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17
Dec 14

An easy, delicious Christmas

Christms

At this time of year, I’m always looking for ways to make life easier. One of my fail-safe ways to save time at Christmas and to introduce a little joy into food shopping, is to do it online.

I’m always looking to track down the best ingredients I can get my hands on, so I bring you my top picks for Christmas food shopping online. Best of all, they’re all independent and are sending out top quality food at very fair prices.

I’ll start with meat, and turkey, first of all. Roaming Roosters have a farm shop in Pendle, Lancashire and offer an online delivery service. They sell whole, stuffed and turkey crowns online with home delivery. All their meat is sustainably sourced and free range and really delicious. They have some lovely products available and their turkeys are outstandingly good.

For pork and beef, the best in the business is, in my opinion by far, Peter Hannan, based in Northern Ireland. He supplies a whole host of top restaurants all over the UK and his beef and pork products are particularly outstanding. He even ages his beef in a Himalayan salt chamber installed in his Moira-based butchery in pursuit of perfection. His sweet cure bacon ribs are to die for, too.

Forget the supermarket chains for general groceries and try The Cornish Food Box Company. They put together a range of grocery boxes using superbly sourced, high integrity produce from people they know and trust down in Cornwall. They deliver nationwide. They’ll deliver all the essentials, including local low-GI bread, milk, yoghurt, sausages, you name it. This is exceptional quality farm-shop fare without the hassle of sourcing it and is excellent value for money, too. Boxes are flexible and adaptable, meaning you get what you want delivered.

And for all your Christmas vegetables and fruit, you can’t beat a Riverford box. Their delivery service is easy and reliable and their produce is consistently excellent. They’re passionate about seasonal Organic food and you can taste the difference in their boxes. If you don’t like anything you can request substitutions, and there’s always something interesting to try.


9
Dec 14

Magical Muscat

Al Bustan

Muscat is a seriously hot destination at the moment, and I’m not just talking about the weather. Following Prince Harry’s recent visit to the beautiful capital of the Sultanate of Oman, this coastal city has never been such a popular place to visit.

Oman is a spectacularly beautiful country – very different in landscape to its neighbours. Dark, spiky rocks and mountains encircle sandy cove beaches along its coastline with jagged mountainous terrain offering spectacular landscapes, wildlife and adventure.

Muscat, the capital, is a quiet, safe city, and offers visitors a glimpse into what many call a more ‘real life’ Middle East. Oman is a small country and therefore, its capital is small, but interesting. The Mutrah Souq and Grand Mosque are very interesting must-visit attractions, but Muscat really is a place to go for a proper beach holiday.

The oldest and best place to stay in Muscat is the Al Bustan Palace – literally a Palace, as the Sultan owns the top floor as a pied à terre. It is a super-luxurous hotel with a really authentic feel of the local culture. Many staff are very local to the hotel and know the area inside out. This is a hotel of legend – many talk of visiting as a child and it was their dream to work there – meaning they have a real passion and attachment to the hotel. The hotel’s grounds and private beach are jaw-droppingly beautiful and the hotel even has a water sports centre offering activities such as kayaking and snorkeling free of charge to guests.

This is a hotel which will appeal to foodies. Everything is made in-house by the super-talented team of chefs. There is an excellent buffer available every night offering a fantastic selection of food, and a fish restaurant based on the beach. Don’t wear heels, as you are sat quite literally on the beach, enjoying your meal and watching the waves break by candlelight.

Food allergies are catered for exceptionally well at Al Bustan. Nothing is too much trouble and they’ll make you whatever you need especially. Gluten free breads are exceptional.

The hotel also offers a good range of delicious Omani specialities, including hammour fish, Omani rice and lentils and sweets, as well as locally made halwa and sticky honey.

Al Bustan Palace manages to feel like a luxurious beach resort a million miles away from the capital, but in fact, it’s just 5 minutes in a taxi to old Muscat, so you can take a trip independently and see the colonial forts and Royal Palace very easily.

 

Muscat is one of those places that feels like a dream. Its unspoilt Arabian magic is charming and it’s a place to make memories which will endure.


7
Dec 14

Dreaming in the skies

Flying long haul is not always an appealing prospect. Especially if you have food intolerances to consider. With six, eight, twelve hours or longer in the sky to consider and not being able to take your own food or drink is not always a prospect to relish. I recently flew long haul with Royal Brunei on one of their new fleet of Boeing Dreamliners and the experience was so good, I wanted to share it with you.

Royal Brunei really impressed with their knowledge of food intolerances and how they dealt with it. It’s always important to book your special meal in advance so that you know you’ll have something you can eat. But what really impressed with Royal Brunei was how they came to find us on board and confirm our requirements, and then to offer a selection of things suitable to eat on board, so that we could choose something we liked. This level of care and attention is something I haven’t experienced on board a plane before. In fact, the level of service at Royal Brunei is exceptionally high. The staff were all so nice and nothing was too much trouble. The experience stands out even more after our last experience flying long haul with BA, who put a KitKat (containing wheat) in our gluten free meal. The service with Royal Brunei could not have been more different.

In fact, the overall experience was so good, we were actually keen to get on the plane and settle in on the way home, as we knew what was in store. The RB fleet is bang up to date and immaculately clean, offering all the amenities you expect and more on board. There is plenty of space – seats are spacious and the electronic flat beds in Business were so roomy, my 6’3” travelling companion could lie out flat to sleep – which is quite a resounding success in his book and demonstrates significantly more space than competitors offer. The Dreamliners are set up to provide more storage space for your luggage, have larger windows, technology to provide a smoother ride and better climate control which all make for a better flight experience – we certainly felt better than we would usually when stepping off the plane, which is a very nice feeling indeed.

Staff are on hand to provide drinks and food at a time of your choosing, and you can have as much or as little as you like on board. The only thing they don’t serve is alcohol.

Royal Brunei operate out of Heathrow Terminal 4 and offer daily non-stop services to Dubai and a number of international destinations, such as Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Australia, Bali and Vietnam amongst other destinations. Prices are extremely competitive too, which is particularly attractive considering the level of service is so high. Currently, special fares to Dubai from London are from £343.56 return in Economy Class and £1812.56 per person in Business Class. All that’s left to do is kick back and enjoy the ride.


2
Dec 14

A foodie minibreak to Belfast

Belfast 1

I’ve just returned from a whirlwind visit to Belfast to check out the up and coming food scene in Northern Ireland. After 48 hours in Northern Ireland, I left very reluctantly. It is no exaggeration to tell you that I was completely bowled over by the experience. Belfast is a most attractive city, with some really beautiful architecture to see and is culturally very interesting and vibrant. Further afield, you’ll find some of the UK’s very finest scenery – all a short drive from Belfast.

There are some truly innovative and exciting things going on in terms of food and drink in the area, with an ever increasing number of people turning to food as a career, creating some really interesting products using a mixture of time-honoured skills and bang-up-to-date techniques. Some have lived in the area all their lives, and an ever-increasing number are returning to Northern Ireland, with many having lived in London, Edinburgh and further afield, and are bringing their skills and knowledge back to the area. Belfast is also an increasingly attractive place to live, and some cooks and food producers are relocating, as the momentum around Belfast’s food scene grows.

Belfast 4

Where to eat 

Northern Ireland is a fantastic place to eat out for so many reasons. Firstly, there are some truly excellent restaurants in the city – and some very talented chefs working there, creating sensational food. The abundance of exceptional local produce at their fingertips makes what they do a whole lot more exciting, and it is a pleasure to be able to enjoy such good local produce cooked so well. It is also worth mentioning that Northern Ireland remains very good value – you’ll pay a lot less here for top-quality food than you can in many major cities.

James Street South

Serving contemporary Irish food, this restaurant has been in operation since 2003 under the ownership of Niall and Joanne McKenna. Over the years, they’ve added two more restaurants and a cookery school to their empire, based on, you guessed it, James Street South, in the heart of Belfast city centre. Head Chef David Gilmore cooks with locally sourced ingredients to create a relaxed, yet interesting menu, with an exciting wine list to accompany.

Deanes Empire

Michael Deane and his lovely wife Kate also own a number of food destinations in Belfast, and I managed to try several of them whilst I was visiting. Deanes Deli Vin Café is a terrific find that transforms itself from a delicious spot for some lunch, to a cool bar at night, with live music, fantastic wines and sensational food. You’ll be looked after by the charming and super talented Saul, who’ll ensure a brilliant night will be had by all.

Deanes at Queens is across town, near Queens University campus. Its Head Chef Chris Fearon is one of the most exciting chefs I’ve come across to date. Some of you may know him from the Great British Menu. His whisky maple cured salmon with samphire was sublime, and I’d fly back especially to have it all over again.

Deanes Eipic in Howard Street is at the top end of the Deanes offering and provides a glamorous and sophisticated setting for the evening. Young chef Danni Barry is a very talented young lady and her food is lovely. Her menu changes very regularly depending on what’s good – so you’ll be guaranteed the freshest and best local produce served simply, but with a creative and surprising touch.

Yellow Door Deli

This is one exciting Deli. Chef Simon Dougan (one of the loveliest men you’ll ever meet) runs this award-winning deli and outside catering business. Their food is to die for and they cater at a wide range of locations across Northern Ireland. Failing that, try their delicious breads in Belfast – they are really, really good.

Belfast 3

What to eat

Here are some of my delicious discoveries from Northern Ireland to look out for:

Shortcross Gin

This is a very special gin – distilled in small batches on the Rademon Estate in Downpatrick, County Down. Using the finest botanicals (a blend of juniper, coriander, cinnamon, orange and lemon peel and elderberries), their own freshly drawn water and a custom build copper still, they produce some truly excellent gin which is hand bottled, waxed and labeled before sending off to select retailers. Look out for it in Fortnum & Mason – it’s delicious.

Abernethy Butter

You may have heard about these lovely people on the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme some time ago. Will and Allison Abernethy make utterly delicious traditional, hand made butter on their farm which is nestled in the Dromara hills in County Down. This butter is made from local cream and just a dash of salt, giving a rich yet pure flavour to their exceptionally good butter. Each pat is hand rolled and wrapped in brown paper before being sent to Fortnum’s and other top restaurants around the UK. Simply divine.

Leggygowan Farm Cheeses

Leggygowan Farm in County Down is run by Adam Kelly – ex insurer, now cheese maker extraordinaire. Adam makes some really delicious blue cheeses and a fabulously silky goats cheese using milk from their own tribe.

Barley Cove

These baked goods were one of the real highlights of my visit. This is a true artisan bakery, based in Belfast that makes some of the most delicious breads I’ve ever tried. The treacle wheaten bread is out of this world. What’s even nicer is that the breads are made using traditional, time honoured methods. You will find the bread at Belfast’s St. George Market.

Lough Neagh Eels

These eels are a true Northern Ireland delicacy, in fact, a huge quantity is exported to Scandinavia, too. Lough Neagh is situated on the outskirts of Belfast city, and is Europe’s largest eel fishery. These wild eels are caught on the Lough, and sold either smoked or unsmoked. We tried the unsmoked eel which was delicious and is highly recommended.

Krazi Baker

Mark Douglas is such a charming man and an extremely talented baker. With over 30 years of baking experience he produces some of Ireland’s most famous and delicious traditional griddle breads on a gas-fired griddle at food markets and events all over Northern Ireland. His soda farls, potato bread and apple pancakes are all totally delicious. Stock up and enjoy them toasted the next day, too.

Suki Teas 

Based in Belfast, Suki teas create a really lovely range of loose leaf teas and interesting fruit and herb blends that are available widely across the UK. Their Belfast Brew and Apple Loves Mint blends are exceptionally delicious, and taste even better knowing all their teas are made using Fairtrade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified ingredients.

Mike’s Fancy Cheese

Mike Thomson is a farmhouse cheese making enthusiast and is creating some really interesting cheeses in Northern Ireland. Young Buck is a delicious blue cheese and the first raw milk cheese in Northern Ireland. A must-try.

Pat O’Doherty’s Black Pudding

Pat is a thoroughly lovely chap and runs his eponymously named family butchery in County Fermanagh producing some of the most heavenly black pudding I’ve ever tried. If you’re in Enniskillen, you simply must try one of his pork pies and black bacon.

Peter Hannan’s meat

Mr. Hannan is responsible for some of the finest meats eaten across the British Isles. His company produces a huge range of beef and pork products, which are just sensational and are sold in some of our best restaurants in the UK. All of Mark Hix’s meat comes from Peter, for example. Seek out his products if you can – they are exceptional.

Mash Direct

Established in 2003, Martin and Tracy Hamilton set up this award-winning company making homemade potato products and ready meals in 2003, to use the produce from their farm in producing delicious Irish dishes. They use ingredients and methods you’d use at home and their products are delicious and available in Waitrose and Ocado.


20
Nov 14

A foodie minibreak to Cork

Hayfield

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 minibreak.

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 manageable, walkable city, too. Then there’s the unmistakable warmth and charm of the Irish, 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.

There is only one place to stay in Cork – and that’s Hayfield Manor Hotel. It’s described as Cork’s leading hotel, and is where anyone who’s anyone stays when in town, and in this case, it absolutely lives up to its reputation. Hayfield Manor is a medium sized hotel situated up a private drive at the edge of town, and is a haven of luxury and glamour in Cork city.

This is a hotel that really makes an impression when you arrive – especially so at night, when it’s just magical. As we approach Christmas, this hotel becomes even more enchanting as its decorations go up and the lights are switched on.

Rooms are large, extremely comfortable and well appointed with giant beds, every comfort taken care of and giant bathrooms to boot – mine had a traditional roll top bath and marble sinks.

Hayfield Manor is well set up for foodie visitors – it has two restaurants and a ground floor bar. This wood panelled, elegantly lit bar is the most glamorous spot in Cork and is an absolute must for a visit, either for an elegant cocktail or a Irish whiskey tasting experience. The more informal restaurant, Perretts, serves a delicious menu of favourite dishes. It’s a lovely choice for dinner as the food is delicious and freshly cooked, made using Irish produce and served in a lovely environment with the friendliest of service but at a very reasonable price, too. Orchids is the hotel’s fine dining restaurant which is open at the weekends and offers an even more glamorous experience. There’s a lovely pool and spa available to guests, so be sure not to forgot your swimming costume.

Staff at Hayfield Manor are the best in the business and proud to work at this hotel. 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 Cork City and Hayfield Manor really is a fabulous destination for a luxurious minibreak and comes most highly recommended.


14
Nov 14

Downtown Dubai

Rooftop pool

Downtown Dubai is arguably the most exciting part of town for anyone visiting this astonishing emirate. This area of Dubai has become the hub of the city for anyone interested in visiting the world’s top restaurants, art galleries, and of course, for its business centre and staggering shopping facilities. I recently paid a visit to check out what was going on for myself.

DIFC, or Dubai International Financial District is, as you would expect, the financial hub of Dubai, but it is an area increasingly appealing to tourists because of its downtown location. It is close to the Dubai Mall, which offers the biggest and best shopping experience in the UAE, the Burj Khalifa is just around the corner and it has its own vibrant and exciting nightlife and cultural scene.

There is only one place to stay in downtown Dubai – The Ritz-Carlton DIFC. This hotel manages to perfectly balance understated discretion and opulence – behind the limestone façade, guests will find a haven of luxury and elegance which manages to suit both leisure and business visitors. What makes this hotel particularly special is the service. The Ritz-Carlton service is second to none, which makes it a genuine pleasure to spend time in the hotel. What makes the difference is that staff are so highly trained, and the service is so slick and organised, you know that they know who you are, what your requirements are, and really will ensure your stay is a good one. In a city with a large number of 5-star hotels, it is this level of service that makes a truly great hotel stand out from the competition.

Rooms are, as you’d expect, spacious, luxuriously fitted out and deeply private. All beds are decked out with crisp, super high thread count sheets and thick, fluffy pillows, making the most comfy and luxurious environment for a good night’s sleep. Bathrooms are marble as standard, with oodles of space and generous quantities of Asprey toiletries replenished every day.

For guests looking for an extra degree of privacy and service, the Ritz-Carlton club service is worth opting for, providing exclusive access to a refined and private space in which to relax or work. There’s free Wifi, food and drink served throughout the day. Breakfast is taken in the club, and you can pop in for lunch, afternoon tea and an aperitif in the evening. The staff not only look after you very well, but provide a concierge service for guests, taking care of your every need.

The food at The Ritz-Carlton DIFC is fantastic. Travellers with food intolerances are looked after very well. The gluten free bread served was so good, we found ourselves examining it closely to check if it actually was gluten free (it was). Usually, you can spot gluten free bread a mile off. There would always be food brought up especially for us from the kitchen and it was all exceptionally delicious. Café Belge is the hotel’s grand café (the first to open in the UAE) and is, frankly, much better than many you’ll find in Europe. It’s open to the public and worth visiting even if you’re not staying. The Wagyu burger is one of the very best I’ve ever had. The tuna tartare is sublime, and the apple and chicory salad so delicious, I was working how to recreate it at home after the first mouthful. The service is impeccable, and I’m planning a visit on a Tuesday night next time I’m in town to enjoy their jazz nights.

There’s a top-end steak house – Center Cut – in the hotel, which is very popular with locals and residents alike, No 5 Lounge and Bar where you can enjoy a delicious cocktail in elegant surroundings, and the Sunken Garden shisha garden which is open till the wee hours, so you’ll find plenty of lovely things to do on site. The newest addition is Cake – a ground floor patisserie and café which serves a breathtaking selection of superb cakes and breads. Gluten free cakes are available (and really delicious) alongside the exquisite must-try Ritz-Carlton chocolate and Grand Marnier cake – a work of art in itself.

The hotel has a lovely gym, indoor pool, top-floor rooftop pool (pictured) and a super-luxurious spa offering heavenly treatments for guests. A facial and massage are highly recommended – and as you’d expect, you’re expertly looked after by a highly-experienced team.

This is a hotel that will surprise and delight guests with its exceptional attention to customer service. It manages to be luxurious and opulent, yet feel homely. And there is plenty of interest, with a huge collection of art on loan to enjoy. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough.

With thanks to Ritz-Carlton DIFC for inviting me to stay.


29
Oct 14

A trip to Tuscany

Tuscany FFK

You don’t need me to tell you that Italy is one of the great culinary destinations in the world, but it is worth reiterating that there isn’t really such a thing as Italian food. Italy is a country made up of geographically diverse regions and as such, the food varies enormously from region to region, with ingredients dictated by the climate and landscape.

Tuscany is famous for its wine and olives, but also its use of other ingredients, such as boar, hare, duck and venison on the meat front, and also chestnuts and chickpeas, which are often milled into flour. Pork products also feature heavily on the menu, with sausages, and all sorts of salami and porchetta widely enjoyed.

Having spent a week eating my way around the region, I bring to you a selection of my top recommendations for a visit to Tuscany.

What to try

If you are a meat eater, a meat stew is a must. Try either a ragù, which may be made from boar, hare, duck or venison stirred through thick pasta such as pappardelle, or as a stew, served more often than not with polenta.  Tuscan salamis and cured meats are especially good. Casa Porciatti is a Tuscan institution and an absolute must for anyone visiting the Chianti region. Their salame toscano, porchetta, fresh sausages and soprassata are all must try ingredients. Lardo is widely available in Tuscany – both homemade and from Colonnata – so this is a good opportunity to try it if you are curious.  Ceci is a savoury Tuscan chickpea cake is really interesting – do try it if you can. And if you’re in Livorno, you can buy it in a sandwich, which is very, very good. Then, of course, there are a huge variety of olive oils and wines produced in the region. There are hundreds of producers throughout the region.

Interested to learn more about Chianti Classico – the wine of the region, I visited la Casanova di Ama vineyard in the heart of the Chianti region to help with the grape harvest and learn more about the wine they make. Their grape harvest is a true family affair. Visitors can come along to the vineyard for lunch and a wine tasting, which is a great opportunity to learn more about small-scale wine making in Chianti.

Cooking

If, like me, you find yourself a little unsettled after a few days away from the kitchen, you might want to consider self-catering. My base for the week was La Casanova, a cottage set on a hillside with commanding views across vineyards on the edge of Radda in Chianti – a small but interesting historic town. La Casanova is a cottage operated by To Tuscany, a small, local property rental company who offer excellent quality villas in the region. The villa provided a clean, comfortable and easy home from home for the week.

For keen cooks or anyone looking to learn more about Tuscan food, a visit to Jul’s Kitchen is very highly recommended. Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan food writer, blogger, who specializes in cooking and writing about Tuscan food. Juls runs small, personalized classes in her Tuscan kitchen which give visitors the opportunity to learn more about the ingredients of the region and to try and taste so many delicious local foods. The class starts with a visit to the market to source delicious ingredients to cook with and finishes with a sit down lunch with wine in Juls’ home. We made some excellent fresh gluten free pasta with her, too.

Gluten free

Italy is a great country to travel in if you’re gluten free. Italians just get it – even if you know no Italian, you should be fine – just remember to say ‘senza glutini’ if you are unsure.

Pretty much every restaurant will cook their sauces without flour so they are gluten free, and generally gluten free penne or spaghetti is offered, which is served with your choice of sauce. The only things they don’t really do are gluten free filled pastas such as ravioli, gnocchi and fresh pastas. Gluten free bread or crackers is often available, as are gluten free desserts. Many restaurants offer dairy free options – some even have a naturally gluten free menu.

Where to eat

Food lovers will find many things of interest at the Mercato Central (central food market). There are some truly beautiful stalls in this indoor market selling some really lovely Tuscan produce. You’ll find plenty of places to buy a meal here too, as well as somewhere to sit and enjoy it.

Vivoli gelato near Piazza Santa Croce is reputed to sell the best gelato in Italy. Whether that is the case or not is another matter, but their chocolate and hazelnut ice creams are truly excellent. It may seem a bit of an unpromising location to get there, but it is easy to find, and a very short walk from the hustle and bustle.

Antica Macelleria Ceccini in Panzano in Chianti is probably one of the most crazy places I’ve ever eaten. At first, it appears to be a beautiful butcher’s shop, offering wine, Tuscan bread and salami to everyone who walks in the door and blasting ACDC on the speakers. But ask behind the counter, and you can book a table upstairs or out the back to enjoy a delicious, leisurely meal featuring celebrity chef Dario’s famous meat products. There are a number of set menus to choose from which are very good value, and other dishes a la carte too, such as bistecca a la Fiorentina. All the food on the menu is delicious and the meat is superb quality. The menu is naturally dairy free, with gluten free choices available.

Fattoria San Donato is somewhere anyone wanting to try artisanal Tuscan food should visit. It’s just a short drive from San Gimignano (somewhere we didn’t manage to find anything good to eat – even the ice cream was bad!). I wouldn’t hesitate making a special trip again, or to drive out from San Gimignano just for lunch. The restaurant is situated in a rustic stone building on a farm, and the whole site is still family owned by a delightful couple who really care about artisanal, organic food. Lunch is simply a table of delicious homemade cheeses; cured meets, homegrown spelt salads, their San Giovese grapes and Tuscan bread liberally drizzled in their own olive oil. Paired with their own delicious white and red wines, and Vin Santo and cantucci to finish, it is a truly authentic, delicious lunch – so good I’d almost consider flying back just to have it again.

Exploring the region

There is so much to see and do in Tuscany; it’s hard to know where to start.  If you don’t want to drive or are looking for some ideas for a visit, I’d highly recommend booking Giorgio Fronimos for the day. Giorgio runs bespoke tours of the region. We found his recommendations to be absolutely spot-on for our interests – he took us to places we probably wouldn’t have discovered without him – and being driven around by him is a wonderfully relaxing way to spend the day.

Hire a car at Pisa airport using Car Rentals – they provide an excellent service and good-value insurance cover.

To Tuscany (www.to-tuscany.com; 0121 286 7782), invited me to visit the region as their guest. They offer more than 625 villas in the region. La Casanova, which sleeps two to three people and has a pool, and costs from £714 per week in 2015, villa only. Juls’ Kitchen is one of a number of cookery schools recommended by To Tuscany to guests and the Tuscan Country Cooking class I undertook costs €150pp for three hours, including food and wine, final lunch/dinner, an apron and a cookery book. Real Chianti offers tailor made private and group gourmet tours, €100-€150pp (depending on length of tour and number of participants).Wine tasting at Casanova di Ama costs from €25pp.


16
Oct 14

Cooking beef with Nigel Haworth

Nigel_Haworth_duo2

Michelin starred chef Nigel Haworth is one of the leading stars of the food scene in the north west of England. As the head of his own foodie empire, he’s passionate about cooking with great ingredients and is a supporter of the Quality Standard Mark scheme.

I recently caught up with him to talk about it. When cooking with beef and lamb, one sure way of choosing meat that is succulent and tender is to look for a quality mark.  The Quality Standard Mark is one such mark and is an easy way to identify beef and lamb that has been produced to a high standard. The Quality Standard Mark scheme for beef and lamb provides customers with high levels of assurance about the meat you buy and is independently inspected right from the farms the meat comes from through to the shops and restaurants in which it is sold. For further information and great-tasting recipes from the Quality Standard Mark, head over to their website.

What do you believe it’s important to look for when buying beef?

I will only buy my beef from a quality assured butcher, which has the Quality Standard Mark (QSM). I prefer cuts with a good covering of fat and a degree of marbling that have been aged from three-four weeks minimum for taste. I believe in smaller portions of better quality!

How much importance do you attach to the provenance and quality of food you buy?

Everything! It’s incredibly important to know where you buy your products from, to know where it’s grown and to use locally grown ingredients. Not only for better tasting produce, but to also support the local community.

What are your favourite cuts of beef personally?

It really depends what I’m using them for and which part of the cow I’m using. For pies I like using skirt of beef, which is full of flavour and for braising I like blade of beef. From the hind quarter I like rump but I also love oxtail.

If you had to choose one final supper, what would it be?

It would have to be peppered sirloin steak with home-grown potato chips and an abundance of seasonal vegetables. Nigel has very kindly offered to share his delicious slow cooked blade of beef recipe, which I have adapted to better suit home cooks using a large casserole dish or a slow cooker. A blade of beef is a great cut of meat. It is best slow-cooked and produces wonderfully tasty results with a little care and attention. It’s very economical compared to other cuts of beef, too. Your butcher will be able to help you source this cut if you can’t find it.

Slow Cooked Blade of Beef

Serves 8

Ingredients

450g pieces of beef feather blade, cut into 1” chunks

4 shallots or baby onions, peeled

1 large clove garlic, roughly chopped

100g bacon, roughly chopped

2 juniper berries

2 dried bay leaves

1 star anise

1 strip of orange peel, finely sliced

Pinch of caster sugar

10 ml red wine vinegar

120g carrots, peeled and cut at an angle in 2 cm pieces

60g celery, cut into batons

80g leeks, cut into 2 cm pieces

300ml beef stock

300ml chicken stock

325 ml good quality red wine

Method

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C Fan/Gas Mark 3 if you’re using the oven. Alternatively, use a 5L capacity slow cooker. Take a large frying pan and place over a moderate to high heat. Add a dash of oil and add the beef to the pan. Cook, turning regularly, until the meat is browned. This should take around 10 minutes. Once done, place the meat into the casserole dish or slow cooker. Then, take the onions, garlic and bacon and cook for around 10 minutes until the bacon is starting to brown lightly, and the onions and garlic are softened and fragrant. Add these to the casserole with the beef. Now, add the remaining ingredients. If you’re using a casserole, put it onto the hob and bring to the boil. Then, cover and bake for 2-3 hours. With a slow cooker, just add all the ingredients and set for 6 hours – you can’t really cook it for too long. Serve when the meat falls apart with mashed potatoes and green vegetables.

This dish features on “Autumn Comforts” at Northcote’s Cookery School.


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.

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