accessible and very simple. They often emphasise use of 'store cupboard' or pantry ingredients and are invariably utterly beautifully photographed. My examples: cookbooks by Donna Hay and Marie Claire. Whilst I like a speedy meal as much as the next person, I am not sure I agree that everything should be quick all the time. There is nothing better than a long concentrated cook or a leisurely hour of chopping vegetables. The other downside of these books is that on one view, they are not really recipes. They are more combinations or assemblages of ingredients and flavours. Did I just say that?

Perfect cookbooks. These are the books which you use all the time, which have recipes which work, which are completely sympatico with your local ingredients, your cooking skills and your approach to life.

Next week (sometime), my top 10 Australian perfect cookbooks.

(Images: knives and pots, Nato Welton, cutlery Tim Evan Cook)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Around the World with Mouk - all the way to Kangaroo Island

I am having a love affair with a couple of French children's books at the moment. Luckily my daughter shares this enthusiasm.

The first is the truly amazing Mouk by Mark Boutavant which is published in English by Gecko Press. Mouk is a little brown bear (see him in many guises in the cover below) who decides to travel the world making friends.

Being a French book he ends up in countries which are not always front of mind to us such as Bobo-Dioulasso, Madagascar and Lake Titicaca.

Being a French bear he has very marked likes and dislikes but enjoys the taste of the new foods he tries, and gets tired being energetic with the locals.

Here he is in New York

Here is Mouk on a Greek Island eating watermelon and octopus. This is my favourite picture - check out the elderly Greek widow goat in the background.

Here is Mouk on Kangaroo Island, which is to the south of South Australia.

For the record, this is what Kangaroo Island looks like, these photos are from our trip there in 2006.

Here is Mouk on Kyushu Island in Japan under the cherry blossom.

In India observing a painted elephant.

I hope these pictures convey the incredible colour used in the illustrations and particularly the detail as there is a lot going on. To me this conveys what travelling is actually like. People and experiences everywhere you look.

This book is made even better by the fact that it has a padded (!) cover, is printed on thick shiny paper, and comes with removable stickers for making the scenes even more eccentric and colourful. I sometimes feel a bit deprived as I am sure there are some incredible illustrated books out there in other languages which are just not available to the English speaking world. I guess that is what Amazon France is for.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday Inspiration - Crewelwork

I love the texture and worn depth of crewelwork.

Crewel work, or crewel embroidery, is

A Decorative form of surface embroidery uising wool and a variety of different embroidery stitches to follow design outline applied to the fabric. The technique is at least one thousant years old. It was used in the Bayeux Tapestry, in Jacobean Tapestry and in Quaker Tapestry.

The origin of the word crewel is unknown but thought to come from an ancient word describing the curl in the staple, the single hair of the wool. Crewel wool has a long staple; it is fine and can be strongly twisted. Modern crewel wool is a fine 2-ply or 1-ply yarn available in many different colours

(Thanks Wikipedia!)

We have a Kyrgyzstani crewel work wall hanging, which needs desparately to be framed. It is currently hanging in my office. Look at the wonderful combination of faded pinks, yellows and blues.

You can find lovely crewel rugs, from Anthropologie and William Sonoma, although I would be wary of how they would wear. The first two are from Anthropologie and pick up elements of traditional crewelwork in the twisting vines and birds, but make them clean, moden and whimsical.

Whilst I love the look and technique, it is very hard to find any crewelwork kits or live examples which are not, frankly, fusty and Jacobean. Where are all the vibrant, modern crewelworks? Something like the tapestry and needlepoint works shown below, which are by the incomparable, amazing, Kaffe Fasset (he also is a fabric maker, and knitter, and painter. There is no end to his talents).

You can see more on his website and also at Erhman Tapestry. which is probably the best online retailer of (tapestry) needlepoint I have found.

Friday, July 24, 2009

My daphne walk

Allow me a little boast.

Some plants just grow happily with no effort. Others just up and die on you without so much as a whimper or explanation. Into that latter category would fall:
  1. our dwarf rhododendron plants which I think just took a set against us when they were planted.
  2. the ajuga in certain shady places.
  3. mint. I just can't grow it. I don't know why. People say it is basically a weed. How can I not grow a weed?
  4. lavender. It seems to dry out and whither sadly, evaporating my dream of a French style border.
  5. basil (actually I do know why, the snails eat it in the night).
In our garden we have nine daphne bushes planted along the right of the house next to the side pathway. I don't think I even really knew what daphne was when the gardener suggested planting them 8 years ago. We just said, oh okay whatever you think.

They have just come into flower. Such a lovely rich but astringent scent. When you walk past it wafts through the air, transporting me to another world.

People tell me daphne is hard to grow. But they just love it in our garden. We water and otherwise make no effort, and they thrive. Sometimes the stars are aligned and things just work out right.

Here they are viewed down the pathway.

And here is a close up of the lovely little budlets.

Why hasn't anyone created a daphne perfume? Or maybe they have and I just don't know about it. To answer my own question I have just googled daphne perfume and found a lovely post from March 2008 on Periodic Elements of Style where three different daphne perfumes are compared, from a Kai one to a $10 Demeter. The comparison is made, scientific-girl style, by smelling the perfume and then inhaling the fragrance of the real life plant. You can read this post here.

If there is one thing the wonderful world of the interweb teaches you, it is that if you have a peculiar eccentric or singular obsession, you are probably not alone.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Eames chairs for children, cheapskates (and me!)

Below are some photos of the replica Charles Eames children's chairs offered by a lovely online Australian retailer called Little Nest. My favourite is the blue lined Egg Chair. And - they are currently having a sale.

We have been looking for two chairs for our library/ home office/ playroom for about a year. Everything seemed to be dreadfully expensive, this is common in Australia where you can pay up to 30% more for these kinds of imported items.

Then we came across Life Interiors based in Sydney which sells replica Eames chairs (amongst other things).

So this is what we decided to buy. Two replica chairs. They arrived two weeks ago, just at the time Lee from Glimpse of Style posted her lovely photo of the fish wallpaper office with the white Eames chair - see here.

Here is one of the chairs at my desk at home. Note the complete absence of paper. You might get the impression that not much is done at this desk! But that is the way I like it. And of course this photo doesn't show the cords and plugs and little charging boxes underneath the desk. Oh how those powercords annoy me. Does anyone have a solution for the tangled mess under all our desks these days?

The chairs are white leather upholstered, and I cannot tell the difference from the real thing (well it is true that my eye is untrained).

And you know, I felt a teensy tiny bit guilty about buying a replica chair. I felt a little bit sullied. And slightly naughty. And that lasted about 30 seconds and then I felt really really great.

The money you save on the grown up Eames replica can be then spent on the children's Eames replica!

Greek Style - My dinner table tonight

Well although it has been raining in Melbourne for hours, I don't mind because tonight I will be dining at this lovely table:

This is the Hellenic Republic in East Brunswick, one of the restaurants run by wonderful chef George Calombaris who also owns the Press Club. The Hellenic Republic is a simpler, more canteen style take on George's modern Greek food. Think whole panfried fish with lemon, roasted yellow capsicums and proper Greek salad.

I love the way they have kept this look rustic but with an edge, given by the blue and white tiles and the lobster pot light shades. And I especially love the Chinese apothocary style glass fronted drawers. Divine. I can't wait.

And after my dinner, I will pretend that I can walk out the door to this:



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