29
Aug 15

A foodie guide to Copenhagen

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The popularity of Copenhagen as a foodie destination seems to be ever increasing. This is a city whose food scene is vibrant, exciting, and innovative, and is a delight to experience.

Copenhagen is also closer to the UK than many people think, with a flight time of around 90 minutes from London airports, making it an easily accessible destination for a weekend break.

This summer, I returned to Copenhagen to see what’s hot on the food scene, and to bring together my favourite recommendations for you.

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Where to eat and drink

For a traditional Danish lunch, I recommend Sankt Annæ restaurant. It’s a totally charming traditional restaurant serving excellent food just a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of touristy Nyhavn. The speciality at Sankt Annæ is smørrebrød, or open sandwiches, which are still a staple of the Danish kitchen. This is an unfussy, discreet restaurant that produces superb quality food using the best Danish produce. It’s only open from 10am-4pm and gets very busy, so do book in advance.

For coffee and a delicious Danish sweet bun or pastry, I have not found anywhere better than Claus Meyer on Gammel Kongevej. Although it is very popular, there are a fair few tables both inside and out. The kanelsnurre is my favourite bun of all, but the kanelsnegl also has many fans. If you’re staying for lunch, then I’d recommend the fiskefrikadeller or the pork sandwich; both are excellent.

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Coffee purists will like Coffee Collective. Having expanded to a number of coffee shops based around Copenhagen. There’s nothing else on the menu here, and don’t ask for soya milk or decaf. But the coffee is superb, made by real connoisseurs with skill, care and precision.

For dinner, if you are planning to push the boat out, I’d recommend Geranium. This is an utterly exquisite restaurant, and many would say this is Copenhagen’s best restaurant. A meal here is a complete experience. You’ll need to book well in advance.

For something clean, simple and a little less formal, I suggest Radio. This is uncomplicated but delicious seasonal food, with a focus on great ingredients. At 400 krone for 5 courses, it’s very good value, too.

If a cheap, cheerful and fun evening is what you’re after, then Papirøen is where you need to head. I visited last year and liked it, but I think a year of continual improvement shows, and it is now bigger and better than ever. Situated at the far end of Christianshavn, near to Noma, it is an indoor food market selling good quality street food from quality, quirky independent traders. There is a wide selection of food available, from noodles, to pizza, to Danish hot dogs, to cassoulet and craft beer, you’ll find it all here. Generally, the quality is good, and the informal atmosphere is fun and convivial. There is often a DJ playing at night, too.

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Where to stay

My hotel for this visit was the Absalon hotel. It’s been newly decorated using Designers Guild accessories, and is a modern, bright and fresh base in the city. Rooms are quite small, as is the case with many city centre hotels, but they are clean and comfortable. It is a colourful, lively and busy hotel, which is clearly a popular place to stay as it was packed out the weekend we visited. It has a very nice seating area in the lobby, and a cocktail bar for guests in the main entrance. Breakfast is taken downstairs, and was also packed out each day. There is a buffet on offer to guests – it’s all very informal – you just choose a table and help yourself. The breakfast choices are fairly limited to breads, eggs, Danish cheese, and pastries, with a small choice of tinned fruit and yoghurt. It is simple, no frills food, but fills you up for the day exploring Copenhagen.

One of the main attractions of the Absalon is its location. It is in the Vesterbro neighbourhood, which is very close to the railway station, making it very easy to navigate the city by foot. You are just 5 minutes walk from the central shopping area, and also the Meatpacking district where there are plenty of interesting places for foodies to discover. Take a walk down Viktoriagade to try some craft beers and some interesting restaurants.

Getting there 

Book your flights as far in advance as you can, as they do get expensive. I have used SAS from Heathrow and Norwegian Air from Gatwick, and both have been very good.

As an alternative to a taxi, take the train into Copenhagen Central Station (København H), which is roughly a 10-15 minute journey and super, cheap, too.

These are just a small selection of my favourite recommendations for a visit to Copenhagen. You’ll find many recommendations for places to visit online, but I have tried to bring you some suggestions that you might not have read about elsewhere, and were introduced to me by some of Denmark’s top foodies. For more recommendations for places to visit, do take a look at the excellent Visit Copenhagen and Visit Denmark websites.


20
Aug 15

Adventure and Luxury in the Lakes

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The English Lakes remain one of the most popular UK destinations, and simply a wonderful place to visit all year around, never failing to delight and inspire.

There is always something new to discover in the Lakes, and so we headed up to Cumbria recently to get away from it all, explore and enjoy the awe-inspiring scenery and some truly delicious food.

Where to stay

Askham Hall is a Grade I-listed home dating back to the 14th century situated on the far northeastern edge of the Lakes, near Penrith. Used as a private residence by the Lowther family since the 1830s, it has recently been converted into a characterful small boutique hotel with a restaurant. This is a grand castle on the outside, with a very homely feel on the inside. It makes an exceptionally memorable place to visit, situated in large, private gardens.

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Askham Hall’s sister establishment is the George and Dragon in Clifton, just a few miles away, which was our base for this trip. Also recently converted, it’s an upmarket country estate inn, situated at the edge of a small village, with a major road, the A6 running through, with a popular restaurant and tasteful, comfortable rooms upstairs, offering quality B&B accommodation.

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We stayed at the George and Dragon, as Askham Hall was full when we visited. The George and Dragon was a comfortable base for our stay. Rooms are tastefully decorated and we had a small bedroom with a very large bathroom with an excellent shower and lovely Bramley toiletries, which are made in the UK. The bedroom was small, but very comfortable and warm and nicely furnished. It is situated on an A road, but there wasn’t much traffic noise at night, even with the window open. Its location makes it a popular and convenient stop off for anyone heading from Scotland to England or vice versa, as well as visitors to the Lakes. Breakfast at the George and Dragon is very nice. The cooked options are excellent, with lovely local sausages, delicious eggs and giant flat mushrooms on offer. There is lovely thick yoghurt and good orange juice on the menu, too. Service is very nice, and it is a very civilized start to the day. This is a great place to stay and an excellent, comfortable yet unfussy base from which to explore the Lakes. Next time, I will try Askham Hall, and hope they can fit me in!

Where to eat

The Lake District’s natural larder is rich and plentiful, and so I like to try as much local produce as I can when I am in the area. With Askham Hall and the George and Dragon being renowned for their good food, it seemed the obvious choice to eat in both restaurants. Our first meal was at Askham Hall. We arrived for the last sitting on a Saturday night. It was a glorious evening and a beautiful drive down narrow, winding lanes to find the hotel. It is such a small establishment; you really do feel as though you are entering someone’s home, which is part of the charm of a visit. We were greeted extremely warmly by Nico Chièze, the House Manager, and shown to a sitting room, where we had a chance to look through the menus with a perfectly chilled glass of champagne and some scrumptious nibbles. Nico returned to take us through to our table when it was time to eat, which was in a separate area of the building. It’s a small dining room adjacent to the semi-open kitchen, seating around 20 people, which is elegantly decorated and sat on the edge of the garden. It is such a gorgeous room in which to spend an evening, and you practically feel as though you are outside, with huge glass windows running from ceiling to floor.

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There is the choice between a three course and a five course meal, with coffee taken in the drawing room afterwards included. We opted for the five course menu, as there were so many dishes on the menu that appealed, it was hard to choose.

Much of the fresh produce on the menu is grown in the gardens on-site, and what can’t be produced there, is sourced locally.

I can honestly say it was one of the best meals I have had in a very long time. Chef Richard Swale is Cumbria born and bred and having worked in London and Paris under Anthony Demetre and Marc Veyrat to name a few, he has honed his skills and returned to Cumbria to work with the sensational local produce and create something really special.

Richard’s food is exquisite, both in flavour, skill and appearance, but what I loved most was the clean, pure flavours, the superb provenance and freshness of ingredients, and the lack of pretention. This is amazing food cooked with supreme skill and expertise, but without any of the old-fashioned, excessively rich approach that one so often finds at a fine dining restaurant. This is truly exciting, sensational, utterly delicious food that is truly memorable. The service is a joy, too. Knowledgeable, friendly, unpretentious and charming, and I urge you to visit.

The George and Dragon’s restaurant was our destination for the second evening. After a long and tiring, but fun day outdoors, it was really lovely to be able to walk downstairs for dinner, and not have to worry about driving.

With a focus on local produce, the restaurant offers very good gastro-pub food. There is a large menu offering lots of meat and fish options. We really enjoyed our meal here; it is a exactly the sort of food you want for a nice meal after a day outdoors. The food is very good, the atmosphere is comfortable yet relaxed and the service is absolutely lovely, but informal. Standout dishes include the scallop starter with pea purée, pancetta and local black pudding, and for the main, the steak, which is reared on the estate and hung for at least 28 days, if not longer. The wine list is most interesting, with a number of bottles coming from the family cellar, offering a fantastic opportunity to try some excellent wine at a highly competitive price.

What to do 

The Lake District is a dream for anyone looking to enjoy the great outdoors. There are countless breathtaking walks, cycle rides and climbs to tackle, but this time, we decided to see the Lakes from a different perspective: by car. Kankku is the Lake District’s off-road specialist, offering driving experiences throughout the National Park. There are a number of options available at Kankku for short and long trips, to drive yourself, or be driven, to take your own 4×4 or theirs, to tackle adventurous terrain in a specially adapted 4×4 or to take a more gentle adventure in a WW2 Land Rover.

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There are options for families and groups, too, but we decided to take a 4×4 on the toughest drive available, and with just the two of us, we would share the driving. This was the Expedition trip, which was a 5 hour guided drive, taking us up to the highest point in the Lakes which is accessible by car.

The day started early, and the weather was poor first thing, with us driving through the clouds to get to the Kankku offices in Windermere, where all trips start from. That’s the brilliant thing about Kankku – you can have a fantastic adventure outdoors, even when the weather isn’t great. Fortunately, it picked up as we drove out towards Grizedale to start our adventure, taking the car ferry across Lake Windermere. The trip starts promptly, with cars heading out on convoy to the ferry. We started off in a Land Rover Defender, which was driven by instructor Jess, with us on board, followed by another party in a Mitsubishi Pajero. An instructor always goes out on the more challenging terrain, to guide you along, and you can have up to 5 cars in convoy.

We started a challenging climb up through Grizedale along a green lane track, which took us up over huge, jagged slabs of bedrock, made more challenging by the wet weather. This was an exhilarating start to the drive and seriously challenging. We carried on climbing over the next couple of hours, interspersed with short flat sections, either on tracks or road to get to the next section of the route. Jess, our guide used a radio to communicate between the cars, to ensure we all followed the correct lines and techniques to negotiate the terrain.

When we reached the top, we got out and enjoyed the views, which were just sensational. Jess phoned ahead to a local pub to order us lunch, and we headed off there, for a quick pit stop. After lunch, we took a drive through Langdale, which was lovely, negotiating some seriously challenging rocks, narrow tracks and tiny bridges, before heading back through the forest to Windermere.

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It was a totally brilliant day. Intense, challenging, and totally exhilarating. But what we loved most of all, was that we were taught how to drive a 4×4 properly. A Kankku experience does not involve tearing carelessly though the countryside at high speed. One learns how to control the car and to use the 4×4 settings properly, which you wouldn’t know how to do unless you are taught, and then how best to tackle the lanes and off road tracks without damaging your vehicle, stranding yourself, or damaging the environment. It was a brilliant day out, one I can’t recommend highly enough, and even better, thanks to the excellent guidance and tuition received, you learn a new skill, too.

Ullswater is a short drive from Askham Hall and The George and Dragon. This is such a picturesque and tranquil lake, it really is worth visiting. The surroundings are epically beautiful and it is a particularly unspoilt and underdeveloped part of the Lakes, making it feel particularly special. Take the Ullswater Steamer boat on a ride across the lake to see it from a completely different perspective.

Whilst you’re there, a trip to Aira Force is essential. Owned by the National Trust, it is a truly magical 65ft waterfall nestled in a particularly secluded haven. There is a steep but safe climb up to the top of the waterfall, where one can cross a Victorian bridge and watch the waterfall from above, which is an enchanting experience. There are plenty of gorgeous spots for a picnic on site too, making it a lovely trip for all the family to enjoy.

Yet again, the Lake District proved itself to be the perfect destination for a long weekend. The surroundings always delight, there are new adventures to be had, and there is always somewhere gorgeous to stay and delicious food to enjoy. I can’t recommend a trip highly enough.

Thank you to Go Lakes for organising my wonderful itinerary and to Askham Hall, the George & Dragon and Kankku for looking after us so well.


12
Aug 15

Tasting the Best on The Isle of Skye

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Skye is the largest island in the Hebrides and also the most visited. With a reputation for its jaw-dropping beauty and superb food and drink, I set off to explore Skye for myself, and as always, to bring you the very best recommendations for things to see and do, and a tried and tasted guide to the foodie scene.

Of all years to visit Scotland, 2015 is a very good year indeed, as it is Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink. Aiming to showcase Scotland’s sensational larder and celebrate the wonderful things that are happening in food and drink up and down the land.

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Where to stay

During my trip, I visited two very different places to stay. My first port of call was Canowindra Bed and Breakfast at Penifiler, which is just outside of Portree on the eastern coast of Skye.

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Young couple Rick and Georgie have worked in hospitality for a number of years and relocated to Skye a few years ago, built their own home, and have opened it up as a four room B&B. Its description as a luxury B&B is entirely accurate. The house is warm, welcoming, peaceful and very tastefully decorated to an extremely high standard. The rooms are very well equipped with fresh coffee, homemade biscuits, and handmade Skye soap and plenty of Arran Aromatics toiletries. Beds are comfy with memory foam mattresses and pillows and White Company sheets. We had both a walk in rainforest shower and roll top bath in our en-suite. There is a delightful lounge and adjacent breakfast room for guests to use at any time, and breakfast is a real treat. Excellent coffee and juice are served with a choice of delicious fresh fruit salad, granola and yoghurt, followed by a fantastic cooked breakfast. Guests are given a sheet from which they can choose their breakfast items and the time they wish to eat the night before. I enjoyed the smoked haddock with a poached egg, and the smoked salmon with scrambled eggs was delicious. It was a fine start to the day, and there are even tables outside for guests to use when the weather is good, as the views are fabulous. Portree is just a couple of minutes drive away, making Canowindra a superb base from which to explore Skye. It is a faultless place to stay and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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Our next stop was Kinloch Lodge, Skye’s most famous hotel, which is home to the first restaurant on Skye to achieve a Michelin star. Kinloch was established by the prolific cookery writer, Lady Claire Macdonald, turning a former Macdonald clan hunting lodge into a hotel and restaurant. It is now run by one of her daughters, Isabella, and her husband. It is a traditional, small independent hotel that prides itself on its food and warm service.

Kinloch Lodge is found on Sleat, the southernmost peninsula on Skye. It is a spectacularly beautiful area, truly magical, and the lodge is tucked away at the top of Loch Na Dal, which is easily accessible from the main road onto Sleat. Many of the rooms and the communal areas offer fantastic views in all directions.

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The Hotel buildings include the original hunting lodge, which has been extended and a new, separate building offering more accommodation, just a few steps from the main house. We stayed in a luxury room, which was a large upstairs room, accessed by a metal spiral staircase in the extension on the main house. The room was comfortably furnished, with a seating area, large bathroom and tea and coffee making facilities. Communal areas include a bar-cum-reception, the drawing room and dining room, which are all accessible by a short walk across the car park. Very few rooms are inside the original part of the house.

The drawing room is an extremely pleasant place to take coffee or a drink, as the views here are just sensational and you can see down to the Loch and back inland, towards The Cuillin.

Many guests choose to take dinner at the hotel, which is part of its appeal. Head Chef, Marcello Tully has gained a Michelin star at Kinloch, and dinner here is fine dining as you expect. The combinations of ingredients can be unusual, but they work. This is rich, indulgent food, showcasing many culinary tricks. In fact, if you are curious to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes, you can spend the morning in the kitchen with Marcello, and help him prepare the lunch menu for the day, which we did and found fascinating.

Dinner at Kinloch is a formal affair, and many guests visit as part of a celebration; so do take the opportunity to dress up for the evening. Dinner is a slow-paced, allowing plenty of time between courses. I recommend booking for 7 for 7:30, allowing you time for drinks and canapés in the drawing room, and then take coffee in the drawing room afterwards. You’ll probably finish around 10:30-11pm.

The wine list is excellent, and we really enjoyed all the wines we tried. The house sparking wine is also very good, with which guests are greeted on arrival.

Food allergies are catered for very well, although we did have to keep reminding staff, as we did receive a number of items in error.

Breakfast is very nice at Kinloch. There are around 7 or 8 choices from the menu, with everything cooked to order. Choices include porridge, poached fruit, eggs and fish, as well as a cooked breakfast, instead of a cold buffet with pastries and fresh fruit which so many hotels offer. We really enjoyed the porridge, poached fruit with crème fraîche and eggs.

Kinloch Lodge is a lovely country retreat on Skye. You sense the heritage of the Macdonald family in every part of the hotel. In good weather, you are able to appreciate the stunning location and in bad, it provides a warm and cosy retreat from the elements. It is most unique as a hotel, as you really feel as though you’re staying in someone else’s home. It is quite different to any luxury hotel I’ve ever stayed in in this respect, and really does make a stay a memorable experience.

Where to eat

Our first dinner of the evening was at the Scorrybreac restaurant in Portree. Open only for the summer months, it is an exceptionally good restaurant. Chef Calum Munro is originally from Skye, and has cooked all over the world. Over a drink with friends from home in the Far East, they decided to collaborate and start a pop up from home, back in Skye. The venture was hugely successful and it lead to the opening of the Scorrybreac in a small building overlooking Portree Harbour. A visit is an absolute must, so be sure to book ahead.

This is a small restaurant with just 20 covers, and you will find people queueing onto the street hoping to get a table. One inside, the gorgeous sitting room-turned-dining room is a wonderful place to while away an evening. The welcome could not have been warmer from Heather and the food was absolutely gorgeous. This is an incredibly impressive operation, with Calum cooking singlehandedly, which is quite an achievement. The vast majority of ingredients on the menu here are sources from Skye, which makes the menu seem even more of a bargain price at around £30 a head for 3 courses. One aspect of the meal I that stayed with me is just how much other guests were enjoying themselves. Guests on every other table were savouring every mouthful, just as we were, and that was a real pleasure to see. Scorrybreac is also opening for lunch on some days of the week over the summer, so book now, whilst you can.

We also had a superb pub meal at The Old Inn in Carbost which is just a minute or two away from the Talisker Distillery. It was raining when we visited and this pub made for the most cosy and friendly shelter from the weather outside. Trade was brisk with a mixture of tourists and locals visiting. Local fish is on the menu, and we loved the Skye langoustines, delicious chips and the baked camembert. The service is super friendly and helpful and there is a good choice of drinks available. We really liked the Scottish Thistly Cross cider we tried. This is good, simple pub food done very well, made with great, local ingredients and it is a very popular destination for a good reason.

What to do

Skye is a dream for lovers of the great outdoors with 20 Munros, making the island a favourite with hillwalkers keen to tackle the heights of its Cuillin mountain range. The Black Cuillin is famous for its dramatic jagged ridge and the Inaccessible Pinnacle, a 150 ft rock making Sgurr Dearg the only Munro in Scotland with a summit that can only be reached by rock climbing.

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Aside from the Munros, Skye has many other interesting geological features  to see, such as the unique landslip formation, the Quiraing, the dramatic sea cliff of Kilt Rock on the rocky coastline of Trotternish, and strange rock pinnacles like the Old Man of Storr. The Faerie Pools of Glenbrittle are fast becoming a popular place for a swim thanks to its beautiful clear waters and spectacular surrounding scenery.

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The best activity we undertook on our visit was AquaXplore, a boat tour run by Bella Jane from Elgol. There are a number of tours on offer, and we had planned to head out to Canna Island to see the puffins, eagles, and if we were lucky, a dolphin or a whale. Sadly, the weather was unseasonably poor during our visit, so we couldn’t get out, but we were kept well-informed by David, who runs the company, and telephoned us every day to update us on the weather and who could not have been more helpful.

Eventually, the weather eased off, and we were able to take a boat tour around Loch Coruisk which was a totally magical experience. The sea was choppy, and the weather was pretty bad, but we sailed out to the Loch Coruisk inlet, in the heart of the Cuillin, where we saw scores of seals, who were due to give birth any day. The crew were outstandingly good and made the experience absolutely brilliant. They were so knowledgeable and passionate about Skye, it made the experience enormously informative and enjoyable. There is the option to disembark at the Loch and walk into the Cuillin, but we declined, in favour of a wee dram of Talisker 10 Year Old to set us up for the journey home. A superb experience, and what must be an essential part of any visit to Skye.

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If you are unlucky with the weather, and you have a wet day on your hands, then a visit to the Talisker Distillery Visitor Centre is a brilliant way to spend a half day. The Visitor Centre is absolutely superb and a visit is extremely informative experience. Talisker is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, set on the shores of Loch Harport with dramatic views of the Cuillin. This alluring, sweet, full-bodied single malt is really lovely and a very accessible for non-habitual whisky drinkers to try.

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Skye really is one of the most magical destinations you could possibly visit, and is an absolute haven for foodies. I can’t recommend a visit enough.

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Getting there

Skye is actually quite easy to get to, for an Inner Hebredean Island. It is connected to the mainland by a short road bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh on the A87.

There is also a foot and car ferry that takes you from Mullaig on the mainland (near the Glenfinnian viaduct, seen in the Harry Potter films) to Armadale on Sleat that runs around five or six times a day. The nearest airport is Inverness, and there are regular flights to Inverness from UK regional airports. From there, it’s around 3 hours to Skye. Drive past Loch Ness and stop off at Urquhart Castle en route.

We flew with FlyBe from Southampton, changing at Manchester, and hired a car from Arnold Clark in Inverness. Note that Arnold Clark are based in Inverness, so you need to call ahead to arrange a shuttle from the airport to their offices to collect the car, which takes around 15-20 minutes.

Thank you so much to Visit Scotland for organising this superb itinerary for me. For more information on holidaying in Scotland, please see here.

Taste Our Best – Taste Our Best is VisitScotland’s food and drink Quality Assurance scheme, designed to encourage more food service businesses to use and promote Scottish produce to give consumers choice. Taste Our Best makes it easier for visitors to find places where they can be sure of a truly Scottish quality eating experience. The award is made to hotels, guest houses, B&Bs, visitor attractions, restaurants, cafes and takeaways that meet both the quality and Scottish produce criteria

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15
Jun 15

A foodie minibreak to Cork

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Cork is Ireland’s second city situated on the Atlantic Coast in South East Ireland. At around an hour flight time from the UK, it’s so easy to get to and is a brilliant destination for a foodie mini break.

There are many reasons to recommend a trip to Cork. Not only is it easy to get to, but it’s an incredibly interesting city with lots going on, but is very manageable in size. The airport is just a couple of miles out of the city centre and it’s quick and cheap to get into town, either by taxi or bus. Cork is a very walkable city, too. Then there’s the unmistakable warmth and charm of the Corkonians, who are just so friendly, warm and welcoming, they make a visit so easy, relaxing and fun.

Cork is an interesting city set across two rivers. It’s home to the Cork Opera House, the Crawford Gallery, a delightful branch of Brown Thomas, Ireland’s leading top-end department store and the English Market, which is one of the best indoor food markets in Europe, which sells an array of wonderful Irish produce.

Where to stay

The newest place to stay in town is The Kingsley hotel, situated on the banks of the river Lee. Recently refurbished and reopened, having been damaged in a bad flood, The Kingsley has been getting rave reviews, so I recently paid a visit to check it out for myself.

The Kingsley is set out of the City Centre, and is a short drive or around a 20-25 minute slow-paced walk into the heart of Cork. There are taxis and buses running past the front of the hotel if you don’t feel like the walk. It’s a large hotel, but not too big, and is very well equipped offering pretty much everything a visitor could want.

Rooms are large, extremely comfortable and well appointed with giant beds, every comfort taken care of and giant, luxurious bathrooms, too. I had a lovely corner room which allowed me to look out over the river and also back in towards Cork, which I really liked. The room was extremely peaceful, and made a lovely base for my stay in the city.

The hotel’s bistro, The Springboard is set in a lovely, light dining room overlooking the river. There is also a chic restaurant at The Kingsley, called Fairbanks. The Springboard is a very nicely decorated room and is run as a more informal dining space. It was packed out when I visited, even on a week night. The menu offers a large choice of simple, familiar dishes, and staff are super-attentive and helpful. Portions are generous, and a large plate of canapés was brought to the table at the start of the meal. My food was served hot, well-cooked and nicely presented, and prices are reasonable, too.

There’s a lovely pool and spa available to guests, so be sure not to forget your swimming costume. Treatments are just gorgeous and use Pevonia Botanica products, which are really lovely. I tried a facial, which was a really lovely experience, and my therapist was delightful.

Staff at The Kingsley are extremely friendly and helpful. They’ll look after you extremely well but with an extra bit of Irish charm and friendliness, which is one of the loveliest aspects of a visit to Ireland.

A minibreak to The Kingsley and Cork City really is a fabulous destination for a luxurious minibreak and comes most highly recommended.


29
May 15

A guide to Snowdonia Mountains and Coast

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Snowdonia, or Eryri, as it’s known in Welsh, is North Wales’s National Park, covering 823 square miles. It is a popular, yet unspoilt destination for travellers from over the world. Famous for it’s breathtaking scenery, endless activities and superb Welsh produce, I recently paid a visit to check out the very best things to see, do, eat and where to stay in the area.

What to do 

The choice of activities in Snowdonia is wide and varied. As you would expect from a National Park, the scenery is astonishingly beautiful and there are a wealth of walks, cycle rides, train journeys and drives to choose from to take in the spectacular surroundings. The area also covers the Llŷn Peninsula and Cambrian Coastline, and the combined area offers a wealth of things to do. I have included our favourite destinations here, but to find out about the many other attractions, I recommend visiting the Snowdonia Mountains and Coast page.

There is genuinely something for people of all ages in Snowdonia, encompassing both young and old, single adventurers, couples, families and older visitors, but Snowdonia is particularly brilliant for family adventures in the UK, and for those with children of all ages.

Keen to encompass our inner adventurers and give some new activities a try, we found some really fun adventures to attempt across the area.

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Snowdonia Riding Stables

Starting the weekend off gently, we visited Snowdonia Riding Stables. Situated at the border of Snowdonia National Park, it is a very well equipped stable that caters from beginner riders to all-day hacks. We went for a guided group ride with Kelly, a really lovely girl who has worked at the stables for several years. We took our horses up a steep track, across a dramatic river and up the hills along the Snowdonia National Railway track to admire the views across to Anglesey. Our horses had a lovely nature, and we were able to improve our riding skills very quickly. Not only did we have an incredibly enjoyable and memorable ride, we left feeling as though we had really made progress under Kelly’s guidance. I cannot recommend a visit more highly as all levels are catered for, and there is plenty of tuition and provision for children to ride, too.

Llechwedd

The view from the top of Zip World Titan

Next, we drove down to Blaenau Ffestiniog, which was formerly a major slate mining town on the edge of the Snowdonian mountains. With the decline of mining in the area taking hold, Llechwedd Slate Caverns, a former hive of industry, has been converted into a tourist attraction. We absolutely loved it here. It is a really unique experience to travel underground and see the mines first hand. The tours are excellent and staff were a delight, which really made it a brilliant experience. However, there is much more to the site than this. In what felt like a brave move, I found myself being drivien to the top of a mountain looking over the mine to zip wire down to the ground. Zip World Titan is the world’s largest zip zone, which takes you over moor, mountain and mine shaft. The uplift minibus takes you up and up to the top of the hills, and the view is spectacular when you arrive at the summit. I did have a mini-wobble as I was being strapped in to the equipment, but the experience is quite unique. You can travel down at the same time as your party, on parallel wires, which makes it a particularly fun group experience. The feeling of exhilaration is quite something when you get to the end, and the views are astonishing. We completed the dare-devil experience at Llechwedd by visiting Bounce Below, which is an extremely unique experience taking you through rooms, cages and slides, inside a mine cavern in a series of bouncy rope cubes. Catering for children, and your inner child, it is such a fun and almost surreal way to spend an hour, it must be experienced whilst you’re here. With so many activities at Llechwedd, you could easily spend a day here. We left exhilarated from the experience.

Snowdonia 3

Driving towards Snowdon

The most famous attraction of the region is, of course, Mount Snowdon. As keen fell walkers, it was on our list as a major summit to conquer. Sadly, weather conditions were unusually against us when we visited. But we did manage to take the Snowdon Mountian Railway from Llanberis to just over half way up Snowdon to Rocky Valley.

The view from Snowdon Railway

The view from Snowdon Railway

Despite the weather, it was an remarkable experience and one I will be sure to do next time. The train climbs steeply almost immediately after leaving the station in Llanberis, and crosses two waterfalls before climbing up through the valleys to the summit. It is a truly wonderful feat of engineering and a wonderful experience – particularly special for anyone who is unable or unwilling to climb Snowdon. Both children and adults on our train were in awe of the experience. The reward is always the view at the top and being able to experience that without the walk is remarkable. Highly recommended.

Anyone who is interested in trains will also enjoy the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway, providing another opportunity to enjoy the outstanding scenery.

And for adventurous bike riders will enjoy Coed-y-Brenin Forest Park to ride the trails, or the trails at Llechwedd.

POrtmeirion

Portmeirion Village

For some more relaxed sightseeing, I highly recommend a visit to Portmeirion. I didn’t really know what to expect, but we loved it here. It is just so eclectic and characterful, and walking around the village is quite unlike anywhere else you’ll see anywhere in the UK.

Where to stay 

When choosing somewhere to stay, I found the Snowdonia Mountains and Coast website most useful, offering a wide choice of accommodation, from hotels to bed and breakfast, and all of which have been vetted and come recommended.

Tyddyn Mawr

My choice for the stay was Tyddyn Mawr bed and breakfast, situated at the foot of Cadair Idris and around three miles from Dolgellau in Southern Snowdonia. I chose it based on its excellent reviews online and was delighted with the choice.

I can only describe it as a very traditional Welsh farmhouse, inside and out, situated in the most delightful spot. The welcome we received from the owner, Olwen, was incredibly warm and genuine, making it abundantly clear from the off that we would be looked after in the most experienced hands. Olwen had thought of everything, from pre-booking a selection of tables for us to choose from for dinner, to arranging a number of gluten free options in advance.

Arriving in the dark on a Friday night after a long, long drive, Tyddyn Mawr immediately felt like the warm and cosy retreat we needed for the night. The rooms are large, comfortable and spotlessly clean. They have been thoughtfully decorated in a traditional Welsh farmhouse style, as you’ll see throughout the property, with furniture and doors custom made from local Welsh wood.

Localism is a theme at Tyddyn Mawr. Olwyn and her family are proud of their Welsh heritage and Olwyn’s language skills were most informative in my attempts to improve my knowledge of the Welsh language. In fact, in Gwynedd, Welsh is widely spoken, taught in schools, and spoken in shops, cafes and restaurants.

Being situated so close to the coast, fish features on the breakfast at Tyddyn Mawr, and we enjoyed some delicious hot mackerel and smoked salmon for breakfast. Olwyn also uses eggs from the farm next door, Welsh yoghurt from Llaeth Y Llan near Conwy and makes her own muesli, which is made using local honey from Dolgellau. Homemade jams made from fruit from a family garden also feature on the breakfast table. Gluten free options were no trouble at all. It is the breakfast you need to set yourself up for a busy day ahead.

Location wise, Tyddyn Mawr was superb. You could sit in your room and watch lambs bounding around the fields, or walk directly from the B&B up Cadair Idris, one of the most unspoilt and dramatic walks in Snowdonia. Dolgellau is an easy, short drive away, and from there, you are connected to major roads to explore the area further.

Snowdonia Sheep

Snowdonia Sheep

Where to eat

Our most delicious and memorable meal of the visit was at Y Sospan in Dolgellau. We enjoyed a very nice dinner here one night, with a good choice of tasty, well cooked, hearty meals. This isn’t fancy food, but really good cooking, and we thoroughly enjoyed everything we had, from a meltingly tender pork belly, to a giant fillet of perfectly cooked salmon and a lovely bottle of Gewürztraminer to accompany. This is exactly the kind of food you want to eat after a day in the great outdoors. The staff were very helpful and generous in offering alternatives for food allergies.

Bwyty Mawddach restaurant near Dolgellau is a good choice for a smarter meal. Their Sunday lunch is highly recommended. The menu is really lovely and the surroundings are gorgeous. It is definitely the place to go to smarten up and enjoy a special dinner. Be sure to book ahead though, as they do run a number of large events and tables to book up quickly.

A good café in Snowdonia is Conwy Falls Café in Betws-y-Coed. Great service and they do a nice breakfast as well as lunch, and Amelie’s Café in Conwy is a very nice stop off for a light lunch and an excellent slice of cake.

Thank you to Snowdonia Mountains and Coast for inviting me to visit Snowdonia.


13
May 15

A foodie guide to Dublin

31

Number 31

I recently paid a short visit to Dublin to check out the ever-changing food scene. Dublin is such a wonderful city to visit; either for a weekend mini-break or for a longer stay. It is a city that offers something for everyone, young or old, whether you’re interested in culture, history, or just a fun time.

The Irish food scene has been growing exponentially over the last decade, with a reputation for superb quality produce and a growing desire to celebrate the best of Irish cooking, translating it for a modern, International audience.

Always in search of interesting and exceptionally good places to stay and eat when away from home, and keen to get away from big chains, I set about visiting the most exciting independent establishments in Dublin right now.

Where to stay

My base for this trip was Number 31, situated south of St Stephen’s Green, which is one of the most frequented areas of the city centre. Describing itself as a boutique guesthouse, Number 31 offers all the luxury and service you’d expect in a top hotel, but with the peace, quiet and hospitality you’d expect in the very best bed and breakfast establishment.

Two elegant buildings are cleverly fused together to form this elegant city centre retreat; a Georgian townhouse and a most interesting Modernist mews designed by notable Irish architect, Sam Stephenson. Connected by a lovely, private garden and a most stylish central space featuring a sunken lounge and mezzanine breakfast room, it is certainly a characterful retreat.

The welcome could not have been warmer, and gave me time to relax with an excellent cup of coffee and some homemade biscuits after a long journey. Once shown to my room, I was given a key as guests are free to come and go as they please, adding to the relaxed atmosphere. Rooms are spacious and decorated in the same super-stylish décor as the rest of the property. Beds are wonderfully comfortable, the sheets are top quality and the bathrooms are deeply luxurious making it the private and relaxing space I needed for my trip.

Breakfast is taken in the mezzanine area in the main building. The choice is superb, including homemade muesli, fresh natural yoghurt, and a gorgeous rhubarb and strawberry compote. Everything here is homemade and done really, really well. There is a wide and tempting choice of cooked breakfasts, excellent coffee and of course, delicious homemade soda bread and cake. It really is a veritable feast to start the day off well.

It is worth mentioning just how delightful all the staff who were I met whilst staying. From the owners, to the young man who helped me with my cases, to the girl who served me at breakfast. They were all brilliant. It’s no wonder Number 31 is a secret Dublin bolt hole to so many famous faces. A stay here was a faultless experience and I’m looking forward to returning already.

Where to eat

The most exciting opening of late, in my opinion, in Dublin is The Fumbally. Its creation is the culmination of four years of cooking and experimentation before launching, and the food is just brilliant. Open for breakfast and lunch every day, offering an enticing blend of Middle Eastern spices, Mediterranean and Irish ingredients, I found it is one of those rare and wonderful places to eat where just everything is excellent. Go, as soon as you can.

If you are looking for a lovely place to buy lunch or coffee in central Dublin, I highly recommend Emer’s Kitchen. It hasn’t been open for long, and Emer herself is in there every day serving here loyal customers. It’s a cool new café and deli, again situated just off the Southeastern corner of St. Stephen’s Green. The coffee is excellent, the lunch menu is fresh, imaginative and prepared using well-sourced ingredients and the cake is divine. If I worked nearby, I’d be calling in everyday for my lunch. A takeaway lunch from here would make the perfect picnic to enjoy in a sunny spot in the square.

Ananda Indian restaurant in Dundrum is another exciting discovery. It is the leading Indian restaurant in Dublin and takes curry to another level. Every dish is beautifully presented, and executed with real skill by Executive Chef Sunil Ghal, and his team, who devised Ananda’s menu in partnership with Michelin-starred Indian chef Atul Kochhar.

Number 31, The Fumbally, Emer’s Kitchen and Ananda all offer a number of interesting options for dietary requirements.

What to do

Visitors to Dublin are spoilt for choice for things to see and do. Fortunately, the City Centre is quite compact, so it is very easy to cover ground on foot.

Culturally, there is much to do, from visiting Trinity College, the Irish Government buildings, the Castle and a huge variety of museums.

Those in search of fun will enjoy a visit to the Guinness Storehouse, and a drink and some music in the Temple Bar area, situated very near Trinity College.

For shopping, I think the best shop in Ireland, by far, is the Brown Thomas department store. Staggeringly elegant and jam-packed with carefully picked lines from clothing, to kitchen kit, wines and cookery books, it is the epitome of style from top to bottom. The Kilkenny shop is a very interesting place to explore Irish crafts and sells a lovely range of pottery and glassware.

Thank you to Number 31 for inviting me to stay.


08
Apr 15

A foodie minibreak to Belfast – Part Two

NIBelfast

This post charts my second visit to Belfast. This is a city that has rapidly become one of my very favourite UK cities, and I was thrilled to return at the end of last month. You can catch my first foodie guide to Belfast here.

NIOX

Where to eat 

The standout meal of our visit was, by far, Ox. This restaurant has a reputation as being the place to eat in Belfast and we looked forward to our lunch there for days. I had high expectations, and I have to say, this was one of the best meals I have had in a very long time. It exceeded my expectations in every way. This is a very cool restaurant with a pared back, modern interior and lovely views of the river from the front. Staff were fantastic, and we enjoyed the tasting menu with matched wines to get a flavour of the food. Every single mouthful was savoured and was deeply memorable. I love the natural ethos of the restaurant, with its focus on superb ingredients and skilled cooking, plus natural breads and wines. This is not a restaurant that focuses on formalities and stuffiness. It’s all about what’s on the plate and in your glass, which is right up my street.

First, we were served with some fantastic wine, a Terraprima Massis del Garraf 2012 and some slices of superb homemade sourdough bread. Gluten free bread is made especially for diners, which is a lovely touch.

We started with some pan fried Turbot with romaneso which was perfectly executed. A nice touch is that the chefs work from an open-plan kitchen, and the chef responsible for preparing your dish brings it over and tells you what it is.

This was followed by a sublime plate of Finnebrogue venison, served with fermented kohlrabhi, black garlic and mushrooms for a bargain price of £8.50. Next, was Châteaubriand with shallots, crosnes and horseradish, which was heavenly. We finished with a caramelized apple pudding, with treacle and fig leaf ice cream. Ox is everything I want from a restaurant, and I hope to return again soon. Exciting cooking, supremely good ingredients and flavours, exciting wines and good value. What more could you want?!

Seafood lovers will enjoy a visit to Mourne Seafood – a Belfast institution. Fresh, local seafood is served aplenty, washed down with a wide selection of wines in this casual, relaxed restaurant.

For a casual gluten free lunch in Belfast, the most surprising discovery was the Avoca café. For us, the formal café upstairs didn’t deliver, but the more informal self-service style café was actually very good. There was a huge range of scrumptious salads on offer, many of which were gluten free. This is good value, wholesome food at its best.

Next, where to drink. The bar at The Merchant Hotel is probably the most elegant spot in town to enjoy a cocktail. Although they’re not cheap, you get what you pay for in terms of ambience here. It really is full-on film set style glamour here, and is a really special way to spend an evening.

NISGM

Finally, where to shop. St George’s Market is a superb indoor food market selling all kinds of excellent meat, fish and vegetables, much of which is sourced locally. There are a huge number of food stalls there too, which are a very popular choice for a breakfast or lunch. Stop by on a Saturday late morning for some shopping, food and live music.

NIMural2

What to do

Belfast is famous for its Black Cab tours, and I took one by renowned Blue Badge guide Billy Scott, which was superb. Billy tailors each tour to your personal interests. He is both a fountain of knowledge and an absolute hoot. Interested in recent political history, Billy took me up to Stormont, and around some of the most significant and controversial locations in Belfast. It was truly an insight I would never have had without him. I highly recommend booking him.

NIDocks

Another highlight of the trip was a visit to Titanic Belfast. This is no museum; it is an experience, and a profound one at that. Beautifully presented, highly engaging and deeply moving – it should be another essential part of any visit to Belfast. Titanic Belfast is situated in the revitalized dockyard area of Belfast, famous for its ‘Samson and Goliath’ Harland and Wolff yellow shipbuilding gantry cranes which are a real Belfast landmark. The Titanic Studios, adjacent to Titanic Belfast are home to the Game of Thrones filming and offer regular studio tours.

Where to stay 

This time, we stayed at Malmaison in Belfast. It’s very centrally located, just five minutes from the main shopping area and Donegall Square. As you would expect from the Malmaison chain, this is quite a dark, funky, adult friendly hotel, which is famous for its glamorous cocktail bars and quirky buildings the hotels occupy. We really loved our Standard room at the hotel, which was very good value at around £100 per night for B&B for two adults. It felt really special and luxurious. What’s more, it was very wet and cold for one day of our visit, and it made a lovely base in the afternoon to retreat to, to warm up with a cup of tea and relax. Travelling is tiring! Breakfast at the hotel was good. It was very busy when we were staying, and we didn’t have the best experience service-wise, but the quality and choice of food is excellent, and I don’t feel our experiences are representative of the hotel overall.

Getting there

We flew from into Belfast City airport with Flybe, which run regular return services from a number of UK destinations. Our return flights from Southampton were around £150 each for a return Economy Class ticket.

Our car was hired from Enterprise in Belfast City Centre. They offer a free pick up and drop off service and deserve to be commended for their super friendly service. Car hire for over 25s for a small car is around £50 a day, and there is an option to add an additional no-claims waiver onto your rental charge, which we took.

Taxis to and from Belfast city centre to Belfast City George Best Airport are only around £7-10 a way if there is no traffic, and should take around 15 minutes. Belfast International airport is further away, around 30 minutes drive.

Thank you to Northern Ireland Tourist Board for inviting me over and making all arrangements for me


30
Mar 15

A foodie guide to Londonderry and County Antrim

 

NISPM

I recently hopped over to Northern Ireland, which is one of the most exciting places in the UK for food lovers at the moment. There are some seriously exciting things happening on the food scene there, and I have been keen to find out more for some time now.

There are a number of ways of getting to Northern Ireland – by plane to Belfast or Londonderry, or by ferry, to Larne, most likely. My first stop was Londonderry in the North West, situated on the River Foyle, and just 5 miles away from the border with County Donegall. The drive over from Belfast took around an hour and a half, up over the snow topped Sperrin mountains, which is a great drive.

Londonderry

Londonderry is a most interesting city. A walk around the city walls is an essential part of a visit, taking you high up around the city, able to take in panoramic views across both sides of the city.

The food scene is small in Londonderry, but there are some very good things going on here. I think the best lunch in town is from Pyke n Pommes, a food truck situated on the river Foyle, run by enthusiastic foodie Kevin Pyke. A converted truck is home to this small but thriving food business, where Kevin and his team cook a creative range of street food dishes, freshly made and served hot, with a smile, from the truck every day. What makes this particularly special is the sourcing of the ingredients used, with all produce coming from well-within a 15 mile radius, including locally reared Wagyu beef. We enjoyed a steaming hot lunch on a cold day of braised wagyu sirloin, served with perfectly cooked local vegetables and creamy mashed potatoes. Watch this space – this is an exciting year ahead for this small business.

Pyke & Pommes

For dinner, we visited Browns on the Waterside. There are a couple of Browns restaurants in Londonderry, which seems to be another thriving local business.

Browns was a brilliant choice for dinner. It is clearly a local favourite and it was packed out with people coming here for a special meal and having a great time with friends and family. It had such a jolly feel for a restaurant of its calibre, and it was a really great experience to visit a restaurant with such a warm and genuine celebratory feel. The food was excellent, with many ingredients locally sourced and beautifully cooked. Browns manages to fill a much-needed space – not fine dining but superb cooking, beautifully presented and served in a smart, but friendly and unintimidating environment for a fair price. Head Chef Ian Orr is a talented man, creating some seriously good, well-sourced dishes.

We stayed a couple of miles out of Londonderry at Beech Hill Country House Hotel which has hosted many world famous stars and politicians over the years. The hotel is very comfortable and the Reception staff are extremely helpful and friendly. The best tip for keen foodies is to skip breakfast and head into town. The Legenderry Warehouse No 1 is excellent, with local Bailies Coffee served, and a wide range of delicious locally sourced homemade treats for breakfast. It’s a really good find.

Londonderry is a great place to start a tour of Northern Ireland’s Coastal Route, which is widely recognised as one of the best drives in the world and really is a must if you are in the area for a couple of days. Three hours will give you enough time to complete the drive, although it’s a great idea to allow a day or even more to take it all in.

NICar

There are so many superb places to stop along the Coastal Route, including Dunluce CastleCarrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Rathlin IslandGlenarm Castle and more.

NIcar3

To break the journey, I stopped at Harry’s Shack at Portstewart for lunch. This is a small, newly opened restaurant set in a newly build wood and glass building on the edge of the beach, which is owned by the National Trust. Far from a traditional Trust restaurant, this is one of the most exciting openings of late in Northern Ireland, and indeed, the UK. Donal Doherty and Derek Creag, the team behind Harry’s Shack, serve up some seriously well-executed cooking using great quality produce and fantastic ingredients. Allergy suffers are very well catered for with plenty of choice on the menu.

Harry's Shack

Tap water was brought to our table when we arrived, without prompting, in a beautiful jug from local Moville Pottery. In fact, almost all of the tableware used in Harry’s Shack is indeed from there, and very beautiful too. It may seem unusual to mention the plates before the food, but to me this underpins how much thought and care has been put into every little detail of the business, and that, is a very good thing. Returning to the food, well, it was all superb. I started with a cone of whitebait, which were served piping hot, crisp and perfectly seasoned. Paired with a small dish of superbly balanced Marie Rose sauce, it was an excellent start to the meal. My guest chose a pork and pistachio terrine which was very good, too. Chunky pieces of meat, studded with pistachios and a delicious chutney served on the side made it a most satisfying starter.

NIHs2

For the main course, I had to try the fish and chips, which felt like the natural choice given our location. Every element was executed with skill; crispy, crunchy chips with a fluffy interior, juicy, flaky fish encased in golden, crunchy batter, and a dish of homemade mushy peas on the side. Pretty much perfection. The other main we chose was a gorgeous fish stew, made with hake, chickpeas, tomatoes and a saffron yoghurt to top. It was scrumptious, and made for a truly nourishing and satisfying lunch, tasting great and made even better in the knowledge you were eating a bowl full of delicious goodness. Sadly, we were too full for pudding which was the only disappointment of the lunch. A Bailies coffee set us up for the journey ahead and we continued on our journey.

NIGC

Our next stop of the day was our final stop. Giant’s Causeway. One of the Wonders of the World, this extraordinary basalt rock formation is really worth seeing. The site is operated by the National Trust and entry is around £10-15 depending on the type of ticket you require, and of course free for members. The weather changes so dramatically on the Antrim coast and so a visit can mean you will see the Causeway in a number of different light conditions, from glorious sunlight to moody, stormy conditions are all possible within the hour as we found, with a little snow thrown in too, so be sure to take your camera to capture the sensational views. Those fancying a bit more of a walk can follow some longer trails, and those unable to walk far can take the minibus provided down to the stones for a £1 a way.

We made a night of it, and stayed at the Causeway Hotel which is right next to the visitor centre and set high up on the cliff tops with really lovely views. Owned and operated by the Trust again, it is a simple but very cosy recently refurbished hotel that is extremely warm and welcoming, yet relaxed – I didn’t feel uncomfortable presenting myself at Reception on arrival having been soaked through to the skin in an unexpected hailstorm. There is a restaurant on site, and bar meals are available in the cosy, relaxed bar area, with roaring log fires. The food is not bad – dinner is more pub-style fare – but served by highly trained, very friendly and professional staff. Breakfast is very good, and the smoked salmon and scrambed eggs is recommended. This is a convenient and comfortable base to make the most of the Causeway, and we couldn’t resist popping down for another quick look in the morning before we departed.

NIcar2

Next stop, is Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which is a Victorian rope bridge, erected by salmon fishermen in search of the best fish they could possibly catch. Quite a feat indeed, and worth a short diversion from the coastal route to see, and indeed cross.

Bushmills is a town just a few miles away and home to the famous Bushmills Whiskey distillery. They run a number of tastings and tours and are a must for whiskey lovers in the area.

The drive from here back to Belfast takes you along the dramatic, rugged and beautiful coastline, running just a dozen miles or so as the crow flies from the Scottish Islands. It takes you up high over the hills, down over towering viaducts and round many twists and turns. Even at a leisurely pace, you are no more than two hours from Belfast, which is a great place to spend a few days either at the start or end of a trip. As I covered so much in my second visit to Belfast, I decided it deserves its own post, which is coming to you very soon.

Getting there

We flew from into Belfast City airport with Flybe, which run regular return services from a number of UK destinations. Our return flights from Southampton were around £150 each for a return Economy Class ticket.

Our car was hired from Enterprise in Belfast City Centre. They offer a free pick up and drop off service and deserve to be commended for their super friendly service. Car hire for over 25s for a small car is around £50 a day, and there is an option to add an additional no-claims waiver onto your rental charge, which we selected.

Taxis to and from Belfast city centre to Belfast City George Best Airport are only around £7-10 a way if there is no traffic, and should take around 15 minutes. Belfast International airport is further away, around 30 minutes drive.

Thank you to Northern Ireland Tourist Board for inviting me over and making all arrangements for me.


22
Dec 14

A foodie minibreak to Paris

Tremoille

Paris is one of the top foodie destinations in the world, and also an excellent option for a minibreak, as it’s so quick and easy to get there, particularly from London. I have just returned from a recent trip to discover some new places to visit. Paris is a city that’s slowly changing, with more and more new places opening up, and a slight change in feel to a more relaxed, modern city. Here are my top recommendations for a visit.

Where to stay

Hotel La Tremoille is a really lovely choice. It’s a small but deeply luxurious 5* hotel sat just a few minutes walk from the Seine and the Champs Elysées. It’s a deeply discreet hotel – you’d hardly know it was there, and a well-kept secret by its loyal regular visitors who find it a home from home.

The rooms are large, for Paris, and luxuriously decorated. Be sure to ask for a room with a view of the Eiffel Tower for you to enjoy. Beds are sumptuous and will give you the best chance of a good night’s sleep. Bathrooms are well-stocked with Molton Brown toiletries.

The Louis restaurant is excellent and a must-try for any visitor. Traditional dishes, such as terrine de fois gras are served with a delicious glass of sweet Vouvray wine, alongside more contemporary dishes, such as a roasted pumpkin with courgettes and toasted hazelnut oil and are both excellent. There is a small but very well chosen wine list to match and food allergies are very well catered for.

Breakfast is really delicious – the salmon and eggs are exceptionally good – and is an essential start to the day. Stoke up for a busy day exploring Paris.

Things to do 

The newly opened Picasso Museum is a must for anyone interested in contemporary art.

A walk along the Seine is an essential part of a trip to Paris, but it is particularly interesting to do so of late as there are lots of interesting things popping up along the river such as sporting activities, art exhibitions and installations. This is quite an interesting change for Paris.

Where else to eat

For traditional but very well executed Parisian brasserie fare, Aux Tonneaux des Halles is a favourite of mine. There are plenty of choices for people with food allergies there, too. Everything I’ve tried there has been really delicious – really well cooked, well sourced, unfussy food and a great choice of natural wines.

For afternoon tea, La Pâtisserie des Rêves is lovely, and there are a small number of gluten free sweet treats always available.

How to get there

The Eurostar is my favourite way of travelling to Paris. It’s a very relaxing, easy way to travel, with two services an hour running from London. The novelty of travelling abroad by train endures. Plus, you’re not limited on your luggage or subjected to the same security limitations and procedures as is the case when flying.

Rates for a double standard room at the Hotel La Tremoille start from €360 (£283) per room per night including a continental breakfast and wi-fi.

Eurostar standard class return tickets to London from Paris start at £69 per adult.


19
Dec 14

Last-minute Christmas baking

With just a few days to go until Christmas, here are my favourite last-minute recipes for Christmas cake and mince pies. Both can be made and adapted to a gluten free diet. Although we are bombarded with sweet treats at this time of year, I always think it’s worth making the time to get out some nice china, proper napkins and sit down properly with a steaming hot cup of tea to savour the most delicious treats of the season. Both photos feature my own Christmas baking styled with my favourite china, by Sophie Conran, fabrics by Sophie Allport and Cath Kidston and Robert Welch cutlery.

First, is my last-minute Christmas cake, which is extremely easy to make and requires no maturing.

Cake

Last minute Christmas cake

Makes 1 x 20cm/8” cake which serves 16-20

Ingredients

For overnight soaking:

300g dried fruit – I always use sultanas, not raisins

100g candied peel, chopped – I use homemade – a mixture of half blood orange, half lemon

400g jar excellent quality mincemeat

150ml brandy

For the cake:

150g butter

150g dark brown muscovado sugar

3 large eggs, beaten

1 tsp salt

1 ½ tsp mixed spice (ensure it contains cinnamon, not cassia)

Zest of 1 orange

Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

225g self raising flour, sifted (or use 200g gluten free self raising flour or 225g ground almonds)

3 tsp baking powder

Method

Start by soaking the fruit overnight. You can get away with around 4 hours soaking, but overnight is best if you possibly can. Place all the ingredients together into a large mixing bowl and stir well to combine. Cover with cling film and leave.

The next day, line your cake tin well using non-stick greaseproof paper. Preheat the oven to 150C Fan/170C/Gas Mark 3.

Place the butter and sugar into a bowl and beat together well. Add the eggs gradually, beating well after each addition. The mixture will be quite runny at this stage. If you have one, it’s a good idea to use a stand mixer or electric beaters here to ensure the mixture is beaten even more thoroughly than you can manage by hand.

Add the salt, spices, orange and lemon zest and the soaked fruit, including all the liquid. Beat together well. Finally, add the sifted flour and baking powder and fold in gently until evenly combined.

Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and neatly level off. Bake, uncovered for 90 minutes. Test by inserting a skewer into the centre of the cake. If it comes out clean, it’s cooked. It may need another 15-30 minutes covered to cook through if your oven is a little slow. Covering the cake in foil will stop it from browning too much.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 20-30 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. Remove the paper and allow to cool fully before wrapping and storing or decorating.

In theory, this cake can be eaten same day – it needs no maturing or feeding before being ready to enjoy.

Pies

Now, on to mince pies. I wanted to share my favourite recipes for mince pies with you – both for traditional pies and also for my gluten free version. Both are delicious.

Shortcrust Pastry 

Ingredients

200g flour

110g butter, cubed

1 egg yolk

Pinch of salt

3-4 tablespoons cold water

Method 

Place the flour and butter into a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles fine sand. Add the egg yolk and salt, and2 tablespoons of water. Blitz again until it forms a stiff, firm mixture. Add the remaining water as needed – remember that too much water will make the pastry too sticky.

Cover the pastry with cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for a minimum of 15 minutes or better still 30 minutes.

Gluten Free Shortcrust Pastry

Ingredients

275g plain flour (I use Doves Farm blend)

150g chilled butter

1 large egg and 1 egg yolk

Pinch of salt

Method

Place all the ingredients into a food processor and blend until smooth. Bring the mixture together into a ball. Flatten and wrap in cling film. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes

Both recipes make around 12 pies. You’ll need a 12 hole shallow bun tin and a couple of appropriately sized cutters.

You’ll also need one beaten egg as your egg wash.

To make the pies…

Once the pastry is made and chilled, preheat the oven to 180C/160C Fan/ Gas Mark 4

Roll out the pastry between two sheets of greaseproof paper. It needs to be about 3-4 mm thick, no more. It will puff up during the cooking process. The gluten free pastry will be more sticky to work with, Don’t worry, this is normal.

Cut out discs to form the base of your pies and carefully put into the tins. Add a teaspoon of mincemeat to each pastry base. Either brush the rim of the pastry base with beaten egg and add a disc to firm a lid, or alternatively place a cut out shape on top of the mincemeat. Egg wash your top or pastry shape and bake for around 18-22 minutes until the pastry is lightly browned and firm.

Remove to cool on a wire tray, although they are delicious eaten warm.

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