The coffee moment

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the Freud Museum in Hampstead.

I was in my element. I got to potter around half a dozen rooms packed to the gills with mementos, curios, antiquities and furnishings that belonged to the great Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. It took me right back to my psychology studies at university and as I listened to the audio guide and wandered through each room, I marvelled at how one man and his ‘couch’ (below) could remain so relevant for so long – his methods are still at the heart of many of the ways and means we use to handle the world we live in today.

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Two hours later, and with a head full of Freud (make of that what you will), I headed back down to the main road to have lunch, enjoying a tasty meal then settling in to read for a bit while I drank my coffee.

But the coffee was awful. Bitter and watery and absolutely undrinkable. So I returned it to the waitress, paid the bill (sans coffee but I did leave a tip – after all, my return was well-handled and the rest of the meal was great) and walked down to the bus stop.

I’d been standing there for a few minutes when it occurred to me that I had let the ‘coffee moment’ go.

It might seem a strange thing to say. There had been no shouting nor were there any angry exchanges and the whole thing was dealt with very smoothly.  But I’d had a plan – to enjoy some reading time over a nice cup of coffee – and that had been thwarted. I did not get a nice coffee and I’d left rather than stay to read. If things had been handled in a similar way previously, by now I would have be stewing over the whole incident, despite telling myself not to. And even though I’d try to get over it, past it or whatever, it would have put a definite dent in my day.

But it didn’t. I’d let it go. Even thinking about it again did not wind me up. It was just something that had happened.

I got on the bus and as we trundled along Finchley Road I found myself wondering, could there really be something in this mindfulness caper?  Let me explain.

About five weeks ago, I went to an Introduction to Mindfulness workshop. It was offered as part of my outplacement and it turned out to be quite interesting: Lots of discussion about what it was, questions about what we thought we might get from it (or not for the cynics among us) and information about the science of it.

Just in case you’re wondering, here’s a definition:

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgementally    Jon Kabat-Zinn

We also tried a couple of short meditations. I liked the calmness that I felt afterwards and thought ‘maybe this something I should try’. But I have a tendency to get charmed by something, go hard after it then not be able to sustain it in the face of all of the other interesting things life has to offer. (The peeps-who-know-me-well will be nodding – or even chuckling – knowingly at this point.)

So I set myself a challenge: If I could do the 8-minute Body and Breath meditation – the one that we’d done in the workshop – every day for a month, then I would consider buying the book and committing to its 8-week mindfulness program.

Every morning I sat on the couch with a soothing, gentle voice in my ear that encouraged me to pay attention – to my body, then my breath and then to my wandering mind. Some days it was noisy in there – thoughts, memories and feelings clambered insistently over each other in their eagerness to get my attention, shouting at me to plan, to remember stuff, to dwell on things. Other days they just drifted around aimlessly, taking me away from the thing I was supposed to be paying attention to – the moment and my breath. Yet when the gong sounded at the end, there was always a stillness, however brief.

No-one was more surprised than I when I reached my 1-month target. But did a month of 8-minutes-a-day really make a difference? I have noticed that I am generally calmer and also paying attention better and for longer. However I’m also enjoying my out-of-the-rat-race time while I look for what’s next so was not totally sold that this daily practice was the cause.

Today convinced me otherwise. It was that blinding flash at the bus stop – a mental ‘holy s**t’ – that made me realise that it’s possible, that the shift is palpable and that it’s pretty awesome and worthwhile when you notice it. I observed the moment and let it go. That’s definitely worth practising.

So I’ve embarked on week 1 of the 8-week program. There’s a range of tasks to complete and one is choosing an activity to do mindfully every day.  I’ve chosen brushing my teeth and let me tell you, it’s really hard to keep paying attention to it – and only it – for the whole two minutes that it takes. I have to close my eyes so I don’t get distracted by myself in the mirror or the sink that needs wiping down or the dehumidifier switching on and off in the background.

It also has me continuing with the 8-minute meditation but now twice a day. And I’m to do one Habit Releaser: Changing a habit is meant to make us realise how automatically and unthinkingly we do things – so this Habit Releaser is to change where I normally sit. For the last month, my comfy couch has been the place of stillness so now I sit in my new quiet place – the second bedroom – for 8 minutes when I get up in the morning and 8 minutes before I go to bed at night. And I’m changing my position on said comfy couch too.

To be honest, I’m not sure where this all will lead. My coffee moment was so unexpected that I’m wondering what stumbling about in this new wilderness will uncover.

Path - Dollis Green Walk (Hendon Golf Course)

What will I confront and will I even make it through the 8-weeks?

I’m curious to find out.


Resources I’ve referred to (in case you are interested):

The book – Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman

The website – www.franticworld.com – which also contains the Body and Breath meditation, among others.

York: People and a pastry

My last day in York dawned bright and blue-skied, a welcome sight after my wet Wednesday, so I was up, checked out and ready for a cruise on the Ouse (pronounced ‘ooz’ peeps – just to explain my rhyming turn of phrase) only to find that all trips for that day had been cancelled…due to flooding.

Hmmmm…

So I wandered around the Yorkshire Museum Gardens for half an hour – to make the most of the sunshine (in case it disappeared)…

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…before deciding to head into the Museum itself.

The Yorkshire Museum turned out to be my favourite thing-to-do of the trip – and that’s in a trip full of great things to do. I loved walking through the early years of York – or Eboracum as it was originally known – reading about its people and each era’s way of life. I walked in the steps of the Romans then uncovered some Viking and Anglo-Saxon treasures…

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….before meandering to the Normans (from 1066) and into the reign of King Richard III (during the late 1400s). There was so much to pore over and read about as I wound my way through all of these exhibits. It was fabulous.

And that wasn’t all. The museum had a fascinating exhibit on Extinction. Did you know that 99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct? The exhibit began with an overview of the Five Mass Extinctions and how they happened. What followed was a range of cases displaying fossils from each period which brought each extinction chapter to life – here are just a few:

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The story ended with a showcase of the conservation efforts aimed at some currently endangered species as well as examples of where re-introducing species had not worked. It all led to the final question of the exhibit: ‘Should we just let nature take its course?’. It was a thought-provoking note to end on.

After a bite to eat, I decided on a slightly more modern turn for the afternoon and headed over to Treasurer’s House. The property is tucked away behind York Minster and was donated to the National Trust by Frank Green in 1930. Green was the son of a wealthy industrialist and although he did not always restore faithfully ‘to the period’, the house is a testament to his passion for architecture and antiques. It was also the Trust’s first fully furnished property.

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I spent a pleasant hour or so admiring and reading about each of the rooms and the house’s grand visitors which included King James I and the future King Edward VII.

I also enjoyed learning about Frank Green’s vision for the property. His vision was incredibly specific, so much so that his gift to the Trust came with a condition – that the house would always be displayed as he’d left it. One example: While he had lived in the house, he’d had studs placed in the floor to ensure that the furniture was always positioned exactly where he wanted it.

This practice is still adhered to more than a century later.

This might seem to be – okay it is – the legacy of a control freak but what I ended up seeing was his home exactly as he lived in it and not some version that had been tinkered with over time. It poses a number of interesting questions about the restoration of historic properties and how far this should go before they move away from being ‘original’.

I had a couple of hours before my train back to London and I could think of nothing I wanted more than a return visit to Betty’s Tearooms. I lingered leisurely over some home-made soup and then all but inhaled the most heavenly vanilla slice I have ever eaten. Seriously peeps, I do not have enough words to express just how delicious it was. Needless to say it was my favourite thing-to-eat for my entire stay.

Then it was back to the hotel to collect my bag before trundling back across Lendal Bridge to the train station.

River Ouse from Lendal Bridge (l) (sml)

A sunset-kissed farewell from York while standing on Lendal Bridge

So that ends my marvellous minibreak in York. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’d especially love it if this series of posts has inspired you to go and discover its treasures for yourself. Please let me know if you do…

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My four York posts:

Photo tour: A walk in York

York: The tower, tour and tearooms

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

York: People and a pastry

Going back to basics

Some days you just can’t win a trick.

Today started well with eight minutes of meditation, something I’ve been doing every day for the last three weeks. My target has been to do this for one month before deciding what’s next.  A small steps kind of approach. I followed this with a brisk clear-the-cobwebs-and-get-things-moving kind of walk before tucking into a bowl of porridge.

All good so far.

It was then off to the hairdresser to get the mane cropped back to its smooth, slicked-back self. My hair is an important part of determining how I feel – I am a Leo after all – so this is a regular and important part of maintaining my positive sense of self. Let’s just say there was a significant amount of said mane on the salon floor and that I left lighter and eminently cooler.

In other words, still looking good.

Feeling virtuously productive, on the way home I dropped into my local jeweller to get the battery replaced in my ‘work’ watch. And here’s where things started to go awry.

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The road to motherhood

Today is Mother’s Day in the UK.

I am close to my Mum and always have been. Even though I now live on the opposite side of the world, we still keep all the connections going and spent time together just recently when I was in Melbourne over the Christmas / New Year period.

Others are not so fortunate. Some will spend the day in remembrance whilst a great many more will fall somewhere between the luxury of close proximity and feeling separated emotionally. For still others, this is just another day.

In Australia, we celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May so today is a bit of an awkward one for me. There’s the flurrying around me here but my official nod happens in May. I’ve been grappling with how best to acknowledge this UK version for the last couple of days.

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A taste of Spring

I ate a plum today.

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I took it from the fridge

and left it to warm in the sun

as I read on the patio.

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When I picked it up, I stopped

 to admire the shine

of its bruise-purple skin

before I took a bite.

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I leaned forward

and brought the round glossy fruit

to my lips.

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I felt the skin resist

then split under my teeth

surrendering

its lush golden flesh.

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It was firm – “al dente” –

keeping the juice softly wrapped

in the meat of the fruit

as I took each cool, sweet bite

around its stony heart.

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In five bites I was done

and the seed tossed casually away

under the rose bushes.

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I ate a plum today

and it tasted like Spring.

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When enough is enough

Last Wednesday, I was horrified to read a mother’s plea for advice upon learning that her daughter had been bullied. As I read her Facebook post, she described that nasty phone calls had escalated into an incident where her daughter had been followed home from school by two girls from another school. She had been subjected to a barrage of obscenities and comments that to film it all ‘would be funny’.  Her daughter’s threats to call the police made no difference and it wasn’t until a woman jogging by intervened that she fled home and revealed all to her mother.

I felt inspired by the way this Facebook conversation developed. Many reached out with words of support and some with experience of handling this – parents and teachers – offered practical advice about what to do next. To date it sounds like positive steps have been taken in partnership with the school. But it was shocking to read. And all the more so given the date of the post.

Wednesday was 8th March. International Women’s Day.

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A question of culture: Assimilate or die?

This week I attended a evening of talks at China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown whose mission it is to create ways of exploring Chinese culture and China’s influence on the world. I fell across them late last year in attending a provocative discussion between Sir David Tang and Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan and have been keen to attend something else ever since.

This one-night-only event featured five speakers who had eight minutes each on their allotted subject followed by questions from the audience. They covered a range of topics from Chinese medicine (and what is it really?), Hinkley Point C and the role of Chinese investment, feminism in China and the opportunity that Chinese tourists represent for the British economy.

I know very little about China and Chinese culture. During an emerging market project about 18 months ago, I was surprised by the level of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa and I’ve only had limited exposure to ‘Chinese’ medicine. Needless to say I found it an educational and thought-provoking evening.

But the eight minutes that really left me thinking were delivered by Dr Victor Fan, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College. His topic was ‘white washing’ in the entertainment industry i.e. non-Asian people playing Asian roles. It was every bit as interesting as the others but it was when he spoke about his experience of getting a visa to live and work in Quebec, Canada – one that specified that he would speak French and adopt local practices – that something struck a chord.

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A brush with art

I had an hour to kill between meetings near Pall Mall today and as I braced myself against the cold (it was -1 Celsius for most of today) and crossed Trafalgar Square, the imposing pillared facade of the National Gallery and the promise of its warm – and free – galleries looked pretty inviting.

In the thirteen years that I’ve lived in London, I have never been to the National Gallery (I know, the shame!) so once inside, I followed the signs up to the paintings galleries and began to wander. I had such a lovely time that I wanted to share a few of my favourites with you.

Let me pause here and say that I am in awe of the skill and talent required to paint. But I know diddly-squat about art and on the rare occasions that I go (like to last year’s Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy), I tend to stroll around and stop whenever something takes my fancy.

And I was only just inside the door when I was taken by fancy number one.

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When a foodie goes to Melbourne: By night

I spent two and a half weeks in Melbourne (the one in Australia not Florida – just to be clear) over the Christmas-New Year period visiting family and catching up with a few friends. It was hot – much hotter than I’m used to even in the warmer parts of Europe – but that did not stop me from doing loads and eating even more.

Last time I tap-tap-tapped away about the high points of our daytime eating adventures and promised to follow up with the same for our culinary exploits after dark. So here it is, post number two.

Fat Bob’s Bar & Grill – Moorabbin

For at least three years, my loved ones have been Facebook posting about Fat Bob’s and when I arrived for a visit two years ago, I was sadly informed that Fat Bob’s was closed until the day after I was due to fly back to the UK. This time Lil Chicky was on the case – Fat Bob’s would be closed from Christmas Eve so nine hours after I got off the plane on December 23rd, we were scoffing amazing burgers, more-ish fries and some super scrumptious fried apple dumplings.

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Tucked away in an industrial estate in Moorabbin, once you walk through the gate there are vintage signs everywhere you look.

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There’s a good range of craft brews and ciders to pair with your burger. My White Rabbit Dark Ale was smooth and easy (too easy?) to drink and my Victa burger – a crumbed chicken fillet with Asian slaw, Japanese mayo and BBQ sauce – was completely scoff-worthy

It’s a fabulously unpretentious place and was definitely worth the wait. The food was served in plastic baskets with the burgers wrapped in foil (helps to stop the drips as you hoe in) and cutlery was kind of optional frowned upon. If you love a dirty burger and a retro approach to decorating, get yourself to Fat Bob’s…and leave your tiara at home.

Mexico City – Bentleigh

The original Mexico City restaurant opened in 2011 around the corner from where I used to live in Elsternwick but I’ve been away since 2004 so when Lil Chicky told me that there was a new one in Bentleigh, it seemed the perfect place to stop for a pre-cinema dinner. It’s quite a small place and as we were only two people and didn’t have a booking, we had a choice of sitting at the bar or at the window. We chose the latter and ordered a couple of Moscow Mules to sip with our complimentary corn chips and salsa before our meals arrived. I loved my vegetarian burrito and Lil Chicky enjoyed her Mexican trio. But be warned – the portions are huge so if you want to have more than one course, I’d suggest sharing.

Favorite Noodle & Dumpling Restaurant – Moorabbin

This is a family-run business right across the highway from Moorabbin train station. It’s a large restaurant with an extensive menu of dumplings and Chinese stir fries. Mum, Licensed-To-Grill and Lil Chicky all raved about the dumplings so that was what I chose. They were soft and melt-in-the-mouth delicious – definitely the best I’ve had. I’d been eating elsewhere in the day so couldn’t fit anything else in but again I was gobsmacked by how big everyone else’s portions were.

It got really busy while we were there and the service, while still friendly, did suffer a bit as a result. There was also a little lost in translation moment when pea-hater Lil Chicky asked whether there were peas in the fried rice. (We were absolutely assured there were no peas, just beans, only for Lil Chicky to be faced with picking out all the peas when it did arrive.)  But it’s cheap and cheerful and if I lived there, I’d probably be doing a dumpling run at least once a week.

Bad Frankie – Fitzroy

I was reading one of the daily newspapers at Lil Chicky’s in turns marvelling at how clueless I am about Australian celebrities nowadays and checking out all of the things-to-do recommendations. It was the word ‘jaffles’ that caught my eye – these were the mainstay of many a Sunday night dinner growing up and were crammed full of things like baked beans, ham, tuna, tomato and savoury mince but always with loads of gooey melted cheese. I managed to convince some friends to have a jaffle-themed catch-up…and what a catch-up it was!

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Top row: Look out for the sign when you turn off Smith Street into Greeve Street; Quirky decor  Bottom row: Retro cocktail glassware; the traditional ham and cheese jaffle with a side of tomato chutney; the infamous lamington jaffle – there are no words – you’ve got to experience it for yourself!

Bad Frankie specialises in Australian spirits and the drinks list is pages and pages long (who knew we Aussies were so prolific outside wine and a bit of boutique beer) so we went with cocktails served in the types of glassware you might find at the back of your Mum’s kitchen cupboard. We chose a range of savoury jaffles to begin with – which were yum – then tackled the lamington jaffle. Chocolate sponge filled with jam and rolled in coconut was served warm from the jaffle maker with cream on the side – it was scrumptious and VERY rich, making us all glad we had decided to share. The others also tried the ANZAC Bikkie jaffle (brioche toasted with rolled oats and golden syrup) which they reported tasted faithfully of its namesake.

To my mind Bad Frankie was an absolute find. The decor is quirky and cosy and everything is very laid-back. We’d been in the City in the afternoon and the promise of jaffles and boozing did take us out of our way but it was a chilled and convivial evening with an easy tram ride at either end. Just go!

Okami – Hampton Street

Okami is a chain of five Japanese restaurants across Melbourne and on my last night, we decided to tackle the All-You-Can-Eat offer at the Hampton Street branch. You get a two-hour sitting, a menu and then you just keep ordering dishes until you can’t eat any more. We shared many great dishes but stand outs for me were the Chicken Karaage and the Teriyaki Chicken Skewer. We also tried the Octopus Ball – which turned out to be balls of octopus meat versus something akin to a Bush Tucker Trial – better served with soy sauce than the mayonnaise they came with I thought.

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Domo arigato for a job well done! 

We managed to find a small space at the end for some cold vanilla ice-cream (it was 38C that day – that’s really hot!) and pretty much rolled out the door. And all of this for less than $30 (approx. £18) each.

And that peeps ends the culinary tour. The next day I boarded a plane for the long trek home with an underweight suitcase (believe me, it took careful packing to manage this with the amount of shopping I did). However I cannot say the same for yours truly and I must admit to my comfy travelling trousers feeling slightly snugger than when I arrived two and half weeks earlier. But what are holidays for, I ask you?

I hope this has whet the appetite of those of you  living in or travelling to Melbourne…if you are a glutton for punishment and want more or missed the partner post on daytime eating in my hometown, you’ll find it here so in the words of my childhood dinners…

Two four six eight

Dig in. Don’t wait!

 

When a foodie goes to Melbourne: By day

I spent two and a half weeks over Christmas and New Year in Melbourne. It is my hometown – not the place I was born but rather the place that I endured the pangs of teenage angst, the excitement of leaving home and the hopeful anticipation of beginning my career – in essence my transition to adulthood (although some my argue that this happened much later). In any case, it’s a city that holds a huge piece of my expat heart hostage and as Mum and Lil Chicky still live there, it has become something of a habit to make a bi-annual pilgrimage Down Under.

We shopped and hung out and laughed and did a whole lot of stuff while I was there – more of which I’ll post about soon – but mostly we ate. As with most holiday ‘diets’, calories became a distant memory and it was not uncommon for us to be tucking in to some meal somewhere and be talking about where we should have the next one!

As a result I’ve clocked up quite a few great recommendations if you happen to be in Melbourne around the City or down towards the bayside suburbs of Brighton, Mentone, Hampton and Parkdale. There are too many for one post so they will come to you in two parts – by day and by night.

Here’s where I suggest you spend your days.

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Breakfast/Brunch – for a cracking start to your day, I really liked these three:

Urchin Bar – Hampton

Ostensibly this is a Turkish restaurant and bar but serves a great breakfast and we lingered here for a couple of hours catching up over fresh juice, delicious food and great coffee. The service was friendly and laid back and whilst they were attentive, at no stage did we feel rushed by the staff. Don’t let the average website put you off and if you go, make sure you walk through the bar and snag a table in the covered courtyard out the back.

The Groove Train – Brighton

This is one of my regulars when I visit and is a particular fave for breakfast. It’s located in upmarket Church Street and when we were there, the glass doors were concertina-ed aside, opening the whole place out onto the street. I have never had a bad coffee here and my breakfast burrito wrap was chock full of scrumptious stuff. Lil Chicky’s smashed avocado concoction looked pretty amazing as well.

Parkdale Beach Cafe & Kiosk – Parkdale

If you want food with a view, then this place is for you. Perched on the cliff top overlooking Port Phillip Bay, this cafe serves great coffee and a small but excellent selection of food to both tables inside and at loungers outside under the shade of the umbrellas. Mum and I happened to coincide our visit with a Greek Orthodox New Year celebration which moved from the boardwalk that runs along the beach up to the BBQ area next to the cafe. So we decided to enjoy our warm banana bread with fresh berries and mascarpone cream from a inside table with an excellent position by the window…

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Window seats –  the view from our table

This place gets busy but there’s something so unbelievably magnificent about the location that for me, the hustle to get a seat/table is worth it.

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Lunch/Coffee and a little something – as the day goes on, you’ll need to keep your strength up so try these three:

Larsen & Co – Hampton

This calm Scandi oasis is tucked into the lane that leads from Hampton Street through to the station car park and features clean Scandinavian decor inside and 3-4 shaded wooden tables outside. The menu is not extensive but the quality was excellent – I had an amazing superfood salad while Lil Chicky enjoyed her fried calamari with orange, baby fennel, feta and mint. The portions were big – so great value for money – and the service was friendly and efficient (after all we had a train to catch). It’s worth mentioning the excellent toilet facilities here too.

Brunetti – City Square

The original Brunetti opened in Carlton in 1985 and has since expanded to include this outdoor cafe that commandeers the south end of Melbourne’s City Square on Swanston Street. The biggest problem you’ll have is choosing which of the myriad cakes and slices to have. To complicate matters even further, you can also get yourself a little tub of fresh gelati…

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Left: My delicious hazelnut and coffee slice  Right: Ice-cream anyone?

There’s plenty of seating – although not all of it is under cover – and the bird life can get a bit cheeky with any leftovers but if you clean your plate (as well you should), watching the hierarchy of sparrows, pigeons and a seagull or two oust each other for the crumbs can be quite entertaining. Of course Brunetti’s Italian heritage means the coffee is outstanding.

Hopetoun Tea Rooms  – Block Arcade, City Centre

Melbourne’s arcades are something of an institution and the elegant Block Arcade, running between Collins and Little Collins Street, is no exception. Built in the 1890s, it features some of Melbourne’s most delightful retailers and none more delightful than the Hopetoun Tea Rooms. I was told that the line to get a table is usually out the door, down the arcade and around the corner into the street but we found ourselves here at 10am on a Tuesday morning with only a 10 minute wait ahead of us – so plenty of time to window shop…

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Clockwise from top left: Window shopping of the best kind; the mirror dating from 1892; red velvet cake; chocolate and pecan tart

This place is decorated tastefully ‘of the period’ featuring a mirror from 1892, flocked wallpaper and a display of crystal wares in one of the cabinets. It can seem a little cramped when you come through the door (one-in one-out is the best way to manage the traffic flow here) but once seated there was ample elbow room for us to tuck into our sweet treats. My chocolate and pecan tart was so delicious and I have it on good authority that the red velvet cake and the crepes with fresh berries and cream were every bit as good. This is not a place to linger and chat so go for the experience and the cakes rather than the conversation.

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And then there’s the best-laid plans and all that…

The Local on Como – Parkdale

I am a huge Audrey Hepburn fan and when Mum and Lil Chicky discovered this place, they couldn’t wait to tell me and put it on the ‘visit list’. Unfortunately it was closed for the entire time I was in Melbourne so I had to be satisfied with peering in the window…

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Awesome Audrey mural at The Local on Como (there was also a purple coffee machine!)

…so I cannot tell you anything about the coffee, the ambiance or any of the vittles on offer. But it must be pretty good – Lil Chicky does not do bad coffee. And the mural was worth the walk on a mighty warm Summer day.

That completes my haunts by day. You may like to pause (as we did often) and ready yourself for the next installment – my favourite culinary haunts after the sun went down. They’re coming soon…