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28
Jun 15

Inchydoney Island

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Inchydoney Island and Spa is found on a small island, connected to the mainland in West Cork, which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ireland.

The West Cork coastline is renowned for its rugged beauty and Inchydoney is situated at the eastern end of this famous stretch of coastline, making it a great base from which to explore the area. The hotel and spa are sat on the southernmost tip of the island, looking out to ocean – with the next stop being Spain! The hotel grounds lead on to a surrounding sandy beach and up the estuary towards Clonakilty, the Irish town famous for its black pudding, amongst other things.

Inchydoney Island really is a coastal retreat and is popular for relaxing weekend breaks, coastal tours and also, because of its idyllic sitaution, weddings.

The welcome was friendly and warm when I arrived, with a glass of Irish Mist, a whiskey based liqueur. My room was sat on a corner of the building, which allowed me to enjoy the view on both sides of the building. It was really large, with a balcony, and well equipped with everything I needed. As the weather was nice, I headed straight out for a walk along the beach before dinner. As lovely as the hotel is, when the weather is good, one feels called outdoors to enjoy the sensational surroundings.

I took dinner at the Gulfstream restaurant, which is Incydoney’s flagship restaurant. The dining room is set up on the third floor of the building, towards the front, so that diners can sit by the window and enjoy the best views in the house. The dining room itself is very pleasantly decorated and it was nice to see other diners dressed up for what was obviously a special meal for them. There is a huge emphasis on sourcing local produce on the menu at the Gulfstream, so it was great to see so much produce from the West Cork area on the menu for me to enjoy. The wine list was good, and I chose from the small selection of wines by the glass, as I was dining alone. A generous selection of excellent homemade breads and canapés were brought over before the food arrived, with the homemade soda breads particularly enjoyable. I had to resist devouring too much so as not to spoil my appetite. I chose scallops with black pudding to start and lamb with a sweetbread hot pot and roasted salsify for the main. I enjoyed both dishes, which were nicely cooked and generously portioned. Food allergies are well catered for, and there is a good range of options available.

One of the main attractions at Inchydoney is the Spa, which is, in fact, Ireland’s first seawater spa. There is a range of seawater treatments on offer for guests as a speciality, including a seawater massage bath, a detox bath and a colour light therapy bath. More traditional treatments use Elemis products. The standout for me was the service in the spa. I adored my treatment and my therapist was absolutely charming and really went out of her way to tailor my treatment to my needs. I felt really deeply relaxed when I left – and wished I had more time to enjoy the relaxation room.

Inchydoney Island really is a great choice of place to stay for anyone who is looking to get away from it all.


24
Jun 15

Ballyvolane House

Ballyvolane House

I pulled into the long driveway leading up to Ballyvolane House with a great sense of anticipation. In terms of places to stay in Ireland, this is one of the most unique jewels in Ireland’s crown, and I was so excited to experience it for myself.

Ballyvolane House is, in fact, a private home, situated in rural north County Cork, an historic, characterful and exquisitely decorated family home that has been opened up in recent years to offer quite unique luxury accommodation and some excellent Irish food.

This is a grand, yet comfortable and relaxed country house, offering six guest bedrooms – all decorated in their own unique style and with impeccable taste – and a selection of yurts in the gardens as par of their glamping offering. Everything at Ballyvolane screams good taste and luxury – as you might expect with the pedigree of the family who own and run the operation. Justin and Jenny Green are hosts with experience of running some of the world’s most-loved establishments, including the Jumeirah in Dubai, Babington House in Somerset.

The main house offers a cosy drawing room for guests to enjoy, which looks out over the gardens. I loved that it is packed full of interesting books and a wide selection of up-to-date magazines – in fact, I could have sat here all day and just read. There is an open fire, afternoon tea served in here, and an honesty bar just outside, where you can help yourself to a wide selection of spirits, including brand-new Bertha’s Revenge, which is Justin’s new homemade whey alcohol-based gin, which has been lovingly developed in the copper stills at the House.

Dinner is served every night in the dining room at 8pm. It is served family style on a large table, where guests all sit and dine together. It was a lovely experience, and even with the other guests on my table being German speakers, we had an extremely pleasant evening. The food at Ballyvolane is simple, delicious home cooking with a modern twist, and all made using superb quality local ingredients, including produce from the gardens and farm at Ballyvolane. The menu changes every night, and guests are asked if they have any food intolerances when they arrive. Guests can take a drink in the drawing room beforehand and take a look at the menu. To start, we were served with a lovely seasonal soup, alongside fabulously thick slices of home cured salmon and a scrumptious St Tola’s goats cheese salad, made with garden lettuce, strips of roasted red pepper, beetroot and toasted pine nuts, which was wonderful. The main course was a very traditional, but beautifully cooked loin of bacon, served with mashed potatoes, parsley sauce and carrots, with a rhubarb crumble and cheese to follow, then coffee in the drawing room. There is an excellent selection of carefully chosen wines on offer, with a couple of red and white options by the glass.

Breakfast is also taken in the dining room. The choice is wonderful, and as you’d expect, only the best local produce is used. I chose the superb cooked breakfast – I only went for a small version of the popular ‘Full Monty’ – and it was excellent, again made using the tastiest and most local ingredients.

There is so much to see and experience at Ballyvolane; walks down to the lake, up to the woods to see the bluebells, across to the walled garden to see the produce used in the kitchen and over to see the donkeys in the fields. The gardens were bursting with colourful flowers when I visited, and of course, there are the outbuildings that have been so lovingly converted into a dreamy wedding venue.

Every aspect of Ballyvolane House has been created with care, attention to detail, comfort and understated luxury, and it is a truly unique experience to be looked after by the owners and a small team of superb staff. It says a lot that on arrival, I just sat in my room for three hours, looking out over the garden, listening to the birds singing and reading some of the excellent books in the room. I haven’t done that in so long, and it’s such a rare thing to be in a place where one can truly switch off.

Ballyvolane House exceeded my expectations. And I can’t wait to go back.

 

Thank you to Ballyvolane House for inviting me to visit.


15
Jun 15

A foodie minibreak to Cork

The Kingsley

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

Snowdonia

Snowdonia

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.

Snowdonia riding

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.


8
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.

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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.


23
Dec 14

Top tips for festive drinks

Drinks

There are few things nicer than enjoying some festive drinks with your nearest and dearest at this time of year. Whether you’re having a small gathering at home or a large party, here are my top tips for making your gathering a resounding success.

–       Firstly, make sure you choose a small selection of lovely drinks to serve. Don’t feel pressured to serve a huge selection – just a small number of excellent drinks will be enough. Wine is always a good bet – mulled wine is lovely, but quite sweet and sickly, so wine is often a better choice, particularly if you’re eating. Choose wines you know will be good, rather than be guided by what’s on 3 for 2 or similar. For a reliable selection of excellent wines, I love Waitrose Cellar, who even put together lovely boxes of specially selected wines, which take the hard work out of choosing wine. The Buyers’ Favourites and Philip Schofield selections are excellent.

–       Next, make sure you use nice glasses – a great wine glass will only enhance your wine. I’m really enjoying my Sophie Conran glasses at the moment. They looks so elegant and are lovely to use. Make sure your glasses are sparkling and polished before using.

–       Continuing the less is more theme, I suggest keeping snacks to a minimum. Something like some good quality salted potato crisps and olives will suffice – and will be suitable for everyone to eat.

–       Christmas and New Year is a lovely time to get out some nice napkins and candles to make your room feel homely, cosy and festive.


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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