2017 in Numbers

1 broken finger, 7 new countries, 32 books read, 63 selfies, 95 Instagram photos (only 28 of which were food!), 80 Crossfit classes, and 3669km travelled by foot. 

“Space I can recover. Time, never.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

And now for 2018.

2016 in numbers

2 broken fingers, 6 new countries, 39 books read, 63 selfies, 92 instagram photos (only 44 of which were food!), 95 crossfit classes, and 3678km travelled by foot. 

“Let all your efforts to be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It’s not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad.” – Seneca

And now for 2017…

New year new things

In somewhat typical fashion, the coming of a new year makes you reëvaluate what you’re doing a little bit more, and rescrutinise any previous goals you may have had. Substituting them for more challenging, more trackable, or maybe even more socially acceptable goals. 2016 will be the year of more, more books read, more exciting meals cooked, and more glorious wine drank. I think I’ll leave it at that for now. More is about as trackable as I’d like to get at this interestingly bleak and surprisingly rainy stage of the year. 

And so on that note, and with a healthy supply of new cook books from Christmas, I want to jump back into exciting spicy food. Not only did I get the excellent 101 Easy Asian Recipes by Lucky Peach, but also the Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Danny Bowien. Can you sense a theme here? The Mission Food book follows on from the frankly wonderful Mission Street Food that I’ve been poring over and thoroughly enjoying for the last year. The theme of ‘hey let’s make some fucking tasty-ass food that we want to eat on our days off‘ never gets old. Now that I’ve acquired even more ridiculous levels of kitchen equipment (new gallery pieces include a vitamix and a cast iron skillet…) I’d like to say that there’s no excuse, but then I’m sure I can find some. I have by my feet a bag of exceptionally Asian groceries from New Loon Moon (this bag does primarily consist of different chilli based products (gochugaru, doubiangjiang, ma la chilli oil, chilli crisp)) so I guess something (spicy?) will emerge on the other side of this evening. 

And on a vaguely related note to this, it’s great reading some of these books and hearing how I’m not the only one totally obsessed with numbing spice/Szechuan/sansho pepper. See earlier post from a couple years back for more info. Anyway, it’s mystifying stuff. Eat/taste/read/discover it as you will. 

Currently reading: 1Q84 by Murakami

Cold brew coffee experimentation

After visiting Bluebottle Coffee in SF, trying out their cold brew awesomeness and subsequently seeing this whole cold brew thing blowing up across the California coast I had to give it a go.

The big coffee drippers at bluebottle are these amazing steampunk-esque brass looking behemoths. They drop cold (presumably filtered) water over loosely packed coffee grounds at a couple drips a minute. It probably takes in the region of 12-24 hrs for a complete batch to ‘brew’, but it looks amazing and tastes even better!

I figured I had to try it for myself. Cue playing around with a Hario V60 and some plastic bottles. The hardest part to make was the dripper – I needed something super slow, but reliable. I didn’t want it to stop part way through a 12 hr brew obviously. Also low tech is far more exciting. So I cut the bottom off of one of those 2 litre water bottles, and then cut it in half, and put the top end upside down in the bottom half – making a sort of supported funnel. I then made a pin/needle sized hole in the cap of the bottle, testing it a few times to make sure that a sufficiently slow flow of water got through.


This was then positioned over my Hario V60 with lots of pourover ground coffee in the filter. And then this was delicately balanced on a jug to collect this awesome cold brew. I poured some water in, and waited. And waited. It took a while, like 30 mins before anything came thru, but it was working. At this point I decided to say fuck it, stop watching it and go to sleep.

Next morning, let’s say 12 hours later, it was done. 300mls of cold brew. It had that great almost nutty and ester-y aroma that I’d come to expect, and with a couple ice cubes in it, it was grand. Easy to do, just took a little while. Maybe I’ll try a little lower effort method next time!


So just what is a new customer?

In my recent work, and in the industry that I’m involved in, the words new, existing, customer, and unique get thrown around rather frequently. And frequently, their usage is incorrect. Marketers, advertisers and publishers know what they want (generally), but they for sure do not know how to express it.

These are all terms bandied around in internet advertising. For obvious reasons people want to target their customers and give them different promotions or ad campaigns than brand new 1st time (unique) visitors to a site. It’s simple. Serve one campaign to people who have bought something before, and serve another to people who haven’t. So you segment based on whether that individual visitor is a customer, or not.

But then you want to get a little more specific, what about those people who’ve been in, on and around the site a couple times, but haven’t actually purchased (so they’re not technically customers). Should you treat them differently to the people who’ve just come there for the first time? Answer: Sure, you can, so why not give them something more targeted and specific. So now it’s a little more complicated, you’ve split up the traffic into customers and non customers, and then the non customer traffic into unique and returning – obviously you can drill down into the specifics of the returners’ sessions, but let’s keep it simple for now – okay?

So you understand where we’ve got to so far? Great. Now here come the problems? So I’d frequently get asked to target a campaign at ‘new customers‘. Great, so who exactly is that? The new implies that it’s their first time to the site maybe? The customers definitively implies that they’ve purchased before. So you want me to target people who’ve never been to the site, but have somehow managed to purchase something before? How does that even work? And then on top of this, you get requests for more segmenting – “We’d like to target the existing customers with a different campaign“.

So now somehow we’ve segmented the customer category into existing customers, and new customers. i.e. customers that have purchased before (so… just regular customers) and customers that haven’t (so… not really customers). What?

So, I beg you, before you embark on requesting ridiculous and/or impossible customer segmentation from your agency. Know your terminology:

A unique visitor: A first timer.
A returning visitor: A visitor that has been to the site before, who may or may not have purchased.
A customer: A visitor that has purchased previously.
An existing customer: The same as a customer. See above.
A new customer: THIS DOESN’T EXIST. Think about it.

p.s./closing footnote: Customers can, of course, be segmented. This can be done many ways; time to purchase, number of purchases, time since last purchase, but, sadly, not new vs. existing. Sorry.

Understanding Sansho/Szechuan Pepper

So this is maybe a little bit of a different sort of subject to what I usually go for, but it’s something that’s interested me, and I always felt that it’s totally un/under-appreciated in British society.

Since being in Japan a year or so ago, I’ve come to appreciate these different sorts of spices and flavourings that are used frequently over there, but have largely been ignored here in the West. One in particular here is the szechuan/sichuan peppercorn (called sanshō in Japanese). I came across it primarily in two dishes while I was there, both Chinese inspired (or just plain Chinese) but largely interpreted and used in Japanese cuisine often now, Mápó dòufu/mābō dōfu (see Wikipedia) and a particularly spicy ramen at a place I found in Kanda. In these two dishes, sanshō pepper was used to particular effect to enhance the sensory experience of the dish, providing a somewhat numbing and gradually building spiciness – something which I hadn’t really experienced before.

So turning to my favourite (and what I consider the definitive) book on food and food etymology, On Food and Cooking, I read this:

The Chinese spice known as Sichuan pepper and the Japanese sanshō both offer a strange and interesting version of pungency. They come from two small trees in the citrus family sometimes called “prickly ash.” Sichuan pepper trees are Zanthoxylum simulans or Z. bungeanum, and sanshō trees are Zanthoxylum piperitum. The spices are the small dried fruit rinds, which are aromatic with lemony citronellal and citronellol. The pungent compounds, the sanshools, are members of the same family as pipeline from black pepper and capsaicin from chills. But the sanshools aren’t simply pungent. They produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools appear to act on several different nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion.

Super interesting right? It’s a super weird little spice. While being called a pepper or a peppercorn, it’s not really, just dried (and then crushed) fruit rinds. So I came across this stuff as part of a mix in this ramen joint called Kikanbou in Kanda (lots of info on Ramen Adventures), a place where you get to choose the amount (both on scales out of 10) of regular spice and numbing spice (the aforementioned sanshō) in your bowl of ramen. It maybe comes across as a little gimmickish, but I assure you, it’s not. Both of those scales are pretty legit, and pretty spicy.

So when I got home from Japan in December of last year, the first thing that I wanted to do was to subject my family (who ordinarily are fans of hot peppers, hot sauce, and pretty much anything else hot – we grew habaneros, jalapeños, hungarian wax and serrano peppers in Scotland, and had a bottle of sriracha on the table at most meals) to the wonders of sanshō pepper. What better way to do this than with some homemade and awesome mābō dōfu.

mābō dōfu

I used a combination of a couple recipes on the internet – I always find following just one recipe silly, especially when most of the recipes that I am going to read will be Western interpretations of the dish. Surely I should maximise my understanding of the methods, ingredients and techniques by reading around the recipe and going from there. Try it – it works pretty well. One video that did help (and in general is pretty good with Japanese cooking) was the Cooking with Dog mābō dōfu recipe – worth a look for sure, especially with the unnecessariyness of the dog in the video. Getting some of the ingredients (the tough things to find were the Doubanjiang, the Tian Mian Jiang and the Sichuan Pepper) was a little challenging at first, but the local asian food store helped out. The result was pretty good, and not knowing how spicy it was going to be, everyone tucked in.

Everyone loved it, though did comment on the unique taste, which I believe to be from the sweet bean paste, and the interesting sensation on their tongue as the meal progressed. By the end, we pretty much felt exactly what was described in McGee – like a slightly burning or fizzing sensation on tongues, so much so that when drinking still water, it had the sensation of carbonated water. Just so bizarre! I’m not sure that by the end of the meal everyone felt content with their tongues on fire in a new way, but hey, that’s how it goes. Turns out that I had a lot of Sichuan pepper left at the end of the meal, and what better to do with it than put it in a regular pepper grinder and try it out with many more meals (potentially tricking more unknowing family members and guests in the process).

Closing notes. It’s an interesting spice. It smells very fruity, probably because of the citronellal/ol, and almost in the same way as gin. A kind of botanical/juniper fruitiness I guess. This led me to trying it in gin and tonics, with a slice of cucumber (in place of black pepper) to much success. It’s a little different, but if you have some adventurous guests, they’ll love it. It’s also fantastic with eggs, and especially morning omelettes, but then anything spicy is… All in all, I would highly suggest trying it out, and incorporating some Sichuan pepper into your diet, even just to add another dimension of taste and spice.

120 Love

Well it seems to me that I’ve not really written anything particularly in-depth about photography in a while, and this needed to change. I guess I had been ranting at people (in-person) about various little intricacies of old film, TLRs, and other interesting camera things that frankly they didn’t want to hear, and this would be far better suited to appear on here. So here goes.

I had a 120 film epiphany this week. You know the medium format film with no sprocket holes and the annoying backing paper that some people hate and others love? Yep, that kind of film. I guess you either a) don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, b) assumed that kind of film was long gone, or c) totally agree with what I’m about to say.

It’s expensive film, it’s cumbersome, and it’s even more expensive to purchase a decent camera that actually can shoot this sort of film well. But boy are the results worth it. Those negatives! Those big big negatives! So contrasty, so huge in comparison to the paltry little 35mm things. Let me explain.

I was raised mainly on digital. Obviously like any good kid born in the late 80s I had a pretty good idea what film was. I even had a film camera at some point, but digital (and 1.3 Megapixels at that) was when I really started getting into it. Fast forward a couple years and I have some fairly good digital camera equipment, my 5D3 takes some crazy good pictures, but I still play around with film now and then. Just for fun, just to try it out, and just so I can get that feeling of surprise when I look at the developed film, and all those great memories from the past roll come gushing back.

So I get this box one day when my Dad had been cleaning out his room. It’s got a lot of old films in it. The vast majority expired in the 1970s in fact – 1977 in particular. And a great deal of it (I’m talking 20 rolls here) is of course Kodachrome, which, guess what, they stopped developing a couple years ago. Damn. If only this box had been uncovered in the noughties. So forgetting about the Kodachrome for a while, I focussed my attention on some of those 120 roll films in there, some Tri-X, some FP4, some old Agfachrome and heck, even some Velvia 50. I wish I had a camera around to shoot them at the time. The long since sold Pentax 6×7 was the beast that used to shoot this kinda stuff – and how I wish I had that around to test it out now.


So once again, time passed a little and I forgot about all those great films that were just sitting there all unused and unhappy, and I figured I should probably go out of my way a little to get a camera and shoot them. I had a Holga around that would happily take 120, though I had been using some sponges and a bunch of black tape to shoot 35mm in it for the recent couple months. I’m more of the control freaky type when it comes to exposing pictures (film being somewhat of an expensive luxury this day and age), so while I did put a couple rolls though it, I never felt completely in control. Suffice to say though, with a little light, and a little time in the darkroom, I did manage to get some reasonable shots with FP4 – see above and below.


But I wanted more control. Preferably without the cost of a Hasselblad, Mamiya, or even a Pentax 67. Yes, they’re obviously good and literally worth their weight in gold (especially the Mamiya), but I just wanted to use up a few rolls of film and test the water so to speak. So I happened upon a cheap little Russian made TLR, the Lomo Lubitel. It’s kind of old, though they’re now being a little revived with Lomography, pretty much made of bakelite, and has a wonderful glass (I think) 3-element lens. Focussing is tough, the build quality is pretty shitty, but it does have a waist level viewfinder, and that is sorta fun. I managed to pick one up fairly cheap from ebay, so I figured it would work to get to know this 120 film.

Shadows on Orchard Wall

And it did. Yes there were a fair few dud shots where, well, the focussing didn’t really go as it was supposed to, and there was that roll of ISO 400 Tri-X, that had kinda slowed down after all those years, so wasn’t quite 400 speed film any more, and kinda produced a pretty black roll. I will investigate that later though. But with FP4 that had actually held its ISO 125 speed over the years, I got some of these great shots (see above and the two below). It seemed to work best in pretty bright almost direct sunlight, shooting with a pretty high f-stop, just to minimise that parfocal distance (essentially to take focussing out of the equation). But when it worked, it worked wonders. These negatives looked great out of the camera, and when scanned, I was even more pleasantly impressed.

Self portrait 1

The resolution is really quite staggering. This seemingly shitty Russian made lens is resolving the detail pretty well (albeit in fairly ideal high f-stop situations) and the 35 year old film is holding up super well and producing some really nice contrast and gradation. Sure, you can pick up the noise, but this was miles beyond what I was expecting. I suppose the next step now would be to take some more photos. Maybe even rate that Tri-X super slow and get some results, and maybe, just maybe, think about how great the results could be with a better medium format camera, and new medium format film. Watch this space for more. Coming soon.

Self portrait 2

FYI, the photos shown are all Ilford FP4 (ISO 125) in 120 format (expired in 1977 or so) shot in 6×6 on a Holga 120N (first 2) and a Lomo Lubitel 166U (last three). Developed in 1:100 Rodinol for 20 minutes with medium agitation (3 inversions + taps every 2 minutes). Scanned at 6400dpi on an Epson V500.