Dec 14

A foodie minibreak to Paris


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.

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.


Last minute Christmas cake

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


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


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.


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 


200g flour

110g butter, cubed

1 egg yolk

Pinch of salt

3-4 tablespoons cold water


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


275g plain flour (I use Doves Farm blend)

150g chilled butter

1 large egg and 1 egg yolk

Pinch of salt


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.

Dec 14

An easy, delicious Christmas


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.

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 (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.

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.


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