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How to throw an America-proof Halloween Party

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‘You’ll have to step up your game over here. Americans have pretty much seen it all at Halloween.’

This was the response I received when I put forward the idea of throwing a Halloween party to some friends over dinner.

If you have ever read Brummed Out before, you’ll know that I’m rather giddy for Halloween, and consistently disappointed at the lack of Halloween spirit in the UK. Not so in Michigan folks.  Just on my street this week, we’ve had industrial amounts of spider webbing, entire front lawn cemeteries, headless mannequins and a 10ft Wicker Man. All of which were cruelly denied their moment of gory glory by the last minute gales, rain and even a snow flurry that kept Trick or Treaters indoors on Halloween night.

Planning a Halloween party that won’t bore Americans is another beast entirely though.  BUT, we might just have done it on Saturday.  Americans love animatronics. We had no such budget. I was just one girl armed with a roll of garbage bags and a sick imagination. Here is how we threw Little Haunted House on the Prairie…

  1. The Dollar Store/ 99p Shop is your best friend.

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Ravens, skeletons on string, spider webs, spooky holographic pictures, candles, dolls. All can be purchased here and used as the basis for kick-ass Halloween displays. I wired my raven to a twig and perched it in an old lantern, Edgar Allan Poe-style, the holographs were put in normal photo frames to form a spooky picture gallery. The dolls were painted spooky white and their eyes were painted black. Cheap, cheerful, weird wonderful.

  1. Hack your LACK                                                               photo 2                                                                                   Ouija boards are freaky, fact. I used a printable one, some white acrylic paint, and THIS program to trace and paint one onto our cheap IKEA LACK coffee table. It washed off really easily the day afterwards and made people feel all dangerous/ nostalgic (in a 13 year old’s slumber party kinda way) while they were sitting around it.
  1. Copy and Paste

Food labels, apothecary labels, vintage Halloween graphics, invitations. Ideas are all over the internet. Be inspired and print out you faves to use.

4. Get your glow on

photo 8                                                                                               We had a scary unfinished basement and not enough space for the amount of people we invited. Scary basement seemed like a good overflow space but how to get the guests to venture down there?… Aha! Beer + Blacklight. We stashed the kegs downstairs and purchased a big ole 48” blacklight from Spencer’s. We hung blacklight bats from the joists, positioned scary dolls and horror books on the shelves, and used blacklight paint to write quotes from scary movies on the walls (on paper of course – your landlord will not appreciate having to re-rent a permanent murder basement), stuff like THIS and THIS. We also put some dry ice in styofoam coolers (like ‘em? They were pretty fun to make) to seep out eerily in the glow. It didn’t work that well – maybe we’ll add a fog machine next year.

  1. A tree is not just for Christmas

photo 7Black Christmas trees are brilliant. So sophisticated at Christmas, so scary at Halloween. This is decorated purely with rings, tinsel and creatures from Birmingham’s 99p Store (Yup, even the witch at the top – she cackles too!)

  1. Include Obscure Movie References
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I made these ‘devil’s nests’ from True Detective, with twigs, thread and some florist’s moss. The husband made me lock them away because they creeped him out. Mission accomplished.

                                                                                               Chances are, you’ll have one or two movie buffs at the party. They will appreciate a few well placed references, even if the majority of your guests do not. Apart from the quotes in the basement, we displayed my Evil Dead Necronomecon, and I made a sign for the basement, based on the haunted forest from The Wizard of Oz. I included a Black Candle in the bathroom ‘only to be lit by virgins at midnight’ – who didn’t love watching Scary Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus?

  1. ALWAYS do the bathrooms

photo 6                                                                                                As certain as the toilet getting clogged is the fact that your guests will root around in your bathroom cupboards. Give them what they want (no, not the Valium), make some apothecary bottles – a cheap one is sweetcorn and black tea in a jar labelled ‘Old People’s Teeth’. Fill them with different coloured water and there are lots of printable labels on t’internet. A scary holographic picture and lots of cobwebs help. Do clean the shitter though –that’s just good manners.

  1. Include one good scare

photo 3                                                                                                As I just wrote, people get nosy at house parties; they want to know how clean you are. You can exploit this by putting a fake body in the bathtub! If you draw the shower curtain straight across, they will suspect you are hiding something – and you are. The beauty of this is that some people will come out ready to tell everyone about it, and some will make a great effort not to – but the faces always give it away. Either way, you save hundreds on animatronics and you find out who’s a nosy parker!

  1. Make gross-looking food, offer it around –and be prepared to eat it yourself!
Split Cockroaches: dates stuffed with honey and walnuts - for that gooey but crunchy feel.

Split Cockroaches: dates stuffed with honey and walnuts – for that gooey but crunchy feel.

This year, I plumped for making Used Q-Tips, a Dirty Ashtray, Split Cockroaches and Jello Worms. The worms looked so real that people wouldn’t eat them so Mr D and myself downed a fair few just for the disgusting factor. It’s always good to circulate with these dishes as it makes people feel looked after – or victimised: tomato-tomato.

10. Don’t scrimp on the alcohol

Jello-shots turn up in the weirdest places.

Jello-shots turn up in the weirdest places.

Halloween is the perfect time to wash a latex glove, fill it with water, freeze it, then empty it into some brightly coloured spiked punch, try to make some non-alcoholic punch for the kids too – they appreciate doing what the grown-ups do. If you’ve ever wanted to try pumpkin ale, now is the time. Jelly-shots, and Bombay Bad Bears (gummies soaked in gin) are also good adult Treats. Just be prepared for the consequences. I’ve only just finished clearing up and it’s three days later…

Oh, and the garbage bags…?

Well, apart from clearing up the debris (those jelly-shots got everywhere),  they make pretty awesome decorations – and fake corpses. Thank you Martha Stewart (yikes, can’t believe that just happened).


Heads Up! Sushi Passion Expands Into Great Western Arcade

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Sushi Passion: I took this photo when it was still a very new business but it has since taken off (hooray).

Promised I’d keep an eye on the place, didn’t I?

There was a very heartening post on the Facebook feed this afternoon. One of the best foodie destinations in Birmingham is expanding.

Sushi Passion has been a big hit since it set up a tiny bar among the fish mongers of the Bullring’s Indoor Market.

It was a plucky, bold move for Adam the owner, who as mentioned in previous posts, was always the best chef at Yo Sushi’s former Brindley Place location. Adam struck out on his own, making amazingly presented, high quality sushi with a true foodie sensibility.

He received Facebook flack for setting up in the market and answered back valiantly.  Were they kidding? This is the best place to be, surrounded by ingredients at their freshest. Half the fun of shopping at London’s Borough Market is visiting the food stalls inside.

Thankfully  lots of us saw that this was a good thing and Sushi Passion had regular lunch queues and loyal customers. Customers who are about to be very happy with the news that Sushi Passion is setting up shop in the Great Western Arcade.

From August, Unit 31 will be open for sushi galore. There will be the familiar bar up front as well as low traditional tables and instructions on how to eat and what to order from the staff.

Adam is a very inventive chef so expect lots of specials.

This is good news for the Great Western Arcade, situated in an area that unlike Grand Central or the Mailbox, is not seeing an influx of city investment.

But with Sushi Passion joining the ranks of the Loki Wine Tasting House,  the Whisky Shop, Anderson & Hill and The Bread Collection, the Arcade is fast becoming a viable foodie destination in Brum.

And best of all, Adam assures me that the Bullring sushi bar is going nowhere. Bonus foodie points.





Lunch of the week.

lunch lost and found

What: A pulled-pork pitta, with baked apples and onion marmalade, served with a homemade slaw, mustard-dressed salad and a side order of truffle macaroni cheese. Really good-sized portion!

Where: Lost & Found on Bennett’s Hill

With: My brother on an emergency shopping trip. Yes, there is such a thing.

The Drink: A Smokey Joe cocktail made from Buffalo Trace bourbon, Hickory smoked Pepsi cola (!),  Black walnut bitters and Maple Syrup. Sounds like Beyonce’s pre-tour diet but was actually really complex and tasty.

Smokey Joe @ Lost & Found

Smokey Joe @ Lost & Found

The Cost: £15 pp

In Praise of Birmingham’s Markets

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I’ve been spending every other weekend in London of late (the husband has moved there for work) and as a cash-strapped bucket-list, I’ve made it my mission to visit all of London’s most favorite market places, just to soak up the atmosphere, browse the wares and take colourful photos.

I’ve been to the trendy one (Spitalfields), the crowded one (Portobello), the gourmet one (Borough), the sneezy one (Columbia Road Flower Market), the spicy one (Brick Lane) and I intend to get round as many as I can – I’m even going to the stinky one (Billingsgate – by 5.30am most of the stock is gone leaving just the fruity language).

Trawling the London market stalls has got me thinking about Birmingham’s markets. I’ve always loved visiting the huge Bullring market complex that comprises the Indoor market, the Rag Market and the Open Fruit and Veg Market just outside.

Because of Brum’s rich cultural diversity, the market stalls contain items be they sari material, spices or fruit from all over the world. The home grown stuff is also fab and I particularly enjoy popping down to the Indoor Market whenever I’m in need of fish.

In other ways, I feel the markets could ‘tweak’ some aspects that would make them a destination in themselves and not just a delight to be discovered by those who live in town.

Things I Love About Brum Markets
The Banter – particularly at the fish stalls and the Open Market, the stall-holders will vie for your attentions and that means they are in the mood to haggle (hooray!).

At Columbia Road a couple of weeks ago I heard this gem: ‘Do you know where you’ll be in an hour? I’ll be at Heathrow getting on a plane and I don’t wanna take all these lover-ly flowers. So quick, buy em!’ While another seller just yodelled like Tarzan…

Fresh Produce – There’s nothing like getting up early and getting down to the market. The earlier the better (as I learnt living in Florence, the flies sleep in a bit). Also, the fish will be properly gutted, even filleted for you if you like and at a waaaaay better cost than you’ll find at the supermarket.
Fish Stall
As we’re having a bit of a heat wave, wouldn’t these bad boys look good boiling away in a broth on the barbecue?
shell fish
Cheap as Chips – I used to come here if I had to dress up for one of those dreaded themed bar-crawls. And it didn’t disappoint. There are loads of cheap materials for budget-conscious dress makers, cheap make-up (a British market staple), and a fabulous haberdashers Pete’s Sew Good which I’ve often used.

Pete's Sew Good: thank God for haberdashers in these times of make do and mend.

Pete’s Sew Good: thank God for haberdashers in these times of make do and mend.

Also the market helps no end on my wedding anniversary because we do themed gifts each year with a £10 budget. This year was leather (no sniggering please) and I found some leather shoe insoles for £2 (yup, romance is definitely not dead) at the always surprising hardware stall – something which every market worth its salt should have btw.

If you've never had to buy a plunger you're not as independent as you think you are.

If you’ve never had to buy a plunger you’re not as independent as you think you are.


Scallions next to mooli - this sums up the role of the veg market.

Scallions next to mooli – this sums up the role of the veg market.

No not the dance troupe (honestly)… Markets should always pair the familiar with the exotic and Birmingham does a great job with this. Otherwise, how would we find out about new things? But you can still find all the comforting staples of traditional British cooking such as root veggies:

All you need for a good stew: leeks, parsnips and swedes.

All you need for a good stew: leeks, parsnips and swedes.

and er, tripe…

Although it's THE street food in Tuscany, I dare Glynn Purnell to come up with a way to make tripe appetising.

Although it’s THE street food in Tuscany, I dare Glynn Purnell to come up with a way to make tripe appetising.

The Relationship between chef and produce – the area around Borough Market in London is a foodie paradise. The ingredients travel straight from the stall to the kitchen in next to no time. One person who understands this is Adam from Sushi Passion which stands in the Indoor Market. I remember Adam from his time at Yo Sushi in Brindley Place and he was always busy and industrious. His efforts going solo seem to be paying off as there are always customers queuing for his beautifully presented sushi, especially on Saturdays.

Sushi Passion: I took this photo when it was still a very new business but it has since taken off (hooray).

Sushi Passion: I took this photo when it was still a very new business but it has since taken off (hooray).

Recently on Facebook, Adam said he had received criticism for setting up in the market but I actually think this is a wonderful place for a food stand – it’s a hard-core foodie move, like including a ‘chef’s table’ and customers will certainly feel the connection between what is on the plate and where it comes from. I for one, would welcome more restaurants inside the market.

Things I Wish Brum Markets Would Do
A Weekly Gormet Market – We get some good periodic food festivals here in Brum, although in recent years there hasn’t been a sure-footed direction in terms of what should be celebrated – which in turn has led to less food fests.
Why not sort this out buy using the Open Market on Sunday and Monday when the regular stall-holders have their days off? Sunday markets are a London tradition which has continued from the days of Jewish immigrants to the present (think Brick Lane and Columbia Road which both occur on Sundays).

Let the bi-monthly Farmer’s Markets become a weekly event and centre it here. Let some of the fab Birmingham delis such as Lewis’ and Nima out in Moseley bring some of their offerings to the centre. Likewise, we have wonderful bakers such as Lucky 13 Bakehouse and Frost & Snow (who I know do stands), not to mention the baked goods on display at the Brum Uni farmers market. Borough Market attracts huge Saturday morning crowds for this very reason.

Dairy and bakes at the Indoor market

Dairy and bakes at the Indoor market

A Weekly Street Food Market – street food has become a British success story in recent years. Birmingham has some brilliant permanent stands itself such as Chilacas in Brindley Place (would we have seen street food take up a high profile restaurant spot even 5 years ago?) and our curries are internationally celebrated.

The Digbeth Dining Club operates a small but thriving street food market on Friday night under the railway arches in Digbeth, but they currently have to rotate the stalls (I’m not sure if this to prevent the club stagnating or if they just don’t have the space) but why not expand it and bring it to the city centre? As visitor figures for the German Christmas Market have shown, there is an appetite for this type of event.

Display Food like a Renaissance Painting –
This is how mushrooms are displayed at Borough market:photo (46)
and this is how veggies are displayed at one stall in the Open Market:
photoNot quite the same effect, is it? I like fruit and veg to tumble in abundance (oo-er, getting a bit Nigella food-porny here). It begs you to reach out and touch the produce (which is good market practice to check for ripeness).
Don’t get me wrong, Birmingham’s markets are doing just peachy without making any of these changes. It’s just my fantasy market, that’s all.

But who knows, maybe they could increase Brum’s fortunes…
fortune teller

Brum’s Best Beer Gardens

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public domain image

You know how it is, we wait months for a sunny day then two come along on consecutive days.

Everyone rushes out to take in the Vitamin D.

‘This is it’ they cry.

‘Summer is finally here!’

You rush out to buy a new summer wardrobe, you debate buying a gas barbecue. You debate building an outside wood burning pizza oven.

Then suddenly, as quickly as it arrived our ‘Summer’ is over and we are once more flung back into the overcast existence of typically British weather.

The point is at the moment we should seize the sunny days as they occur. With this in mind here are my top five Birmingham beer gardens ahead of this weekend’s May Bank Holiday.

The ever so cool beer garden at The Lord Clifden is more fun than it sounds.

The ever so cool beer garden at The Lord Clifden is more fun than it sounds.

I wasn’t sure about this place in the Jewellery Quarter until recently. With its abundant collection of modern art (including a Banksy no less!), too-cool-for-school clientele such as Damian Hirst and Observer Food Award, I thought it would be trendy to the point of alienation. I’m half expecting Proudlock and Phoebe from Made In Chelsea to make a special Shoreditch-lite pilgrimage at some point.

But it turns out this beer garden is held in good regard by locals for a reason. Lots of seating space, a ping pong table, a constantly repainted/ graffiti-clad/ muralised  post box and its own beer make for a decent afternoon.

Apparently the garden has just had a makeover and if you want to want to check it out then you’re just in time for one of their Kitchen Disco parties this weekend on Sunday 26th. Entrance is free and from 2pm sounds and BBQ smells will be emanating from the garden. Roasts will also be on until 9pm too.

The good news is that there will be music events in the garden all summer providing a good opportunity to take a chance on this local institution.

The Figure of Eight's beer garden.

The Figure of Eight’s beer garden.

Now, now – we mustn’t get snotty about this being a Witherspoon place. For all the branding, they do at least keep pubs running that would have gone under as indies.

I have included this on the list because it does have the biggest beer garden in the city centre and a rather nice one at that. It was right around the corner from where I used to live. The drinks and food were cheap, there were never any fights, it was well-lit in the evenings and it was just an easy-going place to hang out which is all you can ask from a beer garden. Enjoy.

Jekyll & Hyde's beer garden has and Alice In Wonderland theme. Photo courtesy of

Jekyll & Hyde’s beer garden has and Alice In Wonderland theme. Photo courtesy of

As regular readers will know, this is one of my favorite bars in the city. It has a tiny beer (or should that be gin) garden out back with twinkly lights and Lewis Carroll murals. It gets crowded so best for an early drinking session (but that just means it can be first stop on your bar crawl).

This bank holiday it will unusually be open on Sunday (26th) but not Monday and there will be lots of Blues/ Motown/ Loft music all weekend (here’s a handy link to what’s occurring on which night).

OK, girls might appreciate this particular page of J&H's cocktail book more than any red-blooded males out there but it does give you an idea of the inventiveness on offer.

OK, girls might appreciate this particular page of J&H’s cocktail book more than any red-blooded males out there but it does give you an idea of the inventiveness on offer.

They also have what I consider to be the BEST BANK HOLIDAY DEAL  – £4 cocktails have been extended to all day and night on Saturday and all night on Sunday so a good opportunity to grab a whole bunch of the best gin & tonics in town!

Beer garden at The Prince of Wales. It is a pretty extraordinary place.

Beer garden at The Prince of Wales. It is a pretty extraordinary place.

When it’s a bonafide sunny afternoon in Brum, I like to go to the epicenter of pub garden awesomeness and that means Moseley Village. Just a 15 minute hop on the No. 1 bus from Town Hall or Broad Street and you are transported to Birmingham’s liveliest suburb.

The Prince should be on the list of best pub gardens in Britain, never mind Brum. For it is not just somewhere to take your pint and sit, it is a veritable beer garden complex not unlike the beer gardens in Munich’s English Gardens yet this is way more British in its eccentricity.

It's wine in a shed - how could you not love this place?

It’s wine in a shed – how could you not love this place?

Not only is there a ridiculously huge amount of seating but you are covered in the event of a downpour, you are heated in the event of a strong breeze and you are table-served in the event of sheer laziness.

It gets even better: dry ice cocktails at the Mo Tiki bar.

It gets even better: dry ice cocktails at the Mo Tiki bar.

I know, brilliant, right? Well it doesn’t stop there. Within the garden is a wine bar (Shed du Vin), a cigar bar and a Tiki cocktail bar. All this and a stage for the inevitable folk band performances (well, it is Moseley). There is a definite party atmosphere here which is really infectious – I dare you to come here and not have a good time. No really, I have some great dares lined up. Bring it!

A mere 2 minute stroll down the street from the Prince is this Mitchell’s & Butler’s owned (though you wouldn’t guess it) city boozer with another A1 beer garden in the rear. I told you – Moseley does this sort of thing better than most places.


     You remember at school when there was an annual Parents’ Committee barbecue and it was held at the farm of one of your friend’s dads? No? Just me then. Well, this beer garden reminds me of those kind of barbecues.

So many nooks and crannies to hide out in this place. I once took shelter on a leather couch in a barn here! There are the obligatory fairy lights, the music, the occasional hog roast. Like The Prince it is a really great place to while away the evening. And people mingle good-naturedly, a bit like parents at a barbecue.

And a special mention goes to…

  • The sun terrace at the top of The Cube
Spectacular view from the top of The Cube and it's slightly closer to the sun.

Spectacular view from the top of The Cube and it’s slightly closer to the sun.

Although I’ve heard mixed reviews of the Marco Pierre White restaurant attached, the terrace is pretty stunning. I’ve only been there at night and was not so impressed by the cocktails (or some of the clientele) but my old hairdresser told me that  she and her colleagues would retire there during sunny lunch hours to have a beer and sit outside.

Thinking outside the box, it could be worth a go.

Happy bank holiday folks, have a good time and maybe I’ll see you at one of the above 🙂 .

Are these the best cupcakes in the world? Quite possibly!

(clockwise from left) lemon & Earl Grey, Chocolate and vanilla, red velvet, double chocolate, strawberry and vanilla bean.

Ok, ok, I couldn’t resist. I have to get through the next few days before the move. And in order to do this and not go mad, treats and goals seem like a good idea.

So I forwent the delights of the Brum Christmas Market, yesterday and instead invested in these 6 glorious cuppies from my favorite Frost & Snow. Since I’m leaving the city next week, I thought I’d big them up one last time as they do such a wonderful job creating lovely lovely things and also helping the homeless get back on their feet and find a skill.

The thing that first drew me to these particular cupcakes was the exquisite icing in the shape of a rose. And talking to the man at the stand in the Bull Ring this afternoon, I heard that the bakery are now offering icing workshops. I know a few talented amateur bakers in the city who would love this as a Christmas present. It might also be a great idea for a classier hen do than Broad Street currently offers.

The husband and I have already demolished 3 in the same way we demolish french macarons (straight down the middle). I’m a big fan of the Lemon & Earl Grey (though it doesn’t do me any good health-wise) but he went into a food coma over the strawberry because it goes against the normal cupcake practice of vanilla sponge paired with dodgy fake strawberry icing. Instead there are strawberries in the sponge and the icing is a soft vanilla. Yum bloody yum.

I think it will be hard to usurp the macaron from it’s pole position in my mind’s Dessert Hall of Fame but Frost & Snow are definitely giving it their best shot.

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 […]

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