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Category Archives: Out & About

Mailbox Vs Corporation Street: The Saga of Brum’s Big City Plan

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Big City Plan: It looked like a piece of cake, didn't it?

Big City Plan: It looked like a piece of cake, didn’t it?

Back when I was a little blonde girl, I used to play with dolls houses/ Sylvanian Families’ shops, and when these became too restricting I made my own abodes and SMEs out of spare shoe boxes. Plot-lines between the dolls/ badgers/ frogs and clowns unfolded daily, and even though ovens regularly doubled as beds for small animals, there was a place for everything and everything in its place. Now that I am all grown up (!), I frequently find myself doing the same thing with Birmingham when I can’t get to sleep.

The Big City Plan never ceases to yield a number of articles in each week’s Post or Mail, and because of the constant soap opera of town planning in our fair city (as if it is the opening sequence to Game of Thrones), it is impossible not to play doll’s houses with the map sometimes.

Recently, reports of a £50 million upgrade to The Mailbox emerged. We are getting a full-sized Harvey Nicks (yay), and a roof over our heads as we walk through the shops (which, as anyone who has had to endure the British weather during a winter routine puddle-dodge through The Mailbox can surely attest, is a good thing). It is throwing off the depression at being largely abandoned by the BBC and re-embracing the unique identity originally carved out for the former sorting office.

It's close to two Station entrances so The Mailbox gets a £50 million upgrade.

It’s close to two Station entrances so The Mailbox gets a £50 million upgrade.

When I used to live near The Mailbox I always found it a little dispiriting to walk through the empty banks of shops and felt a bit sheepish when the news networks described it as ‘Upmarket’ and ‘Prestigious’ during the riots. Although I knew that The Mailbox and John Bright Street would eventually come into their own when the Station expansion and Metro were completed, and I’m glad things are getting back on track, I did not foresee the downside to the shift in city centre spending.

This weeks’ episode of the Brum saga (and for once I am not talking about Peaky Blinders) is the knock-on effect this will have on the shops of Corporation Street and the surrounding warren of lanes. Rex Johnson (the lovely, friendly CS-based jewellers’) delivered a worrying vox-pop revealing that the station/Metro road-works had been nothing short of disastrous for their business. I have always wanted Brum to have its own independent quarter (not just for knock-off pop-ups or market stalls) and I’m not alone but why can’t the Chamber of Commerce, the banks, the landlords and the business owners work together to make this happen? If Corporation Street/ Cannon Street and the rest are perfect places for small businesses (SMEs) and the ubiquitous chains are moving to the Bull Ring/ The Mailbox and Grand Central, there has to be a lowering of commercial rents to help these businesses to start up and thrive. I have seen too many small businesses here go under before they even had the chance to make an impact. And time and time again, high rent and low footfall is to blame.

Corporation Street: It's not only the Ladies that's closing.

Corporation Street: It’s not only the Ladies that’s closing.

 There is no reason for Birmingham rates to creep ever closer to London’s extortionate commercial rates. And whilst the threat of a Saturday Strike for businesses last October did spur the Council and local groups to give support and to drop rents by a meagre 7.5%, I think 20% until the conditions improve would be a far more caring gesture. The 60% of expenditure that shopping provides to Birmingham would only increase if there was a diversity of services – this means independents.

Yes, having a Kiehls or a White Company shop in town is very nice, but nicer still is a town where shops run by local people can give our city a greater sense of community and service in a world increasingly held to ransom by the same twenty monopolising shop brands. A high street it is not. Let’s pull for the underdog and support Birmingham’s independent businesses – you’ll miss them when they’re gone!

New additions: But improvements in one area can mean failure for independent businesses.

New additions: But improvements in one area can mean failure for independent businesses.

Birmingham Bun Fight – Brum’s Best Bakeries

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My birthday cup cakes from Selfridges (thank you Ms J. Cutter ;)

My birthday cup cakes from Selfridges (thank you Ms J. Cutter ;))

Ooooooooohhhh, I’ve been looking forward to writing this post for a long time guys, a long time.

Research has involved painstakingly trying out all manner of treats at bakeries across the second city. I’ve been very diligent. I did some pre-research in America where I first developed my love affair with bakeries as an indispensable part of the community.

Ever since I laid eyes on the Astoria Pastry Shop in Royal Oak, Metro Detroit and, more recently Crust in Fenton, I’ve been waiting for Brum’s bakeries to shine. And I really feel now is their time. We have some established favorites and some hot new contenders snapping at their heels. This can only mean good things for Birmingham’s hungry masses. Surely there’s room for everyone?

To give all these establishments their due, it’s important to celebrate what they do well so I’ll run down the bakeries according to what you fancy. I haven’t included wholesalers on this list as I’m just concentrating on what’s available publicly. But wholesalers, you will have you day here too…

The Bread Collection: It's a collection of bread, does what it says on the sign really.

The Bread Collection: It’s a collection of bread, does what it says on the sign really.

This outlet for the Knowle-based artisan bakers is nothing if not bijou. A sign saying only 2 customers are allowed in at any one time (takes me back to school days at frightened newsagents’) means that there can be a little queue on Saturday mornings. The lady who often works there can also be quite surly (I find that if I act surly too then she lightens up a bit). This all adds to the air of exclusivity this place has cultivated.

Patisserie wow: the French influence works it's charm at The Bread Collection. Just so you know, I nabbed that bad boy macaroon on the bottom left. You're welcome!

Patisserie wow: the French influence works it’s charm at The Bread Collection. Just so you know, I nabbed that bad boy macaroon on the bottom left. You’re welcome!

But I persevere because the bread here is aces. In fact The Times (no less) has listed it as one of the 10 best small bakeries in the whole of Britain (hooray for Brum  – these lists are usually London saturated ). FUN FACT:  the baker here, Gilles Zidane, is the cousin of French footballing legend Zinedine Zidane and this would explain the certain je ne sais quoi  this boutique bakery possesses.  And their ability to make macaroons properly.

This is for those days when you want to surprise a loved one with breakfast in bed (specifically bacon sarnies) and walk around on a Saturday morning wearing a trench coat and jaunty scarf whilst toting a baguette, see here for inspiration.

Pretty + awesome = pretty awesome. Frost & Snow's cupcakes.

Pretty + awesome = pretty awesome. Frost & Snow’s cupcakes.

I’m a long time fan of Frost & Snow, both for the quality of their cakes and their charitable ethos (they help homeless locals get back on their feet by giving them a career and marketable skill). You have to trek a little way out to get to them these days (why oh why did their city centre stall in the Bullring pack up? – their website doesn’t say). The best explanation I can think of is that they wanted us to walk off the cupcake calories to make their treats further guilt-free. NB: If you can’t be bothered to walk they are online and supply the Urban Coffee Co and the Hippodrome.

I sill think their cupcakes are the prettiest in the city and their Earl Grey and lemon offering is one of the tastiest morsels I’ve come across (and believe me, I look).

BUT they do have some great local rivals, particularly Fallen Angel in Harborne (and Solihull) which specifically aims to tap into the American style of bakery.  I love the way they use fresh fruit to decorate their cuppies. It’s all very yummy mummy (and why not). Selfridges also does a marvellous selection now too (see top picture).

Come in my pretties: the sweet jade and pink exterior is like a siren to passing girly girls.

Come in my pretties: the sweet jade and pink exterior is like a siren to passing girly girls.

I had a particularly successful party last summer (before I inevitably got ill for months on end and started this blog). I can’t help feeling that getting up early and buying boxes of cream cakes from this fab bakery in the Chinese Quarter helped with the happy mood. It is a girly paradise with it’s jade green palette, Marie Antoinette furnishings (didn’t she allegedly say ‘let them eat cake?’), colourful bubble teas, and Carmen Miranda-like gateaux.

Taken pretty late in the day at Caffe Chino but it gives you an idea of the fabulous gateaux on offer.

Taken pretty late in the day at Caffe Chino but it gives you an idea of the fabulous gateaux on offer.

In fact Caffe Chino operates as a sort of girly deli, as you can buy exotic candy, pork buns and all sorts there as well as all manner of celebration cakes for order. This may be because they are affiliated with the Wing Wah group of restaurants. Personally I think it’s best to stick to the cakes here as their macaroons are not the best but it’s always busy and friendly here.

Glutinous maximus: more goodies on offer at Caffe Chino, these are, I suspect, moshi (but don't quote me on that).

Glutinous maximus: more goodies on offer at Caffe Chino. These are, I suspect, moshi (but don’t quote me on that).

Caffe Chino’s nearest rival is straight across from them. Like the Joan Collins and Linda Evans of the Chinese bakery world, Caffe Chino vs Wah Kee is an ongoing battle. If Caffe Chino is Joan Collins (all designer clothes and immaculate red lipstick) then Wah Kee is Linda Evans (softer, less showy but more natural). Did I really just use Dynasty as an analogy for West Midlands Chinese bakeries? – meh, it happens.

Bun fight: the Wah Kee Bakery sits opposite Caffe Chino in the Arcadian Centre.

Bun fight: the Wah Kee Bakery sits opposite Caffe Chino in the Arcadian Centre.

The Wah Kee is a different yet no less enticing place. Less upscale, more basic, it covers all the bases as far as Chinese baking is concerned. The cakes, the pork buns the green tea Swiss rolls, they’re all here.  And they’re usually a bit cheaper.

Chinese staple: both the Wah Kee and Caffe Chino are fans of green tea Swiss rolls.

Chinese staple: both the Wah Kee and Caffe Chino are fans of green tea Swiss rolls.

They’re also a little less trendy, like the cakes your nan would buy rather than the sort your yummy mummy would try to impress with, but that is no bad thing. Going here feels a bit like getting something authentic in a New York neighbouhood. In this way, it’s a little gem really.

Spring chickens: Easter offerings at the Wah Kee

Spring chickens: Easter offerings at the Wah Kee

  • Best for Doughnuts: I guess the biggest contender here has to be Krispy Kreme in the Bullring.
Hot 'Nuts: when the sign flickers on the hordes come a runnin'

Hot ‘Nuts: when the sign flickers on, the hordes come a runnin’

My husband is always amused by the way Krispy Kreme has taken off over here. He says as far as American doughnuts go, KK (no, not the KKK – horrid people) isn’t considered that remarkable. But over here, the opening of a new Krispy Kreme shop causes traffic jams (this year in Edinburgh) and in the Bullring, the ‘HOT NOW’ sign being switched on regularly results in a queue of 50 or more ravenous shoppers.

The only real rival it has is the Frankfurt Christmas Market with its After Eight flavoured ‘nuts. And even then some of my German friends say they wouldn’t dream of buying the things and can’t understand why we love them so much. Lots of hot, sugared thingies are on offer at all these pretzel stores that are springing up though, so maybe the super-doughnut’s monopoly will shortly be challenged.

I guess when it comes to doughnuts, we Brits love the novelty. Our traditional sugared doughnuts are usually soggy affairs with rubbish jam whereas KK offers warm, glazed, dry rays of hope in a frequently rain-soaked existence.

  • Best for French Macaroons: Selfridges in the Bullring
By popular demand: Selfridges has been on the macaroon bandwagon for a while now and has a decent selection of flavours.

By popular demand: Selfridges has been on the macaroon bandwagon for a while now and has a decent selection of flavours.

Call me a snot but I get very wary when I look for macaroons outside London or Paris. You see, they are my favorite thing (apart from my husband). And even then, I’ve had some bad experiences in London. I know how hard they are to make, having tried and failed miserably a few times.

A few places in Brum have made valiant efforts. Caffe Chino as I described earlier does them too cakey. The Bread Collection does them well (but usually only supplies one lone macaroon once in a blue moon). So I’ll plump for Selfridges which does quite a few flavours now. They are supplied by the English Rose Bakery and they’re pretty good but maybe on the crisp side.  Manchester-based Emma Brown, the baker is, like me, a huge Laduree fan and I hope she keeps up her admirable efforts.

  •   Best for Baklava: Cranberry in the Bullring
Nutty naughtiness: Selection of baklava from Cranberry in the Bull Ring

Nutty naughtiness: Selection of baklava from Cranberry in the Bull Ring

Cranberry is just one of those Julian Graves type ‘grazing’ stands you get in all major shopping centres. You know what I mean; the nuts, the dried apricots, the yohurt-covered raisins. But it also has a pretty decent selection of everyone’s favorite Mediterranean after-dinner treat. They’re good for presents too. I’ll also mention that Bader Restaurant, a Lebanese place in Small Heath also does good baklava (and in way more diet-friendly portions).

Just desserts: cream cakes at Selfridges.

Just desserts: cream cakes at Selfridges.

I love it when a restaurant lets you pack up dessert to take home – a really good idea if you want to get lucky on a date! Or better yet, when you can have dessert already waiting back at your place (and I don’t mean yourself in just your tea-stained Y-fronts). Luckily, a few places around here can help you out with that.

I really like Carluccios (because they know the way to an Italian man’s heart – or Italian-American in my case) who have lovely tarts, biscotti and meringues.  Selfridges has some show-stopping examples of patisserie. Further out, Nima Deli in Moseley does some fab Sicilian pastries.

I’m so glad Britain is cottoning on to the importance of delis in helping to market local produce and introduce us to the best of the rest. Brum is a big place and I must have left off loads of delis here but feel free to share your faves in the comments box below!

Best for On The Run: Anderson & Hill, Great Western Arcade

Old Greggs: fast and convenient but there are at least four branches in a very small area so let's help the little guy shall we?

Old Greggs: fast and convenient but there are at least four branches in a very small area so let’s help the little guy shall we?

While Greggs has the monopoly on the sausage roll around here (and there’s nothing wrong with that from time to time) there are some truly wonderful snacks to be had out there. The sandwiches at Anderson and Hill for example are quick, simple and show off this deli’s carefully selected range of artisan foods.

While I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Church St’s Home deli as a breakfast venue, it is a great place for lunch and sandwiches. The salt beef and brie are great  and they do some weird but fun experiments with pastry too (I’ve tried a strange looking horn with vivid green icing here). I also hear great things about Lewis’ Deli on St Mary’s Row in Moseley.  And if you’re after Middle Eastern pastries, Al Barakha on Mary Street in Balsall Heath is well loved.

Further Out: I always get into trouble here for being too city-centre focused but hey, lay off  – I’m a city centre girl! My blog is about surviving in the city centre where it’s harder to find all the cute things you lot in the suburbs have. Blame Birmingham’s extortionate commercial rents (£10,000 a month apparently).

Having said that, I do know that there are some fab places a little further out that definitely deserve to be called Brum’s Best. For example Birmingham mini-chain Maison Mayci (in Moseley and King’s Heath) does wonderful things with french influenced patisserie and in particular their bread shaped into creatures (take a look on their website and prepare to be astonished).  And for a quaint, easy-going bakery experience, the Bournville Bread Basket on the green takes some beating.  

If I’ve missed out something glaringly obvious and you are desperate to tell everyone about your favorite bakery, please leave a comment – I love visiting bakeries so you’ll always have at least one new customer!

Great work, bakers of Brum -we salute you! 

Brum to Brum – a visit to Birmingham (Michigan)

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And so it transpired that in March and April this year I visited Michigan, the Great-Lakes state and birthplace of the husband.

Michigan isn’t so very different from around here. Al and I have always joked that we’re a Midwest-West Mids couple, both from near ailing car towns, now crippled from the collapse of the industry that spawned them and desperately hoping that a new industry can arrive and lead to a resurgence of the places we call home.

Anyway, enough of the cultural context. I’m writing this post because Metro-Detroit’s (not actual Detroit which is a whoooooole other story) ritziest neighbourhood is also called Birmingham! It’s the Beverly Hills of South-East MI doncha know? When you’ve made it there you move to um…Brum.

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Michigan’s Brum is rigggght here. Incidentally outside Detroit.

Founded in the 1860s (officially), the town was christened Birmingham by landowner Rosewell T. Merrill who hoped the place would become a similar industrial centre (hahahahaha).

I first came across Birmingham mark 2 when Al was living in nearby Royal Oak (yup, they love their English town names over there). We went to a popular pancake house there for Sunday brunch. It turned out to be more like dinner by the time a table was available. Rule number one about Birmingham, it’s over-crowded because of its reputation.

Cute cinema, shame about the popcorn...and the lack of seating.

Cute cinema, shame about the popcorn…and the lack of seating.

Similarly, our trip to its cute old cinema was disappointing. We bought tickets for Sherlock Holmes (a film I never really wanted to see anyway – what were they thinking making a titan of cerebral ability into an action man – is the power of the brain not enough? And don’t get me started on – actually this is beside the point, breathe…and relax). We got the dregs of the popcorn, I mean they were minute, fairy popcorn. Then in the auditorium there were no seats left so we had to sit on the floor. Why sell us the tickets in the first place? This is the only time this has ever happened. I shall complain to Trip Advisor directly (although considering it’s been three years, this probably wouldn’t be that helpful).

To be fair, after this, I was pretty much done with Birmingham. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its charms. It does boast a bonafide boutique hotel, The Townsend. While we have Old Joe looming over us like the Eye of Sauron, Birmingham has a rather large and eye-catching water tower. And just as we need more independent shops in our Brum, their Brum has them in spades, in a town square that twinkles with fairy lights year-round.

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Birmingham’s water tower marks the town out as quintessentially American.

They always say Michigan is a good place to be from. And quite a few celebrities grew up here before inevitably upping sticks to Malibu. Director Sam Raimi, Saturday Night Live’s David Spade, soap actress Christine Lahti and comedian Tim Allen were all Birmingham residents during their youths.

And while Tim Allen may have set his long-running sitcom Home Improvement in Royal Oak, his character’s love of Hot Rods is definitely a nod to Birmingham’s major claim to fame, the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise.

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To Infinity And Beyond: The Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise sees lots of gear heads flock to Birmingham each year. Photo courtesy of Stephen K. Donnelly

The Dream Cruise is the world’s largest single day classic car event with around 1.5 million visitors descending on Woodward Ave each year. Detroit is a car-crazy town (of course) and this event makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time and landed in American Graffiti.  Makes you wish we could take our Classic Motor Show and put it on the streets. Actually there’s an idea, why can’t we have an equivalent car cruise on Broad Street each year for charity?
Anywho, I just thought I’d let you know we’re not alone in the world. Birmingham MI is not so bad even if I do prefer the nearby hoods of Royal Oak and Ferndale (less stuffy and more trendy, they also serve better popcorn). Those pancakes were worth waiting for btw. 
Next stop, Birmingham Alabama.   

A Brum Romance. Is Birmingham Romantic?

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sorry about brum 2

The director Danny Boyle once said that Birmingham would make the ideal setting for a romantic comedy. Obviously he wouldn’t direct it himself but some Brummie enfant terrible might come up with a way to make our rough diamond of a city into a sparkling gem like Notting Hill or er… Aberystwyth.

As he said this in 2005 and now, 8 years later, there is still no sign of Brum And The City, I have to wonder if Birmingham is up to the job as a destination for a romantic date night or a dirty weekend. And with Valentine’s Day imminent, I conducted a little investigation of my own …

I celebrated my third wedding anniversary  a few weeks ago, and being short on money, we elected to scamper back to our old neighbourhood for the night. The first disconcerting sign that Brum may be a fireworks-free zone came when selecting a hotel. I’m a member of Mr & Mrs Smith, the boutique hotel booking service but there were no Birmingham-based offerings on their website. Unperturbed I soldiered on.

Surely the two most obvious choices were the Hotel Du Vin off St Phillip’s Square and Malmaison in the Mailbox. Hotel Du Vin was booked solid and the most recent Trip Advisor reviews for Malmaison weren’t inspiring confidence with their candid photos of ripped sheets, frayed lampshades and unidentified stains. Trip Advisor isn’t currently too hot on Hotel Du Vin either and it looks like both hotels could do with a bit of a spruce-up and some staff training.

Sadly, we ended up at the Premiere Inn (!)* where the beds weren’t that comfy and the heating didn’t appear to be working. It was also very purple. Firework-free zone ladies and gents.

Carnage: Romance Broad street style.

Carnage: Romance Broad street style.

This is just the tip of the iceberg because Brum can be pretty darn unromantic. How can you take a romantic stroll when people are constantly spitting in the street and leaving you to dodge the resulting puddles? The Ibizian definition of ‘romance’ (ie a bunk-up) is still alive and kicking in the city centre. Broad Street has never been, is not and will never be romantic. Going out there in search of romance will leave you feeling unloved, melancholy and like you’ve spent the evening in an abbatoir – and that’s if you got lucky.

If Broad Street sounds like romance to you, you’re not going to like what I have to say very much so stop reading. I mean it – go away. If you can’t be bothered to have at least have a stab at witty conversation in the run up to your sexual encounters then I won’t waste your precious rutting time.

valentines-day-hearts-8

But I know better. I know for sure that romance is alive and well here, unorthodox as it is, and that Mr Boyle might be on to something. Brum was the first place I lived with my husband so it holds very fond memories for me. So here I present to you The Romantic Guide to Brum:  

The Most Romantic Spot in Birmingham

Seriously, I can geographically pin-point it for you. It’s right here:

A little bit Love Actually, this. Yup it’s in New Street Station (I know, right?). Under a triangular hanging (probably a brutalist attempt to conceal some wires) will stand at any given time during opening hours, a girl or boy. Sometimes they are holding a bunch of flowers. They will always sport a slightly anxious or excited facial expression. And, often 20 minutes later than planned, it will open out into a wide grin just before they rush forward and deliver a passionate kiss to whoever it was they were waiting for. I’m talking full-on snogs here. Guaranteed, every time. I don’t know if this spot is on a lay-line or New Street was built on Cupid’s burial ground or what but I have witnessed this phenomenon at least ten times now. And it’s always heartening after I’ve trudged here, carefully avoiding spitballs.  

Most Romantic Bar

Strangely, despite my love of cocktails, I suggest the cocktail-free environs of Bacchus at the Burlington hotel. It’s like Liberace and an interior designer drank too much fabulousness and threw up all over a vault. In a good way. The dramatic curiosity of the place is a great talking point. They sometimes have live music, there are plenty of intimate nooks and crannies, it’s romantically lit and …well it’s a bar with a fake knight mausoleum. Go try it.

Most Romantic Restaurant

For my money I’d say Cote Brasserie in the Mailbox. Not because the food is amazing or because of the price but just because it is dimly lit and feels intimate. However, my husband feels that Brown’s Brasserie in the Bullring, with it’s New York ambiance and abundance of cocktail options is more fun. Especially when the remote controlled blinds come down at dusk.

Most Romantic Hotel

Well it’s yet to be built, sorry but there we are. But when the Grand Hotel on Colmore Row is opened, it will be worthy of Valentine’s days for years to come. The re-opening is expected in the spring of next year and looks great. In fact I’ve just been watching the interior tonight on BBC’s Dancing On The Edge as the ballroom was used as a location. Now if they could just add some horse-drawn carriages to trot you around Colmore Row, we might be starting to get somewhere.

Best Date

Watching a film at the Electric Cinema. Ok, ok, I know I always go on about this place but that’s because it’s great. You can duck in out of the rain, drink absinthe, eat cake then settle onto a squashy sofa at the back and cuddle up while you watch an old black and white movie. What’s not to love?

Best Place to Escape V-Day

Open mic nights are a good bet, because you’ll be in good company, no one will be paying attention to your perceived lonely-hearts status (especially if the act is really bad, trust me), couples will no doubt be heckled and it’s nice and dark. There’s an entertaining one each week at The Yardbird in Paradise Forum but on Feb 14th, Island Bar on the Suffolk Queensway is hosting one. There will probably be bad poetry – suck it up.

So there we have it, whether you’re a voyeur, a nauseating couple, first daters, a long-standing couple who don’t want to speak to each other but feel obliged to mark the day or a misanthropic singleton, Brum could surprise you this year.

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Happy Valentine’s Day Y’all

*Seriously, do not ever take a girl here and expect all your fantasies to come true.

It’s Heeeeeeere! Christmas Market is back in Brum

Sorry for the allusion to Poltergeist, I’m having a Halloween Hangover. Anyway, The Frankfurt Christmas Market is back in town for the 11th year running. This is apparently still the largest Christmas market outside Germany. I was wandering back home through Victoria Square last night and thought I’d share these photos of the last minute […]

Sweet satisfaction on a Halloween Hike

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My completed Halloween stash – the bears aren’t drunk yet.

Once upon a time, Halloween in England was quite uneventful. Trick or Treaters (3 maximum) would turn up at your door in their tracksuits and unimpressed by the array of sweets on offer, would just demand drug money instead.

Then the economy boomed and all manner of cheap tat was marketed for October 31st. Many big food companies still take this track, just changing their packaging to orange for one month of the year, mentioning no names in particular Mr Kipling. Kids started to expect more from their Halloween night and although we’ll never celebrate Halloween on the same scale as the Yanks (although the UK is just more spooky is general – all those half-timbered houses and old, old graveyards) we are very slowly getting more inventive.

For example, last year TK Maxx had the most astonishing array of elaborate Halloween decorations, many obviously imported from the US. I really should have stocked up because this year, there is nothing. Maybe in this wonderful utterly crap economy there was no point in selling niche products that won’t all get shifted but I find it peculiarly depressing.

Walking around today I was simply searching for gummy bears (which I intend to get drunk on gin and serve up as Bombay Bad Bears) for my horror movie marathon but ended up being so unimpressed with the selection of Halloween goodies on offer that it turned into a ‘Halloween Hike’ around Birmingham city centre to assess the current state of Halloween products.

By the way, before all that happened, I had purchased this little beauty from Frost & Snow:

Elderflower and Blueberry cupcake from Frost & Snow bakery – gorgeous.

Not bad considering I was walking around for hours in a sweet-seeking frenzy – and it tasted divine.

Selfridges had a small Halloween candy display but much of it (reassuringly expensive) was just ordinary chocolate with a punchy name eg ‘Death by Hot Chocolate.’ They have though, stepped up their game as far as cupcakes are concerned. Take a look at these lovelies:

Selfridges Cupcakes

The cupcake is the tulip of the 21st century – pretty, momentary and a ridiculously competitive market. But I’m enjoying the war (num num).

I was hoping for good things from Cyber Candy on Bull Street because their window display was so promising:

Cyber Candy: the place where sugar-coma dreams are made.

Alas, for all the pumpkins on the outside, the Halloween selection seemed limited to Pumpkin Spiced Hershey’s Kisses and Pumpkin Spiced Reece’s Pieces for £8 a pop! I ended up plumping for the Kisses because I know I can use them at Thanksgiving next month but I know they could be waaaaay cheaper.

I walked over to The Oasis in search of a black candle or two. None to be found, not even in the city’s alternative indoor market of choice. I did see a blast from my past in the form of these Living Dead Dolls though:

Aw, ickle Living Dead Dolls – so disturbingly cute.

I always wanted Sadie. She’s so delightfully evocative of the gothic side of the 1960s. I shall have to consign her to the dank vault of fantasy Christmas presents past. If I have a little girl one day, I’m not sure how it would go down having Sadie in the house. But she might make a good Halloween gift in the future.

Sadie, my LDD of choice.

In the end I gave up walking around. And that’s when I concluded that good old Poundland and the 99p Store are the unlikely saviours of Halloween. Brimming with all sorts of cheap, additive-laden spooky candy and polystyrene ghouls, I was able to decorate my black Halloween tree and sort out party nibbles for under a tenner. Hurrah!

I guess no one should think Halloween can just be bought. The joy of it is in being inventive. I just wish the stores over here could sell us the basics for both Tricks and Treats. Stay tuned to see how this year’s H’ween decs turn out…

Take me to your dealer: It’s hard to find a mammoth-sized pumpkin head lollipop in Birmingham these days.

Breakfast in Brum

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Audrey makes do at Tiffany & Co. I think we can do better.

I know it seems hard to fathom how this would happen to any self-respecting girly-girl, but until the age of 18, I had no idea that Tiffany & Co wasn’t a restaurant or a greasy spoon.

The very concept of not being able to have breakfast there scrambled my brain. All was made clear when I actually watched Breakfast At Tiffany’s just prior to my first trip to New York, and I duly went to Tiffany’s (what a snotty staff they have but what lovely, lovely things), bought my first piece and started a collection of lovely, lovely things. I still wish you could actually have a fry-up there though!

Because Brum, with its plethora of nightlife demands a good hangover breakfast. The foggy-headed and unwashed need sustenance on a Saturday/ Sunday morning, just as the healthy need their granola and the ladies who brunch need a suitable venue. In London, I’ve noticed they have this well and truly covered in every neighbourhood. Not that it is perfect – for every Purple Cow in Streatham there is a Tooting-based VERY greasy spoon covered in black mould. Yet Birmingham doesn’t have obvious choices in the city centre (kudos to suburbs like Selly Oak and Moseley for having the requisite greasy-spoon coverage). And what lies there is not necessarily up to snuff.

So in the spirit of adventure, the husband and I have suited up our delicate stomachs every Saturday morn for the past two months to find the best brekkie in the city centre.

The Criteria for our search:

Each venue has to be within a 10 minute walk from our home. Otherwise you are starving and angry. And that wouldn’t do, would it?

The Brasshouse, Broad Street

Pretty forgettable fry-up here (you know the sort, plastic sausages, watery bacon, sachets of brown sauce) mostly ruined by the loud music which was obviously left on the same volume from the night before. The Brasshouse is a strange place; it looks and feels like Witherspoons/ Whitbread/ hotel restaurant, has no discernible character yet seems to think it is a destination pub and enforces a ridiculous dress policy (no trainers, no hats etc) from ridiculous o’clock in the afternoon. You are a restaurant that serves generic beer. Understand that and treat your customers better.

Coffee Lounge

Not having a photo of Coffee Lounge to hand, you’ll just have to imagine it resembles this beautiful 1903 pic of the Flatiron building in New York.

This place is situated in a Flatiron-style Building on the corner of Stephenson Street and Navigation, making it a bit of an unnecessary trek for us BUT if you are taking a morning train journey, it is handily situated by the Victoria Sq entrance to New St station and if you show your ticket, breakfast is 10% cheaper! The breakfast is fine (they even deliver if you’re in the city centre) as is the coffee, the staff are friendly and there is a big screen TV showing the news or sport. Downstairs in the basement, there is a Tardis-like eating space. The loo is a bit weird though; unisex but not very clean and with a strange door that gives the illusion someone could walk in at any moment. Overall, pretty good.

JuJus, Canal Sq, Browning Street

Had high-hopes for this little place as it has come top of the Trip Advisor poll in Brum. It is quite off the beaten track (unless you have a penthouse on Sherbourne Wharf) but easily accessible by water bus. The modern canalside location means there is a light, airy feel which is lovely the morning-after. The restaurant seems immaculate and there are all manner of breakfast dishes. My breakfast hash came served in a frying pan (nice touch) but alas it contained a blond hair (obviously not one of ours) and the eggs weren’t fully cooked. The husband (who was in an especially grumpy mood that day) didn’t like the coffee and had to ask for the very loud music to be turned down. Despite there being hardly anyone in the place (maybe it’s more of a lunch/evening destination), the cheerful service took a rather long time and we left with an underwhelmed feeling. We weren’t sure if they were just resting on their laurels but having so much potential, Ju-Ju’s could do better.

The Figure of Eight, Broad Street

The Figure of Eight’s beer garden.

Yes it’s a Witherspoons pub but that means you get a lot of food for not very much money. We’ve been back here a few times (it’s the closest breakfast joint to our house) and had a full English along with some of their brunch offerings. The food always arrives piping hot, the staff don’t mind if you specify what eggs you would like (even though the menu doesn’t give a choice) and the throngs of hungover party animals that turn up from 11am onwards are very grateful and slowly come back to life before your eyes. Music is not turned on. Coffee is OK. Stick to the English breakfast dishes – I was disappointed by their attempt at Eggs Benedict.

The Floating Coffee Company, Brindley Place

Tried this one last week. The breakfast here is all day (hooray) and there is FILTER COFFEE (hurrah). The food is hot and as my husband pointed out, there’s a lot on the plate, plus toast (yay). The sausages aren’t too bad either. The only things that go against this place are the lack of toilet facilities (you have to go to the ICC across the bridge) and the constant motion, especially when the water bus goes past. It could be an uncomfortable experience after a night out with no bathroom to escape to should it all prove too much. Yet I do like this place. The tiny interior is charming and clean and there is a sense of camaraderie among the diners.

The Canalside Cafe, Gas St Basin

The Canalside is a lovely place to stop in on a walk along the basin. It does cute, hearty veggie dishes and has a retro bistro feel. However, our breakfasts here have been lukewarm and sparse. The bangers are quite ‘plasticky’ and the cafe noticeably cold (it was in the winter), which is a shame because it’s close-by and and a place that does so well on basic, good grub. Hope they can remedy this.

Cafe Gusto, The Mailbox

This place reminds me of being closest to a London breakfast joint. There are papers laid our to read, coffee to go (not FILTER mind), and a myriad of breakfast options. There is allegedly free broadband but this has been on the blink the past few times I’ve been there. Breakfast is OK (the curse of plastic bangers again) and I often leave over-stuffed. Music is low and there is not much chance of being bothered by hungover clubbers which is a good thing. A place to go and read or blog over your breakfast.

Overall, we are still not sure we’ve found our breakfast place yet. Whilst Brum can (just about) manage a decent fry-up, there is precious little in the way of brunch choices (although I’m investigating that this weekend). Maybe I’ve been spoiled by all the American diners and pancake houses I’ve been to which take brunch and even the basic fry-up to an art-form. And whilst some places realize that prompt service and not poking sleeping bears (i.e. the hungover) is the key to giving good breakfast, many of the cafes around Broad St need to understand that breakfast does not demand the atmosphere of a thumping nightclub (witness the demise of Miss Latte). Listen to your customers’ needs.

Miss Latte – Birmingham’s indie breakfast joints aren’t cutting the mustard and the chains are sopping up the leftovers.

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