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GPSmyCity Travel App – Seasonal Giveaway

I’m excited to let you know that GPSmyCity have just published another 6 of my travel articles – from my holiday in Malaga in October. I have now 44 articles published on this brilliant app from trips to Spain, The Netherlands, France, Austria, Greece and Italy. The GPSmyCity app offers guides to over 6,500 walks in more than 1,000 cities around the world and, as they say, the app allows you ‘to lose yourself without getting lost’. It will act as your personal guide and you’ll always know where you are and how to get to where you want to go. It’s also full of inspiration of what to do, where to eat and what to see in the city you’re visiting.

The beauty of GPSmyCity is that it allows you to go at your own pace and follow the route you want to take. All you have to do is search for articles on the city you’re travelling to and download them on to your smartphone or tablet. Then they’ll always be with you. No more carrying heavy guidebooks around or struggling to open out a map to find your way. Nor do you have to rely on WiFi or using valuable GPS data on your phone: you can download articles for free and read them offline – even on the plane or a beach.

On top of all this, GPSmyCity offers you the chance to upgrade for a small fee (US$1.99) and receive a city map and GPS navigation to all the sights and places mentioned in the article, which you can access offline. If you want to get the most out of your holiday or if you travel a lot, you might want to buy a subscription: US$12.99 per year buys you access to all travel articles for 900+ cities worldwide; US$18.99 per year gives you access to travel articles + walking tours for 1,000+ cities worldwide. You will get the upgraded full benefit of GPS and city maps right across the app, in whichever city you’re visiting, for a whole year. Click here to find out more on their website.

Meanwhile, to celebrate the publication of my six articles on Malaga, upgrades to the first two here are being given away free for one week. So why don’t you upload on to your phone … if you haven’t been to Malaga, it should be on your list!

 

Malaga: Art and Food, Part 1

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Click here for link to get your free upgrade.

 

Malaga: Art and Food, Part 2

Click here for a link to get your free upgrade.

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The following aren’t part of the giveaway but worth downloading if you’re planning a trip to Malaga.

Mercado Atarazanas and Picasso’s Birthplace, Malaga

Click here for link.

 

Rain, Tapas and the Moors in Malaga

Click here for link.

 

Malaga at Night and Return to Vineria Cervantes

Click here for link.

 

Five Nights in Malaga: Eat, Drink, Do

Click here for link.

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Next time you’re travelling to a city, why not take a look at all GPSmyCity has to offer: click here.

My Week in Food

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It’s quite a while since I last wrote one of these posts but they’re fun to do occasionally and a great way to mention favourite restaurants I revisit and recipes I cook again. It’s been a good week of friends, food and expeditions. Come and share it with me …

 

Friday

I had a fabulous time last Friday going to a talk at the Royal Academy of Arts to hear one of my favourite artists ‘in conversation’, Barbara Rae (see Art & Food for more). I then went to one of my favourite restaurants in London for some supper. Yalla Yalla, has become my ‘go to’ place for some early evening supper when I’m near Piccadilly Circus. Usually, it’s a pre-theatre meal but this time it was post talk! I sometimes go with friends but it’s a great solo dining place too.

 

Saturday

Saturday was a family day. My brother Adam came with my niece Clara (15) and nephew Leo (13). Son Jonathan came too with his family, so there were 8 of us round my table, including 3¾ year old grandson, Freddie, and his 1-year-old brother, Benjamin. There was also a big rugby match at Twickenham so Adam – driving from Kent – and even Jonathan only driving from local Whitton, timed their journey to arrive at my house (close enough to the stadium to hear the crowds singing the National Anthem and screaming whenever a try is made) while the match was in progress. Any other time would be disaster. I can walk to Jonathan’s house in 20 minutes. It once took me 45 minutes to drive home when I made the mistake of leaving after a rugby match ended. Rugby + 2 little boys = need for food flexibility. And there’s nothing more flexible than moussaka. I made it in the morning ready to go into the oven near suppertime but it’s also happy, if there’s any delay, to sit in an oven turned down low for a long time without spoiling.

I decided on a Greek meal … everything could go on the table and people just tuck in as they wanted. Apart from the moussaka I made Labneh, Butter Bean ‘Hummus’ and bought olives and some ciabatta from Your Bakery Whitton. There was also a big green salad to which I added torn leaves of radicchio and shredded fennel and then drizzled lots of extra virgin olive oil from Kalamata over it.

For dessert we took a journey to Italy and the family’s favourite cake – Torta Caprese. A glorious flour-free gooey chocolate cake made with lots of ground almonds and chopped dark chocolate. I served crème fraîche and a bowl of mixed fruits (blueberries, blackberries and raspberries) on the side.

 

Sunday

Sunday was my easy food day. Adam and family left after breakfast and so I pulled a portion of the Chicken with Orange and Chicory I made a few weeks ago from the freezer for my supper. It confirmed my belief that you should always make extra of a stew or casserole to put portions in the freezer for a great but instant homemade ready made meal.

 

Monday

On Monday, Freddie and I went on our expedition to Windsor to see the Queen’s castle. Windsor Castle is said to be the Queen’s favourite residence and certainly my little grandson loved visiting it. We were delighted to be told the Queen was actually there – though sadly we caught no sight of her. Food after the castle visit came in the form of a very good Kids’ Menu at Carluccio’s for Freddie and a pasta dish for me (click here for more).

 

Tuesday

There was a constant Italian theme throughout Tuesday. It began with coffee and pastries in Your Bakery Whitton – an Italian artisan bakery – with my little grandsons. It was one of my ‘Nonna’ (Italian for grandmother) mornings, having the boys. Then I went into Richmond to meet my friend Liz for lunch at Debraggio’s – a great Italian deli where you can eat in or take out. I only wanted a small lunch as I was going out in the evening so I ordered a starter – Melanzane Parmigiano – and they offered to add some salad to it. As you can see from the photo above, it was a great plate of food. Not quite as small as I’d had in mind but too good to not eat it all.

In the evening I went to Masaniello with Italian friend Antonio. He and I discovered it back in 2012 and it’s always nice to return there with him. We shared a Mixed Antipasti to begin.

Then Antonio opted for a pizza while I had ravioli with an aubergine filling and some burrata. It was gorgeous.

 

Wednesday

There was a bit more Italian on Wednesday (well, in truth, as regular readers will know, there’s always a lot of Italian of some sort in my life!): an Italian lesson with Fabio in the afternoon and then I put together a pasta dish for supper with some chestnut mushrooms, a handful of peas and lots of grated Parmesan on top. It was one of those ‘open the fridge and see what’s inside’ suppers.

 

Thursday

I met my good friend Annie for supper at the brilliant Joe Allen. It’s ‘our’ place; our favourite place to get together. We’ve been meeting there regularly for at least 20 years! They don’t serve their usual early evening fixed price menu during December and we didn’t really want 3 courses, so decided against the Christmas Menu and went à la carte instead. I had their fabulous Caesar Salad, which has been one of my favourite starters ever for all the time I’ve been going there. And it really is very very good.

Annie and I both had a great Sea Bream dish for mains but were so busy talking I forgot to take a photo. I promise you it looked as great as it tasted!

A week of favourite restaurants: Yalla Yalla, Masaniello … and then Joe Allen on Thursday. I have to admit that 3 favourite restaurants in one week is pretty good going!

 

A Day in Windsor

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Windsor is very easy to get to. Trains run every half an hour from Waterloo in central London to Windsor & Eton Riverside and I can get on the train at Twickenham, from where it’s just a 30-minute journey. When you arrive at the Windsor station and come out of the exit, Windsor Castle is right in front of you (photo below), so only a short walk away, up a steep road and through the town.

As you can see from the photos, the weather wasn’t great today – grey and raining some of the time. But I’d promised 3¾-year-old Freddie we would go and I was looking forward to an outing with my grandson. It all came about from a visit to Windsor only a week ago to meet up with a friend for lunch. While there I took some photos of the castle to show Freddie, telling him it was the Queen’s castle, and he wanted to go. So we did!

Windsor Castle dates from Norman times and the original castle was actually built by William the Conqueror after the invasion in 1066. It’s been added to and bits rebuilt since then but nevertheless is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. It’s well known here in UK that it is one of the Queen’s favourite residences and she chooses to spend her private weekends here; Buckingham Palace is considered ‘the office’.

It cost me £21.20 to go in and Freddie – being under 5 – was free. It seemed a lot considering that I knew we’d not spend a long time there; there’s only so much ‘historical building visiting’ a 3¾ year old can manage, even though he was very excited to go into the Queen’s castle. Then I was delighted to discover that the ticket was actually a One-year Pass and I can go back as many times as I want for a whole year with it and not pay again (you have to be sure to get it stamped each time on the way out so it remains valid). There was no choice; this was the only ticket but of course for someone who is fairly local, like me, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to use it again over the next 12 months.

From the moment we arrived and bought the ticket, everyone we encountered was wonderfully friendly. At the ticket desk people talked to Freddie and gave him his own leaflet, which contained a map. Freddie was so delighted he insisted on leading the way (even though he can’t actually read yet!).

The route round is well marked so you can’t get lost and just follow the roped off walkways. But every so often a guard would point you in the right direction or offer to help out.

Sadly no one was allowed to take photos inside so I can’t show you how beautiful and sumptuous it was. Because we’re close to Christmas now, there were three huge, decorated trees inside, which Freddie was very impressed by. As we passed through one room into another, a security woman talked to us and I told her how excited Freddie was to see the Queen’s castle. She then leaned down towards him and said, Come with me. It was only a few feet and still close to me. She lifted up a rope so he could get a little closer to a window. She pointed to a flag flying on top of a nearby tower. Do you see the flag? she asked Freddie. When that’s flying it means the Queen is here; you’ve come on a day when she’s home.

It was such a nice touch and quite delightful to have security people so friendly. As we moved on, Freddie asked me: Do you think the Queen knows I’m here? I had to say that I thought she was probably very busy but if she knew he was there, she’d be very pleased that he’d visited her castle.

I’d hoped to show him +Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, which was built in the early 1920s, and I remember showing Freddie’s dad when he was a young boy and we went to Windsor. However, that display room is closed at the moment until some time next year.

We followed the path back down towards the entrance as we made our way out. Then stopped to go into St George’s Chapel, where Prince Harry and Meghan were married in May (we saw the wedding dress and Harry’s outfit in the castle). I told Freddie it was the Queen’s church; the simplest explanation to a toddler. It’s a very beautiful chapel and definitely shouldn’t be missed if you visit the castle.

Then we were through an archway and back into Windsor town again.

We made our way to the nearby Windsor Royal Station shopping centre. There is actually still a station there too – Windsor & Eton Central Station – with services to Paddington Station in central London.

We headed to Carluccio’s, which is familiar to me as it’s where I usually meet my friend Nina – as I did last week – and I knew they had a good Kids’ Menu.

The Kids’ Menu has a great choice and is just £6.25 for 2 courses; £7.50 for 3, including a drink. A little booklet with crayons was brought straight away for Freddie.

   

Freddie chose Spaghetti and Meatballs with apple juice to drink. This was a really good portion and he liked it.

I had Penne Giardiniera (£9.95) which is one of my favourite dishes in Carluccio’s – pasta with courgettes, spinach balls, chilli, garlic and cheese.

Freddie chose Apple & Blackcurrant Ice Lolly for his dessert and I had a cappuccino (admittedly bad form in an Italian restaurant; Italians would never drink a white coffee after a meal!).

   

It was a perfect place to go after our castle visit. When we came out, Freddie wanted to go back into the castle but I had to say no, but we would go again soon. A woman in a shop told us we should go on a day when we can see the Changing of the Guard – at 10.45am three days a week in the winter and every day from April over the summer. So that is the plan. Meanwhile we walked back to the station to get a train home. We were a little early so made a minor diversion down a street by the station to look at the River Thames.

Windsor is a great place for a day out. Visiting the castle is a must, but the shopping centre is great and there are loads of bars, cafes and restaurants. And if you have more time and the weather is kinder, take a walk in Windsor Great Park or along the River Thames Path.

Art & Food

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Two of my favourite things to do in London is to go to the theatre – which I do once or twice a month – and to go to an art gallery. Sometimes the gallery is to see an exhibition; sometimes to attend a talk, lecture or even a short course on art history. Then, of course, there is my love of food – the raison d’être for this blog (oh, and my love of travel and writing). So when I can combine both art and food for a day or evening out, then I’m a very happy person.

Yesterday evening was about as happy as I could get when it comes to Art & Food. I was excited a few weeks back to see that one of my favourite living artists – perhaps even my absolute favourite – Barbara Rae, was going to be ‘in conversation’ at the Royal Academy of Arts to talk about her latest work: The Northwest Passage. Barbara Rae CBE, RA (and many more awards) is one of our best known and most respected artists. I’ve loved her work for years. Some of her work is almost always included in the RA’s Summer Exhibition and I can go into one of the large rooms and my eyes will immediately alight on Barbara’s work. She’s known as an outstanding colourist, her work exploring abstract expressionist themes, human existence, landscape and time passing. I just love looking at her work but perhaps subliminally, what has attracted me – and I didn’t really know about this until the talk last night – is how strongly her work is influenced by travel. As she says on her website, she ‘travels the world in search of inspiration’; she spends weeks meeting and talking to local people, reading a huge amount and learning about the local history before actually opening her sketchbook. Her works have been inspired by time spent in places like the Arizona Desert and Spain – hot places. But, as she explained last night, she felt a need to look for a cooler palette and really, the change from the Arizona Desert to the Arctic couldn’t be more dramatic. It was absolutely fascinating to hear Barbara talk about what inspired her to follow the Northwest Passage, to hear about her conversations with the Inuit people, seeing polar bears; her impressions of the Arctic landscape, the light, the cold. She described how her work begins and comes together – a lot happens before the final canvas is begun. And even then, although she knows where she’s heading with the work, she described how it has a life of its own and she never really knows how it will be once finished. She talked about her need to go back time and again to a place which has captured her imagination; she’s been to the Arctic four times now. To find out more about Barbara Rae – click here.

After the talk Barbara was signing books in the RA’s shop, so I couldn’t resist buying one and the chance to say ‘hello’ and tell her how much I admired her work.

It was getting on for 8.30pm when I emerged into the dark night of Piccadilly where, at the moment, Christmas lights in the shape of beautiful huge angels line the street. I was hungry and there were a few options open to me – places I knew near Piccadilly Circus. I’d had in mind, though, a fish restaurant I’ve been wanting to try, but they don’t take bookings in the evening and the queue was so long, I decided against waiting but seeing instead if I could get into Yalla Yalla, just round the corner. It was busy but happily there was a spot for me.

I’ve written about Yalla Yalla before but it really is one of my favourite restaurants. It’s a simple place, almost cafe like and very reasonably priced – but the food is fantastic. I’ve been with friends but it’s also a perfect place to feel comfortable on your own. Middle Eastern food is a great love and Yalla Yalla serve some of the best Lebanese food you’ll find in London.

I ordered a glass of prosecco (because it was Friday and you should always have fizz on Friday – a family rule), some olives (these were amazing, tossed in some of their homemade harissa), and hummus, which came with warm pitta bread. I happily got started on these; a nice but not too noisy buzz of talk and contented people around me. The staff were friendly and talked to me a bit too.

Then my main came. I’ve usually ordered a selection of mezze rather than one ‘main’ before. Their Fattoush is one of the best I’ve had and I love the Lamb Kibbeh. However, yesterday I ordered skewers of lamb kofta which came with either garlic or chilli dip (I chose the chilli – their harissa), vermicelli rice, grilled tomato and a Lebanese salad.

It was all wonderful and an absolutely perfect way to end my evening out. I was too full for dessert but had some mint tea before paying (just under £25, for food, drink and service) and heading home. What a great evening of art and food it had been.

Venison Meatballs with Mushroom & Madeira Sauce

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I rarely buy ready-made anything but my son introduced me to Waitrose’s venison burgers, which are great for a quick and tasty supper. So when I saw some venison meatballs on special offer in Waitrose a couple of days ago, I couldn’t resist trying them. They’re pretty much pure venison – 90% – and although it’s not my reason for buying them, venison is said to be one of the healthier meats we can eat – a good source of protein, rich in B vitamins and low in fat. It is also wonderfully tasty! I’ve been cooking it on and off for years, usually as a rich stew in the winter. But the burgers and meatballs allow for something lighter.

Having got them home, I was left wondering about the best way to cook them. Somehow my usual tomato sauce for meatballs didn’t seem right. So I decided to cook them in a mushroom and madeira sauce with a little crème fraîche. Then I had to decide what to serve them with and at first thought rice would be good. But in the end I settled on some tagliatelle.

I wasn’t too sure how many servings I’d get from my 300g of meatballs, but it didn’t matter; I was expecting to eat alone and knew I’d certainly have one portion to freeze and maybe two.

At 4.00pm my phone rang. It was my son Jonathan. What time was I expecting them for supper? Mmm. Somewhere along the line there had been some confusion. I wasn’t expecting them, I said, but would love to see them and was sure I could stretch my meatballs to feed 3 adults and Freddie – only 3¾ but with a large appetite. And sure enough, we all had plenty. I served the meal with a large salad. And first we nibbled on a French baguette from Paul Bakery, taralli, hummus and olives. There was Grom gelato in the freezer for dessert.

 

Venison Meatballs with Mushroom & Madeira Sauce – Serves 4

  • 300g venison meatballs
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2-3 shallots, finely chopped
  • 150g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 dessertspoon plain flour
  • 250ml light chicken stock, hot
  • 4 tablespoons Madeira
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 heaped dessertspoon crème fraîche
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley
  • 250g tagliatelle
  • a little Parmeson (optional)

   

   

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan (with a lid), tip the meatballs in, and brown nicely over a medium heat (about 5 minutes).

   

Lift the meatballs out with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate. Add the chopped shallots (mine were quite big so I used 2 but depending on size, maybe use 3) and soften a little, then add the sliced mushrooms.

Cook until the shallots and mushrooms are nicely coloured and cooked through. Now sprinkle over the plain flour. Stir well to mix in. (This is to thicken the sauce a little.)

   

Slowly pour in the hot stock (I had some homemade in the freezer; I always freeze in small portions for this kind of recipe or a risotto), stirring well to mix in and hopefully avoid lumps! Allow it all to bubble for a couple of minutes. Now add the Madeira. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

   

Tip the browned meatballs back into the sauce. Stir to mix. Now put on the lid and cook gently for 10 minutes.

   

Spoon on the crème fraîche and add the parsley.

Mix well together. Check seasoning. Now it’s ready!

Cook the tagliatelle according to packet instructions (about 4 minutes). Drain and tip into the sauce.

Mix carefully, folding over to coat all the pasta with the sauce. Serve on to warm dishes. We grated over just a little Parmesan.

They were really good; delicious. It was a great meal. I find venison very tender and it certainly makes a wonderful change from the usual meatball meats.

The Elms Hotel, Abberley, Worcestershire

I was back in Worcestershire yesterday to visit my daughter, Nicola, and new grandson, who is now 10 weeks old. There is still no functioning spare room for me in Nicola and Rachael’s house, which is undergoing major renovation and rebuilding work, so I needed to book a room for my overnight stay. The place where I stayed last time was full so I chose another in the same village, Abberley, which is only about 15 minutes’ drive away. The Elms was a few steps up in terms of comfort and luxury: an AA 4* country house hotel, which also boasts an AA 2 Rosette restaurant. There is a spa with indoor pool and offering Elemis treatments. Use of the pool, hydro pool and fitness suite is included in the price of a room (the treatments are extra and need to be booked).

There were cheaper options available to me: a pub with rooms, but Nicola thought not a good place for a woman on her own; a well-known cheap chain of hotels in a nearby service station. However, I don’t need much persuading to treat myself to something a bit special … and as it turned out, Nicola and I spent quite a bit of time at The Elms and it ended up feeling as if we’d had a nice short holiday together.

The Elms Hotel is wonderful. It’s a beautiful Queen Anne mansion built in 1710 and designed by Thomas White, a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren. It’s set in extensive grounds and even though the weather was wet, grey and cold, it was still nice to be nestled in such a lovely setting.

I could check in from 3.00pm but was welcome to turn up earlier and use the facilities. With the rather unpredictable timing of my arrival from London, we decided against having lunch there but to have Afternoon Tea instead. With Nicola’s birthday in just a few days’ time, a proper British afternoon tea seemed the perfect way to celebrate. Also better timing with a small baby – an evening meal wasn’t really going to work. I rang ahead and booked the tea for 3.00 and we arrived at about 2.30. Although a little early for check-in, I was given the key to my room and we were able to settle in before heading back downstairs for tea.

We were shown up an elegant staircase to my room. It was nice to be taken there, not just be given a key and instructions on how to find it. All the rooms have names rather than numbers and are named after locally grown fruits, mostly apples and pears. Mine was Betty Geeson – a rare Worcestershire cooking apple. Some of the ‘room names’ fruit can be found growing in the hotel’s orchard; they also have a kitchen garden where they grow produce for the restaurant.

I had one of their small ‘cosy’ rooms. It was decorated in a style appropriate to the age of the house but with plenty of modern features. There was a good-sized bathroom with a bath and large bottles of fabulous Elemis toiletries.

There was a kettle with cups and tea bags and coffee; packets of biscuits. Bottles of complimentary water. A TV and a separate Roberts retro-style radio.

In the wardrobe I found not only a safe, but an ironing board and iron. A lot of thought had gone into what guests might want and need. There was even a handwritten welcome card from the general manager.

Back downstairs we decided to sit in the lounge area near reception. They’d suggested tea in the Library Bar, but we thought this suited us better.

It felt like a glorious retreat on a grim and grey winter’s day, settling ourselves in one of the warm, cosy areas where a log fire roared in a large fireplace and there was a big choice of comfy armchairs and sofas to sit on. With the chaos back at Nicola’s house where there were so many builders working I couldn’t count them, and a cold wind blowing through open doors, we opted to spend the whole afternoon at The Elms! Having sat down for our tea at 3.00, we didn’t move again until 5.30!

The full Elms Afternoon Tea comes at £25 a head (there’s a Champagne option for a further £10). It’s not a cheap tea but it was a special birthday one with my daughter, and it turned out to be so fabulous that really it was good value.

We were asked what tea we wanted (there was coffee, in you preferred) and we both chose Earl Grey. Cups, saucers, plates and linen tablecloths were laid before us and then pots of tea came (later refilled when we asked).

The selection of finger sandwiches came next.

They were all explained to us – tuna, smoked salmon, egg & cress, ham, cheese, with chutneys. (I had been asked about any special dietary requirements when I booked.) The sandwiches were really delicious; so obviously freshly made and with a good amount of filling. We were in no hurry and no one tried to hurry us. Every so often someone would pop their head round our corner and ask if we were all right; whether we needed anything else. Once the sandwiches were finished, the cake stand came.

This was truly impressive. And again, everything was explained; what each cake was. Everything was top quality: the scones, served with jam and clotted cream, were some of the best I’ve had; the little cakes exquisite. We did pretty well but there was no way we could manage two large scones each and all those cakes after the sandwiches. While pondering that it seemed a shame to leave them, someone came and asked if we’d like them to pack any leftovers for us to take home. It was such a thoughtful gesture – and that they offered and we didn’t have to ask. So, we left with a nice package of scones and cakes to take back to Nicola’s house (which meant Rachael also got some when she returned from work!).

After such a tea, we didn’t need a lot of supper, and had something fairly simple. Some wine was opened but with the drive back to the hotel, through narrow country lanes in the dark, I didn’t want to drink much at all. Thus, when I returned to the hotel for the night, around 9.30pm, after putting some things in my room I headed to the bar for a drink. This was another cosy and welcoming space. I ordered a small glass of red wine and settled into a comfortable armchair with my book for a while.

   

Breakfast was served in the dining room; an elegant room looking out across the front and gardens.

A buffet offered juices, cereals, fruit, yoghurt, cold meats, cheeses and pastries. I was asked if I wanted coffee or tea.

   

There was a large menu for hot food, from Creamy Porridge to American pancakes; Eggs Benedict and Omelettes; traditional English breakfast of Kippers or a Full British. But there was a Vegetarian option too; a Detox; Carb Free; Low Cholesterol – but also Indulgence: Warm poached figs on toasted panettone, vanilla mascarpone and honey. You couldn’t fail to find something that suited you!

I chose scrambled eggs with smoked salmon on toasted sourdough. The toast was perhaps a little thick but the eggs were perfectly cooked, creamy and still nicely warm, with just the right amount of smoked salmon to accompany them.

It was a good breakfast with plenty to please everyone. Then, for me, it was time to go. I collected everything from my room and headed back down to reception to pay. Reception is a big desk near the bottom of the staircase. There was a comfy chair for me to sit in while we sorted out the bill. Close by, I could see a line of wellies in all sizes – for guests to borrow when the weather was wet.

I chatted to the receptionist as I paid. All the way through the stay everyone was so friendly and it felt very much like being a guest in a house (albeit rather a grand house) not just a hotel. And once people had met me, they seemed to remember me, so I hadn’t had to give my name at the bar, for instance, or people would call a hello when passing.

Then it was time to go – back into the grey and rain but happy to be spending more time with my family before heading back to London. I drove down the long driveway and back into the Worcestershire countryside.

My room was £129 a night, including breakfast. In some ways I didn’t make the most of it because I didn’t use the spa at all; but I felt I’d made good use of my time there with Nicola as we’d so happily and comfortably settled in for most of Friday afternoon and had our wonderful tea. I’m not likely to stay again as the spare room at Nicola’s will soon be ready, but we both felt we’d go back for tea again; it would be a great present for someone too, perhaps for a birthday or just some special occasion. The restaurant also has an excellent reputation and I’d like to try it sometime. The hotel is a great destination for a weekend break – near to the lovely historic city of Worcester and lying in glorious countryside, so ideal for walking and, of course, you can make full use of the spa facilities. The Elms offers lots of packages – click here for more information.

Making the Christmas Pudding

It’s a few years since I last made a Christmas pudding. And I’ve never actually made many in my life. When I was a child, my maternal grandmother was the Christmas cook, making the pudding and Christmas cake. After she died, my mother started making the pudding and I made the cake. But not many of the family liked rich fruit cake and although I love it, it lost its allure after a while when I had nearly a whole one to finish up by myself! I starting making a lighter Dundee cake, which the family preferred. I think the generous addition of whisky had a lot to do with it! As for the pudding, I took to buying them.

This year a few of us are gathering for Christmas at my daughter’s. My son and daughter are cooking together for the main event (the turkey, etc.) but as I offered to buy a pudding, I suddenly found myself offering to make one instead. Last year my daughter and her wife made a wonderful Christmas cake from Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles and so I thought it would be nice to use his recipe to make a pudding.

Nigel Slater is one of my favourite cookery writers and Christmas Chronicles is an indispensable guide to fabulous food for the Christmas season; indeed it’s a great book for winter recipes, not just Christmas. I made a gorgeous chocolate mousse from it (click here – and for more info on the book).

I’ve been so busy I imagined I’d missed the traditional cut-off date for making a Christmas pudding (not that that was going to stop me making one!). However, a quick Google search revealed that Stir-up Sunday is next weekend – 26 November. So remarkably, and not always true to form, I find I’m making it a week early!

Of course, I can’t vouch for it being as fabulous as I’m hoping for. You’ll have to wait until after Christmas to find out. But I have every confidence in Nigel; certainly the cake from the book was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. I made his lighter version of pudding and love the addition of dried figs and apricots, fresh grated apple and fresh orange zest and juice, as well as they ‘usual’ ingredients. How could it not be good! It’s taken me most of the weekend to make it due to many interruptions – the ‘overnight’ soak of fruit in brandy turned into more like 24 hours … then the first steaming was delayed. But finally I have 3 puddings all waiting for Christmas Day. I’m not sure quite how I’ll use up three; Nigel only makes 2 but I had smaller pudding basins and am conscious that some of the family don’t actually like Christmas pudding. But the others can’t do Christmas without it! I’m sure we’ll manage three somehow. We can have one at Easter, as Nigel suggests, and I can always save one until next Christmas when it will be gorgeously matured. Now, I’m going to be seriously impressed with myself for that kind of organisation!

 

Nigel Slater’s Christmas Pudding

  • 350g sultanas
  • 350g raisins
  • 150g dried figs, chopped
  • 125g candied peel
  • 100g dried apricots, chopped
  • 75g dark glacé cherries, halved
  • 150ml brandy
  • 2 apples, grated
  • 2 oranges, zest and juice
  • 6 eggs
  • 250g shredded suet
  • 350g dark muscovado sugar
  • 250g fresh breadcrumbs
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice

You will need either 2 x 1.5 litre pudding basins or 2 x 1 litre basins. You can buy special plastic ones now with lids (Nigel’s suggestion) that makes life easier – no tricky tying of string! Butter them and prepare 2 or 3 (depending on how many basins you’re using) large sheets of greaseproof paper to go on top. Butter the paper and fold a pleat down the middle.

Put the first six ingredients in a large bowl and pour over the brandy. Stir well, cover and leave for a few hours or overnight. Give it a stir from time to time so each piece of fruit gets coated in the brandy.

Then mix the grated apple, orange juice and zest, beaten eggs, suet, sugar, breadcrumbs and flour in another large bowl.

   

   

Then stir in the dried fruit and spice.

   

Mix thoroughly. Divide between the prepared pudding basins.

Cover with the greaseproof paper and put the lids on. Steam for 3 hours. Remember to check the water level regularly, every half hour or so, to make sure it doesn’t dry out. Top up with boiling water as necessary.

Let the puddings cool. Remove the greaseproof paper, cover tightly with clingfilm and put the plastic lids back on. Store in a cool, dark place until Christmas Day – or when needed. Then steam for another 3 hours before serving. Turn out and flame with brandy if you like, and serve with brandy butter, brandy sauce or my special Christmas brandy ice cream.

 

Gelatorino, East Sheen, London SW14

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I’d heard mention of a good gelateria in nearby East Sheen but it was only when I was driving through there a few weeks ago, along the Upper Richmond Road, that I saw it was a branch of Gelatorino. Wow! What a delight to find a little slice – well maybe ‘scoop’ – of Turin almost on my doorstep.

I made my first visit to the original London branch of Gelatorino in Covent Garden in the summer (click here) and was hugely impressed. We’re really spoilt for choice these days with fantastic ice cream available all over London (click here) but Gelatorino is consistently voted one of the best – and with good reason.

The Turin influence is strong with flavours made from Bunet (a classic Turin dessert of chocolate, amaretti, coffee and rum), Gianduja (Turin’s famous combination of chocolate and hazelnuts) and best-quality IGP hazelnuts from Piedmont.

We’d been out for a family lunch at Arte Chef in Barnes to celebrate middle grandson’s first birthday. Staying with the Italian theme, I suggested we drive back via East Sheen and go for gelato at Gelatorino; it seemed a perfect opportunity to try it. Truly, I promised everyone, they serve some of the very best ice cream you’ll find anywhere.

Inside we found the friendly Luca to serve us. When I talked about going to Turin, he told me that’s where he’s from and he was obviously proud of his home city and passionate about what he was selling in the cafe.

Gelatorino is more than an ice cream parlour, it’s a cafe too. There was a nice seating area and plenty of pastries, cakes and biscuits to choose from to go with a coffee. They also serve focaccia sandwiches and pancakes.

   

Everything looked amazing. The gelati are kept in steel tubs called pozzetti, which have their lids on so the ice cream is properly stored. This is a sign of serious gelato-making! You may not be able to see the ice cream but we were offered tastes, even 3½ year old Freddie. There’s a fairly limited choice but this is because they’re all made fresh daily.

Freddie was definitely having ice cream! No question. But he made a rather grown-up choice of passion fruit sorbet. They serve a special kids’ size cone at £2.50 – it even had a teddy bear face on the cone; the ice cream sitting like a grand hat on top of the head!

Nonna liked the idea of passion fruit sorbet too and I chose a small cup (£3.50) with 2 flavours – the sorbet and Bunet. Freddie’s mum couldn’t resist one of the cakes and had a slice of chocolate flan. She and I had coffee as well – Lavazza, of course, as it comes from Turin. They’ve been making coffee since 1895. The coffee came with gorgeous biscuits on the side.

   

My son joined us a few minutes later. He had coffee too and a tub of half Hazelnut and half Pistachio gelato. He was seriously impressed, particularly by the hazelnut.

It might be as well that although Gelatorino is close, it’s not actually within our walking distance. It would be too tempting and we’d soon grow fat! But I love that it’s a cafe too and so it’s a great place to meet people for breakfast, a snack lunch or – as we did – afternoon gelato! It’s open every day from 8am – 7pm; 9am – 6.30pm on Sundays.

Gelatorino Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Restaurant Review: Lina Stores

Lina Stores in Brewer Street is one of Soho’s most loved and respected institutions. Established in 1944 by ‘Lina’ – a woman from Genoa – it is London’s go-to deli for fabulous Italian food. Jamie Oliver has named it his favourite deli; a couple of years ago on TV I watched Nigella Lawson and the great food writer, Anna del Conte, make a visit there.

Over recent years I’ve popped in quite regularly when in London, buying the odd thing. Usually I’m on my way to the theatre so not about to do a major shop, but it’s full to the brim with the most glorious foods and you couldn’t fail to find a few things to tempt you. There’s the fresh pasta they make on the premises; great Parma hams and salamis hanging from the ceiling; huge slabs of Italian cheeses and jars of delights. Of course now it’s full of Christmas things so an ideal place to search for gifts for all your Italian food loving family and friends.

   

Such has been my love and respect for Lina Stores that I was seriously excited when I noticed earlier this year that they were opening a restaurant. When I mentioned it to my friend Lucia it was decided we simply had to go. It’s taken a while for a variety of reasons, but last night we made it. And I’m so glad we did!

Given that we were eating before going to the theatre and thus had limited time, it was fortunate I arrived early, as I always do. For I had just assumed the restaurant was in Brewer Street on the deli site, especially as I’ve noticed them adding a few tables outside and setting up a bar area to eat inside the deli. But no – the restaurant is at 51 Greek Street. So I made my way from Brewer Street, along Old Compton Street and into Greek Street. Barely 5 minutes.

I had tried to book but they do have a slightly weird and confusing system saying they ‘only take reservations for lunch & early/late dinner’.  What that actually means is they don’t take bookings for the early evening/pre-theatre rush – there’s just a walk-in system then. It was busy when I arrived at 6pm but happily there was a table for two downstairs in the basement.

My heart sank a little. How often do basement areas turn out to be rather grim, depressingly lit parts of the restaurant where you feel excluded from the main event. But not at Lina Stores! It was so cosy that I said to Lucia as we were leaving that perhaps it was the nicest place to sit. It was small and a little cramped, but not so cramped you risk knocking elbows with your next-door neighbour. And it was all beautifully decorated in the Lina Stores ‘green’ and white. But best of all – apart from the food! – was the warm Italian welcome. There were plenty of waiters and everyone was so friendly and helpful.

While I was waiting for Lucia I ordered a glass of house white: a wine from the Veneto at £4.50 for 125ml.

The menu is quite small and very simple: antipasti, pasta and dolci (dessert). There were 8 antipasti ranging in price from £3 for ciabatta and a special olive oil to £6.50 for Culatello di Mandolino – sliced Cultatello ham. There were also 8 pasta dishes, the cheapest being Mezzelune pasta with Parma ham, potatoes, Amalfi lemon and thyme for £5.50 and the most expensive Green agnolotti pasta with black truffle and ricotta at £13.

They are all really ‘small plates’ with the view that people will share some and when we ordered just 3, our waiter politely tried to suggest it might not be enough. We were certain it would be though – we’d seen plates at the next table and neither of us wanted to eat a huge amount pre-theatre. It turned out to be perfect for us – though hungrier people or those not in a hurry might want more.

There were no ‘sides’ and I suggested we share a salad from the antipasti choices: Finocchio, Topinambur, Arance e Olive con Vinaigrette al Bergamotto – Fennel, orange and artichoke salad with a Bergamot dressing (£6). We were asked how we’d like it – on its own or with the pasta. I said to please bring it but not hold back on the pasta – bring that when it was ready.

The salad looked beautiful when it was put before us.

It was really good. It was so fresh and quite crunchy with its paper-thin slices of raw fennel and Jerusalem artichoke; the sweetness of the orange and a glorious floral hint from the Bergamot dressing added an almost exotic touch.

Lucia and I chose the same pasta dish: Ravioli di Zucca, Burro Salvia e Nocciole del Piemonte DOP – pumpkin filled ravioli with sage butter and Piemontese hazelnuts (£9).

There were just four ravioli but they were quite large. It looked great and it tasted absolutely wonderful. Really, this was some of the best pasta I’ve ever had. The pasta was cooked to that perfect al dente; the ravioli were generously filled with the sweet and delicious pumpkin and the crushed hazelnuts on top made it all gorgeous.

There were other great choices: some chittara spaghetti with Dorset crab (£9.50); pappardelle with slow cooked veal ragu (£10); pici with porcini mushrooms and Umbrian sausage (£7)

There were 4 tempting desserts, including their famous cannoli, but we’d both had enough and it was getting close to the time we needed to head to the theatre, so we ordered just coffee – a macchiato for Lucia and espresso for me (£2.50 each).

The total bill, including service, was just under £38 for the two of us.

What a great find the Lina Stores restaurant is. I just loved it. The atmosphere was buzzing and welcoming and the food is fantastico! As we came up upstairs to leave, there was a long bar to eat at and outside, now just past 7.00pm, a queue was forming. All I can say is, it will be worth the wait!

Lina Stores Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Roasted Celeriac Soup

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I’ve posted other celeriac soup recipes on the blog, in fact very recently one including apple (click here – and for more information on celeriac). I’ve always known I like celeriac but clearly I like it more than I’d previously realised! This one came about through changed plans yesterday that meant a celeriac I’d bought wasn’t going to be used. And then there was the freshly made chicken stock. How could I not put them together?

I usually chop up the celeriac and do the whole thing in a big pan on top of the stove. But I decided to roast the celeriac instead. I like roasting vegetables for soup – Roast Tomato & Thyme, Roasted Cauliflower with Spices, Roast Squash & Tomato – and think it gives the soup a lovely deep flavour. Vegetables have a more intense flavour when roasted, and then you get gorgeous caramelised bits on some of the edges (though don’t let them burn). Make sure you scrape up any caramelised bits stuck to the pan when you’re blending at the end. As a method, it’s really much easier as you can just cut everything up and throw into an ovenproof dish and straight into the oven.

 

Roasted Celeriac Soup – Serves 4

  • 1 celeriac (about 800g)
  • 1 large potato
  • 1 stick of celery
  • 1 medium onion
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme or oregano
  • 750ml chicken (or vegetable) stock

 

Peel the celeriac. This is best done with a very sharp knife, cutting off the top and bottom first and then cutting downwards as you move the celeriac round. Cut into chunks – about 2½cm/1 inch cubes.

Then peel and chop the potato into similar sized chunks; then the celery and onion. Put them all into a large shallow ovenproof dish that can also go on the hob. Drizzle over a generous amount (about 3-4 tablespoons) olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Scatter over the herbs. Now use your hands to carefully fold over and mix all together and coat the pieces of vegetables in oil. Put into a 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 oven for about 50 minutes. The time will vary slightly depending on the size of your chunks. Give it all a stir a couple of times during the cooking so the top pieces don’t get burnt and more pieces enjoy the caramelisation effect.

When everything is nicely golden brown and the vegetables cooked through (test with a sharp knife or fork), remove from the oven.

Spoon the vegetables into a large, deep pan. Then pour a little of the stock into the pan you cooked the vegetables in and put over a medium heat. Stir with a wooden spoon, which you can use to scrape any caramelised bits that have caught on the bottom and sides (not burnt bits!). Tip it over the vegetables and add the rest of the stock. Bring up to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes for everything to amalgamate.

   

Now use a stick blender to blend it all to a lovely smooth and creamy soup.

I like this kind of soup to be quite thick but thin it to the consistency you prefer, if necessary, either with more hot stock or some boiling water. Check seasoning.

Serve with a dollop of cream or yoghurt, if you like, and garnish with some chopped parsley or even a few thyme leaves if you put fresh thyme in the soup. It also occurred to me as I was ladling the soup into the bowl that a garnish of crispy bacon would be nice too, for something more special, as bacon and celeriac go well together. However you eat it, the flavour of roasted celeriac is truly special.