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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.

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.

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.

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.


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 (; 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.

Sep 14

A sourdough class with Vanessa Kimbell


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.

Sep 14

Cruising the Mediterranean


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aug 14

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

Jo Wheatley (Martin Poole)

Jo Wheatley (Martin Poole)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jul 14

Exploring Edinburgh

Edinburgh. Photo: VisitScotland

Edinburgh. Photo: VisitScotland

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

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

What to do

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

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

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

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

Where to eat

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

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

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

Where to stay

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

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

Getting here

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

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

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

Jul 14

A visit to East Lothian

North Berwick. Photo: VisitScotland

North Berwick. Photo: VisitScotland

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

What to do here

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

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

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

Where to eat

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

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

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

Where to stay

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

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

How to get here

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

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

Jun 14

Love your Lunchbox


Photo: By Martin Poole, from Love your Lunchbox

Photo: By Martin Poole, from Love your Lunchbox

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

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

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

Griddled courgette and halloumi salad with toasted quinoa

Serves 2

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

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Freezable? No

50g/1¾oz/⅓ cup quinoa

2 courgettes (zucchini), sliced thinly on the diagonal

2 tbsp olive oil

100g/3½oz halloumi cheese, cut into chunks

2 tbsp vegetable oil

salt and pepper

a good handful of rocket (arugula)

a few mint leaves, shredded

1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

juice of ½ lemon


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

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

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

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


A portion of courgette and halloumi salad.



Photo: by Martin Poole

Photo: by Martin Poole

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