The gardens at Le Manoir

The Raymond Blanc Cookery School at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons with Kenwood Chef Sense

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to Raymond Blanc’s beautiful Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire.  I’ve wanted to visit for ages, so I was beside myself with excitement.  As I drove up, I dithered outside the front gate in my car, not really knowing what to do, and instantly, a friendly gentleman in an immaculate suit rushed out to help, escorting me to the reception and driving my car off to park it for me.  First impressions?  Pretty darned good.

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Chip and Dale

Video: fabulous Disney dining and the free dining offer – just one week left!

So if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I headed over to Orlando last month to check out the fantastic dining options at Walt Disney World.  Here’s my video report from my trip.  Remember, you’ve only got one week left to book your 2015 holiday and take advantage of the free dining offer.  Read all about it here!

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The signature warm chocolate-banana torte at Citricos

Free dining with 2015 Walt Disney World holidays!

Our lovely visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando seems such a long time ago now.  I’m already pining for the sunshine, for Anna and Elsa, and, more importantly, all that amazing food.

Once upon a time (see what I did there?) I think most people thought that all you could probably eat while you were at Walt Disney World parks and resorts was junk food, or maybe Mickey-shaped ice creams.  Now, people are starting to realise that Walt Disney World features some of the best dining in the world, whether you’re after a snack, quick-service, grab and go option, or proper fine dining with table service.

So what can you expect?

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Frozen cupcake topper

How to make Disney Frozen cupcakes – a masterclass with Chef Jeff

One of my absolute favourite adventures while we were in Walt Disney World was a special, money can’t buy visit to Chef Jeff, Executive Chef at Disney’s beautiful Contemporary Resort, one of my top five Walt Disney World resort hotels.  Chef Jeff and his team are responsible for all the patisserie for the resort, from gorgeous special occasion cakes, to the wonderful cupcakes available in the café.

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The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

The incredible Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

So as I mentioned recently, I’ve been in Orlando for a few days with my friend Laura, experiencing the fabulous food (plus the odd ride, parade, and other lovely things) available throughout Walt Disney World.

One of the highlights of Walt Disney World for me is Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  I adore the showbiz theming – it feels like a real movie set, with all the main areas seamlessly blending into each other.

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Family English on the Allure of the Seas

The Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas: a guided tour

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, I’m pretty sure that you’ve noticed we’ve been cruising on the Allure of the Seas around the Caribbean.

Royal Caribbean challenged the boys to have a really active high-adrenaline cruise and I think we managed it, what with zip-lining, surfing on the Flow-Rider, snorkelling, power rafting and much more.  And while the boys were doing all this, it left us lots of lovely free time for lazing, eating out, sunbathing and a few cocktails too!  Here’s how we got on:

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Pizza in Rome

Food for thought in Italy

For food lovers, Italy is without a doubt one of the best places in the world for dining out. While the usual classics like pizza, pasta and ‘mamma’s tasty meatballs’ are indeed delicious, the culinary scene is vast and varied throughout the country. Italy boasts some incredible quality and a diverse range of flavours as each region has, over time, cultivated its own unique cuisine. In order to source the very best in Italian fare on a dreamy Tuscan city break or a fabulous Roman holiday, consider a few things to tantalise your taste buds.

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Manhattan

The beautiful NCL Breakaway: restaurants and entertainment

So as you’ll see from part one of my cruise diary from my trip aboard the NCL Breakaway, we were mightily impressed with all the facilities on board.  A big part of  ‘cruising like a Norwegian’ is the amount of flexibility in the choices you have: gone are ‘formal nights’ and, indeed, formal dressing for most of the restaurants, and instead you’ll find informal dining at a time that suits you.  That’s not to say you can’t push the boat out, dress up and have a proper evening out, oh no – they even have a name for it: Norwegian’s Night Out is your chance to get dolled up in your favourite outfit and have some fun, but if you want to wander to the buffet in your shorts, that’s fine too. Read more

Disney's BoardWalk Bakery

Cupcakes at the BoardWalk Bakery, Walt Disney World, Florida

So if you follow me on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook (and frankly, why wouldn’t you? There’s cake, beaches, ships and the lunatic whippet of mass destruction makes the odd appearance too), you’ll know that I’ve been visiting Walt Disney World, Florida.  I have loads to tell you – there’s news of the opening of the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a review of the frankly beautiful Disney’s Wilderness Lodge resort, and masses of food, fun and breaking Disney news (Avatar!!).

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Indian tapas at Mother India's Café

Edinburgh for food lovers

Last year I visited Edinburgh, home of my fellow food-loving friend Erica.  We toured some amazing restaurants and markets and decided to make our ‘Foodinburgh’ trip an annual occurrence.  If you think Edinburgh is all haggis, neeps and tatties (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I had my first taste of haggis too, delicious!), then think again, it’s a serious destination for food lovers, with no less than five Michelin starred restaurants and a fabulous array of affordable restaurants and cafés.  I’ve put together a list of my favourites so far, but I’ve got a feeling this could change –  we’re already planning Foodinburgh 2014!

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A 2013 roundup: one wedding, a few ships, beaches, restaurants and lots of cake

The last night on deck

With the boys on the deck of the Disney Magic

So we started January 2013 with a bit of excitement after my Dad’s Christmas Day proposal to his partner (by the way, the Dodgy Centre of Gravity reared its ugly head again after our cheese and wine tasting night when he’d had a few too many and fell over putting his shoes on at the end of the night).

In February, I travelled down to beautiful Blagdon to meet up with my Yeo Valley chums and have a nosey around their wonderful new HQ, and went on the adventure of a lifetime with my five bestest chums when we sailed the Caribbean on the frankly fantastic Liberty of the Seas (we’re Royal Mums, ambassadors for the Royal Caribbean brand and we take our job VERY seriously).  As you know, I’m big on spending your time and money enjoying experiences that you can cherish, rather than stuff, and this was right up there, believe me.  I came back with aching ribs from all the laughing (the horse riding through the surf in Jamaica might have added to that a bit, but oh, riding through an azure sea is one of my most treasured memories).  I also felt incredibly lucky to have shared an incredible experience with such incredible friends.  I love you guys.

Myself and my fellow cruise buddies with the Captain (Laura, Erica, Liz, Karin, Me, Capt Per, Tara)

Myself and my fellow cruise buddies with the Captain of the Liberty of the Seas (Laura, Erica, Liz, Karin, Me, Capt Per, Tara)

The ladies chillin' on deck with a cocktail

The ladies chillin’ on deck with a cocktail

The Liberty of the Seas at Labadee

The Liberty of the Seas at Labadee

April saw birthdays galore.   Charlie turned 15:

Charlie with his cake

Charlie’s 15th birthday

And Sam celebrated his 18th with karting, a party at home and a pretty epic double chocolate curly wurly cake

The gang at Rogue Racing

Sam’s friends at Rogue Racing for his 18th birthday party

 

Painstaking Curly Wurly application

Sam painstakingly adding the Curly Wurlies to his birthday cake

Then there was my Disreputable Dad’s wedding

De brevren on the dance floor

De brevren hogging the dance floor at their Grandad’s wedding

The boys with their beautiful cousin, Turtle

The boys with their beautiful cousin, Turtle, at my Dad’s wedding

In May, I headed out to the Cote d’Azur to experience the gorgeous Chateau Saint Martin in Vence:

Cocktails on the terrace before lunch

Cocktails on the terrace at Chateau Saint Martin, Vence

and then in June, we reviewed the Funky Fiat 500 and spent a wonderful family weekend at The Grove hotel with an exciting visit to the Warner Bros Studio Tour thrown in…

Gardens at The Grove

Gardens at The Grove

 

The boys on the Knight Bus at the Warner Bros Studio Tour

The boys on the Knight Bus at the Warner Bros Studio Tour

July was beautifully sunny and we spent a wonderful day aboard the Independence of the Seas.  The boys adored the FlowRider and it was lovely to meet up with all my besties and their families:

On deck

On the deck of the Independence of the Seas

I also spent a lovely weekend with my friend Erica doing an amazing foodie tour of Edinburgh.  Foodinburgh 2014 is already in the early planning stages!

Stockbridge Market, Edinburgh

Red velvet cake at Mimi's Bakehouse

Red velvet cake at Mimi’s Bakehouse

August was MENTAL with nearly three weeks of it spent abroad, in beautiful Brittany

Catching a glace with the fam in Brittany

Catching a glace with the fam in Brittany

and then with the boys on the INCREDIBLE Disney Magic – a real trip of a lifetime:

Minnie Mouse

With Minnie on the Disney Magic

 

'Jazz hands!' Charlie meets Stitch

‘Jazz hands!’ Charlie meets Stitch

We even managed to squeeze in a day in Barcelona with wonderful friends after desembarking:

Hotel Miramar, Barcelona

At Hotel Miramar in Barcelona with the boys

In September, Mr English and I squeezed in a quick weekend at Nutfield Priory

Terrace at Nutfield Priory

A sunny spot on the terrace at Nutfield Priory

and then in October, we headed off on an immersive wine cruise of Europe on the really quite gorgeous Celebrity Infinity…

Mr English

Mr English on the deck of the Celebrity Infinity in Bilbao

and then all that travelling squealed to an abrupt halt.  Because this little dude came along…

Little Boo

Our new little pupster

In November, Glam C and I went to Hogwarts Christmas at the Warner Bros Studio Tour:

With beautiful, snowy Hogwarts

With beautiful, snowy Hogwarts

and before we knew it, it was freezing, wet December then… bloody January again! (to quote Flanders and Swann).  We had a wonderful Christmas lunch at the Chequers Inn at Weston Turville: a seven course Christmas extravaganza with some amazing wine that really was festive, fun and very relaxing.  My favourite course was this stonking turbot with a huge crevette:

Turbot and crevette

Turbot and crevette

So here’s to 2014.  What’s on the agenda for this year, then?  More travel, certainly, more time spent with family and friends, loads of exams for the boys, more eating, more cooking, more relaxing, walking in the woods with our gorgeous new pupster and… who knows? My wishlist still includes Las Vegas (Britney, b*tch!), Australia and Thailand.

Thank you to each and every person who has stopped by to have a read, followed me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, or just blundered here via Google. I’m immensely grateful.  Wishing you a very happy and restful New Year.  May 2014 bring you peace, happiness and new experiences galore xx

My 2014 mantra

My 2014 mantra

 

The Immersive Wine Cruise on the Celebrity Infinity: part 1

Celebrity Infinity Bilbao

The Celebrity Infinity, Bilbao

And so we’re back: relaxed, revived and probably half pickled by now.  On the bright side, we’ll probably never go mouldy as we’re about 99% alcohol. I’m keeping away from open flames for a few days, just in case.

Ah we had a fabulous time.  We sailed from Harwich to Le Havre, La Rochelle and Bilbao in utter luxury and feel that we’ve learned so much about wine.  The wine tour was hosted by the lovely Oz Clarke (who, I believe, is actually 100% alcohol) and the equally knowledgeable and fabulous Tom Forrest from the famous Vinopolis in London.

Luckily for you, I took notes during all the wine Masterclasses and I have some incredible wines to introduce you to, as well as some wonderful wine and food matches.  Tom and Oz have a marvellous rapport (making it bloody impossible to take notes as they frequently finish each others’ sentences) and their wine masterclasses were hilarious, informative and, as you can imagine, a bit boozy.  They weren’t at all snooty or snobby and spent a lot of time talking to us about wine, both during the masterclasses and also rather late into the night in the martini bar!

iPad menu at Qsine

iPad menu at Qsine

The Celebrity Infinity is a seriously luxurious Millennium Class ship (although it’s somewhat knocking on in cruise world terms, being the grand old age of 12 and a bit), holding over 2000 guests, with several speciality restaurants, including Qsine (where a cover charge of $45 applies), a quite incredible modern dining experience.  At Qsine, you order an array of small plates (although they shouldn’t be called plates as the food arrives on everything but plates!) and then dive in and share, chat and scoff away while the waiters bring more and more delicious food to try.  Highlights for me were the lobster escargot and an amazing Moroccan banquet served on a kind of culinary ‘block of flats’ type arrrangement – quite incredible.  Plus, having two wine experts choosing wine to match your food choices made it all the more special!

Our stateroom on the Celebrity Infinity

Our stateroom on the Celebrity Infinity

People come back year after year for the Immersive Wine Cruises and we met some truly lovely people on board: Carol and David, Sharon and Bill, and new cruisers, Tony and Carla (who I managed to call ‘Sharon’ for a whole evening by mistake, and who was still nice to me).  It was great to share experiences with the group as they were from really diverse backgrounds and varied from seasonal cruisers to cruise ‘virgins’.  They all had a love of wine in common and it was a real treat to sample incredible wines, visit vineyards and enjoy food-matching dinners together.  Lots of people on these cruises strike up friendships and return to meet up again next time.

Our one gripe (if you can call it a gripe) was with the drinks packages which were a bit confusing.  The ‘classic’ package, for example, costs about £35 a day (costs vary) and entitles the cruiser to drinks, including coke, juice, tea, coffee, bottled water, beer, etc, up to $5.75.  It also entitles you to wine by the glass, cocktails etc up to $9.25.

The ‘three martini trick’ in the Martini Bar

This can be confusing as, for example, if you fancy a glass of wine that costs $10 you can’t have it unless you pay the whole $10 for it.  You can’t just pay the difference and add on £0.75 to your bill.  It can be embarrassing if you order something over your package price by mistake (or on purpose if you’re prepared to pay the extra) and have the waiter say ‘I’m sorry, madam, that’s not on your package so you’ll be billed for that’, and it’s a pain to trawl through a wine list finding things you can ‘afford’.

Still, you don’t have to buy a package (my maths isn’t up to whether it’s better value than just buying your drinks as you go along – depends how much you drink, presumably), and we were incredibly lucky on the Immersive Wine Cruise to be treated to all sorts of fabulous wines from all around the globe, and had the added thrill of being guided through the tastings by Oz and Tom.

Crepe Suzette in the Bistro on 5

Crepe Suzette in the Bistro on 5

Being on a cruise brings a whole new meaning to the words ‘all inclusive’ though.  Most nights we ate in the Trellis restaurant, where the food was superb.  Highlights included a delicious slow-roasted dish of short ribs that just fell apart, a deliciously delicate sea bass, and a surf and turf dish with a steak so enormous that it beat even Mr English.  Desserts were another highlight, and we felt it was lovely to dine at the table with proper waiter service.  It made the experience seem really special.  If you’d rather just eat buffet style, though, there’s the Ocean View Café up on deck ten where we ate breakfast (everything and anything you could possibly imagine, including eggs benedict made to order – yum).

We rather fell in love with a little place called ‘Bistro on 5′ ($5 cover charge) where they did lovely crepes, soups, salads and paninis.  we popped in most days and got to know the staff who led us straight to our favourite corner.  The decor is gorgeous, with muted gold leather sofas and dark wood. We also spent rather a lot of time at the Martini Bar where the bar is made of real ice and the bar staff make amazing drinks and entertain with all sorts of theatrical shenanigans, including pouring several martinis at once.

One of the gorgeous pool areas on deck

One of the gorgeous pool areas on deck

Away from the food and drink, there is a beautiful pool area with lots of different pools, whirlpools, etc, plus an indoor thalassotherapy pool which is gorgeously warm, even when the weather’s not up to much. There’s a wonderful AquaSpa, where I had my favourite Elemis tri-enzyme facial, but you can have anything from Keratin hair straightening to teeth whitening and botox if you so desire!  Mr English chose to pound the treadmill in the gym a few times.  I preferred a gentle walk around the deck or a coffee and a slice of cake in Café Al Bacio. Each to their own, I say!

Next up, then, it’s wine, wine and more wine.  Brace yourself!

 

Join Celebrity Cruises’ (www.celebritycruises.co.uk; 0845 456 0523) Celebrity Infinityon a 12-night France and Iberian Discovery cruise-only from £736 per person (based on two people sharing an interior stateroom).

Price includes a 12-night cruise departing from Harwich (England) and calling at Paris (Le Havre, France), Bordeaux (La Rochelle, France), Bilbao (Spain), Vigo (Spain) and Porto (Leixoes, Portugal) before returning to Harwich; meals and entertainment onboard and all relevant cruise taxes/fees. Price based on 19 September 2014 departure.

For more information or to book call 0845 456 0523 or visitwww.celebritycruises.co.uk

 

 

The reimagineering of the Disney Magic Cruise Ship – a sneaky peak (with video!)

The beautiful Disney Magic in port at Villefranche, France – ENGLISH MUM

So as you know, August was a busy one for me.  First of all we whizzed around Britanny for two weeks in our lovely (borrowed) Honda CR-V, and then, with the most ridiculous timing known to man, we got home on the Friday night at 11pm and had to be at Heathrow at 5am the next morning to grab a flight to Barcelona to meet up with the Disney Magic, Disney’s wonderful cruise ship.

Our favourite sunbeds on the deck

Our favourite sunbeds on the deck

Are we mental? Yes, possibly, but this was a trip that I just couldn’t miss. Let me explain: the Disney Magic was Disney’s first cruise ship and is thought of especially fondly by everyone who loves Disney cruising (and Disney in general).  The boys and I were lucky to cruise around the Mediterranean, visiting Villefranche in France, La Spezia, Civitavecchia and Naples in Italy, before returning to Barcelona (more of all these amazing shore adventures later). Shortly after this, the Magic was heading to Cadiz to undergo a complete transformation under Disney’s incredibly talented team of ‘Imagineers’ (I love this name).

The Disney Magic is 15 years old.  FIFTEEN!  But obviously you’d never know it because nothing has ever been allowed to get old – there are no bits of bare carpet or faded curtains aboard a Disney ship – everything is monitored very carefully and has been kept pristine over the years, but still, fashions change, technology moves on, and Disney Cruise Line felt that the Magic deserved a flashy new makeover!

'Jazz hands!' Charlie meets Stitch

‘Jazz hands!’ Charlie meets Stitch

While we were on board, as well as getting the chance to visit Monaco, Rome and Pompeii, we had a once in a lifetime chance to spend time with lovely Frank De Heer, basically the  ‘Chief Imagineer’, but officially the Vice President of Disney Cruise Line Operations, and in charge of the Disney Magic’s incredible new look.  We wandered corridors, looked at public areas, staterooms, restaurants and kids’ clubs, all the time listening to Frank telling us his grand plans for each area, getting all the insider info about how the ship is going to look, including exclusive peeks at the new designs.  Here’s what I found out:

The Grand Atrium Lobby

This is the area where you first walk onto the ship (and where they introduce you and all the staff give you a round of applause, which always makes me cry).  It’s going to be completely transformed into an elegant Art Deco wonder, inspired by the sea, with a gorgeous new chandelier, and opened out by losing one of the staircases, but the much-loved ‘Helmsman Mickey’ bronze statue will stay, receiving a buff and polish to give him back his shine!

How the new atrium lobby will look pic: (c) Disney Cruise Line

How the new atrium lobby will look. Pic: (c) Disney Cruise Line

The pool areas and upper decks

We’ll be waving goodbye to the lovely Mickey pool (sniff), but the whole area is going to be reimagined, with a Huey, Dewey and Louie theme. There’ll be a fabulous new ”AquaDunk’ slide, which will take up three storeys of the deck and extend 20 feet out over the edge of the ship (and yup, you guessed it, it’s transparent!), and for the tiddlers, there’ll be an interactive water playground with jets, fountains and bubbly things galore, oh and a smaller slide called the ‘Twist’n’Spout’ so they don’t miss out!

Children's pool area

The current children’s pool area – we’ll be waving goodbye to Mickey! – ENGLISH MUM

Here’s a sneaky peak at the new look ‘Aqua Lab’ (with kind permission of Disney Cruise Line):

The new Aqua Lab water playground. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

The new Aqua Lab water playground. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

Restaurant areas

One of the things I loved about the whole project to reimagine the Disney Magic was that there was a sense of not fixing what isn’t broken.  The Animator’s Palate is one of my favourite places.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but the black and white line drawings in the restaurant REALLY come alive at night, and it’s a huge favourite with the guests (the food is amazing), and so the place will stay the same, but with a bit of sprucing up: state of the art new high-def flat screens, new animation, and updated characters too, including Disney-Pixar favourites.

One place that is going to change is Parrot Cay, the restaurant that provides buffet dining for breakfast and lunch, then a full service experience in the evening.  It’s going to be an AMAZING new, much bigger restaurant called Carioca’s (I’ve seen the pictures, oh my goodness), with a South American theme.  In the evening, it’ll be like dining al fresco in Rio. It’s gorgeous, with softly lit windows and amazing lanterns hanging from the ceiling.

Other bars and restaurants are being reimagined, and there’s a whole newly designed adult entertainment district called After Hours.  Ooh, and a new Irish pub and sports bar called O’Gills!  Lastly but not least, my favourite restaurant, Palo, will receive its own sprinkle of pixie dust, with new stone floors and glass artwork in keeping with its Venetian theme.

The Animator’s Palate – ENGLISH MUM

The Kids’ Clubs

When we were on the Disney Dream, I was really impressed by the kids’ club spaces.  The Disney Magic is going to take on a lot of those ideas, and more besides.  As you know, Marvel have now joined the Disney family and Marvel’s Avengers Academy, where the kids get to train to be a super hero through special missions, looks set to be fabulous, including Captain America’s shield and IRON MAN’S SUIT!!!:

DM-Avengers-Academy-640x288

The new Marvel’s Avengers Academy. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

My favourite new space by far, though, is going to be ‘Andy’s Room’, featuring a huge version of Andy’s bed, complete with a Slinky Dog slide and an enormous Mr Potato Head and everyone’s favourite piggy, Hamm.

Andy's Room. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

Andy’s Room. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

There will also be a new It’s a Small World Nursery for the youngest cruisers aged 3 months to 3 years, and Pixie Hollow for all the little fans of Tinker Bell (sadly, I’m too old) where there is a COSTUME CLOSET (be still my beating heart) shaped like Tinker Bell’s teapot house. The cuteness! It burns!

The Spa

The already-gorgeous spa with incredible ocean views is being expanded and redesigned and will offer a special new Chill Spa especially for teenagers aged 13 to 17.

The Staterooms

All the staterooms will be getting their own reimagineering too, with more space made available by clever imagineering like elevating the beds to provide storage underneath and obviously all-new soft furnishings and bathrooms.

The new staterooms. Pic: (c) Disney Cruise Line

The new staterooms. Pic: (c) Disney Cruise Line

All this work will be completed in Cadiz by October 10th and then in 2014 the Magic will be heading back to join the Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy in Port Canaveral, Florida (the Disney Wonder home ports in Miami).

And what’s all this going to cost?  I hear you cry?

Just enough‘, says Frank, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘and not a dime more‘.

7-night Disney Magic Mediterranean Cruise from £949 per adult and £699 per child.  Virgin Holidays Cruises offers seven nights onboard Disney Magic from Barcelona, calling at Villefranche (for Nice, France), Pisa, Rome and Naples, including flights from London Gatwick and transfers. Prices are per person based on two adults and two children travelling and sharing an inside cabin on a full-board basis. Based on a departure on 30 August 2014. Offer is subject to availability and includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change.
To book: Visit www.virginholidayscruises.co.uk, call 0844 573 4398 or visit one of our stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.

Palo seared tuna with potato risotto

Seared tuna with potato risotto

One of my favourite moments aboard the Disney Magic was when I had the amazing opportunity for a one to one masterclass with the Executive Chef of the fine dining restaurant, Palo.  Here I am (below, with lovely Jamie the cameraman – he works on the X Factor you know) doing my piece to camera VERY BADLY.  Palo was my favourite restaurant aboard the Disney Dream, so I was really excited  to see how the Palo on the Magic stacked up.  Luckily the experience was just as incredible, and, with the film crew (film coming soon!), I got to see how Chef made his famous seared tuna with a potato risotto.

The Chef’s version was obviously much more complicated, with shaved truffles, artichokes and a beautiful veal reduction. However, he did tell me how to cook the creamy potato risotto and the wonderful seared tuna:

Potato Risotto (serves 4)

1kg waxy potatoes

Butter

1 fat clove garlic, grated

500ml stock (chicken or fish is fine)

Dash of double cream

So firstly, peel all the potatoes and chop them into about 2 cm cubes.  It’s a bit laborious but well worth the effort (as you can see, mine weren’t very uniform – I’m terribly sloppy in the kitchen – what would Chef say?).  As you chop them, pop them into a bowl of salted water so they don’t discolour.  Heat a large knob of butter in a large, heavy frying pan and fry the garlic for a minute or so, then add in the potatoes.  Stir well to cover them in the garlicky butter, then pour in the stock.

Bring to the boil and then reduce the heat and allow the potatoes to simmer very gently for about 15 minutes until just tender.  Pour in a dash of double cream, stirring gently so you don’t break up the potatoes, and season to taste.  Keep warm while you quickly sear the tuna.

Seared Tuna

Bring four decent sized tuna steaks, trimmed of any sinewy bits, to room temperature.  Rub the tuna with a little oil and then season with salt and pepper.  Heat a frying pan until it’s really hot, then fry the tuna steaks so that they’re golden on the outside but still retaining some pinkness in the middle.

Serve immediately on the potato risotto.  Drizzle with a little truffle oil if liked.

Doing my 'piece to camera'

 

Review: Nutfield Priory Hotel and Spa, Nutfield, Surrey

Nutfield PrioryDespite its Gothic looks, Nutfield Priory has never actually been a church, monastery or anything similar. The beautiful building was originally built in the late 19th century in the style of the Palace of Westminster by Member of Parliament Joshua Fielden as his private home.  Over the years, it’s been commandeered for military use (during WW2) and has been used as a school too. It’s now a very beautiful hotel, full of original features including stunning stained glass, huge marble fireplaces and intricately carved woodwork.

The hotel, now part of Handpicked Hotels, sits in an incredible location, just near Redhill in Surrey and is an easy drive from the M25.  I won’t lie, parts of the hotel are, well, let’s say faded.  Some of the battleship grey corridors are a bit uninspiring, but I think that comes with the territory when converting a very old building.  The main areas of the hotel are utterly beautiful and filled with glorious pieces of art (I was mesmerised by the painting of the beautiful woman on the main staircase) and, in the case of the magnificent Great Hall, a two-storey organ that apparently still works.

Our room was quite small but had obviously recently been refurbished, with a huge bed, enormous flat screen tv and marble bathroom.  No noise from neighbouring rooms at all on either side, which is always a plus (I hate it when you can hear every time they flush their loo!).  It was a beautiful sunny day so we dumped our bags and headed out on the stunning terrace to enjoy the view (the hills roll away and you can see Gatwick airport and beyond) and stuff ourselves with the most amazing sandwiches (share a portion, they really are enormous) and some particularly good triple cooked chips.Standard bedroom at Nutfield Priory

After our lunch, we wandered to the spa, which is in a separate, modern building just a short walk away, where Mr English headed to the pool and I had my very favourite Elemis facial, the Tri-Enzyme Booster facial – the one where it feels like your face is being dolloped with freezing cold custard, then you get to enjoy a phenomenal head, neck and shoulder massage before the therapist peels off the custard which has magically set into a masque (I’m sure Elemis would take issue with some of my technical terms, but you get the gist).  The spa is lovely, with a huge, beautifully furnished lounge/waiting area with refreshments and lots of very well equipped therapy rooms.  I have it on good authority that the fitness centre and pool is very good too.

Cocktail at Nutfield PrioryAfter a lovely walk and a wallow in the bath (me) and a bit of telly (him), we wandered to the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail.  The Nutfield Signature Cocktail is a delicious mix of Nutfield marmalade, Tanqueray and Triple Sec and isn’t remotely marmalade-like.  I’d highly recommend it.

The Cloisters restaurant was once an open aired gallery area, now with an amazing wooden vaulted ceiling and tables looking out over the terrace and taking in that fantastic view.

The staff absolutely make the place – from Paddy in the bar to the lovely restaurant staff, everyone is friendly, happy and can’t do enough to make your stay enjoyable.  I sent them into a panic when I didn’t like my starter (totally my fault, I didn’t realised the Asian poached pollock would be chilled and cold fish just isn’t really my thing) – it took us ages to convince them that we were fine and they didn’t need to bring me something else!  We ate a delicious meal (£38 for three courses) with a very nice bottle of Spanish Bobal de SanJuan rosé.  My fillet of Devon hake with basil and parmesan, pine nut quinoa, shaved radish and fennel was to die for – beautifully seasoned, artfully presented and cooked to perfection and Mr English’s pan fried whole Cornish sole was perfectly cooked and delicious.  Desserts were small but delicious, and little works of art on the plate.

Hake at Nutfield Priory

We liked: beautiful public areas, gorgeous terrace, friendly staff, heavenly triple cooked chips

We didn’t like: plug socket nowhere near a mirror (difficult to blow dry one’s hair, dahling). Breakfast was okay but nowhere near in the same league as dinner – requests for well done eggs/crispy bacon didn’t filter through (picky, I know, but that’s really all I’ve got).

Great for: romantic weekends away, gorgeous weddings, girly spa breaks

Top tip: book a room overlooking the terrace – from having a nose while walking around, they seem to be a bit bigger.

Review: Camino Canary Wharf

Mixto platter CaminoRecently, we were invited to visit the Canary Wharf branch of Camino London, perched right on the riverside next to Gaucho.  First impressions were a little marred by the fact that we got horribly lost (there doesn’t seem to be any directions on the website, and not being Londoners we ended up going completely the wrong way out of the DLR station).  No matter, we were soon seated and enjoying a cool glass of rosado (Beronia Rioja Tempranillo 2012) under the shady umbrellas on the terrace, watching the boats whooshing up the glinting river.

The menu is in Spanish (obviously) and unless you’re fluent you need a handy waiter to translate.  Luckily we had Javi, who took us under his wing and explained all the dishes to us, giving us advice about roughly how many dishes we’d need for the four of us, and telling us what he recommended.

It’s best to just chill out and eat as the dishes come out, rather than wait until you get a big table-full, so we started with delicious, crispy squid with a garlicky alioli (chipirones), then some succulent tiger prawns, drowning in chilli, garlic, olive oil and white wine, all just begging to be mopped up with loads of bread.

Mixed grill Camino

Next up was a ‘mixto’ platter, with chorizo, Padron peppers, croquetas, olives and cangrejo (crab) in a delicious paprika-spiced oil with crispy bread for scooping.  The next platter out was a mixed grill with some more chorizo, tender steak and flavoursome chicken.  We also had a meaty monkfish dish with a leek gratin and a romesco sauce.

Cheese platter

Moving on to cheese then (and feeling more than a little stuffed already), we ordered the platter, with blue Valdéon with moscatel grapes, a delicious salty Manchego and little cubes of plum jelly, amongst other things.

Dessert platter CaminoFinally, and rather unwisely, the boys talked us into ordering the dessert platter, with Crema Catalana: soft, creamy and fragrant with orange and cinnamon, and a really zingy crema de limón – a lemon cream topped with lime jellly and a shortbread biscuit.  Javi also spoiled the boys by bringing out extra portions of their favourite: crispy on the outside, soft on the inside churros, with lashings of chocolate mousse for dipping.  The surprise hit was the Tarta Santiago, a bakewell tart-reminiscent almond tart with a cakey texture and raspberry sauce. Delicious.

By now, Sam was complaining of stomach ache and I did worry one of us might pass out from overeating, but a nice strong coffee and a breezy ride back to Embankment on the river taxi woke us up again.

Our verdict: Fabulous.  Mr English summed this place up when he said ‘I don’t have a bad word to say about it’ and we’ll definitely be back very soon.

Best for: lazy lunches and family dinners – don’t go if you’re in a hurry – linger over the dishes, sip wine, dip bread into sauces and savour every moment.

Massive thanks to Camino London for having us, and special thanks to Javi, our lovely waiter.

 

 

Foodinburgh 2013: ten top tips for a casual foodie weekend in Edinburgh

Stockbridge Market, EdinburghMy lovely friend Erica and I share a love of food.  We’ve been on loads of trips together, share (and publish) our favourite recipes, and generally spend far too much time thinking about dinner.  Recently we’ve been talking about the food in her home town of Edinburgh, and Erica’s also planning a new website on the subject, so when she suggested I came up for a visit, I jumped at the chance.  And so, Foodinburgh 2013 was born.

Erica’s a serious planner and had created a proper itinerary for our trip – a long weekend.  We’d decided not to include fine dining restaurants basically to avoid bankrupting ourselves, but also to highlight the great range of casual dining options in the area, however I’m still planning on going back, especially to visit The Kitchin and Erica’s other recommendation, 21212, both with one Michelin star.  She’d also planned visits to nice food shops and markets.  I was raring to go!

Here are my recommendations (thanks to Erica) for a fabulous foodie weekend:

1. Castle Terrace Market

After flying in to Edinburgh on Saturday morning, we headed straight to our first stop, and I got my first glimpse of Edinburgh Castle.  The farmers’ market, on Castle Terrace, has a great range of stalls and we spotted Edinburgh Gin, amazing seafood, and sampled Scottish tablet (a firm, sweet fudge) and local honey.  I was slightly hampered by my hand-luggage-only 100ml allowance, otherwise I would have bought loads home!

2. The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile (or ‘high street’ if you’re a local) has loads of lovely shops and restaurants.  We were lucky to bump into a proper piper (very exciting), popped into a fabulous Whisky shop and pressed our noses against the window of the famous Witchery restaurant.  I loved Cranachan and Crowdie which is packed full of lovely bits for the kitchen and dining room, often with a Scottish theme and all sourced from the area.

Oink3. Oink

We headed down Victoria Street (after ogling the very attractive kilted chap standing out the front of the Missoni hotel) and popped in to Oink for a massive pulled pork sandwich (ask for extra crackling), which Erica has recently reviewed and I was dying to visit.

4. Mother India’s Café

After all that walking, we’d worked up enough appetite (just!) to pop into Mother India’s Café for some Indian tapas dishes.  The café is bustling with all sorts of people and the interior is a great mix of traditional (flock wallpaper), and modern (glossy green tiling and stunning black and white images).  This is a brilliant way to eat, picking lots of small dishes and trying lots of new things.  We loved the chilli chicken dosas (served with an amazing daal), saag paneer and a fragrant type of korma called giri.  The price was very reasonable (less than £15 each) and the setting is just delightful. Highly recommended.

The full Scottish5. A full Scottish

Sadly, I can’t recommend an establishment for this one as I was treated to a full Scottish breakfast by Erica’s lovely husband.  We went for the full Scottish monty: gorgeous Scottish black pudding and a slice of haggis too (my first time – delicious).  The potato scone was a lovely reminder of all our Irish breakfasts.  Scrummy.

6. Stockbridge Market (photos at header)

This was one of the many highlights of our weekend. Stockbridge is in a beautiful part of Edinburgh, the sun was shining and the stalls were just amazing.  We stocked up on delicious fudge and hand made salted caramel chocolate, admired fruit, veg and gleaming fresh fish and tasted fruit teas, cakes and marshmallows.

7.  Harvey Nichols

Moving on to the newer part of Edinburgh, we headed to Harvey Nichols, which has an amazing top floor food hall.  It’s worth a visit just for the diversity of produce, from every alcoholic drink you could possibly imagine, through every luxury item and diverse ingredient you’d ever need,  to novelty things such as this delicious chocolate covered scorpion. Yum.

 

 

 

 

8. George Street

George Street is definitely worth a wander.  We discovered Anthropologie – a huge store with the most AMAZING crockery and kitchen bits. We also popped in to Cath Kidston and a beautiful Scottish interiors shop called Anta where we lusted after the beautiful tartan interiors.

9. Café Andaluz

After all that window shopping, it was time for a late, lazy lunch (I know, AGAIN!) and out of the options Erica gave me, I chose the beautiful Café Andaluz, which is rather like stepping off George Street straight into a lovely Spanish courtyard tapas restaurant.  The place is huge, and beautifully decorated, and the tapas was utterly delicious.  Every single one of our choices: a stunning goat cheese dish with Seville orange, chilli and marmalade, paella, crisp chicken and potato croquettes, soft meaty pork cheeks, crispy chicken pieces with honey and mustard… were perfectly cooked and delicious.  We stayed for ages, chatting and enjoying our food.   3 tapas plus dessert was just £14.95 too.  Great value.  Mr English would have particularly enjoyed Café Andaluz – a good excuse to return.

Red velvet cake at Mimi's Bakehouse10. Mimi’s Bakehouse

Sadly before we knew it, the weekend was over.  But we couldn’t leave without a visit to that famous baker of incredibly cakes, Mimi.  Mimi’s Bakehouse is a beautiful place to visit and the selection of cakes was incredible.  Erica and I chose a huge slab of soft, moist red velvet cake.  Utterly delicious.  Mimi’s also do incredible breakfasts, so I’ve heard!

I needed a good week to recover from my eating excesses, but we’re already planning Foodinburgh 2014 with MORE friends and MORE restaurants and MORE eating.  Massive thanks to my generous hosts, Erica and her lovely family.

Look out for Erica’s new Foodinburgh project (@foodinburgh and www.foodinburgh.com), coming very soon.

Templar treasure: a luxe short break at the Château Saint-Martin on the Côte d’Azur

The path down to the pool

The path down to the pool

So I started to tell you a little about the Chateau Saint-Martin when I reviewed their beautiful two Michelin star restaurant, Le Saint-Martin. But there’s so much more to this place than the fabulous food.

Wine tasting in the cellar

Wine tasting in the cellar

View of the Chateau from one of the villas

View of the Chateau from one of the villas

A 30 minute drive through beautiful scenery from Nice Airport, the Chateau nestles atop a hillside overlooking the French Riviera and is surrounded by 35 acres of gardens, including 300 ancient olive trees (they make their own estate olive oil), tennis courts and a fabulous swimming pool. The ancient ruins, preserved by the Chateau, date back to Roman times, and were once home to the Knights Templar.

Transformed into a luxury hotel by the Oetker family (yes, the pizza ones – they also own the famous Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the Cap d’Antibes and Le Bristol in Paris) the Chateau has 51 luxurious suites and six sumptuous private villas, all available to hire. Staff are discrete and attentive – there’s not a hint of haughty Parisian-type service here.

As well as Le Saint-Martin, the Chateau has a Mediterranean restaurant, La Rosticceria (with shutters open over the most spectacular view of the Riviera) and a summer grill outside in the gardens called L’Oliveraie.

The Chateau boasts a pretty amazing wine list. We were lucky enough to experience a wine tasting in the cellar with the Sommelier, who was far too discrete to answer my questions about the most expensive bottle of wine. The website does hint that the cellar offers ‘some of the world’s most exclusive vintages’ and I certainly spotted some boxes of Petrus and Chateau Lafite Rothschild amongst the dusty bottles on the shelves.

The Spa

The gorgeous spa, taking up two floors on one corner of the Chateau, offers a huge array of treatments featuring La Prairie and Bamford Body products.  I opted for a La Prairie facial and it really was delicious.  Delivered in a futuristic-looking treatment room with customisable coloured lighting (green for revitalising, blue for relaxing) I’m pretty sure I fell asleep, and wafted out afterwards on a heavenly scented cloud, heavy limbed and relaxed with skin that was plumped and glowing.  I was given a sizeable collection of La Prairie product samples to try at home too (I can’t bring myself to use them).

The cobbled streets of Saint Paul de Vence

The cobbled streets of Saint Paul de Vence

Vence and Saint Paul de Vence

A short drive away in one of the Chateau’s Mercedes limousines (with a driver straight off a Gaultier advert), is Vence – a lovely little town and well worth a visit.  Queue up for fresh baguettes, warm out of the oven, sit and sip a glass of rosé and watch the world go by, or pick up some gorgeous Provençal tableware in the little shops.

Nearby is the pretty, fortified town of Saint Paul de Vence.  It’s a lovely place to sip a café au lait and watch  the locals play boules, then take a wander up the stone streets and mooch around the galleries and tiny shops, all pretty much unchanged since Picasso and Matisse trod the same cobbles.  Take time to visit the little cemetery perched overlooking the Mediterranean, where Chagall is buried, and follow the meandering streets to a little chapel overlooking the town.  We also snuck a quick look inside the legendary La Colombe D’Or hotel – a great place to star spot, but notoriously difficult to bag a table in the restaurant.

Le Fondation Maeght

The Maeght Foundation is a private art gallery located at Saint Paul de Vence and is a must-see if you’re in the area. Visitors can wander the gardens and view paintings, sculptures and ceramics by artists such as Bonard, Chagall and Giacometti (my favourite is Giacometti’s ‘Dog’, said to have been created by him after getting caught in the rain) and many contemporary pieces too. There are often special exhibitions at the Foundation, which is open every day.

Giacometti's 'Dog'

Giacometti’s ‘Dog’

We returned refreshed and relaxed – even our ridiculous delay at Nice airport couldn’t take the shine off, and I’ll be returning as soon as I can.  Not a budget option, admittedly, but three glorious days at Chateau Saint-Martin was as relaxing and pampering as two weeks in the Caribbean, and just an hour away from the UK.

The Knights Templar may have long gone, but they left all their treasure behind.

Rates at Chateau Saint Martin & Spa start from €360 per room, per night including breakfast.