Jul 13

Alex James talks The Big Feastival

I always knew Alex James was the best one in Blur. As a hormone-fueled teenage girl, when all my friends were lusting after Damon, it was Alex that got my attention.

Standing there, strumming away on his bass, his face half obscured by that gorgeous mop of dark hair I thought he was the epitome of cool.

When he turned his hand to cheesemaking I adored him even more. What’s not to love about a cheesemaking rock star?

Alex James at his home on Churchill Heath Farm in Kingham, Oxfordshire. Photo by Adam Gasson.

Alex James at his home on Churchill Heath Farm in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Photo by Adam Gasson.

Now, Alex has joined forces with Jamie Oliver to host the Big Feastival, an extravaganza of music and food on his Oxfordshire farm – I’m convinced he might actually be the perfect man.

Needless to say I was almost beside myself with excitement when I was given the chance to actually speak to him to talk all about this year’s Feastival, which is taking place from August 31 to September 1.

When Alex come on to the phone he starts chatting away immediately.

“I’ve just come in from the strawberry patch,” he enthuses. “I’m going to get back out there after this. The strawberries taste like a completely different fruit when the sun shines. Happy days.”I can almost feel his excitement and enthusiasm rushing down the phone lines and feel a bit guilty for dragging him inside on such a sunny day.“Actually, before I can get back out there I have a man with a digger coming and I have to show him where to build the new road,” he says. He sounds a bit disappointed, like a child who has been told they have to do their homework before they can go out and play. It’s very charming and my heart melts a bit more. “But after that I can get back out there again.” His voice brightens.

The new road is part of the preparations for the Feastival.

It will be the second year Jamie and Alex have come together to hold the event and 15,000 people a day are expected to descend on the farm to see a top line-up of chefs and music acts, including Basement Jaxx, Rizzle Kicks, K T Tunstall, Mark Owen, The Feeling, Gennaro Contaldo, Tom Kitchin, Gizzi Erskine and of course, Jamie himself.“I can’t wait,” said Alex. “Last year was such a great weekend and I was completely bowled over by people’s reactions.”Alex and Jamie’s friendship began back in 2001 during a performance on Comic Relief.“We were the rhythm section for Uptown Girl with Baddiel and Skinner,” Alex laughs. “We hit it off and kept in touch. When I knew he was looking for somewhere for The Big Feastival I really wanted to get involved. I love Jamie. The more I get to know him the more I like him. He is really passionate and driven and brilliant. He is a major force for the good.  I’d never really cooked with him, or seen him cook up close until the other day. It was just jaw dropping.”

It may seem like an unlikely pairing. While Jamie has built his career around his wholesome, cheeky chappy persona, Alex spent years living the rock star lifestyle, admitting spending more than a million pounds on cocaine and champagne.But since then Alex has swapped the drugs for dairy, and now makes award-winning cheese on the farm which he shares with his wife of 10 years, Claire, and their five children, Geronimo, Artemis, Galileo, Sable and Beatrix.

When Alex talks about his children there’s a real warmth in his voice and I get the feeling that his family really is the centre of his world. ”Cooking with the kids is my favourite thing.

“We have this book of ice cream recipes and we made something from it.

“Since then they’ve all been reading it and when they find something they want to make they turn down the corner of the page.

“I went to it the other day and found that all the pages had been turned down.

“I can’t think of a better way to spend the next five years.”

FEASTIVAL The Big Kitchen

Jamie Oliver will be giving cookery demonstrations at The Big Feastival

The Big Feastival is very much a family event, with plenty of activities for kids, including cookery workshops, games, an appearance by CBeebies’ Justin Fletcher, and cheeky hip-hop duo Rizzle Kicks adding to the star-studded line-up.

“If the kids are happy, then the parents are happy,” says Alex. “The Big Feastival is very genteel. It’s a nice, natural sort of family event.

“My kids are incandescent with joy over Rizzle Kicks. But Claire’s more excited about Mark Owen.”

For Alex though, it’s the food that has the most appeal.

“The chef I’m really pleased we have managed to book is Ashley Palmer-Watts who heads up Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental in London.

“He is really brilliant. I love Val Warner too.

“There’s going to be 200 local producers here too. The Cotswolds are a hotbed of production and farming.

“People who are discerning about music tend to be discerning about food as well so the two work really well together.

“When Blur first started doing festivals it was quite a new thing really and it was all the promoters could do to get us anything to eat at all.

“Now there’s a realisation that you can add an extra layer of sophistication and give people great food as well.”

Naturally, Alex’s cheese will also be making an appearance and he has developed a special Blue Monday Martini, featuring his Blue Monday cheese.

“It took lots of passionate research,” he says. I get the sense that tasting variations of the cocktail wasn’t much of a hardship for him.

“Because I am a food writer I read cookery books by yard. I’m always looking for recipes and this one works really well.

“You just stuff your olive with the blue cheese.”

At just 15,000 people a day, The Big Feastival is small in festival terms, but Alex and Jamie have had no trouble in attracting the big names.

“Because we are trying to build something cool people want to get involved,” said Alex. “They know they will have a nice time and they know they will get looked after.

“When Blur first started doing festival there were just two really. Now there are hundreds all over the world. I think if you want to compete then you have to really stand for something and it has to be something you really believe in.

“Michael Eavis has got that right with Glastonbury. It is the greatest show on earth and a wonderful thing.

“I don’t think The Big Feastival needs to be that big to be great though.

“I like it as a little boutiquey festival. Maybe we’ll make it a bit bigger next year, maybe 20,000. That’s quite a sweet number for a festival.

FEASTIVAL Jamie Oliver and Alex James perform photographer George Powell resize

Alex James and Jamie Oliver performed together at The Big Feastival in 2012

“The hardest things about organising it all are the mundane things, like car parking.

“Car parking takes up a huge amount of space. There’s nothing that’s insurmountable though and there’s a great team who are all working really hard.”

I ask Alex if he has any plans to take to the stage during the event.

“All Jamie’s mates are coming, and all my mates are coming,” he says. “I think there will be some impromptu things going on.

”There’s lots of stuff that is not on the posters but is just waiting to happen.

“I am really, properly excited. I can’t wait.

“Claire and I bought the farm on our honeymoon and I remember the day we got the keys.

“The place was almost derelict and it was utterly silent as we walked around. It was beautiful, but silent.

“I have spent the last 10 years heaving and sighing and transforming it into a cheese paradise. The idea of having it filled with 15,000 smiling faces is the realisation of a dream.”

Jamie Oliver and Alex James present The Big Feastival, a feel good festival of food and music for all the family on August 31 – September 1. For more info and tickets, visit www.thebigfeastival.com

Alex James and Jamie Oliver. Picture by Vince Mo

Alex James and Jamie Oliver. Picture by Vince Mo


Feb 13

A special chocolate Valentine’s gift from Amelia Rope

Listen up boys. It’s not that we girls don’t want chocolate for Valentine’s Day. It’s just that we want good chocolate, and we want you to put some thought into it. A box of Milk Tray that you picked up from the garage down the road on your way home is not going to cut it.
A gorgeous little offering from Amelia Rope however is more than acceptable.
Not only is her chocolate super, super delicious but it looks the part too with each bar wrapped in pretty paper.

And this Valentine’s Day Amelia has come up a very special romantic treat.

She said: “To celebrate St Valentine’s Day this year I have decided to create something that your lucky Valentine can treasure and remember long after they have consumed the chocolate bar.  I wanted it to be glittery and sparkly, romantic, simple with I hope sophistication. Amelia Rope Valentine's 2013

“A glittery, glass covered red bead is tied using VV Rouleaux’s double sided luxurious chocolate brown velvet ribbon to a dark brown card on which I will hand write, using a red glitter pen, your special message.”

So you don’t even have to go to the effort of picking up a pen to tell your sweetheart that you love them. There’s really no excuse is there?

All you have to do is to choose which chocolate bar to send. Now I admit, this could be a bit tricky as there are some pretty tasty options like lemon and sea salt or smoked cashew – and that’s after you’ve decided between dark or pale chocolate. Personally, I like the pale rose, (but that’s partly because it comes wrapped in bright fuchsia foil and I’m a sucker for anything pink!) but you’re on to a winner with pretty much anything you choose.

There’s only 100 of these Valentine’s specials available (which makes them even more special) so you’ll have to be quick to snap up the last few.

Visit www.ameliarope.com to order.

Feb 13

Office lunches – a fine alternative

There was something on the news the other day about why we shouldn’t eat lunch at our desks.

Apart from the health risks of eating around all the bacteria that is lurking in our keyboards, apparently while we’re replying to emails at the same time as munching our midday meal we’re not concentrating on what we’re consuming which means we’re likely to eat badly with the end result of putting on more weight. None of us want that.

In practice though the idea of getting up and walking out of the office for an hour every day is not always realistic. And in winter, the idea of going out in that driving rain is actually even less appealing than working through lunch – the joys of the British weather.

Despite what they say, I don’t think that has to mean you eat badly. Granted, that homemade salad you enjoyed so much during the summer is slightly less appealing when the thermometer is hovering around the zero degrees mark, but I have found a fantastic alternative.

David Oliver game soups

David Oliver game soups

My new favourite lunchtime treat is a a bowl of soup from David Oliver Fine Foods.
The company was established by friends and fellow chefs David Holliday and Oliver Shute, both equally passionate about the countryside and field sports, and the associated traditional country cooking that they each grew up with. Eager to share their enthusiasm with a wide audience, David and Oliver built on their broad knowledge of food and years of professional cooking experience in renowned kitchens, combining their skills to develop a unique range of high quality ready meals that celebrate and support the best of Game and country cooking.

I’d like to pretend that I’m a domestic goddess and whip up my own healthy and nutritious soups at home every couple of days but the reality is that that’s not always possible.  Sometimes I just don’t have time, sometimes I just can’t be bothered. And I can pick up a few cartons of these from Waitrose on my way home when I’ve popped in to get a bottle or two of wine – it doesn’t even take me out of my way. Or, even better, Ocado can deliver them straight to my door.

Of the three flavours (Spiced VenisonPheasant Mulligatawny and Partridge Broth) my favourite is definitely the spiced venison. Rich, hearty, just the right amount of spice to warm you through, even when the heating has broken,

My favourite flavour is the Spiced Venison

My favourite flavour is the Spiced Venison

just the smell draws whimpers of envy from the desk next to mine.

It’s packed with vegetables (I’m going for at least one of your five a day) and as game is incredibly lean it’s also good for you. It’s a winner in every direction. Also, as all the game is sourced entirely from British shooting estates you can be sure of exactly what you’re eating – not always the case as has been proved by the horsemeat scandal.

Yes, of course it would be lovely to go out of the office every lunch time. It would be even nicer if I could find an excuse for a long business lunch at a top class restaurant every day that I could put on expenses. But until some miracle occurs that allows these things to happen, these soups are a pretty good alternative.

A 600g pot of soup from David Oliver Fine Foods costs from £3.95.
For more information visit www.davidoliverfood.co.uk


Feb 13

Radisson Blu Royal, Copenhagen – a hotel with star quality

The Radisson Blu Royal in Copenhagen has got some serious celebrity credentials.

Not only has just about everyone from the Beatles to JFK to Take That stayed there but the building itself is famous in its own right.

These days it looks fairly uninspiring from the outside, but when it was opened in 1960 it was Copenhagen’s first skyscraper and it was ground breaking – with its reflective façade towering above its surroundings.

The hotel is the creation of Arne Jacobsen, who in architectural terms is about as celebrity as it gets.

But far from simply designing the outer shell, he also designed just about everything inside the hotel, right down to the wine glasses and the cutlery.

Although most of the bedrooms have now been modernised, they still pay homage to his design principles, and most of the public areas are still as he envisaged.

The Arne Jacobsen Suite

The Arne Jacobsen Suite

One bedroom however has been left intact and is a shrine to 70s style – with all the original furniture, fixtures and fittings still place. You can stay there if you want – although you could probably get a similar experience at a fraction of the cost by going to stay with your granny, or hotel guests are able to take a look if it’s not being used.

It’s a popular location for film and photo shoots though so you’ve almost certainly seen it at some point before on the pages of a glossy magazine, in the background behind some insanely glamorous model.

On the top floor of the hotel is the recently opened Alberto K restaurant. Not only does it boast fantastic views over the neighbouring Tivoli Gardens and the rest of the city.

It’s chasing a Michelin star, and is hotly tipped to win one in the next round, so is booked up well in advance. Sadly, my trip was too impromptu to bag a table, and like most of Copenhagen’s top eateries a meal there comes with a hefty price tag.

Alberto K restaurant is aiming for a Michelin star

Alberto K restaurant is aiming for a Michelin star

If you haven’t got cash to burn though you can still get a taste of the hotel’s style in the Royal Bar in the lobby where you can sit on Jacobsen designed furniture and drink from Jacobsen designed glasses without breaking the bank.

There’s even a cocktail named after the architect. There’s nothing to suggest that he ever drank it himself, but its green colour is reminiscent of the décor in the preserved bedroom. The glace cherry at the bottom of the glass is a lovely retro touch too.

Arne Jacobsen cocktail

Arne Jacobsen cocktail

Hit is on the right day and you might even spot a celeb or two in the lobby. If not, you can always just look at the photographs.

Feb 13

Meet Benoit Sinthon – Madeira’s only Michelin star chef

Benoit Sinthon may be Madeira’s only Michelin-starred chef, but he hasn’t let success go to his head.

Chef Benoit Sinthon is the only chef in Madeira to hold a Michelin star

Chef Benoit Sinthon is the only chef in Madeira to hold a Michelin star


Far from being an arrogant Gordon Ramsay-esque character with a bulging ego and abrasive manner, Chef Sinthon is modest and mild mannered, the epitome of charm and with a twinkle in his eye that hints at a wicked sense of humour.  It is difficult to imagine him losing his temper and I got the sense that there would be more laughter than tongue-lashings in his kitchen. But despite this there is no doubting that he is serious about food, and as he talks about the subject his eyes light up even more and his enthusiasm is almost tangible.



Chef Sinthon’s love affair with food began humble beginnings. It was the markets in Marseille which he used to visit with his Italian grandmother that really ignited his passion. He said: “My grandmother always used to go to market on Saturday morning because she loved cooking. We used to go to the port, and I always remember the fish arriving and my grandmother explaining to us how she chose the best fish.”

His restaurant, Il Gallo d’Oro at the Cliff Bay Hotel on the outskirts of Funchal, may have held a star since 2009, but Chef Sinthon is determined not to take his success for granted because to hold the coveted star is a long term ambition, and he has no intention of letting it go easily.  He said: “It was fantastic when we first got the star because it was something I was always striving for. I was so happy. But I said to everyone in the kitchen ‘We have worked very hard for this and now we have been rewarded and we should celebrate, but we must be careful because we have a big challenge ahead, and a responsibility, because of course we want to keep it now.’ We have reinforced the team to make it even stronger. One of my friends who is a fantastic pastry chef was working in Dubai and I persuaded him to join us, and we have a new sommelier. Every year we try to think about what we can do to get even better, we are always trying to improve. But the Michelin star is not the most important thing – the most important things are that the restaurant is full and that we are cooking at a high level and serving wonderful food.”

In order to ensure that the food at Il Gallo d’Oro is the highest possible quality locally sourced food is used whenever possible.  Chef Sinthon

Il Gallo d'Oro in the Cliff Bay in Madeira

Il Gallo d’Oro in the Cliff Bay in Madeira

said: “We try to use local ingredients. About 90 per cent of the fruit and vegetables are local and around 60 per cent of the fish is from here. We are very lucky because Madeira has a good climate where everything can grow. There are a lot of smaller producers, and we can visit them and talk to them about what we want and this is really important to us as chefs. We even work with one woman who grows our herbs and edible flowers.” And this ethos leads to a regularly changing menu of tastebud tantalising dishes such as lobster and tomato symphony, local scabbard fish stuffed with seaweed with caviar and shellfish sauce and a chocolate cube with caramel and poached pear.

It was during his early training that Chef Sinthon first began to dream of making it on to the Michelin roll of honour. He said: “I was training in a fantastic place when a new chef arrived from a three-starred restaurant in Paris. I looked at him and though ‘He is only eight years older than me’ and in that moment I decided that I needed to try to be like that one day, and have a Michelin star of my own. “  And he never lost sight of his goal, training and working at many of France’s top restaurants in order to gain the valuable experience needed to realise his dream.

But it was love for a woman rather than food which brought the French chef to Madeira.  He was working at the restaurant at the luxurious Chateau de Rochegude hotel in Provence in the early 1990s when he met Lara, who was working at the hotel as a receptionist. Their love blossomed but then Lara, who had Madeiran family, announced that she needed to return to the island. Determined not to lose the love of his life he sent his CV to hotels and restaurants in the hope of being able to follow Lara to Madeira. Fate was on his side and he was taken on as a Junior Sous Chef at one of Madeira’s most long-established hotels – Reid’s Palace. He stayed there for two years but then ambition drew him, and Lara, back to France where he began working at the prestigious three-starred La Cote Saint Jacques in Burgundy with renowned chef Jean Michel Lorain. But just a couple of years later, in 1998, the couple returned to Madeira. In 2004 Chef Sinthon was appointed as Executive Chef at the Cliff Bay. He said: “I knew the chef was leaving and I felt I was ready to take the challenge.”

One of Chef Benoit Sinthon's creations

One of Chef Benoit Sinthon’s creations


There are three other restaurants at the hotel, in addition to Il Gallo d’Oro, and Chef Sinthon is in charge of them all. He said: “It is a nice hotel and as well as the gourmet restaurant there is a café, barbecue and bistro so it is not just one thing. It is a really interesting job to have.”

Feb 13

Pancake recipes from TV chef Marcus Bean

It’s pancake day on Tuesday which is great news for me as I love pancakes.The classic lemon and sugar filling is always a favourite of mine as it takes me back to my childhood when my grandmother used to make me pancakes but sometimes it’s nice to try something different.

Marcus Bean, winner of Iron Chef UK 2010 and regular on ITV This Morning

Marcus Bean, winner of Iron Chef UK 2010 and regular on ITV This Morning

This year I want to do something a bit more adventurous so I asked winner of IronChef UK 2010 and regular chef of ITV This Morning, Marcus Bean for a couple of recipes to try.

I love chocolate even more than I love pancakes so this recipe is perfect for me:

Chocolate pancakes with chantilly cream and butterscotch sauce

Makes about 10 medium pancakes

125g plain flour
1 egg
1 egg yolk
300g milk
20g cocoa

 Butterscotch sauce

Chocolate Pancakes with chantilly cream and butterscotch sauce

Chocolate Pancakes with chantilly cream and butterscotch sauce

60g unsalted butter
250ml double cream
100g soft dark brown sugar

Chantilly cream       
250ml double cream
½ vanilla pod
1/2 tbsp of icing sugar

Sift the flour and cocoa into a bowl, mix togther the eggs and milk, then add to the flour and keep whisking to stop lumps from forming.

To make the chantilly cream, put the cream in a bowl and add the icing sugar and the seeds scrapped from the vanilla pod. Now whisk until done.

To cook the pancakes heat a medium non stick frying pan on the heat then brush with some oil or melted butter, cook your pancakes one at a time, use a small ladle to spoon the mix for each pancake into the pan. Cook on both sides then remove and place on a plate, repeat this process for every pancake.

 To make the butterscotch sauce put the cream in saucepan and bring to the boil, whisk in your butter and sugar then simmer for 3-4 minutes

 To serve the pancake fold in half or roll up filled with the cream. Place a good spoonful of your chantilly cream on the plate, then pour your butterscotch sauce over the pancakes.

These look so amazing I’m definitely going to be trying this recipe, and not just on pancake day!

Raspberry pancakes with maple syrup

Raspberry pancakes with maple syrup

I also really love the idea of these raspberry pancakes with maple syrup. The raspberries mean I can pretend they are good for me – they must count towards my five a day!

Ingredients; Serves 3-4
135g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp caster sugar
130ml semi milk
1 large egg
10g melted butter
small punnet of raspberries

Sift the flour into a bowl then add the baking powder and sugar, mix together then slowly add you milk & eggs whisking at the same time to stop lumps from forming.
Once the batter is made fold your raspberries into the mix, then set aside.
To cook the pancakes, place a non stick frying on the heat brush with oil or melted butter then put a spoonful of mix into the pan and cook for 2 minutes on a low heat, then flip over and cook for another 2 minutes.
Serve with maple syrup.

If you don’t have a sweet tooth though there’s no reason why you have to miss out.
Marcus has given me this recipe for Courgette and wild garlic pancakes with Snowdonia cheese and chives which look really tasty. And it’s a great excuse to have pancakes for main and dessert. 

Courgette and wild garlic pancakes

Courgette and wild garlic pancakes

Ingredients; Serves 2-3
150g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1tsp salt
140ml semi skimmed milk
15g of unsalted butter
1 large egg
3 wild garlic leaves (use a small handful of spinach if not available)
½  Courgette (Grated)
50g of grated snowdona cheese or other mature cheddar
1 tbsp chopped chives

Grate your courgette and chop your wild garlic, put a pan on a medium heat and add your butter, saute the courgettes & wild garlic until soft and the liquid from the courgette has dried, now remove from the heat.
In another bowl sift your flour, add the baking powder & salt then slowly add your milk, keep whisking while adding the milk to stop lumps from forming in the batter.
Once the mix is smooth add your courgette mix, chives & cheese.
Heat a non stick pan on a medium heat, add a splash of oil or butter then spoon some mix into the pan making the pancake size you want. Cook for about 2 minutes on each side.
Serve straight from the pan with some fresh salad leaves.

I hope you enjoy trying these recipes and if you have any more you’d like to share then please let me know. You can find out more about Marcus at www.marcusbean.co.uk.

Happy Pancake Day!

Jan 13

Celebrity chef Antonio Carluccio

I’ve got a bit of a crush on Antonio Carluccio. The man may be seventy-five but he’s not without a certain sex appeal. It’s the Italian charm, he may have left his homeland more than half his life ago but it’s still there.

Celebrity chef Antonio Carluccio oozes Italian charm

And so is the accent. The melodic lilt coupled with the deep, throaty tone – not unlike a finely tuned sports car (Italian obviously!) is pretty irresistible, and we haven’t even started on his cooking skills yet.
There’s a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he recalls how working his magic in the kitchen helped him work his magic with the ladies.
While living in Vienna as a young man he started missing the food of his childhood and began trying to recreate it. He said: “I saw for myself that friends – and by friends I mean girls – responded well to it.” I don’t ask him to elaborate. He may well have once been something of a bad boy, but now Carluccio is 100 per cent gentleman – he won’t kiss and tell. There’s a real warmth about him, as if the Italian sunshine of his childhood has been absorbed right into his soul, and it’s never more apparent than when he reminisces about his mother. It was she who inspired his love of food.
“Mama was an artist in the kitchen,” he recalls. “I was brought up with all kinds of wonderful food, even though it was war time.
“Papa was a station master and mama used to send me out to find out if the train was on time so that the pasta would be perfectly cooked for when he came home. Mama used to feed the Germans and the partisans because they would come to the house because they heard she was a really good cook.”
There’s not quite the same affection when he speaks about his adopted country’s version of the food of his childhood and to say that Antonio Carluccio is not a fan of spaghetti Bolognese would be something of an understatement.
Spaghetti Bolognese does not exist,” he says, the Italian accent growing even more pronounced as he grows increasingly animated. “It is a version of a very famous dish that here has been crucified. People here put in garlic, herbs, chillies, but the original is very simple – just meat, vegetables, tomato paste, a bit of wine and that is it. And always with tagliatelle, never spaghetti.
“When I came here 37 years ago I saw many restaurants doing Italian food but I call it Britalian. Now slowly, slowly, the message is getting through.”
Listening to him talk about food there seems to be some truth in the stereotype of the fiery, passionate Italian. It’s not unattractive. If you have any more lessons Carluccio keep talking and I, along with the rest of the female population, will definitely keep listening.

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