On birthday cake


Boarding school birthdays were always the very worst, if I remember correctly – I think the six birthdays I spent there have all gathered together in my mind and made me rather dislike birthdays in general now.

One year though my mother baked me two chocolate birthday cakes and had them couriered over from the island to the boarding house door in time for supper. There were two because every girl had to have a slice each, and the fact that one of the cakes had sunk in the middle made no difference whatsoever.

This year, I asked for and received baking supplies: spatulas, a pudding bowl, and a russian doll of cake tins of various sizes – so I baked a birthday cake of my own. 

There's likely some kind of peculiar rule about baking a cake for your own birthday... but I went ahead anyway. The result is that I'm nearly certain that pulling an over-the-top three-tiered chocolate birthday cake out of the oven almost makes being an extra year older worthwhile.



I hadn't actually noticed this before, at least not to such a degree, but this year, November has arrived and brought the Christmas floodgates crashing down with it. Come November 1 and Christmas trees are springing up in city centres and Christmas dinner advertisements are sparkling their way through television breaks – and it all just feels a wee bit too early for me.

The thing that annoys me about this is not actually the transparent consumerism of it all, but is in fact the amount of time that starting Christmas in November shaves off the best season of the year – autumn (of course), which is a season that should really be made the most of for as long as possible, in my opinion. 

As an antidote to all this, I recently went on a little trip to Westonbirt Arboretum, the UK's national arboretum, to surround myself in some autumn leaves and long shadows for a while.

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Broguing Again

One of the unexpected highlights of keeping a blog such as this one is that it often provides a very accurate picture of just how long things last. At the moment I'm looking for some brogues/loafers/oxfords, to replace my previous version, which have finally given up the ghost after precisely 22 months (one month of which was in New York, notoriously tough on shoes) – quite a good record for a pair of shoes from Topshop in my opinion.

It seems to me that brogues have come a long way in 22 months, actually. When I wrote my original post on brogues in 2010, I sat my slightly menswear-inspired loafers beside Ben's proper, serious brogues and there was a clear demarcation between my shoes (for girls) and his (for men). Twenty-two months later, and this seems much less the case.  

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Twenty-two months have passed and now our taste in shoes is hilariously similar. I'd wear his if I could. 

All the fascinating historic brogue details that I wrote about back in 2010 (the British Long Wing, the Austerity Wingtip) all exist on these more feminine brogues, even if their meanings remain just as little-known and obscure. What I like best about them is how they seem so much sturdier than girls' shoes often are – these look as though they might even last forty-four months, plus a month in New York.


Autumn in High Places

I've felt totally disconnected from everything Internet lately: a combination of hearing too many murmurings about Instagram and the death of the blog, doing a lot of very uninspiring work, and the darkening evenings, I think. 

Darkening evenings bring other benefits though: perfectly warm-toned autumn light, real and serious appreciation of coffee that isn't iced, the most exciting and unpredictable vegetables of the year, and walking to expensive areas of the city, and peeking in – something I always seem to do when the seasons change.


I don't really think of myself as someone with habits, but autumny walks to expensive places seem to be one that I hadn't really realised I had until I flicked through my blog a little way, and found myself doing exactly the same thing last spring.

I guess nothing cures feelings of disconnect like tried, tested habits do – and nothing makes a habit more obvious than a personal blog does – which is one of many reasons why full-fledged, text-featuring blogs beat Instagram every time – for me, anyway. 




Lots of things come to mind when I consider figs. 

First is one of my mother's many hilarious go-to phrases in response to 11-year-old protests of mine about unimportant things ('Siubhan, I couldn't give a fig!'). I'm certain she must be the only person who says it.

Second is the woman who used to pop into a cafe I once worked in to donate the products of her fig tree to our customers every September and October. She loved the tree, but was less keen on the figs, which worked out beautifully for everyone else.

Lastly though, I can't think of figs, or eat them, without associating them with the proper beginnings of autumn.

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When we go back to Islay, my sister spends most of her time chasing Ben around with a notebook and pen, jotting down precise details of how he makes things, so that she can make them herself. I like to think that she 's writing him a kind of unapproved and peculiar ghost-written cookery book. 

When he made this pudding, I had forgotten my notebook, so all I know is that it is figs baked in the oven with red wine and hazelnuts, and served with yoghurt on the side. The wine goes all warm and caramelly and the colours are all autumn, with the last pinks of summer thrown in for good measure. A bit of both seasons, which is just what you need in September, I think.



There are few places in Bristol that feel like they're not in Bristol (which is a city escapism that I quite like). Cafe Kino is one of them – for me, it could be New York, or London, or maybe even Glasgow – which means, essentially, that I like it there.


I really appreciate how light and airy it is – I'm certain that my flat was built at an angle that purposefully lets in as little light as possible – and that it actually mostly serves vegan food, but vegan food so good that I don't miss anything non-vegan at all.

They also serve herbal tea in the strangest brewing contraption from Attic Tea. You leave the herbs to flow about for a while, then attach your mug to the brewer, push down, and all the tea drains out into the mug. It's completely mesmerising. Has anyone else seen one before? I'm fascinated.

Although Cafe Kino feels like another place entirely while you're sitting inside drinking swirly tea at wooden benches, it has all the good bits of Bristol at its heart: it's a non-profit workers' cooperative for a start, and in addition it is committed to using local ingredients from local sources – a very Bristol trait that has been rubbing off on me too lately, but more on that some other time. 




Given its title, it seems strange that this book should have jumped out at me the way it did. But sometimes you only notice the things you want to notice, like when you learn something new and then you see it everywhere.

If you haven't come across it already, I am talking about Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I read it in a few days a couple of weeks ago – it's really fascinating if you are an introvert yourself, or just looking to understand one.

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One of the issues that the book raises is the fact that extroverts are often afforded extra importance, credibility and success purely because they are able to make themselves heard in a way that introverts find more difficult:

Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends... research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent – even though there's zero correlation between the gift of the gab and good ideas. 

Susan Cain examines this in great and fascinating detail, and finds that this distinction is true in most cases, apart from when it comes to the online world, where introverts are able to 'speak' just as loudly as extroverts are, without having to fight to be heard. She references a 2008 Mashable article by Peter Cashmore entitled: 'Irony Alert: Social Media Introverts?', which suggests:

Perhaps social media affords us the control we lack in real life socialising: the screen as a barrier between us and the world.

If you're interested, Susan Cain's TED talk on the power of introverts, in which she basically summarises her book, can be found here.

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Summer On/Summer Off


Summer in England is pretty fickle. It's not like summer in Scotland, when, if it happens at all, its more of a special treat – a bonus that you get if you've behaved for the rest of the year. In England, summer is expected to happen, and then it does – and then it disappears – and then it comes back again. 

I read a tweet from someone in London this weekend that said something like: 'Went to buy picnic supplies, now trapped in shop by monsoon rainstorm', which is quite a good summation of the whole concept of summer in England I think. 

I spent the last week in Ben's hometown, a little place on the English/Welsh border. As you would expect, the rain poured, the sun blazed, and I wandered around photographing things, as I do. Drippy roses, drying wood, damp church walls. It's almost like we get this kind of weather to make everything seem just a little bit prettier when the sun does eventually turn up.


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In May I went to New York hoping to learn some things: about the world, about myself, about life in general. Lofty goals, probably, but in fact I did learn things. They may be self-evident to some (in which case, lucky you), but I am a delicate soul, and writing these lessons down helps to cement them into my brain.
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You Will Never Find Anything New Sitting in Your Flat (no matter how international your internet usage)
On my last full day in New York, I had some time to kill on the Lower East Side and I wandered into McNally Jackson, the bookshop on Prince Street. Bookshops always get me excited – I feel like a whole world opens up every time I go into one. Downstairs, a crowd of people were gathering (people who gather in bookshops are usually people I want to gather alongside) for a panel titled How to be Creative Online.

The panel featured a selection of bloggers I had never heard of, but the premise sounded interesting and I had time, so I sat down. All of a sudden I was introduced to Brain Pickings (the inspiringly curated site by Maria Popova), Maris Kreizman's Slaughterhouse 90210, and a group of people who consistently mentioned my favourite writers (Muriel Spark, E.B. White etc.) as their favourite influences. It was a random encounter, but it opened up a world I would probably never have tapped into from my desk in my flat, and it taught me a lesson: the internet can only take you so far.
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Being a Tourist is Just Showing Appreciation (and is nothing to be ashamed of)
When I travel, I want to see what the locals see, and learn the 'rules' of a place as quickly as possible so as not to stand out or (worse) be an irritation. Being a photo-taking, middle-of-the-sidewalk-stopping tourist is the direct opposite of that. I started off feeling incredibly frustrated at my lack of knowledge, and tried to hide it. Other tourists would approach me and ask for directions – despite knowing as little as they did, I would hilariously try to direct them, then spend all afternoon feeling awful about probably giving them terrible advice. I should have owned up, but I was kind of ashamed to.

But after more than one afternoon spent castigating myself for my bad direction giving and writing about my feelings on tourism here, I've come to realise that tourists have a value all of their own. As Dottie put it in her perfectly insightful comment on my post: "Their energy is contagious ... now I embrace my role as a traveller and focus on being an enthusiastic one." I can't think of a better attitude to have.
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Everyone has a Story (and they want to tell it, too)
Despite the fact that I have a blog, I am a confirmed under-sharer: if ever I get into the position of telling someone a story, I get about halfway through it before I start to panic that I'm wasting their time. Similarly, when people hint about their own fascinating stories and experiences, I rarely pluck up the courage to ask about them.

In New York though, I noticed that people really do love to tell their own tales (especially if they are tales of woe). In a diner, I overheard a guy saying to his friend: "Everyone has a New York apartment story, so here's mine" as if having a story like that, the more gruesome the better, was a real step on the ladder to becoming a fully-fledged New Yorker – if you didn't tell it, no one would know!

At the Moth Story Slam (the open mic story-telling nights), people were desperate to tell their stories, and people (like me) paid to listen to them. It was like therapy for everyone. At one Story Slam, I sat next to a guy who had been practicing his story for weeks. He had tried it out on his friends, worked on the feedback, and then he had come to The Moth and put his name in the hat. But his name didn't get called. He was incredibly disappointed – he wanted to tell his story; I was too – I wanted to hear it.

The lesson it taught me was not to be afraid to ask people about their lives – by and large, people love to tell their stories to people who are interested, and if you don't ask, you might miss out on something incredible. More importantly though, it taught me not to panic when telling my own stories (like this one, for example). By and large, people do actually want to hear them.



I've often seen people talking about getting to a point every so often where they feel 'blog-lost', and while I only do a post once a week (at best!), that has never actually happened to me before, until two weeks ago. I can only hold Andy Murray's lack of Wimbledon win responsible. 

At any rate, here is a post for getting 'blog-found' again. I've been re-appreciating Instagram recently, for two reasons: first, the sun has finally come back to England and second, Kristina's post on iPhone photography apps. Before reading that post, I had really no idea that there were so many options for iPhone photographs, and I was skeptical at first, but I am now a confirmed and serious fan of Snapseed (simple photoshop for phones), Squareready (for those satisfying white borders), and, if I feel like it, Duomatic (for super-fake double exposures). 


The sun returning to drippy England has meant blooms, artichokes, other people's hot air ballooning adventures, and (finally) cold brew coffee. I've resisted doing cold brew while the weather has been so miserable, as I know I just wouldn't appreciate it as it should be! 

You can't buy cold brew coffee in Bristol yet (it may have caught on in London already, though I'm not sure) so brewing it yourself is the only option. I used this recipe (which I found via Kate) but instead of double filtering through filters (which gets all clogged up and labour intensive) I brewed it overnight in a cafetiere, plunged it in the morning, and then used the filter, which works much more quickly. The way I've been describing it is that it is like the coffee taste you get from coffee cake; if you haven't already tried it, you really must.

Anyway, here's to the sunshine – long may it last – and here's to getting blog-found again: long may that last too. 




I'm always careful who I admit my obsession with Wimbledon to. Mainly because it's such a shamefully serious one. It  started with school summer holidays, when there were only four television channels and a Scottish summer to entertain my sister and I for eight weeks every year. The only thing to watch for two of them was Wimbledon, so we just decided we'd better just learn the rules and start watching. 

So I spent all the precious sunny days of my school summer holidays inside, glued to our tiny television, watching Sampras and Ivanisevic and Hingis and Davenport. In the rain delays, I'd pass the time walloping a ball against the house, hoping that one of the aforementioned might just happen to be passing, notice my latent tennis skill, and whisk me away to tennis school.

This never happened, evidently, but those summers have left me now with a serious need to watch as many Wimbledon matches as I possibly can. 

There's probably nothing more stereotypical to sustain this than these little pots of English strawberries, but I'm quite happy to go with that. I'll reflex-eat them on their own, or more slowly, with sugar sprinkled on top. If I'm lucky though and Ben has reached tennis saturation point and needs some kitchen time, I get to eat them with meringues, strawberry syrup and vanilla yoghurt, heaped into a pile.

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Nothing signifies quite how different New York and Bristol are to me the way my new umbrella does. It's funny really, as when it rained in NY, I huddled under a ridiculously tiny umbrella all month – every time I decided to just bite the bullet and buy a proper one, the sun came out.

I bought this one on my last day in New York, which was sunny and hot and beautiful, and when I definitely didn't need one. I definitely need it now. It has poured with rain all month in England, so that the trees are green and drippy, and my umbrella is always by my side – and when I put this one up, the sun never comes out.

I brought a couple of other things back with me, all of them green too, coincidentally. 



The Baking of Eggs

I think I'm posting this partly just to remind myself just how amazing Eggs in Pots are, and to stop my brain from picturing them as miserable, grey 1970s-cookbook fare. Baking eggs is so satisfying, especially if you refer to them by their flirtatious French name: 'oefs en cocotte'.
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I've never posted a recipe here before (I'm a little nervous about it, to be honest) but Eggs in Pots just happens to fit quite perfectly with my most unexpected post-America aim: to eat small plates of food. 

There were so many amazing places to eat in New York that I often felt as though I needed to fit a whole lifetime of eating into a month; eating smaller things, more often, in lots of different places, seemed to solve the problem. I'm trying to keep it going now that I'm back in large-dinnered England, and these are so easy that even I can make them.

So, these eggs. If I could just make myself remember how incredibly tasty they are, I'd eat them all the time: for a weekend lunch, brunch, or just a small-plate kind of dinner. 

Baked Eggs in Pots for two (adapted from Stephane Renaud's Ripailles and Rachel Khoo's Little Paris Kitchen.

What you Need:
150ml (approx.) crème fraîche
2 eggs
chorizo (optional)

1.  Heat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF). 
2.  Put a dessert spoonful of crème fraîche into each of your ramekins and season with salt and pepper.
3.  Break an egg into the ramekin, and cover with another dessert spoon of crème fraîche. 
4.  Chop some chorizo and parsley (as much as you like) and sprinkle on top. 
5.  Place the ramekins in a tray of boiled water (making sure that the water can't get into the pots) and put the tray in the oven for 12-15 minutes. 

Serve with slices of buttery toast, and you're away!



The Last Few Days in New York

Before I got there, I thought I would arrive in New York and feel just as comfortable with it as if it were London. In reality, it took at least three weeks for that to properly happen. Those first weeks were filled with trying to learn how best to use our time, how best to cross the street, where to eat, how to tip a barman (still not entirely up on that, if anyone wants to enlighten me!)... but the last week was suddenly quite calm. 

We'd worked (most) things out, we had places we wanted to revisit (rather than dashing around trying everything for the first time) and had a couple of loose ends to tie up. So, we just pottered around, drank some coffee and visited some things: Stumptown Coffee for incredible coffee and a chemistry set of brewing gadgets, Pies & Thighs for chicken and biscuits and the best donuts, the UN headquarters (strangely hospital-like) and the Met Museum. 

Then we went home.