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Return to Cambridge

After graduating last June, I vowed that I wouldn't be one of those grads who sneak back on a regular basis and basically never leave. And although homesickness - uni-sickness? - did set in around October as idyllic punting and college snaps returned in force to my various social media feeds, I somehow managed to put off my own triumphant return until this month. (We're not going to mention that afternoon back in February when I caved and went back to see my friends for tea and cake in between various freak-outs in the Careers Service Library. Shh.)

One of my very first ventures on this blog was a post about my college's annual formal to mark International Women's Day - a particularly special event as we're a women's college. When the invite for this year's formal landed in my inbox, I didn't need much persuading. And neither did my best friends.

Roxy and I arrived back in the 'Bridge just as the sun was beginning to set, casting a golden glow over King's Parade and Market Square. This is the thing about Cambridge. Even on a rainy day it's stunningly pretty, and an unsuspecting visitor would never associate it with the agonies its students go through (I'll just put it out there: two essays a week and at least five or six 3-hour exams in one week at the end of each year.) I actually felt my chest start to hurt as we arrived in town, which I'm going to chalk down to residual stress palpitations (!)

I'll probably never get over how gorgeous King's College is. I mean, look at it. Ridiculous.

On your left, ladies and gentlemen: Senate House, the scene of my graduation last June. Time and its tendency to fly really does scare me sometimes!

Although when we gathered for formal in the Dome, it felt as if no time had passed at all.

Murray Edwards has stepped up its formal game. And I'm not complaining. (Free alumnae dining rights, y'all.)

Photo courtesy of Clare Cotterill

To start...a salad of purple potatoes, sprouting broccoli and polenta with an avocado dressing.

And for our main, sweet grilled red mullet with chakalaka. I personally thought chakalaka was the part of the egg Norman from the Great British Bake Off advocated removing, but apparently it's an African spiced bean and pepper compote. Yum.

The day before International Women's Day also happened to be Japan Day. Our college is partnered with Tokyo's Kaetsu University and has a Japanese cultural centre attached to it, so we were treated to a brief interlude of Japanese hip-hop dance while we waited for dessert. The dancing definitely brought out my inner East Asian fangirl, nurtured during my Oriental Society days at school and something of a secret since then...

And finally, dessert! Continuing the Land of the Rising Sun theme, we were served honey Castella Cake, a type of Japanese sponge, with mango and passion fruit sorbet, coconut cream and grilled mango slices. This one knocked it out of the park. Easily one of the best desserts I've had at Murray Edwards formal (or any other college formal), the flavour combinations were right up my street. It reminded me a little of a refined version of Thai khao niao mamuang, minus the glutinous rice.

No trip to Murray Edwards is complete without a visit to see the resident college beetles.

In first year Imarin and I got in a tiny bit of trouble for running down here after dinner and taking selfies astride the beetles (endless hijinks with the college art were had through our years at college, I tell you) - totally unaware that there was a CCTV camera fixed on us.

Photo courtesy of Clare Cotterill
We're obviously waaaaay more mature five years down the line...

Photo courtesy of Ran Huo

Cambridge, it's been fun. Let's do it again soon? 

Thank you to Murray Edwards College for providing a delicious New Hall Society formal! It was so lovely to have an excuse to see some of the ladies from my matriculation year group and run around college like an undergrad again. I'm already looking forward to next year! 

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There's a new kid on the block in Soho. The Bone Daddies-owned Shackfuyu is a welcome addition to Old Compton Street, and with its hybrid Japanese-American-Korean-inspired dishes, it epitomises the flavours of the melting pot for which central London is known and loved.

It was the scene for my dinner with a Cambridge friend who I had managed to not see for three years (seriously, time, where do you go?) I'd picked it because I've loved all the other Bone Daddies offerings: the eponymous noodle bar is one of my favourite hangouts, while Flesh and Buns has been privy to an excellent sake-tinged girls' night out. And it turns out that Shackfuyu do the best catch-up food: small plates to fuel the protracted 'tell me what you've been doing for...er, the last three years' chats, as well as providing easy conversation hooks centred around the unusual combination of ingredients on offer. 

My friend is well renowned for his love of spice (in fact, Chili is one of his nicknames...), so one of our dishes had to be the hot stone rice. Quite literally - rice, sweetcorn, piquant chilli and beef mixed up in a giant hot stone bowl, the heat from which causes the rice to take on a crispy texture. The big steaming bowl and the theatre of the mixing reminded me of a traditional Chinese hot pot or Japanese shabushabu! 

Also brought to the table: sweet, unctuous miso aubergine slices that smacked of umami, sprinkled with bubu arare (puffed rice) and seaweed. The kind of dish that makes your knees metamorphose into jelly.

A classic mac and cheese given a Japanese spin with mentaiko (fish roe), plus bacon and cock scratchings. The latter is always bound to provoke giggles, and is particularly brilliant with Bone Daddies' ramen...

My stand-out dish - the 'prawn toast masquerading as okonomiyaki', which also wins best plate name of the evening. I have fond memories of both elements of the dish - I chomped my way through many a prawn toast triangle in the various Chinese restaurants of my childhood, and tried okonomiyaki for the first time on the street in Tokyo. As soon as this plate was set down I knew it was special - the heat from the food makes the bonito flakes on top curl up and dance like Chinese fortune-telling fish. And they weren't just pretty - biting into them produced a 'so crispy I could die' moment.

Fried Korean chicken wings drenched in a thick, spicy sauce. Orange sauce EVERYWHERE. My guest lapped them up, but I think I prefer my wings slightly less spicy and accompanied by blue cheese sauce, celery and curly fries, à la Orange Buffalo. Dammit, I'm hungry again...

And to go with the food, we rolled with a couple of Bone Daddies punches. 

All the dishes were right up my street, but unfortunately, I couldn't eat as much as I would have liked and had a horrible headache, which I initially chalked up to the alcohol. Upsetting, and of course, my dinner guest chided me for not living up to my reputation for hoovering up everything on the table. The confusion was cleared up the next morning, when I realised that I'd caught a nasty infection that had been doing the rounds at work. Fun times! Despite my lack of appetite, I managed to develop food envy over a neighbouring table's kinako French toast with green tea icecream and have since seen it plastered all over Instagram. Which means I'm going to have to do a Bone Daddies and make this pop-up my new Soho go-to. Life is hard, guys...

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The Little Yellow Door

A few weeks ago, I met up with the gorgeous Miho for dinner at a house party...of sorts.

We huddled under an umbrella in the freezing February rain outside an unassuming yellow door outside Notting Hill Gate tube station, waiting to be let in.

The hosts had apparently mixed up their dates, but after a few minutes of conferring they allowed us in anyway. 

We climbed a vertiginous flight of stairs, deposited our coats and dripping brollies at the door and entered the apartment.

If you're a blogger or a blog-reader, you'll almost certainly have heard of The Little Yellow Door and its concept. If not, I'll fill you in. This pop-up opens its doors on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays to any friendly revellers keen to hang out at 'the flat' alongside the 'flatmates' - fellow sufferers of Generation Rent who just love throwing house parties. Their newest flatmate, Luigi, hails from Naples, and he's partial to cooking up a full-fledged Italian feast. 

Miho and I, being lovers of Italian food (obviously!) couldn't wait.

We were first to the party (oops) so had the chance to wander around the space taking photos before any other guests turned up. The flat has a charmingly quirky vibe, furnished with mismatched cushions, little Lego models, 90s CDs and DVDs, questionable art pieces and a sofa upholstered in cow hide. 

We broke the ice with a couple of punch-like drinks - sweet and not too strong - and sat down at a coffee table to sip them and chat as the other guests arrived. We opted to stay at our little table, which Miho nicknamed the marriage table, because we were isolated from the rest of the room in our little romantic bubble, rather than sit at the communal tables. Anti-social, yes, but let me tell you why this was a good call: 1) The dinner consisted of sharing plates and so we didn't have to share with lots of people we didn't know. 2) We weren't squashed in on the benches - instead, we had complete freedom to get up and walk to the bar or the bathroom without having to disturb hordes of other diners. And, best of all...

3) Our little coffee table had the best lighting conditions in the flat - unlike the main tables, which I hear were rather dimly lit. Bloggers 1, rubbish lighting 0.

We perused the various menus (a choice of bar cocktails can be found in the numerous magazines that litter the flat!) and ordered some red wine to go with the meat-laden courses to come.

First course: a lovely sharing platter of antipasti. Smoked beef carpaccio with a mustard dressing and capers, burrata with mint pesto, tomatoes and aubergine, and prosciutto garnished with peach, basil and almonds. Interesting flavour combinations that actually worked and were rather delicious, even though I would have preferred a slightly plumper burrata. I have high expectations of cheese...

More antipasti - mushroom and asparagus arancini nestled on a bed of truffle and porcini mayonnaise. Absolute heaven. It was at this point that I found out that Miho doesn't like mushrooms. It was almost a friendship dealbreaker - but luckily, she polished off her arancini (arancino?!) and all was forgiven.

I loved our primi course - a spiced duck ragú tagliatelle. Seriously, I could have shoved Miho out of the way and gobbled all of this down myself. 

The secondi was also buonissimo - belly porchetta served with caponata, pickled baby veg, capers , sultanas and pine nuts.

The perfect amount of food for a Friday evening.

A couple of the flatmates came over to chat to us about the concept and told us about how in an ideal world, they'd love to open a few more colours of Little Doors across London - and a Little Black Door in New York. And this dude was very impressed with Miho's camera.

Dessert was served at the bars - reminiscent of the little canapés one puts out at a dinner party. 

Sicilian cannelloni of sorts with pistachios, a sticky pine nut caramel tart with marsala raisins, and a fairly alcoholic-tasting chocolate and tiramisu pannacotta in a mini jar! Teeny enough to not feel too indulgent...

I made up for the tiny dolci with this gigantic fishbowl of a cocktail - recommended to me by the hosts after I expressed a penchant for gin and fruit. Honestly, I think it was about the size of my head.

Miho, meanwhile, had a much more refined-looking tazza di tè - Earl Grey-infused gin with lemon and egg white, accompanied by a Jammie Dodger. This one looked polite but had a lethal sting.

After this point the tables emptied out to create much more of a living room party vibe, the music was cranked up and more guests started arriving for Friday night dancing. Things got a little bit hazy, and a few pink-faced selfies may have been taken...

I was very pleasantly surprised by the delicious food and drinks on offer at The Little Yellow Door. You know me - I absolutely love a unique concept, and the house party one here was definitely creative  enough for me to have a wonderful Friday night in excellent company. And funnily enough, I ended up right back at TLYD the very next Friday for a friend's surprise birthday party (therefore experiencing just the drinking and partying aspect of the night). Several milk and cookies cocktails later (yummy and lactose-free - win/win!) I was convinced that TLYD is perfect for those who want to have a drink with their friends in a homely location without the hassle of having to tidy up the next morning. Thank you very much for having me over twice, flatmates - I had a great time!

Disclaimer: The dinner and drinks Miho and I enjoyed at TLYD were complimentary. All opinions remain my own. 

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The Harry Potter Studio Tour

I used to think I was a fairly loyal, clued-up Harry Potter fan. I queued up at midnight for the book releases, have seen all the films at least twice and am a Pottermore member (Ravenclaw and proud). But Alex takes fandom to the next level.

'I want to be a wizard. For real. Wish I could wake up tomorrow and be one.'

These words come from the man himself. I'm not even joking.

I thought it only right to take him to the Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford for his belated Christmas present.

I won't spoil the entire experience for you here - in fact, I can't. There's probably over a thousand objects on display in these studios, where the majority of scenes from the films were shot. Let's just say we spent close to five hours there. Here's the highlights from our visit!

The Great Hall, complete with house points hourglasses, faded medieval murals and bronze tableware awaiting the next feast to magically manifest itself.

There's models and blueprints everywhere for the various rooms at Hogwarts, like this one of the Great Hall. Perfect for people like my boyfriend to spend hours geeking out over...

The centrepiece for the Yule Ball. 

Yellowing engravings hang on the wall of the Leaky Cauldron.

The front gate to my future manor. It'll be protected by Disillusionment Charms, natch.

Wooden four-poster beds with plush velvet drapes in a turret: the only boarding school dorms I'd ever have considered as an alternative to day school. 

As an art historian, I seriously adore the array of paintings in Hogwarts. The prop artists must have had so much fun painting them - for instance, the painting to the bottom left is taken almost directly from a scene of Hogarth's Marriage à la mode, with added wizard's hats...

It's the tiny details I love in the props, from imitation filigree metalwork to hand-painted school crests and lovingly weathered textbooks.

Alex and I hung around Dumbledore's office for way longer than was strictly necessary.

Me feeling Pensieve. *crickets chirping*

From the heights of Dumbledore's triple turret, to the depths of the dreaded dungeons...

A precious vial of Felix felicis, a.k.a. liquid luck!

I'm pretty sure Alex would like Lupin's trunk for his birthday, complete with magic self-ejecting drawers...

...And I'd like the latest model of the Firebolt for my birthday, please.

Someone developed a predilection for Butterbeer.

This makeup kit fascinated me. 

I don't think I'd last two minutes in the Forbidden Forest with all these dudes on the loose...

But Diagon Alley I can just about handle. I can always get behind a little retail therapy...

Please can I live in an apartment above one of these shops? They can't be smaller than the studio flats on Rightmove...

Alex went a bit weak at the knees when he saw the models room.

And the best model of all.

Alex wouldn't leave until we'd identified all the different parts of the set, including the Gryffindor Boys' dorm, Dumbledore's office, the Astronomy Tower, the Great Hall and the Owlery...

'Can we have this in our house? Please?'

And we couldn't resist playing around with our House uniform in the giftshop afterwards. Alex may have been sorted into Hufflepuff on Pottermore, but I reckon having Cambridge as an alma mater guarantees instant access to Ravenclaw!

Congratulations if you made it this far through my most picture-heavy post ever! Suffice to say, if you're a Harry Potter lover, you've got to make the trip out to Watford. From poky cupboard under the stairs to the heights of the Astronomy Tower, the Studio Tour is a must for those hoping for a heavy envelope with a scarlet wax seal to drop through their letterboxes some day...

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