Thursday, July 22, 2010

Running up mountains

Last year, on August the 8th, I did something quite daft; I wanted to see just how fast I could make it over Pen-Y-Gent. Getting the train to Horton is really, really nice; it takes slightly less time than driving there, it's much more relaxing, a return costs about the same as petrol+parking for one (if there's two or more it's cheaper to drive, but what the hey) and it takes you through some fab countryside that normally you can't see because there's a bloody lorry ahead that's taking all your concentration. Plus lovely little towns that make you think "ooh! Can I jump off here and have a look around?". The downside is that the train departs Leeds at 6:19 am.

A couple of weeks earlier I'd gone in a group and we did it in 3h 33m, and I reckoned I could knock the 33m off if I was sure of my footing and felt like running in places. Here's my trip according to my Garmin:
See the red bits? Serious exercise moments. There's three bits on the downhill where I really was running flat out and keeping my footing, with a HR over 168bpm. I'm quite pleased with that. This time, rather than go up the steady face and down the startling bit, I decided to go up the startling face (which is a killer on the legs and lungs) and down the steady bit. I was passed by four people on the initial climb, two of which were fell runners, one was a 3-peaker (don't forget, it was only 8am) and one was a kid carrying nought but a bottle of water. On the rocky startling bit I started passing people who were having trouble (thanks to my trainers I was actually having fun), and got a few nice snaps on the way.

(yes, the summit is in cloud. That was very changeable).


And on the summit? Were the views better than last time?

But on the downhill, the cloud started lifting in a really pleasant way:
Clouds forming patterns on the fields. Lovely.

So I made it down, running for quite a lot of the way, and stopped the clock. My time? 2h 14m. I'd knocked an hour and twenty minutes off. Now, I'm very pleased with this; I would have been happy with under 3 hours, but this was excellent. However, now I know I can do it that quickly I want to knock the time down further; I want to get back to Horton under two hours; if the trains are running to time I can get off the train at 7:24 and get back on a train to Leeds at 9:21 if I'm quick enough, and be back in Leeds for 10:30. What sort of morning constitutional is that? "Just off to climb a mountain, dear. I'll be back for elevenses." As a heartstarter, I can't think of many things finer, or more civilised.

So, does anybody fancy doing the Pen-Y-Gent run that I did last year? We get a stupidly early train out of Leeds to Horton, climb a mountain, and then get the train home and be back in Leeds before lunch. The caveats are, though: this isn't a "no man gets left behind" thing, it's a "get a personal best time, and try to beat it the next time we do this" sort of affair; we're not really competing against each other, just against the clock, so it's not as cutthroat as you'd imagine, but it is still a race. Current club record (set by me, the only member of the club) is 2:14. If you think you'd like to have a go at this, let me know. I'd schedule it for the same weekend (Aug 7th), but there's both Geof's Tea Olympiad thing and Iron Cupcake on the 8th (hence a need to bake), so it'll have to be the weekend after, August 14th. All welcome!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Better Culture through bettakultcha

So! Last night was Bettakultcha, which I'm sure you're all thoroughly sick of hearing about now. 15 presenters, five minutes, twenty slides on a timed 15 second turnover. We had presentations about ideas, about narcissism in social media (which was brilliant, to be honest), about "how I got to here" from two different comedy duos (one was great, the other a total car crash, both loaded with energy and some great jokes), an interesting talk on how online communities can interface with the physical space they occupy, a really funny bloke ranting on about antienvironmentalism ("sort out the infrastructure! If you can't afford to mow a roadside bank, then don't put up a sign saying that it's a 'protected natural habitat' to tick the 'green' box!" and suchlike), a former Tory candidate talking about gig photography, an inspired talk by someone who runs a "travelling library", ie a suitcase full of books that she drags to events and people can go & borrow books from it, and many more besides. And my talk, too, about cake, which seemed to go down quite well and I got some great laughs (and an unexpected one that threw me a bit). I've made the slides available here on google docs, if anybody is interested; at some point there will apparently be video. I've already been asked to repeat the talk elsewhere, and the number of people who came up afterwards to tell me they liked it was beyond counting.

Outstanding food on the night was provided by Salsa Mexicana and Sunshine Bakery, which you heard about a couple of weeks ago, and the whole event was at Temple Works, which again I'm sure you're sick of hearing about. Frankly, for £2.50 this was a seriously top drawer evening. It also reminded me just how much I love performing in front of a live audience; it's been about 10 months since I last did something in front of people and I was seriously hungover on that occasion so didn't really enjoy it, but last night was fantastic. The buzz is awesome, and for only 5 minutes on stage I came off feeling a couple of feet taller, nerves jangling, twitchy as hell (far more than when I spent the day drinking coffee) and I can't remember half of what I said. It's an excellent feeling, and I really have to repeat it. November 18th, here we come...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Cawfee crawl, part 3.

After Glenn caught up with us at the Corn Exchange we decided it was time for lunch, so we went to Pickles & Potter in the Queens Arcade. No photos here because I was starting to feel a bit jittery and was trying to organise meeting people later on in a place with no mobile signal whatsoever - which under normal circumstances is a great big tick in the plus column, but not at that precise moment. Anyway, I had a humous roll and a black coffee; their sandwiches and cakes are legendary and a couple of years ago we reviewed it on T&C, and bless 'em they printed off part of it and stuck it in their window for months. Coffee here is weakish - although at this point that was a good thing - and a perfectly suitable cup to have with a bit of cake, which they provide on your teaspoon. Yes, you get the smallest piece of homemade cake known to humanity where most places would plonk a mass-produced biscuit, and for that reason P&P will always have a place in my heart. Coffee £1.75, with the smidgeon of cake.

Next: Jo & Glenn left me, and I wandered over to the Victoria Quarter and the Opposite stall that's there. Here I was joined by Katie as my Guatemalan coffee beans were being freshly ground. I adore Opposite's coffee, as they either have big flasks of it that were brewed not very long ago, or they will take beans, grind them and either use a ceramic filter system or an aeropress to get every last morsel of flavour out of the grounds. My (£2) coffee was put through the filter, Katie's Kenyan was put through the aeropress.
Guatemalan filter
This was a smoky, light coffee with plenty of deep flavours - light and deep at the same time, a clever trick - that really brought home to me just how much I prefer a great, complex filter coffee over what are effectively mass-made espressos topped off with water. There's an elegance about filters, somehow. Maybe it's in the roasting; espresso roasts are always stronger and deeper than for other beans. This was a great cup of coffee, only beaten by Alex's at Bottega Milanese, and only by the finest of fine margins.

But it was also my last full cup of coffee for the day. I thought I'd had enough, the taste was starting to coat my mouth in much the same way that is described in Philip Marlowe tales, so decided to bring in the backup team - that would be Katie and Sarah - to drink the coffee, and I'd just have tasters from this point on. And I needed a break; so rather than go to the University coffee shops - which I can do at any time, really - we jumped on a bus and headed up to Chapel Allerton.

So, to Seven, an arts cafe/bar sort of thing that I could easily see becoming a local, if I lived there. They do decent tea and coffee (I'd had a whole cup of coffee - £1.80 - to myself the night before which was ok, but nothing special and took a while to get to me) and the cakes look good. Katie was hungry so ordered some food (which she then reviewed on Leedsgrub), Sarah ordered ice cream (good chocolate, mediocre strawberry but outstanding vanilla), and I ordered...
Fizzy Water
some fizzy water. Ooh yeah. Playing with the high wire.

The coffee and food took a bit of time to come along; that's the thing here - I love the atmosphere, the arts things they do are unique in Leeds, the stuff they sell is fine (although I tasted S's mocha and that just wasn't right), but the whole place seems a bit on the flaky side, like they're either very busy or not really concentrating.

After Seven we wandered up the road to what was probably my most looked-forwards to moment of the trip, the Sunshine Bakery.
Sunshine Bakery
David is another one of those people who loves and knows his products. Cupcakes, in this case. They are, without doubt, works of art. Michelin-starred quality of food, to be honest, at impossibly reasonable prices. The cake is stunning and the icing light and fluffy. The usual example of cupcakes are mediocre cake covered under a mountain of icing and glitter, but these are sublime. He also does tasty brownies and the incredible "shot cake", a mini mousse/trifle affair in a plastic shotglass, flavours vary daily but for a quid you really can't go wrong.

The coffee done there is from Bottega Milanese (hence excellent), but all of David's crockery is proper china tea service stuff; I couldn't resist getting a pot of green tea and a bakewell slice, both lovely. I was also a bit cheeky and asked if I could do some work experience in the kitchen, because... well, cake is my thing. I love baking, love giving cake to people, love eating the stuff (despite how bad it is for you) and I adore sharing my thoughts on cake with people, which is why I'm giving a quick talk on cake at Bettakultcha. People say your hobby shouldn't become your job, and they're right. But... ah, if I could spend my days baking I would be a happy man.

The final stop was going to be the Sunshine Bakery, but outside Katie spotted Simon, the proprietor of Salsa Mexicana and stopped for a chat, and he persuaded us to make one, last, final-honestly-guv, stop at his place. It was coming up for 5pm at this point so we popped in, intending on staying for one cup of coffee (for K) and two hot chocolates (for me and S).
Hot chocolate
I'm not one for hyperbole, but this hot chocolate was nothing short of a revelation. It was spicy, it wasn't too sweet, it was chocolatey and smooth and packed with flavour and was - yes - a light drink. The coffee was something else, too - a Mexican roast, it was light and citrussy with some serious high notes and some sort of cleansing effect on the palate. This was a cracking cup of coffee.

Simon, bless him, brought out some nibbles to try. If you ever want to try something new for lunch Salsa Mexicana has some lovely sandwiches on delicious bread they make themselves, their versions of authentic Mexican street food are incredible (if you go try the corn on the cob, and the ceviche is limey and loaded with coriander and delicious) and the desserts? Out of this world. The amaretto bread pudding alone is worth the visit, and they make a stunning and very rich tres leches. We shall certainly be revisiting, believe me.

And so that was my day doing the Cawfee Crawl. I didn't end the day jittery and wanting to run through traffic, but I did end it with the realisation that coffee, whilst nice, can get a bit samey if they're all of the same sort. Espresso-based drinks especially are guilty of this, as they can try to pack too much of a punch without getting any of the more delicate flavours out of the beans. I wonder if too much emphasis is given to making a perfect espresso when really all that's needed is a good brewing bean and a sensible approach to filtration.

If you read through all of this, then give yourself a pat on the back; well done :)

Cawfee crawl, part 2.

After Holbeck I needed to stretch my legs a bit so walked to Clarence Dock, where I knew there was at least one coffee shop and wondered if there were more than that. On the way I walked through Brewery Wharf, which has a deli that served coffee but I wasn't really that fussed about trying it; deli coffee is rarely more than "ok", because they tend not to focus on the coffee, it's just a value added in addition to everything else they sell. The walk to Clarence Dock is very nice, by the way, along the riverside.

It turned out that there is only one indie coffee place at Clarence Dock; Hob. All of a sudden, coffee started costing £2, which was a bit of a surprise. The place itself is a cookware shop, selling trendy ceramics and baking tins, with half the shop given over to phenomenally comfortable sofas. Again, the coffee is brought to you, and this time it's in a branded mug; this time for Real Bean.
Black Americano
This was the first coffee to have a crema on. It smelled ok, but with an odd medicinal undertone that came through in the coffee itself. Saying that, it had good followthrough in flavour and was very smooth across the palate, with very little bitterness. This was very much a coffee for people who liked socialising - it still tasted perfectly fine when it had cooled down quite a bit.

An odd thing happened while I was here; lots of people - ladies of "a certain age" - all dressed in red and back came in. As I was leaving I spotted more of them in the cafe at the Royal Armouries, and more stood outside Saville Hall, and as I walked along the dock to the main road even more started pouring in. They weren't in uniform, per se, it was like a conference of people all supporting the same charity, like a red and black ball. Made me wonder what they were all up to, but of course I don't like to talk to totally random people about their sartorial choices.

I was informed that the delightful Jo was at La Bottega Milanese, so off I headed. I'd been warned that Alex doesn't like serving americanos but there we are, I ordered one anyway. What happened next was incredible. I was given an espresso in a slightly larger cup, and a jug of hot water.
Black Americano
Frankly, this is outstanding behaviour and I can see why this place has picked up such rave reviews. It's tiny, a shoebox facing onto the Calls with space for three friendly people to stand inside, and a handful of tiny tables outside, and is delightful. Friendly, cheerful, exceptionally good product and he serves coffees with little amaretti biscuits. The coffee itself was utterly brilliant; a strong, powerful espresso that had good crema and a great aroma, and tasted exactly like a good espresso should do. The hot water smoothed it out a bit and this was probably the best americano I'd get to try all day. £1.45, and a total joy to behold. Jo's mocha was also good - exactly the right amount of sweetness, and made correctly by layering. The cakes look great, too.

Finally, for this leg, is Anthony's at the Corn Exchange. We only went to the cafe, which is surprisingly reasonable, and after a bit of a wait for someone to turn up willing to serve us coffee, and a bit of confusion over which bit was which - there's a lot of Anthony's stuff in the basement of the CE - we found a table upon which to deposit our tray. This was the most expensive coffee of the day; £2.20 for an americano, and although it was good, it wasn't the best.
Black Americano
But the atmosphere in there is lovely, so Jo and I lingered over the coffee (despite the sofa being a bit hard). The coffee looked good and smelled great, and came with a crema again; there were inky depths to this one. A good, complex coffee with some great high citrus notes and a robust bassine but there was a faint singed aftertaste as it cooled down, and whilst powerful, this was a coffee best enjoyed hot. Whilst there I had a poke around the shops they have down there and I can cheerfully say these were fascinating. I could spend hours there, especially in the fromagerie, a climate-controlled room just for the purposes of leaving cheese out for all to see.

I should point out that all of the staff at all of these places have been wonderful; friendly, happy to serve and always with a smile and helpful attitude. Without exception, all the people who I dealt with were lovely.

Part 3 coming soon...

Cawfee crawl, part 1.

Because I tried to make the route fairly geographically useful - I didn't want to criss-cross the city or double back on myself - I started off in Holbeck Urban Village. The idea behind HUV is nice, although it doesn't seem to take into account the original local residential views much and after 7pm the place is empty. Lots of media and business types hang out here, so there's a couple of restaurants, two boozers (that can be a bit snobby at times) and a bunch of trendy cafes, along with one or two that cater for the brickies that are still renovating.

So! The first cafe I visited was the Engine House Cafe, a lovely, good-sized place with big ceilings and some outdoor space. You order at the counter and if you're staying in they tell you to take a seat and bring stuff over to you as it's ready. Because it was still breakfast time - just 9am - I ordered some toast & marmalade as well as my black coffee.
Black coffee
Love that mug! First impressions are a huge thing and I love that they seemed to use a collection of random mugs instead of a uniform, carefully collated collection of uniform white teacups and saucers (or ones with a coffee branding on). These days ordering a black coffee tends to result in an americano, and this was the case here. The smell was fine - it smelled of coffee, always a plus - but had an interesting acrid undernote that translated into a robust taste; good and strong coffee, which started out slightly bitter but smoothed out as it cooled. Brilliant accompaniment to the toast and marmalade, by the way - granary bread and pretty decent marmalade (which may have been Duerrs, but I'm not an expert). Coffee was £1.25, toast &c was a further £1.25. Totally worth it.

Next was Picked Pepper, just around the corner. This is more of a sandwich-y place but friendly and had a great smell when you walked in. They also have an outdoors, but the interior is nice enough to sit in. Again, order at the counter, pay as you leave. This coffee was a branded one - Coopers - but the mugs were plain white.
Black coffee
First impressions were great; it came with a bikkie! There wasn't much smell with the coffee, though it looked ok, and this was a pretty subtle brew with some flavour but no complexity to it. Don't get me wrong - this was a decent brew - but it's a "does the job" coffee, not necessarily one to savour. £1.50.

The last place in Holbeck was Out of the Woods. This place was stunning; great atmosphere, a sofa to sink into, the tea comes in pots and the cakes look excellent. They also go a good range of daily soups and have a great little astroturfed space outside that is really very sweet. Unfortunately, I ordered the wrong coffee.
Black coffee
Y'see, all the mugs - great mug! - are the same size, so ordering a "small black coffee" gets you a single shot of espresso in the same amount of water normally used as a double shot. And weak coffee is not my favourite thing; hotel coffee is often the same, and it tastes like... well, like nothing much. It gives no indication of how good the coffee actually is, which is a shame as I imagine the coffee in OOTW is much better than the one I had. This was an important note to remember: singleshot americanos are for people who don't actually like coffee. Anyway, the important thing to note is that I would totally bring people to OOTW just for the atmosphere, great looking sundries, tea and sofa. £1.55, next time remind me not to ask for a small one.

So, that was HUV! Part two coming soon.