Mixing up a cocktail or six with Mixology in London

by Carmen Allan-Petale

As a girl who grew up watching Sex and the City, I’m not impartial to the odd cocktail. There’s nothing better than having a night out with the girls and kicking the evening off with a Cosmopolitan in hand while you catch up on the latest gossip.

So when my friend asked if I wanted to partake in a cocktail making class, I wasn’t going to turn it down.

If there was a Martini involved, I was there faster than you could say Sex on the Beach.

What, cocktail? I'm there!

What? Cocktail? I’m there!

But I must admit that I’m certainly more accustomed to drinking cocktails than making them. For my 20th birthday (a few, ahem, years ago – but who’s counting?) I hosted a cocktail party where we used a number of blenders to mix up a variety of drinks.

Pre-party, I was very organised, printing out recipes and laminating them so my friends and I could follow instructions to help us make up some tasty drinks.

Needless to say, as the night went on, these recipes were forgotten and the cocktails ingredients got wilder and wilder. Before we knew it, it was the wee hours of the morning and we were chanting ‘down it, down it’, fists banging on the table as my best mate swallowed a drink handcrafted by yours truly that was murky green. In fact the colour reminded me of an algae-covered pond, now that I recall it.

It’s impressive I can remember anything of that night, actually.

The girls mixing up a cocktail together

The girls mixing up a cocktail together

But anyway, I’ve grown up a lot since then (ahem) and was keen to flaunt my new-and-improved cocktail making skills that I’ve gained over the years at the Mixology cocktail making class. Well… I haven’t exactly practised these skills, but after watching many a bartender mix me a cocktail, surely it can’t be that hard to do it myself, right?

Wrong.

The Mixology bartender rattled through our first set of instructions with flair, flipping a couple of bottles in the air and balancing his glass on his elbow as he went. My friend whispered that his ‘strong forearms’ were rather distracting and we all giggled before he shushed us.

The barman with the biceps

The barman with the biceps

The first drink was the French Martini, consisting of blackberries, Chambord and pressed pineapple juice. As well as vodka. Delicious. Well, the bartender’s was anyway.

I’m not sure whether it was his ‘distracting’ biceps, but for some reason my cocktail didn’t taste quite right.

Next he taught us how to make the Elderflower Julep, which consists of mint leaves, gin, elderflower cordial and apple juice. This was my favourite drink and best of all is that all the ingredients can easily be found in Britain so needless to say I will be making this cocktail at home. I felt I was getting a little more confident in making cocktails by this stage and so my drink wasn’t as bitter as the last.

The Mixology Masterclass comes with everything you need to mix up your cocktails

The Mixology Masterclass comes with everything you need to mix up your cocktails

After this we made the Grapefruit and Marzipan Daiquiri which consists of two types of rum, lime, sugar syrup and pink grapefruit. The marzipan flavour comes from orgeat syrup which has an almond-flavoured taste to it.

Our bartender told us that this drink was favoured by Ernest Hemmingway who enjoyed eight measures of rum per cocktail. Which would’ve been fine if he’d had one cocktail at a time, but he was known for knocking back a few more. Seven more cocktails in fact – which is the equivalent to three and a half bottles of rum in one sitting!

Well Hemmingway must’ve had a higher tolerance to alcohol than me because by this stage in the night I was started to feel a little bit tipsy. We’d also had another cocktail on arrival so it was now four cocktails and counting.

Our bartender showed us how to mix two more cocktails – the Mai Tai and the Zombie.

The Zombie flaming in the coconut

The Zombie flaming in the coconut

I would tell you what’s in them… but I can’t really remember!

The Mai Tai is reportedly the best cocktail but by this stage my own concoctions were hardly high-quality mixing standard.

It seems my friends have similar skills to me because at the end of the class we put our cocktail mixing to the test when we competed against another four teams to win the best cocktail.

I wish I could say we won that prize… but I can’t.

So I’ve decided – I think I’ll stick to watching the bartender mix me my drinks, rather than mix them myself. And hey, with biceps like those…

My friend Morgan mixes up her cocktail

My friend Morgan mixes up her cocktail

What you need to know:

Cost: Tickets for a Mixology Masterclass cost £70 and this includes an antipasti platter to share between five and a bowl of pasta each to line the stomach for your six cocktails.

When to go: Mixology run classes each month at their locations in East London. You will need to book ahead online. Mixology can also rent spaces for private events. Ours was held in Charlie’s Cafe in Notting Hill, as my friend’s company hosted her event. I should also disclose that because we went as part of her social club, I only paid £15 for my ticket and her company paid the rest.

The Barbican: London’s ugliest building?

by Dave Allan-Petale

The City of London is a surreal mixture of very old and very new. The grave of the diarist Samuel Pepys sits in the shadow of office blocks with windows that reflect a silhouette of The Shard –  the tallest building in Europe brand spanking new to the London skyline. 

But possibly the weirdest place in London is the Barbican  –  a concrete ziggurut surrounded by flats exploding out of the clutter. It’s well worth a visit because it is so different to the rest of London – the first time I went I was thunderstruck. Is it beautiful or ugly? Futuristic or ancient? What the hell is it for?

The flats are very expensive and highly sought after - there is a waiting list stretching on for years

The main courtyard of the Barbican Estate

The Barbican Centre opened in 1982 as a peforming arts centre; its main hall is the home of the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and there are exhibition spaces for art and dance performances.

Lots of people live there as well. The Barbican Estate has towers of flats forming a wall around the centre that is built in the same brutalist style – soaring panels of concrete, glass and wood – making the whole place feel like the set of a bad 1960s sci-fi movie. But it’s a popular place to live and it’s said the waiting list is so long for a flat you’ll be waiting for someone to die before you’ll even get a chance of getting on it.

The Barbican is surrounded by office blocks and is a very popular spot for lunch

The Barbican is surrounded by office blocks and is a very popular spot for lunch

But the Barbican has its haters. It was voted London’s ugliest building in a poll in 2003 and remains a controversial addition to London’s streets.

But I really like it. The design reminds me of the ‘cities of tomorrow’ that I used to read about in primary school and whenever I go there I feel very relaxed. The use of plants and water gives the place a bit of an organic feel, even though its all hard lines, sharp edges and concrete. The interior of the Barbican Centre is even cooler – like something a James Bond villain would build in an active volcano.

'Ah Mr Bond, you have discovered our hideout...'

‘Ah Mr Bond, you have discovered our hideout…’

There is always something to see and do at the Barbican and I particularly love its library. I’ve spent many happy hours trawling through its massive collection of books and films and there is even a music section where you can listen to records and take out sheet music. There are also restaurants and a huge conservatory filled with exotic plants.

So is the Barbican ugly? I say no. I don’t think its beautiful either, but I do think it’s interesting and I’d recommend a visit so you can make up your own mind.

What you need to know

Getting there: The centre has its own tube stop, Barbican, on the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines. You can also get there from Farringdon tube, and there are buses that stop nearby as well.

Cost: Entry to the estate, the centre and its libraries is free but you will need to pay for tickets to see a show.

When to go: Any time, though a clear day is best if you want to explore the grounds.

barbican tower

The need for speed – a day out with London RIB Voyages

by Dave & Carmen Allan-Petale

What’s a RIB? I’d usually say something smothered in hickory sauce but in this case it means a Rigid Inflatable Boat – think a rubber dinghy with a solid floor and two massive engines. It’s not the usual sort of pleasure craft or ferry you see plying the waters of the Thames in London. So when we got an offer to come along for a ride we jumped right in. Check out the video we made of our jaunt:

What you need to know:

Cost – We did the Ultimate London Adventure, which is valued at £42 or £34.95 if you book online. Children under 14 are £20.95

When to go – The tours depart regularly from the morning to late afternoon. If it’s cold do rug up! They sail in all weather and you will get wet.

How to get there – London RIB Voyages can be found at Boarding Gate One, London Eye Millennium Pier, Southbank, right beneath the London Eye. The closest tube and train station is Waterloo.

London RIB Voyages provided us with two complimentary tickets, but as always our views and work are our own.

London pubs: Drinking down the history of the city’s watering holes

by Carmen Allan-Petale

Millions of people frequent London’s pubs each year but how many of these patrons think about the establishments’ history?

One of the best things I love about London, and England in general, is its quaint pubs. No matter how hard other countries may try, the atmosphere of a true British pub is impossible to imitate overseas.

Think low ceilings, warm ale, log fires and rooms filled with laughter.

I'm not adverse to a tipple but what about the history behind the booze?

I’m not adverse to a tipple but what about the history behind the booze?

Dave and I recently went on a tour to find out more about the history of London’s greatest and strangest watering holes. Rather than a pub crawl, for the first time ever we went on a pub tour and aside from a drink at the beginning and the end, we didn’t enter the pubs to drink – instead we learnt about their history by standing outside of them. And it was fascinating!

The Queen’s Head

The tour began and finished at The Queen’s Head, a pub hidden down a narrow alleyway behind Piccadilly Circus tube station.

An interesting fact about the pub is that it was formerly used as a venue for dog and rat fighting in the mid 1850s. The British government banned most animal fighting at this time but it was still legal to kill rats.

The Queen's Head - former rat fighting venue!

The Queen’s Head – former rat fighting venue!

There were around 40 rat baiting dens in pubs around London and The Queen’s Head was one of them. Every Tuesday evening, men (women weren’t allowed) would bring their dogs down to the pub where they were weighed before bets were placed on how many rats each dog would be able to kill. The record holder apparently mauled around 200 rats in under an hour!

I just have one question – where did the owner of the pub keep the rats when they weren’t fighting?!

The Crown

Just up the road from The Queen’s Head is The Crown pub which has a much more peaceful history. Situated on Brewer Street, where two breweries stood in the late 1600s and early 1700s, this watering hole is better known for its classical music touch – a nine year old Mozart once played with his sister in the building opposite the pub.

The Crown, where Mozart apparently once played

The Crown, where Mozart apparently once played

John Snow

The history of the John Snow pub was my favourite on the tour, and it’s quite a grisly one. John Snow was a doctor who put an end to the cholera epidemic in the area in 1854 when he discovered people were becoming ill from drinking the water from a specific pump on Broad Street. (Now Broadwick Street and the location of the John Snow pub today.)

The John Snow pub - named after cholera source catcher

The John Snow pub – named after cholera source catcher

Others believed the cholera, which killed more than 600 people, was an airborne disease but John Snow proved it was a contamination of the water when nappies from a baby that’d recently died from the disease were found just metres from the water source.

Gruesome!

The ironic thing is that John Snow was teetotal and in favour of the temperance movement. If you’re not sure what the temperance movement was – read on!

The Old Coffee House

The Temperance Movement happened in the 19th century and was when people urged others to give up drinking. The social movement criticised excessive alcohol use and tried to persuade the government to introduce anti-alcohol legislation.

The Coffee House was a Temperance Pub where people came to drink non-alcoholic beverages such as warm milk with fizzy water – gross! Give me a wine over that any time. And I can get one because now days, The Old Coffee House serves alcohol like any other pub.

The Old Coffee House pub, where alcohol was once banned

The Old Coffee House pub, where alcohol was once banned

Another ironic fact is that a lot of these non-alcoholic drinks were often worse for the patrons than alcohol as they contained substances like lead, which made them taste better apparently.

Sounds of the Universe (The Bricklayer’s Arms)

Learning about the history of this site – previously The Bricklayer’s Arms pub – was possibly one of the most exciting parts of the tour. In the upstairs room of this building, Brian Jones auditioned the original members of The Rolling Stones after placing an ad in the Jazz Times – awesome!

Although no longer a pub, the music history lives on as it’s now a record store.

Formerly The Bricklayer's Arms, now Sounds of the Universe record store. But more famous for the fact The Rolling Stones auditioned here!

Formerly The Bricklayer’s Arms, now Sounds of the Universe record store. But more famous for the fact The Rolling Stones auditioned here!

The Colony Room

Above a restaurant called Duck Soup there once lived The Colony Room which was an infamous member’s club for creative people such as actors and writers. Artist Muriel Belcher opened the club in the mid-1950s.

Over the years it was frequented by celebrity artists like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.

The top floors of this establishment were formerly The Colony Room member's club

The top floors of this establishment were formerly The Colony Room member’s club

Unfortunately the club closed at the end of 2008 after its lease ran out, even though artist Sebastian Horsley petitioned to keep it open.

Horsley said at the time: “It (The Colony Room) has been a vibrant, unique and historical drinking den for artists, writers, musicians, actors and their acolytes. There is nowhere else like it in the world.”

The Red Lion

One of the final stops on the tour is the former Red Lion pub which is now a Be At One cocktail bar. In 1847, Karl Marx lived in nearby Dean Street and would attend communist lectures in a room above the Red Lion pub.

Now a Be At One but formerly the site where communist ideas were discussed

Now a Be At One but formerly the site where communist ideas were discussed

It was in this spot he wrote an ‘action programme’ for The Communist League with Frederick Engels, which was published as the Communist Manifesto – the basis for the Russian Revolution 70 years later.

You’ll probably need a pint to digest all this history, and when you drink it take a moment to think about the history of the pub you’re enjoying it in! Do you know any more interesting facts about London pubs?

What you need to know:

Cost: We went on the Soho Sunday Pub Themed Tour which is run by Joanna Moncrieff and it costs £8. However, Jo does lots of tours around the Westminster area and if food is more your thing she also does a guided tour of where the best afternoon teas in London can be found – delightful!

When to go: The tour itself lasted about an hour and a half so make sure you bring good walking shoes. We were lucky to get a sunny day but it still got quite cold – we went in February. Rug up and bring a thermos of coffee if you want to keep warm!

How to get there: This tour started at The Queen’s Head pub near Piccadilly Circus tube but Jo’s tours start in various locations. She’ll give you detailed instructions on where to meet beforehand.

Jo was kind enough to give us complimentary tickets for her tour but as always, our views are our own.

Photo Essay: Kew Gardens

by Carmen Allan-Petale

On the weekend, Dave and I went to Kew Gardens in south-west London. As one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world (it was first created in the 1700s) it feels as though you’re stepping into Victorian times when you visit.

The conservatories in the garden are very much from that era and are somewhat glamorous. It’s a UNESCO heritage-listed site and it’s massive. But there aren’t just the cacti, tropical and Japanese gardens to look at, there’s also aquariums, a treetop walk and many restaurants and cafes.

It’s an oasis in the heart of London. But the photos tell the story a lot better than I can.

A robin dances about in the prehistoric exhibit

A robin dances about in the prehistoric exhibit

A waterfall cascades inside the prehistoric exhibit

A waterfall cascades inside the prehistoric exhibit

Yet another beautiful flower in the topical gardens

Yet another beautiful flower in the topical gardens

A red flower in the small secluded garden conservatory

A red flower in the small secluded garden conservatory

Some beautiful flowers in the Princess of Wales conservatory which was opened by Diana in 1987

Some beautiful flowers in the Princess of Wales conservatory which was opened by Diana in 1987

A colourful crabs in one of the many tanks in the aquarium underneath one of the large conservatories

A colourful crabs in one of the many tanks in the aquarium underneath one of the large conservatories

The giant garden of cacti - Dave's favourite part of the park and my least favourite!

The giant garden of cacti – Dave’s favourite part of the park and my least favourite!

The beautiful spiral staircase which leads to a viewing platform alongside the top walls of the conservatories

The beautiful spiral staircase which leads to a viewing platform alongside the top walls of the conservatories

Overlooking the conservatory from the top of the viewing platform at the top of the spiral staircase (see below)

Overlooking the conservatory from the top of the viewing platform at the top of the spiral staircase

The treetop walk which sways gently in the wind - a little frightening!

The treetop walk which sways gently in the wind – a little frightening!

What you need to know

Admission: It costs £16 for an adult ticket into the gardens but we went between Christmas and New Year when it was free entry. I’m not sure whether the gardens do this for visitors every year though.

When to go: The gardens are open every day from 9:30am, except for on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I think they’d be beautiful to visit at any time of year, and the conservatories will keep you warm in winter. But I can imagine spring would be extra special, with the flowers in full bloom.

How to get there: The gardens are in south-west London and the nearest tube station is Kew Gardens and train station is Kew Bridge.

London by Duck Tour

by Dave Allan-Petale

London is a labyrinth and best seen on foot. But why walk when you can drive? Better yet, why drive when you can float? Join me on London Duck Tours, where you can sit inside an amphibious truck built for the D-Day landings in WWII that’s now ferrying tourists around London’s best sights, on and off the water!

Check out our video of a trip on the London Duck Tours:

Photo Friday: London’s South Bank Centre at night

The South Bank Centre in Waterloo, London is kinda ugly. But at night this Christmas they’ve lit it up with some funky neon colours. I must admit, it looks a lot better. And I cheated – there’s two photos this photo Friday!

The South Bank Centre is beautifully lit up at night over this winter

The South Bank Centre at night

Five survival tips for moving to London

by Dave Allan-Petale

I’ve been a Londoner for four years now and sometimes I still feel like I’m finding my feet. I moved to this leviathan of a city in December 2008 from sunnier climes in Australia with my now wife Carmen – just as the ferocious northern winter set in. To make matters worse, the global financial crisis began to bite right when we needed to find jobs and a place to live. But I’d read a bit of Dickens, watched The Bill and knew a few people who’d done a stint in London and I thought I was prepared.

How naive I was.

This city can eat you alive if you let it and it took quite awhile to adjust to all the tricks and traps. If you’re thinking of moving to this concrete jungle or know someone who is, here are my top tips to surviving and thriving.

Welcome to London...keep off the grass!

Welcome to London…keep off the grass!

1. STOP TALKING ABOUT WHERE YOU CAME FROM

I grew up in Western Australia, a stone’s throw from one of the most perfect stretches of coastline in the world. Compare that to London. Crowded, cold and the nearest beaches are at least an hour away with stones instead of sand, along with bone chilling water. It is easy to moan about London’s drawbacks and look askance at things that don’t measure up to what you’re used to. But that can blind you to the amazing things the city has.

Forget where you came from, embrace where you’re at.

You’re in London and no one lives here for the weather!

Images like this will not help you - look away!

Perth summer vs London winter – the comparison is not helpful

Locals consider this place to be the centre of the known universe and will only be interested in your point of origin if they are holidaying there. So when your mates post pictures of themselves on Facebook having a barbie by the waves just ignore them – they’ve probably got sunburn and food poisoning anyway. Meanwhile, you’ve got more food, culture, events and history than you can shake a stick at, and Europe’s at your doorstep. If you find yourself saying things like ‘but back home in (insert relevant country)’ all the time you need to stop.

2. WIPE THAT GRIN OFF YOUR FACE

Seriously. Stop smiling. People in London will think you are insane or selling something.

Back where I come from it is considered fairly normal to smile at people in the street, nod knowingly at the other joggers on your morning run and have a breezy chat with the old boy who works at the petrol station. But this small town shtick won’t play in London. I came back from a holiday in Australia and went into a phone shop in Balham with a broad smile  on my face. ‘What are you so happy about?’ the shopkeeper spat, one eyebrow cocked. ‘Oh…’ I said. ‘Nothing.’ And promptly reset my visage to Big City Life Mode.

This is a good example of a London 'game face'

This is a good example of a London ‘game face’ – note the neutral expression

This is not to say you can’t be happy or cheery or make friends in London – people here are usually very friendly, helpful and down to earth. But there is a surface to be cracked. You do that by making a (good) joke or a remark about how crap the weather, traffic or local sports team is. If that is reciprocated then you can smile and keep the banter going. Getting to know people in London is mostly all about convincing them you are not insane – a big smile right from the beginning is not a good way to do that.

3. COMMUTING IS WAR

The last census of London’s population in 2011 showed just over eight million people live here. The real figure is likely to be way higher and if you don’t believe me, try catching the Northern Line on the tube at 8.20am on a weekday. Millions of Londoners commute from home to work for an hour and back again every working day, so you need to be prepared to join those depressing ranks.

Always, and I mean always, take reading material (there are free papers in the morning and afternoon) and plug your headphones in.

Otherwise you will be stuck in a crowded, humid carriage with nothing but your own thoughts for company.

The spectacular vista afforded by the London Underground

If you get bored you can study the tube map and search for a station that has all the vowels in its name – I’m told there are five – happy hunting!

Also, the laws of physics simply don’t apply when it comes to cramming people into the carriages.

I learned very quickly that Darwin’s theory of evolution is proved right every day in London – it is survival of the fittest.

If you want a seat on the tube, bus or train during rush hour, get your elbows out and be quick. Give your seat up to the elderly, disabled and pregnant women by all means, but for everyone else it’s open game. Forget your small town manners, they will only relegate you to the sidelines.

4. ALWAYS ASSUME THERE IS A QUEUE

British author Louis de Bernieres summed up the character of his countrymen by saying:

‘Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum. That is one of the things that distinguishes us among the nations… We are rigid and formal in some ways, but we believe in the right to eccentricity, as long as the eccentricities are large enough… Woe betide you if you hold your knife incorrectly, but good luck to you if you wear a loincloth and live up a tree.’

This notion is best illustrated with the national obsession with queuing. Many, many times I have found myself joining what I thought was a queue for the bathroom, ticket booth, etc. only to find I was standing behind a group of people who just happened to be near the end of the line. Respect for a fair turn is held in such high regard by absoltuely everyone that it pays to make mistakes like this rather than be scolded for cutting in (you will be – or subjected to silent disapproval, which is worse!).

There are lots of helpful signs thankfully...

There are lots of helpful signs thankfully…

In London you can say what you want, wear what you like and be whoever you want to be.

It is an amazingly tolerant, diverse, embracing place but if you don’t observe the local expectations – be it in a posh shop or a downmarket nightclub – you will probably be snapped at.

This also applies to spitting in public, pronouncing words the American way, wearing shorts and thongs (flip flops) on a cold day (amazing but true), walking around shirtless on a hot day, coughing and sneezing without covering your mouth and openly admitting you vote conservative.

5. QUIT HANGING OUT WITH YOUR COUNTRYMEN

There is a huge Australian scene in London, likewise Canadian, Indian, Brazilian, Chinese… name the nationality and there are bars, restaurants, nightclubs and social clubs catering to that crowd. It can be a lot of fun, especially if you’re missing home and just want to hear some familiar accents and taste some home cooking.

Be warned though, it’s a trap!

Resist the tastes of home! For a while anyway...

Resist the tastes of home! For a while anyway…

I have found that making friends with British people isn’t as easy as back home but that doesn’t make it less worthwhile. As I explained earlier, because there are so many people in London they are naturally a bit reserved. But once you overcome that they can be as warm as the sun. If you leave London without having made any firm friends among the natives then you’ve missed out. After all, you’ve bravely left the safety and comfort of home shores for a couple of years to move to one of the world’s biggest, brightest and craziest cities. It would be a shame if all you had to show for it was a collection of photographs from a pub you could have gone to at the end of your parent’s street.

London can be like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland - who knows how deep it goes?!

London can be like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland – who knows how deep it goes?!  5 storeys from the looks of it…

So there you have it – all the wisdom I’ve gleaned in four years. Not much, but I hope it helps. I love living in London because for all it’s bad aspects – rubbish everywhere, heaving crowds and ccccccoldness – it always balances itself out with something amazing like a wine festival or The Olympics. You’ll be alright mate.