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SushiSamba

SushiSamba, Miami Beach

One of my favourite places in Miami is Lincoln Road.  It’s a huge, pedestrianised area stuffed with shops, restaurants, cafés, and on certain days there are market stalls and food stalls too.  After working up an appetite on our cycling tour of Miami Beach, we headed to SushiSamba and flumped down in the shade of their gorgeous orange brollies to do a bit of nibbling and people watching.

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Pizza in Rome

Food for thought in Italy

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

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The Kellogg’s All-Bran five day challenge

Our meeting room at the Covent Garden Hotel

Our meeting room at the Covent Garden Hotel

So last Friday I headed up to Covent Garden for a meeting with Kellogg’s to hear all about their new campaign. We met at the incredibly gorgeous Covent Garden Hotel – it’s like a fabulous underground rabbit warren – all dark, cosy and warm – our meeting room had ornate flock wallpaper, comfy sofas and faux window/mirrors.  I’m now on a mission to stay there.

All-Bran’s been going for absolutely donkeys’ years – we watched that advert with the ‘they’re tasty tasty very very tasty’ theme tune – remember that?

Basically All-Bran’s moved on a lot from those days.  Yes, you can still buy the hard-core slightly twig-like All Bran, and Bran Flakes, but now there are all sorts of scrummy new varieties including chocolatey and fruity, plus our favourite, Golden Crunch (the box I got in my goody bag lasted ONE DAY after I got back)  that will up your intake of healthy wheat bran fibre.

We had a good giggle about the amount of poo talk there was, but honestly, none of us eat enough fibre and it’s so important – not only does it ‘keep you regular’ (insert snigger here) but it helps keep you feeling fuller for longer (handy if you’re trying to lose weight) and can impact positively on your general health too.

The recommended GDA for fibre is 25g a day, but very few of us actually eat that much.  The Kellogg’s girls had challenged one of the girls in their office to take up the 5 Day Challenge (basically one portion of one of the cereals from the All-Bran range for five days, plus health tips and support during that time) and she honestly said she felt better – with more energy and, I have to say, she really did look great – bright eyed and glowing.  If you eat more fibre, Kellogg’s recommend that you also drink more water (2 litres a day) which all goes to making you feel healthier.

Golden CrunchAfter our meeting, we made the short walk to our pampering afternoon.  The Sanctuary Spa in Covent Garden is absolutely amazing.  There’s no way you can get a sense of the sheer scale of the place from the unassuming exterior. We had a delicious lunch lolling around on cushions in the HUGE relaxation lounge – it reminded me a bit of a Bond film – there’s a pool WITH A SWING (which I didn’t end up trying, darnit) and acres of room where women in various states of undress were lolling around sipping champagne.  There are also a mesmerising set of interconnect pools containing Koi Carp.  Sadly there’s a no camera rule so I can’t show you – you’ll just have to go and experience it yourself!

I decided to have a facial and it was probably one of the best ones I’ve ever had.  My therapist, Hannah, talked to me about my skin concerns and then gave me the most heavenly treatment, including a very firm head, neck, shoulder and arm massage.  I’m not a fan of pummelly massages normally, but afterwards I floated out with all the tension from my neck and back completely  gone, and my skin glowing.

NB: I’m going to have a go at the 5 day challenge and report back.  You can find the 5 Day Challenge here.

Review: ‘A greedy man in a hungry world’ by Jay Rayner

Jay Rayner

Here’s a thing: that Jay Rayner, yes, him off the telly, the scary one who can close a restaurant with a swish of his pen? He’s actually really nice. I’ve chatted a bit with him recently about his new book, and he actually cares what I think.  He cares about food: not just posh restaurant food, but the everyday stuff that goes in our trolley.  He doesn’t eat foie gras for breakfast. Who knew?

This book is probably the hardest I’ve ever read.  I read it twice (sorry, Jay, I lied when I said I wasn’t finished), not because it’s full of big, complicated words or anything, no, it’s actually very funny and incredibly entertaining (wait ‘til you get to the big wooden willy bit).  Jay – I feel like we’re on first name terms now – is self-deprecating (almost cringingly so on occasion) and honest and it’s very interesting.  It’s just hard because there are facts in it that made me question everything I currently believe about food, how I buy my food and where it comes from.

The book will take you on a journey from 1960s Kenton (where people like his mother spent half a day a week and probably a third of the family’s weekly income food shopping), through heart-breaking Rwanda, where children are starving in a fertile, but overpopulated land, to today’s supermarkets where 1 or 2p added to the price (and less BOGOFF deals) could make a massive difference to this country’s farmers.  It will introduce you to terms such as ‘sustainable intensification’, ‘virtual hectares’ and ‘gastronomics’, and make you really scratch your head over GM foods and food miles.

This book is basically about feeding a burgeoning population. It’s about why sometimes, buying local isn’t, environmentally and economically, always the best option, and about why farming on a huge scale can be a good thing.  This, of course, has upset everyone who believes that small-scale and local is best and I understand that, I really do.  But (to totally oversimplify things) take Jay’s example of potatoes.  In Norfolk, with its peat-rich, loose soil, farmers can yield about 20 tonnes of potatoes per acre.  But in London, with its hard, clay soil, they’d get more like 16 tonnes an acre.  So in order to match Norfolk, London farmers would need much more fertiliser, or more land, or something. And all of this would impact on the carbon footprint of those potatoes.  This, I understand.

I learned so much too.  I know that China is buying up vast tranches of agricultural land in Africa to safeguard their future, and that biofuels are really, really bad.  I know that in Britain we slaughter between 150,000 and 160,000 pigs a week (oh, the slaughterhouse bit, just… bloody hell) and why farmers’ markets, whilst I love them, will only ever be a luxury.

The trouble is, there are several quite complicated elements of the story to understand here, and I’m just not sure I have the mental capacity to understand them all (and no, I’m not participating in any foolish Silly Me Syndrome ‘gosh I’m blonde I am’ thing here, I just honestly believe that some of it went over my head).

I’ve made decisions after reading this book. I’ve resolved to buy only what I need, avoid BOGOFFs like the plague, to cut down on my meat purchases and to pay proper prices for things like milk.  After I’d finished the book, I tried to explain it to my husband.  But like all immensely clever writers, Rayner is practically un précis-able (yes it’s a real word because I said so).  Which is a good thing, because if you care about food, and about how we’re going to carry on feeding ourselves, our children, and their children, the one thing you absolutely must do is read this book for yourself.

The May food roundup: this month I have been mostly:

Waitrose home baking

Baking… with Waitrose’ new home baking range.  We especially loved the chocolate coated popping candy, but the range includes loads of other fab decorations, flavourings and ingredients.

Setting my mouth on fire… with Lovepickle’s delicious, spicy new range (mild, medium, hot and extra hot priced at £2.95 per jar).  The range is available to purchase directly from the website www.love-pickle.com and can be found in other food stores and delis across the UK.

Five Valleys cordialMaking amazing cocktails… with Five Valley Cordials.  Based in Stroud, Gloucestershire, the company offer some really unusual cordials including Lemon and Mint (fantastic for a really easy Mojito),  Pomegranate and Rose, Apricot & Ginger, Sloe & Raspberry and Coconut & Kaffir Lime (my favourite) all made from natural ingredients and free from artificial flavours, sweeteners, colourings or preservatives.  Available at Waitrose, priced £3.50

Warburtons Half and HalfWrapping everything… in Warburton’s new Half & Half wraps… sturdy enough to take any of the teenagers’ mad combinations of fillings (chicken, guacamole, salsa and cheese, for example), they’re 50% white and 50% wholemeal so quite a healthy choice too.

Sipping… a glass of Brothers’ cider and ice in the garden during our (rare) sunny Bank Holiday weekend.  We especially loved the Toffee Apple flavour (£2.09 available nationwide at Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons).

Quark hamperWhipping up… a scrummy moussaka and a creamy New York cheesecake with all these fabulous ingredients from The Lake District Dairy Co, responsible for Quark, the low fat soft cheese.  This stuff is AMAZING! It’s naturally fat free, high protein and and low carb.  How did I exist without it?

More info at lakedistrictquark.co.uk

Ozeri pepper millGrinding pepper…. onto everything, now we’ve got our fab new Graviti electric pepper grinder from Ozeri.  You just turn it over above your food and it grinds pepper until you turn it back to its upright position.  Amazing fun and really handy when cooking as you can operate it one-handed.

Tea India

And finally, sipping Tea India’s absolutely delicious Cardamon Chai tea.  It’s a new range, offering three authentic chais and a black tea blend.  They’re also giving away a free selection of tea on their Facebook page at the moment.  Pop over to have a look: http://bit.ly/CupofChai

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Foodie roundup: what I’ve been scoffing

I’m very lucky, and the postie often brings me all manner of yummy bits and bobs (he doesn’t miss out – he’s got a bit of a thing for blue cheese, which I’m not massively keen on, so he’s often rewarded).

Here’s the latest bunch of postal bounty that we’ve loved:

Abra-ca-Debora pancakesAbra-ca-debora pancakes made me my very own pancakes in time for Shrove Tuesday – isn’t that amazing?

But pancakes aren’t just for pancake day – these beauties are the perfect storecupboard ingredient all year round – fill them with creamy chicken and spinach, or roasted veggies in tomato sauce.  Scrummy.

SteenbergsSteenbergs Organic were established in 2003 and are based in North Yorkshire.  They sent me a fabulous selection of products from their amazing array of fairtrade and organic goodies.  The spiced chai sugar is absolutely gorgeous, and the flavourings are incredibly good quality.  Check out their website as I can’t even begin to list all the stuff they sell.

Villa MariaWe’ve been drinking a ridiculous amount of this delicious Villa Maria Gewürtraminer.  It was on spesh at Majestic but is sadly back up to £9.99.  I’ll be watching out for the next time it’s on offer.

CawstonCawston Press brought out a range of ‘grown up’ fizzy drinks (just in time for my failed attempt at alcohol free January): the sparkling apple & rhubarb was my favourite, closely followed by the sparkling lemon and lime (which tasted sublime with a dash of gin).

Mullion Cove fairingsLovely Sophie at Mullion Cove makes traditional Cornish fairings.  They’re gorgeously soft and spicy, and the fig and ginger had us all fighting over the last one.  Oh, and apparently the word ‘fairing’ comes from the fact they were sold at Cornish fairs and feasts and in Victorian times they were brought by a gentleman to give to his sweetheart as a love token!

French's new Smooth and SpicyFrench’s have brought out some new products this year: our faves by far were the Jalapeno Tomato Relish and the Sweet Onion Relish (scrummy on hot dogs, but I’ve taken to putting it in toasted cheese sandwiches too).  I’m not keen on mustard, but English Dad insists that the new Smooth & Spicy version of their original yellow mustard is fabulous too.

Elizabeth Shaw chocolateElizabeth Shaw have brought out two new scrummy new flavoured bars: Pear and Almond and Blackberry and Ginger.  We liked them both, but I would have liked to see larger chunks of nuts in the almond one that came across as slightly gritty.  I was, I admit, in the minority in this view, though, and they were both scoffed in seconds.

Farmison Cheese

The lovely chaps at Farmison sent me an ENORMOUS  British artisan cheese box.  Really well packaged, with lots of ice packs to make sure the cheese stays in perfect condition, the selection was varied, interesting and creatively put together. The Caboc Highland Cheese, which is covered in oatmeal, I think, was especially delicious (just as well as there were two of those in the box), and my other favourite was a sharp, but still creamy Keens of Wincanton Traditional Cheddar.  For blue lovers there’s a hand-made Yorkshire Blue and a seriously strong Colston Bassett.  The quince paste and water biscuits are delightful extras. The whole box would make an amazing present for any cheese lover.

WagamamaWagamama‘s new chilli, coriander and ginger dressing is fab on salads and in chicken wraps, but SUBLIME on avocados, mushed into rye toast.  Don’t question me, just do it.  We also tried Nando’s Smokey BBQ marinade which is lovely with chicken, sausages, ribs and any chunky white fish.

I think that’s it.  Go forth and get shopping!

CHRISTMAS FOOD AND WINE

 

As usual Montezuma’s, my favourite chocolate brand, have brought all sorts of deliciousness out for Christmas this year.  I’m particularly taken by these milk chocolate Christmas tree baubles (so pretty, with gorgeous ribbons attached) and their fantastic advent calendars – nothing worse than hideous ‘plastic’ chocolate in your calendar – they look fabulous and festive too.  I’ll also be putting their chunky chocolate snowmen and chocolate snowballs on my list too.

halfwine.com specialises in half bottles of quality wines.  The bottles are 37.5cl which is about one large glass each.  A lovely idea for a gift, and also handy if you’re matching your wines with each course and want to prevent wastage.  the Wirra Wirra Church Block 2010 shown in the picture was absolutely delicious – soft, rich and fruity. It comes part of their winter collection which, at a cost of £35.65 for four bottles: the red, a decent sparkling white, a St Emilion and a good Chardonnay is cracking value.

Joe & Seph’s

Gourmet popcorn makers Joe & Seph’s have bought out two amazing flavours in time for the festive season:  the new mince pie flavour has pieces actually coated with mincemeat and contains brandy infused fruit, caramel and almonds.  The brandy butter flavour is coated in a rich butter and Spanish brandy – it is quite alcoholic tasting though, so one for the adults!  Both flavours are available in lovely gift jars as well as 70g packs.  Really scrummy.

The Kraken is a fabulous black spiced rum (RRP: £22.99) from the States that is now available in some UK supermarkets (I’ve seen it in Waitrose already and, frankly, makes Morgan’s Spiced look like a bit of a sissy girl.  Try it  in this fab cocktail called ‘The Perfect Storm’: 50ml Kraken Black Spiced Rum + 25ml freshly squeezed lime juice + 5ml sugar syrup + 2 dashes Angostura Bitters.  Top up with ginger beer.   Serve with ice in a tall glass and garnish with two squeezed lime wedges.   It comes in a lovely flagon bottle too. Yummers.

Godminster has joined up with famous wine merchants Yapp Brothers to produce this lovely ‘Classic Red’ gift box, containing a 200g Godminster Organic Cheddar, 200g Godminster Smoked Organic Cheddar, a lovely jar of  Godminster Beetroot and Apple Chutney, and a bottle of Yapp Brothers’ Cotes du Ventoux Rouge: Chateau Valcombe 2008, which is a delicious soft red.  Scrummy.  The Classic Red Gift Box is available from www.godminster.com for £40.00 inc postage and packing.

Bakerdays.com send delicious little ‘letterbox cakes’ just three or four portion sized that, as the name suggests, fit through the letterbox.  The cakes come in gorgeous little tins, with all sorts of personalisation, and I can definitely recommend the double chocolate chip cake which is dark, moist and deliciously chocolatey.

 

 Soreen’s Cinnamon and Raisin Loaf

We’re massive malt loaf fans already, but this one is utterly delicious. It’s very moist, as usual, but with extra ‘Christmas Puddingness’ thrown in!  Gorgeous toasted with a splodge of butter too. Nom.   Available from Asda, Tesco and Morrisons nationwide, retailing at RSP £1.29.

Soreen

Spanish omelette with manchego and chorizo, and serrano ham shank with summer haricot beans

There was much excitement at English Towers this weekend, with a delivery of delicious smelling goodies from Lola España, a gorgeous website selling everything Spanish.  Our rummage through the MASSIVE box brought all sorts of squeaks of excitement: ‘six month cured manchego cheese!’, hand carved jamón Ibérico Bellota…oooooh!’ and ‘look at this chorizo!’, before leading us off on dreamy plans as to what we’d cook up.

While we were dreaming, we troughed our way through this entire pack of delicious Spanish biscuits too…

Of course, we had to stay slightly traditional and decided to make a proper tortilla de patatas.  Purists will blanch slightly at the fact that we added the chorizo and manchego, but hey, you can’t please everyone and I’m delighted to say that it tasted utterly delicious.

Spanish omelette with six month cured manchego cheese and chorizo Ibérico

4 or 5 floury potatoes

2 tablespoons rapeseed oil

1 shallot, finely diced

3 or 4 thick slices of chorizo, cubed

6 large free range eggs, beaten

Large chunk of manchego cheese, cubed

So firstly, peel the potatoes and chop into inch or so dice.  Boil in plenty of salted water until tender.

Next, fry the shallot in the oil until translucent, then add in the chorizo – stir it around until it starts to darken and release its oil, then add in the cooked potatoes and stir gently so you don’t break them up too much.

Add in the cubed cheese and pour over the beaten eggs.  Cook gently until the bottom is set.  If you’re brave, try the traditional method of popping over a large plate, flipping the omelette over and then putting it back in to cook the other side.  Otherwise, just pop it under the grill until golden.  Serve with a green salad and crusty bread.

Click here for the recipe for the serrano ham shank with summer haricot beans.  Mahoosive thanks to Lola Espana for the delicious food and the inspiration.

Review: Carluccio’s Caffe – dinner AND breakfast

For a while now we’ve been watching the new Carluccio’s Caffe take shape in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire… little noses pressed against the window, wishing the time away until the sign finally turned to ‘open’.

Finally, piles of delicious-looking meringues and lemon tarts appeared in the window, and we rang up to make a reservation.  ‘We only take reservations for 40% of the restaurant’, we were told.  ‘The other tables are first come, first served’.  Seeing as there was only two of us, we decided to chance it, and happily, we were in luck.  Be warned, though, a family of four were turned away, and there’s nowhere to sit and wait as the reception area doubles up as the shop so it’s likely you’ll be in the way wherever you stand.  There’s no sitting and waiting at the bar area either, as people were eating there too.  Next time, we’ll book early.

The interior is light, airy and modern, with a mix of semi-circular banquette seating and normal tables.  The kitchen area is open and the whole place was bustling.  The service was informative, mega-friendly and very efficient.

We started with marinated olives and a ‘bread tin’ with a mixture of different bread, from soft foccacia to thin Ligurian crisp bread. There was olive oil and balsamic for dunking and we sat, munching away, enjoying the atmosphere.  Our lovely server recommended a 2011 Gravina (£23) which she said would be perfect teamed with seafood.  Great choice.  It was light, floral and indeed perfect.  For a starter, we shared an ‘antipasto massimo’ plate which was a very generous selection of Italian meats, marinated olives, stuffed chicken, loads more bread, a delicious caponata and garlicky green bean salad.

For the main course, we both chose fritto misto with a green salad.  With hindsight, this wasn’t a brilliant choice as, although the fritto misto was delicious, with crispy-coated squid, whitebait, prawns and seabass (again, MASSES of it) and a yummy garlic mayonnaise, we regretted our decision as after a while it all seemed rather heavy and samey.  Our waitress expressed concern that we didn’t finish, but we were both a bit full up and a bit, well, bored with crunching through our dinners.  Bad planning on our part.

Skipping dessert, we ended our meal with VERY good coffee.  The whole lot coming to £80 including wine.  You can eat a lot more cheaply though as they do a fixed price two courses for £9.95.

We’ll definitely go back again for dinner, and this time we’ll chose a bit more carefully.  We loved Carluccio’s though, and decided to go back the next weekend for breakfast.  It is to die for.  Go there if you can.  Again, the portions are generous, and we feasted on the most perfect grilled pancetta, creamy herby scrambled eggs and heavenly mushrooms all piled high on Italian bread.  The hot chocolate is delicious and the coffee amazing.  £55 for the four of us (well, the coffees were quite small so we all had two each) meant it was a treat rather than an every weekend sort of outing, but still.  Worth every penny.

We’ll be back very soon.  Our verdict?  Favoloso!

Carluccio’s is in the old town hall, Berkhamsted, Herts.  Tel: 01442 877807.

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:

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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.


 

 

Review: hellofresh.co.uk

Did you watch the Sport Relief version of the Great British Bakeoff? I was actually quite struck by how, if you don’t cook much, it’s actually quite difficult to get your head around it (case in point: Arlene Phillips not knowing that you had to line a pastry-filled tart tin before pouring in the baking beans). The same goes for healthy eating, really – if you want to move away from chucking a pizza in the oven when you get home from work, but have no clue how to do it, where on earth do you start?

This thought occurred to me again when I was approached by hellofresh.co.uk. They offer a delivery service with a difference – they basically deliver all the ingredients PLUS a recipe that’s easy to follow, taking all the hard work and guess work out of it. I was quite impressed. Tell me more, I said to Caitlin.

So first you pop to their website – tell them how many there are in the household and choose how many meals you want, and they do the rest. They do all the shopping, and it appears at your door on a Monday evening between 5 and 9pm with recipes, all ready to go.  All the meals area easy to do and take under 30 minutes to prepare, with no fancy schmancy cheffy tools required.

The sample recipe was, I have to say, very impressive: a chicken breast with creamy rocket risotto and tomatoes for 2 people:

2 chicken breasts
6 cherry tomatoes
200g risotto rice
1 onion
1 piece of garlic
500ml chicken broth
75g creme fraiche
50g rocket
50g Parmesan cheese
Prices work out to just over four quid a meal, which I don’t think is bad, especially considering they’ve done all the thinking and the shopping for you.  The meals have been designed by a team of chefs in conjunction with nutritionists too.
The only downside is that at the moment, the service is only available in the London area.  Hopefully this area will expand as the service takes off.  I have a sneaking suspicion that it will.

It’s not you, it’s me: five reasons why woman should shop alone

One thing about being back in the same country together after our long period of job-enforced separation is that we can now go shopping together.

I’d kind of forgotten about this. I’d happily tootled around shops in Ireland (just happy to be there, frankly, after the epic journeys that necessitated getting to any decent shops), picking out just what I wanted and never thinking twice about it. Now there are several things about co-shopping that drive me insane:

The trolley

Before we’ve even got into the shop, we’ve started.  I like a big trolley and I like to push it.  I also like to bring my own bags (they’re bigger and stronger and yes, more environmentally friendly).  He favours trying to cram everything into one of those small granny trolleys and has no truck with bags hanging on the front (‘they give you bags at the checkout, FFS’), so I have to hold them.  And apparently (bag-free)  trolley pushing is the man’s job.  Sexism: alive and well and living in Hertfordshire.

Dithering

I know what I like.  And I know what I don’t like.  I don’t like shopping a deux and wish to be finished as soon as possible.  Therefore I don’t want to stand around and look at all the cheeses in the deli (we always buy Cheddar – what’s the point?).  Neither do I want to discuss the merits of wild vs farmed salmon at the fish counter  (he doesn’t like salmon so it’s kind of pointless).  The only time I like to dither is when I’m shopping alone in Waitrose – then I could spend hours.  Fickle?  Moi?  I also like to tut loudly at those silly arses that stand in the middle of the aisle and chat, whilst blocking everything up with their trolleys.  Want to chat?  Sod off outside.  Shops are for shopping.  I’m thinking of writing to the supermarket bosses and suggesting a special ‘dithering/gossiping’ aisle, so the rest of us can bloody get on with it.

Chicken

I will only buy free-range chicken. As the awesome Jimmy Doherty says in his book, A Taste of the Country, ‘if the chicken you buy in your supermarket is not labelled free-range, I’m afraid you are responsible for terrible cruelty’. I can’t have this on my conscience. The husband, however, cannot see the point in picking up a pack of two chicken breasts for £5, when there is a pack of four just below them for same price.

The chicken, being relatively near the front of the shop, causes us to bicker all the way round the store. We’ve kept chickens, I argue, and you know what intelligent and freedom-loving little chaps they are.  He knows, he says, but somehow his wallet rules his brain…

Hence, every time he picks up biscuits (we don’t need them – I can make my own), chooses Perroni over Budweiser, or adds ridiculous items such as Rice Krispie bars to the trolley, he is reminded that he’ll spend money on that, but not on the welfare of a poor little innocent chook.  It’s all wrong.  In return, of course, I get told off for buying fresh herbs ‘in bags! Pointless‘ and arborio rice.

Yogurt

We’re just speaking by the time we get to the dairy aisle, then it all goes pear shaped again.  It has to be Yeo Valley.  I’m sorry, but I can’t be doing with that watery shite and I’ve a special affinity with the Valley of Yeo, seeing as I’ve visited a couple of times.  The husband picks up Mullers.  I put them back.  Then we spot the big pots of Yeo Valley lemon curd and grab several.  Marital bliss is resumed.

Stackage

After relenting to his requests for the small trolley AND his insistence on being the one to push it, he then proceeds to do the worst stacking job in history… milk is rested on top of eggs and salad is squashed with beer.  I tut and move things.  He tuts about pickiness.  There’s a lot of tutting.

So by the time we’ve bickered all the way round, him dithering to look at things, me charging ahead tutting at the gossipers, got to the checkout where he’s flirted outrageously with the woman behind the till (he’s never that nice to me), and we’ve huffed out to the car with my ‘ridiculous’ bags… we end up driving home in silence.

So I’m afraid I’ve asked for a trial separation.  Oh not permanently, just every time we need some shopping.

I just need to be on my own… to find out who I really am.

I hope you understand, Hubby, it’s not you, it’s me.  I hope we can still be friends…

The Sensatori Resort, Riviera Maya, Mexico, part 2: face stuffing

So you know me and food.  I just can’t help myself.  I am well known, amongst friends, for slapping their hands away from their food until I have taken an adequate picture.  My family are used to this quirk and sit expectantly, knife and fork in hand, while I finish framing their plate.  They’re well trained, bless ‘em.

So the food then.  Oh the food.  The fooooooood.  On the resort, there were loads of restaurants: a basic all-day buffet of absolutely everything, a Mexican, a Caribbean, an Italian, a tapas, a posh, Heston-style snail porridge affair… add in a fabulous beach-side barbecue and 24 hour gourmet room service and you can imagine I didn’t stop eating from sun up to sun down every day.  Off we go on our culinary tour, then.  Close your eyes… (oh, but open them when you need to look at the pictures, natch):

Breakfast

There is something about an an enormous buffet that brings out my inner binge-eater.  The main restaurant hosts a breakfast selection that is, quite simply, beyond my wildest dreams.  Yes, you can have crispy bacon, sausage and egg if you want (there is a man who will do your eggs any way you like – I recommend an omelette with ham, chilli, cheese and mushrooms but that’s for another day), you can also have pastries, fruits, yoghurts, that weird European thing of having cheese and cured meats… any of fifty different types of breads, pastries and doughnutty things, hell there’s even a chocolate fountain, but you can also have proper Mexican breakfast.  And just for you (purely for interesting copy, you understand), I throw myself headfirst into everything I can find:

Here, clockwise from left, you will find: sweet beans (kind of like baked beans, but home made, a tad smoky and much, much nicer), spinach with cream, scrambled eggs with green chilli, refried beans and tortillas with onion cooked in tomato and chilli sauce with a cheesy topping.  Da brevren obviously question the sanity of eating spinach for breakfast, but hey, when in Rome I say.

Oh wait, and then after I’ve been to Rome, I still have a teeny hole, so I go to the pancake man, who makes me lovely pancakes.  He practically forces me… honest… oh and then I have to walk past a man making those lovely sugary churro things, so I have to try one (it’s okay, I grab some fruit too, which cancels out all the calories)…

… and then I discover that those churro things are really nice, and I have to go back and try a few more.  Just for research purposes, obviously…

After our mammoth breakfast, we waddle poolside, and remain there, replete and burping, until our breakfast has gone down enough for us to bob gently to the swim up bar for a morning margarita (what? we’re on holiday).  After that, we have another margarita, or maybe a daiquiri, and decide where we’re going to have lunch.

Lunch

The Mexican restaurant is a big favourite. The Tequila mussels are flippin’ awesome, as are the quesadillas made with chicken, Manchego cheese, enormous prawns and mushrooms.  This little beauty is a starter of spicy chicken tostadas: a mixture of shredded spicy chicken layered with blue corn tortillas and refried beans (the blue is a reduction of Blue Curacao, which contrasts superbly with the tongue-sizzling spicy chicken).

And this is grouper in a traditional achiote spicy rub with plantain, served on top of a lovely fragrant coriander mash:

The enchiladas are also a favourite: the tender chicken is flavoured with the same achiote spices, and there is cheese and a delicious spicy red tomato sauce… sour cream… green onions… (oopsy, drooled a little there):

The Caribbean restaurant is also beautiful.  It has huge conch shell lights hanging from the ceilings that give the whole place a magical glow (this is the view from below):

…and some very worried-looking lobsters in a huge tank (shifty glances are thrown in their direction whilst ordering: ‘I’ll have the…erm… the lob… the… erm….’):

Dinner

It’s a toss-up between the tequila mussels again, or a return visit to the Caribbean restaurant… (don’t look at the lobsters!!) or wait, there’s the yummy tortillas in the Spoon restaurant too… decisions, decisions…

And don’t get me started on the desserts… peanut tart with white chocolate and Mezcal (a kind of agave tequila)…cakes… gateaux…  Take your pick:

A word of warning, though.  Do not, I repeat DO NOT eat the chillies that garnish several of the dishes.  Tentatively nibble an edge and your mouth will burn with the fire of a thousand suns until at least the next day, regardless of how many frozen lime margaritas you devour.

A quick bath, then…

And it’s off to the mojito bar…

… where you can choose from over 30 different varieties.  But don’t worry, if you drink too many, there are lots of beds handily positioned right outside the door.

So anyone fancy a trip to the jungle, then?

Oh, and don’t forget it’s Shrove Tuesday tomorrow!  You can find my easy pancake recipe at Readyforten.com

The Real Food Festival

So yesterday, me and my chief photographer, AKA The Death Wish Child (armed with his new camera) travelled to The Real Food Festival at Earls Court as guests of the lovely Nick from My Daddy Cooks

With the big four dominating our food industry (yes, yes, I know it’s convenient to buy strawberries at Christmas, but sheesh…) The Real Food Festival is a great idea to give our fabulous small food producers a push.  The organisers of the festival even go so far as to subsidise food and drink producers so they can join the festival and get their names (and their fabulous products) out there for everyone to see.

Here’s a few highlights of our day:

Watching Nick (and little Archie) up on the bandstand talking about My Daddy Cooks (and even welling up a little listening to all that applause!)

Tasting the scrumptious ‘Britfruit’ frozen yogurt and talking mango with the lovely Chris from Arctic Farm very near English Towers up at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.

Stroking beautiful, gentle Petal the Water Buffalo from Laverstoke Park Farm and talking to her ‘Dad’ all about the benefits of buffalo milk (much easier to digest than normal cow’s milk)

Meeting walking chilli encyclopaedia and all round nice girl Joanna Plumb from Edible Ornamentals who supplies, amongst others, former Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers’ fabulous Mexican Restaurant, Wahaca.

Bagging an invitation from Simon Mead to come and visit P E Mead and Sons and watch them making their fabulous Chiltern Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Rapeseed Oil!

Sampling the wares of the amazing vodka- and gin-making legends that are Sipsmith (shout out to lovely James for his enthusiasm – and big samples!).  I’m not a big vodka drinker, but their gin was absolutely delicious – really floral and aromatic. Nom nom:

Chatting to the lovely Rob Bookham from Bookham’s Real Food about his gorgeous parmesan-like cheese, fantastically named Not Just a Pasta Cheese, and trying out his new Sussex Charmer, a delicious cross between Cheddar and Parmesan.  Drool.

Indulging in a rare old tasting session with Penny from Bramley and Gage the liqueur makers, and getting great advice about using their Organic Sloe Gin to add to champagne to make a ‘Sloegasm’ (ooh, and their Elderflower Liqueur is out of this world too).

Meeting Paul Wayne Gregory and trying his amazing popping candy chocolate, while chatting about his chocolate making courses.

Meeting (and tweeting) the lovelies from Vegware and finally getting to see their amazing collection of fully compostable food packaging (yup, they even do cupcake boxes – with see through windows made of corn starch – clever buggers!).

Sharing some beautiful, fragrant Jasmine tea at the Mad Hatters’ Tea Party with the equally beautiful and fragrant Henrietta from The Rare Tea Company.

And finally, the temptation was strong, but we finally managed to tear ourselves away without shoving one of these gorgeous little piglets up our jumpers:

Wedding planning for duffers

(c) Englishmum.com

So in a couple of short weeks I shall be tripping up the aisle (not literally, fingers crossed) in our pretty little church to renew the vows I made fifteen years ago to love, honour and erm…look after my long-suffering Hubby.  We’ve had our ups and downs – neither of us have been angels, but we’ve survived fifteen years without killing each other (it’s been close on occasions), produced two lovely sons and, as the eminently sensible Revd Craig pointed out, that’s got to be worth celebrating. 

When he asked me this time last year if I’d consider doing him the honour (‘properly, this time – church… dress… party – the whole nine yards’) who knew that half the fun would be in the planning.  I heartily recommend getting married (or remarried or blessed – don’t let the fact that you already have the ring stop you) quite a few years down the line in a relationship.  Okay, so the downside is you have to pay for it yourself, and I’ll never make a wedding planner (‘what do you mean the Rally of Ireland is on the same day as the wedding and we can’t use the carpark as it’ll be stuffed full of rally cars?’) but the advantages are enormous.  In fact, here are my top ten reasons for planning a wedding once you’re mature enough to make all the decisions:

1  The dress.  Every girl knows it’s all about the dress.  I had a bit of a false start here, purchasing a sensible, grown up cocktail dress from Monsoon then lying awake at night wishing I’d bought the wedding dress of my dreams.  After all, you only get to walk down the aisle once, okay twice.  And hey, if I want to do it wearing acres of pink tulle, looking like a cross between Katie Price and the Bride of Frankenstein, then it’s my shout.  I don’t, but I reserve the right to.

2  The guest list.  Don’t want to invite that maiden aunt with the moustache who frightens the children?  Cross her off the list.  Let’s face it, by the time you get to your forties (6 months to go before the big 4-0!) you know who your friends are and who they aren’t.  We’re delighted that we’ll be spending the day surrounded by the people that we love, and who love us back, and not with the people we felt we had to invite. 

3  The service.  Now it helps here to have a good relationship with your clergyman.  We, happily, are onto a winner.  Want a relaxed, child-friendly, happy, intimate service with lots of music and fun?  No problem.  Craig’s suggestions and ideas have added so much to the ceremony that we just can’t wait.  And the locals secretly can’t wait to get a shufty inside the C of I church either.

4  The details.  ‘I want the church full of flowers!’, I said to the florist, presenting her with my lovingly-made collage cut from several hundred wedding magazines.  ‘I’d love the scent of beautiful lilies, freesias and roses to hit the congregation as they walk in… and I want my bouquet to be huuuuge and smell gorgeous and be full of bright colours: pink and orange and lime green…’ [cue sound of needle screeching across record.]  Okay, so my original remit for the florist might have been a little extravagant.  Flowers are slightly expensive and the sound of Hubby’s sharp intake of breath when presented with the quotation was enough to send me scuttling back with a slightly amended version of my original flamboyant request.  These things cost money, y’know.  The advantage is that you know exactly what you want.  Even if you can’t actually afford it.

5  The cake.  Don’t like fruit cake?  Bit of a fan of Ace of Cakes?  Happen to have an incredibly talented friend who just happens to make the most fantastic cakes in the world?  You’re onto a winner.  Jen and I have spent many a happy hour discussing the merits of white chocolate sponge with raspberry filling versus dark chocolate sponge with a lime-scented ganache.  In the end we decided we’d have a layer of each one we liked.  See, when you’re grown up you can make those kind of decisions.

6  The music.  The fantastic night we spent at JD’s wedding convinced us that their band was the only one we wanted.  It didn’t matter that they’re based in Waterford, and that there’s six of them plus a ton of equipment to find room for.  We had to have them, so we took budget money away from other stuff and juggled the sums until we could afford them.  You can do that when it’s your money.

7  The poncy bits.  Don’t want buttonholes (‘why would I want a flower on my suit?’)?  Don’t have ‘em.  Ditto all the awkward, expensive and largely pointless bits that nobody cares about like favours.  I mean, who actually eats those sugared almonds in a bit of netting tied with ribbon anyway?  Cross ‘em off.  Equally, if you want every  car to be decorated with bright pink ribbon, for example, or have a friend mental enough to agree to sit with you and tie 85 bows of ribbon around 85 order of service scrolls then go for it.  The poncy bits are all yours.

8  The grub.  You get to pick the food you like.  We’re lucky because the chef at the hotel didn’t run away screaming when he saw me enter our meeting with a clipboard and a list of requirements twenty feet long.  Even better, he suggested fantastic local produce that we could incorporate into our wedding feast: beautiful fresh crab from Annagassan on the coast of County Louth… fresh local wild salmon and sides of beef sourced locally from the wonderful beef farmers of County Cavan (a couple of whom will be there with their families, which reminds me of my favourite conversation so far: ‘thanks for the invitation…you do know that I have five kids don’t you?’  Me: ‘Yup and we want you to bring them all along – don’t worry, we’ll reserve you a pew!’).

9  The chiselers.  You get to enjoy it all with your kids.  The boys’ friends will all be there and they’ve had enormous fun planning the day with us.  They’ve picked out their suits and selected a couple of lucky local girls to share their ‘first dance’ with.  The lovely Revd Craig suggested including them in the actual blessing ceremony and they’re breathless with excitement.  What better way to teach them about the importance of family than to get them involved?

10  The fun.  Oh we have some tremendous fun stuff planned.  Some really bonkers off-the-wall stuff that will have our guests astounded and amused.  Again, a flexible, forward-thinking vicar is de rigeur in this situation.  But, I mean, blimey, it IS supposed to be fun, isn’t it?

Oh, but it’s not all romance and roses.  We’ve had our fair share of doubts too.  Are we mental?  Does anyone really give a shit if the crab’s local?  Is it wise that 35 of our 85 guests are children?  Why have we spent all this money when we could have had two weeks on a tropical beach and renewed our vows barefoot on the sand with the boys in hawaiian shirts? 

I collar the Hubby while he’s watching the grand prix.  ‘Are we mad?’, I ask him.  ‘Would you have preferred the beach?’. 

‘I don’t know’, he says, ‘I’ll tell you the day after the blessing’. 

Oh.

The diet? Oh, it’s going really well thanks (cough)

Oh it's all low fat - no really...

So my lovely friend Al, sis of D-next-door and sis-in-law of my late, lovely friend C, also known as Mrs Lovely (blimey I’m going to have to cut that intro down), recently decided that she was going to lose weight.  She started weighing herself at that big machiney thing at the chemist once a week, watching what she eats and walking like a mad thing (I tell you, the woman is a demon walker – every time I drive anywhere I see her charging along, head bowed against the elements – impressive stuff).  I have watched, open mouthed, as the weight has fallen off the girl.  She’s a shadow of her former self, and looks fantastic.

What a good idea, thought I. 

I should do that, thought I. 

I eat far too much cake and drink far too much wine.  I’m partial to the odd glass of champers, have a penchant for Scampi and Lemon NikNaks as well as the odd cocktail (preferably at the same time), and I can’t pay for petrol without walking out clutching a Double Decker.  I made a loud (and admittedly rash) announcement that I was going to have a spell of healthy eating and moderate drinking, exercise and general abstinence, culminating in shimmying down the aisle looking slim, svelte and princess-like.  Hubby gave me that stare that means ‘this won’t end well’ but sagely kept silent.  He knows, you know.  We have this conversation often.  I debate the roundness of my tummy.  He professes a love for said tummy and reminds me of the ‘arse vs face’ rule.  You can’t save both.  It’s a scientific fact.  Just look at Janice Dickinson.

My first hurdle was the machine in the chemist; it’s right by the door so while you’re standing there in your socks (shoes weigh TONS), holding on to the handle and looking like a complete berk,  it waits until someone you know walks in and then bellows out your weight and height, stopping short of adding, ‘you fat shit’ at the end of it.  After this, it spits a bit of paper out at you and laughs a hearty and metallic laugh as you shuffle out, red faced and mortified.

I know, I know, we’ve had this conversation before: I was born curvy (Hubby once said to me: ‘you don’t have a big bum, your hips just stretch it out a bit’).  I have boobage and stuff and I do quite like it, but I do bake (and eat) a large amount of cake, and if it goes wrong or the recipe’s not quite up to scratch (my reader’s demand perfection, don’t you?) I tend to have another crack and eat that one too.

So the end of my first week arrived.  Not a single packet of crisps or chocolate bar had passed my lips.  I’d abstained from wine all week.  I’d not even buttered my toast, for goodness sake.  I stepped up to the evil machine with my head held high, waited for an acquaintance to walk in the door and… I’d put on weight!  TWO whole bloody pounds!  How could this be?

So as an experiment, the next week I ate what I usually do.  The odd bit of cake – the odd toast and marmite breakfast, watermelon martinis, even a jammy dodger or four.  And do you know what?  I lost a pound.

So that’s it.  After my highly scientific experiment, I have proved that I somehow have a randomly backwardised metabolism and obviously if I was to completely exist on a diet of lettuce leaves and miso soup I would soon hit 25 stone.

Pass me a slab of that brownie, would you?

The Thursday AND Friday Photos: Dining at Disney – foodie photo alert!!!

Disney 7 logo

So I thought rather than bore you to death with one big huge enormous Walt Disney World post, I’d break it down for you into more manageable bits (I’m good like that).  Today, then, is part one of the reason that I came back from Disney looking 6 months pregnant (no, don’t get excited, Mum).  I suppose a common preconception about visiting Disney (maybe even America in general) is that you’re going to have to survive on a fast food diet of chips, burger and pizza.  But seriously, nothing is further from the truth.  In fact, when our happy band of bloggers did happen to pass a rather enormous McDonalds in the bloggerbus, we were all begging Sarah (our very own Disney Mary Poppins) to let us stop.  Happily, she had far nicer stuff in store for us:

First night, then, saw us wandering along Disney’s beautiful Boardwalk area, still dazed from our amazing upgraded flight (never EVER been upstairs in a plane before) and the fact that it was now 1am back home.  The Boardwalk is a beautiful recreation of a 1940s seaside resort, where we walked, further dazzled by the beautiful lights twinklingly reflected in the water, into the stunning and very classy Flying Fish Café.  We were even more gobsmacked when we found that Disney had created a restaurant menu just for us:

Flying Fish Café blogger menu

We started with cocktails (I had a Bay Breeze) and the chef brought us a little ‘amuse bouche’ of spiced seared tuna with a ‘carrot-coconut infusion’ (me neither but it was lubly) topped with sturgeon caviar (yellow and green – how do the Sturgeon do that?).  I adored the caviar – I love the way it pops on your tongue.  I tell you, thoughts of burgers were now seriously melting away:

Our amuse bouche at the Flying Fish Café

We moved onto our appetisers.  I chose beautifully tender crispy sesame and togarashi scented calamari, served with spiced green papaya (amazing) and an Asian dipping sauce.  For entrées (no mains here, baby) the choice was vast – from fresh yellowfin tuna… scallops… red snapper…  I went for a beautiful piece of oak-grilled North Atlantic salmon with puy lentils and American Sturgeon caviar which was fabulous, and in my eagerness to stuff it into my face, I actually forgot to take a picture of it.  I did, though take a pic (and a couple of generously proffered forkfuls – I think it was the fact that I was drooling on her shoulder that did it) of Jane‘s beautiful hand harvested Maine scallops with a pea, Pecorino, basil and mascarpone laced risotto and weird triffid things.  It tasted even better than it looked:

Maine scallops

Too stuffed for desserts, we staggered back to our beautiful Beach Club Resort for a well earned rest.

Up bright and early to breakfast with Minnie, Goofy and Donald (more of this later).  I actually still feel stuffed from the night before so settle for a reasonably ‘light’ breakfast of Mickey waffles with fruit, ignoring the vast array of bacon, sausages, fried potatoes, grits, yoghurts, and even desserts such as cobblers and crumbles:

Mickey waffles

Quick DISNEY FACT here: all around Walt Disney World there are what’s known as ‘hidden Mickeys’.  There are even proper ‘hidden Mickey’ nerds that make it their life’s work to know where they all are.  We spotted a couple, including a Mickey-shaped rivet in a manhole cover and a Mickey-shaped electricity pylon (no, honestly).  This, obviously caused me to collapse in a heap laughing every time somebody mentioned it.  Why?  Because in Ireland a Mickey is another name for a man’s erm… oh, you know.  And ‘hidden Mickey’ has all sorts of connotations to my filthy brain which prompted the snorting.  Sorry…

Off in the bloggerbus (or ovenbus as it became known) to Typhoon Lagoon (more of this later too), then to Downtown Disney (you guessed it – more later), where we have an absolutely amazing cob salad in the Earl of Sandwich.  I’ve never had one before, but it’s a rather delicious combination of chicken, cranberries, chunks of cheddar and masses of mixed leaves, all doused in a lovely dressing.  See, even the takeouts are scrummy.

The evening found us hurling ourself upside down on various rides at Walt Disney’s Hollywood Studios Resort (sorry, but I’m going to have to keep saying ‘more of this later’) where we dined at the spectacular Hollywood Brown Derby, a pretty good approximation of the original Brown Derby, frequented by the stars and decorated with signed caricatures (I spotted Bette Davis’s and Fred Astaire’s).

The service, as usual, was impeccable: friendly, helpful, discreet and informative.  The steaks were absolutely amazing (I think most of us ordered one):

Fabulous Brown Derby steak

Again, no room for dessert, but obviously we squeezed in a quick cocktail (made by the crappest cocktail waiter in the world, the lovely Craig, who took so long making our cocktails (checking his recipe every ten seconds), that we missed our showing of Fantasmic.  In fact, as one of my fellow bloggers pointed out, this photo looks misleadingly like he was moving at speed.  He wasn’t.

Craig the crap waiter

Instead, we retired back to our resort, Walt Disney’s Beach Club, to down more mojitos and get all sillly and giggly.  Poor Sarah started to look vaguely scared, especially when a competition to see who could say motherf*cker the fastest got into full swing.  We retire to bed a little tired and emotional (it’s the jet lag you see).

So that’s my first two days, then.  But brace yourself, you’ve got the other five to come, plus roundups of the main resorts, plus the parks, Disney’s Dining Plan, prices, packages, some amazing Disney facts and some rather wondrous exclusive Disney scoops.

Here’s a final DISNEY FACT to keep you on your toes: Walt Disney’s brain is widely held to be kept in a secret location, cryogenically frozen.  This is a load of horse poo.  He was just buried like everybody else.  See, you’re gagging for more now, I can tell….

The Friday fridge photo

The Friday fridge, no less

So you’ll like this.  I’m bored of the Friday photo.  I’m always hunting around for something interesting to happen, and then when it does, it’s Saturday, and by the time Friday comes around again, I’m wondering if it’s not really so interesting after all.

So anyhoo.  I’ve just been shopping.  Yup, up to Enniskillen – naughty, I know, not supporting the Euro and all that, but I only go once a month, honest, hofficer.  The rest of the time I drive miles to pay double for less choice.  And I thought how nice my fridge looked, all full up with goodies.  So I thought I’d show you.  And guess what?  Next week it’s your turn.  A description and a lubly photo of your fridge, please.  And we’ll carry it on until we run out of photos, or get bored, or er…. well, you get my drift.  Off you go, then.

 

Oh, and just in case you don’t fancy looking at my fridge, here’s a snow angel, competently demonstrated by #2 (‘y’see, Mum?  You have to kind of flap yer arms and legs’.  ‘Okay, darling, I promise I’ll come and have a go in a minute’).

 

Snow angel

Sour Grapes? Not likely.

Clos-du-Val

So this is really clever.  Lovely Lar, over at Ireland’s best wine blog, Sour Grapes , has taken different recipes from various Irish food bloggers nominated for the Irish Blog Awards, and matched them with some rather outstanding wine choices. 

To accompany my Sunday lunch of beef stew with fluffy parsley dumplings.  Lar suggests a Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon coming in at a breathtaking €27.49, but hey, as Lar points out it would be perfect for a special weekend dinner.  And anyway, staying in is the new going out, don’t they say?

Read all about it here.

No battery required: well done, Sainsbury’s

Hugh (photo from Channel4.com)

Of all the things I really miss about home, it’s being close to a really nice, big supermarket: being able to choose from tons of lovely stuff rather than having to  make do with whatever the smaller shops can squeeze onto their limited shelves.  And although our closest was Tesco, there was a really nice Sainsbury’s not too far away (do you know what, I can’t even remember the name of the town, and I’ve only been gone two years.  It’ll come to me, I’m sure).  I really like Sainsbury’s (and no, it’s not just the Jamie Oliver connection), I like the stuff they sell and their values too (I love Waitrose, too, but seriously – who can afford to shop there?).  And true to form, their latest press release is a sign that they’re way ahead of the competition.

From the 5th February, Sainsbury’s have announced that it will sell only eggs from uncaged birds.  I think, to be fair, that M&S or maybe Waitrose were the first to do this, but still, Sainsbury’s is the first of the big four to ban battery eggs and hopefully it will force the other big hitters to do the same.  Compassion in World Farming have called the  move ‘breathtaking‘ and praised Sainsbury’s ‘genuine commitment to continuously improving life for all farm animals in their supply chain‘.

Still on the subject of welfare, there’s some cracking TV coming up over the next few weeks.  I’m gutted I missed Jay Rayner’s ‘True Cost of Cheap Food’, but Channel 4′s ‘Great British Food Fight’ continues with the return of the chicken’s champion, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, as he continues to badger the hell out of poor Tesco (26 January, 9pm), and Jamie moves from chickens to pigs in Jamie Saves Our Bacon (29th January 9pm).  Bring it on, I say.

Your last meal. Evereverever.

Okay, so the bad news, obviously, is that you’re just about to die a most horrible death (metaphorically speaking, natch) but the good news is that you can have anything you want for your last meal.  And I mean ANYTHING.  This morning we started along the ‘last spoonful’ path, which obviously wasn’t quite enough for my gang of extremely greedy commenters.

Likely suspects so far include Jennifer, Bert’s #1 fan:

Starters – hmm, Suppli or tomato, buffalo mozzerella and fresh basil leaves with a drizzle of balsamic.

Main – lamb shank with mint gravy and M&S croquet potatos (not very gourmet I know but they’re scrummy).

Dessert – Gooey, runny, warm, chocolate fudge cake, with a scoop of really good quality vanilla ice cream to break the richness of the cake.

Then Wee Jen (who’s completely to blame for all this pretend face-stuffing):

A great big mezze plate (wot?! is that cheating?)

Hubbie’s garlicky lemon roast chicken, cooked over the roast potatoes so they go all lubbly-tasty with the schmaltz. There would be token greenery too and a gloriously-risen Yorkshire pudding.

Dutch applecake, scented with cinnamon and a big dollop of cream or hazlenut icecream on the side.

I might even find room for cheese.

…and Baino:

Entree: Rare carpaccio of filet beef on watercress salad with balsamic vinegar and horseradish cream
Main: Seared green lobster tail in garlic butter, crusty baguette and warm mesclin lettuce salad with caramilised pumpkin squares and new potatoes
Dessert: Lime cheesecake on a chocolate biscuit crust.

As for me?  Hmmm, tricky one.  I suspect you could ask me any day and it would be something different, but right now (which is difficult because I’m completely stuffed with chilli at the moment), it would be something I really, really miss:

Starter: A cute little onion bhaji and maybe some popadums, plus some fresh onion salad and the little bowls of raita and chutney and pickle

Main:  A really gorgeous chicken biryani, with buttery, spicy rice, tender chicken and that lovely vegetable curry.  Ooh, although I have to admit for a very tacky craving for chicken korma too.   Not had one since I left the UK *sob*

Dessert: Slightly off-course here geographically, but it would have to be steamed syrup pudding with custard AND cream AND ice cream.  (What?  I’m dying here).

Over to you, then.  And yes, the Jens and Baino can have another go if they want, just so they don’t feel left out.

Foie gras? I’ll pass, thanks all the same

Wubber ducky

On Sky today, they had a news item about the force feeding of ducks and geese for the foie gras industry  (DON’T click on this link if you’re easily upset) in Hungary and Bulgaria.  The charity Four Paws took sneaky video evidence of this force feeding practice and I have to say, it’s not pleasant viewing.  So yes, different cultures think different things are acceptable.  I wouldn’t think many people in the UK or Ireland would ever think of eating foie gras, but in some places in Europe, like France,  it’s hugely popular.  The charity workers trying to get the undercover film were chased and threatened with axes – someone not particularly happy about being filmed, methinks?

Now I’m not an animal rights campaigner.  I eat beef, and chicken and pork and all that stuff and I know the animals die in order that I can eat them.  However, I don’t want anything to suffer on my behalf, and I do find it incredibly distasteful in this day and age when the public demand much higher levels of animal welfare, that the mighty Tesco feel that it’s acceptable to sell this product in their Hungarian branches, while declaring that they don’t sell it here on ‘welfare grounds’.  

I have heard, by the way, that some foie gras facilities have ‘free range’ geese and ducks, and that they rush over to the ‘force-feeding’ machine at dindins time.  I wouldn’t know, but the crating seems excessively cruel.  I know foie gras is a foodie thing, and is regarded as a delicacy, but being responsible for shutting a bird in a teeny cage and and walloping a great tube down its neck  twice a day in order to make something yummy would put me right off ordering it.  Sorry and all that.  Stupid question, but is there a kinder way to produce it?

English Mum’s ‘Don’t Eat Six Gingercakes’ Diet

So Hubby and D-next-door play 6-a-side soccer on a Thursday (well, sometimes it’s 5-a-side, or 7, depending on who can be arsed).  They come home absolutely shattered, pouring with sweat, have a quick shower and bugger off to the pub where they consume large amounts of beer.  I can’t help myself; I have to question how healthy this pastime actually is.  I, on the other hand, don’t bother with the exercise or the working up of a sweat – I just go straight into the vino.  We have a chat and decide that we’re probably not the healthiest of families.

The thing is, though, dear reader, I generally don’t think we do too badly.  We have good, freshly prepared food, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, we exercise…  Well, I walk the dog every day and Hubby has a gym in the garage (I don’t go in since my run-in (hah) with the evil running machine that glares at me when I go to put stuff in the tumble dryer.  It made me dry-heave after ten minutes then spat me onto the floor).  But yes, I do have a serious baking addiction and a fondness for a glass of wine or seven.  Where do you draw the line?  I think I’m quite healthy – I’m a size 12, which is probably about right for my 5’7″ frame.  I have been this size for my whole adult life.  Yes, I have ‘tits and ass’ (sorry mother), but I like them, I’m fond of them and I don’t want them to disappear. 

But (or should that be butt), equally, I’ve noticed the curve of my tummy being rather more pronounced recently, and as much as I love curves, I wouldn’t want them to be lost under rolls of flab either.  I want to continue to be healthy, but to curb some of my more extreme habits (the baking of 6 ginger cakes in one day because I couldn’t quite get it sticky enough being one of them).  

I absolutely and utterly will not do diets.  I won’t have the D word even mentioned in my house.  I think denial equals disaster.  Healthy eating is one thing, but denying yourself fruit on the Atkins diet because it contains hidden sugar is just plain mental and unhealthy and I won’t countenance it.  We have a long chat, and decide on the following rules for English Towers:

  • We will try to have a healthy breakfast (damn, there goes the enormous slice of leftover ginger cake and the big fat hot chocolate, then)
  • We will cut down on the amount of refined food and junk that we eat.  Damn you, Ronald McDonald.
  • We will try to avoid eating big stodgy meals after 6pm (scientific studies – not that pillock Atkins – have proven that you don’t need huge amounts of carbs at night when you’re going to just sit around and not burn them off).
  • We will (double gulp) cut down on our alcohol intake.  Initially we’ll try to just drink alcohol at weekends.
  • We will do all this without making a big fuss and involving our children in ‘ooh, I can’t possibly eat that’ type conversations.

There.  I’ve said it.  And now I’ve told you all it will have to become law or I’ll look really stupid.  And I’ve just bought 24 bottles of Jacob’s Creek up at Tesco’s in Enniskillen too.  Damn.