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!

Read more

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.

Le Saint Martin at Chateau Saint-Martin, Vence, Côte d’Azur

 

Le Chateau Saint-Martin

Le Chateau Saint-Martin

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to stay for a few days at the utterly beautiful Chateau Saint-Martin in the pretty little town of Vence on the Côte d’Azur.  For a luxury short break, the Chateau really has everything: it’s a scant 30 minute drive from Nice Airport (just over an hour’s hop from Gatwick), the accommodation is luxurious, the scenery breathtaking and the spa indulgent.  Locally, you can wander around beautiful little French towns and walk in the footsteps of Matisse and Picasso.  The Chateau has two restaurants, one of which, Le Saint Martin, has two Michelin stars thanks to the incredible talent of Yannick Franques, former student of Alain Ducasse and Meilleur Ouvrier de France (2004).

We ate in a beautiful private dining room with General Manager Frédéric Picard who happily waved away enquiries about food photography with a smile and ‘but of course – this is why we have a private dining room’.  M Picard turned out to be charming company and happily answered all questions about the French menu.

If you’re not a fan of (badly lit) restaurant photography, I do understand why – it can be intrusive when people continually snap away at their dinner.  However, this food was something extra special and I do feel it deserves to be shared.

We started with an appetiser which was served in a hollowed out, silvered eggshell: scrambled egg with delicate pieces of lobster and a crisp brioche ‘soldier’, and went on to enjoy six spectacular courses matched with some incredible wines.  It’s a meal I’ll never forget:

[slideshow_deploy id='15973']

Next up, more about the Chateau, the beautiful nearby towns of Vence and Saint Paul de Vence and a tour of Le Fondation Maeght.

The cocktail update: the perfect Bloody Mary

I’ve noticed that I’ve been a bit remiss with the cocktails of late.  And well, you know me, it’s not because I’ve not been DRINKING them, oh no, it’s just because I usually drink too many and then forget to take a photo!

The perfect Bloody Mary

The perfect Bloody Mary

This particular Bloody Mary (left) was served to my friend Laura and I at the Cassis American Brassierie in St Pete’s, Florida.

It came on the morning after the night before which featured far too many Lycheetinis, some very bad karaoke and a 3am finish.  Followed by a very fuzzy 7am start.

Reader, we were hanging.

Happily, the Cassis came to our aid and medicated us back to reality with this incredible glass of hair of the dog.  Plus a big huge durty burger about the size of our heads.  They also provided oysters. They didn’t go down quite as well.

The Perfect Blooody Mary

The best Bloody Marys are strong.  I”m talking 1/3 vodka to 2/3 tomato juice strong, but if you like, you can tone it down.

Start with a full cup of ice, pour over the vodka (any old vodka will do but if you can find Absolut Peppar it adds a welcome kick), then top up with tomato juice (Waitrose pressed tomato juice is good, so is V8 juice)

Then you want a nice couple of slugs of Worcestershire Sauce, and a few dashes of Tabasco for heat.  We go for about half Tabasco to Worcestershire, but adjust to taste.

Some people add horseradish but I HATE the stuff.  Feel free, though, if you’re that way inclined.

Now for the accoutrements.  You can stick any old stuff in there really: the traditional ones being sticks of celery, but olives are good too.  Maybe a wedge of lime.

Finish with a nice sprinkling of celery salt and you’re good to go.  If you’re being posh, you can freeze the glasses, then run a lime around the rim and dip them in celery salt.  But sprinkling is fine too.  Serve, preferably with a huge plate of bacon and eggs, maybe a stack of pancakes too… but that’s just me.

 

 

 

 

 

Shore leave – excursions on the Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas

One of the best things about cruising is the sheer variety of activities offered by this sort of holiday.  As well as enjoying all the amenities a massive ship like the Liberty of the Seas has to offer (theatre shows, water-based fun like the FlowRider, ice spectaculars, fine dining, parades, a casino, climbing wall – I could go on), there is the added bonus of stopping off in different places (indeed, countries) along the way.

Of course there are hundreds of different cruises to choose from, but our itinerary was pretty typical of a five day Caribbean cruise:

Day 1: Embark (pm), then at sea

Day 2: At sea

Day 3: Labadee, Haiti

Day 4: Falmouth, Jamaica

Day 5: at sea

Day 6: at sea, then disembark (am)

Labadee, Royal Caribbean's private peninsular, Haiti

Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private peninsular, Haiti

Cast away on Malfini Beach

I’ll be honest, geography not being my strong point, I’d not heard of Labadee.  I had, however, heard of Haiti, in fact, I’d raised money for it three years ago when it was struck by a horrendous earthquake and 1.5 million of its inhabitants were left homeless. Royal Caribbean has done sterling work with the people and infrastructure of Haiti (something it’s too modest to let me talk about), and Labadee is basically RCI’s  own private part of Haiti.

There were all sorts of shore excursions: snorkeling, sightseeing, zip lining… but we finally decided on ‘Castaway at Malfini Beach’ costing a bargainous $65 each and lasting three hours.

The Liberty of the Seas at Labadee

The Liberty of the Seas at Labadee

It was absolutely incredible disembarking and getting our first real look at the mind-boggling size of the ship, without all the bits and bobs it was surrounded by at Port Everglades.  We were also struck by just how strong the sun is (us bloggers are a pale bunch – we started sizzling pretty much instantly). After a short walk to a small pier (see what I did there?), we climbed aboard a motorboat and headed out to Malfini, a tiny, privately owned stretch of beautiful white beach, azure water and lush green shady spots.  We lazed, swam, drank Malfini Punch out of coconuts, and basically had the most glorious beach day imaginable.

Sadly all too soon we were heading back towards the harbour, where we were treated to possibly the best barbecue ever (the logistics of feeding thousands of passengers at a beach barbecue make my head spin, but as usual the chefs had everything under control and everyone was fed delicious, hot food (with some AMAZING sticky ribs.. mmmm).  Of course, you don’t have to join an excursion, and the beach at Labadee is lovely if you just want to swim and sunbathe.

Getting ready to ride into the sea

Getting ready to ride into the sea

Riding horses in the sea and climbing Dunns River Falls in Jamaica*

I have to say that this was by far my favourite day of our cruise.  We disembarked relatively early and headed through a nice shopping area (making a note to come back later and grab some delicious jerk spices) to rendezvous with our guide and driver. Our guide Wilana was wonderful and soon had us all speaking Patois (Erica was best at this as Jamaica is her spiritual  home, mon) and en route told us all some of the history of Jamaica.  Our first stop, Papillion Cove, was where we saddled up and took an amazing horseback ride through old plantation land.  Our guides were great fun and after a break and saddle-change, we rode our charges right out into the amazing Listerine-coloured waters.  The best experience I’ve ever had.

My view as we headed away from the shore

My view as we headed away from the shore

After a scrummy jerk chicken lunch we were ready to get back in the minibus and head to Dunns River Falls, a 600′ high range of cascades and waterfalls that flow straight into the Caribbean.  Climbing the falls was exhilarating, sometimes scary, but incredibly rewarding!  You need shoes with a decent amount of grip (don’t worry, they hire them there if you don’t have any) and you need to be prepared to get VERY wet, but it’s the best fun.  We often had to help each other up steep ledges, and there were areas where we dipped under waterfalls or where the guides had us falling backwards into the cool water.  Just beautiful.

I scraped my leg, but when we got to the top about an hour later, limbs aching, looking like drowned rats and rinsing pebbles from our shoes, we were all absolutely beaming.  It was akin to the best team bonding exercise ever and we drove back in the minibus chatting happily and even singing a few Bob Marley songs with Wilana.

Erica climbing Dunns River Falls

Erica climbing Dunns River Fall

Of course if you’re not into horses, or don’t fancy climbing the falls, there are lots of other things to do in Jamaica too.  Some of the best excursions include tours of old plantation estates (including ruins of the great plantation houses), dolphin encounters, foodie adventures and plenty of different beach breaks, most with food included. My Jamaica experience was incredible: a wonderful, wonderful day that I’ll never forget.  I’m determined to go back with my family so we can all experience it together.  Thank you, Royal Caribbean.

*The Dunns River Falls/Papillion cove horseback ride, including bareback riding in the Caribbean sea costs $139 including Jamaican lunch and lasts approximately 7 hours

Wining and dining aboard Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas

If you’re a food lover, eating and drinking are naturally a huge part of deciding where to go on holiday.  I, myself was persuaded into staying in a massive half board hotel in Gran Canaria (something I wouldn’t normally do) by my Dad’s stories of epic Torres wine and amazing seafood restaurants along the coast in Maspalomas. I wasn’t disappointed.

On a Royal Caribbean holiday, the food is all-inclusive, meaning that you can eat in quite a few restaurants, including the VERY posh main dining rooms, without forking out (see what I did there?) any extra cash.  Obviously if you’re going to order wine you have to pay for it, but RCI provide various wine packages, so you can pre-order wines that are then delivered to you at your table.  If you don’t drink all the wines you can have them corked and saved, (which means that you can have a white and a red open at the same time) or take them back to your cabin.

I was really impressed by the wines on board.  At various parts of our journey, we tried the following (excuse some of the pics – it can be dark in restaurants):

Viognier

Cline Viognier 2011: peachy, fruity and yet crisp with an almost flowery scent. This was absolutely delicious.

Another Sonoma white, this Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio in Italy) had similar peachy pear flavours with a hint of spice.

Another Sonoma white, this Mac Murray Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio in Italy) had similar peachy pear flavours with a hint of spice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I've had this Peter Lehmann Weighbridge before (love Shiraz) and this didn't disappoint: gorgeous, soft and fruity

I’ve had this Peter Lehmann Weighbridge before (love Shiraz) and this didn’t disappoint: gorgeous, soft and fruity

My absolute fave aboard the ship.  This Belle Glos Pinot Noir (Clark and Telephone Vineyard) is almost purple with a distinctive waxed bottle.  Smooth and full bodied. Yum.

My absolute fave aboard the ship. This Belle Glos Pinot Noir (Clark and Telephone Vineyard) is almost purple with a distinctive waxed bottle. Smooth and full bodied. Yum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are also several different dining options should you wish to pay a tiny bit extra.  The lovely burger joint, Johnny Rockets where the waiters danced and sang, is definitely worth a trip – order the chocolate malt and burgers as big as your head! There’s no booking, so you might have a wait in the queue, but it’s only an extra $3.95 to eat here and it’s well worth it.

The Italian themed Portofino was our favourite restaurant by far. In fact, we loved it so much we went back again on the last night.  The waiter was great fun and a real wine buff (although some of his recommendations were slightly out of our league!).  We joked that we ate so much beef we were going to walk off the ship mooing, but it was just soooo good.  The filet mignon was out of this world tender, and we also had massive fish skewers with salmon, prawns, lobster and scallops.  Delicious ($20 extra charge per person).

Creme brulee

That forgotten creme brulee!

Chops Grille is another high end restaurant where you pay $25 per head to dine.  The surroundings again are really sumptuous – on a par with a really nice London restaurant, and the food again was excellent.  We went for the beef again (I know, I know), but there were all sorts of other options too, honestly.  This is where we had the amazing Belle Glos (two bottles in fact) and where I couldn’t remember that I’d had a dessert until, thumbing through my pictures from the night before, I came across a flaming crème brûlée!

Piping meringue onto ice cream for a ‘baked Alaska’ type dessert.

We also had a chance to meet Executive Chef Garry Thomas and visit the ship’s galley (a rather insignificant term for the cavernous kitchen!).  Garry and his chefs serve more than 18000 meals a day and we got the impression that Garry literally runs a tight ship.  We loved that occasionally in the main dining room, the chefs were introduced by a Master of Ceremonies and came out into the dining room to rapturous applause.  Well deserved, in my opinion.

I’ve also heard rumour that Royal Caribbean do wine cruises. That’ll be me next, then..

For a similar cruise aboard Liberty of the Seas (sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA)  prices start from £288 per person for a 4-night Western Caribbean cruise, calling at Cozumel, Mexico before returning to Fort Lauderdale.  Departs 12 December 2013 and includes meals and entertainment on board and all relevant cruise taxes/fees.  Obviously this doesn’t include flights. We flew British Airways to Miami.

 

 

 

 

 

Buttermilk jerk chicken

Jerk chicken

So when I was in Jamaica on our Royal Caribbean cruise (I’m never going to tire of saying that), we spent a fabulous day riding horses around old plantation land and – amazingly – into the sea.  After we’d dismounted (walking, it must be said, a bit like we’d soiled ourselves), we were served amazing spicy Jamaican jerk chicken, with rice and beans.  Delicious.

The real thing: proper Jamaican jerk chicken

The real thing: proper Jamaican jerk chicken

Keen to recreate it at home, we popped into the little Jamaican food shop at Falmouth port to score some jerk seasoning.  I came away with this little beauty:

Jerk seasoning

Of course this recipe is really going to come into its own once it’s barbecue season again (I’ve got my eye on a new gas bbq from John Lewis for the summer).  Jerk chicken gets a lot of its smoky flavour and deliciously crusty exterior from being grilled over the barby.

I’ve used breast here as I was slicing it into wraps with salad (and mayo mixed with the jerk sauce that I also brought home – too darned hot to use it on its own), but feel free to use the dark meat or, indeed a whole chicken either spatchcocked or cut into portions.

I often marinate chicken before cooking in buttermilk or yoghurt – left for half an hour or so before cooking, it tenderises the chicken and leaves it deliciously moist.  Oh, and if you don’t have buttermilk, don’t despair.  Use milk and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon.  A quick stir, et voila, buttermilk.

You’ll need:

250ml buttermilk (or milk + lemon juice)

Pinch salt

4 pieces of chicken (breast, leg, whatever)

Jerk seasoning

So firstly, if you’re using chicken legs, it’s best to get rid of the skin as you lose half the flavour if you don’t eat it.  With chicken breasts, just drop them straight in to the buttermilk with a pinch of salt.  Leave the chicken marinating for about half an hour.  Preheat the oven to 180/gas 4.

Fish the chicken out and place on a baking tray.  Sprinkle liberally with the spice, remembering to do both sides.  If some of the chicken breasts are very thick, it’s worth slashing them a couple of times with a knife so that they all cook at the same time.

Cook for about 25 minutes (make sure you cut into them to make sure they’re cooked through before you serve).  If barbecuing, I’d probably give them 40 minutes.

Of course if you don’t have jerk seasoning, this recipe works really well with other spices too: look out for different rubs and coatings (Cajun, curry… whatever), or make your own  - there are loads of recipes for spice rubs online.  I have cupboards stuffed with all sorts of herbs, spices and flavourings at the moment but will soon be investing in the convenience of a spice rack to sort myself out.

Oh, and while I’m here, I’d just like to say that if you ever get any leftover Parmesan  going a bit hard or whatever, whizz it in the processor, or grate it and stash it in the freezer.  Do the same with bread, and stash in the same bag.  Then, instead of spices after the buttermilk marinade, you can push your chicken into the cheesy breadcrumbs, bake, and parmesan chicken can be yours.

You’re welcome.

EM thumbnail

 

 

Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas: a little guided tour

The ladies chillin' on deck with a cocktail

The ladies chillin’ on deck with a cocktail

As we got near Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale (in a massive coach which was laid on for all – wait for it – seven of us), we caught our first glimpses of the ship, rising up between cranes and tall buildings.  It’s MASSIVE.  We couldn’t quite believe we were going to be on there.  And there were all sorts of worries too: will we be seasick… will we get enough peace and quiet.. will it be all old men in dinner jackets and old ladies smelling of mothballs…?  You know the sort of thing.  (Disclaimer: not that I’m saying that all old ladies smell of mothballs. I’m sure some of them smell of gin, or parma violets, or whatever).

The Nerdy Bit

The Liberty of the Seas is  a ‘Freedom class’ vessel, registered in Nassau, Bahamas, built in Finland in 2007 and renovated in 2011.  She (all ships are ‘she’ – apparently because a Portugese Prince once said that “like a woman, they take much powder and paint to keep them looking good”) has 15 decks, is 185′ wide (that’s wider than the White House is long) and is taller (if upended, duh) than the Eiffel Tower.  The ship carries 3634 guests, plus 1360 crew and there can be as many as 58 different nationalities on board.

The climbing wallThe Exciting Bit

The ship is packed to the gunnels (see what I did there?) with amazingly cool stuff.  If you have kids there are amazing (indeed, award winning) kids’ clubs called Adventure Ocean (more of this later) from babies right up to teenagers.  It also has (wait for it):

  • a rock-climbing wall (look at the man in the purple shirt to get some perspective as to how tall it is)
  • a nine hole miniature golf course
  • a jogging path running around the whole of one deck
  • a karaoke room
  • a video games room
  • an ice skating rink

The Wet Bit

If you fancy a bit of water action, there are loads of places to swim, bob, laze or whoosh.  Check out me whooshing on the FlowRider Surf Simulator right here (thanks to Erica, our Videographer in Chief for this vid).  I’ll have you know that it’s very hard to stand upright and both Karin, my FlowRider buddy, and I did very well.  Although yes, it does rather look like I face planted after four seconds (that water is whooshing at 34 gallons per minute, by the way):

If you fancy getting wet in different ways, there are also:

  • three pools
  • six whirlpools
  • a pool bar
  • an adults only pool
  • adults only jacuzzis
Our cupcake burgers

Our cupcake burgers

The Leisurely Bit

Don’t fancy lazing by the pool?  No problem.  The Liberty of the Seas boasts a wonderful spa and fitness centre (where I had an amazing Elemis anti-aging facial and Laura was blow-dried to look like Crystal Carrington, but that’s another story).  There is a fabulous promenade boasting boutiques, shops, a pub and a cupcake shop (where we had a cupcake decorating lesson and made cupcake burgers), there’s also a library, an internet centre, an art and photo gallery (which has regular art auctions and seminars), a 1320 seat theatre (complete with circle) where we saw a fabulous performance of Saturday Night Fever and a wonderful modern dance/aerial ballet show, a florist, a massive casino,  an ice rink (the shows are spectacular), a conference centre, and even a wedding chapel (yes, you can get married on board).

The Greedy/boozy Bit

The ship boasts a main dining room which seats over 2000 people and is utterly beautiful. It reminded me a bit of the Titanic (oh. Can I say that?): the menu was very ‘fine dining’ with immaculate, service and a pretty incredible wine list.

The spectacular main dining room (shh, don't mention The Titanic)

The spectacular main dining room (shh, don’t mention The Titanic)

There are also other, smaller, dining rooms, but if you didn’t fancy that, there was also Sorrento’s – a pizza place, a proper American burger joint called Johnny Rockets (where the waiters suddenly break out into a song and dance routine to 60s music), a self-service buffet called the Windjammer Café, and two amazing fine dining restaurants, Portofino and Chops Grille (you need to pay a small extra charge for these – I think it’s about $30 a head). More of all of this later.  There are also loads of other bars, cafés, a Starbucks, a wine bar called Vintages, a champagne bar, a cigar bar… a piano bar… a nightclub…  I stopped counting in the end.

So that’s it, you’re fully acquainted with the beautiful Liberty of the Seas. I’ve probably missed loads of bits out, but I think it’s a good indication of what’s available (basically EVERYTHING except pavement).  Oh, you do get lost a lot in the first day or so and find yourself at totally the wrong end of the ship occasionally (ahem), but the staff are amazingly friendly (we never saw one grumpy face. Not one.  The entire week), and it’s amazing how quickly you find your way around.

Next: dining, things to do for teens, shore leave (oh yes, there is horse riding in the sea) and much more, including when I fell over climbing Dunns River Falls and tried unsuccessfully to style it out.

All this, and not a whiff of mothballs.

If you want to see blog posts, tweets and photos from the rest of the Royal Mums, check out our hashtag, #royalmums on Twitter.

 

A week of Walt: day three – it’s all about Disney food, from quick service to fine dining

Starter at the Flying Fish

I recently made a promise to myself that I would stop taking pictures of food in restaurants.  My husband hates it (especially when I slap his hand away from his plate) and I’ve lost count of the times my friends have sighed as I snap away at their plates, trying to get the best angle by practically sitting in their laps.  Annoying, much?

But it’s SO hard.  I did, for example, break my rule for this AMAZING starter at one of my favourite Disney fine dining restaurants, the Flying Fish on Disney’s Boardwalk

So, as Roz would say in Frasier, I must attempt to ‘use my words’. So here goes – my all-time top ten Disney dining experiences (so far):

Breakfasts

Disney do breakfast REALLY well.  If you’re heading to Florida, make sure you book at least one character breakfast where you get to meet some of Disney’s stars up close and personal.  My favourite character breakfast is at Tusker House at Disney’s Animal Kingdom resort.  The setting is amazing – you can just imagine you’ve stopped for a quick break from your African safari – and the food is just fabulous.  As well as all the usual breakfast choices – Mickey waffles (my personal favourite), bacon, eggs, etc, there are some traditional African choices to try (Bobotie for breakfast? Why not?) and don’t forget a yummy glass of Jungle Juice to wash it all down.

Another favourite of mine, both in terms of the resort itself and in particular The Wave restaurant, is Disney’s Contemporary Resort.  The setting is great - a brief monorail ride straight into the parks – and, as the name suggests, the resort is modern and very classy.  I’ve had both dinner and breakfast in the stunning Wave restaurant and can’t decide which I like best, but the delicious cheese and bacon grits and sweet potato pancakes both take some beating in the morning.  They also serve a range of addictive smoothies too.

Lunches

Onto lunch then, and this is often a case of grabbing something at one of the many quick service dining options.  If you get the chance, though, do try and stop off at the iconic Hollywood Brown Derby based at the Hollywood Studios park.  I know I’ve talked about the Brown Derby before, but its Cobb salad (it’s enormous – order one between the two of you) – a chopped salad made from avocado, blue cheese, turkey, tomatoes, bacon… you name it, is an absolute must, and the setting, based on the original Vine Street Brown Derby in Hollywood is proper old school glam.  The waiting staff are amazing and although you can wander in dressed in your cut off shorts and t-shirt, half way round Hollywood Studios, you’re always made to feel really special.

If you’re grabbing lunch on the run at the Magic Kingdom, pop in to Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Café in Frontierland and stuff your face with one of their scrummy barbecue pulled pork rolls.  You add your own salad at the little salad bars, which I really like too.

Fine Dining

Disney excel at fine dining.  I’m finding it really hard to pick my favourites here, but Citricos at the utterly beautiful Grand Floridian resort has to be experienced to be believed.  The service is absolutely faultless (the waiting staff know EVERYTHING about every dish and even change your white napkin for a black one if you’re wearing dark colours and don’t want to risk getting any white lint on your outfit), the cocktails are exquisite and the wine list is incredible.  The panadas, a starter of delicately spiced beef in a filo pastry shell with a sweet/sour tamarind dip were crisp on the outside and rich and meaty in the middle.  The braised short ribs entrée is one I’ve had a couple of times and is always meltingly tender. Their steaks are always amazing and cooked perfectly, and don’t you dare eat so much that you miss out on one of their intricately decorated decadent chocolate desserts.

My final choice (touch and go between this one and the equally fabulous Kouzzina (you can read a previous review here) also on the Boardwalk is The Flying Fish Café.  I adore the Boardwalk – there’s nothing nicer than wandering along by the water, watching the sideshows, then after your delicious dinner, wandering back to your hotel under the stars, pausing to watch the fireworks at neighbouring Epcot.  Every evening I’ve had here has been magical, and everything I’ve ever eaten has been incredible: crispy sesame calamari, crunchy coated Jonah crab cakes… sea bass, salmon… it’s all perfectly prepared and wonderfully presented.  If you’re not massively into fish, don’t despair. They also do a ridiculously tender New York strip steak.  Oh and before you waddle out?  Force down a slice of the Florida Tequila key lime Margarita Pie.  You’ll thank me.

If you’re about to travel to Walt Disney World Resort Florida, or need any help planning your journey, or need more recommendations for dining or park options I’m always happy to help.  Drop me a line!

 

Review: The Hotel Maspalomas Princess, Gran Canaria

I had such a lovely flight to Gran Canaria.  It wasn’t particularly the plane (with Thomson now launching their new 787 Dreamliners – they start flights to Mexico and Florida in May next year – I wonder if this will free up some newer planes to replace the clunky old Boeing 757-200s that are still being used on the Gatwick-Gran Canaria route?) in fact, I spent takeoff and landing being dripped with icy water from the air conditioning …  No, it was that I was sitting next to a really lovely retired couple (hello Brian and Gail!) who not only came to my aid with a copy of the Financial Times to use as an impromptu umbrella, but also made a very boring flight enjoyable chatting about their travels and family.

Still, as usual the Thomson crew were gracious and smiley (and provided wodges of tissue to dry me off!) and about four hours later we touched down in Gran Canaria.

Arriving at the Hotel Maspalomas Princess we were gobsmacked at the sheer size of the place : the mirror image of its sister hotel, the Hotel Tabaiba Princess (now a Thomson all-inclusive resort) the two form an enormous w-shape with 800 rooms between them over three floors.  A slightly shambolic check-in followed (large reception desk combined with no visible queuing system) but we were soon away and up to our lovely third floor room which was spotless, modern, comfortable and with a lovely balcony overlooking the pools.

We chose this hotel because my Disreputable Dad and his partner have been going there for ten years – the waiters and dining room staff greeted them like old friends – and we wanted to see what was so great about it that it keeps attracting them back.  And here’s what I discovered:

The staff are fab: they work and work and work to make sure everything is perfect.  Happy hour in the piano bar is 5-6pm and we often sat around playing cards and chatting with the bar staff, some of whom we became really fond of.  Oh, and that brings me on to my next point:

The drinks are very good value for a big hotel too.  There were cocktails for just €3 and soft drinks were good value at about €1.90 a pop – important when you have teens with you guzzling soft drinks.

The food is excellent: obviously the main restaurant is enormous and yes, you occasionally have to join a small queue to wait for a table (bear in mind it was half term too), but there is a huge amount of choice, with some dishes being cooked in a ‘show kitchen’ by chefs while you watch, a decent selection of both local and international dishes, plus the ubiquitous chicken nuggets and chips for the kids.  My one gripe was a lack of decent coffee and juice in the mornings – both were served out of machines and were a bit meh.

The wine list is small but there are some great Spanish wines on there (up to about €20ish – we tried some corkers).  Mexican evening was FANTASTIC with a Mariachi and a magnificent spread of authentic Mexican dishes.

The kids clubs are amazing: this is another area where Thomson excel. We often bumped into a happy band of kids with their Thomson carers.  I always watch the children’s reps and they’re just SO lovely with the kids.  It would drive me mental, but they’re always patient, sweet and kind – even with the more… er… challenging of their charges!  They have a lovely bright playroom inside and often take small groups outside in the lovely hotel grounds too.

The lunch choices were varied and excellent: it’s important when you’re staying somewhere on a half board basis that there’s a bit of choice when it comes to grabbing lunch.  There is a large range of cafés, beach shacks, etc with reasonably priced toasties, burgers (ooh and lovely crab wraps), also a lovely poolside restaurant serving salads, pizza, pasta, etc.

Around the hotel

The place is huge so there is loads to do: mini golf, table tennis, pool, etc.  There is a baby pool, a heated larger pool and then a huge two-part pool on an artificial beach (let down by foot-slicing grit as opposed to sand).  The hotel grounds are lush and beautiful with stunning plants and foliage.

Out and about

If you want to explore, you can easily grab a taxi from the front of the hotel and go to the bustly Playa Del’Ingles.  We didn’t really bother.  Just out of the back gate and across the road (the route to the beach – a good half hour walk, unfortunately) there’s also a lovely café serving toasties, salads, and a decent jug of Sangria.

If you fancy splashing out, walk the route to the stunning white beach at Maspalomas and seek out the El Senador restaurant – a gorgeous, seafront place selling the most amazing seafood.  We feasted on a fantastic fish soup, fresh garlicky prawns, paella and the most amazing fish, plus my dessert – a Galician almond cake with a Pedro Ximenez reduction was TO DIE FOR.  After all this exertion, waddle to the beach and plonk yourself on a lounger (it’ll cost you €7.50 for two beds, though, so don’t do it too often).  If you feel more like walking off your lunch, be careful where you wander, there’s a lot of nude sunbathing areas!

I’m not a huge fan of half board (I’d rather have been all-inclusive in the Tabaiba part of the hotel) as we did spend quite a bit of money, but I can’t complain because that was our choice so that we could be with my Dad, plus you don’t really have to go and stuff your face at lunchtime like we did. There are plenty of good value options to be had within the hotel.  We had a wonderful time, ate some amazing food, and although we weren’t hugely lucky with the weather, it was warm the whole time and we still came back rested, a bit browner and yes, a bit fatter than we went.

Always the sign of a very good holiday.

Oh, and Brian and Gail heartily recommended their own holiday destination, the Lopesan Villa Del Conde, which, they said, had amazing food, lovely staff and a fabulous setting.

Huge thanks, as ever, to the team at TUI UK.

 

Thomson offers seven night Platinum holidays to Gran Canaria staying at the 5T Hotel Maspalomas Princess Thomson Platinum Resort on a half board basis, from £609 per adult, first child travels from £324 and from £389 for the second. Price is based on four sharing and includes flights departing from London Gatwick airport on 7 January 2013. To find out more about this holiday or to book visit your local Thomson travel shop, thomson.co.uk or call 0871 230 2555.

Gorgeous Guernsey and Heavenly Herm – our foodie weekend away

Back, then, from our wonderful weekend, we’ve had time to reflect upon Guernsey, and what it can offer the traveller – be they family, couple, group or solo.

The first thing that struck us both, having enjoyed each other’s company, sans children, for the first time in a good few years, is that it’s a wonderful place for a weekend getaway.  But then, it’s good for everyone.  Before I explain why, let me tell you a little about this teeny island nestled off the south coast of England, nearer, in fact, to Normandy than the UK:

Although Guernsey has strong ties with France (it was, in fact, French up until 1066, but I won’t bore you with a history lesson), Guernsey is not French. Nor, is it English: it’s a self governing crown dependency, if you must know.  The population, and I found this amazing, is about the same as, say Rugby: 62,000, spread across an island that is just 30 square miles.  Guernsey is a bit like a wedge of cheese, with high cliffs on the south east side, sloping down to level ground on the north west.  There are huge tides here – meaning that the sea goes out a really long way, also meaning that the waters are very clear and clean, meaning awesome shellfish and happy sea bass, as well as making the water lovely for swimming.

Which brings me neatly on to why Guernsey is a fabulous summer destination for families.  Just a 45 minute flight from Gatwick (we flew Aurigny, who were amazingly courteous, ran like clockwork, and cost about £100 return per person), or a short ferry ride, and you’re on an island that boasts better weather than the UK and the most glorious, clean beaches.  What you won’t get is the ‘kiss me quick’ hat, tatty seaside resorts that put a lot of people off holidaying in the UK.  Guernsey is, well, classy.  In the harbour town of St Peter Port, the little boutique shops, restaurants, cafés and immaculate streets reminded me of Marlow, a well to do town, proud of itself, but in an understated way.

So I thought what I’d do is give you a perfect weekend in Guernsey (tried, tested and scoffed by my lubly Hubby and I) to give you a taster.  If you can make it for a week, even better, but here’s my perfect weekend:

Getting there: fly Aurigny.com from Gatwick and pick up a hire car at the airport, or ferry over from Portsmouth with your own car.

Accommodation: there’s everything on Guernsey from very posh five star hotels to lovely B&Bs (for fab beachy holidays, check out Waves, which is very stylish self-catering accommodation on glorious Vazon Bay, or stay in St Peter Port where there is a wide range of hotels – check visitguernsey.com for more info).  We based ourselves in St Peter Port, but being such a small island, everywhere is easily accessible.

FRIDAY

On arrival, have a drive around the island – you can’t really get lost – if the sun’s out, seek out the glorious beaches, often hidden away down little ‘park and walk’ lanes, or strike out along the stunning cliff paths and on the way, check out all manner of Nazi bunkers (from the occupation, more of this later), Neolithic tombs, The Little Chapel and much more.  Stop and see what people are selling in their ‘hedge veg’ stalls – makeshift shops where the locals sell their fruit, veg, flowers and – in lovely Mandy Girard’s case – cheese from her herd of Golden Guernsey Goats.  For lunch try The Hideaway at the Best Western Moores Central Hotel, Le Pollet, St Peter Port, for excellent local crab sandwiches and home made cakes, all served on a gorgeously sunny outdoor terrace.

In the afternoon, have a wander around the cobbled streets of St Peter Port where there is amazing shopping.  If you get tired, pop in to the Ship and Crown pub on the harbour front, for a pint of the local Rocquette cider and check out the shipwreck photos in the bar.

In the evening, book a table at Red Grill House on the harbour front.  Be prepared to be stunned by their amazing wine list – several pages long – but don’t worry, the staff are very friendly and knowledgeable should you need help choosing.  They also have a fabulous array of steaks, sold by weight, and generally have fresh fish of the day.  Leave room to share their incredible tarte tatin before waddling along the twinkly harbour front back to your hotel.

SATURDAY

Head to the beach!

OR

Bimble over to Sausmarez Manor (pronounced ‘Summeray’, five minutes’ drive) where there is a great farmers’ market on a Saturday morning. Afterwards, explore the manor house and take a leisurely walk around the grounds where you’ll discover all manner of sculptures as well as beautiful gardens.

OR:

Head off to Herm Island (herm.com) on the ferry from the harbour and spend a day enjoying gorgeous, Caribbean-like beaches on a proper Famous Five island complete with bracken-edged cliff paths and azure water.  There are no cars on Herm and only 60 odd residents, so it’s a really peaceful place to while away the day.

We were escorted around the island by the lovely, and very knowledgeable Jonathan Watson who showed us all the accommodation on the island: from the 40-bed White House Hotel, perched above the harbour, with its Conservatory Restaurant (amazing wine list) and its attached Ship Inn brasserie, to self catering cottages and log cabins.  There’s also a campsite with shop facilities during the summer (they’ll even get your shopping in for you so it’s there when you arrive).  You can walk the cliff paths around the island in about a couple of hours, or if you fancy a shorter walk, cut across.

 

When you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the Mermaid Tavern and order the home made fish finger doorsteps with fat chips, battered with the local Herm Ale – you won’t be disappointed).  It’s a truly fabulous place to spend a holiday, where you really can let the kids have as much freedom as they want, but if you can’t manage it, do spend a day there (take note of the last ferry times, otherwise you’ll find yourself castaway!).

Back on Guernsey, book a table at Christie’s, tucked away on Lower Pollet (which runs parallel to the harbour front).  There’s an amazing atmosphere on a Saturday evening (ask for a booth at the back overlooking the harbour terrace – make sure you book!) – order a dozen oysters while you peruse the menu (their Tennerfest menu – loads of the hotels and restaurants do menus for a tenner during this six week period – is completely fabulous).

If you’re up for a few cocktails, head back to Red (just two minutes’ walk) and go upstairs to their cocktail bar, where the doors to the terrace are open in the summer, and quaff a few cocktails while watching the boats bob on the harbour.  I recommend the Bramble (gin, blackberry liqueur.. other stuff…).  I do not recommend drinking three.

SUNDAY

Nursing a slightly aching head, why not wander along the harbour to Castle Cornet, a real boys-own castle (hold your ears for the firing of the noon day gun!) complete with turrets and cannons.  The castle houses five museums with all sorts of interactive stuff kids will love, plus, you can stand high up on the fortress roof surveying the sea and pretend to be Jack Sparrow (or not).

If you’re flagging, pop into Boulangerie Victor Hugo for amazing pastries (59 Lower Pollet, boulangerie.gg).

Don’t miss the La Vallette Underground Military Museum, also walking distance from the harbour.  Set in actual tunnels used by the Nazis for storing fuel during the occupation, the place is an amazing trove of memorabilia, not just from WWII, but right back to Victorian times.  Kids will love the plethora of uniforms, guns and medals and adults will, as we did, find some of the things (letters home from family members sent to prisoner of war camps and tales of life during the occupation) very poignant.  A moving place and well worth a visit.

For your final lunch, head to Le Petit Bistro, just on the corner of Le Truchot and Lower Pollet where you’ll find good wines (or great coffee) and adorable French staff.  Feast on ‘Le Club’ sandwiches with extra ham or smoked salmon and share some frites.  Delightful.

Finally, head sadly to the airport and vow to return to spend time in the summer on some of those spectacular beaches.

For more information on Tennerfest, which runs until November 11th this year, click on tennerfest.com

Huge thanks for our Gold accredited guide Gill, who was a mine of information and answered all my stupid questions, and to Visit Guernsey for sharing their beautiful island with us.  I’d keep quiet if it was mine.

 

Review: A Month in Marrakesh: a food journey to the heart of Morocco

If you’ve ever bought a copy of Jamie magazine, you’ll probably be familiar with editor, Andy Harris.  Already a fan, I was looking forward to receiving this book, not only because I love Andy’s work, but also as my own experiences of Moroccan food have been somewhat mixed: although I adored the tagines, fragrant pastries and couscous salads, I was less of a fan of the weirdly gelatinous calves’ foot casseroles and tooth-achingly sweet mint tea.

A Month in Marrakesh is a clever combination of travel guide and cookery book.  I adore travel books: I love joining writers on their journeys, and adding food into the equation just makes it perfect.  The photography, by the divine David Loftus, is just the icing on the cake.  You can practically hear the muezzin and smell the charcoal braziers of the street food vendors.

Recipes are delivered in a very Jamie-like fashion – there’s no fuss or frippery (but no ‘boshing’ or ‘whacking’ either), just fresh ingredients, bold flavours and authentic combinations.  Chapters include one on breakfasts, a very comprehensive and enticing section on salads and vegetables, also soups, tagines, roasts and some delicious looking desserts.  The ‘street food’ chapter particularly grabbed me.  The chicken kebabs with spicy avocado dip are on my to do list already.  I’m also looking forward to recreating the bistilla (or pastilla) that I enjoyed on my visit a few years ago: crisp pastry with a spiced chicken filling, topped with icing sugar (sounds unusual, but it’s delicious).

It’s obviously that Andy Harris has a deep affection for Marrakesh, and he brings the very essence of this vibrant city to life through this beautiful book.  Oh and that cloying mint tea becomes infinitely more appealing as a softly set jelly.

I’m delighted to say that I’m taking part in a blog tour for this fabulous book.  You can also win your own copy too – see bottom (tee hee!) for details.

A Month in Marrakesh by Andy Harris, £16.99 paperback, published by Hardie Grant.

Blog Tour

Monday 10th - http://englishmum.com/

Tuesday 11th - http://emmablock.co.uk/

Wednesday 12th - http://junglefrog-cooking.com/

Thursday 13th - http://www.babaduck.com/

Friday 14th - http://www.millycundall.com/

Win a copy of A Month in Marrakesh thanks to Hardie Grant Books. To enter simply follow Hardie Grant on Twitter @hardiegrantuk or like on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/HardieGrantBooksLondon) and send an email to competitions@hardiegrant.co.uk

 

Winner will be drawn on Monday 17th September. UK residents only (sorry overseas friends!).

 

Sunvil’s sunny baklava recipe

Sunvil are a lovely travel company who have over 40 years’ experience and an amazing amount of expertise on all aspects of the Greek islands. They’re passionate about their destinations: their people, their culture and, of course, their food, so they’ve decided to start posting a recipe every month on their website to celebrate the wonderful food of the area.  Baklava hails originally from Crete and seems a rather lovely place to start.  I’ve never actually made baklava, so when Sunvil challenged me to give it a go as part of the new Sunvil Supper Club, I jumped at the chance.

First of all, I’d say don’t be daunted by filo pastry.  I think I dithered a bit too long trying to make sure that every part of every sheet was brushed with the butter/oil mixture, which allowed the waiting pastry to dry out a little bit. Cover your pastry in a piece of damp kitchen towel, and you’ll be fine.

This lovely recipe really doesn’t take long to prepare and is a total showstopper. I also loved bubbling away the sugar syrup to make the final caramel-coloured honeyed syrup which is spooned over the warm baklava.  Utterly delicious.

If you’d like to have a go at making the baklava yourself, the recipe is on the Sunvil Supper Club page on the Sunvil website, and for more information on holidays to Crete, click here.

My Florida diary, part 4: How do you poo in space? The Kennedy Space Center, The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel and dinner at Kouzzina

After a restful night at the gorgeous retro Helmsley, we set off early towards the east and the Space Coast.  Arriving a little late, we had to nip in the back at our scheduled lunch with an astronaut.  If you’re visiting, don’t miss this amazing experience.  To be accurate, it’s not like an intimate lunch, it’s more a big, full restaurant, one person talking at the front kind of lunch.  Still, this suited us fine and we were happy to listen to the amazing Bob Springer, veteran of both Space Shuttle Atlantis and Space Shuttle Discovery and and all round good guy.  There aren’t many times you hear ‘and this is a photo of earth I took out the window of the shuttle…’  We shared the lunch with an enormous party of Chinese school children.  They were very well behaved, but of course Bob had to field the ubiquitous ‘how do you poo in space?’ question, which he fielded bravely, and with pictures (if you really want to know it’s all done with suction. And leg straps). We were all impressed.

The Apollo/Saturn 5 Center is also AWESOME.  The films are humbling and actually quite emotional, plus you get to sit in a galleried area and watch as an entire countdown to launch is re-enacted in an actual mission control centre.  We also got to visit the huge launch area complete with the biggest single storey building in the world, a hangar so huge that looking at the ceiling nearly makes you fall over backwards.  Our gorgeous guide, the incredibly knowledgeable  Andrea Farmer, PR for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex let us into a secret too: Atlantis is going to be permanently exhibited at Kennedy, the planned date being summer 2013.  I’m SO going back.  Check out kennedyspacecenter.com or follow them on Twitter @ExplorespaceKSC.

Our home for the night was the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel, my favourite, I think, of all our Florida accommodation.  The rooms were beautiful, and the actual hotel (well, hotels, there’s Swan and there’s obviously Dolphin) feels slick and classy, but is child-friendly too. Quite a feat.  There are bars and restaurants galore, a white sandy beach, stunning waterfalls and lush gardens.  In the evening, we wandered along Disney’s Boardwalk (one of my favourite places) to Kouzzina by Cat Cora, a frankly fabulous Greek restaurant.  The food was ridiculously good: we started with amazing dips: tzatziki, a spicy aubergine dip, taramasalata and hitipiti (red pepper and feta) served with delicious warm breads, followed by gorgeous melty Kasseri, a sheep’s milk cheese flamed so it’s lusciously gooey, served with toasted ciabatta.  Our mains were a tasting trio of braised short rib with feta mashed potato, lamb slider and a fisherman’s stew, and we finished off with an oozy chocolate centred budino cake, baklava and outstanding sorbets.  The wines were stunning too, and we staggered out just in time to watch the fireworks over the water before waddling back to the Swan, replete.

For more information, check out the Visit Florida Facebook page.

I travelled to Florida with Visit Florida and Virgin Holidays.  If you’d like to recreate my trip, here’s some information about a very similar seven nights in Orlando from £949

Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick or Manchester direct to Orlando, two nights accommodation at the 5V Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, two nights accommodation at the 3V+ Sunset Vista Beachfront Suites, two nights at the 5V Longboat Key Club & Resort and one night at the 5V Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel, all on a room only basis with car hire included starts from £949. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures 12 – 14 Nov 2012.

Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport or Manchester Airport; Adults £20, Kids £12

Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected

To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk, 0844 557 3859 or visit one of their 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide

 

Jamie’s Italian, Jamie’s Italian Bakery and Union Jacks Bar at Gatwick Airport

Today is a great day for my buddies at Gatwick Airport and the lovely Jamie Oliver.  Today sees the opening of Jamie’s brand new restaurant at the North Terminal, as well as a new Jamie’s Italian Bakery and a Union Jack’s Bar.

The restaurant is a mahoosive version of Jamie’s other Italian restaurants, the largest at the airport, with really nice open (well, glass fronted) kitchens, a wood-fired pizza oven and a fab view over the runways.  The bakery, which is a new concept, will serve yummy treats like bread baked freshly overnight, pizzas, sandwiches and cakes and cookies too.  The pub is another first in the UK and will serve little snacks along with drinks and there’s an amazing all-British wine list as well as UK beers too.

As a member of the Gatwick Passenger Panel, I’m bloody delighted for Gatwick, and so proud that they’re listening to their passengers and providing really great places to eat and drink.  Well done, guys.

Tenerife’s big attractions: Siam Park and Loro Parque

Siam Park

First stop on our journey around the biggest attractions in Tenerife was the beautiful Siam Park.  This Thai-inspired water park, situated at the south end of the island, was opened by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand (yes, really) over two years ago and features every single sort of watery entertainment you can imagine: from the Tower of Power, which whooshes you down 28 meters of near free-fall drop, through acrylic tubes in the middle of shark tanks (yes, really) to the more sedate artificial beach with waves that can top 4m (they break quite gently on the shore though so it’s safe for tiddlers).

We had a cabana (a snip at €800 for the day, although there are cheaper options) which allows you all sorts of special treatment, including all-inclusive service in the restaurants and a nice free minibar with snacks, and even WiFi:

…with an amazing view over the park and beach…

Also not to be missed is the amazing Mai Thai river – thought to be the largest lazy river in the world, and the kids’ own area, Lost City, with loads of watery fun including waterfalls, bridges and pools.

For tickets, try www.attractionticketsdirect.com - also look out for the free double decker buses that run from most of the major southern resorts.

Loro Parque

Owned by the same family as Siam Park, Loro Parque, up in the north of the island, started years ago as a parrot park (the owner has a real thing about parrots – you can still see parrot shows at the park today).  Also Thai inspired (in fact, most of the main buildings were made in Thailand and shipped over for construction) the site covers over 30 acres and the parrots have now been joined by gorillas, white tigers and orcas, as well as many other species, all looked after at this immaculate, and enormous complex.  We took a behind the scenes tour, seeing how the gorillas are looked after and watching the trainers sort the kilos of fish needed to feed the park’s six orcas.  The place is spotless, and the standards here are very high.  We were all mightily impressed:

My top tip is to do all the animal shows back to back as soon as you get to the park : sealion, dolphin and then orca. The shows are more crowded, but the atmosphere is fantastic and this then leaves you with the whole afternoon to tootle about the rest of the park.  Don’t miss the gorillas (the pack is all-male and often takes males excluded from other groups from zoos right around the world):

The food is pretty darned good here too – we feasted on tender barbecued pork skewers with a delicious ratatouille and baked potatoes and they well surpassed your usual theme-park fare (all washed down with some very decent local red wine as well):

Don’t miss the beautiful white tigers (and the monkeys if you must – I hate monkeys), oh and the gorgeously pink flamingos (I do love a flamingo):

There are so many things to recommend, I almost can’t decide, but the aquariums are fascinating, and the penguin enclosure is fantastic and managed with some real skill (even down to plunging the little fellas into darkness during arctic winters):

The park is open from 8.30 am until 6.45 pm every day (last entry at 4pm) and tickets can be purchased in advance from the website.  You can also buy a twin ticket that gives you access to both parks at a discounted rate (but bear in mind they’re at opposite ends of the island, especially if you don’t have a hire car).

I travelled to Tenerife with Monarch. Here’s some more information about travelling with Monarch to Tenerife:

Monarch, the scheduled leisure airline, operates year round flights to Tenerife from Birmingham, London Gatwick, London Luton and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, starting from £58.99 one way (£99.99 return).

In addition to year-round low fares, Monarch also offers a bespoke “build your own class of travel” range of products and services both on the ground and inflight.  All customers are allocated a seat at check-in; however seats can be pre-allocated on scheduled Monarch flights for £5.99 per one-way flight to ensure that families and groups are seated together.  For customers looking for added comfort, extra legroom seats are also available offering up to six inches of extra space from only £24.99.

Customers travelling on scheduled flights can also avoid booking charges by paying for their flights using a debit card or a PayPal payment option (which can be funded by a credit card for free). There is a small 4% fee for credit cards transactions, with a minimum value of £5.  This fee, which covers the airline’s cost of processing the credit card payment, is applied per transaction and not per person.

They can also take advantage of online check-in, which is available between 18 days and four and a half hours prior to departure. With a great range of tasty hot and cold meals that can be pre-booked or purchased onboard, flying with Monarch really couldn’t be simpler.

In addition to flights, Monarch also now offers a huge range of great value holidaysaccommodation optionscar hire and travel insurance.

For further information or to book Monarch flightsMonarch Holidays or Monarch Hotels, please visit www.monarch.co.uk

 

My Florida diary, part 2: Clearwater, St Pete’s and segway madness!

Next stop on our whirlwind tour of Florida was Clearwater. Driving across the Frankland Bridge from Tampa, we were all struck dumb by the beautiful turquoise water, with the fabulous waterfront homes gleaming on the shores. Our first stop was Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of ‘Winter’, the dolphin made famous by ‘Dolphin Tale’, the movie. The poor creature got caught in a crab line when she was just a tiny thing and was rescued by the CMA. Sadly they couldn’t save her tail but have helped her with a permanent home, physical therapy and a succession of prosthetic tails, kindly donated by a company that usually makes human prosthetics. At first sight, it’s a little saddening to see her bobbing around (she doesn’t wear the tails all the time), but the staff love her with a passion and give her the best life possible, and of course now she’s famous, everyone wants to come and visit:

After visiting Winter (and the miriad turtles, otters and other dolphins), we stopped in the utterly gorgeous St Petersburg (think white sand beaches, Riviera chic palm-lined streets and sun-drenched outdoor cafés) for lunch. The Cassis American Brasserie is something of a St Pete’s institution, with a famous bakery attached (apple tart TO DIE FOR) as well. We worked off the excesses of the previous night’s lycheetinis and karaoke (another day, I promise) by diving in to gorgeous fresh oysters, bloody marys and mahoosive burgers. Everything was delicious and the location, right on the sidewalk on Beach Drive, shaded by enormous umbrellas, was just fabulous:

Fully restored, we took a gentle sunny amble along Beach Drive to the Chihuly Collection where lovely director, Wayne Atherholt, showed us around these frankly stunning glass pieces. If you’re around St Pete’s you MUST visit. I promise you’ll stand awestruck in front of these phenomenal, complex glass sculptures:

Another quick drive took us to the amazing Dalí Museum. Our wonderfully eccentric and terrifically knowledgeable guide, Janice (complete with Dalí inspired shoe hat) steered us around hundreds of Dalí pieces, pointing out specific things in the paintings we would never have spotted, and explaining the thinking behind the paintings. Without a guide, you’ll still have a great time, but trust me when I say I learned more than I ever thought possible with Janice’s help. Don’t miss the beautiful gardens, cleverly named, of course, the ‘Avant Gardens’, with the enormous Dalíesque moustache and Wish Tree, where people have been writing their wishes on scraps of paper and tying them to the tree for years. By the way, if you want to add a wish to the tree, the museum will do it for you if you tweet your wish to #Daliwishtree.

We fell in love with Janice. In fact, so much that we couldn’t bear to leave her at the Dalí and persuaded her to join us (after a slight altercation between her car and a bollard – the bollard won) on our segway tour of St Pete. The segways are a little tricky to master, but with the help of the wonderful David Boston from St Pete’s guided segway tour company, Gyroglides, we were soon whizzing along in a happy troupe along St Pete’s pier, Janice merrily shouting explanations for her Dalí shoe hat as we glided past stunned passers by. Here I am looking utterly ridiculous on a segway:

And here’s Janice. In her multicoloured coat. On a segway. With her shoe hat on. Surreal (Dalí would surely have loved it):

After all that excitement, we were delighted to check into our evening accommodation, the delightful Sunset Vistas Beachfront Suites, located smack bang on the gorgeous Treasure Island beach, and chill on the balcony overlooking the ocean, sipping a cold glass of champagne generously left in our fridge (the condos are huge and really well equipped with washing machines, huge kitchens and two large bedrooms and two bathrooms as well as a sofa bed (three bed apartments are also available).

The condos are a fab idea if you want to go to Florida and have a bit more freedom. Self catering is a breeze with a café on site plus a huge supermarket within half a mile and plenty of lovely restaurants within easy walking distance (I highly recommend Sloppy Joe’s – order the firecracker shrimp – you won’t be disappointed!). If you’re staying a little longer in the area, George Hoch, the General Manager, recommends a trip to John’s Pass village, a lovely historical fishing village with loads of things to do and some fabulous seafood.

Here’s the inside of our condo:

20120529-110447.jpg

20120529-110522.jpg

And here’s the view from the balcony.  With my cankles:

For more information, visit the St Petersburg/Clearwater Facebook page, or the Visit Florida Facebook page.

I travelled to Florida with Visit Florida and Virgin Holidays.  If you’d like to recreate my trip, here’s some information about a very similar seven nights in Orlando from £949.

Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick or Manchester direct to Orlando, two nights accommodation at the 5V Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, two nights accommodation at the 3V+ Sunset Vista Beachfront Suites, two nights at the 5V Longboat Key Club & Resort and one night at the 5V Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel, all on a room only basis with car hire included starts from £949. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures 12 – 14 Nov 2012.

Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport or Manchester Airport; Adults £20, Kids £12

Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected

To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk , 0844 557 3859 or visit one of our 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.


 

 

My Florida diary, part 1: Orlando and Universal Studios including the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I have so much to tell you about our trip.  This means that it’s probably best to break it into several sections to prevent you falling asleep at your laptop and waking up with little keyboard-shaped indentations in your forehead.

First stop, then, was the fabulous Virgin V Room at London Gatwick Airport.  I met up with a couple of my fellow travellers, Kash from Budget Traveller and Victoria, otherwise known as Pommie Travels, plus Claire, our lovely and long-suffering PR.  We started as we meant to go on with enormous plates of eggs benedict and a refreshing 9am cocktail (what? we were on holiday):

A very comfortable flight and a very sweaty queue through US immigration later and we were reunited with Laura, and met Lily from Visit Florida, our guide for the weeks’ adventures.

First stop was the Hilton Bonnet Creek.  The place is enormous (1000 rooms!) and sits next to its twin, the equally fabulous Waldorf Astoria.  Here’s my room, already becoming sullied by the contents of my somewhat overstuffed suitcase.  The bathroom had a gorgeous double width/wetroom shower thingy (a thing of beauty) and possibly the biggest, most comfy bed ever:

We ate in the beautiful La Luce restaurant, created by the very famous Napa Valley chef, Donna Scala, where I nearly died and went to heaven sampling the crispest, most delicious frito misto with a crunchy, sweet, beet salad (sigh):

There was also a butterscotch dessert so gorgeous and so heavenly that there was total silence around the table apart from the odd contented sigh.  The dessert is so amazing it even has its own Facebook page (I kid you not):

The next day, we were very excitedly heading out to Universal Studios.  The studios are split into three main areas: the City Walk, which is an amazing strip of all sorts of bars, shops and restaurants before you get to the main entrances, then the Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Our absolute faves were:

Islands of Adventure

The Incredible Hulk Coaster – just amazing (and a bit scary)

The Jurassic Park River Adventure – fab dinosaurs and whooshy raft action – be warned, you get wet!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The Dragon Challenge – a feet-dangling-free terror ride upon a dualling dragon

Butter beer – taste it and immediately fall in love (oh, that frothy topping…)

Top tip: ask the guard of the Hogwart’s Express where he’s from!

Seuss Landing

If you’re a fan of Dr Seuss you’ll love this whole area – it’s like being dropped into the set of The Cat in the Hat

And at Universal Studios:

We spent far too long at the Islands of Adventure to properly check out everything at Universal, but don’t miss:

The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – my neck STILL hurts (this is my own fault – I didn’t want to take my hair clip out so rode the entire vertical-up and vertical-down section of this terrifying ride craning my neck away from my headrest. What a dunce.)

Universal’s Superstar Parade: check out the parade, if only for Spongebob and the dancing Minions from Despicable Me. Hilarious and gorgeous.

Next up is beautiful St Petersburg, the bonkers Dali Museum and some unseemly horsing about on segways.  Stay tuned, viewers!

 

I travelled to Florida with Visit Florida and Virgin Holidays.  If you’d like to recreate my trip, here’s some information about a very similar seven nights in Orlando from £949

 

Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick or Manchester direct to Orlando, two nights accommodation at the 5V Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, two nights accommodation at the 3V+ Sunset Vista Beachfront Suites, two nights at the 5V Longboat Key Club & Resort and one night at the 5V Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel, all on a room only basis with car hire included starts from £949. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures 12 – 14 Nov 2012.

 

Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport or Manchester Airport; Adults £20, Kids £12

 

Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected

 

To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk , 0844 557 3859 or visit one of our 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.