Vasiliki bay and attempting to windsurf

As the clouds drifted by in the hard, blue Grecian sky, she took a deep breath, braced her core and pulled herself up on to the board. As she performed an elegant belly-flop, she groaned as the muscles in her legs reminded her of the 22km bike ride she’d completed that morning. “Why did I think this was a good idea?” she asked herself, before a far-off holler from her instructor brought her back to her surroundings. In the sheltered bay of Vasiliki, with the mounds of Ithaca and Kefalonia looming from the turquoise sea behind her, her determination to master the art of wind-surfing rose to the surface; she gritted her teeth, leapt to her feet, balancing with poise for a while before beginning to haul the sail out of the sea, jewel-like droplets of water sparkling in the air.
On this Greek island, all life – both modern and traditional – revolved around the shimmering sea. It united the holiday-makers, locals and seasonnaires; all drawn back year after year to taste the freedom and opportunity it offered. For the local Greeks, they farmed it respectfully for fresh fish and out-sized seafood, transforming them into the most delicious dishes with produce grown in the fertile valley and vine-yards. For the holiday-makers, the sea held the excitement and thrill of yachting, windsurfing and cat-sailing, whilst the seasonnaires made their wage from teaching boating, sailing, paddle-boarding or crewing on one of those luxury frigates that moored up in the haven of the bay. There really was something special about this bay; it offered both a safe shelter and a world of possibility. A place to recuperate and recharge, before expending energy and getting lost in the excitement of the moment.
Yet be in no doubt that the sea was in charge; the tides, the currents, the actions of the moon and the wind made sure that Islanders were at its mercy. From incredibly calm mornings, where she could paddle gently out far into the bar and perform a yoga sequence on a paddle board with no fear of capsize, to the afternoons which bought a strong cross-shore wind, perfect for the more adventurous, skilled wind-surfers, the sea was in charge.
Just as it was at this moment. Letting the wind take her sail and swing it around, she began to race across the waves. Looking ahead of her towards the stoney cliff, she grinned as she saw her friends watching from the safety boat, then laughed as the wind whipped her hair into a chaotic mess and the sun beat down on her shoulders.

Yoga and sunshine for the soul in Devon

This weekend I went on my first yoga retreat. Five years ago, not in my wildest dreams, did I think I would ever go on a yoga retreat. Things change! This particular retreat was run by my good friend Mel Skinner Yoga, who I shared a flat with when I lived in Greece last summer. So as well as being excited to go on retreat and do something completely new to me, I was so happy to see Mel again and hang out.


Down on the edge of Dartmoor, Devon there’s a simply wondering place called East Down. A cluster of thatched buildings nestled in the rolling Devon downs, it’s called ‘The Breathing Space’. Not just because of the airy, light-filled yoga studio, but because there are incredible, ever-changing views, continual sounds of birds and animals, a field of therapy horses and alpacas, and a central lounge ideal for eating, chatting, reading and writing.


When I started to write this blog I intended to record an account of what we did each day. I took my notebook and pen and sat outside in the sunshine (note to self, the April sun and wind is far stronger than I expected), to start my journal. Instead of writing a standard diary, I found myself mulling on the sky, and it turned into a piece of creative, descriptive writing. So, here it is. It’s just a train of thought really, of no merit. I’d like to mention the morning walk as well – we left at 7am to wander down through the dewy grass into the valley, watching the mist evaporate and the sun rise over the downs. Absolutely magical, and every moment so fleeting. If you ever get a chance to go on one of Mel’s retreats here then please do. The combination of restorative yoga, rest, relaxation, nourishing, wholesome vegetarian food by the fantastic Nemia of ComeToGood, fun, sympathetic company and idyllic setting is a peaceful weekend that works wonders for the soul.

I can see rolling hills, softly, silvery green in the morning sun. This morning it was frosty and misty – I think that the dew and moisture are still rising. There’e a strong breeze, which is tempering the heat of the sun. I’m overlooking a valley, perched on a picnic bench. The sky s that pure, fresh blue; not intense, not hard and oppressive, not that vivid blue of a hot July day, but a delicate, dawn blue, as if the Spring sky is waking up to the possibility of warmer days. April mornings have a precious feel. So welcome after the darkness and unrelenting cold of January and February, but all too often untreasured. They just slip by and become almost expected, familiar, no longer treasured and celebrated.

One of the ladies on the retreat just said to me ‘What is it that defines the skyline? Is it the sky, or the plantation?’

When else do we give ourselves the time and space, free from distraction, to breathe in, reflect upon, and enjoy a morning? Sitting and writing encourages me to look, notice, reflect and describe. Taking a photo is instant and a ‘ovely way to share an experience with family and friends, but can it ever truly evoke the same feelings, feels and atmosphere?

At the beginning of the year I bought a diary which included a section at the beginning to note down foals, a timeframe, the objectives, a why and a reward. I wrote eight or nine goals, then tucked the diary away in a drawer and forgot about it. I dug it out the other day and had a flick through. I was heartened to see that, unintentionally, the first four months of the day had seen me progress towards some of these goals. It made me sad, though, to realise that I only feel some kind of self-worth, value and life when I am striving to achieve something.

Sushi, scallops and a storm

When I was younger, birthdays meant a trip to Damon’s, Lincoln. We loved its fun, warm atmosphere, generous food and the waiting staff singing happy birthday as they brought a chocolate cake with crackling sparkler to the table. As a family, we knew that the iconic building meant sitting down to a feast of onion rings, fajitas, steak, warm loaves of bread and dinky little bowls of coleslaw. So when I saw a new Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi bar was advertised as coming to the Damon’s site I was dubious to say the least. Japanese food? Japanese steak? Sushi? On the outskirts of Lincoln? I can’t say it would be somewhere that would be at the top of my list, and I did not know what to expect.

Bamboo wallpaper at Ethan's Steakhouse
Bamboo wallpaper at Ethan’s Steakhouse

On the day that Storm Doris struck, my Mum and I braved the gale-force winds to visit Ethan’s Steakhouse for a late lunch. Unsurprisingly, at 3pm on a Wednesday in February, we were the only guests. Nonetheless, we received a warm welcome and were shown to our table. Even though there was no-one else in there the atmosphere was warm and friendly, the staff polite, professional and unobtrusive, yet willing to stop for a chat. It was lovely to sit near the window with all of the natural light flooding in, and I loved the painterly bamboo wallpaper.

If you’ve ever been to Damon’s you’ll know that each meal comes with complimentary bread, coleslaw and sides. It’s similar here, with every main meal being served with miso or beef soup, a little side salad, and accompaniments of noodles, rice and vegetables. In the same vein, there are a variety of menus – lunch, early bird and combos (where you can choose your meats). On top of this, there’s a very extensive sushi and appetiser menu. I won’t lie; it took a few minutes to get our heads around the various combo meals and offers but once we’d grasped the principle of ‘choose your meat or fish, choose a sauce, and think about any starters,’ it was pretty easy. As well as the more usual chicken, lamb and sirloin steak, the menu lists King prawns, scallops, Gressingham duck breast, seabass and rock lobster tail. For vegetarians the choice is limited to mushrooms – something that I think should be addressed – but for a fish and seafood-lover like me it was ideal. I chose a King prawn and scallop combo whilst my Mum went for her favourite – duck. As sushi in Lincoln is pretty much limited to snack packs from M&S and Boots, I had to order some tempura asparagus Uramaki, and chose a plate of vegetable dumplings too which brought back memories of visiting China. Service was super quick, and I thoroughly enjoyed warming up straight away with a bowl of miso soup.

So then the theatre began! Our chef Bwadwey wheeled over a trolley of ingredients, seasoning, tools and sauces, and began his show. Ok, so here I have to emphasise that the enthusiasm of the staff really made this place. Our chef was young but talented, performing some dazzling knife tricks with panache and humour, and explaining what he was doing at the same time. It was a real pleasure to chat to him and find out about his training – intensively trained by a Teppanyaki chef of 35 years standing, he’s been working on his knife skills and tricks since then. The Ethan’s website explains the origins of Teppanyaki cooking (literally meaning cooking on an iron griddle), and how over time the chef’s performance has become increasingly important. As we sat there sampling appetisers of sushi and dumplings (only one each – there were a LOT of ingredients on the trolley) we were treated to a flaming line of oil on the grill, an onion volcano, prawn-tail flipping and some expert omelette making.

Both the sushi (filled with tempura asparagus, shiitake mushroom and Teriyaki – fresh and delicious) and the dumpling (fried but still light, with a savoury vegetable stuffing) were very moreish, and the portion size was generous, coming complete with dipping sauces. You could enjoy sharing a couple of plates of these with a friend for a light lunch. But our attention was taken by the cooking. Bwadwey fried egg to make a crepe-thin omelette which he sliced up and mixed with sushi rice before adding mixed fresh vegetables to the grill, and noodles with spring onions and beansprouts. As he cooked, he explained the seasonings he was adding, so we could attempt to replicate the flavours at home.

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Fresh sushi prepared at the bar

Something I wasn’t expecting was to see the seafood and meat prepared in front of us; the duck came out as a fat, fresh breast with a good layer of fat, which he seared on both sides and seasoned before slicing thinly and finishing off. My King prawns came out with the tails on, but he whipped those off then flipped them into the waste bin at the side, before quickly butterflying them incredibly well. I was surprised by quite how much seasoning was added, but it was worth it for the delicious Unami flavour.On a future visit, I would ask for slightly less salt to be included, but that is personal preference. The OCD side of me loved the straight lines of the cooking – how pleasing to see scallops lined up so neatly!

Each element was added to the serving plates as it was finished, and we were invited to start whilst the cooking was still going on, but we decided to wait to enjoy the full experience. It was worth it too, as seeing the finished article so well presented was a real joy. Bwadwey completed the show with a bit more knife-throwing and a traditional bow, before leaving us to our own devices. I wasn’t expecting to finish the dish but the rice, vegetables, seafood and noodles were all so fresh, so delicious, and so light, that it was definitely manageable.

We left satisfied and happy; the experience of dining here makes Ethan’s unique in the Lincoln area. Our request to take home our leftovers was dealt with without hesitation, and it was good to see the restaurant filling up as we braved the storm. Coming to Ethan’s was a delicious surprise, and I’ll definitely be returning with friends to enjoy the spectacle and the food.

I was invited to review Ethan’s Steakhouse, but this has had no influence on my review.

 

Shimmering snowdrops in Saxby

On a cold, windy February Sunday, there isn’t an awful lot to do in the midst of rural Lincolnshire. Sure, you can brave the beach and battle the wind, but you don’t necessarily want to do this every day. Searching for a new place to visit that is open, not too long a drive away and has the additional necessities of a warm tearoom and toilet facilities is quite a tall order. A quick Google search threw up Brightwater Gardens, near Market Rasen. Advertising ‘eight acres of beautiful gardens, wildflower meadows and woodland’ with ‘thousands of snowdrops, crocus, narcissi and bluebells’, I had high hopes, and wasn’t disappointed.

Brightwater Gardens is perfectly located just outside the village of Saxby, about 10 miles from Lincoln. If you’re into unusual architecture it’s well worth a trip just to soak in the atmospheric, light, airy  St Helen’s church, which is absolutely beautiful, looking like it should be more at home in a smart London street than in the middle of a Lincolnshire field.

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With over 120,000 snowdrop bulbs and 40,000 crocus and winter iris, the gardens are a little ray of Spring hope. Entry is very reasonable at just £5, and you can buy a season ticket for £12.50. I loved that the owners have planted up the verges outside the gardens with spring flowers too – so pretty and cared for. Everything is immaculately presented and I could really feel the thought, care and love which has been poured into creating an interesting garden which flows effortlessly from space to space; a wildflower lawn, prairie borders, Dutch garden, damp valley, potager and winter garden, and many more areas. The owners only began to plant bulbs 17 years ago, but they are already starting to multiply and feel natural and organic. I could see that in the height of summer, the borders and formal gardens would be a riot of colour and fragrance.

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As well as an incredible amount of snowdrops, including some MASSIVE comet snowdrops and feathery double-headed snowdrops, there were banks of purple and yellow croci, sturdy blue iris and cheery yellow aconites and the odd hellebore here and there. They looked amazing in the wind, shimmering and quivering (take a look at my Instagram post for a little video).

The gardens are much bigger than I expected, extending from the ‘formal’ gardens and landscaped area with a pond, into a more open, exposed woodland area which had access to a public right of way to the next village. It was lovely to see benches scattered here and there along the bank – perfect for relaxing and taking in the views (not on a windy day though).

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As well as the beautiful flowers, I loved the area called Capability Brown’s Lookout which had beautiful views which draw your eye in over the open countryside towards the church. There is no way that my words can do the garden’s beauty justice; there are some divine photos on their website and Facebook page though.

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After our walk in the blustery woodland we just had to warm up and take some shelter from the wind, so visited the on-site tearoom. The Haybarn has been converted into a spacious, warm tea-room, ideal for popping in for a drink even if you’re not visiting the gardens. They had a lovely wood-burning stove on the go, a patio area, and a range of home-made cakes and soups.

What I love most about the gardens is the super-warm welcome, and their encouragement to revisit in the summer when more flowers are blooming. They also actively encourage picnicking (which I LOVE) – so many places have rules about when and where you can eat. Furthermore, it’s not overdeveloped and it feels like a space in which you can take your time and truly relax.

If you’re interested in visiting, the gardens open for their main season on 28 April, and you can see full details on their website.

It’s called Eden Hall for a reason

Eden Hall Day Spa, Elston, Newark

A couple of years ago my friend and I decided to enjoy a day out together instead of giving each other Christmas presents. We chose to celebrate in January, to give us something to look forward to in the cold, dark post-Christmas months. And our place of choice? Eden Hall Day Spa. This week we took our annual trip, and had as restorative a time as always, with perhaps the best food so far.

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Eden Hall Day Spa (photo Eden Hall)

Eden Hall is a most beautiful Victorian building not far from Newark. Built in around 1872 as Elston Towers, a mansion house for preacher Robert Middleton, it is the most stunning place to go and spend a relaxing and restful day. Our only criticism is that there are overnight facilities to stay the night. The setting really is lovely – set back from the main road and surrounded by green fields, the building is magnificent to look at. And despite being converted to a top-class spa, it’s retained its original features inside. And one of the best bits? From the moment you enter, you’re cocooned by its warmth; perfect in January!

Our day started at 9am when we were welcomed by friendly staff offering us a cup of cherry tea. Nice, but not as good as the hot chocolate we enjoyed last year! Checking in is super-easy, and I love that the staff are so knowledgeable and kind; they clearly understand that people are a little disoriented and it takes time to slow down and relax.

The Conservatory at Eden Hall
The Conservatory at Eden Hall (photo Eden Hall)

Having changed in the incredibly clean and spacious changing rooms, we chose to have a cup of coffee in the Conservatory – a lovely place to relax, plan your day and enjoy the views over the countryside. There’s also a divine breakfast menu to choose from if you’ve had an early start. On arrival you are allocated a lunch-time slot, times for pre-booked treatments and given a gym class timetable, so it’s well worth spending a few minutes getting your head around all of that, however tempting it might be to immediately flop by the pool and read. Don’t be daunted by the prospect of an exercise class; the schedule indicates each class’s intensity and includes a lot of fun options too, like hula-hooping! I did this class last year and as well as getting me out of breath, it made me laugh so much.

My friend had pre-booked a massage, so whilst she went to be thoroughly pampered, I made my first trip to the gym. I’m training to do a 10km at the moment so took the opportunity to do some intervals on the treadmill. I’m not usually a fan of gyms that aren’t my own, but I loved this one. Wide windows let natural light flood in, the machines were easy to use, and the music great! After that I nipped into a toning class and loved the opportunity to do something different. And the day after, I definitely felt it!

We met up for a pre-lunch swim and relax by the pool. I love that there are very few notices, but those there are remind guests to be mindful of the calm and tranquil atmosphere- ensuring that it’s so easy to switch off and genuinely relax. Sadly the outside area of the pool was closed (well, it was frosty and foggy) but we still enjoyed our swim.
By this time I’d thoroughly worked up an appetite for lunch.

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The SaltWater Vitality Pool at Eden Hall (photo Eden Hall)

The food at Eden Hall is one of its many highlights, and I can’t understand why the team don’t make more of this on their social media and website (although you can view the current menu here). It really is delicious. It’s not often that I find so many options on the menu that I would like, but this is definitely one of them. In addition to an inclusive three course meal, there is an amazing salad and bread bar – with everything from Greek-inspired mezze (think hummous, marinated artichokes and olives), to prawn cocktails, cold meats and fish, beetroot and feta salad, carrot mouli, and all the breads – granary, olive, cheese. You really could just have that and be completely satisfied!

The salad bar at Eden Hall (photo Eden Hall)
The salad bar at Eden Hall (photo Eden Hall)

My friend and I both chose Cajun salmon with pineapple, mango and tomato salsa, then polenta and parmesan served with roasted vegetables and vine tomato. They were absolutely pictures – so artfully served that it almost was a shame to eat them. For pudding, the chocolate brownie with mini meringues and Grand Marnier cream was truffle-like and rich, whilst my baked pineapple with lemon sorbet, honeycomb and caramel sauce was light and refreshing.


The staff are polite and lunch was unrushed – we sat for 1.5 hours before moving into the conservatory for complimentary coffee and tea. After that pretty epic meal there was no way we could swim straight away, so we whiled away a good couple of hours reading. Oh, and if you get hungry later on, you can order all kinds of cakes, treats and gelato to enjoy in the Conservatory. I do think they additional food and drinks are rather expensive, considering the overall cost of the day and any treatments.  But I suppose this is a captive audience, and it is a day of treats.

The spa area has a multitude of areas for relaxing in – including a saunarium, herbal caldarium, thermal spa suite and massage jets. There used to be the most amazing minty steam room which I loved, but it was done away with in a recent refurb. My favourite areas are the tropical rain shower, thalassotherapy room and warm foot bath. I was disappointed that the minty room had gone, and also the refurb has made this space a little too dark for my liking. But, you know, I can live with that! If you can bear to, make the trip outside to have a soak in the hot tub. It is so tranquil with its view over the gardens, and come dusk, the fairy lights are switched on in the surrounding trees to create a magical environment. The slumber room is also a must-visit with its moulded beds, swinging cocoons and cosy fleece blankets.
All too soon, it’s time to leave. Just one day here is nourishing, restful and good for the soul. Book your day now…

Top tips

1. Take a couple of bikinis or swimsuits – putting on a damp bikini if you’ve changed for a class or massage is never pleasant.

2. Pack a water bottle. There are several water dispensers dotted around with plastic cups but it’s easier to remember to drink if you’ve got it with you.

3. A good book or magazine is a must!

4. Be prepared to disengage from the rest of the world for the day. There is no reception in the changing rooms, and using your phone in the pool and slumber areas is very discouraged.

5. Watch out for the sale dates and special offers on the website.

6. Don’t plan too much! The day whizzes by incredibly quickly and it’s meant to be about relaxation.

Stunning salads at Caffe Portico 

Have you discovered Caffe Portico yet? If not, get there now for Italian inspired cuisine – insulate, pasta, fritatte, pizza and antipasti.
Lincoln’s Steep Hill and High Street has an abundance of coffee and cake shops and the usual high street chains. If you are looking for something completely unique with guaranteed super-fresh food sources from the best producers in Lincolnshire and Italy, then add Caffe Portico to your list.

I love this place. Every time I’ve visited I’ve been astounded by the quality, originality and variety of their menu. So to start with, Caffe Portico is tucked away in The Terrace on Grantham Street – a collection of independent business in a contemporary building behind Lincoln’s high street. Modern, smart and warm, the space buzzes with shoppers, parties and business people. Whilst I was in there, a few people from neighbouring offices popped in for their caffeine fix. One of the walls is dominated by an incredible textured cityscape. I challenge you not to go and touch it.

Caffe Portico’s point of difference? Well, there are many. They have chirpy, friendly staff who are so happy to give you recommendations and make suggestions about what to eat. Secondly, the provenance of their produce is super important to owner Sim Bellandini. Their Italian produce is imported specially and their coffee is a special roast made for them in Malton, North Yorkshire, whilst cakes are handmade just for them by Lisa and Lena. Sim is obviously proud of this, making a point to mention this on the menu.

I love that they are totally flexible too. Want a sandwich or salad that’s not listed? No problem – let the staff know what toppings you’d like and they’ll create something just for you. Or, you could opt for ‘surprise me’ to take the stress out of narrowing down and choosing from the extensive menu (which features delights such as home-pulled pork, wild boar ravioli, and chicken spezzatino with ciabatta).

On our visit their pizza oven, unique to Lincoln in that it’s in a van around the back of the kitchen, was working. Usually it is fired up on Friday evenings only but we were lucky enough that it was serving on that Saturday lunchtime. The pizza had the necessary crispy-thin base which still had some ‘chew’, and tasted divine. Topped with a fragrant, herby tomato sauce and balanced with just the right amount of mozzarella and slightly spicy pepperoni, it was delicious. Sim told me that he has quite a client base of local Italians too who visit just for the pizza – a sign that he is definitely doing something right pizza-wise.

Caffe Portico's wood-fired pizza oven at work
Caffe Portico’s wood-fired pizza oven at work
Wood-fired pizza oven at Caffe Portico, Lincoln
The amazing wood-fired pizza oven at Caffe Portico

For me, the salads definitely have to be the star of the show. As I mentioned, you can pick and choose any ingredients off the menu to top your salad, then the chefs choose a base and dressing to complement your flavours. I went for the waitress’s recommendation of the Roasted Mediterranean and Goat’s Cheese salad, but asked for added mushrooms. I cannot rave about my salad enough – surely at least 8 of my 5 a day?! The base was a mix of green salad leaves, green beans, slices of avocado, cherry tomatoes and peppers, baby sweet corn, celery, lightly-pickled cabbage, red onion and cucumber, with a light dressing of sweet balsamic. All of this was topped off with a generous helping of roasted vegetables – peppers, courgettes, aubergine, mushrooms – and a thick slice of a log of Goats’s Cheese, sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and served with a crusty breadstick. (Out of interest, previous salads have included olives, oven-dried tomatoes, carrot, beetroot, eggs, squash and sweet corn). Oh my gosh, I could eat it again right now.

Roasted Mediterranean vegetable and Goat's cheese salad at Caffe Portico
Roasted Mediterranean vegetable and Goat’s cheese salad

Sadly, the main courses were so huge that we couldn’t manage a dessert from the divine-looking selection in the chiller; I think a visit for just coffee and cake is on the cards – the raspberry and vanilla concoction looked amazing! 
Other items on the menu include a selection of antipasti, sharing platters, paninis, sandwiches, soup, quiches, pasta, a special breakfast menu, coffee and more.

So thats it; plan your visit! Oh, and it might be worth reserving your table; we were lucky to grab the last one. It’s a place to linger too, with papers and magazines provided to help you while away a few hours.

Look out for their special music evenings and, of course, their special Friday pizza nights. Follow them on Instagram and Facebook for event information and mouth-watering pictures of their food. Love. 

Pepperoni pizza at Caffe Portico
Pepperoni pizza at Caffe Portico

‘From Alsace to Yorkshire’ – learning to cook at Cooks at Carlton

This week I enjoyed the most inspiring, fun, hands-on day I’ve had in a while. My mother and I travelled over to the magnificent Carlton Towers, near Selby, North Yorkshire for a day of French cookery with Lionel Strub, of The Clarendon Hotel, Hebden. Here, we learnt how to make the most incredible French food that looked amazing and would be easy to replicate back home.


First up, a word about Cooks at Carlton. This cookery school has a very special feel, as it is housed in the former kitchens of the 17th century and absolutely glorious Carlton Towers. The servants quarters were quite literally shut up after the Second World War; the key was turned in the lock and there was no looking back. Carlton Towers was sad, isolated and uninhabited for years, until Lord Gerald Fitzalan Howard returned in 1990 and breathed a new lease of life into the building. His dream was to create a top quality, popular cookery school, and that’s just what has happened. When the quarters were ‘rediscovered’, there were still coals in the grate and the massive rooms were stuffed full of treasures and memories. Rather than sweep all of these aside, however, the rooms are sympathetic to their original use and features. The lovely thing is how passionate the Cooks team are about this too. They genuinely love to talk about the building’s past and this new chapter in its history. I loved how the original China was stored in a pantry cupboard, and how the room where we ate lunch – the Duchess’s Dining Room, was furnished with original pieces. I felt like I’d stepped back in time, and felt completely at home.


On to the course. A day’s learning at Cooks is an experience. On arrival, you draw up to the most beautiful building, then take the servants entrance under the grand stone staircase into a long, echoing stone corridor. You can see where the footsteps of hundreds of cooks, maids and footmen have worn away the flagstones over time. The atmosphere is warm, welcoming and conducive to exploring. After tea, coffee and chat with the other course students in the Housekeeper’s Sitting Room room, the school’s Development Director Elaine Lemm told us about the history of the building and the school. There followed a wonderful tour of the kitchens. Each room in the kitchen is now being used as close as possible to it original purpose; game and butchery classes are held in the game larder, the cool dairy is used for cheese making and pastry, and the Duchess’s Dining Room is used for lunch. Even better, the outbuildings are being out to fantastic use. A micro-brewery has been installed, and there are plans for a vineyard in the former kitchen garden.

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The kitchen at Cooks

Our course was led by Lionel Strub, who moved over to England from Alsace in 1987. A classically trained chef, he is an energetic, enthusiastic and personable teacher. The kitchen at Cooks has been thoughtfully designed to fit in with all of the original features but thoroughly modern and fit for purpose. It holds up to 12 students, but our class had only seven – a comfortable number which allowed us all to get individual attention. At Cooks, all of the equipment, ingredients and recipes are laid out ready to use, so the focus and time are spent on cooking and learning, rather than weighing and prepping.

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Beetroot bread

We started with beetroot bread. I had no idea how easy it would be to make. Forget the ten minutes of kneading – Lionel was happy with two! After smelling the delicious fresh yeast and crumbling it into s mixture of flours and salt, we grated in fresh beetroot – as much or as little as we wished. I wanted to make pink bread, so I added a lot. After a quick knead, it was left to prove whilst we got on with our chicken ballotine. Lionel whipped up a quick, easy Pommes Dauphinoise, then demonstrated how to make the ballotine stuffing. We fried bacon, garlic, shallot, mushroom and seasoning, then mixed this into sausage meat. The tricky part came next. I don’t usually eat or buy chicken thighs so was nervous when we were presented with some large joints of meat. It looked quite a complex procedure, but Lionel showed us twice and then left us to it. Breaking down the process into smaller sections helped, and I was rather pleased when I managed to get the leg joint out and end up with a reasonably neat looking piece of meat. The stuffing went in next, before the whole thing was wrapped up in cling film and popped into a Water bath of stock.  A quick coffee break, and we moved onto shaping the bread. Again, such a quick process! We knocked out all of the air, then shaped into whatever shape we wanted. I went for a plait –  channelling my inner Mary Berry I think.

Time to make our starter. Lionel had bought some home-smoked trout, which he showed us how to prepare into a divine tian with horseradish, cream cheese, seasoning, lemon and chives. Then it was time for a bit of restaurant-standard presentation. Thinly-sliced cucumber, moulded trout pâté, lemon, chive and a sliver of avocado all made this the most beautiful starter I’ve ever made. It was so easy to do, and I learnt a few tricks I’ll be using back home.

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Smoked trout tian with chives, avocado and cucumber

By this time, chicken, potatoes and bread were all done and it was time to eat! The Duchess’s Dining Room table was laid beautifully and we all gathered around to enjoy our cooking. The bread and terrine were a particular favourite, and the Pommes Dauphiniose was delightful. My chicken was good too but I found the stuffing a little heavy. I think I might use more vegetables and add in some soft cheese next time. I love how it was cooked though; the chicken was so moist and tender.

It was great to sit down with the other course students and continue the friendly, social atmosphere of the day.

Rest over, it was back to the kitchen to make the final dish of the day; Tarte aux Pommes. We made a basic shortcrust pastry, enriched with icing sugar, then lined some individual tins in the traditional French manner, crimping the edges so they stood proud of the tin. We then prepared sharp Bramley apples and a quick custard base – simply eggs, cream and sugar. It was refreshing that Lionel was so easygoing about measurements, just going with what he thought right. The filled tarts went straight into the oven, whilst Elaine took us on a tour of the house.

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Tartes aux pommes

It really is magnificent. Everything about it is on an impressive scale, yet it manages to retain a homely, welcoming feel. I loved that we had time to soak up the atmosphere and just enjoy being in the hoise. Rather than being a stately home, this has such a lived in feel, with personal bits and bobs dotted about. I just which we had been allowed to go up the ‘wibbly wobbly staircase’.

Sadly it was time to go home, armed with our recipes, beautiful Tartes aux Pommes and leftover pastry. Thank you Lionel, Elaine and all of the staff at Cooks at Carlton for a wonderful day. I can’t wait to try to out the dishes again at home.

New Year, new Pilates

So here it is, 2016. And with it, a new challenge. You might remember my blog post about pursuing a happier, healthier lifestyle and I’m so pleased to say that I’ve found something for which I’m passionate and excited. In February, I’m going to be starting an intensive course to become an accredited Pilates teacher, and I can’t wait.

Last May, and again in September, I was lucky enough to enjoy a fantastic week of yoga, Pilates and various other healthy pursuits on the glorious island of Lefkada, Greece. It really inspired me to actually do something about my lifestyle. I admired one teacher in particular, did some research and the result is that I’ve enrolled at Body Control Pilates in London and will start the course in a few weeks’ time.

I’m excited, apprehensive and cannot wait to be learning again. But in the meantime, I’m on a mission to become stronger and more flexible. Wish me luck!

book-bible

 

Time out in Cornwall; top ten things to do in the winter

Cornwall. Sea, cliffs, cream tea, time away from it all.

Last year I spent a wonderful September week in Cornwall. We were blessed with the most beautiful weather; the temperature hovered at around 25 degrees every day, winds were warm and light, and the sea was calm with waves gently lapping up on the  beaches. When we left, I physically yearned for the landscape and the way of life, so I was delighted to return this November. I firmly believe that if you like a place in November, you’ll like it all year around.

 

Looking out onto the Helford estuary  from Trebah beach, Cornwall
The stunning Helford estuary from Trebah beach
The Helford river from Mawnan Smith
Green fields roll down to the Helford estuary
Cornish sun near the Helford estuary
Enjoying the Cornish sun and wind near Mawnan Smith

Despite having wet, windy weather I loved it. And here are my top ten things to do to pass a short winter day in the Mawnan Smith and Falmouth area.

1. Spend an afternoon at Trebah Garden. These sub-tropical gardens, just 20 minutes’ drive from Falmouth, reach down a sheltered garden to the south coast of Cornwall. November isn’t known for its stunning plants, but even at this time of the year there was plenty to keep my interest. From a forest of gunnera, sheltering under their own cut leaves from the colder weather, to passage-ways of succulent, fresh green bamboo, the walk down to the beach is full of different areas to explore. And the hydrangeas are still in bloom. I loved the zig-zag walk and really wanted to know why the various areas are so whimsically named – Alice’s seat and Petry’s path. If you’re a history enthusiast, you can’t fail to be interested in the garden’s previous owners – ranging from the Donald Healey, racing driver and car designer, the Healey of Austin Healey cars (who built a special road using stone from the beach to build Healey’s Hill – to zip down to the beach on in his car), to Major Tony Hibbert, a prominent hero of Arnhem. And from the beach, American troops embarked for the D-Day landings at Omaha.

Gunnera at Trebah
Gunnera bed down for the winter at Trebah
Helford from Trebah
Waves lap onto Trebah beach
Fuschia at Trebah
A splash of pink fuschia at Trebah

 

2. Sunset-spotting at Porthleven. At this time of year, a visit at around 4pm will offer you the most fantastic sunsets over the harbour. The wind was up, so the waves coming over the harbour wall were spectacular and the strong breeze was refreshing and invigorating. After an energizing  tramp along the sea wall, you can treat yourselves to some word-class food courtesy of Kota (get there early to take advantage of the set menu deal). Oh, and the owners are perhaps the friendliest restaurateurs you could hope to meet.

Sunset at sea. at Porthleven
Sunset out to sea at Porthleven
Stormy seas at sunset at Porthleven
Stormy seas hitting the beach at Porthleven
Coast at Porthleven
Open sea and menacing sky at Porthleven

 

3. Jogging along the south west coast path. Hopping out of bed and pulling on running gear on a cool winter morning may not be at the top of your list, but can you resist an early morning jog along the deserted coastal path to set you up for the day? As well as working up an appetite for Cornwall’s local food, you’ll be able to get unbeatable views across the Helford estuary, spot some late blackberries and sloes and glimpse the beautiful gardens of Glendurgan and Trebah.

Trerose estate, Cornwall
Sunny skies after a morning run

 

Coastal path, Cornwall
Jogging towards the coastal path

 

4. Cream tea at Meudon Hotel. It’s not in many places where your afternoon tea hosts will join you for a chat as you sip tea and eat scones, jam and cream. At the Meudon Hotel, choose to sit in the garden (it’s a sun-trap so even in November a sun-drenched spot is comfortably warm) or on the Deck to enjoy the well-maintained garden which leads down to the sea. The cream comes from the Rodda’s dairies – and the milk comes from the cows in the surrounding fields. Scones are warm and freshly-made, and the waiters are full of local knowledge and happy to tell you all about the history of the massive estates in the area.

Cream tea at Meudon Hotel, Cornwall
The epic cream tea at Meudon Hotel
The garden at Meudon Hotel, Cornwall
The garden at Meudon – beautiful even in November
Rodda's clotted cream
Rodda’s clotted cream – so thick and delicious

5. Wave-dodging at Mullion Cove. It’s windy, wild, and breath-taking. Look one way, and you’ll see a quaint English harbour; look the other, and you’ll see cliffs and rocks emerging from a turbulent sea, waves crashing around them in a violent, awe-inspiring way. Unmissable (but wrap up warm).

Stormy seas at Mullion Cove
Sea crashing at Mullion Cove
Sea at Mullion Cove
Mullion harbour
Mullion harbour
The sound of the waves at Mullion was deafening

 

6. Dawdling around Padstow. It may be small and full of Rick Stein’s restaurants, but Padstow has everything; a well-maintained coastal path for walking, local gift shops and fudge parlours, a working harbour full of trawlers, clothes shopping, the best local tea-room serving Tregothnan tea (the first UK tea produced) AND a cottage called Cwtch Cottage – tr. ‘hug’ cottage.

Padstow harbour
Padstow’s picturesque harbour
Padstow harbour
Colourful boats in Padstow’s working harbour
Seagull in Padstow
Hello Mr Seagull
Cwtch cottage in Padstow, Cornwall
Fancy a cwtch?

 

7. A day in St Ives. Park at Lelant Saltings and you can enjoy the most picturesque train journey in Britain, hugging the southern coastline. In St Ives, take time to explore the RNLI lifeboat station, then take a walk to the other side of town to watch the surfers push their own boundaries and brave the sea.

St Ives
View of St Ives from the train station
Sea at St Ives
Look closely and you can see surfers
RNLI lifeboat at St Ives
The lifeboat ready for launching
Gingerbread biscuits in St Ives
Gingerbread family at St Ives

8. St Michael’s Mount. Exposed, glorious, magnificent. You can just absorb the view from the mainland, or walk across the causeway to explore the tiny town.

9. Sit. And watch the sea rolling in. Spectacular in the winter storms, soothing in calmer weather. It will soothe your soul.

Gentle waves
Calming

10. And finally… fill your tum with some top-quality fish and chips (they do kale too if you ask) in Falmouth then head up onto the cliffs near Mawnan Smith for some star-spotting. In a place so dark, the sky appears deep velvety blue and the stars shine bright.

Logs carved into seats, Trerose
Take a seat and we’ll start the story
Trees at Trerose
The most inspiring tree-scape
Trerose viee
The view to wake up to

 

Slow down for sloe gin

It’s dark. It’s cold. The clocks have gone back. We have five months of gloomy nights and chilly days ahead. But wait! What’s that dusky blue berry scattered over the hedgerows? It’s the sloe berry. And within its bloomed skin lies the secret to the purple, gloriously rich syrupy nectar otherwise known as sloe gin. Despite its dry, sour, tongue-drying taste, the berry imparts the richest of flavours to acerbic gin. Making your own is the perfect way to while away a sunny autumn afternoon. Knowing that a bottle of sloe gin is hidden away, slowly maturing in time for Christmas drinking, makes Autumn a lot more palatable. Try this, and see if you agree.

Sloe berries
Sloe berries

Ingredients
Fresh sloe berries
50g caster sugar
70 cl good quality gin
1 litre gin bottle

Equipment
Small bottles
Muslim cloth
Ribbon
Brown luggage tags
Silver pen

Method
Get outside and gather an empty icecream tub or two takeaway containers of sloe berries. You’ll find these on wild blackthorn trees.
Carefully rinse the berries and spread out to dry. Prick each berry several times with a clean pin.
Sterilise the empty 1 litre bottles, then half fill with the berries.
Top it up with gin and add the sugar.
Seal tightly and shake well.
Put it in a dark cupboard and shake it well every other day.
After 6 weeks, strain through a muslin cloth.
Sterilise the small gift bottles and decant the gin into them.
Label with the luggage tags and give as gifts.