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I’m not sure what it is about Easter which makes me think of Spain’s greatest export, marzipan, as I gather that the little soft almond sweets are more the preserve of Christmas time than Semana Santa. But then again, mazapan, as the spanish call it, is a sweet originating from the closed convents of one of Spain’s most fervently religious strongholds, Toledo, and it is perhaps understandable therefore that my mind drifts to this very sacred city around this Easter time.

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I was never a great lover of marzipan as a child – perhaps the almond flavours were too bitter for my very junior tastes. But when I visited Toledo a few years ago with my mother, I became completely seduced by these little sweet treats, which could be found everywhere, from little corner shops to cafes filled with little (slightly surreal) dolls of nuns captured in the act of marzipan making.

The beautiful city of Toledo

The beautiful city of Toledo

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A Toledo cafe

A Toledo cafe

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While marzipan lasts a fair length of time (they contain no dairy, so stay fresh for a while), even those I bring back from Spain each visit in earnest do not last for long (partly because I scoff them fairly rapidly). It’s come a great relief therefore to learn that marzipan is so easy to recreate in your own home – if you’ve got some ground almonds and sugar, you’re pretty much there. For an Easter treat I decided that the Norms needed to become manifested as marzipan forms. But feeling like a little variety, I also made these delicious panellets de piñones – a succulent, slightly coarser lemony marzipan surrounded by a pine nut shell – delicious!

Mazapan de Toledo

My marzipans are adapted from the recipes of Claudia Roden (in her 2012 book, The Food of Spain) which are in turn a treasure-trove of recipes collected from across the multifarious gastronomic regions of Spain. For the Marzipan Norms, all you need to do is whizz up 200g of ground almonds with 200g of icing sugar in a food processor. Add around 3 drops of almond extract (being careful not to add more as the flavour can become overpowering very quickly) and 2-3 tablespoons of water, one at a time. You don’t need much water as the almond oil holds the mixture together. Knead into a smooth soft paste and then you are ready to start modelling.

My Norms, awaiting their fate

My Norms, awaiting their fate

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The beauty of marzipan is that the world is quite literally your oyster. You may want to model yours into Norms, but equally, why not try little balls, or as in Toledo itself, how about a mixture of figuritas shaped into fish, snails, shells, saint’s bones…whatever takes your fancy. Once they’re shaped, leave the marzipan figures out on a baking tray. They’ll soon go harder on the outside. After a few hours, lightly whisk up the whites of one egg with a tablespoon of icing sugar and brush a very little on the marzipans to create a glaze (you really don’t need much). Place them under the grill for a minute or in the over at 200C for 2 minutes until slightly browned.

Panellets de Piñones

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These panellets are a delicious, slightly more complex version of plain marzipans, but the method is similar. Whizz up 200g ground almonds with 150g caster sugar and the grated zest of 1 lemon, with 2.5 tablespoons of water. Plend for a few minutes until the almond oils start to really bind the paste. Break this into equal sized pieces and roll into balls (I got around 16 at around 4 cm in diameter each). Then comes the tricky bit. Roll the balls in a lightly whisked egg white and then into a bowl of around 200g of pine nuts. Press as many as you can into the marzipan in the palms of your hands. But inevitably some with fall off so you’ll have to fill the gaps with the nuts by hand, pressing them in slightly. This is slightly time consuming and fiddly, but SO worth the effort. Once you have a complete “shell” of pine nuts, roll again in egg white and set out on a baking tray.

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Once all your balls are all covered, pop them into an oven at 200C for 10 minutes until slightly golden. Once done, you’ll need to leave them to cool slightly before taking them off the tray, or they will quickly break apart.

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All that remains is for me to wish everyone reading The Daily Norm a Happy Easter, and a fiesta of unapologetically unrestrained chocolate egg and marzipan indulgence!

Autobiographical Mobile: My painting diary – Day 19: Infanta España

The third of my passions, represented upon the left arm of my autobiographical mobile, is my indisputable love affair with Spain, and with art history. If my heart lives in Paris, then my soul resides in Spain. The chromatic, melancholy chords of a flamenco guitar reach straight into my soul, transporting me to a place of almost otherworldliness tranquility, a land enriched with Moorish heritage, baked in the unyielding summer sun, bearing the scars of a bloody civil war and the ardor of a religious inquisition, wafting afresh with the scents of garlic and pigs and pimenton, sweet syrups and blossoming orange and almond trees, and giving birth to some of the greatest creative minds ever known. Spain is every bit a part of me as the country of my birth, and continues to inspire me in so many areas of my creative manifestation.

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Since Spain occupies so many of my thoughts and pleasures, it is unsurprising that in pursuing that other great passion – art history – I have enjoyed a particular focus on the art of Spain, from the incredible innovation of El Greco and the dark, disturbing black paintings of Goya, to the iconic court portraits of Velázquez’s big-skirted princesses, the exquisite surreal mastery of Dali and the fragmented multi-faceted masterpieces of Picasso.

Velázquez's original Infanta portraits

Velázquez’s original Infanta portraits

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Las Meninas

Las Meninas

Only one image could perfectly capture these dual loves of Spain and art history: Velázquez’s Infanta, the now iconic image of the Spanish Royal Princess in the court of King Philip IV. These world-famous portraits, centrepieces of Madrid’s Prado gallery and culminating in the breathtaking masterpiece, the group portrait Las Meninas, have inspired countless generations of artists, amongst them Dali and Picasso. I painted my own version of the Velázquez greats in the form of Infanta Norm, and could not resist exploring the image again in this representation of Spain.

Infanta Norm (After Velázquez) (2011, acrylic on canvas) © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown

Infanta Norm (After Velázquez) (2011, acrylic on canvas) © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown

My new image of the Infanta is also a representation of Spain, with her dress painted to resemble both the colours of the Spanish flag and also a bull ring. I always loved Bullfighting as a teenager, and while the bloody sight of death in the afternoon was always a shocking one for someone unused to such a spectacle, there is no denying the elegance of the matador’s costumes (the traje de luces), the contrast of red against the black of the panting bull, the grand parades of the picadores, and the wonderful pomposity of the emboldening paso doble playing in the background. By way of further representation of the Corrida, my Infanta España holds the banderillas which are inserted into the taunted bull, and the pink and gold capote (cape) which is waved in front of its maddened eyes.

My Infanta España in progress

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The finished Infanta España

The finished Infanta España

But Spain isn’t just about the bull fighting. Also represented is Spain’s all important tourism industry, here illustrated through my Infanta’s rather fetching sunglasses. We British could do with a bit of that sun right now…

Until next time – Viva España!

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Autobiographical Mobile: My painting diary – Day 18: My Art and my Paris

I couldn’t be much more passionate about the second of my painted “favourite things” if I tried. The next metaphor of my life’s great loves to make it onto my latest large canvas – my Autobiographical Mobile – is Art, and Paris.

Paris was the city that made me who I am today. It started on a school trip, when my teacher led me, her hands covering my eyes, into the Place du Tertre atop the Butte de Montmartre, and quickly uncovering them, revealed a scene of such lavish character, such indubitable gyrating ecstatic energy and historical charm that I fell in love. My heart dropped to the cobbled paving beneath my feet, and has stayed in the heart of Montmartre, beating there ever since. Now, when I plug myself into the city on an almost annual basis, I cannot help but swarm mesmerised around the quaint streets, meander around the boutique-lined boulevards, and lounge like a flaneur outside the street cafes and in leafy parks, gazing in never-ending admiration at the beauty of the urban landscape around me.

Le Paris Formidable (2000, acrylic on canvas) © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown

Le Paris Formidable (2000, acrylic on canvas) © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown

With Paris came Art. For not only does the city ooze creativity from its every crack and surface, but it has also inspired some of the most illustrious artists in recent art history. As well as the slightly less illustrious ones, like me. While I had been painting for some years, the real turning point of my career, when I went from doodles and watercolours to large scale canvases, was when at the age of 16 I embarked on one of my greatest projects, and still my second biggest canvas ever, Le Paris Formidable.

Le Paris aimed to show my beloved Paris from various unusual standpoints, and one of my favourite images was my depiction of the Sacre Coeur, the church atop Montmartre, as a series of eggs in egg cups and split open lavishing the surrounding blue canvas with their eggy contents. The image spoke both of the architectural charisma of this multi-domed church, as well as the inherent fragility of a 21st century Catholic Church. In one dome in particular, a French baguette plunged into the waiting yolky contents like an egg soldier, but also the body of Christ, while his blood, the wine, was represented by the main dome upturned like a communion chalice.

The real thing…

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In this new painting I have replicated the egg soldier image, but with some extra frills. Both parts of the egg, and the baguette, are connected to the mobile by what looks like rosary beads, but whose religious imagery is replaced by symbols of Paris – the iconic Eiffel Tower proclaiming that Art and Paris are my ultimate passion: My Religion.

My progress

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The finished image

The finished image

I find it particularly satisfying to compare both this egg and the egg of my 16 year old self – a first great painting, when my untrained skills we still naive. My skills now (although still untrained) have improved, and I feel confident in my ability to better understand light and shadow and dimension so much better than 13 years ago. Yet the idea of my 16 year old self – the Sacre Coeur as eggs – is almost surprisingly impressive to me, innovation which my adult self may struggle to come up with, but which works so well now in this revolution of my art – art revisited for this autobiographical expression of my life, on canvas.

...and the 2000 image

…and the 2000 image

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Autobiographical Mobile: My painting diary – Day 17: Travel/ Gastronomy

After what felt like months of working and reworking the Mallorcan beach background of my latest large-scale painting, my Autobiographical Mobile, I have finally started to complete some of the finer details of the work and find myself galloping into the final stretch (albeit over the hurdles which are inexorably cast into my path by a full-time job working in the law). Those details are, arguably, the most important sections of the painting, as they are the series of symbols and metaphors which hang from a large Calder-style mobile representing a biography of my life. On one side, the mobile balances my great loves and passions, on the other, the black spots and bad experiences I have encountered and, in some cases, which continue to cast their dark shadow over my life.

Over the last few days, I have concentrated on the jocular manifestation of my life’s favourite things, the section of the painting which reads a bit like the song from The Sound of Music. Of the four symbols hanging on the positive side of the mobile, the first I tackled was my symbol of travel and gastronomy. I should start by explaining that each of my symbols have a double meaning, encompassing at least two of my passions (and therefore giving the metaphors more complexity and freeing up space on the canvas). As regular readers of The Daily Norm will have noticed, I am inexcusably fond of both travel, and of food (both cooking, and of course, of eating) and particularly enjoy both pursuits when they have something of a Spanish flavour.

Progress on my travel/ gastronomy metaphor…

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Representing both passions therefore, I have painted a bottle of sun-cream. It has a high protection level (30) which also happens to be my impending next birthday-age. On the bottle, the word “vacaciones” which is Spanish for “holidays” is suitably branded, surrounded by sun-rays (I’m quite pleased with this – I clearly should have been a brand designer!). Squirting from the bottle, the sun-cream becomes edible cream which itself swathes around two juicy strawberries – a representation of fresh, ripe summery food. The cream, graduating downwards, becomes a pinker marie-rose sauce, which in turn accompanies some succulent prawns. These in turn are accompanied by two slices of my favourite of all meats – Spanish chorizo sausage (chorizo and prawns are often to be found together in a great big pan of Spanish paella) and the chorizo is in turn doused in a delicious red wine (thus making the popular tapas dish, Chorizo al Vino) which has metamorphosed out of the marie-rose sauce. The final item on the flurry of food then is wine, as ever a subject of my most tender affection, and represented by an energetic splash and a wine bottle cork. All of this falls into a Fortnum and Mason’s picnic hamper (an icon of my favourite London department store), whose basket twine starts to unravel, curling like a piece of spaghetti around the food suspended above it.

It’s a rather complex image, but I have always had a penchant for images which metamorphose, as one object becomes another, and an image builds in complexity and entendre. Check out the third painting of my 2005 Joie de Vivre series for example. Amongst the metamorphoses there are harbour lights which become pearls which become buoys floating in the water, and rain which becomes snow which becomes ice cream.

Joie de Vivre/ Zest of Life 3: Casino Nights (2005 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, acrylic on canvas)

Joie de Vivre/ Zest of Life 3: Casino Nights (2005 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, acrylic on canvas)

As much of the current painting deals with my life, it’s unsurprising that many of my symbols which make direct reference back to my past body of art work. In painting the sun-cream bottle, for example, I make direct reference to my 2009 painting, Souvenir of Spain, which deals with the tourist stereotypes of my favourite country. Amongst them is the general consensus of the ignorant British tourists that Spain is all about “sea, sand, sex and sangria” hence the symbols of sunbathing which permeate the piece. Here’s that painting and some detailed shots of the work, including, as you will see, my previous depiction of Spanish cuisine, namely the iconic paella, a fodder of Spanish tourist haunts all over the world, and which here is painted inside of a bullfighting ring.

Souvenir of Spain (2009 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

Souvenir of Spain (2009 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

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This image also references back to my Norm depiction of Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, and the two Fortnum and Mason’s hampers I included in that fine picnicking piece. For me the idea of being out in the summer warmth, feasting of the grass out of a decadent Fortnum’s hamper is amongst the most pleasant of all thoughts. Ironically I have never owned a Fortnum’s hamper (they’re not cheap…) but my ambition to get my hands on one (preferably a full one!) lives on. Maybe as a present to myself when this large painting is finally complete?

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (after Manet) 2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, Oil on canvas

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (after Manet) 2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, Oil on canvas

Fortnum and Masons Hamper with bread, grapes, apples and cherries

Fortnum and Masons Hamper with bread, grapes, apples and cherries

The Norms' discarded clothes and handbag

The Norms’ discarded clothes and handbag

Up next time… My art and my adored Paris.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Manet: Not exhibited in his lifetime

Glancing through the current Manet retrospective, Manet: Portraying Life, at the Royal Academy, there is one consistent feature which is perhaps even more noticeable that the works themselves: How many of the paintings are labelled “Not displayed in his lifetime”. Why the Royal Academy is so insistent on spelling this out with such apparent alacrity is unclear. But what it demonstrates is that the majority of works comprising this so called “first ever retrospective devoted to the portraiture of Edouard Manet” are what I call “filler works” – paintings which are either unfinished or merely preparations for other works, and none of which the artist had ever intended to be exhibited for public consumption.

It is therefore with some unease that I looked upon these works, which the Royal Academy tries to pass off as paintings worthy of the not insignificant £15 entry-price, the cynic inside me recognising that what we have here is merely a means by which a show that, fundamentally, consists of one room’s worth of finished and accomplished works, is padded out to fill a much bigger space. And even that space is not filled particularly well.

Music in the Tuleries Gardens (1862)

Music in the Tuleries Gardens (1862)

In the second large gallery, for example, the Royal Academy make the slightly unfathomable decision to present Music in the Tuleries all on its own, spotlight upon it, surrounded only by blank walls. I could understand this kind of hang for a masterpiece such as Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, which almost single handedly changed the history of art (and sadly lacking from this show), but for this painting? Sure enough, it’s a skilled group painting, giving us a very realistic snapshot of modern day life one sunny afternoon, lacking in the previous contrived composition of the grand historical paintings which were favoured in the time Manet painted it. But the Royal Academy do not succeed in making any significant point worthy of this solo hang. And what’s worse, this painting belongs to London’s National Gallery, so visitors can normally walk up and see the painting whenever they like, without the crowds attracted to the RA, and for free.

But this was not the worse of it. The following gallery was hung, not with paintings, but with a chronology of Manet’s life, and a desk on which copies of the exhibition catalogue could be surveyed – why exactly I’m not sure: after all, isn’t it better to look at the paintings themselves when you have them in front of you?

Unfinished: Portrait of Carolus Duran (1876)

Unfinished: Portrait of Carolus Duran (1876)

But asides from the unpalatable cheek with which the RA filled it’s space and passed off the show as a great survey of Manet’s career, I also felt a deep sense of unease, not as a punter, but as an artist – because so many of these works are so clearly unfinished, unprepared for public consumption. I can imagine Manet now, turning in his grave, horrified at the prospect of these unfinished preparations being gazed at and criticised as though they were finished works. And all for the sake of a buck or too.

Portrait of M. Antonin Proust (1880)

Portrait of M. Antonin Proust (1880)

The Luncheon (1868)

The Luncheon (1868)

Madame Manet in the Conservatory (1879)

Madame Manet in the Conservatory (1879)

Emile Zola (1868)

Emile Zola (1868)

All that said, the finished works which are on show are masterful Manet’s, apt demonstrations of the artist’s skill at capturing real life, real characters and a sense of the time in which he painted. You get the portrait of M. Antonin Proust (not to be confused with the acclaimed author) – a dandy about town, a man proud and professional in his polished appearance; then there’s Suzanne Leenhoff (later Madame Manet), sat, happily contented in the garden of Manet’s home, her cheeks rosy and her gaze tranquil.

300px-Edouard_Manet_088Then of course there’s Manet’s most infamous sitter of all: Victorine Meurent, who gets a whole gallery to herself in this show. While sadly, and very obviously lacking the two great masterpieces of Manet’s oeuvre in which she features (Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (although the Courtaulds inferior and much smaller copy is here) and Olympia), the paintings which are on show present the model with the confidence and audacity which must have attracted the artist to her – the wiley stare, straight out of the canvas, almost judging, daring the viewer to respond. Then there’s Victorine dressed as a street-seller, an accomplished character portrait in which the cherries held to her mouth appear almost as a provocation, a subliminal message inviting us to read a story into her steely gaze,  as well as the wonderful Railway portrait, in which the railings adjoining the railway appear to take centre stage, and the air of noisy, smoky, modern industry appears oddly juxtaposed with the apparent calm and tranquillity of Victorine and her sleeping puppy.

Street Singer (1862)

Street Singer (1862)

The Railway (1883)

The Railway (1883)

As a Manet lover (need I remind you of my Norm version of both Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe and my juxtaposed Manet character Norms sat in Cappuccino Grand Café ?) I was of course familiar with many of the few finished works on show. But one thing that I took out of the show which I had not fully appreciated before was just how influenced Manet had been by Spanish art. Taking a trip to Spain, organised by Zacharie Astruc who’s portrait is also on display, Manet was very quickly inspired by Velazquez, who he saw as a master of painting black in all its surprising variety of shades, as well as other greats such as Goya and Ribera. Following on from this, one can really start to see the Spanish influence infiltrating into Manet’s work. Take the portrait of Rouviere as Hamlet for example, and look how it compares to this portrait by Velazquez. Then of course there’s the portrait of Victorine in the costume of an Espada, again sadly not included in the exhibition, an a portrait of Emilie Ambre as Spain’s favourite operatic diva, Carmen. As an artist much inspired by the Spanish golden age of art, I am well able to understand the effect that Spanish art must have had on Manet, helping him to surge forward as the revolutionary artist he was, in a claustrophobic French art scene which had yet to be struck by the poignancy of Spanish art.

Portrait of Zacharie Astruc (1866)

Portrait of Zacharie Astruc (1866)

Diego Velazquez, The Jester Pablo de Valladoid (1635)

Diego Velazquez, The Jester Pablo de Valladoid (1635)

The Tragic Actor (Rouviere as Hamlet) 1865

The Tragic Actor (Rouviere as Hamlet) 1865

Victorine Meurent in the costume of an Espada (1862)

Victorine Meurent in the costume of an Espada (1862)

Spanish influence: Emilie Ambre as Carmen (1880)

Spanish influence: Emilie Ambre as Carmen (1880)

Of course it is difficult for us, well informed of the contemporary art which followed, to understand just how revolutionary Manet was as an artist, painting in the age when grand history paintings and allegorical images were all the rage. His paintings were so real, so unpretentious a snapshot of the life and the world around him, that many gallery goers took to attacking his paintings with umbrellas. Yet still Manet ploughed on, forging the path which impressionists and expressionists and the whole world of modern art pursued in his wake. This exhibition does not make any statement half so bold as the mighty oeuvre of Manet in itself, but putting asides the unfinished sketches, and concentrating on the completed masterpieces, those works of Manet which are on show are easily strong enough to make an impression all by themselves.

Manet: Portraying Life is on at the Royal Academy until 14 April 2013.

Cupcake double: Apple and salted caramel / Ginger with lemon and basil

When my workplace recently initiated a “bake off” competition to raise money for Comic Relief, I readied myself for a battle – after all, the vernacular said it all: WI pleasantries this was not – this was a baking war! In the days that followed, an almost agonising sift through recipes and ideas commenced. I went through some of the superb recipes of one of my favourite bloggers, petit4chocolatier, as well as the pages of the ultimate in London’s foremost foodies, lady-aga. I looked through past triumphs (and mistakes) and considered new angles. In the end, I decided to be innovative. To think of old favourites and build on them with new hither untried flavour combinations.

My first thought was apple – and then toffee apple – and then I thought: Apple cupcakes with a salted caramel frosting, fudge pieces, and a little gold leaf. But then one lot of cupcakes wasn’t enough. Inspired by some of the rosemary and lavender combinations I have seen ingeniously used on petit4chocolatier, I started thinking herbs. Being as the scent of basil drives me almost crazy with Mediterranean happiness, it just had to feature, possibly with another of my med favourites – lemons. And from there, I wanted a sponge which contrasted with the freshness that the lemon and basil combination could provide – and I had it: Spiced ginger cupcakes with a lemon and basil frosting.

And here are the finished results.

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Apple cupcakes with salted caramel frosting

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Ginger cupcakes with lemon and basil frosting

Apple cupcakes with a salted caramel frosting, fudge pieces and edible gold leaf

To make the apple and salted caramel cupcakes, you need to start off by peeling and finely grating 4 Granny Smith apples (although I suspect other apples will do), keeping any juice which comes out in the process. Then, take 250g of granulated sugar and 80g of salted butter, add 150g of apple sauce (from a jar) and preferably with a hand mixer, beat together well until light and fluffy (about a minute). Then it’s time to add two large eggs, beating one in at a time, followed by a tablespoon of vanilla essence and two of lemon juice. Next you need to add your dry ingredients, sifting them into the butter mix – 300g of plain flour, 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder, 1.5 teaspoons of cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg. Mix the ingredients well and then fold in your grated apple as well as any juice which you may have collected.

Spoon your mixture into 12 or so cupcake cases, filling each just over half way, and bake at 180C (350 F). Check that the cakes are cooked by inserting a knife and ensure it comes out clean.

For the frosting, take 125g of caster sugar and dissolve in a pan over a moderate heat in 4 tablespoons of water. Once dissolved, turn the heat up to high, allowing the sugar to boil vigorously until it starts to turn golden. Be careful here – don’t let it burn or go too dark. Once it’s a nice golden colour, remove from the heat immediately and pour in 80ml of double cream, stirring in instantly – and like magic, you’ll have caramel. Leave this to cool completely.

Then, in a different bowl, cream together 200g of icing sugar with 160g of salted butter, and whisk for around 5 minutes until light and fluffy. Once the caramel has cooled, stir it into the butter mix and you have the most delicious frosting you could possibly imagine. Pipe onto your cooled apple cupcakes and sprinkle with a little coarse salt crystals for that ultimate salted-caramel hit (I used little pink crystals straight from Hawaii – thanks Mackenna!). You can also embellish your cakes with extra flourishes – I made some more caramel and drizzled it on top, and also sprinkled little fudge pieces and a tiny bit of gold leaf.

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Lightly spiced ginger cupcakes with a lemon and basil frosting

For the ginger cakes, cream together 200g of golden caster sugar and 140g of unsalted butter. Whisk into that two eggs and in addition two egg yolks, 60g of black treacle and 60g of golden syrup. Then sift in your dried ingredients, half at a time – 300g of plain flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1 teaspoon of ground ginger and 1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg. Having mixed in half of the dried ingredients, beat in 120ml of warmed milk, followed by the other half of the dried ingredients. Follow this with a further 120ml of warm milk (so thats 240ml of milk in total). Again, fill around 12 cases just over half full and bake in the oven at 180C (350 F).

For the frosting, take 250g icing sugar and 80g of unsalted butter, whipping these up for 5-10 minutes until very light. Add to this around 1 tablespoons of lemon juice and the rind of one lemon, finely grated. But be careful – on my first attempt I put in too much lemon juice and the mix started to curdle. I salvaged this by starting off another small mix of butter and icing sugar, and adding the curdled mix spoon by spoon, creating a lovely smooth frosting again. To this add around a handful of basil leaves which have been finely chopped in a food processor. And there you have it – pipe onto your ginger cupcakes and maybe embellish with a little caramelised lemon rind and some extra basil leaves, or maybe even some crystallised ginger.

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Happy Baking!

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Daily Sketch: Norms gather in Valencia for Las Fallas

While I’ve been off in Marbella, the Norms have been heading in their blobby white multitudes to the Spanish city of Valencia, where the magnificent festival of Las Fallas is fast approaching. Amongst the huge papier-maché floats, and giant-sized street-paellas, the Norm men and women of the town are to be found parading the streets and squares of the historic quarter in their finery, the women in traditional dresses of exquisite floral detail, together with an elegant head-dresses and jewels aplenty, while for the men, a headscarf bandana, a waistcoat and occasionally even a sword is a throwback to the time of the great Norm-cavaliers.

Norms gather in Valencia for Las Fallas (2013 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

Norms gather in Valencia for Las Fallas (2013 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

Here we see the Norms perambulating in the magnificent Plaza de la Virgen against the equally splendid backdrop offered by the city’s architecturally heterogenous Cathedral. Dazzling in their elegance, with their large skirts swishing along the marble paving and jewels twinkling in the Valencian sunlight, these Norms are like a snapshot from history, a carefully preserved Valencian tradition which brings the city’s past to life in a dazzling street spectacle every March.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Dodging the rain: A weekend in Marbella

Even by my standards, booking a last minute trip to Marbella in southern Spain for a mere weekend seemed extravagant. Was it really worth trekking some 1000 miles out of London for just two days? The forecast on my phone had already dispelled any hope of a weekend in the sunshine, and the 2.5 hour flight time is always inevitably extended 3 fold by the time needed for check in and security on one end, passport control and the luggage carousel on the other, as well as multiple additional journeys linking airports both from and to my permanent and holiday accommodation. But unperturbed by these concerns, I set out last Friday lunchtime from Westminster tube station (taking the afternoon off work to give me a head start), quite determined to make a jolly good go of it. Joining my family (who are staying longer) on a trip to our Spanish holiday home, it was my intention to squeeze in the best bits of a Mediterranean holiday into a tight weekend, ready to back at work in London again the following morning. So how did it go?

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Just look at those colours

Just look at those colours

I love these cacti planted by the sea

I love these cacti planted by the sea

The Marina

The Marina

Despite 15 hours total travel and days spent constantly dodging the rain and running into the sunshine, I had a fantastic weekend as these photographs are testament. No sooner had I stepped out of my taxi into the quaint old town streets of Marbella, and eagerly breathed in the fresher air perfumed with the citrus scent of orange blossom and the subtle hint of garlic being cooked up in the old town cottages, I knew that in a matter of hours I had been transported to another world.

Albeit snapped quickly on my iphone, this small selection of photographs is testament to a weekend which had its fill of glorious spring-time sunshine, blues and turqoises the vibrancy of which you’d be hard pushed ever to find on the streets of London, food fit for a king and, inevitably, a fair dose of rain. Being that the trip was only 2 days, I felt constantly energised not to waste a single minute. Consequently from the moment of my arrival at 10pm on Friday night, I made the most of my stay, heading straight away to the nearest tapas bar where with a glass of full-bodied rioja in one hand and a fork-full of manchego, serrano ham and octopus salad in the other, I toasted the weekend of all weekends, the stress and worries and cold of London swept well away, and the summer pleasures which reignite with every new burst of sunshine slowly creeping through my wintered pale skin.

Some food highlights…

Coffee by the Marina

Coffee by the Marina

A Fritura Mixta (squid, prawns and asparagus)

A Fritura Mixta (squid, prawns and asparagus)

Zozoi's indulgent pavlova

Zozoi’s indulgent pavlova

Cappuccino's Tarta de Platano is to die for...

Cappuccino’s Tarta de Platano is to die for…

From Friday night onwards, a shamelessly indulgent trip of restaurant trips, coffees by the marina, lunch by the seaside and dinners in quaint old eateries commenced. Strolling through the old town streets I sucked in every scent and visual delight, poking my head into old churches to see the tronos of the town’s easter parades already set out, ready to be adorned in flowers for the forthcoming Semana Santa parades, pricking up my ears to the rhythmic sounds of flamenco wafting from the doors of a nearby bar, and revelling in the tranquil atmosphere and picturesque pleasures of this awfully quaint old town.

Blue skies (and a little wind)

Blue skies (and a little wind)

Some birds drop in on lunch at Cappuccino Grand Cafe

Some birds drop in on lunch at Cappuccino Grand Cafe

The Paseo after a recent rain shower

The Paseo after a recent rain shower

The Alameda park after a shower

The Alameda park after a shower

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Tronos ready for Semana Santa

Tronos ready for Semana Santa

So was it worth the effort? Of course it was! Leaving at 4.15pm on the Sunday for a 7.45pm flight back to London, I sat on a coach back to Malaga with my stomach doing inevitable cartwheels at the thought of leaving so soon, but equally delighted at how succinctly and fortuitously I was able to dip into this paradisal environment for a small weekend. It wasn’t sunny all the time, and quite often we would eat one course outside in the sun and run inside for dessert as a storm cloud passed over – but this added to the fun and pleasure of this Spring weekend, in which clement temperatures, even under the clouds, made me feel like I was somehow tricking the seasons.

One minute in the sun...

One minute in the sun…

And a few minutes later its drenched in rain

And a few minutes later its drenched in rain

Paradoxical March - sunshine in the rain

Paradoxical March – sunshine in the rain

They say good things come in small packages, and for this weekend in Marbella, the words wrung beautifully true. Back now in London, horrendously cold, I feel not exhausted but enlivened by this mini-holiday in Spain – a hint of the summer, just at the time when we frozen Londoners need it most. Viva España, perfectly accessible for the holidays, and for a mere weekend too.

On the plane ready to go back to London

On the plane ready to go back to London

Valencia (x) – Photography Focus 4: Favourite shots

Is it any surprise that when I struggle into the London tube every morning, my personal space reduced to a bare millimetre minimum, struggling to breathe against the handbag digging into my ribs, that I immerse myself in a world of Spanish rhythms, that I listen to the clap and wail and melancholic guitar of flamenco in my ears, and that I daydream of Spanish plazas, of old town streets, of sunshine and long shadows, of the sparkling droplets of a fountain’s eruption suspended in mid aid, glinting in the sun? How can I fail to drink in every detail of the architectural splendour, the decadent charm, the warm sun-drenched colours and the almost unfathomable blue of a mediterranean sky when its very manifestation is like something from a vision of paradise?

Valencia is not unique in being so aesthetically rich, so inexorably inspirational that as an artist, and photographer, I was elevated to a new sense of creative freedom with every step I took in the city. In fact it is just one of many a Spanish city which has had such an effect on me. But as a city of so many facets, from the crumbling, baroque old centre to the lavishly innovative city of arts and sciences, Valencia is surely unique in the extent to which its visual appeal can extend. The proof is in the pudding: not only has the city inspired me to write some ten blog posts, each featuring a ripe selection of my photos and anecdotes, but across two cameras and my iPhone, I returned with some 1500 photographs after only 4 days of sightseeing, with barely any destined for the trash can.

It therefore comes with no surprise that as I end my Valencia series, I do so with so many photos left to explore, and hard choices to make as to which of those shots I feature in this, a miscellany of some of my favourite photos of the as-yet unpublished series. The final set, published in a gallery below, is as richly diverse as the city itself, from the minor details: rusting door knockers and cracking wood carvings, to the wider picture – the grand plazas, the ceramic blue domes, and the richly sculpted baroque facades. As with so many components that make up a city, so much beauty can be found in even the smallest details – whether it be the channels of bird poo which have run down the bronze sculptures of a grand fountain, or the cracks and staples in a plant pot.

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You’ll notice that many of my favourite shots are from Valencia’s historic quarter. While the dazzling white architecture of Calatrava’s new architecture is visually alluring, there is very little, as a photographer, which one can do with these buildings, other than shoot them from various angles, reflected in the surrounding waters, and seen from close up and at a distance. Far more inspirational for me is age and histroy, the effect of time, and the continuation of rich traditions in the modern age. Take the fleeting glimpses I took of Valencian women in their traditional dress – was Valencia ever so perfectly represented as by those women in their ornate sashed dresses and peculiar elaborate headdresses?

But as ever, I could attempt to describe in words what could so easily be done in a photo. And of those there are plenty to share. I leave you then with this final selection of Valencia shots, and a big thank you for allowing me to share my Valencia trip with you. Being inspired is only one part of the creative process. Sharing it with others is where the ultimate satisfaction is realised. With thanks.

All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Valencia (ix) – Food Focus 2: Seu-Xerea

Readers of my blog will know that asides from exploring, photographing and culture-spotting my way around a city, my fourth greatest pleasure of any city trip or holiday is to discover the location’s gastronomic culture. Last year I was lucky enough to sample faultless dinner after faultless dinner in both Spain’s Salamanca and Italy’s Bologna, while in Portugal’s Lisbon, artistically elegant food was served at peasant prices. I would love to follow suit now, in cataloguing my Valencian adventures, and describe dinner after dinner of exciting gastronomic discovery. But I can’t. Why? Not because the food was in any way bad… just because I so rarely got to sample it!

Our great mistake, it appears, is that we stayed in Valencia from Friday to Tuesday. This is a reasonable long-weekend timetable to my mind, but for the restaurants of this city, it’s a no go. So while we had no problem dining out in the fabulous Palo Alto on the Saturday (and would no doubt have dined similarly well on the Friday had our flight not been delayed (*groan*)), Sunday and Monday nights were pretty much a write-off as we found one restaurant after another closed. Now don’t get me wrong, I know that some restaurants like to have a night off (although why they can’t just give their staff alternate nights off and keep the restaurant open daily mystifies me), but two nights in a row?! And this in one of Spain’s largest cities and most popular tourist destinations.

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So, on both Sunday and Monday, it was good old Cappuccino Grand Café who cleared up all the diners wandering around Valencia looking lost, the  Mallorcan café chain who clearly have better business brains when it comes to their opening hours. Now don’t get me wrong, Cappuccino are a consistent eat, good service, beautiful atmosphere, even more beautiful staff, but one likes to be adventurous. To do that in Valencia, I had to extend my adventurous spirit one step further than intended, and make my final stab at gastronomic dining on Tuesday lunchtime, just before leaving the city. Luckily for us, this last food experience, decadent in its daytime occurrence, lost nothing for being consumed by day light. Rather, our last hours in the beautiful city of Valencia were spent indulging in a tapas degustacion menu, quaffing upon beautifully selected delicate local wines, and sampling the inexorable delights which come hand in hand with the restaurant Seu-Xerea.

Seu-Xerea is the creation of anglo-burmese chef, Steve Anderson. Favourably reviewed in many a Valencia guidebook, and located in a beautiful old town house just north of the Plaza de la Virgen, the restaurant is a chic, trendy food retreat, which brings to Valenica a fresh, asian twist on Spanish classics, and whose well balanced and elegantly presented food is not overshadowed by an enormous price tag. Rather, for lunch, for 32 euros each plus 8 euros extra for wine (both white and red) plus water and coffee, we were treated to a tasting menu which comprised some 5 starters, a main and a refreshing and indulgent dessert.

The interior...

The interior…

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The starters incorporated a panoply of both asian and Spanish flavours in an almost faultless combination of spice, acidity, sweet and sour, all delicately and artistically presented, giving diners visual delights to accompany flavour diversity in every dish. Now don’t get me wrong – Heston Blumenthal this was not, but for a “light” tapas lunch, one couldn’t complain.

Up first was a cream of mussel soup, subtly imbued with saffron, indulgently creamy but not heavy, with a few chives to give oniony balance to the richness of the mussel liquor. Our bouches sufficiently amused, we went on to croquetas of free range chicken. But the name was probably all that was Spanish about these, served with a curry and yuzu mayonnaise, and a kind of pickled shredded cucumber salad, the ingredients of which I couldn’t quite make out, but the freshness of which was undoubtedly welcome amongst the thrilling spicing which the freshly unctuous croquets were duly dipped in.

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The tapas starters were on a roll now, as the next dish of artichokes al la romana presented itself before us, the tender heart of the artichoke being subtly flavoured, not like these pickled kinds one buys so often in the UK, thus allowing the creamy centre of this wonderful vegetable to shine through and compliment the accompanying cardamom and tupinambour purée.

Then, heading full throttle down the modern asian route, a satay of delectable juicy fresh kind prawns in a very subtle peanut sauce with vegetables so fresh that they tasted like they had been plucked from a freshly irrigated farm that very morning, and a steamed bread bun with sio bak-style pork belly and hoisin sauce – basically a posh version of the pork buns one can easily munch upon in a dim sum restaurant, and no less flavoursome for its ascension to the tables of the gourmet world.

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The starters done (and apologies for the lack of/ rubbish photos – I was drinking wine at lunch time after all!) it was onto the mains. There were some three to choose from, and seeking variation on our table, we went for different options. For my mother, a dish of lamb and couscous, artfully concealed within a ball of cabbage and served on a bed of chickpeas. The real winner of her dish was the small but potent helpings of both lemon curd and the super-spicy harissa, the two working in perfect union as a twosome accompaniment to this tender meaty dish. Meanwhile, I had a grilled risotto with mushrooms, Iberian pork and a parmesan cheese broth. This was perhaps the less successful of the two, the grilling of the risotto drying the total dish out somewhat, but I enjoyed the caramelisation which the grilling achieved, as well as the foamy parmesan broth with which the food was lightly fondled.

Outside...

Outside…

...and in

…and in

The grilled risotto

The grilled risotto

Dessert came swiftly (it was by this time mid-afternoon and doubtless the popular restaurant was hoping for a break before the dinner stint) and was pleasing both in appearance, quantity and in its zesty refreshing flavour: a pot of passion fruit and white chocolate, this dish benefitted from a much needed contrasting crunch provided by pistachio and what tasted a bit like aerated and dried white chocolate. Best of all, the tart passion fruit cream was broken up with immersed flakes of white chocolate – exquisite.

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With coffee, our excellent meal came to an end, a few hours of perfect gastronomic sanctuary, with fine Valencian wines helping us to forget the impending return journey back to the UK, and delicious food enabling us to forgive Valencia its almost absurd double-day restaurant closures. But we’ll know for next time…

Seu-Xerea is at C/ del Conde Almodovar, just behind the Plaza de la Virgen. Open for lunch and dinner, but not on Sundays or Mondays!