Sunday 20 December 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Sunday. 20/12/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Sunday


Joy to the world

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the town, not a creature was stirring because all were locked down.

Yup, dear reader, that’s how it’s looking for most of us as we wind up the year and stumble into 2021. For the next few days you might have found a window of escape to more gentle, agreeable shores (do let me know if you have found such a magical place) but it seems that most leaders have reached this imaginary finish line short of ideas on what to do next. I’ll have more thoughts on this next week but until then it’s time for all of us to get our houses in order for cocktails, table-setting, present-wrapping, long walks and deep sleeps. If you’ve found yourself feeling a bit deflated and in need of some seasonal, spiritual and consumer guidance to get you through these next few weeks, below are a few pick-me-ups.

  1. Stock up on a bowl of yuzus. In my household they’ve become a Christmas staple as they go very nicely in a G&T, they do great things to a hot tub (throw the whole thing in) and a bit of rind on pasta is superb around the 28th.

  2. Helene, Robbie, Idina and Tatsuro. I’ve gone back to CDs rather than playlists and Helene Fischer, Robbie Williams, Idina Menzel and Tatsuro Yamashita have come to define the season.

  3. Find a new hobby. On Monday my mom arrived in Zürich from Montréal and the past few days have seen her painting LED lights to improve the glow. You can read more about this in our special-edition print newsletter here. If you live in Germany and Switzerland you likely received this already in the post. Frohe Weihnachten!

  4. Support that local bookstore. In case you’ve missed the appeals, these are serious times for independent booksellers so if there are still stockings left to fill then make your way around the corner or across town and spend generously.

  5. Subscriptions also work. Independent journalism needs you more than ever. The Atlantic, the German Salon magazine, Côté Sud and Nikkei Asia are great for starters. Monocle and Konfekt are good for your main course as well.

Before I move into a proper holiday groove I’d like to thank you for your support, and to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a fully festive break. I will be back with more next week.


Making a meal

In my experience, dinner parties are usually far better attended than documented (writes Josh Fehnert). That said, Legendary Dinners, a comely book published by Prestel, focuses less on the capacity for a party to be enjoyable and more on its ability to sum up a cultural moment. Drawing on accounts, menus, recipes and scraps of reporting, the book charts 20 feasts, including Napoleon Bonaparte’s wedding, Frida Kahlo’s artful spreads and Truman Capote’s polished buffets at New York’s Plaza Hotel.

These intertwining social histories, prepared by Salon magazine editor Anne Petersen, are a pleasing mix of table talk, intrigue and a liberal glug of something stronger: an investigation of the power and politics involved in breaking bread and clinking coupes. At times glitzy, libidinous or domestic, it also veers from tasteful to odd: The Bauhaus’s pyramids of puréed lentils are perhaps more cultural artefact than “I’ll-have-a-go”.

Far from being a how-to for party planners (or social climbers), the book shows readers well-known figures, from Grace Kelly to Jackson Pollock, in a new light – the glint of a chandelier, say, or in the flicker of a candle’s flame. The result? A masterfully prepared social history told by a poised host across a packed, chattering table. Hungry for more?


Inspected gadget

The days of the Ronco Chop-O-Matic and In-Shell Egg Scrambler are no more – there is always a new gizmo vying for our attention at Christmas (writes David Phelan). Other staples, such as fabric shavers to remove pilling from sweaters, are still going strong.

Technology is quickly out of date, meaning that this year’s gift might not be the latest thing for long. Products such as the Polaroid camera vanished entirely, though these later reappeared as a new company took on the brand. Here we remember three Christmas gadgets and what’s become of them.

1. Next turn? Tomtom GPS
The standalone satnav is looking a little lost. Some parts of the experience won’t be missed, such as fighting to clamp a chunky display to the windscreen, hoping that the next pothole won’t send it crashing beneath the brake pedal. Tomtom was the brand leader, despite its enthusiasm to tell drivers to “turn around where possible”. Traffic awareness, lane guidance, celebrity voices and ever-increasing ETAs were all features. But the arrival of built-in GPS car units and smartphone apps made it superfluous. Tomtom’s mapping knowhow has contributed to the Apple Maps app on the iPhone and Huawei’s Petal Maps.

2. Next chapter? Amazon Kindle
Amazon’s first Kindle turned the page and suddenly the book was said to be doomed. How could it compete? The Kindle promised hundreds of novels in a simple, thin, lightweight gadget – with more books wirelessly downloadable in seconds. Goodbye, bookshops. Only, that didn’t happen. The tactile quality of paper, the impossibility of losing your place and the old-fashioned joy of reading without batteries were just some of the reasons that book sales didn’t swan-dive. Now book and ebook co-exist and sales of both are booming. The latest deluxe Kindle Oasis has audiobook playback, self-adjusting light for dark rooms and waterproofing – but I’ll take paper every time.

3. Next song? Sony Walkman
The cassette-playing Walkman was a miracle in compactness but its mp3 successors couldn’t compete with the iPod Nano for size or operating system, even if the audio was widely thought to be better on Sony’s machines. For years the Walkman seemed to disappear. But now, 41 years after the original, the latest model (NW-A105) boasts compatibility with high-resolution audio formats, wi-fi to stream music and outstanding sound quality. Interestingly, headphones are not included, leaving it to you to choose your own. Best of all, the display’s screensaver looks like a cassette mixtape, spinning spools and all. Some technology, it seems, is built for the long-haul.


Three Christmas canapés

Whatever you’ve set your heart on for mains, don’t overlook the canapés. These deceptively easy-to-make mouthfuls are essentially edible adult Lego sets to be piled up and enjoyed with a liberal glug of something fizzy come Christmas morning – and into the new year. Our unusually generous spread, courtesy of recipe writer Aya Nishimura, includes mini duck röstis, salmon blinis and bite-sized prawn cocktails. Tuck in.

01 Prawn cocktail

Serves 6-8

3 baby gem lettuces
2 avocados
150g cooked peeled prawn
Chives and slice of lemon, to garnish

For Marie Rose sauce:
2 tbsps mayonnaise
1 tbsp ketchup
1 tsp red wine vinegar
10 dashes of tabasco
2 tsps horseradish
¼ tsp Worcestershire sauce
Juice from ½ lemon
Generous pinch of salt
Crushed black pepper


  1. Combine sauce ingredients.
  2. Wash and cut the gem lettuce leaves into mini wraps that can be eaten in a mouthful.
  3. Destone and peel the avocados and chop into 1cm cubes. Mix the avocado and prawns, then dress with Marie Rose sauce. Spoon the prawn mixture over the lettuce parcels and garnish with chopped chives and a slice of lemon. Done.

02 Blinis with salmon caviar, pickled cucumber and sour cream

Makes 35

70g buckwheat flour
130g strong white flour
½ tsp fast-action yeast
Large pinch of salt
180ml whole milk
150ml sour cream
2 medium free-range eggs, with white and yolk separated
Vegetable oil to fry
3 small cucumbers (275g approx)
½ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1½ tsps white wine vinegar
220ml sour cream
175g salmon roe
Small bunch of dill


  1. Mix the buckwheat, white flour, salt and yeast in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Gently heat the milk in a small pan until lukewarm. Pour the milk to the well, slowly drawing the flour in as you mix. In a separate jug, mix sour cream and egg yolks, then add to the batter and mix. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave in a warm place for 30-40 minutes until frothy.
  2. While you wait, wash and peel the cucumber. Cut both ends off and thinly slice in half lengthways. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the seeds in the centre. Thinly slice each section lengthways with a vegetable peeler. Sprinkle over 1 tsp sea salt and lightly massage, then leave for 30 minutes.
  3. Once batter is ready, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks, add to the batter and mix gently with a large metal spoon. Brush 1 tbsp of oil into the bottom of a frying pan and set over a medium heat. Drop 1 tbsp batter into the hot pan, using a measuring spoon to make uniform blinis), and cook for 2-3 minutes or until bubbles appear on the surface. Turn over and cook on the other side for 2 minutes. Repeat with the rest of the batter.
  4. Once blinis are cooked and cooled, squeeze the cucumber to get rid of excess moisture. Mix vinegar and sugar until the sugar dissolves, then pour onto the cucumber and stir. Spoon 1tsp sour cream onto each blini. Arrange a teaspoon each of cucumber and salmon roe on top of the cream, and garnish with a sprig of dill.

03 Duck breast, cherry and peppercorn sauce on a mini potato rösti

Makes 20


For cherry sauce:
125g frozen dark cherries
2 tbsps red wine
1½ tsps light brown sugar
1½ tsps red wine vinegar
¼ tsp crushed pink peppercorn, plus extra for garnish

For rösti:
450g potato
¼ tsp salt
crushed black pepper

45ml olive oil
45g unsalted butter
2 duck breasts (approx 350g)
2 sprigs of thyme


  1. Put all the sauce ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, using a potato masher to mash the cherries coarsely. Set it aside.
  2. Remove the duck breasts from the fridge and set aside. Peel the potatoes and grate them with the coarse side of a cheese grater. Squeeze out any water from the grated potato with your hands, place in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Mix well.
  3. Put 1 tbsp olive oil and 15g butter in a frying pan and place over medium-low heat. When the butter has melted, drop a heaped tablespoon of the potato mixture into the pan. Cook until golden brown, (about 4-5 minutes) then flip and cook for another 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and place on kitchen paper to get rid of any excess oil. Repeat with the rest of the potato mixture, topping up the olive oil and butter as you cook.
  4. When the duck is at room temperature, pat the skin dry with kitchen paper and score 1cm apart with a knife. Be careful not to cut through the meat. Salt the skin generously.
  5. Place the duck in a cold, oil-free frying pan with the skin down. Turn the heat to low and cook slowly until the skin is crispy. This will take about 10 minutes.
  6. Remove excess oil from the pan (delicious on roast potatoes), turn the meat over and cook for 5 minutes. Place on a cutting board to rest for 10 minutes. Slice thinly into 20 pieces. Arrange the sliced duck on a rösti and spoon 1 tsp of the cherry sauce over it. Sprinkle over extra crushed pink peppercorn and garnish with thyme.


Stall orders

Food markets are almost as old as agriculture itself. And they can still anchor a neighbourhood, bring footfall and employment, and make us healthier (writes Josh Fehnert). To be clear, we’re not talking about modish food halls where hipsters pay over the odds for burgers or sink strong cocktails to bad dance music, nor the cynical tinsel-topped faux Bavarian Christmas tents that flog cheap Glühwein by the ladleful. Instead, the ones that we rate offer a year-round selection of the best seasonal produce from honest and interesting growers.

Whether it’s a clearing in a medieval French village that springs into action on a Sunday or a hawker centre in Singapore on a rainy weekday (or Christmas for that matter), food markets are theatres of human life that have kept pace remarkably well with the way that we eat. They speak of knowledge about where your food comes from (knowing your onions as well as the man who sells them to you) and also of a more immediate relationship with food and the people who produce it. Vegetables that arrive with a little soil on them show a shortness of supply chain that few supermarkets can offer.

Helsinki is a city that recognises its inheritance when it comes to markets. Over the past decade it has ploughed money into reviving its old halls, ensuring that time-tested traders come back after the refits while creating spaces where new small businesses can cut their teeth. Food firms have attracted customers and introduced vitality in areas where traditional retail has found it tough. In this sense markets have a dual purpose: feeding us, yes, but also keeping the shared parts of our cities lively and interesting to inhabit. This is one benefit that’s not worth haggling over.

For more tips on living a slightly slower and more considered life, ‘The Monocle Book of Gentle Living’ is out now, published by Thames & Hudson.


All night long

The statement, “Let’s get the party started!” is mostly uttered ironically these days when someone orders a soft drink at the bar, say, or puts on a song that starts in a minor key (writes Robert Bound). But – Kazam! – the party has already started, we’re all here and furthermore it is our party and you are the guest. So take my hand and allow me to introduce you.

Now, there are many ways to keep the party going – some of them might even be legal – and most of them, like the ingredients of a classic cocktail, are very simple. It’s just a case of having the best ingredients. The first thing to bear in mind when thinking longevity is something that, despite our almost jagged sophistication, might not be obvious: don’t peak too early. Although a heart-starter (martini, negroni, gimlet) is good, four aren’t – so phase them out after the first hour and replace them with spritzers, champagne cocktails or a punch that might be described as “knockout” but isn’t literally.

Then, while you’re keeping your guests circulating and maybe asking one or two to give you a hand proffering canapés (morsels, maybe mouthfuls, never mountains – but do keep them coming) or mixing the next bowl of punch, you can get the lowdown on what they think of that someone who you just knew they would like.

Music is best without words until the dancing hours when someone will happily unleash Beyoncé. But until then go with Barney Wilen at the Club Saint-Germain or Count Basie doing Bond. Cheese? Please, it’s Christmas, cats. On this note you’ll have invited your pianist pal, if you have one, and she’ll be improvising jazzily around some carols. That’s when the singing starts and you open the bar for old fashioneds; someone grabs your wrist to see the time; you get a glance of something like 02.15; and it turns into a dance with your favourite friend to “Good King Wenceslas”. Keeping it going? You bet. Have a lovely Sunday.


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