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Sharing platter in Prezzo

Prezzo’s new summer sharing specials

I’ve written before about how gorgeous our local Prezzo is.  The staff are lovely, the atmosphere in the place is amazing (helped by an open kitchen featuring a massive pizza oven) and the food is consistently good.  Last week we popped in to try the new summer sharing specials.

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Gunmakers Arms menu

The Gunmakers Arms, Clerkenwell

Yesterday I had a proper greedy day starting with lunch, moving on to afternoon tea with a client and then an evening at one of our favourite local hangouts, No 2 Pound Street for a couple of glasses of wine and one of their lovely sharing boards of cheeses and meats.

I was up in London to meet a lovely friend (we work together, but this has become secondary) to discuss travel plans and catch up on our news. She was bringing a colleague and they suggested The Gunmakers Arms in Clerkenwell, close to my second meeting. I arrived hideously early (typical ‘country mouse comes to the city’ type thing) but took my chance to wander slowly up Leather Lane, sniffing all the delicious smells from the food vendors and pressing my nose up against the window of Pieminister.  The Gunmakers is just off Clerkenwell Road and I loitered a bit awkwardly outside, wondering what to do for 20 minutes in the drizzle before deciding to head inside.  Good decision.  I was warmly welcomed (the staff put me in mind of when Jay Rayner described the staff at Hawksmoor as ‘bed headed and tattooed’ – seriously cool), provided with a drink and a warm spot by a radiator, and spent the rest of the time before my lunch mates arrived studying the chalkboard menu.

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The Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook – part 3: Brunch and Baking

The Ultimate Cookbook - Part 3 - front cover

So following on from my first post about the Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook, the Sunday Lunch edition, and last weekend’s Quick Eats, this weekend I’m really excited that Brunch and Baking are on the menu.

Being rather late weekend risers, we’re big fans of brunch in this household.  Leafing through the recipes (once again, I got a little early sneak peek), I was delighted to see such diverse brunch dishes as classic eggs Benedict from Le Caprice, and fresh and funky fried eggs with radicchio and torn bread from lovely Aussie Bill Granger.

Obviously I’m a huge baking fan, and Mary Berry’s beautiful whole orange spice cake is one that I’ll be bookmarking for some lazy Saturday afternoon baking very shortly.  But for me, it had to be a rather amazing recipe by one of my biggest culinary girl crushes, the Sunday Times’ own gorgeous Gizzi Erskine.  Gizzi’s millionaire’s shortbread has the clever addition of rosemary in the caramel.  The boys initially turned up their noses, but as the caramel bubbled on the stove, and the delicious sweet, herbal scent filled the house, everyone was strangely drawn towards the kitchen to have a taste.

Because I’m lazy, I made the shortbread in the KitchenAid, which took about two seconds (I’ll be using this recipe next time I bake shortbread), but the whole recipe represents everything I love about cooking: pressing soft dough crumbs into the baking tin, melting chocolate and stirring sweet, bubbling caramel.  The very best form of kitchen therapy.

The finished article, with its buttery shortbread, thick caramel and crisp chocolate top, is a bit of revelation, with the rosemary adding a rounded edge which is the perfect foil to the sweetness.  Deeeelicious.

Gizzi Erskine rosemary millionaire's shortbread

 

Get your copy of The Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook: Brunch & Baking this weekend, the third in a four-part series.

Featuring a selection of the finest recipes of the celebrity chef era, The Ultimate Cookbook is part of The Incredible Edibles Food Series dedicated to food and dining.

The final edition in the series is Dinner Party next Sunday.

Visit thesundaytimes.co.uk to subscribe and to find out more details about exclusive Times+ chef events, hosted at some of the country’s best restaurants.

Review: Sage by Heston Blumenthal Control Grip All in One

The making of the birthday double chocolate cheesecake happily coincided with me being sent a rather fabulous new gadget to review.  Sage by Heston Blumenthal is a new range of really good quality kitchen appliances that have been developed with a great deal of thought.  There are some stonking gadgets in the range, from The Dual Boiler, an incredible (and stunning) espresso machine (costing over £1000 and with its own coffee expert to help you install and set it up) through mixers and ice cream machines (featured in last night’s Gadget Show if you were watching) right down to kettles and toasters.

Heston Sage

My Control Grip All in One feels very solid and looks a tiny bit like a Magimix, but has a main power ‘stick’ like a stick blender, which then fits into lots of other accessories like the food processor with shredding and slicing discs, potato masher (which is AMAZING) and whisk, as well as the traditional blender.  It’s been well thought out and everything fits onto a main base (with an extra long cord) so you can keep it on your worktop and no longer have to rummage around every time you want to use a bit of the kit.

Bizarrely the only thing that doesn’t fit is the whisk which, in my opinion is the only bit that lets the side down, being a bit on the flimsy side – a surprise when everything else is so well made. No matter, as it doesn’t fit on the base it will no doubt end up languishing in a drawer anyway.

The double food processing blades (and the slicing and grating discs) are all good quality and VERY sharp and made short work of reducing a pack of chocolate digestives into rubble.  It’s not quiet, but then it’s not horribly noisy either and it was easy to wash and reassemble, the power pack popping easily out of the top of the processor jug so it can be washed.

Best bits:

  • lots of power settings, making it easy to go gently, or really rack up the power when you need it
  • Everything fits on the base so is easily at hand
  • Good quality, heavy-feeling attachments

Worst bit:

  • that ridiculous whisk

The verdict: not cheap at £129.99 but really well made and covers all the bases.

The Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook – part 2: Quick Eats

The Ultimate Cookbook - Part 2 - front cover

So following on from my first post about the Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook, the Sunday Lunch edition, this weekend it’s all about fast, fabulous Quick Eats.  Once again, I got a little sneaky peak of the recipes and there are some absolute crackers in there.  Just because you’re time pressed or busy, it doesn’t mean that you can’t eat well.  I was delighted to see Nigella’s wonderful lemon linguine featuring – it’s a family favourite here, often served simply with some peppery watercress salad for a satisfyingly quick supper.  We keep grated parmesan in the freezer, which is really convenient and means that we avoid that awful moment when you reach for the block of cheese in the fridge and discover it’s gone a pretty shade of blue.

Yotam Ottolenghi has a delicious Jerusalem artichoke soup – a great choice for a quick and easy meal, this soup contains egg and yoghurt and I’m dying to give it a go.  Eventually though, as we love a bit of spice, we decided to cook Ken Hom’s Sichuan prawns in chilli sauce.  I couldn’t find any chilli bean sauce locally, so used our favourite spicy chilli sauce.  It’s such an easy recipe – the hardest thing is chopping up a couple of cloves of garlic.  The sauce is rich, spicy and zingy.  I served ours simply with some buttered noodles and fresh green salad.  Delicious, healthy, fresh and simple.  Who needs ready meals?

Ken Hom Sichuan chilli prawns sma

 

Get your copy of The Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook: Quick Eats this weekend, the second in a four-part series. Featuring a selection of the finest recipes of the celebrity chef era, The Ultimate Cookbook is part of The Incredible Edibles Food Series dedicated to food and dining.

Upcoming editions in the series are Brunch & Baking on Sunday December 1 and Dinner Party on Sunday December 8.

Visit thesundaytimes.co.uk to subscribe and to find out more details about exclusive Times+ chef events, hosted at some of the country’s best restaurants.

Review: Prezzo’s Christmas menus

Prezzo ChristmasThis week, we were invited to our local Prezzo to try out the new Christmas menus.  We pop in to Prezzo every so often for pizzas and salads, but I hadn’t really considered it particularly for Christmas.  Someone on Twitter even suggested turkey pizza when I mentioned I was going to Prezzo to try their Christmas menus!

Happily I was completely wrong.  The place was absolutely buzzing – our local restaurant is housed in the town’s old Post Office building and it’s got a lovely industrial feel to it, with a huge oven at the centre of the open kitchen.  It was lovely inside – all warm and sparkly, with candles, an open fire and a gentle buzz of conversation.  We were shown to a lovely big table by the fire and got stuck in to the menus (and a very nice bottle of Barbera d’Asti).

There are three menus for Christmas:

The Classic (3 courses for £16.95)

This menu only offers a few choices and you’ll find most things are on the normal Prezzo menu anyway.  We tried the bruschetta starter, which was a really generous portion of flatbread, topped with loads of yellow and red cherry tomato quarters, red onion, fresh basil leaves and a generous drizzle of pesto.  It was really fresh and tasty.

Mains include pizzas, pastas and a Caesar salad and desserts include Charlie’s favourite chocolate profiteroles, filled with chocolate cream and generously drizzled with vanilla sauce.  The choux pastry was light, the filling generous and the vanilla cream sauce REALLY yummy.

Prezzo king prawnsThe Premium (three courses for £19.95)

This menu has more choice.  We ordered one of each of the starters and had an absolutely fantastic time sharing and dipping.  The king prawns served in a rich, garlicky tomato sauce with a generous touch of chilli are utterly delicious, and we ended up dipping the crispy calamari in there too.  Yum.  The pane con cipolla – garlic bread smothered with sweet sour balsamic onions and mozzarella is like a huge pizza – perfect for sharing (and scoffing with those delicious king prawns).

Mains are varied and tasty: we ordered the VIP tre gusti pizza – a massive pizza piled with pepperoni, chicken, pancetta and mozzarella.  Charlie found the amount of fresh rosemary a bit overwhelming and ended up picking it all off – apart from that it was spot on.  We were also tempted by the pene al zafferano (chicken with red chilli, spinach and garlic in saffron sauce) and the fusilli Gorgonzola with chicken, pancetta, and veg in a creamy sauce.  The king prawn risotto looked great too.

Desserts on this menu are nothing short of fabulous.  We fought over the sticky toffee pudding –  a huge slab of the most delicious, sticky softness, and the white chocolate bombe (mascarpone ice cream covered in white chocolate with raspberry sauce) was lush.

The Signature (four courses and a glass of Prosecco for £24.95)

This menu starts off with a small tray of marinated olives and a glass of fizz.  Starters include the most delicious, crispy, soft centred crab cakes (you only get two – we could have eaten ten) and gorgeous gnocchi stuffed with Gorgonzola and walnuts in a tasty, herby tomato sauce.

The mains were the star of the show: panciotti (little pasta parcels similar to ravioli) stuffed with scallop and prawns in a dill sauce, the most deliciously savoury wild boar tortelli in a creamy tomato sauce (slightly let down by being a bit gristly in places but otherwise meaty and satisfying), and a tender roasted duck leg served on a big plate of potatoes and vegetables with tomatoes and a touch of chilli.  The pollo al funghi – a plate of chargrilled chicken with mushrooms and spinach – wasn’t particularly generous, but the marsala sauce was delicious and it’s served with lovely rosemary potatoes for mopping it all up.

Desserts on the signature menu include the white chocolate bombe again and a perfec, rich chocolate orange cheesecake with a crunchy chocolate topping, served with a big dollop of mascarpone.

Service was attentive and friendly, even though the place was busy. We walked out absolutely stuffed (I couldn’t even manage a calzone mince pie and I was really looking forward to it) and imbued with Christmas spirit.  And it’s only November!

Our verdict? Splash out and go for the Signature menu.  The choices are more varied and the dishes are really special.  Christmas menus are available now.  Click here to have a look at the menus.

Thank you to lovely Prezzo for inviting us xx

Conditional Love by Cathy Bramley

Conditional Love

I’ll start this review by saying that I know Cathy Bramley. We’ve worked together on various bits and bobs and I have enormous respect for her.  Saying that, when she sent me a copy of her book (with a gorgeous personalised note inside) I wasn’t hugely looking forward to reading it.

This sounds terrible, but it’s only because it’s just so far away from anything I would normally read. I’m more a murder/crime novel kind of girl. Val McDermid is my literary poster lady, so this one, listed as a romantic comedy, was a bit out of my comfort zone.

Happily though, I’d only read a few pages when I set off for our cruise, so I popped it into my suitcase. It turned out to be perfect by-the-pool reading and I quickly found that I had enormous affection for Sophie Stone – the slightly lacking in confidence heroine of the piece. I found myself cheering her on, urging her not to make bad decisions and rushing out of the pool to find out what she was up to next.

I won’t ruin the story, but there’s a mystery inheritance, a couple of fellas (one who tempted me to throw the book into the pool in frustration), a nightmare Mum, a missing Dad and some fabulous friends.  Of course there’s a lovely happy ending, which is as it should be too.  Do pick it up if you see it, it’s full of fun, with a smattering of self discovery, a sprinkling of family secrets and a big dollop of love.  I adored it.

Cathy Bramley 1

 

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.

 

 

Review: ‘Melt’ by Claire Kelsey: ice cream for grown ups

Melt by Claire Kelsey

Melt by Claire Kelsey

So finally the sun is shining, and if you like tinkering in the kitchen, I think you’ll love this book.

Claire Kelsey’s a bit of a rising star as far as street food is concerned.  Her beautifully refurbished retro ice cream van,  ‘Ginger’ has been gracing the trendiest festivals with her distinctly grown up ice creams, and now Claire has published a book with loads of her favourite, funky ice cream recipes.

The flavours move well away from plain old vanilla and sickly strawberry – in this gorgeous book you’ll find pea and mint sorbet, and marmalade on toast – a flavour that won ‘Best Dessert’ at the British Street Food Awards.

 

Garden mint and chocolate crisp ice cream

Garden mint and chocolate crisp ice cream

I had a go at recreating Claire’s garden mint and chocolate crisp ice cream.  I love that her ice creams start with proper custard.

You may well balk at using 6 eggs and double cream in a recipe, but in my view this is just how ice cream should be, not full of emulsifiers and vegetable oil.

My garden mint was just springing up when I made it and wasn’t very strongly flavoured, but the finished ice cream was luscious and fresh tasting and the bit where you drizzle on the chocolate was great fun too.  I don’t have an ice cream maker but Claire gives easy instructions and the result had a lovely, soft texture.  I’ll be trying it again when my mint has grown up a bit!

Melt, by Claire Kelsey, published by Simon and Schuster is out now. RRP £18.99

The new ‘Piccolo’ menu at Pizza Express

Pizza Express piccolo menu

As a rule, I’m not a fan of childrens’ menus.  For me, they conjure up everything that’s wrong about eating out with children in this country, where the adults are all eating lovely, fresh food, and the kids are offered chips, nuggets and sausages.

However, generally the Italians tend to do things better, so when I was invited along to Pizza Express to take a look at their new piccolo menu I wasn’t at all surprised to see smaller sized versions of regular menu items, along with a very grown up ‘bambinoccino’ to end the meal so they can sip from their little espresso cup just like the adults!

We thought that the piccolo menu was terrifically good value.  At our local Pizza Express, it’s just £6.50 for a starter, main, side salad, dessert and bambinoccino.  The starter is a small portion of dough balls with garlic butter, with a fresh little salad of red pepper, tomato and cucumber (there’s no other starter choice though, which is a shame).  There’s plenty of choice for mains, though: pasta with a variety of different toppings, plus a good selection of pizzas, all with the flexibility to take out what the kids don’t like and add what they do – a bonus for those with picky eaters!  You also have the choice of upgrading to a slightly bigger pizza for an extra £1.

Desserts are a strong point at Pizza Express and the piccolo menu doesn’t disappoint, with the mini version of their delicious chocolate fudge cake, or ice cream/sorbet with a choice of sauce and a cone. There’s also the brilliant option of having the whole menu gluten free, including a brownie for dessert.

Our verdict?  Proper Pizza Express food at a very reasonable price.  Impressive.

Thanks to Pizza Express for inviting us along to try the range.

A family friendly weekend at The Grove, Hertfordshire

Sam ruining a perfectly good picture

Sam ruining a perfectly good picture

I live relatively near to The Grove and have often wondered what it’s like when I pass it on the way to do a spot of shopping at The Harlequin shopping centre.  I hear about it quite regularly as it’s often in the news when the latest celeb stays, or the England team pop in to train there.  I’ve always thought of it more as a ‘posh’ getaway – somewhere to escape for a romantic weekend, rather than take the kids, but their latest packages includes tickets to the nearby Warner Bros Studio Tour, and I was delighted to be invited to try it out WITH the teenagers. Gulp.

The journey was rather fraught as Sam had been on a field trip to Wales and dropped his phone into a rockpool so wasn’t able to text us his return time.  I’d arranged a tour of the gardens with Head Gardener David Roberts and as it got later and later I got more and more worried.

Still, we finally got there well after our arranged time to find lovely David still waiting for me.  After checking in and once again giving the boys the ‘representing me, not getting into mischief, noise/mobiles/sodding around blah blah’ lecture, they headed off to check out the pool while I wandered the beautiful grounds with David.

The original part of the house dates from the 18th century and, most famously, was owned by the 5th Earl of Clarendon who often entertained Queen Victoria (The Times apparently coined the term ‘Weekend Break’ to describe her visits there).  We were very generously given deluxe rooms in the ‘new’ part of the building, added about 10 years ago (and very nice they were too – you can see my Instagram video of my room here).  David and his team of 12 keep the gardens immaculate.  There are often weddings and other functions so there’s never any ‘down’ time. Everything has to look perfect.  But, as David pointed out, the gardens are there to be enjoyed, and there are plenty of fun, quirky features that will delight you (and certainly your kids) as you walk round.

The walled garden was my favourite part, and not just because of the massive topiary giraffe that peeks over the fence at you.  The walls are lined with roses and fruit trees and there’s a beautiful outdoor pool (heated) with a beach area complete with volleyball court, as well as a lovely glass building called modestly ‘the potting shed’ with all sorts of fun things to do – little areas for reading, a table tennis table and snooker.  David also encourages visitors to wander around the wonderful vegetable garden where fresh produce is grown for the restaurant kitchens:

Gardens at The Grove

Gardens at The Grove

You can also borrow bikes to whizz around the 300 acres, and David and his team are happy to show you around (David is a mine of information about the history of the grounds and gardens – I won’t spoil it all but there’s WW2 action and secret tunnels too!).  Plus of course there’s the tiny matter of one of the world’s finest championship golf courses…

The Sequoia Spa is absolutely beautiful.  Sadly we were a bit pushed for time as we were off to the Warner Bros Studio Tour on the Sunday morning, but I’d absolutely come back and try some of their fabulous sounding treatments.  The boys ADORED the pool (which is dark blue and a work of art in itself) and again the staff were all lovely and not at all bossy or stern with them (always a good sign, I think).

We ate in The Glasshouse restaurant (after panicking about what to wear, it was actually a very casual affair – for a special occasion there is Colette’s, The Grove’s fine dining restaurant).  The food is served ‘buffet style’ but the term doesn’t really do justice to the huge amount of choice, including tapas, charcuterie, a seafood bar, a carvery section with all sorts of roasted meat, a ‘live wok station’  with a chef who makes whatever stir-fry you like to order (here’s a video of my own personal stir-fry being created), a selection of curries, every dessert you could possibly think of, AMAZING cheeses (I might have had seconds… okay, thirds) plus… wait for it… a white chocolate fountain complete with fruit and home-made marshmallows ready for dunking!

Dining at The Grove

Dining at The Grove

The staff are wonderful.  In fact, they are just one reason why The Grove is really special.  At breakfast, I watched a young mum carrying a baby looking a bit lost at all the different buffet sections.  She was approached by a friendly chef who asked what her baby normally eats for breakfast.  When she explained (porridge with whole milk), he asked exactly how she liked it and rushed off to make it.  Nothing is too much trouble.  The Glasshouse costs £49 per person, with children aged 3-12 charged 50% and children 2 and under dining free.

After dinner we headed to the lovely cosy lounge areas where there are loads of different rooms and cosy places to sit and sip a drink.

Like the gardens, the corridors, rooms and public areas are filled with amazing, quirky art (look for the naughty gardener in the lounge areas and the tennis playing bunnies) – perspex tables filled with feathers, tiny plastic men fishing on the walls…

Our verdict?  Of course, The Grove is a luxury hotel, so it IS posh, but it’s not intimidating, sniffy posh, it’s friendly, luxury, ‘WOW, I deserve this treat’ posh.  I’ll definitely come back and spend longer here again.  Plus, I should imagine it’s a stunning place to visit at Christmas.

Massive thanks to David, Rod and everyone at The Grove for inviting us and making our stay so special.

Luxury summer breaks at The Grove with Warner Bros. Studio Tour start from £350 per night inc VAT, including: accommodation in a superior room, Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter tickets for two adults and breakfast in The Glasshouse.

or from £498 per night inc VAT, for a deluxe family room accommodating two adults and two children under 12 years, Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter tickets for two adults and two children under 16 and breakfast in The Glasshouse for two adults and two children.

(Please make your reservation at least 7 days in advance to ensure Warner Bros. Studio tour tickets are available.)

 

 

 

In which we review the funky Fiat 500L

Fiat 500LThis week we’ve had a fabulous new car on the drive. Sadly, not ours, but a loan car from Fiat UK, who very generously dropped off one of their precious new 500L demonstrators for us to drive, test, use, abuse (not too badly, honest)  and generally wally about with for a week.

Before we start, this review isn’t about CdA, drag coefficients, torque, mpg (okay it’s a tiny bit about that) or any other baffling Top Gear term.  As a busy family, the Fiat 500L had to work hard: there were school runs, airport runs, shopping runs, supermarket runs, more school runs, runs to visit people, runs to pick people up, more supermarket runs…  and this is more about how it performed as a family car rather than how fast it corners.

 

Here’s a little bit of what we liked, and a tiny bit of what we didn’t:

What we liked:

The 500L is light, airy and spacious.  It feels enormous inside and the all-round visibility is excellent, making it easy peasy to reverse into tight spaces and back out of the drive onto the road.

The interior is really cool (although I personally wouldn’t choose cream, especially with children) in a hard-wearing soft fabric with a funky pattern.

The dashboard is really well laid out and the design of the whole dash is retro, while boasting loads of modern touches.

The touch screen is quick and simple to use, and once your phone is connected via Bluetooth (see below), you can work all the options using buttons on the steering wheel.

There’s tons of boot space (you can see in the picture that it easily swallowed up my weekly shop) plus it’s customisable – there are different levels in the boot, and there’s loads of storage (22 places, to be precise) generally around the vehicle.  As a person who likes 17 pens, three pairs of sunglasses, a note pad and four lip balms with her in the car at all times, these are a bonus.

The boot has a handle on the inside so you don’t have to touch the back of the car to shut the boot.  Small things, admittedly, but a bonus when it’s raining and the car is dirty.  It’s the attention to detail that really makes this car special.

The teenagers had TONS of room in the back.  Sam’s over 5’10 and had legroom galore.  Also, they loved the styling, something not many manufacturers could say about their family cars.  The barrage of hopeful ‘mum, can I drive it?‘, ‘muuuum  please can I drive it?‘  lasted all week (the answer was no, by the way).

We had it for a week and the fuel gauge barely moved.  I’m not a whizz with figures but I think the combined mpg is something around 62.8. Impressive fuel economy.

The diesel engine wasn’t too noisy and was very zippy, with great acceleration.  It handled the M25 with ease, the all-round visibility making it easy and safe to change lanes.

Safety wise, there are six airbags in the 500L and it’s got a 5* Euro NCAP rating too.

The 500L does all sorts of clever things like stopping the engine at traffic lights then restarting, and restarting when you stall (what? I only did it twice).  It also has the same ‘hill hold’ technology as my VW Polo, stopping you from rolling back on a hill start.

The delivery chaps from the dealership were LOVELY – a good sign, I would think, that buying a Fiat and dealing with its aftercare would be a breeze.

What we didn’t like:

Although the hands-free, bluetooth kit is really clever (once your phone is connected it will accept calls and you can just chat away while driving), it’s a pain to connect, with about four different screens to get through before your phone is connected.  This could be driver error (okay, so we didn’t exactly look in the manual), but otherwise the process needs a bit of streamlining.

The reversing sensor beeps even when you’re going straight back into a space and you’ve got miles to go. It seems to detect things to the side of the car as well, making if difficult to know exactly what it’s sensing.  Still, it’s thorough.

The verdict: this model, at a touch under twenty grand isn’t the cheapest family car, but the looks, styling and gadgets make it a great choice for an everyday workhorse that doesn’t look like your typical MPV.  Plus prices start from around £15,000 for the lower spec 1.4 petrol Pop Star.  I see it as a natural progression for all those people who loved the Fiat 500 but need more space for a family.  4.5 out of 5 (I can’t knock a whole star off for the Bluetooth!).

The vehicle we tested was a Fiat 500L 1.6 MultiJet 105hp Easy (diesel) in Beatbox Green.  OTR price: £17,490 OTR price with options: £19,650.  Extras included the metallic paint with white roof (£800), 17” alloy wheels with white diamond finish (£650), front fog lights (£160), automatic dual zone climate control (£250), automatic lights with rain sensor (£150)

Massive thanks to Fiat UK for all their help.  Click here for more info on the Fiat 500L

 

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:

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

Review: the new Vax Air Mini Pet compact cylinder cleaner

Vax Air Mini PetSo if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’m part of the Vax Voice team.  Basically I get to try out Vax products and give honest feedback about them.  This time it’s the teeny tiny Vax Air Mini.  When Vax contacted me with this one, I noticed that there was a pet version and asked if I could try it.  The Ninja Cat of Death has fluffy white fur which sticks TO EVERYTHING and I thought this might help.

First impressions were favourable: it’s light, compact and pretty small as well as being quite funky looking with the aqua coloured tubey things in the top of the clear cylinder.  I took it upstairs for a test drive.

My carpets are quite pale in colour and I worry about the edges looking darker.  I love my big upright Vax but it doesn’t clean right to the edges, so every so often I use the nozzle to clean all around the skirting boards.  This little beast really impressed me.  The suction is amazing and the nozzle got into every little nook and cranny, leaving the edges noticeably cleaner and paler.  The little brush attachment and nozzle both fit on the hose handle so you can pop those on and off easily.  I used the brush for dusting all the electrical stuff in the boys’ rooms: Xboxes, TVs, guitars, you name it.  SO easy.

It’s really handy as you can be vacuuming away with the main floor cleaning head, then if you need to use a bit  more suction you can whip the hose out of the handle to quickly use the end of the tube, or pop on one of the attachments, then just as quickly re-attach the main cleaning head.  I whipped around the whole upstairs (using a single plug – the cord is very long) and really felt that it had had a deep clean.

I like the fact that it’s really easy to download a PDF user guide too.  I didn’t realise that the floor head and tubing can be clipped to the back of the cleaner for compact storage, but read about it in the PDF.  Helpful stuff.  You can also search the support centre if you’ve got a problem.

As for downsides, I don’t have many.  I don’t think the tubing is of the usual Vax standard, as it’s easily crushed if you accidentally stand on it or bend it and it doesn’t spring back into shape.  Also, don’t think you can get away with vacuuming around things with the nozzle.  It’s very powerful and receipts, a pen lid and a little brush used to clean someone’s electric razor were whizzed up inside the machine before I could stop them!

As I get quite a lot of Vax machines to test, I sometimes give them away after I’ve tested them. Not this one: it’ll be staying with me as my upstairs buddy.  I really do love it.

For more information on the Vax Air Mini Pet click here.

Big thanks for Vax for providing the machine for review.

For more information, check out www.vax.co.uk.

Blog tour: 5 ingredients 10 minutes by Jules Clancy

5 ingredients 10 minutes

I love cooking.  If I have a spare half hour you’ll usually find me in the kitchen, baking a cake or preparing something for dinner.  BUT I do find choosing something to cook a bit of a chore.  Aside from the usual family gripes of who doesn’t like what, there’s the temptation to stick to the few dishes that suit everyone.  It’s the recipe for a massive food rut, something I think Jules Clancy addresses really nicely in her new book, ’5 ingredients 10 minutes’.

I’ll often take a long time to prepare dinner (one of the bonuses of working from home), but sometimes, if everyone’s rushing off, or different people need feeding at different times, it’s nice to have some quick, healthy recipes to fall back on.

One of the refreshing things about this book is that it gets you thinking outside the meat/carb/veg box that a lot of us stick to (myself included).  My teenagers are already strapping lads: very active, and still growing fast, so protein-rich dinners are a must.  Jules provides these in a creative way, using lots of pulses, beans and lentils and, a new one for me, quinoa.

That’s not to say that meat gets thrown by the wayside, with plenty of fast, fresh ways with meat too.  The ‘beef with buttery courgettes’ is delicious, with minced beef cooked so well that it’s crispy in places – a wonderful mix of textures.

I was also delighted when Jules said that she’d happily give me some ideas for cooking chicken (our go-to dinner – especially wrapped in bacon, with veg and mash, which we have at least once a week as it’s a favourite of both my boys) – I LOVE the hummus idea:

So without further ado, it’s over to Jules:

”One of the downsides of chicken is that it can get a bit boring so I was glad when Becky asked for some ideas to make chicken more interesting rather than her old standby of wrapping it in bacon.

The first thing I like to do to make chicken more exciting is to serve it with a tasty sauce. We’re looking for things that can be made in the same time it takes for the chicken to cook.

Pesto from a jar works brilliantly with chicken. I’m also a big fan of dolloping on a commercial hummus as soon as the chicken comes out of the pan so the juices from the chicken can mix in with the hummus and make it even more delicious. I also love adding finely chopped herbs to lift the flavour of good quality commercial mayonnaise. Think chive mayo or even dill or thyme.

My other go-to sauce is to season a creamy Greek-style yoghurt with lashings of pepper. And I almost forgot another great trick is to cut a lemon in half and pan fry it cut side down with the chicken and squeeze over the hot lemon before serving with a good drizzle of olive oil.

If I’m not in the mood for making a sauce, I also love making a super quick ‘marinade’ to rub onto the chicken before cooking. In my book ’5 Ingredients 10 Minutes’ I mix smoked paprika with a little olive oil and rub this onto chicken thighs for an instant Spanish vibe. Don’t be afraid to play around with other spices. Ground coriander adds a lovely lemony freshness. Sometimes I’ll just keep it simple with some dried chilli flakes for a bit of heat.

The other tip I have for cooking chicken breasts or thigh fillets is to bash them out first with a saucepan or your fist. This tenderises the chicken but also reduces the thickness so it cooks more quickly and evenly – very handy for getting dinner ready in ten minutes or less!

If you’d like to follow the blog tour for 5 ingredients 10 minutes and find out what other food bloggers have to say about the book, check out the image for details of the blogs on the tour.

The Mad Prof Reviews: Bassboomz Bluetooth Speaker

There aren’t many parcels that get the whole family clustering round oohing and ahhing, but this little purple whatsit certainly did.

Can you guess what it is yet?:

bassboomz

Yup, it’s  bluetooth speaker – unscrew it, wirelessly attach your phone/laptop/iPad/whatever (or it’s got an aux slot and comes with its own aux cable) and off it goes. Fully charged, it lasts a good few hours (depending on volume).  It comes in a range of metallic colours and, when screwed down, is a tiny 5cm in size.

We unleashed the Mad Prof and soon, the shower was shaking with Pop Punk and his bedroom was booming with Grime.  Here’s what he thought:

”This little aluminium tube packs a serious punch.  The sound quality is really good for such a small speaker and it pumps out some serious bass and volume!

I have been using it for about two weeks now and I use it for everything, taking a shower, playing Xbox, going round a mate’s, it is honestly the best Bluetooth speaker i have listened to as well. A big thank you to the people at Bassbudz, for letting me review it and I hope everyone reading this gets one! Its worth it, trust me. ;)”

PS: in the car, it sits in the cupholder and makes an almighty racket.  Trust me.

It’s a big 10/10 for us: mighty music in a teeny tube!

Bassboomz extended

The lovely chaps at Bassboomz are offering English Mum readers a £30 discount for the whole of March! Just log on to www.bassbuds.co.uk/bassboomz and use the code BBZ304611

Review: The Thistle Hotel, Marble Arch, London

 

Living, as we do, just a 45 minute train ride away from London, you’d think we’d be popping to the capital all the time. In fact, we very rarely do, so an invitation to come and spend the weekend in London at the Thistle Hotel, Marble Arch was the cause of much excitement here at English Towers.  It was also, I have to say, a rare pleasure to spend an entire weekend together, blighted (or blessed) as we are with two teenagers with very active social lives.

Getting there was easy: train into Euston, then two quick tube rides took us to Marble Arch underground station (don’t throw things, but I honestly didn’t know that this was right on Oxford Street) and a short walk (literally less than 100 yards) and we were there.  The Thistle is really tucked away (discrete signage is all you can see from the road), but it’s a real Art Deco beauty, with a proper ‘Gentleman’s Club’ vibe of polished wood, brass and leather and amazing glass ceilings in the lobby area.

Checking in was easy (and incredibly polite) and we were soon in our rooms: the boys in a lovely twin, and us two doors down in a double.  I’m not sure if they’ve been recently refurbished but again the vibe is quite masculine – not unpleasantly so, just a nice mix of beiges, browns and creams with sumptuously thick curtains, dark wood and soft leather chairs.  The bathrooms were spotless, very heavy on the marble and, I’d say, a bit dated, but still fabulous.  The service is fantastic – within five minutes of checking in, one of the boys had put the iron (turned off, thankfully) onto his bed where it had unloaded a load of water all over the place, soaking his bedlinen.  Someone arrived within five minutes, whisking the soggy stuff away and replacing it while he was in the shower – he didn’t even notice it had been done.

After a quick (complimentary) drink in the executive lounge, we headed down to the restaurant for dinner.  The Marmor Grill has a compact menu at a pretty good value £21 for three courses including a glass of wine.  We found it easy to pick something that everyone liked and again the service was immaculate and unobtrusive.  My prawn and crayfish cocktail with avocado and whisky marie rose sauce was delicious and the beer battered cod with hand cut chips and mushy peas was top notch.  We forced down dessert (well, there was bitter chocolate tart AND knickerbockerglories!) and waddled back up to the room.  Obviously being right on Oxford Street, it’s not the quietest place in the world, but we slept well in our huge, comfy beds.

The next day saw breakfast served in the Executive Lounge (everything you could possibly want: coffee, fruit, pastries, full English…), buoying us up for a full day’s shopping (‘Nike Town!  Adidas!’).

Although we only shopped, I’d say the Thistle would be a great base if you were headed to the capital for dinner and a show, or if you’re just chilling, it’s a short walk across Hyde Park to the Science Museum – something we’re definitely planning on coming back to do.

Massive thanks for Thistle for putting us up (and putting up with us).

 A standard double at the Thistle Marble Arch is  £130.80. Click here for more details or telephone 0871 376 9027

Executive lounge access is with executive rooms only and includes private check in/out and complimentary continental breakfast and bar.

 

Review: the new Elements range from Breville

Breville Elements kettleI love a gadget, me.  So when Breville asked if I’d like to try out their new Elements range, I was very happy to say yes.

I tested their new kettle, and am happy to report that it not only satisfied my inner kitchen snob in the looks department, but it gained top marks for functionality too.

I do seem to have a habit of buying incredibly noisy gadgets (remember the iron from hell?) but this one was is really nice and quiet and boils very quickly.  It also takes a whopping 1.7 litres of water – handy for me as I tend to boil the kettle to fill pans when I’m cooking vegetables or pasta, rather than wait for the water to heat on the hob.

The lid comes right off, something that drives me bonkers with my current kettle as the hinged lid gets in the way when you’re trying to fill it from the tap, and it’s got one of those 360° rotating bases, a must when you live with a left-hooker who is constantly turning everything round to suit them!

Handily, for those of us who live in horrendously chalky areas, there is a filter (that’s easy to take out and wash) and the bottom is completely flat thanks to a concealed element, which means it’s easy to get a (non-stick) scourer in there if there is any sediment build-up inside.

The Elements Premium Stainless Steel Jug Kettle has an RRP of £79.99   and is available to buy exclusively at John Lewis stores and online at www.johnlewis.com.

Many thanks to Breville for sending me the kettle.

Review: the Littlewoods online shopping experience and the Philips GC3320 iron

Firstly, can I say that this review is about the online shopping experience and not about the iron – although this iron has given me so much entertainment, I’ve popped a little video at the end, just for you.

When Littlewoods asked me to give their online shop a go I was a tiny bit dubious.  I think probably because I’m remembering the Littlewoods catalogues my Mum had when I was a kid.  Now, happily, you can buy just about anything you could possibly want, and, although you can still do that thing where you pay for things weekly, you can also pay by credit card very easily.  And now, with the addition of the gorgeous Myleene fronting their adverts (check out her lingerie collection, it’s gorgeous), Littlewoods is fresh, modern, and just a little funky.  Brand-wise I was really impressed: there’s all the big guns like Coast, Lipsy and Ted Baker for the ladies and stuff like Superdry, Diesel and – my teenagers’ favourite G-Star RAW for the fellas, as well as all the usual big household brands.

It also got the boys’ vote for things like the ability to pre-order games such as Halo 4 and for good value gaming bundles too.

I purchased an iron (more of this later) and was able to pay, and chose a delivery time and date all within a couple of clicks.  I was also sent tracking information and was kept up to date with emails.  You can also reply to the emails to easily change the delivery date if it turns out it’s not convenient after all.

Delivery was very smooth and there was no waiting – the van was waiting for me on my return from the school run on the date requested. Impressive.

All in all, I came away with a completely positive experience of shopping online with Littlewoods and will definitely be back (well, now I’ve got an account it would be rude not to) to do my Christmas shopping.

And the iron?  It’s great: it has a massive 300ml water tank, a huge 3 metre cord, and is heavy enough to feel substantial whilst not breaking your wrist every time you iron a shirt.  The soleplate is pointy so it’s easy to get in between buttons on school shirts and it gives a big, hefty shot of steam when you need it.  There’s just one downside:

WHAT?

I SAID, I’M  I R O N I N G!  NOPE, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!

It is, quite simply, the loudest iron in the world.  Now I don’t really care, as its strengths outweigh  the single flaw, but if you routinely iron while you’re watching TV, or with a sleeping baby in the room?  Forget it.  WHAT? I SAID FORGET IT!

Many thanks to Littlewoods.

The Mad Prof Reviews: the Auna VCP-191 iPod Docking Station

Hey everyone! Its Sam here bringing you another review, this time its of the Auna VCP-191 iPod Docking Station

The Auna VCP-191 iPod Docking Station comes with two speakers and a main console equipped with CD player. One of its best features is its compatability with everything! It has a USB, iPod dock and an SD memory card slot on top. On the side it has an AM antenna slot (for anyone still living in the 70s), an FM radio antenna in the form of a wire and the two speaker slots. This basically means that EVERYBODY can play their music, which is brilliant! I have found the USB slot the most useful as all you have to do is put your music into files on the drive and it treats them like albums.

Right, now to the really important stuff: the sound quality is amazing! For such little speakers they don’t half pack a hell of a punch!  The bass is brilliant and the quality is really good, even at the highest volumes.   The Auna is great value for money at £97.90, for that you get what all the things I mentioned earlier with a wall mounting kit and a remote.

It is really simple to use and is so sleek and modern, it even has a really flash blue LED backlight!!

I would definitely recommend this system to everyone and encourage you all to buy one and be as pleasantly surprised as I am! Thanks for reading and goodbye :)

This iPod docking station with radio and CD player is available at the HiFi-Tower online shop

Review: Vax Voice Consumer Testing: The new Vax Air3

So as you’ll know if you read the last review, I’m part of the Vax Voice team.  Basically I get to try out Vax products and give honest feedback about them.  This time  it was the brand new Vax Air 3, currently the lightest full size multi cyclonic upright in the world.

Lifting the Vax Air 3 out of the box I was struck immediately by two things: one, how very light it is (just 4.8kg), and two, that there weren’t tons of parts to fit together.  I’m often daunted by machines that have loads of bits and pieces to fit together and really complicated instructions, but this is a real ‘plug and play’.  All  you have to do is stick the handle into the body of the machine, adjust it to your height, and you’re away.

I’m very, very fond of my day to day hoover, the Vax Air Reach, but this is a serious contender for my vacuumly affections.  As well as the lightness, it’s got a funky swivelly head (officially called ‘air motion technology’) which means it can twist and turn around any object and, for lazy vacuumers like my good self, this means a lot less moving of chairs/teenagers/whatever, and frankly anything that helps get the job done quicker is good in my book.

It passed the stairs test with flying colours but, although the stretchy tube thing is long enough to reach from the top to the bottom of the stairs, I found I didn’t stretch it out, as the Air3 was so light, I carried up the stairs with me, resting it on the step above and holding it with one hand as I cleaned with the other.  It’s nice and powerful too, at 225 air watts, combatting feathers easily (did I mention the feather situation?  We have a feather-stuffed sofa, and often vacuum cleaners won’t pick up the little feathers as the get embedded in the carpet) and if you’re the sneezy type it has H12 HEPA filters which, in layman’s terms means it filters very tiny dust particles, pollen, etc.

My verdict?  It’s not cheap, (£249.99) but if you want a really light, really powerful vacuum cleaner, especially if you have pets or allergies, this is a great choice.

Vax are starting their secret sale this Friday.   There’ll be up to 80% off vacuums, carpet washers, steam cleaners, solutions and spare parts on vaxsale.co.uk and you can only gain entry with password STAFFSALE12.  So keep it to yourself eh?

For more information on the Vax Air3 click here.

Big thanks for Vax for providing the machine for review.

For more information, check out www.vax.co.uk.

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: Let’s Eat, Tom Parker Bowles

Remember Market Kitchen? Is it still on?  I always had a bit of a crush on Matt Tebbutt but he never replied to me on Twitter, so that was the end of that.  I did like Tom Parker Bowles too.  I love his gentle, slightly posh manner, and his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of food too.  His book, you’ll be pleased to know, doesn’t disappoint.  Let’s Eat is subtitled ‘recipes from my kitchen notebook’ and it turns out that’s exactly what it is, the scribbles and sidenotes of hundreds of dinners, written up into what basically forms ‘a story of my love of food’.  I love it too.

Tom’s recipes are proper, hearty fare.  I had a go at his treacle tart, and the result was, if not fantastically aesthetically pleasing (I’m no good at embellishment) utterly delicious.

I’ve used this book so many times (triple cooked chips: amazing, griddled lamb with cucumber raita: scrummy…) I completely forgot to review it, so apologies for lateness – it was actually published back in June.  My copy now sits, slightly grease-spotted and dog-eared, on the windowsill of my kitchen – the sign of a good cookbook, don’t you think?

Tom’s recipe for toad in the hole was also magical.  Look how far it puffed up!

I think, often, good solid recipes that ACTUALLY WORK get lost in the fashion and fluffery of food writing.  At the end of the day, if a recipe is easy (and a bit fun) to follow, I think that makes it pretty much perfect.  This book delivers on both those levels – there are delightful snippets of information woven into these recipes, making them just lovely to read.

Buy this book. And treasure it.  I bet you’ll go back to it time and time again.

Interestingly, Let’s Eat is available to download on iTunes.  I gave it a go and can tell you that it’s actually a really handy way of owning a cookery book.  Here’s a link to the page: http://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/let%27s-eat/id544236735?mt=11

Let’s Eat: recipes from my kitchen notebook is out now, priced £25 hardback, published by Pavilion.

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!).