Tag Archives: the boy

On the hunt for standout wines: Virgin Wine Fest 2012

26 Oct

It’s amazing how quickly a year can fly by. This year, in particular, I’ve felt has been sped up by some time-controlling madman.

And so it was with surprise that I found myself consulting my diary recently only to find the Virgin Wine Festival had come around again.

Last year, the boy and I headed there with zealous joy – a whole day of wine tasting at the Royal Horticultural Halls seemed too good to miss. And at £15 a ticket, a few hundred other people seemed to wholeheartedly agree.

This year, Virgin had decided to up its pedigree and move events to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Aldwych for its eighth annual festival. As a change, the event was held on two days – a shorter evening slot on the Friday, followed by a five hour session on the Saturday. As we couldn’t attend the longer one, we showed up Friday evening (at 6pm on the dot, just as the doors opened) to try out what was on offer.

The evening event had fewer wines and was held in a smaller section of the hotel’s Palm Court room. Regardless, with 97 wines on the list, there was more than enough to satisfy the taste buds for three hours.

Using our (highly technical) check-mark system (with an X meaning the wine is a no go through to three ticks, symbolising a stand out wine) we proceeded to fill our glasses repeatedly to really get a feel for the online wine company’s offerings.

This year, I found a greater proportion of highly rated wines than last. Maybe it was just good luck, but a vast majority of the wines received two ticks rather than an X.

Of those I tried, my favourite five were the following:

  • Finca Manzanos Seleccion de la Familia Rioja: Of the five wines on offer from Finca Manzanos, this one stood out for me. It smelled of autumn: brambles, wet leaves and crisp air. But there was also an exuding warmth from this – no don’t borne from the beautiful setting on which it’s grown: a plateau overlooking the confluence of the Ega and Ebro rivers in northern Spain. It wasn’t overly heavy, and could be considered a good wine for sipping on a cool, autumn late afternoon. It retails at £9.99.
  • De Martino 347 Carmenere Reserva 2010: I’ve recently become a growing fan of Carmenere, which is a big change since I used to rule out any wines from Chile after having many an unpleasant one from that country. One of my friends, however, is a big advocate after spending time in Chile and she introduced me to this grape varietal. This wine from De Martino is highly drinkable and comes from the highest vineyards in that country. It was bold without being too harsh on the palate, coming across with flavours of plump fruit and vanilla. A great wine to have with friends during an evening meal. It costs £9.99.
  • Reina Mora Special Selection Malbec Bonarda 2011: Like Chilean wines, Malbec is one I quickly avoid if I see it coming near my glass. I’ve had many that overwhelm my mouth with a distinct bitter, smokiness that I just don’t enjoy. But, never one to give up on a drink entirely, I gave this wine from Argentina a go. And I was surprised. It was far fruitier than any Malbec I’d tried in the past and softer on the taste buds as well. It was bold and fruity, but it wasn’t at all pungent. The boy gave it the thumbs up as well. It will set you back £8.99.
  • Laurent Espinasse La Cote Sauvage 2010: This is produced by small winery, which has been nurtured by Gavin Crisfield, a Englishman who fled from his job as a sommelier at top hotels here to become a winemaker in the Languedoc. I enjoyed many of his range, whose grapes come from various small producers in the region, but this was my favourite of the bunch. Grown at 500 metres above sea level, this was a perfectly balanced, black current, berry and bramble wine with heart. It’s one to sit back with and sip with a loved one after a long day. It costs £11.99.
  • Finca Las Moras 3 Valleys Gran Shiraz 2006: Continuing a theme of loving South American red wines that evening, this was one of the stand outs for me of all the ones I tried. Made in Argentina from a combination of grapes from three Shiraz growing valleys (the Pedernal, Zonda and Tulum Valleys) this was a belter of a wine – really bold and brash, and definitely crying out to be paired with a rare steak. It was slightly smoky with great fruity overtones. I loved it. I think it will be on my Christmas dinner list though, as it’s more of a ‘special occasion’ wine at the cost of £19.99 a bottle.

There were, of course, many other great wines but these five really caught my eye. The boy was slightly more lax in his tick system, preferring to focus on refilling his glass than on rating the wines – which makes perfect sense, since that’s what we were there to do. I look forward to discovering more from Virgin wines. It’s ever so pleasurable!

Thank you to Virgin Wines for inviting the boy and I along to try some fantastic wines. For more information on Virgin Wines and its suppliers, visit: http://www.virginwines.co.uk

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Gin, jazz and teacups – The Langham’s Palace

24 Sep

A London gin palace of the 19th century.

In the early 19th century, gin palaces were all the rage. They sprouted up like mushrooms around London, pulling lovers of ‘mother’s ruin’ easily into their web and fascinating people with their use of gas lights both inside and outside of their buildings. They were known for being overly inviting, with riche interiors, and were – along with the huge numbers of beer houses – responsible for helping many on their way to drunkenness.

Fast forward nearly 200 years and one of London’s most luxurious hotels – The Langham – has resurrected that 1820s style by installing a Sipsmith ‘gin palace’ in the hotel’s Palm Court, an opulent ground-level tea room normally known for serving up teas and cakes.

The Langham’s version of a gin palace.

Now, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, patrons will be able to eschew petit fours and tea for hot jazz and G&Ts, concocted by Sipsmith’s master distiller, Jared Brown, and The Langham’s head mixologist Alex
Kratena.

The boy and I headed there on opening night to find out what it was all about.

Outside, throngs of teenage girls lined the pavement (an odd sight, indeed, until we realised a certain Canadian teen idol was stalking the floors). Once we’d realised they weren’t there to welcome us in, we headed into the grand, marble lobby and up into Palm Court. We could already hear the gentle reverberation of jazz as it drifted out the doorway and, once inside, we swiftly found a comfy chaired corner and coddled glasses of champagne to get the night going.

The room was dimly lit, with gold flecked walls picking up the sparkling lights from the oversized chandeliers. All around us, the well-heeled circulated the room with glasses of gin cocktails, while perfectly turned out waiters carried heavy looking, glass orbs filled with a bright orange liqueur that was being poured into tea cups. It seemed to be a cross between Victoriana and Alice in Wonderland.

After the first jazz set, we took a ‘turn about the room’ picking up some saucy, spicy ginger and lily cocktails on our way. Served in a leggy cocktail glass, this drink was sharp but satisfying, heating the taste buds with the gin and ginger combination, before ending with a wee sweet hint garnered from the lily cordial. It was delicious and if they had made cocktails like this in the early 19th century, I think there would have been even more turning towards the dark side of gin consumption.

With one cocktail down, we decided to have a rest in another lounging chair and opt for the teacup cocktail. Gin in a teacup – how could I resist?

This drink – called the Ginervistic – is made from a Dutch gin-style liqueur called Loyaal Zeer Oude, along with Sipsmith gin, lime and lemon juice, Champagne and The Langham syrup. It was mouth-puckeringly sharp – a bit too much for my taste. But, as the waves of sulty jazz rolled over us, and as I asked for a refill of my teacup, my taste buds became more accustomed to the bite of the drink.

When finally we decided to leave the cushy surroundings and head back into the chilling autumn air, it was with a sigh. The Langham does luxury like few others (maybe that’s why the Beibermeister – who the boy and I just missed apparently on our way to the loo – decides to rest his pop-fuelled self there). And the hotel’s gin palace is just as divine. Cocktails are of the higher-end London varietal (£15) but if you can spare the change, I recommend taking in the surroundings over just one cocktail and allowing yourself to be transported back to a bygone age. After all, it’s not everyday you’ll drink gin from Wedgwood china.

For more information on The Langham’s Gin Palace at Palm Court, visit: http://www.palm-court.co.uk/#/gin-palace/

Wok and Wolling!

25 Aug

The question of what a person wants for his or her birthday is always a tricky one.

So when the boy asked me what might hit the mark, I threw it back to his court, not wanting to be put in the driver’s seat. My only suggestion: something different that we can both learn from.

And on my birthday day, that’s exactly what I found wrapped up for me. A class for two to learn to make dim sum at the aptly named, School of Wok in Covent Garden – the boy done good!

The school is a new addition to Chandos Place, having been set up in late June by Jeremy Pang. He began cooking after deciding to change his career path in 2009 and retrain as a chef. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu and doing extended visits to Hong Kong (where his family originates), Jeremy set up a mobile cooking school which rented space from places like Ping Pong to teach corporate guests to make dim sum and stir fry.

Jeremy shows us how to get woking…

It’s not necessarily surprising that Jeremy would be drawn to this arena – his father’s family immigrated to England in the ’60s and started up some of the first restaurants in London’s Chinatown, while his mother’s family started up the well known Ho’s bakery in Manchester. Cooking – it seems – is definitely in his blood.

Much of his inspiration comes from what he learned growing up around restaurants and in the kitchen with his family and he has an exuberance that’s hard to miss. He’s also very informal and welcoming, which made us feel relaxed as soon as we entered the school on a hot summer evening.

The cooking menu for the night included glutinous rice in lotus leaves, crisp prawn and tofu rolls, Jiaozi and BBQ spare ribs. I’d barely eaten anything all day in preparation, a fact I was very glad of later.

We were joined by two other couples – a perfect class size really – and Jeremy began by taking us through the staple ingredients that are present in flavouring much Cantonese cuisine: soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, sesame oil and ketchup.

“The British left two things behind in Hong Kong and one of these was ketchup,” he clarified.

We then got to marinating some mighty and meaty shortribs in a combination of those ingredients plus other

The boy works up the courage to woll some dumplings!

delicious things like garlic, ginger and hoi sin sauce before moving quickly onto learning about lotus leaves.

Standing around the chunky wooden chopping station, dressed in our very cool School of Wok aprons, we learned to separate and work with this delicate, pungent leaf. Glutinous rice had already been soaking for two hours in cold water, and was then mixed with salt, pepper and garlic oil to be steamed for 20 minutes. We then mixed our meats (chicken thighs and chinese sausage) with rehydrated black mushrooms and a rich marinade before it was whisked away to be cooked on the grill. When both the rice and meat were done, it was laid out on small squares of the lotus leaf and wrapped to be steamed for another 20 minutes.

As a reward for completing our first two dishes, Jeremy dished out the wine – as we learned, to up our courage to make homemade jiazi (or as the Japanese term them, gyoza). These dumplings are easy to devour down but don’t be fooled into thinking they’re easy to construct.

Filled with pork, prawns, coriander, garlic and ginger (among other aromatic ingredients) these are some of my favourite dumplings. I soon learned, they do not love me.

The dough is made from two simple ingredients: flour and water. After mixing and folding, it’s kneaded for five minutes until elastic. We learned to do them fully from scratch, which included taking small balls, squashing them into a circular fashion, and using a two-hand technique whereby you turn the circle with your left hand while using a small amount of pressure on a little rolling pin to roll the edges with your right hand. It is mystifyingly difficult – or, at least for me it was. The boy won praises from Jeremy for his perfect-edged dough circles, while I just puzzled him. I think I made one that looked right out of the 30 I tried over an hour long period.

These small circles of dough are then filled with the meat, before being folded over and pinched together into a half-moon shape, fried and steamed. They were delicious, but all the wine in the world couldn’t have made me confident enough to get them right!

Just some of our delicious creations.

We also added beancurd rolls to our list of accomplishments that evening – these are filled with mashed prawn and bamboo shoots before being deep fried. Delicious!

When finally we got to sit, we’d been cooking for a full-on three and a half hours. While the class is only meant to last for three hours, it was clear Jeremy cared more about getting us to learn the full extent of cooking than to rush us out the door.

Over more glasses of wine, the group sat down to a very big, and very well deserved, meal. I’ll never look at dim sum quite the same but I will look forward to trying all of these at home again.

I can’t recommend Jeremy’s classes enough – it was a great way to pass an evening. And if you’re on the hunt for a birthday present to please, this is definitely one to consider.

For more information on the School of Wok, its classes and upcoming events, visit: http://www.schoolofwok.co.uk

Highland Adventure: Applecross to Skye

2 May

How peaceful it must be to be a Highland cow munching away on a cliff top with no realisation of just how deadly a slip off the edge would be. Although the photo does not illustrate this, behind them is not a gentle rolling hill but a vertical plunge to the Loch. Unfortunately, I am not like the Highland cow – instead, I am horrendously fearful of horrendously edged drops.

This was highlighted wholeheartedly as the boy and I made our way around the Applecross Road, which runs around the Applecross Peninsula. Seen as one of the most dramatic roads in Scotland, the single-track route takes drivers 2000 feet up the side of a mountain. Complete with “passing points” every few dozen metres, the road is winding, narrow and terrifying to those (like me) who are petrified of cliffs.

As such, I spent most of the 45 minutes as we inched along the route clenching desperately to the car’s seat, heart palpitating, palms sweaty. Oh, to be an unaware Highland cow.

Despite this, the route is incredible. After you climb to the top through the ever-increasing mist and fog, you snake your way back down and glimpse the spreading loch in front…it’s hard not to be mesmerised.

Through the mist and rain, the loch appears below the snaking roads.

When finally we emerged from the mountain’s grip, we continued on our way to the Isle of Skye. We had a distillery to visit!

As we drove through the small town Kyle of Lochalsh I saw the Skye Bridge illuminated in the crisp sunlight. Finally the fog had cleared and the arcing structure gleamed enticingly. Crossing over Loch Alsh, we could see for miles into the picturesque distance: mountains, shimmering azure water and gently moving boats. At the top of the bridge’s arc, the whole of the windscreen was filled with this image, eliminating any of the bridge’s structure so it almost felt like we were floating. I’ve never become quite so worked up over a bridge. But maybe it was just the final release of emotion after the terrifying drive.

Entering onto Skye is like finding yourself in the middle of an alien planet. Mars-like red earth contrasts with sharp-edged grey stones. The winding roads seem almost out of place, as if they’ve been rudely carved into this beast of a landscape.

An hour of driving later and we reached our destination: Talisker distillery at Carbost. There we were meeting Mark Lochhead, the distillery manager.

Mark has worked for Talisker for just over three years and been in the industry for 25. After a quick cuppa and chat, he took us around the distillery, showing us the whole process in detail, from mashing, to fermentation and distillation in the beautiful, copper stills.

The distillery brings in its barley pre-malted from Glen Ord, just north of Inverness. From there, everything is done on site. During our visit, the mashing and fermentation tubs weren’t in use, due to a water shortage from the springs at Hock Hill.

“I’ve got everyone doing rain-dances,” said Mark.

In the distillation room, we saw the oddly shaped stills, which are the only ones in Scotland to have a U-bend at the top, which increases the amount of copper contact the liquid has during distillation, and creates a lighter flavour in the whisky.

Finally, we stopped off at the cask warehouse, in which a proportion of the Talisker stock is housed for aging.

It was the boy’s first visit to a distillery and learning about the process from one end to the other was eye-opening, he said – a fact which I recommend anyone curious about whisky to take on board. Once you know about the process, it’s easier to become fascinated with the final product. The distillery, which is owned by Diageo, gets an astounding 55,000 visitors a year and will soon be expanding its visitors centre to keep up with demand so definitely check it out if you get the chance.

After the tour, we headed back up to Mark’s office to taste some Talisker drams – well, let me correct that. I tasted some stellar drams – the boy had a wee sip of a couple because he was driving.

We started with the new make spirit (the natural spirit before it is aged in oak barrels). It was briney, with hints of olives and fleshy fruit on the nose, and cigarettes, sweat and rubber on the palate.

Next was the creamy butterscotch smelling 10 year old. In the mouth was a delicious lemony and Werther’s Original flavour.

Then came the 18-year old: a long-time favourite of many whisky drinkers and a dram that is often sold out everywhere. This was slightly thicker on the nose, with deeper scents of caramel and fudge, while on the palate was an earthy, oily sweet taste with a hint of candied orange. Stunning!

The final dram was the 25-year old, which was much sharper: lemon and peat on the nose, and salt, sea, brine, almonds and smoke on the palate. One of my favourites.

The boy tried the 18-year old and, to my great joy, said he “finally got whisky” when he tasted it.

With a triumphant finish to the day, we said our goodbyes and headed back from where we came to the east side of the Isle of Skye, finally arriving at our next luxurious hotel: Duisdale House. But more on that later…

In part 4, the boy and I drown our tiredness in a four course meal and the luxuriousness of Duisdale House and navigate our way back to Inverness in the snow.

Highland Adventure: The Torridon

29 Apr

“I don’t want to leave,” I whined to the boy as I looked at the purple hued mountains that had finally cleared of mist.

“C’mon,” he said, grabbing my hand and nearly dragging me along the pavement due to my feet having firmly frozen themselves to the tarmac.

The Torridon Hotel at Loch Torridon

The day before we’d arrived at The Torridon hotel, which sits at the base of Loch Torridon in the far west of Scotland. A former stately home, the space has been converted into one of the most blissful places I have ever rested my head.

With crackling fires that beckon you in from the cold, to cosy drawing rooms filled with chess sets and walls lined with whisky, the Torridon exudes a certain level of relaxed opulence I have yet to find elsewhere in my travels.

The warming entrance with smoky, crackling fireplace.

In our room, which looked out onto the vast mountain landscape, was a bed so plush and high, I had to do a little leap up to get onto it. In the bathroom, a roll-top bath and REN products awaited to warm my bones, chilled from the feisty Highland air.

The view from our room at The Torridon

After settling in, we – like every guest – were treated to some lovely hot coffee and shortcake in the comfort of the drawing room. Tastefully decorated and holding on to a certain “classic” charm, the room is a welcome space to sit back in the large leather chairs and look out onto the manicured and misty gardens out front.

Coffee & delicious delights awaited us in the drawing room.

The Torridon has 58 acres at its disposal, which include long walking paths, gardens and a lochside boating launch. The boy and I put on our walking shoes and headed around the squelchy paths, taking in the fresh air so uncommonly found in Londontown. A kitchen garden, filled to the brim with various herbs, spices and veggies, was reassuring: everything that can be grown for the food served at the hotel’s AA three Rosette restaurant will be. That includes the friendly, shaggy highland cattle which munch happily nearby, not knowing their fate but at least allowed to roam and be as natural as any creature should be if it’s going to be eaten. There is a separate inn onsite which includes a pub. As it was Sunday, the boy and I stopped in for a swift pre-dinner pint – a perfect remedy after all that muddy trekking.

A Highland Cattle soft toy in our room - just as cute as the real version!

But the final and, potentially, most rewarding part of the evening came with dinner: five courses of delectable delights starting with the sweetest mini eggs benedict amuse-bouche and a starter of creamy, sweet almond soup. A starter of handmade, juicy lobster and crab ravioli, and mains of tender guinea fowl and the best sea bass fillet I’ve ever had, followed.

The delicate yet fully flavoured food of the Torridon.

After dinner, over a raucous game of chess and a cheese platter, I sat back and thought about the day – how far we’d traveled in the rain and how warm I felt now. I can truly say, the stress had completely left me by this point and I think it was the most relaxed I’d felt in months.

Chess and cheese: my kind of night!

Next time, I become shaky with nerves over the bends along the Applecross Way, feel weepy at the sight of the Isle of Skye Bridge, try some amazing Talisker whisky and land at another delightful hotel…

Thank you to the Torridon for hosting the boy and I. For more information on the hotel, its activities and rates, visit: http://www.thetorridon.com

Luxurious Lusciousness of a Palatial Stay

29 Feb

The rather opulent entrance for the Kempinski Hotel Dukes' Palace

It’s not every day you get to stay in a former palace. In fact, it’s really so much rarer than it was in, say, the 15th century.

So it was with great excitement that the boy and I recently headed to the Kempinski Hotel Dukes’ Palace in Bruges. I was doing a review of it for the Arbuturian magazine and we were determined to soak in all the luxuriousness of the hotel’s surroundings during our stay.

Now, I’m not exaggerating. The hotel really is a former palace. It was built in the late 15th century by Philip the Good, a duke of Normandy, for his wife, Isabella of Portugal, and served as their family’s home until the 17th century.

More than 500 years on, after a six-year renovation, the hotel now acts as one of the top spots to stay in Bruges.

And it is a sight to see. With soaring turrets and a gold gated entrance, one feels regal just stepping onto the property grounds. Inside, a stretching, swirling staircase catches the eye, while a modern-art inspired bar and lounge await just off the entrance.

A relaxing lounge awaits guests of the hotel

Up the stairs, one finds floor after floor featuring extensive stained glass windows that look out onto the hotel’s frontage. I managed to catch a glimpse at sunset and, pausing in silent wonderment, I breathed a quiet sigh as the white tower began turning gold and pink.

The hotel's grand turret

On a tour of the hotel, I found the stained glass and historical elements continue throughout – downstairs sits a chapel, in which classical concerts are sometimes held. Every surface still holds frescoes painted when the palace was first built, while a gargantuan stained glass window flicks green, gold, blue and red lighting around the room through its panels.

Our room – in the old part of the hotel – reminded me of my own internalised visions of how the Tudors lived: over-sized feather bed, gold and red striped walls and lounge chairs, heavy bronze hanging drapes. The only difference: the Tudors were unlikely to have such a grand bathroom with soaker tub, rain shower and heated floors. Pure and utter opulence.

A giant pink poodle watches over the grounds

A look outside of the petite windows revealed an Alice in Wonderland scene: large tables sat amongst the trimmed green grounds flecked with snow, while a giant pink poodle (a recent installment) watched over it all.

The boy sits down to a brekkie fit for a king!

But one of the best parts came the next morning. Having never had room service in a 5* hotel before, I thought it would be a real treat to finish up our stay in Bruges. And so, as the boy and I sat in the plump chairs in our cushy bathrobes, drinking champagne and eating eggs, I realised this was about as pleasurable as it gets in a hotel. Or, I should say, as pleasurable as it gets in a palace.

The boy and I were guests of the Kempinski Hotel Dukes’ Palace. For more information about the hotel, rates and history, see: http://www.kempinski.com/en/bruges/

A Frozen Foot Solution

27 Feb

I could feel the plastic bag sliding around my feet as I concentrated on not falling over on the ice. Slip, slide, crinkle, crunch. I clenched my toes to give myself more grip and felt happy at least for one thing: my feet were warm.

Having arrived in Bruges earlier in the day, the boy and I were freezing. We’d come ill-prepared: he in his Converse sneakers and me in my leaking boots. It was far below zero and we hadn’t experienced temperatures like this for a long time.

When we’d made plans to come to the medieval Belgian town, I’d envisioned fluffy snowflakes falling to create a fantastical scene and romantic strolls across the town’s many bridges lining the canal. But I’d underestimated just how cold it would be.

The boy feeling very cold by the frozen canal

Luckily we weren’t alone – our four other friends along for the journey were also lacking sufficient layers or protective shoes to fight the freeze. So, instead of sight-seeing, we spent much of our time holed up in the bars of Bruges, drinking beer (which I discuss in this post, here).

But, there was still ample time to find myself laden with frozen, wet feet. There were the walks between the bars and back and forth to our abode, after all.

So what was my solution?

I went for the homeless-chic look.

Buildings beside the frozen canal

Given the big problem was waterproofing, I thought about what keeps water out of things. And since I couldn’t wrap an umbrella around my feet, I opted instead for the humble plastic bag.

After warming my socks on the radiator, I slid into their heated comfort and quickly enveloped my feet into Sainsbury’s bags before putting on my boots (warmed first with a hair-dryer).

Now, I will admit: I may have had one or two of those strong Bruges beers before this burst of invention, but I still think it was ingenious.

Walking out into the icy night, I decided I was not only a genius, but a bit of a fashionista too.

Unfortunately, I have no photo evidence of my great invention. But I will say my feet stayed dry for the rest of the trip. And let me tell you: when it’s absolutely freezing and you manage to keep your feet toasty, it is incredibly pleasing!

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