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March 1, 2012

The Hedgehog Issue 25

By Spear's

Le Jour du Macaron is a tasty new entry in Hedgehog’s hectic social calender. Sweet treats from Spear’s spikiest columnist.

Bingo Wings
‘Acrobats used to dive from up here,’ says Jimmy Thomas, peering over the balcony of the minstrels’ gallery, ‘into a tank of water below.’ If they had jumped at that moment, they’d have fallen for about six feet before they hit scaffolding. Thomas was giving a private tour back in October of the London Hippodrome, the once-ritzy variety venue on Leicester Square he and his son, Simon, have bought and are turning into a casino.
By the time the casino opens in May, there will be no scaffolding (or water tank) but instead a large central room for 900 patrons playing roulette, blackjack and electronic games; a poker deck for tournaments; high-stakes private rooms, several bars and a brasserie, Heliot, named after the celebrated animal trainer Claire Heliot, a regular performer at the venue in the early 19th century. She was best known for feeding her lions on stage and carrying Sacha, her 28-stone pet lion, across the stage as part of the finale.
There will be London’s latest leisuretime necessity, an indoor smoking terrace (see also: Tramp, Annabel’s), and a grand entrance with an artwork by Sir Peter Blake. Intriguingly, there will also be the Matcham Room, a self-contained 200-capacity theatre programmed by the ex-director of the Donmar Warehouse.

It was, one must confess, hard to imagine right then, with all the exposed brickwork and joists, the temporary stairs and screeching equipment, but Jimmy Thomas, a sprightly 78, could see it all. He spoke with care about the new mouldings underneath the minstrels’ gallery made after original designs and moved in spritely fashion around the cables and planks stretching across the floors.

When people say gambling is habit-forming, they usually mean it negatively, but in Jimmy Thomas’s case, it’s the key to his entrepreneurial career. His parents operated fruit machines on fairgrounds and he moved about the country with them before starting Thomas Automatics, which produced and exported amusement equipment around the world.

He set up his first bingo club in 1966, at a time when gambling was usually restricted to back rooms, and sold Beacon Bingo, with its several clubs and multiple other gambling venues, 40 years later at the height of the market for £80 million. Before the trip to Leicester Square in his Maybach and the site tour, over lunch at Babbo, Jimmy said he sold Beacon, not coincidentally, just before the smoking ban came into force.
Monsieur Macaron

It’s easy to make macarons, says Pierre Hermé, the chef who revolutionised and popularised the bitesize treats. (Don’t call them macaroons, I have been told.) He’s turned the process into such simple steps in his new book, Macarons (Grub Street, £25), he says, that his ten-year-old daughter was able follow them. Hmm. Simple steps they may be, but anything that needs breaking down into 32 parts is by definition not simple.

Of course, simplicity was the last thing on Hedgehog’s mind as Hermé’s store on Lowndes Street threw open its door for an afternoon’s tasting and book-signing. Gourmet gifts were given out over the counter — new pralines, delicate and chewy macarons, every kind of elaborate confectionary goodness — and wolfed down by the surprisingly thin ladies d’un certain âge and twentysomething drawling dwellers of Knightsbridge queuing to meet Hermé and pay £80 a kilo. A French lady actually said Hermé was special because he had ‘that je ne sais quoi’.

The shop is curved and terribly narrow, so sneaking out Hermé — a man who has clearly enjoyed a multiplicity of macarons in his time — past the queue to a hotel across the road for an interview was quite an affair. As we sat down to the strains of a harpist playing Circle of Life, Hermé explained how he had developed the sweets beyond the traditional flavours, like a Michelangelo of the macaron: ‘Several years ago, when I started to be a head chef, I understood that what gives the taste to the macaron is its filling, the biscuit gives the texture, so I decided to put more filling.
‘I started to make rose, to make lemon, to make pistachio. Today they are now classics, but afterwards I started to make combinations and to put some contrast — pieces of hazelnut, some different textures, to put two fillings in the same macarons, to have some contrast of taste.’ He even revived 20 March as Jour du Macaron.

In an intriguing irony, macarons have spread around the world as French cuisine has retreated. Hermé says that because communication is now quick, other cuisines can take their turn — Spanish under Adrià, Danish under Redzepi — supplanting the dominant mode of the past two centuries in fine dining. And pastry? ‘In the pastry field, French pastry has the leadership of the world!’
Heart of Glass

It has always been, of course, the aesthetic trick of glassware to look delicate despite its material solidity. (Yes, glass is a liquid, we know.) Dale Chihuly, currently on show at the Halcyon Gallery’s beautifully restored new space opposite Sotheby’s on Bond Street, sidesteps this in his glasswork by giving his pieces rich colours which emphasise their presence, rather than their imminent potential absence.

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His organic forms for the Persians series — somewhere between flowers, leaves and shells — sing in chrome yellow and indigo; some are several feet in size across their unfolding (or curling) planes. By giving them lips of contrasting colours, Chihuly stresses their materiality. There is a garden of glassy delights, Mille Fiori (pictured above), which looks like Manga meets Alice in Wonderland: green spiky bushes, a great red glass globe striated with yellow, thin scarlet stalagmites and one of Chihuly’s favourite forms, curling tentacles in bright yellow.

The show has been a knock-out for Halcyon, which reports more than 40,000 visitors to date and has extended the show until 31 March. It’s both serious and playful. Londoners at large will have a chance to see Chihuly’s latest public work of art, the six-metre-high Torchlight Chandelier on Park Lane, for the next six months.

Perhaps less appreciated by the hordes in the gallery is the building itself. Spear’s readers will know it as the former home of Partridge Fine Arts, a grand space which had more high-class clutter than Chatsworth’s attic before the auction. It was possible, at Partridge’s, to get lost under a chaise longue and not be seen again for weeks. No more: the space is brilliant white, clean. The artwork breathes. It really can only be believed when seen.

Hedgehog also got a tour of the rest of the building, in which Halcyon Gallery has invested significantly. Boardrooms and the partners’ dark wooden dining room have been restored, from cupboards to cornices, and the gallery’s other artists have works on show against white walls and smart parquet floors. The top-floor viewing rooms display significant fine art — a Picasso, a Degas — which Halcyon Gallery sells privately. As affectionate as one might have felt about Partridge’s, Halcyon Gallery — together with Chihuly’s luminous beauty — have brought new life to the building.
Dale Chihuly’s exhibition is on at the Halcyon Gallery, 144 New Bond Street, until 31 March

Opus Dei
‘They’re going to need to find a property sourcing agent, an architect, somebody who specialises in planning, an interior designer, an interior architect, some kind of management contractor, quantity surveyors, all the subcontractors, mechanical and electrical consultants, structural engineers.’ By the time Dominic Parker has finished listing the people needed to find and develop an investment property, it has become quite clear why you’d outsource the whole thing.
Dominic is director of such a company, Opus Reid, a sister to luxury design and construction firm Janine Stone, created in response to a demand for investment-grade property from clients looking to diversify their portfolio. Not every property is worth developing, of course: Opus Reid is looking at those £10 million-plus in low-risk markets. After redevelopment, they should return 15 per cent year-on-year. In the London market, where some off-market properties have gone for £6,000 a square foot, this is a bold but not unobtainable return.

So where are these investors coming from? Clients in Russia and the CIS, who are ‘very sophisticated’ in this field, says Dominic, have shown particular interest. The Chinese are not over in London in great number yet — or at least are not looking at London for investment properties — which permits a window of opportunity to find the right buildings for them: they prefer new to old, for example, and want a very high spec.
The problems in developing property are manifold, especially if you have a family office which likes to say yes. They can provide these services, but it’s the sort of specialised, non-core activity which they often claim they can do but in reality either subcontract or fail at. Since Opus Reid can not only do the development but also help get 85 per cent loan-to-value on acquisition and development finance, supply of which is currently tight, it seems it couldn’t be easier to turn bricks into ingots.
No Fo’ Pas

The British upper classes are undoubtedly one of the country’s greatest cultural attractions, and are all the more fascinating because, unlike the British Museum, Tower of London or Buckingham Palace, the inner ranks of old-world old money are notoriously inaccessible to outsiders.

Foreign businessmen and wealthy aspirants can now find a willing guide, however. The Honourable Alex Foley, daughter of composer and English peer Lord (Adrian) Foley, has recently launched the Lady Foley Grand Tour, which hosts visits to country houses and private art collections and can introduce clients to traditional British pursuits, from country shoots to vintage car events, Ascot to Glyndebourne.

The activities aim to offer visitors a taste of life as an English gentleman/woman — but guests will also be party to privileges rarely enjoyed by their hosts. Alex Foley’s helicopter safaris, for instance, allow guests to visit two or three country estates in one day, as well as offering an aerial view of some of the very finest stretches of English countryside.

Having grown up in Switzerland, the US and Spain and spent much of her adult life in England, Alex Foley has both the external and internal credibility for this venture. ‘I suppose it’s quite unusual for someone from my background to be doing these tours, I think some people would think it a little cheesy. But I am approaching it from a different angle, as someone who knows what it feels like to be an outsider,’ she says affectingly.

Her early memories of entering English high society after a childhood spent mostly abroad has made her sensitive to the need to ensure that guests are well prepared for the more formal aspects of these events.

‘The main thing is to put people at ease, make them laugh and have a good time,’ she says, but in the scrupulously polite and unfailingly judgemental circles of British high society, her knowledge of etiquette helps, too. Anyone with a tendency to pour water into their red wine glass would do well to have the Honourable Alex Foley by their side.

Oh Do Bhive!

The hive is buzzing with news. The site is dripping with honeyed words. Everyone is a queen bee and there are no drones to be seen. All right, enough with the apish puns. It’s back to the Family Bhive, the ultra-high-net-worth social network set up by Caroline Garnham.

Since Caroline left law firm Lawrence Graham late last year, she is now devoting herself full time to the Bhive, whose members have a combined worth of £18 billion. So what’s new? ‘The message is it’s a development of what it always has been: it’s an ultra-high-net-worth community which is funded and has content and events provided by the industries that serve it.’ It covers wealth advisory, luxury lifestyle and philanthropy, with articles written by experts and opportunities to interact with key staff from the firms.

A new shopping channel will be coming on-stream soon, where members will be able to buy luxury goods at a discount or pay full price and give the equivalent of the discount to charity.

Caroline has discovered that one of the best ways to make the social network hum is by bringing its members together in real life, so there’s a ‘Where To’ series of events, panels covering financial questions, and there will also be discounts for cultural events and specially arranged evenings, such as with renowned choir the Sixteen. Now buzz off and go look at it.

Cartoon by George Leigh

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