Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Encounters 0117 Challenge Comes up Trumps for Bristol

The gauntlet laid down before film makers by the Encounters 0117 challenge was straightforward; make a short film about the city of Bristol searching the newly opened M Shed museum for inspiration.  The challenge for entrants was for the film to have no more than 2 minutes 30 seconds running time, and teams had just 117 hours to devise, script, film, edit and complete their project.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to a special screening held on Friday 24th June at the M Shed, of all the submissions, so I could see for myself, along with others, how these imaginative film makers rose to the challenge and captured the essence of Bristol.

I am always impressed with how makers of short films can say more in a few minutes than a Hollywood blockbuster can in two hours. The entrants for this challenge left me in awe of just how much the film makers were able to cram into their finished work. The result was an impressive array of creative films that covered every aspect of Bristol life past and present including;
  • road trip history of cinemas that no longer exist,
  • a look at today's life on Bristol's harbour juxtaposed with it's more murky past
  • stark footage of how Bristol's night life transforms the city
  • an insightful account of the life of  Bristol poet Thomas Chatterton
These subjects and more not only invoked feelings of nostalgia in an old Bristolian such as yours truly, but also gave me some fascinating insights and knowledge of my home town.

As well as a variety of fascinating subjects, entrants displayed some innovative interpretations whether it be comedy, dramatizations or documentary style, as well as some remarkable filming techniques. There has been some amazing use of animation, 3D techniques (Cheers Drive by 3D4ME), and in the case of Prelude and Fuge by a team calling themselves nomadman, some astounding and innovative use of a mobile phone. Here are just some of my favourites (although I enjoyed them all) that left a lasting impression.
  • Alan's Town by Orchard Films; a view of Bristol from one of it's prominent visually impaired residents, who also helped found the Blind Bowlers' Club.
  • Lifted Silver  by Hotwired films; a comic re-enactment of perhaps one of the biggest pranks in fresher week history.
  • On the Bus by Matinai Animation;  a heartfelt animated account of residents' fond memories of riding the bus in post war Bristol.
  • From Where We're From to Where  We Are by Barefoot Banks; through interpretive dance, we see how a community evolves through Bristolian society from one of the city's darker chapters to present day.
  • Kinocave by Kinocave;  a Neanderthal Bristolian has a Nostradamus-esque view of Bristol life after consuming some questionable fungi.
Whilst I have listed favourites, all the entries were  insightful, imaginative, funny, and in some instances brutally honest. To use the old cliché, every film was a winner yet only one could be chosen; congratulations to The Village Bicycles with their entry Wheelers Love Story, a romantic and funny tale examining Bristol as the country's first cycling city. Cycling in Bristol has virtually embedded itself as part of the city's culture and this light hearted film has capturedthat beautifully. The team were presented with a cheque for £1,000 by the Lord Mayor of Bristol.

Visitors and Bristolians alike will soon have the opportunity to see these fantastic films for themselves as they will be featured alongside exhibits at the M Shed. As a special treat however, Encounters have arranged for the films to be shown on the BBC Screen at Bristol's Millennium Square on Saturday 30th July, as part of the Bristol Harbour Festival.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Assilah Gives Bristol a Taste of Morocco

On various occasions the route home from work for me and my partner takes us along (or more accurately, up) the Wells Road. At some  point we would pass this shop front with varnished wood panelling, middle eastern style arches in the windows and in big bold white letters "Assilah - Moroccan Bistro" clearly visible as you pass. It always seemed busy and something about its quaint charm always prompted the odd remark along the lines of "We really should go in there one night". So on Wednesday night (22nd June) we arranged to meet up with friends and give the bistro a try.

Assilah prides itself on conveying as much of the Moroccan feel as possible from its name (based on the town Asilah, perhaps) and the decor as you enter. Wall are adorned with rugs, and musical instruments, including a selection Ouds and drums, as well as a multi-coloured assortment of sashes hanging from the ceiling. The seating area is equally varied and colourful with a choice of wooden benches and seats at a table or in the adjacent room, diners can sit more traditionally down low on moroccan poufs and cushions. Some of it might appear somewhat typical of what passes for authentic Moroccan rather than the real thing yet it is very pleasant as you enter. The only thing that was out of place was the music which sounded more liked a Spanish siesta than the more recognisable tones of the Berber.

The bistro allows you to bring your own drinks to accompany your meal so already there is a cost saving for the diner. The menu lacks variety with both starters and main course, each offering four dishes. I opted for the falafel starter and as someone of Persian origin having been with a raised with a father who cooks the best falafels in his sleep, it was inevitable that this would be heavily scrutinised. The starter was both a disappointment and a treat. I was served two falafels cut in half, some pita bread cut in quarters, a salad in the middle and dressed with hummus and a fruit chutney. The falafels were light, fluffy and full of flavour, but most importantly they were not dry. My only criticism was that there simply wasn't enough of them. The hummus had a slight watery consistency but nevertheless tasted great and combined with everything else on the plate all in all made for a tasty start, although even at £3.90 the portions seemed a little meagre.

Onto the main course and the option that stood out for yours truly was the dish that can only be described as quintessentially Moroccan; the tagine, and so I ordered the lamb tagine. Before you ask, yes the dish is cooked in the traditional manner using a tagine pot. I was presented with sizzling pot with a perfectly succulent lamb shank sitting on a bed of spicy potatoes lentils, peas and carrots all swimming in a fruity spicy sauce. The lamb was perfectly cooked and falling off the bone, whilst the combination of the fruitiness and spice flavours resulted in my taste buds doing a little happy dance in my mouth. The dish could not be faulted as everything was cooked to perfection and at £9.50 was, for me, the star of the table.

On the whole I was enjoyed my visit to Assilah as did everyone else. The food is well cooked, presented and reasonably priced. The starter was a little disappointing but did not let me down on flavour. Whilst I was happy with my dish I did notice some issues with some others. Other dishes were served with couscous and it seemed that there were disagreements about what was wrong with the flavour ranging from bland to a little too sweet. There was however far too much served, almost piled on the plate so much of it was left. I also noticed that with nearly every dish there was a generous serving of sultanas. I know that these form a staple of Moroccan cuisine however to feature them on every meal offered struck me as an attempt to scream authentic Moroccan. Nevertheless it was enjoyable experience and not only would I recommend a visit but I am already looking forward to my next visit.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Casting The Gallery's View on The M Shed Bristol's Newest Attraction

After nearly 5 years in development at a cost close to £25 million the much anticipated M Shed (previously known as the Museum of Bristol) will open it's doors to the public on Friday 17th June 2011. For those who are not aware, the new museum, designed to showcase exhibits and pieces charting the history of living in Bristol, sits within the framework of what used to be the Bristol Industrial Museum located on the city's historic, working docklands. I was privileged to be invited to M Shed for a sneak preview of some of the exhibits and features on show.

The new museum has a distinctively modern feel overall, with any traces of the old industrial museum completely absent. The staircase in the centre of the main hall as you enter seems to almost be suspended in mid air which can be both quite daunting and fascinating.

Here is what M Shed's website has to say about the new museum;
M Shed will explore the city’s history from prehistoric times to the 21st century. Stories about the city and its people have been discovered through working with experts and communities across the city – a process that will continue for the life of the museum.
So essentially this is the story of Bristol through the eyes of the people. What  I was not expecting was the emotional connection I would feel as I made my way from one display to another. The picture below is a display of old notices and literature of local events which might seem like just a collection of trivial memorabilia, especially to those not familiar with the city. The stand out piece for me is the poster advertising the Bristol Harbour Regatta, which took place in July 1980 and what makes this exhibit so special is that I remember attending this particular event.

I was ten years old and the day was an absolute scorcher when my parents brought me down to the harbour. I would stand as close to the edge of the dock as possible to watch the speedboat racing, before getting an Adam Ant style white line across my face and playing on the trampolines. I went home very hot, very tired but so excited I never wanted the day to the end. The regatta, better known today as the Bristol Harbourside Festival, was just as much of an exciting international event back then as it is today. To get a real "then and now" feeling of significant events in the city, made all the more real by personal memories was exciting and surreal.

For many Bristolians like me who have lived much of their lives in the city the M Shed promises a veritable trip down memory lane, such as the one I have recited. Other displays include memorabilia from Wills' Tobacco and Leaf UK (manufacturers of Elizabeth Shaw chocolates and one of my former employers). It examines Bristol life at every aspect from trade (including the city's darker aspects such as the slave trade), to everyday working life. It also looks at Bristolians leisure activities, passions and interests. Whether you love the cinema, music or sports there is something for everyone to peruse.

The M Shed's goal however is as much about celebrating as well as examining life in Bristol. There is plenty of focus on the diverse population that has enriched the city's cultural face, which it displays with a seamless flow. There are stories told by people and accompanying exhibits hailing from different races, nations and religions yet they all blend together as one.

As mentioned earlier the M Shed is also about the city's history of which there is an abundance. Glimpses of exhibits which highlight the city's marine history and innovative aviation influences grace the gallery (look out for a Concorde exhaust) but what is most fascinating is a look at Bristol's history of protest.  A montage of images depicting demonstrations and protests through the ages can be viewed featuring the nobility's protest against the slave trade by boycotting sugar to the birth of the women's suffrage movement, gay rights activism and so on.

There are many other displays, features, interactive panels all of which help to engage and inform any visitor about our amazing city. Some highlights include the Bristol Postcard Project, the affectionately named Bristologon, and many quality photographic portraits and models of the city's landmarks. If there is one slight drawback is that M Shed might mean more to those who have lived in the city for a time than passing visitors. Those who remember the old industrial museum might feel a sense of loss as they enter the now unrecogniseable M Shed but could also experience a new wave of nostalgia. For me it has at times been as much a personal journey as a glimpse of the city's past.

Friday, 3 June 2011

More Blends Join Elite Starbucks Reserve Line Up

It is a safe assumption to make that my excitement at the news of Starbucks launching their reserve blend was akin to that of a giddy schoolboy rushing to the tuck shop. This childlike enthusiasm was fairly well contained in my previous post in which I offered all of you my feelings about this latest venture. Try to imagine my reaction then when my friendly neighbourhood barista at the Bristol Bridge Starbucks informed me of two more blends joining the ranks one of which hailed from the mother of all coffee growing nations; Columbia.

Fair Trade Colombia Asoapia

A quick sip of this fair trade beverage (always a step up in my books) and already you get a herbal hit that smacks your palate, followed by a mild hint of citrus zing. Just when you think that you have tasted the best flavour combinations the roof of your mouth comes alive with a smooth chocolate and nutty undertone. The Asoapia is not strong in flavour but has a noticeable fresh richness. If I were to assign an appropriate reaction it would be a sink into your chair, eyes shut, uttering a satisfactory sigh, akin to what one may feel after sampling a decadent dessert. Of course not wanting to do things by halves my drink was accompanied by a very tasty slice of Starbucks ' hazelnut and chocolate loaf. Since coffee and chocolate are the perfect partners in crime the combination of this lively duo made for a for a very delectable lunchtime coffee break.

Image Credit; John Pavelka via Flick

The Asoapia is a fair trade blend, cultivated by the Asociacian de Cultivadores de Apia Co-operative. The beans are grown in an area of western Colombia surrounded by some of the country's lavish national parks. The protected lands of Natural Tatama, Los Nevados and Paramo De Las Hermosas are rich with a diverse bird population, trees and vegetation that imbues the soil with the right balance of nutrients giving this coffee bean its distinct flavour. Since the land is protected as over farming would most likely deprive the area of everything that gives these parks their Utopian qualities, only a limited crop has been cultivated. This comes very close to outshining my favourite of the reserves, the El Salvador Montecarlos Estate Pacamara.

Ethiopia Ky Kebero

Some of the finest beans, although not necessarily to my taste, do stem from Ethiopia. They always pack a strong flavour but can sometimes be overshadowed by that oh so bitter after taste that has us reaching for the chewing gum/mouth spray (in my case both). I can honestly say that the Ky Kebero (Amharic for "Red Jackal") is the exception to this rule. A quick sip and already your mouth is dancing with a heady mix of citrus, berries and herbs brought even more to life with a smack of pepper. It is an odd sensation in the mouth and is definitely stronger than one might expect from an Ethiopian bean.

Image Credits; Stig Nygaard via flickr

This strength of flavour makes it a beverage best enjoyed on its own, although at the time of drafting this post a part of me was curious as to how well it would couple with a citrus dessert such as a lemon drizzle cake.With temptation resisted, I was fascinated to read that this coffee is farmed near what has been described as the majestically high Bale Mountains. The symbol on the packaging represented the aforementioned Red Jackal, an endangered and rarely seen Ethiopian wolf that dwells high up in the mountains. The bean is harvested and washed using only organic methods, and is produced by yet another co-operative this one located in the Sidamo zone, located south west of the country.

Final Thoughts

I have to admit these latest additions don't quite live up to the high quality of the initial trio of beans, nor did they create they same buzz of excitement. However they do deserve their place in the reserve line up as they are both a few cuts above the regular brews. The Colombia Asoapia is my favourite of the two yet the peppery quality of the KyKebero has curious appeal. Perhaps this will mean more visits to Starbucks Bristol Bridge for more tasting sessions. In case you were wondering, yes the pour over method is also used to brew your special cup.