Sunday, 17 January 2016

36 Hours, 125 weekends in Europe

My two favourite Christmas presents this year came from my son, Rory. One was a bright orange, ceramic garlic grater and the other was a copy of The New York Times 36 Hours - 125 weekends in Europe. The garlic grater has already been put to good use, especially last weekend when our Mediterranean cooking session required tons of the stuff.

The book is the perfect companion on the sofa during these cold nights. It's very tactile: linen-bound, a weighty tome but quite floppy and flickable, with attractive little thumb-holes, larger versions of those found in an address book. It's ideal for playing the "Where shall we go next on our holidays?" game. Pick a page number and we are obliged to go to that city. I'm memorising the numbers 254, 208 and 214 for Lisbon, Seville and Valencia as I quite fancy a little springtime sunshine.

The idea for the book came from the regular columns in the New York Times and, in essence, it gives readers recommendations of where to stay, eat and visit during the approximate 36 waking hours from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. Experienced journalists and travel writers have suggested the itineraries and everything is achievable in the time constraints.

Of course, I was curious: how close have my own European city breaks been to these itineraries? I'm bragging here but I think, pretty close. For instance, some of the hotels we have chosen match the recommendations by the illustrious journalists.

In 2005 we visited Rome and chose the newly-opened Fortyseven Hotel. Ten years on it is quite the place to stay.

Likewise, in 2009 we plumped for the Palais de la Mediterranee in Nice and here it is in the book.

2012, our fortnight in Sweden began with four nights at the Nobis Hotel in Stockholm. Surprise, surprise, this is mentioned as one of only two recommendations for the city. They even finish Sunday at the Fotografiska : I do hope they managed the entrance turnstile better than we did...

Even more surprising, in 2013 we self-catered in an unusual development in Birmingham. Fancy that, the Staying Cool apartments are highlighted, along with the Jewellery Quarter trail and dinner in Jamie's Italian.

More recently, we had a wonderful weekend in Helsinki last year, staying at the very chic, Klaus K hotel. Naturally, the New York Times agrees with me.

Now I'm not sure what to make of this but I'm just saying - if they are looking for writers to check out any more European hotels, I'm obviously the go-to woman in Europe. And if they have this covered, then at least I am very confident that I can follow their recommendations for Lisbon, Seville and Valencia because they know me so well. Just think of the time it will save trawling through TripAdvisor reviews.

By the way, if you are still wondering about the garlic grater, Rory bought it at the Christmas market in Exeter but it's available from a company called Pamper Yourself Now.


Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Dining at The Traveller's Table with Simpson Travel

The Travellers table, simpson travel
One of the joys of travelling is spending time relishing the local cuisine. Memories come flooding back when I taste a dish I associate with a particular place. I remember travelling to Mallorca as a child in the 1970s and being astonished by the different tastes. My mother tried to recreate those dishes at home but found it difficult when so many of the ingredients weren't available in the UK.

Of course now we have access to many of the foods and methods of cooking we find abroad. We can enjoy authentic dishes on our trips then source the ingredients at home to recreate the recipes and hopefully stir the memories.

Simpson Travel, the independent, luxury Mediterranean villa specialist has just published The Traveller's Table, a collection of recipes inspired by the locations of their properties: traditional dishes from Corsica, Greece, Turkey and Mallorca. Take the recipes on holiday with you and you will be able to replicate, in your villa, the food tasted in local restaurants. Back home, memories of warm summer days will waft into your kitchen as you recreate the meals you savoured abroad.

The specially commissioned book was written and photographed by renowned travel photographer, Chris Caldicott and chef/food stylist, Carolyn Caldicott. This husband and wife team owned and ran the World Food Café in Covent Garden for over 20 years: authentic food is their passion. The result is a gorgeous selection of simple, tasty recipes with tips for the best tipples and suggestions for breathtaking villas where you can imagine yourself sitting, eating and watching the sunset.

I spent last weekend trying out some of the recipes from the book. With my husband, Dougie, as sous-chef and general cutter-upper, we had a weekend of Greek and Turkish delights. The rain may have been pouring down outside and our trusty barbecue was hibernating in the shed, but we were transported to a terrace on a hillside, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Thoughts returned of previous holidays in Kefalonia and Zakynthos.

Pork souvlaki skewers, lamb kofte
and ezme salsa - cooked by me.
Familiar Greek dish, Pork Souvlaki Skewers, was easy to prepare and a joy to the senses as freshly squeezed lemon and grated garlic were added to the marinade. Having a selection of dried herbs and spices to hand was very useful: oregano, cumin and thyme cropped up in the other recipes we followed.

Jetting over to Turkey, we made Sumac-Spiced Lamb Kofte and thankfully paprika was a good substitute for sumac. Add lemon, garlic, onion, more cumin and oregano plus bread to bind the little meatballs together.

The book suggested Ezme Salsa would be a good accompaniment to the lamb kebabs and this was easily prepared, using fresh tomatoes and roasted red pepper from a jar. A dollop of natural yoghurt on the side, warmed pita bread and Saturday evening dinner was done.

Jewelled pilav and Kleftico-inspired lamb
(all my own work)

For Sunday evening we grilled some Greek Kleftico-Inspired Barbecue Lamb, having marinated the cutlets overnight in red wine, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and a selection of herbs and spices. This was accompanied by a Turkish Jewelled Pilav: red peppers stuffed with rice which had been cooked with pistachios, pine nuts and apricots. The filled peppers were poached in a mixture of water and honey: they tasted divine and looked so bright and glossy. The lamb was cooked just right: the grill needed to be as high as possible to replicate the searing heat of a barbecue.

Having feasted on these dishes all weekend, I spent a very enjoyable few hours looking at the villas available at Simpson Travel. Although the company was only established in 2003, it has a fine pedigree as its chairman, Graham Simpson, built up the highly successful Simply Travel in the 1970s with his Greek wife Yianna. The original ethos has been retained with Simpson Travel, offering a personal service with individually selected properties. Their tagline is quite simply, 'The road less travelled'.

A perfect place for dining at the
Villa Palombaggia, Corsica 
(image from Simpson Travel)
I would love to try Corsica and the Villa Palombaggia certainly ticks all the boxes for me. It's also tempting to return to Mallorca. Our last holiday there was when our son, Rory, was a toddler, when we stayed in Puerto Pollença. I don't recall the name of the villa but it was special for having its own lemon trees. I remember picking the lemons every day to make lemonade: it seemed like a fairytale to have such fruit in abundance in the garden. The holiday was very relaxed: swimming in our own private pool, trips to the beach, meals out in the evening and a number of dishes prepared and enjoyed in the peace of our own little holiday home. However we weren't very adventurous with our cooking at the time. With The Traveller's Table to hand, we might have attempted Prawns and Squid A La Plancha and for a day at the beach we could have purchased some bakery items such as slices of coca, Mallorca's answer to pizza or a bag of bunyols, small sugary doughnuts sold straight from the pan at the market. The book also suggests a mid-morning carajillo - coffee with an added shot of brandy. Well, if you can't treat yourself on holiday....

If you are interested in trying out the recipes, Simpson Travel have a free download of the book. There will also be opportunities to receive a printed copy if you follow the Simpson's blog and their social media: Facebook and Twitter

I was delighted to write this sponsored post for Simpson Travel to share the recipes from the cookbook. All chopping, grating, grilling and opinions are entirely my own (though my husband did most of the chopping).


Friday, 8 January 2016

Three nights in three counties

After spoiling my son for two whole weeks over the Christmas period, the time came on New Year's Day to return him to university: cue motherly sobbing and gnashing of teeth. His exams were starting on 4th January and his girlfriend, Juliana, had a shift for her part-time Sainsbury's job at 5pm on 1st January, hence the early departure.

I don't think I've ever been awake on New Year's day so early but it proved to be an excellent day to travel as the roads were very quiet. The only irritation was the deluge of rain during the final hour of the trip as we approached Exeter. Miraculously it dried up for a few moments as we unpacked the car then returned with a vengeance for the rest of the weekend.

Dougie and I were loathe to just come home to an empty house so, with a bit of prior planning, we organised a staggered return, staying for three nights in three different counties.

First up was Exeter itself and our third stay in The Magdalen Chapter (click through to read my review from last time). They had an excellent January getaway deal of one night's accommodation with breakfast, three course set dinner and two glasses of wine for £149, which was a huge saving. When we arrived we were also upgraded (which was a real treat) so we had a spacious, comfortable room on the top floor of this cool, contemporary hotel.

The Magdalen Chapter, Exeter
First night in The Magdalen Chapter, Exeter.
The following morning we did a little shopping and sightseeing in the city. Every time we visit Exeter we find something new: this time it was the beautiful Northernhay Gardens and the RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery) whose oldest resident is Gerald the giraffe. The RAMM was an excellent museum, ideal for families, with lots of random exhibits, plenty of useful information and just the right amount of hands-on fun for children.

I wasn't looking forward to leaving Rory but I couldn't stand around in his flat forever looking like a spare part so I was gently persuaded that we ought to make a move. Next stop, Somerset, and the picture perfect pub, The Queens Arms, slightly off the beaten track in the village of Corton Denham near Sherborne. We had stayed here previously but I had neglected to write about it (Shameful! Call myself a travel blogger?). This is a fabulous pub with superb food, a myriad of gins and whiskies and the most cosy rooms with the warmest feather duvets and special touches such as a roll-top bath and a jute bag full of old-fashioned bath salts.

The Queens Arms Corton Denham
Second night in The Queens Arms, Corton Denham, Somerset
After the most delicious breakfast, cooked to order (Bloody Mary crumpets for me, thank you) we had to dash out in the pouring rain and leave this little Somerset gem to drive north. We were heading to Gloucestershire but had a stop to make en route in Bath to meet a blogger friend of mine. I have been online friends with MsCaroline of Asia Vu for some years now, connecting while she was living in Seoul. She has been in the UK for a year so it was high time we met up, particularly as I am virtually passing her door on our university runs. We agreed to meet, with our slightly bewildered husbands, at Cote restaurant in the centre of Bath. Two hours later, with all four of us having got on famously, we took some photos and pledged to see each other again in the near future. It's always so reassuring when blogger friends prove to be just as you'd hoped they would be in real life.

'Mum's Gone To' meets 'Asia Vu'.
Our final stop was The Village Pub in Barnsley near Cirencester. We have eaten at the pub before, when we stayed at the beautiful Barnsley House hotel, its sister establishment, across the road. The pub is just as welcoming and charming but naturally more informal. Shaking off the rain, we settled down near the fire in the bar and read the Sunday papers, whilst supping on steamed cider with brandy. Our room, No.3 of 6, was gorgeous: warm with underfloor heating and even a hot-water bottle provided. Dinner in the pub was huge: Dougie's Hereford beef consisted of two fillet steaks when one would have been more than adequate. My fish and chips were good but left me no room for pud. We staggered up the stairs to bed with our large slate welly-shaped key and slept like babies.

The Village pub, Barnsley
Third night at The Village Pub, Barnsley, Cirencester
Another impressive freshly-cooked breakfast the following morning (funny how our appetites returned so quickly) before a bit of retail therapy on the way home. The Village Pub is ideally located for so many gorgeous Cotswold sights but, when you've had your fill of sleepy towns with honey-coloured stone houses, the designer shopping outlet at  Bicester Village is just the thing to bring you back to the real world. I found a bargain leather bag from Kipling (£215 to £57) and a little black dress from Anne Fontaine which made the journey back to Lincolnshire without our boy just a little more bearable...

Packing my Suitcase


Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas columns and a stonking good cheese

Christmas Eve and it's raining and windy - how very annoying of the weather not to be bright and dry and a bit chilly. The boys are both out - Rory is at his girlfriend, Juliana's, house and Dougie is at work: both returning this evening. I really should be making a start on food preparation for tomorrow but am sitting at the computer with a cup of coffee and a festive Cadbury's Mini Roll.

We did our final supermarket shop last night - decided to stock up at Waitrose for a change. I could tell I was in Waitrose as the woman in front of me at the cheese counter embodied all that their customers should be. Dressed in jeans, boots and a gilet, she had a posh, strident voice and asked the assistant if he could "recommend a stonking good Cheddar, one that will bite me in the bum!" The poor lad behind the counter was a bit fazed by this as he was probably only brought out from the stockroom to help out for the evening. I've no idea what she ended up buying: but I do hope her bum appreciated it.

I haven't shared any of my newspaper columns for months so here are the latest from the last few weeks with a festive feel to them.

The countdown to Christmas is on  - Advent calendars past and present.

Ten things to spot in a Nativity play - All those mishaps and adorable tired children.

Family traditions at Christmas - Elf on the Shelf, Christmas pyjamas? Or was it more Morecambe and Wise and an eggnog in our day?

Cooking at Christmas with Nigella - If you watched Nigella's Christmas special, you might enjoy my take on the show. Pickled beetroot anyone?

I had better get cracking with the pre-Christmas faffing about now. Lunch tomorrow will be for Dougie, Rory and me plus the inlaws and my Auntie Betty. Wish me luck and let's hope the arthritic charades of the previous years are as memorable as ever. I will report back!

Merry Christmas dear friends.