26
Sep 14

A sourdough class with Vanessa Kimbell

Sourdough

I am slightly obsessed with sourdough bread at the moment. The fact that it is just a combination of flour, water and salt is something that continues to amaze me. Personally speaking, I am on a quest to eat more natural food – I know I’m not alone in this respect – and sourdough is particularly appealing to me as it is such a natural product. Sourdough bread is also well worth exploring for its health benefits. It’s also ideal for anyone who avoids yeast. Some people who can’t eat wheat or bread at all find that they can eat sourdough. This is something Vanessa explains on her website.

For some months now, I have been playing with making sourdough at home, but have been disappointed with the results, so I decided to visit Vanessa Kimbell’s sourdough cookery school in Northamptonshire to sort my sourdough out.

Vanessa is a food writer, BBC broadcaster and third generation baker, having learnt her trade through baking bread at a French boulangerie every summer for over 30 years. With a deep knowledge of sourdough and a real passion for exceptional quality bread, she makes a first-rate teacher.

Vanessa runs a number of sourdough classes, aimed at anyone with a passion for sourdough, from days for complete beginners to masterclasses with some of the world’s most highly respected bakers – Dan Lepard and Rose Prince are lined up for sessions over the next few months. As I had already started to make sourdough at home, I decided to attend a sourdough clinic class – a chance to bring my starter, bread and as many questions as I could think of to ask Vanessa.

Classes take place at Vanessa’s beautiful Victorian home, which is found in a rural village just a few miles out of Northampton. One of the most special factors about her home is the kitchen garden, and Rocky, her gardener, treated us to a tour during our morning coffee break.

Classes are small – my class had six participants – meaning there is plenty of opportunity to get to know everyone, have a go at everything yourself, and there is plenty of time to deal with questions.

In just six hours, we covered an awful lot of ground. Starting with some theory surrounding sourdough chemistry, which is very important to know for the best results, to practical aspects of preparing and looking after a starter, to shaping, proving, or fermenting, and baking.

One of the most unexpected but enjoyable elements of the day was being part of a small group of really interesting people with a real passion and interest for sourdough. Although there is a lot to cover in the day, there was time to sit down to a delicious lunch as a group and enjoy a glass of wine and a chat with Vanessa.

Leaving, I felt enthused about sourdough and with the knowledge I need to be able to bake really great bread at home.

A class with Vanessa is highly recommended for anyone interested in making their own delicious bread. Here are some of the things I learnt:

  • Use Organic flour and pure water
  • Use a tried and tested recipe from an experienced sourdough baker
  • Keep a notes from your baking
  • A whole host of ways to control the results, enabling you to make the best loaf you can
  • How to shape your loaf, with plenty of hands on practice
  • How to make sourdough pizza, bagels, rolls and muffins
  • How best to bake sourdough in a home oven using a La Cloche baking dome from Bakery Bits, for the crustiest, most evenly baked loaves every time.

 

For more information on upcoming classes, please see here. Thank you to Vanessa for inviting me to join a class at the school.


25
Sep 14

Hotel du Vin, Birmingham

Hotel du Vin

When searching for a hotel, I always try and look for something a bit different. Unless you choose the most luxurious hotel groups, I often find mid-price hotels a bit, well, uninspiring. I want stay somewhere comfortable but interesting, and where I know I’ll get a delicious breakfast in the morning.

Hotel du Vin is a small chain of boutique hotels that aim to be a little different. The first site was founded in 1994, and the chain has since grown to 15 hotels, situated in major UK cities. Designed to be elegant and unpretentious, but offering convenient city centre locations, great service, excellent wines and delicious foods, I recently paid a visit to the Birmingham hotel to experience it for myself.

An attractive red-brick Victorian building in Castle Street provides the Birmingham home to Hotel du Vin. Walking in from the street, it was clear straight away that this wouldn’t be a run-of-the-mill hotel, with large marble columns and a double-sweep wrought iron staircase framing a glass-ceilinged atrium beyond.

Feeling stressed, I had booked a treatment in the hotel’s spa, and a sat-nav-related confusion meant that I was later to arrive than anticipated, so I just about had time to pop up to my room, before heading back down to the spa. First impressions of the room: very big, and very nicely equipped, with an enormous bathroom, complete with roll top bath and monsoon shower. I hardly wanted to leave.

Arriving at the spa, I was greeted by Cara, my therapist, who expertly ran me through everything I needed to know before getting started. I opted for a much-needed massage and facial using the spa’s signature ESPA products – a range I know and love. All I can say is that I could have stayed there all day. My treatments were deeply relaxing and enjoyable and I can honestly say that Cara was the most lovely therapist I’ve ever had. I’d go as far as saying it’s worth a trip to Birmingham to see her alone.

I could have stayed on to use the spa facilities, but I had a quick turnaround to get changed and go for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. There’s something really nice about being in a hotel and just popping downstairs for dinner. And the dinner at Hotel du Vin was really good. It was a cold and miserable night, so I opted for the Boeuf Bourgignon on the bone with a side of spinach, and I really enjoyed it. The food here is quite traditional French brasserie fare, offering a wide choice, food cooked with skill and served by well-trained staff. I think it’s fairly priced too, especially given that you’re in the heart of the city. The choice of wines is, as expected, very good, with a wide choice of wines by the glass, which is always a plus in my book.

Retiring to my room, I had a sound night’s sleep in a comfortable bed and a lovely monsoon shower in the morning. Breakfast, taken in the restaurant downstairs was also good, with plenty of choice, and made a great start to the day.

I left shortly after breakfast feeling relaxed, well-fed and pampered. It was a really enjoyable stay and I look forward to returning soon – this is a hotel that would be particularly special for a weekend break.

With thanks to Hotel du Vin for inviting me to stay for the night.


23
Sep 14

Copenhagen Cooking

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Over the last decade, much has changed on the Scandinavian food scene, and its influence really has reached across the world.

Copenhagen is now the epicentre of the food scene across Scandinavia and beyond. To celebrate, Copenhagen Cooking organise an annual festival of food with an agenda packed full of events to suit all ages and interests, and to celebrate all things foodie in Copenhagen and the wider area. I recently headed off to Copenhagen to see what was happening, and to bring to you a selection of recommendations for things to do and where to eat.

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Street food and markets

Torvehallerne is the largest food market in Copenhagen. Occupying two large halls with plenty of outside seating and street food in the surrounding areas, it is absolutely worth a visit, even for a look if you are not buying. It’s a real mix ingredients, food to go and food to enjoy in. A coffee at Coffee Collective is an absolute must, too.

Papirøen is also an essential stop for any foodie. Occupying the former newspaper storage warehouses down on the river near noma, it’s now an indoor street food destination, featuring lots of interesting independents who all sell food to go from inside the warehouse. There is a large choice of cuisines for every taste and plenty of seating both in and outside. With a strong focus on sustainability and recycling, the individual food stalls are made from reclaimed and upcycled materials, making it an unusual and eye catching destination.

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Fine dining

There is so much going on in the way of fine dining in Copenhagen at the moment. Most famously, there is noma – voted the best restaurant in the world in World’s Best Restaurants awards. Head chef René Redzepi is generally credited as being responsible for the revolution in Nordic cuisine, and it’s explosion throughout the world. If you can get in, you’re very lucky, and will have to book a couple of months in advance, but you can try for a last-minute cancellation on the website.

Next, is Relae and its sister restaurant Manfred & Vin. I only made it to Manfred & Vin, whose menu changes every day, depending on what is fresh and in season. Instead of ordering from a menu, diners are brought a succession of small but delicious dishes – six out of seven were vegetable-based. The food was fantastic – interesting and different. Flavours were fresh and vibrant. Standout dishes included large but thin slices of raw kohlrabi, topped with goat curd and black pepper. The lamb belly, cooked to perfection, served with chargrilled aubergine slices and topped with an anchovy sauce and dill was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time.

Tårnet is a newly opened restaurant housed in the tower of the Danish parliament building. Occupying a space that was, until very recently, completely unused, so the decision was taken by MPs to open the space up for everyone to enjoy. The results are quite remarkable, and a meal here is such a great experience. First, you must take the lift up to the viewing platform in the tower for one of the best views in the city. The menu is based around the best Danish produce, sourced from all over Denmark. Food is light, fresh and full of flavor. The wine list is interesting, too.

Coffee, cake and lunch 

The café in the Copenhagen National Museum is a wonderful place to stop for lunch. They have a bountiful buffet on offer every day, featuring a delicious selection of meats, fish and salad. They offered an interesting ‘Money Menu’ to celebrate Copenhagen cooking, with dishes inspired by the artefacts in the Museum featured on Danish Krone notes.

Claus Meyer is a founding partner of noma, and the head of his small eponymous chain of bakeries and cafes. The food and coffee is excellent, the coffee is seriously strong (and good), and the cafes sell a really interesting range of goodies to take away. An absolute must!

Lagkagehuset is another chain of bakeries found dotted around Copenhagen. They offer a good-value selection of lunch items and cakes – although I think the cakes are their strongest offering.

Fiskebar is also highly recommended for lunch – offering a lovely selection of fish, shellfish and fine wines. 

Beer and bars 

If you enjoy beers, then Viktoriagade is the place to go. Try Øl & Brød – owned by Mikkeler, who specialize in pairing bread and beer together. The beers are excellent, the food is exceptional (the pork scratching is something else!) and they even serve some really lovely – they even have the most extensive akvavit list in northern Europe!

Just a few steps away, you’ll find the Mikkeller bar – a place to go for a great selection of beers and a fun, relaxed atmosphere.

There are also some very interesting places in the meat packing district – allow yourself to wander and you’ll stumble across some very cool bars.

Where to stay

My hotel for the visit was the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, which is arguably the most famous hotel in Copengahen, as it was originally designed in its entirety by Arne Jacobsen – the designer best known for his swan and egg chairs, as featured in the Big Brother house. Anyone who’s anyone stays there when they’re in town. Although the rooms have been renovated and changed over the years, I would say the standard of accommodation is not at the level you’d find in 5* hotels elsewhere. It is a clean and comfortable hotel in a great location, right by the Central railway station, and is a must-see for design fans. Breakfast on the top floor is excellent, and offers some of the best views in the city.

How to get there and getting around 

Copenhagen is closer than you think, with a flight time of around an hour and a half from London. Norwegian Air offer good value flights from London’s Gatwick, and there are connections from airports all over the UK.

Once you arrive into Copenhagen, I recommend catching the train into the Central station. It’s easy to do, even without speaking Danish, and you’ll be transported into the city centre in around 10 minutes, for around £4 a way.

Copenhagen is an easy city to navigate – do take some comfy shoes as you can walk around the city centre with ease. Bikes are a popular method of transport and most hotels offer bike hire to guests. There is a good bus network too – for which a Copenhagen card is a good idea, making it easy to hop on and hop off throughout your visit. You can also use the card for the airport train service, too.

Thanks to VisitDenmark for inviting me to attend Copenhagen Cooking.


15
Sep 14

Cruising the Mediterranean

Cruise

I hadn’t really made up my mind about cruise holidays until recently. Having never experienced a cruise before, I wondered if I’d like the experience of being on a ship, and more importantly, what would the food be like?

So, last month, I set off on my first ever cruise – a trip around the Eastern Mediterranean with P&O Cruises, on board Ventura, to see what I made of it. We were to start in Venice and work our way around Kotor, in Montenegro, Corfu, Civitavecchia (the port for Rome, in Lazio), Ajaccio in Corsica finishing in Genoa, and flying home from Nice.

One of the most exciting elements about this cruise was that it was one of a number of foodie cruises organized by P&O. The Southampton-based company work with a number of celebrity chefs, including Michelin-starred Atul Kochhar and Marco Pierre White – all of whom have their own restaurants on board, and chefs come on board for selected cruises to join in the fun, cook for guests, hold masterclasses and run selected tours ashore. Atul Kochhar was to be our celebrity chef on board Ventura.

One of the main attractions of cruising to me was actually the places we’d visit en route. Being a fairly intrepid traveller, I liked the idea of visiting so many countries and cities in a week. The experience of cruising would be new to me, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it.

It turned out that I really, really enjoyed the experience. Our home for the week was a Deluxe cabin on board Ventura, which was more than spacious enough for us, with a giant bed, sitting room area and balcony. One of the particularly appealing aspects of cruising was having one base throughout the week. For the first time in ages, I could take the time to unpack and settle in to the room – normally, it’s not worth unpacking for just a night or two when staying in a hotel – and there’s no other way you’d be able to do that and visit so many cities in a week. What was particularly nice was having the cabin available at any time of the day, again, which is a experience you don’t get in a hotel, meaning you have your own private base any time you want it. Guests do still enjoy luxuries such as twice-daily housekeeping, breakfast in bed, should you wish, and full room service, which help make the cruising experience even more relaxing.

The standout experience however, had to be waking up in a new place every day, and enjoying breathtaking surroundings from the comfort of your own cabin. Waking up and watching Ventura slowly enter Kotor, past tiny villages clinging to the waters’ edge, looking out over glorious pine-wooded islands and turquoise sea in Corfu and cruising through the Straight of Messina are memories that will stay with me for a long time.

I found the cruising experience incredibly relaxing – particularly the fact that you often travel at night, while you relax on board or sleep in the comfort of your cabin, and that there are periods of enforced relaxation – i.e. sea days. In the week-long cruise, we had two days at sea, and both of which were, in fact, perfectly timed, breaking up a few days of intensive sightseeing.  Being the kind of traveller who’s always on the go, trying to see as much as possible, this made an extremely enjoyable change, and provided a much-needed break.

Of course, there is so much to see and do on board, you could choose just to stay on board in port – and many guests do – with swimming pools, a spa, a theatre and a huge array of activities to choose from, you needn’t leave the ship for the duration of your holiday.

If you are a more enthusiastic traveller, like me, you’ll be able to leave the ship at your leisure and do your own thing, or participate in one of the organised tours ashore, which were hugely enjoyable, and of course, an easy way to enjoy the very best to see and do ashore.

Now, I mentioned earlier this was a foodie cruise with Michelin-starred celebrity chef Atul Kochhar on board. Atul’s restaurant on board Ventura is called East, where Atul and his team serve up an interesting and imaginative selection of dishes with origins from all over the East. The curries and lamb rendang were standout dishes for me – with complex flavours, slow cooking and beautiful presentation, a trip to East was one of the highlights on board.

We also visited Marco Pierre White’s restaurant on board, The White Room. Serving classic European dishes with a contemporary twist, and a large deck with outside seating at the back of the ship, this was a particularly lovely spot, serving top quality, perfectly-executed food, both at breakfast time and dinner.

Travellers with food allergies can rest assured that they are well-looked after. The kitchens are experienced at dealing with food allergies and intolerances, and make a heroic effort to cater for anyone with restrictions with the utmost care.

Wine lovers will adore the incredible selection of wines on board, offering a selection of really interesting wines from all over the world. From Canadian sparkling wine with an ice wine dosage, to Indian whites, Colombia valley Riesling – you name it – you can find it on board (at a very competitive price, too!).

A cruise on board Ventura is one that would appeal to couples and families alike – with plenty of activities and night-time venues for adults, and a day and night kid’s club, meaning that everyone in the family can have a good time, too.

After a week on board, I left Ventura feeling relaxed, refreshed and invigorated having seen and done so much in the last week. I left a cruise convert, already thinking about my next cruise. P&O are launching a new cruise ship, Britannia which launches in Spring 2015, and I fancy a trip around the Caribbean with cake maker extraordinaire Eric Lanlard on board.

Thank you to P&O Cruises for inviting me to experience a cruise on board Ventura. We travelled on an 7 night cruise around the Eastern Mediterranean on ship Ventura, which runs as a 7 or 14 night option.

 


06
Aug 14

Meeting Jo Wheatley, 2011 winner of the Great British Bake Off

Jo Wheatley (Martin Poole)

Jo Wheatley (Martin Poole)

Back in 2011, Essex-based mum of three won Series Two of the Great British Bake Off, a series in which Jo wowed the nation with her baking skills. Judge Mary Berry even described her cupcakes as ‘sublime’.

It’s fair to say life, post GBBO, has been completely transformed. Jo is the author of two hugely popular cookery books, and runs regular baking classes from her home. Jo’s famous for her delicious and practical family recipes, which she shares on her blog, Jo’s Blue Aga. Here is one of my favourites, her crab linguine.

I recently caught up with Jo to see how this new chapter in her life has unfolded. First of all, I asked Jo how life is right now. And this is what she said: “I love how winning GBBO gave me the confidence to set up my cookery school and have a belief in myself. Also when so many publishing houses approached me wanting me to write a book, it was amazing, but at the same time a little scary. Pre-Bake Off I’d actually only ever ordered the weekly shopping on the computer and a had a go at a bit of social networking, so then to be developing and writing a whole book was a little daunting, but actually turned out to be the most wonderful thing. Recipe developing and writing is one of my proudest achievements and something I enjoy, and to my delight find that it comes naturally.”

Jo often gets asked what her favourite recipes are to make. She says, “the honest truth is it changes daily, but the thing I get most joy from is developing a new recipe. In my first book, A Passion For Baking, I made a coconut and cranberry pastry. I first tested it on my friends – they loved it and two and a half years later, they still say how good it was. That’s the wonderful thing about my job; it gives people joy, which in turn gives me great pleasure.”

And what about her family? “My Family all love different things, but I suppose the thing that they all really like are the cookies. I’ve been baking them since they were small, with three boys there were always a huge number of friends over. Sometimes we’d have nine boys running around the house so a batch of cookies would be gobbled up very quickly.”

Of all the recipes Jo’s written, the one she’s most proud of is her chocolate mud cake. “ I always say it’s like a little black dress, you can dress it up, you can dress it down, you can add to it, but it’s always there and never lets you down.”

Now, three years after her GBBO win, Jo’s books are stocked on shelves up and down the country. “It feels amazing” Jo tells me. “I remember my friend sending me a photo of my godsons standing by a big banner with me on it – their faces were hilarious.”

Despite all her success, Jo’s proudest achievement is her three boys. “I love them with all my heart, and when I see the men they have grown into it makes me feel proud. I think being a parent is the hardest job, you have your ups and your downs. It’s how you deal with them that’s important. Enjoy the ups and learn from the downs don’t let them define you. As a family be there for each other, I really hope my boys know that I’m always here for them.”

It’s so nice to have a job teaching something that I love” Jo tells me, when asked about her home cookery school. “I am also a real people person, and love chatting. When I was a child apparently if we went out as a family my brother Mark would fall asleep on the way home but I would speak non-stop for the whole journey. So to be chatting about something I love to a group of like-minded people is just fabulous, with the added bonus when they leave they have learnt to bake something they couldn’t bake before. Plus we actually laugh all day and as we know laughter is good for the soul.”

What’s next then for Jo, after the whirlwind adventure of the last few years? “More of the same, hopefully another book.” She says. “I recently hosted a column for a national paper which I thoroughly enjoyed doing. More of the food festivals and maybe some more TV.  I’m also I’m hoping to open a gastro pub in the not too distant future. I have been looking for premises but at the moment can’t find the perfect one. I go by gut instinct which drives my husband insane, I drag him round a zillion places that all look fab on paper but I just don’t get the right feeling!”

It would seem as though this is a start of an adventure that’s only just begun.

 


27
Jul 14

Boqueria, Battersea

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There’s a smart new tapas restaurant in the heart of Battersea. Boquería recently launched its second London restaurant, opened by none other than the Spanish Ambassador. Being a fan of their existing site on Acre Lane, halfway between Clapham and Brixton, I jumped at the opportunity to see what was going on at their new restaurant.

Occupying a prominent corner position, Boquería makes a smart first impression, with plenty of outside seating and a glimpse through the windows into the already packed out dining room at 7:30pm on a Friday. Greeted with a warm welcome, we were seated at the back of the tastefully decorated dining room – a position from which we could observe the dining room for the evening. There was a steady stream of diners throughout the evening – all of whom were served in a very friendly manner by the super-efficient, hard working waiters.

Starting off with some Cava, we took a look at the menu, whilst nibbling on some delicious jamón – not just any jamón, but acorn-fed pata negra jamón Ibérico, and some truly wonderful tomato bread. The quality of the ingredients used in just these two dishes filled me with excitement for what was to come. When you’re serving dishes as simple as these, the quality of ingredients is key – and is what transforms a dish from being good to exceptional.

Everything we tried from here on in was also very good. The chorizo was fantastic, the croquetas are to die for, and there is a wonderful selection of truly authentic, well-cooked Spanish dishes on offer. What was particularly nice about the experience was hearing other tables talking about how much they were also enjoying their meal.

The wine list at Boquería is really good, and of course, the really authentic choice of drink to pair with tapas is sherry. There are some excellent sherries on the menu, with the standout, for me being the Solara 1847 Oloroso. If you prefer white, I would recommend trying the cava – the Castillo Perelada rose cava is lovely, and red drinkers can’t go wrong with the Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero 2009.

This is authentic Spanish cooking at its very best. In fact, I’d go as far as saying the food on offer at Boquería is actually better than a lot of food you’ll find in Spain. And I say that having spent some time living there.

Although it’s newly opened, Boquería has found its feet very quickly, producing great food, and serving it confidently and efficiently, in a way that seems to be keeping the people of Battersea, and me, coming back for more.

A hearty dinner for two with a few glasses of wine is around £75, Thank you to Boquería for inviting me along.


03
Jul 14

Exploring Edinburgh

Edinburgh. Photo: VisitScotland

Edinburgh. Photo: VisitScotland

Edinburgh. The capital of Scotland. Named the ‘Athens of the North’ crediting its exquisite architecture and breathtaking surroundings, and famed for so many things. Fans of Harry Potter, Inspector Rebus, art, design, history, comedy, food and whisky will all find so much of interest in Edinburgh.

I recently spent the weekend discovering Edinburgh and had such a wonderful time. It is truly one of the great cities in the world and I urge anyone who hasn’t been to go.

What to do

Visitors to Edinburgh are spoilt with so many wonderful things to see and do. Edinburgh Castle is one of the most famous landmarks, and is really interesting. The views from the Castle are spectacular and wide-reaching, and you’ll be able to visit the Scottish crown jewels inside, too.

Calton Hill is a remarkable landmark. It’s a steep, but short walk to get up there, and absolutely worth the climb. With equally impressive views and interesting landmarks, such as the Nelson Monument (which you can climb to admire the city from an even greater altitude) and the dramatic half-built Athenian acropolis providing some wonderful photo opportunities.

Just walking around the compact city centre provides so much to see and enjoy. Take a camera, as every corner provides a new photo opportunity. A walk down the Royal Mile to Holyroodhouse Palace is recommended, and if you’re feeling energetic, carry on up to Arthur’s Seat for more sensational views. Pause to take it all in in the beautiful Princes Street Gardens in the very heart of the city.

If you can, head out to Leith, just a few miles outside of Edinburgh city centre to visit the Royal Yacht Britannia which is on permanent exhibition here. It is fascinating to look around, with all decks open to visitors, from the Queen’s former bedroom, to the engine room. Be sure to stop and take afternoon tea on board – a champagne cream tea is not to be missed.

Where to eat

You are spoilt for choice for excellent food in Edinburgh. VisitScotland operates a scheme called ‘Taste our Best’, a scheme awarding a badge to all establishments meeting their criteria of excellence, and ensuring that at least 40% of the produce that makes it onto your plate has come from Scotland.

Highlights from our visit include the amazing Contini restaurant on George Street. This is a modern and elegant family-owned Italian restaurant serving superb quality authentic food using the finest ingredients. You can really taste the quality of the produce used across their delicious menu. The service is top-notch and the owners were in on our Friday night visit looking after guests, which I think underlines their commitment to excellence.

The Witchery is an Edinburgh classic, a most atmospheric restaurant sat up on the hill near to the Castle. It is a popular choice both for lunch and dinner. The menu is fairly traditional with a strong Scottish influence. Book ahead if you plan to visit as this place is popular and often busy with tourists.

Where to stay

The luxury hotel of choice in Edinburgh is The Balmoral. Owned by the Rocco Forte group, it was actually the hotel of choice for J.K. Rowling to finish writing Harry Potter. There is even a plaque in the corridor to mark the achievement.

For a more affordable option, the Ten Place Hotel is very clean and comfortable and just a few minutes walk from the very heart of the city.

Getting here

Edinburgh is very well connected by rail to the whole country. Once you arrive, Edinburgh Waverley railway station is situated right in the very heart of the city, making it very easy to get around.

Edinburgh airport is also now connected to the city centre by tram, making it easier and quicker then ever to travel into the city.

For more information on things to do and places to see, please visit the Visit Scotland website. 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. My visit was organized by VisitScotland.


02
Jul 14

Ritz Carlton, Abu Dhabi

Photo: Ritz Carlton

Photo: Ritz Carlton

Visitors to the UAE will, most likely have a high expectation for their hotel. This is a country that prides itself on its luxurious surroundings and exceptional levels of service. We recently paid a visit to the Ritz Carlton in Abu Dhabi to experience it first hand.

The Ritz-Carlton certainly has the wow factor, not only when you visit for the first time, but in fact, every time you return to the hotel. It really is spectacular, with every bit of the glamour and luxury you expect from the name.

This is a really large hotel, newly built in a Venetian style on edge of the Arabian Gulf in several acres of beautifully manicured grounds. At the front of the hotel, a long, sweeping drive up to the hotel looks out across the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is quite simply one of the most awe-inspiring examples of modern architecture in the world. The rear of the building curves around the largest swimming pool in the UAE, and leads down to a sandy beach on the canal, where guests can enjoy the sunshine and relax in the warm, turquoise water.

The entrance to the hotel must be one of the grandest and most beautiful in the world, decked out in pale marble with spectacular flower displays, which makes quite an impression on arrival. Rooms absolutely live up to this standard, too. Acres of space, seriously elegant décor, fabulous views and complete privacy are assured.

If you are wanting to indulge in an even greater level of luxury, then an upgrade to the Club Level is highly recommended. The service is second to none in the exceptional club room, which enjoys the best views in the house up on the top floor. The staff up here really are the very best in the business and look after your every need, and, you are able to enjoy a huge range of excellent food and drinks throughout the day and night. What makes this extra special is the top-notch quality of the food and drink – it really is excellent – from breakfast, to ice cold drinks throughout the day, to the delicious Prosecco they serve in the early evening.

The food throughout the hotel is equally exceptional, too. Li Jiang oriental restaurant comes very highly recommended. There are so many delicious things to choose from on the menu, and everything we tried was fantastic. Food allergies are sensitively catered for, and the outstanding dish for us, was the must-try wasabi prawns which are unlike anything we’ve ever had before. Utterly fantastic and, incredibly, gluten free. Be sure to try one of their fantastic cocktails, too.

Mijana Lebanese restaurant was also an amazing experience for dinner. Sit outside if you can, as the views over the canal and fairy-lit palm trees are to die for. There is also live music every evening, which just makes the atmosphere even more magical. The food is brilliant, too. They even managed to make an incredibly delicious gluten free Fattoush for us!

There is plenty to see and do in Abu Dhabi, but this is a hotel you just don’t want to leave. Take your level of relaxation one step further, and visit the newly-opened ESPA spa on site. Set in a separate, deeply luxurious and private building, you are assured the most relaxing and professional treatments possible using gorgeous British ESPA products. Stay on a bit longer if you can, to enjoy the private relaxation facilities after your treatment.

A visit to the Ritz Carlton is truly, genuinely unforgettable and an opportunity to experience the very, very best in terms of luxury, hospitality, service, gastronomy and relaxation. Thank you to the Ritz Carlton for inviting me to visit.


01
Jul 14

A visit to East Lothian

North Berwick. Photo: VisitScotland

North Berwick. Photo: VisitScotland

East Lothian is one of the finest places to visit in Scotland. Officially the sunniest place in Scotland, and just half an hour outside of Edinburgh, you’ll find spectacular countryside, golden, sandy beaches with 40 miles of beautiful coastline to enjoy, and some seriously exceptional food. This is an absolutely glorious place to visit, and, if you happen to be in Edinburgh, then you really can’t miss out on a visit to East Lothian.

What to do here

Known as Scotland’s Golf Coast, this is a world-renowned area for all golf lovers to visit with a number of courses situated on the coast.

The beaches are stunning, with wide, golden sands, views across the Firth of Forth and interesting rockpools to enjoy. Gullane Bents beach is a delight to visit, as is North Berwick.

There are plenty of sites of historical interest and museums in the area. Dirleton Castle is highly recommended – a most interesting castle dating back to the 1100s. Much of the original castle remains and it is fascinating to explore. Children will love it, too. Be sure to allow time to walk around the gardens on a sunny day.

Where to eat

The food in East Lothian is very good indeed, partly due to the availability of superb ingredients grown an produced here, and also due to some really exciting things happening in food in the area. VisitScotland operates a scheme called ‘Taste our Best’, a scheme awarding a badge to all establishments meeting their criteria of excellence, and ensuring that at least 40% of the produce  that makes it onto your plate has come from Scotland.

Foodies visiting the area simply must pay a visit to Albert Roux’s restaurant at Greywalls Hotel. The legendary chef cooks up a feast of traditional French dishes with a modern twist. Exquisite cooking using sensational ingredients.

For a seriously delicious, lunch, morning coffee or afternoon tea, then Archerfield Walled Garden is not to be missed. In fact, it is a must if you’re in the area, as it has a fantastic shop selling a great selection of artisan food and gifts, too. There is a superb choice of food available on the menu which is served in generous portions. Good value and a very friendly atmosphere.

Where to stay

Lovers of luxury will instantly feel at home at the gorgeous Greywalls Hotel. Set on the Muirfield golf course, this is a gloriously comfortable Scottish country house type of hotel. Elegant surroundings and slick service mean you’ll be well looked after in a place that’s equally as delightful on a dreary wet evening, as a glorious summer’s day.

For a more budget-friendly option but lacking none of the glamour and comfort, Number 10 bed and breakfast in North Berwick has to be one of the very best in the country. Owner Mel opens up her picture perfect home to guests with a very warm welcome. Rooms are fabulously decorated, the beds are comfy and breakfast is really delicious, made by Cordon-Bleu trained Mel at a time of your goosing and served in her stylish dining room.

How to get here

Around 30 minutes drive from Edinburgh, East Lothian can be reached by car or by train. Edinburgh is well connected by rail to the rest of the country and you can change here for trains to North Berwick. Or, you can fly to Edinburgh and hire a car or catch a bus from there.

For more information on things to do and places to see, please visit the Visit Scotland website. 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. My visit was organized by VisitScotland.


30
Jun 14

Love your Lunchbox

 

Photo: By Martin Poole, from Love your Lunchbox

Photo: By Martin Poole, from Love your Lunchbox

I am not alone in my belief in the importance of a good lunch. A good lunch can lift your spirits, perk up a bad day and provide you with the nourishment you need for a productive afternoon. That said, it can be difficult when you are busy or travelling to ensure you have something good to eat at lunchtime. Most takeaway lunch options are not  good in terms of flavour, quality and nutrition, or even if they are, they have often been chilled so harshly, they don’t taste of anything at all. Food writer James Ramsden has just brought out his third recipe book, entitled Love your Lunchbox, which aims to get us enthused about packed lunches again. I am a great fan of the packed lunch, but I strongly believe that the most difficult elements to overcome when trying to prepare a packed lunch, despite good intentions, are ideas and planning.

This is a book packed full of interesting ideas for lunches – all of which are easily achievable, and I think it is a valuable addition to any kitchen as it contains so many lovely recipes, I defy anyone not to immediately start bookmarking recipes to cook over the coming days whilst leafing through its beautifully designed pages.

James and his team at Pavillion books have very kindly sent me a copy with permission to share this delicious recipe and images from the book (taken by Martin Poole) with you. For more details, please see here.

Griddled courgette and halloumi salad with toasted quinoa

Serves 2

Toasted quinoa is an excellent thing to have kicking about. Scattered over salads, tossed through pasta, or whatever, it adds a great nutty crunch to food. This particular recipe makes more than you need – it seemed to me that if you’re going to toast quinoa, you may as well do more than a single tablespoon. Store it in a jar.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Freezable? No

50g/1¾oz/⅓ cup quinoa

2 courgettes (zucchini), sliced thinly on the diagonal

2 tbsp olive oil

100g/3½oz halloumi cheese, cut into chunks

2 tbsp vegetable oil

salt and pepper

a good handful of rocket (arugula)

a few mint leaves, shredded

1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

juice of ½ lemon

AT HOME

Boil the quinoa for 12 minutes, until tender. Drain and dry on kitchen paper as thoroughly as you can.

Meanwhile, heat a griddle or frying pan over a high heat. Toss the courgettes in 1 tbsp of the olive oil and griddle for a couple of minutes on each side. Remove the courgettes, add a little more olive oil and the halloumi, and cook for a minute on each side.

Heat the vegetable oil in a non-stick frying pan or sauté pan over a medium–high heat. Add the quinoa and a pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until golden, crisp and toasty, which should take 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Toss together the courgettes, halloumi, rocket, mint, chilli and lemon juice, and add a handful of toasted quinoa. Store in Tupperware in the fridge for up to 2 days.

IN EACH LUNCHBOX

A portion of courgette and halloumi salad.

TO FINISH

Eat

Photo: by Martin Poole

Photo: by Martin Poole

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