Category: Food

London – eating out and sightseeing on a budget

London

It doesn’t have to be expensive to explore this great city. As our daughter lives there the DH and I get free accommodation and that helps to bring the cost of a weekend down, but what we have noticed recently is that eating and drinking in London is not so nearly as expensive as it used to be. If you aren’t as lucky as us to have a friend or relative to stay with, you could consider housesitting in London and get free accommodation that way. Alternatively, look for cheap deals at some of the budget chain hotels such as Premier Hub or pubs with rooms such as The Tommyfield (see food review below for the link).

London is the city I was born in

So I know the city well. And I lived and worked there as an adult. I lived in Holland Park, Chelsea and Wembley in the 60’s until family circumstances resulted in me moving to Birmingham in 1966 where I lived until I was 18. In 1980, after graduating from Bristol Poly I moved back to London to live in Balham. In those days a Black Cab wouldn’t go south of the river. A lot has changed since then.

London has the biggest construction site in Europe (probably)

Our daughter lives in Stockwell. And now, Black Cabs most certainly go south of the river. Where she lives, on the Wandsworth Road, is the edge of what is possibly the biggest construction site in Europe. Nine Elms/Vauxhall will have a new London Underground station. The new American Embassy is under construction, Battersea Power Station is being redeveloped and there are multiple other buildings going up.

It has been just over a year since the DH and I last visited.  We were astonished at the number of buildings that have shot up and the numerous cranes that fill the skyline. Oh how we and many others wished we had bought property here ten years ago.

Stockwell

Where the DD lives there is a large Portuguese community. Just opposite her apartment block there are a number of popular restaurants and I have heard that sometimes a famous footballer pops into one of them. This is what she got home to just last week. A vibrant community to live in.

Where to eat in London

Eating out doesn’t have to be expensive. If you know where to go. Having spent two weekends there recently I thought I would share a few places to go to eat and drink and visit that won’t put too much of a dent in the wallet.

Sunday Lunch in Lambeth

The Black Prince. The DD’s partner reckons the Sunday Lunch here is as good as (if not better than) his mom’s Sunday Lunch. And he is not wrong. A generous roast beef with fresh veg and enormous Yorkshire puddings all for  £12.50.

 

Guest Ale was £4 per pint.

The pudding menu is short and sweet. A Sundae on a Sunday. Why not?

The Black Prince is a good old fashioned South London pub with excellent beer and a great Sunday Lunch.

It is also the pub in the fight scene in the film Kingsman The Secret Service. So if visiting film locations, good beer and a Sunday Roast is your thing, this is the pub for you.

Dinner in Vauxhall

Carrying on with the Secret Service theme, just up the road from the bus and tube station at Vauxhall,  located in one of the railway arches on Vauxhall Embankment is Pico. It is family run and when we were there late afternoon (we eat at odd times sometimes) all the staff were tucking into their meals before the busy Friday evening rush. Located just opposite to the most un secret, secret service building in London (MI6) Friday night can be busy and full of staff from that office. Or so I am told.

The food is fantastic. The service is delightfully old school, friendly efficient and the portions are huge. Lots of meat on the menu (my lamb chops were wonderful) and the veggie daughter had a vegetable paella. There is a bar at the front and a more formal dining area to the rear. You will hear the rumble of trains overhead. Love it.

Breakfast in Lambeth

The Tea House Theatre

Based in an old Victorian public house that opened in 1886 on the site of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens; immortalised as the ‘Vanity Fair’ in Thackeray’s eponymous novel.

Go for brunch. Go for tea. Go for cakes.

Do not ask for coffee.

It is a tea house.

A full English is £10.  Smashed avo and poached eggs £8. Eggs Benedict £7.

Portions are generous. The decor is eclectic. The cakes look amazing. The Tea House Theatre is just behind the railway arches where Pico is based and a few minutes walk from Vauxhall bus station. Afterwards go for a wander around the park and you may see the dragon carved from a log.

Then walk off brunch with a visit the city farm (see below in free things to do in London).

Lunch in Kennington

The Tommyfield Pub and Hotel Kennington

This was a new discovery for the DD and her partner. We planned to go to The Black Prince for lunch but it was Bank Holiday Monday and they only had the basic menu (no roasts) and The Tommyfield had a roast and an extensive menu – so we thought we would try it out.

The Tommyfield has speciality pies, burgers, roasts and the DD was overwhelmed at having a wide choice of imaginative vegetarian food, including a pie.

A pint of Goose Island was £4.10 and a bottle of Pinot Grigio was £21.

Roast beef £15, Lamb Burger £13.50 and the veggie pie £13.50. Lots of delicious puds including a combo of port and pudding and a speciality tea. Good portions and well presented.

They also have rooms with rates between £109 and £149 per night. I reckon this is a good base for a weekend break in London. Good transport links to central London and it is walkable to Westminster. And cabs now go south of the river.

The best chips in London?

Fish and Chips at Poppies

The best fish and chips in London? Probably. Fish fresh from Billingsgate Market. There is eat in and take away.

Poppies is a real find. Recommended by my Australian friend and my daughter this is just around the corner from Brick Lane. So if you don’t fancy a curry, have chips here.

Cod and chips starts at £12.50. There is also free range chicken from £8.90, served with chips and gravy. Poppies is decorated in 50’s style, and has an authentic retro feel to it. Go.

Vaulty Towers

Do try the Lily The Pink cider. The DH and I had to explain who Lily the Pink was to our daughter and took it on ourselves to explain to the barman too.  All the furniture is used in sets at their nearby theatre. And there is a secret room. Vaulty Towers is bonkers. In a good way. The food is not too pricy and the sweet potato chips go well with a pint.

Dinner in South Kensington

Franco Manca

It was late (9.30pm is late for English people to eat) we were tired (3 hours at the Pink Floyd exhibition) we were hungry. And we were in South Ken. What to do? Go back to Stockwell and eat even later or find somewhere affordable in South Ken?

We looked around, a fair few Italian restaurants, some chains, we almost defaulted to a Burger at Byron, when I spotted Franco Manca next door. I had filed away this place to visit if we were ever in the area and here we were.

They only do pizza, no faffing, it is pizza or pizza. You may end up sharing a table. If you end up with two drunk posh boys like we did, move tables. And seriously that was the only thing wrong with this place. The tiddly toffs.

That aside.

The pizza. Franco Manca serve probably the best pizza in London and the best I have had since the memorable one in Naples.

Beer and cider. No logo.

£21. Twenty One Pounds. That is all.

And it was very good. Go. Staff were lovely. Food is excellent. South Ken crowd is eclectic on a Saturday night at 10pm.

And then we caught the bus home. Because bus is my favourite way to travel in London. The underground may be fast and convenient but it is also hot and crowded. And all you see  is walls. With the bus you get to ride over the bridges of the Thames and you get to see the city. Go by bus.

Free things to do in London

There is so much to do in London that is free. If you are strapped for cash and can’t afford the Tower of London, Buck House or The Shard and the thought of the crowds puts you off, here are a few places I visited recently. All free.

Vauxhall City Farm

Animals. Horse riding. A cafe. Vauxhall. Great for families. A great way to spend Sunday morning.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

We were there for the Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains exhibition. We will return to see more of this museum next time. Seriously stunning building. Entrance to the museum is free – additional exhibitions such as this one do have an entrance fee.

Victoria and Albert Museum

Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains London

The Geffrye Museum of the Home

The history of a English homes from 1600 to the present day. Whenever you were born you will see something from your childhood home here. They also have a great cafe with excellent cakes. Free entry to the museum.

Geffrye Museum London

The Imperial War Museum

Telling the stories of people’s experiences of modern war from WW1 to conflicts today. Moving and informative. The WW2 exhibition is outstanding. A good way to bring history alive. The museum also has a good cafe. Entrance is free but there are some chargeable exhibitions.

Imperial War Museum London

The British Museum

Stunning. Wear comfortable shoes. We were there on a Bank Holiday weekend. This was a mistake and everyone wanted to see the Egyptians and the Rosetta Stone. Escape to a quieter gallery if this happens to you. Stunning building and an amazing collection. Free entry with additional chargeable exhibitions.

British Museum London

British Museum London

Spitalfields and Brick Lane

We wandered around here after lunch at Poppies. Brick Lane is now famous for its curry houses. It is a vibrant place with lots of great street art. The market is huge and sells vintage clothes and collectables – and has a lot of chain eateries too. A great place to browse. There are also some great pubs nearby to try and designer shopping.

Spitalfields London

The Banksy Tunnel – Leake Street Waterloo

We visited this after a drink at Vaulty Towers. Wow. Up there with the laneways of Melbourne.

Leake Street Waterloo Graffiti London

We saw some amazing street art in London. Take your camera, take your Oyster card (or debit card) and go photograph this amazing city.

As Samuel Johnson said:

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.
 

  • British Museum London

Easy Pizza

Who doesn’t love pizza?

I remember going to Pizza Land (I think it was Pizza Land) on New Street in Birmingham. It was the mid seventies, and this was date night with my boyfriend. For us poor A level students this was a height of sophisticated dining. They had tablecloths and candles way back then. I think that was the first pizza I had ever tasted.

The UK was a bit of a food desert in the seventies (at least in Birmingham it was). We had heard there were Indian Restaurants in some parts of Birmingham (now the famous Balti Triangle) where you ate with your hands, but we didn’t go there because There Was No Cutlery. There were a few Chinese Takeaways where you got curry sauce and chips after the pub and your parents would take you out to a Berni Inn for a birthday treat.

His family would have none of that ‘foreign muck’ and were traditional and repetitive with their food choices, always steak on Thursday, roast for Sunday lunch and a proper Sunday tea with tinned salmon with limp lettuce and tasteless tomatoes, and evaporated cream from a tin poured over tinned fruit. My family were obsessed with Black Forest Gateaux and we’d go to all you can eat carveries, armed in advance with Tupperware to take the leftovers home.

As a way of rebelling against this blandness I introduced him to Vesta Curry. It was considered exotic and authentic and we happily rehydrated cubes of chicken and beef and boiled the bag of rice that accompanied it. We knew how to live in 1976.

With that culinary history it is a wonder that I ever managed to cook much more than beans on toast. But then I found Delia and set off to uni with a Kenwood Mixer that was my 18th birthday present.

There were a lot less supermarkets in the seventies.  I worked in Presto on the tills and I don’t recall anything more exotic than a pineapple and I am pretty sure you couldn’t buy a pizza. Of course, you can get hundreds of different pizza in the supermarket now, ranging from ‘value’ to ‘Specially Selected – yet many store bought ones have added ingredients that really shouldn’t be there and if you pay 99p for a pizza I guess that is to be expected. Of course you can order one online and get it delivered, which my son happily does – but I baulk at paying £12 for pizza that I can make at home.

Homemade Pizza

This recipe was given to me by my friend of 34 years standing, Anne. She and her daughter are excellent cooks and bakers. It does take some bread making skills and you do need to make the dough in advance. Unlike the naan it also needs proving time. This pizza gets the thumbs up from the son who usually orders in, and if you have veggie resistant children this is a good way to get them to eat more,  as when they decorate their own pizza they get tempted by the colourful peppers.

pizza

Ingredients
700 kg strong bread flour

1 packet dried yeast

Splosh of olive oil

250 ml cold water

250ml boiling water

pinch of salt

Topping for your pizza

2 tins of chopped tomatoes or a carton of passata

A couple of balls of mozzarella cheese, torn into small pieces and/or grated mozzarella

then, this is the fun bit, add what you want, this is not a definitive list

Bell peppers – as many colours you can find, chopped

1 onion, chopped I like to use red onion for colour

A selection of cold cooked meat – such as BBQ chicken, ham or chorizo – whatever you like

Pineapple

sliced tomatoes

basil

Prawns

BBQ sauce

Method

In a large bowl add the flour and yeast, then combine the hot and cold water so that it is hand hot, and gradually add it to the flour. Mix with your hands until it becomes a ball -not too dry nor too sticky – add additional flour or water if required, and continue to knead for about five minutes adding the oil to lift all the flour from the side of the bowl.

If you have a mixer with a dough hook you can add all the ingredients to the mixer bowl and let the machine take the strain. I used to but now I prefer to use my hands. It is very theraputic is kneading.

Cover with a cloth and leave to prove for about an hour.

While the dough is proving prepare the toppings. If using tinned tomatoes, simmer for about 20 minutes and let them go ocld.

Chop all the topping and put them in separate bowls so everyone can choose their own toppings.

After proving, divide the dough in half and leave one half in the bowl to prove again. You will be making a loaf with this half.

Set the oven to about Gas 8 or the setting appropriate to your oven – conversion chart here

With the other half of the dough, roll out on a baking sheet – floured or a sprinkling of semolina grains, which soaks up the moisture and gives you a crispy bottom.  You will get one large rectangular pizza this way – or you can divide the dough to two/three or four balls and roll out individual ones and transfer them to shallow cake tins or baking trays.

Spread the cold tomato sauce or passata over the base, choose the toppings, and put in a hot oven for around 15 to 20 minutes.

The other half of the dough will  have proved again by now, so after you take out your pizza, shape the spare dough on a baking tray, or pop it in a loaf tin and bake for around 30 minutes. The bottom should sound hollow when tapped when it is done.

Italian Pizza

 

 

 

 

 

Since I started making this I have had pizza at a place that James Martin reckons makes the best pizza in the world. He is not wrong. I strive to continually improve on my pizza dough. You can read about that pizza experience here.

 

 

 

 

 

Carrot, Potato and Coriander Soup

Soup is the ultimate winter comfort food

Soup in a mug

It so easy to make at home. And really cheap too.

I had a few potatoes and carrots in the fridge that needed using up. It is almost always cheaper to buy vegetables in bags rather than loose, in the supermarket at least. Markets too seem to be selling by the bowl, so it is easy to end up with a glut of veg in the fridge. Then you have to use them before they go soft, and, when there is only two of you in the house there is a risk that you end up with not so fresh veg that needs using up.

Once you have made this soup, experiment with other vegetables. Leek and potato is particularly good. Add some ginger, chilli or other spices if you want it to really warm you up.

My husband made this for me as I have had to be on a diet of soft food for a couple of days after a small op on my mouth. I am sipping small amounts from a mug as I write, and it is delicious. Great convalescence food if you have been ill or are fighting a cold.

Ingredients

Four medium potatoes

Six medium sized carrots

1 onion

1tsp of ground coriander

Vegetable stock cube (optional)

Seasoning to taste.

Method

Peel and chop all the vegetables up and gently fry in butter or a small amount of oil. Take care not to let them brown, just soften them.

Add the ground coriander.

Add a litre of water (and stock cube if using) and bring to the boil, then simmer until the vegetable are soft.

Let the soup cool then liquidise with a hand held stick blender.

Gently reheat, check the seasoning and serve with some fresh coriander if you have some.

 

Simple

And that is all there is to it. When I have made this soup in the past, I have always added a stock cube, but we had run out of them – and really it made no difference except that it needed seasoning with a little salt. Stock cubes usually have salt in them and if you use one you probably won’t need to add any extra salt. I don’t usually add potatoes either, but they needed using up and it gave the soup a thicker texture, more like a chowder.

All of the vegetables used are organic. I prefer to use organic where I can but I know that they are not always readily available and can be more expensive. Not so much if you buy them at Aldi though.

 

Naan Bread

Bread is easier to make than you think

Vintage Bread

 

I used to think it was complicated and manufacturers of bread making machines would have you believe so too. I am still a rookie at bread, and let me tell you this, make time to make bread. Don’t buy an expensive machine. Kneading dough, as Albert Smith of Ubuntu will tell you, is therapeutic. I have had the good fortune of being taught how to make bread by Albert when I commissioned him to deliver bread making skills for Smethwick CAN. Albert is currently featured in the Homemade in Smethwick  exhibition which is currently touring in Sandwell Libraries, so if you are local to the area, do go and see it.

Home Made in Smethwick: Liz Hingley

Through intimate portraits of individuals and families, Liz Hingley celebrates and documents the cultural diversity and the home cooking fusions of people living in the Victorian terraces of Smethwick, one of the most culturally diverse towns in England.

Back to the bread

I will share other bread recipes with you in the future. I chose this one first because if you have never made bread before and think you need complicated ingredients, rising time, tapping the bottom to check it sounds hollow – you know how Paul Hollywood make it all so difficult – well this ain’t that. Again I have to thank The Kitchen School and Smethwick Can Cook for this recipe.

Ingredients

250g plain flour

2 tsp sugar

1/2 tsp (half) salt

1/2 tsp baking powder 110 – 130 mls milk

2tsp vegetable oil plus extra for greasing

Herbs/garlic/sesame seeds for optional toppings

Method

Sift the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder into a large bowl.

In a small bowl or jug mix together the milk and oil.

Make a well in the centre of the flour mix and pour in the liquid mixture.

Slowly mix together the dough by working from the centre and incorporating the flour from the edges of the ‘well’ to make a smooth, soft dough. Knead well for 8 to 10 minutes, adding a little more flour if too sticky.

Place the dough in to an oiled bowl (I just splashed a bit of oil into the bowl I kneaded the dough in and kneaded it into the dough), cover with a damp tea towel (a clean one) and leave in a warm place for 10 – 15 minutes.

Divide the dough into 5 balls.

Preheat the grill to medium and place a heavy baking sheet on the upper shelf of the grill to heat.

Roll out the dough balls quite thinly, ideally in a teardrop shape, or a circle. Sprinkle over your chosen topping and press into the surface of the dough.

Place the naan onto the hot baking tray and grill for 1 – 2 minutes, or until lightly browned. Brush with melted butter or oil and serve.

Lentil dhal

 

 

 

 

 

I served mine with the dhal I made earlier this week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Lentil Dhal with Tomatoes

I love Lentils

I have store cupboard ingredients to use up. Some time ago I overstocked on lentils when they were half price in the local Co Op and I have been experimenting with dhal recipes for some months now. Some have been better than others. When I saw that Smethwick Can Cook had made a dhal, using a recipe by Jayne of The Kitchen School I requested the recipe. And it is the best dhal I have made so far. Not the best I have ever eaten I hasten to add as Dhal at Lentil as Anything is a hard act to beat.

Allow yourself plenty of time for the lentils to cook and keep an eye on them. A watched pot may never boil,  but take your eye off lentils for 5 minutes and they burn.

  • Lentil dhal

To make the Dhal

Ingredients

400 g red lentils

2 tsps turmeric

2 knobs of unsalted butter (or cooking oil if you are vegan)

2 tsps cumin seeds

1 small onion finely chopped

2 – 3 cloves of garlic finely chopped

1 – fresh green chillies finely sliced (remove seeds to reduce the heat of the chilli) or if like me you dont like it very hot add the chilli whole and pierce it with a knife

1tsp garam masala

1tsp ground coriander

thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, finely grated

2-3 fresh tomatoes, chopped into small pieces

Fresh coriander to garnish

All of these will be available in your local supermarket. However if you are lucky enough to have a small local shop that sells such ingredients it will be almost certainly be cheaper than most supermarkets. Cumin seeds in a jar from a supermarket were £1.25 in a local indie shop a large packet was 89p.

Method

First get all your ingredients prepared and measured out in advance before you start cooking. This was one lesson I learned when cooking with Jayne. I tend to be scatty and get things out as they are needed then realise I need a chopped onion and I thought I had one in the fridge and I don’t so have to run to the shops.

First rinse the lentils in a sieve a couple of times, then place them in a pan and cover with enough cold water to come about two inches above their surface. Bring to the boil and skim off any scum that rises to the top. Reduce to a simmer. Stir in the turmeric and a generous knob of butter. Cover and leave to cook gently.

In a small frying pan, dry-fry the cumin seeds over a gentle heat until toasted and fragrant (no more than a couple of minutes). Remove from the pan and set on one side.

Melt a second knob of butter in the same frying pan and gently fry the onions and  garlic until the garlic is golden then add the chillies, tomatoes and grated ginger. Add the toasted cumin seeds, garam masala and ground coriander.

Give the lentils a good stir. they should have the consistency of porridge – thicker than soup and looser than hummus.

Add more water if required. They can get thick very quickly with just a couple of minutes of cooking.  Then add the aromatic mix of spices and vegetables.

Season to taste.

Serve with basmati rice, a side of greens or some naan bread.

Garnish with fresh coriander.

More about lentils

Since I gave away most of my cookbooks I use the internet more than ever to find new recipes and cooking tips.

This BBC Good Food link about lentils is useful – I never know which lentil to use or why. You will find more information about lentils with links to other recipes.

 

 

 

Why I cook and why you should too

I share many photos of the food I cook

I love to cook, yet rarely share the recipes. Yesterday I posted photos of the dhal I was making and a friend asked for the recipe. Indeed that friend came round to the house today and took the left overs. Which got me thinking about adding recipes to the blog.

The recipes

Aware of copyright, the recipes I share will either be my own, or links to the recipes I use a lot. I have culled my cook book collection and use the internets more and more. I share recipes on Instagram and in a group on Facebook in an effort to share them and keep them handy so I don’t have to google them and then forget which one it is I like…

Recipes are meant to be shared

Often they are passed down through families. My nan never used a cookery book or recipe to my knowledge, she had it all in her head. My mother burned baked beans in a Melamine dish she put under the grill to heat and also melted the dish, so no family recipes here. Delia was my cookery teacher. If you like the recipes you find here, share them with your families and friends.

Inspired by Smethwick Can Cook

I met Jayne, chef and owner of The Kitchen School a few years ago at an exhibition at The Botanical Gardens in Birmingham. She was doing some cookery demonstrations – making soup out of left overs including vegetable scraps. I had just started work with Smethwick CAN a charity that, alongside other projects, manages Smethwick Foodbank. I got chatting to her, took some contact details and began to think how I could use her skills to deliver cookery lessons in Smethwick. Many months later Smethwick CAN secured a small amount of funding from Near Neighbours to run some cookery lessons. The focus of these were to have fun in the kitchen, meeting new people from other cultures and faiths, while learning to cook healthy, affordable food. What I had specified when writing the bid, was that as well as cooking, participants would sit down and share the meal they had prepared.

Food binds communities

Jayne agreed to deliver the course and I also persuaded Albert Smith, an inspirational baker, to teach bread making. Both were committed to building community and shared my conviction that food binds communities. The breaking of bread is something that happens in all cultures and all faiths. By cooking and eating together, without the distraction of social media or the telly, conversation happened. In the community kitchen at Raglan Road Christian Church, magic happened. All over the country, community kitchens in churches are under used. What we started here we hoped would spread to more empty kitchens in Smethwick. People baking bread together, eating together and making food for their local community. Food brings people out from the isolation of their homes

Making bread is easier than you think

Watching Albert make bread is a wondrous sight to behold. He doesn’t use weighing scales, but mugs. Tasting it is a treat. Warm bread, straight out of the oven is enough to encourage kitchen phobics to learn to bake. And they did.

What white sauce doesn’t have to come out of a jar?

Well that is not quite what was said – but after making a bechamel sauce for the first time, one woman said she did not realise how easy it was to make and after tasting it declared that she would never buy a jar of sauce again.

Be inspired

This project inspired me to now share not just photos of food, but recipes, cooks that have influenced me. Food I love and hope you do too.

Find the recipes from the first Smethwick Can Cook here.

Another good resource is Can Cook Kitchen – a food project in Liverpool. Their 2 can curry looks amazingly simple to make. I must try it.

Travel is my high and I need another shot of it

Travel

When you travel you will possibly be all of these things.

Exhausted, happy, sad, frustrated, angry, in pain, relaxed, tired, excited, snappy, hungry, hangry, worried, stressed, restless and contented. You will never be bored.

I have endured long flights, watched movies I cannot remember, read books, walked dogs on beaches, slept in a swag and scrambled barefoot over rocks to swim in a pool with crocodiles.

I have learned to paddle board, considered divorcing my husband when kayaking in the Katherine Gorge, snorkeled over the Great Barrier Reef, hiked the Kings Canyon Rim, slept for hours on a bus where the landscape never changed, travelled in a 4WD on Fraser Island, seen a kangaroo whose best friend is a pig and visited a city devastated by an earthquake.

In NSW I ate some of the best food I have ever tasted and eaten endless ham sandwiches with tour groups in the NT, breakfasted at Macca’s, brunched on the best poached eggs in Melbourne (nowhere has matched that city for brunch) drank the best coffee made with freshly roasted beans (again in Melbourne) and sulked over lack of beetroot.

But I have never been bored.

How can you get bored when travelling?

When I was planning this four month trip to Australia and New Zealand, someone said to me “don’t you get bored being on holiday for so long?”

What?

I waited a moment and answered with one word. “No.”

What I wanted to say was how could you possibly get bored when you travel? When you are seeing so much, meeting so many new people, doing things that will challenge you and change you?

I didn’t. I just knew that they would not get it. Because what they mean by a holiday and what that is to them is not what it is to me.

This is not a vacation, this is travel

In their map of the world a holiday is seven days escape from work, be it to a caravan in Bognor or a villa in Majorca, eating ice-cream and sitting on the beach. And after seven days of not doing much they think that is it time to go back to the 9 to 5. Because that is what you do. Hate Monday, live for the weekend and if you are lucky get a week away in the sun.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Been there, done that and probably will again. I like holidays. Long ones, short ones, package holiday and round the world travelling ones and weekends in sumptuous B&B’s and camping. I like to go travelling, while I still can.

I don’t get bored when travelling – because every holiday, every weekend away, being down under for four months or a package holiday to Skiathos for a week, a day out to Weston Super Mare, I see as an adventure. That is my map of the world.

I do get bored restless sometimes. When it rained for a week in Melbourne and I had watched every episode of Stranger Things I was ready to climb walls. Cabin fever did set in. Previous to this house-sit I had been on a ten day adventure in the Northern Territory. And while I had a love/hate relationship with that trip, with hindsight it was one of the most amazing journeys I have ever been on.

I was a broken woman

I ached and I wanted a bed and a shower and not to worry in case a dingo stole my shoes. After seven days of rain and when the bites had healed and I had eaten brunch and cakes and Greek food and done all the washing I was restless. Eager to get back on the road again. Travel is my ‘high’ and I needed another shot of it.

Yes I loved the comfy beds the hot showers, the food, did I mention the food in Oakleigh? Yet I was eager for more. New people, old friends, trying new food, seeing new places, getting on a plane (despite pre travel jitters that hit me before every flight) I crave the change. I feel that I may be addicted to change. Once healed I needed adventure again.

I could have wallowed. I didn’t. There was a road trip from Sydney to Brisbane to plan and book. New Zealand was a blank page. Flights in, flights out and no plan to get from A to B. So while it poured with rain, in between dog walking, kamikaze magpie dodging and eating souvlaki I stopped procrastinating and got on with transport and itinerary planning.

And yes I had procrastinated. Most of the trip had been planned in March. Flights had been booked, trips to Fraser and Lady Musgrave Island planned to fit in with flights. The NT trip to Kakadu, Alice Springs and Uluru was sandwiched between two house sits in Melbourne. An unexpected three day window filled with a visit to Tasmania.

Yet this bit of the trip was blank. And while I like to think of myself as free spirited Phoebe, Monica is stronger in me. I need a plan. Yes I do like to have room for some spontaneity, I am not that rigid, yet I have learned that I do need to know some basic whens and hows and so does my husband. I don’t want to arrive in a strange city without a bed for a night. That said we arrived in a new city with a room pre booked and hated it so much we found another room in 5 minutes thanks to free wifi and Booking.com. This needing to know where I will be sleeping is possibly a symptom of my anxiety. I didn’t know that till now (see this writing malarkey really is my therapy). Perhaps realising that I can turn on a sixpence will reduce this anxiety and  the need to be in constant control?

And when you have a month in New Zealand, a country that has so much to thrill, excite and amaze you, a plan is good. When a third person who has different interests to you is joining you for a couple of weeks and would rather put needles in his eyes than go on a tour of wineries, you need a plan.

In 2011 Phil and I travelled in a campervan from Auckland to Christchurch. When it was good it was awesome when it was bad it was not so awesome. We had no itinerary, booked as we went along and it worked out OK but we missed so much and ran out of time.

This time, after wasting hours getting jaw dropping quotes from Camper Van and Motorhome hire companies, trying to work out how to fit in almost everything we wanted to do I and failing, I used a travel agency, New Zealand Self Drive Tours. I found them via Facebook (sometimes those annoying ads are useful) gave them a list of what me, my husband and my son wanted to do, flights details and they planned and booked it for me. Yes I worked with them to tweak it and there is some spontaneity as the last 8 days there is no plan. No accommodation, no activities just the car and us and I like that we have no idea where we will be or what we are doing. I also like that for most of the time we just turn up and the hotel is booked and the car is waiting for us and we know how many km’s we will be driving each day.

Road trip New Zealand

I am currently in New Zealand, have been for a week and so far the plan is working. The car is easier to drive than a camper. Not for one moment have we wished we had got one.

The rooms have been warm and clean and the Coastal Pacific Rail journey was breathtakingly brilliant. Phil and I have travelled to Christchurch to Picton on the Pacific Coast Railway, driven from Picton to Christchurch via Blenheim and Hanmer Springs. In Blenheim we had a lovely day touring the wineries with Highlight Wine Tours and were guided around the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre Air by Bunty, a 96 year old World War 2 Spitfire pilot. We have bathed in thermal pools in Hanmer Springs, driven past snow capped mountains and followed a steam train through Weka Pass. Yesterday we rode on a vintage tram around Christchurch and walked around the city at sunset. Tomorrow we travel the Tranz Alpine Railway.

Yes I am worried how I am going to cope when I get back to the small house in November. Being in one place and shopping and cooking and the grey skies. I am sure that the Farsickness will kick in and know that I need to come up with a strategy to manage that.

I am confident that I will.

In the meantime – New Zealand awaits, with mountains and geysers and hot beaches and Hobbits and planes and trains and automobiles to transport us.

#notboredyet

 

Brunch in Australia – the good the bad and the ugly

Brunch figures a lot in my eating out in Australia. I have written before about my love affair with brunch – a meal that Brits, IMHO, still haven’t got right.*

In the UK, a cooked breakfast is usually a fry up be it the English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or even regional breakfast. You will see all day breakfasts on some menus, often dressed up as brunch. My local pub in the UK, The Dog, has recently added brunch to the menu – yet finishes serving it at 12 noon and only offers it on a weekend. That is not brunch. Brunch needs perfectly poached eggs, sourdough, good bacon and excellent coffee. And served at least till 3pm if not all day. A full English and bacon sandwiches is not brunch. That is breakfast. I like breakfast, I do, but I like brunch better.

In Australia they know brunch. Smashed avo, corn fritters, beetroot and spinach with free range poached eggs. This is one of my favourite brunches offered at Coin Laundry only a few minutes walk away from where we are currently housesitting in Melbourne. Available from 7am to 3pm. For two of us, with a latte each, the bill is Aus$42.

Seven Seeds. A Good Morning Breakfast Burger and Eggs and Waffle Benedict, two items from their current, all day menu. Proper Brunch. With speciality coffee. Aus$45. Great atmosphere, great staff, excellent food, awesome coffee. We have got to go back as our table companions had the Brioche French Toast and it looked, and they said it tasted, amazing.

And then there is Triim.

Phil and I were hungry, we had just been in a hot, dusty substation, looking at ACDC things. (It was Open House Weekend). We needed brunch. Seven Seeds seemed too far to walk to. It was Sunday and would probably be a line. Instead we wandered up Little Bourke street, looking for its sister cafe, couldn’t find it and then saw Triim on Hardware Lane, a studenty/backpacker district of the city and chose to brunch there.

Oh dear. At first it seemed ok, it was busy, all ages, shoppers and students, backpackers and families. Efficient staff. But. You knew there would be a but.

We ordered a Big Breakfast and a Morning Glory. Yes they can poach eggs. However the mushrooms were slimy and the sausage, I can only assume it was a chicken sausage, was horrible. The bread was poor quality. Butter is served in plastic pouches. We left feeling bloated and later felt quite headachey as if we had eaten poor quality food. Bill came to Aus$42.40. Hardware Lane is an interesting place to people watch. Go watch them from someplace else.

Was this the worst breakfast we had in Melbourne?

No. Because we went to McDonald’s. I know, I know. Phil and I had an early start, we were off out on a tour and had to be at Fed Square for 8.55am. Macca’s is nearby the pick up point. We had not had a Macca breakfast for over a year. Indeed it was at this Macca’s and for the very same reason. We do not learn.

Aus$18 for two sausage and egg muffins, with a hash brown and a latte. Not half a good as Triim, but nearly as good people watching as commuters dash from Flinders Street Station. Not anyway near the quality, ambiance or service levels of either Seven Seeds or Coin Laundry.

I know, it is McDonalds, I don’t expect silver service. Yet, at just under half the price of the other brunches Phil and I have had in Melbourne, this is an expensive and insubstantial breakfast. The only good thing I can say is that they have baristas in McDonalds in Australia (at least at this branch) so the coffee is not awful. It is not awesome, better than coffee in an English McDonalds. Not hard to beat that. Oh and surprisingly I didn’t get headaches like I did with the breakfast from Triim.

What really concerns me that this is the everyday breakfast for many commuters and school students. Melbourne has the best coffee in the world and Melburnians are now buying coffee here. And adding a McMuffin to their order. I don’t see any struggling indie coffee shops in Melbourne, somehow there are enough coffee addicts to keep the good ones going. I do see more coffee shop chains in Melbourne though. And that is not a good thing.

So, if you are in Melbourne, find a good brunch spot. It is not hard.

To help you, here is a list to help you out.

*There are exceptions. Birmingham Breakfast Club occasionally arranges special breakfast events in the city. Only I would call them brunch because there is usually alcohol involved and they don’t start at the crack of dawn.

If you want to know more about these wonderful Breakfasts in Birmingham here are some links. I include these only because I am fed up of people Bashing Birmingham. We have good food in Birmingham. We have good other things too. Such as the two towers that inspired Tolkien.

Full to the Brum  – an award winning Brummie Blogger

Eat with Ellen  – one of my dining companions at Nomad now re born as The Wilderness

Breakfast at Simpsons

Waiter there’s a bug in my brunch

Birmingham Breakfast Club 

 

Breakfast at Forte Cafe in Winchester

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Phil and I love our brunch, and I am getting to grips with using my smartphone to post to my blogs.

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The quality of the photos are pretty good for a cheapish android phone.

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But back to brunch.

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I uploaded some photos to Instagram and played around with the Gallery options.

Then tucked in to a very good breakfast indeed. Poached egg test passed.

If you are ever in Winchester, I can recommend this lovely cafe.

Cooking with Ping at Chi Kitchen

Chi Kitchen

a contemporary pan asian restaurant created as an exclusive departmental brand for Debenhams

The menu for Chi Kitchen has been created by Group Consultant Ping Coombes, 2014 MasterChef UK winner.

I was fortunate to be a guest at a masterclass with Ping on Sunday 20 March 2016 at the restaurant on the third floor of Debenhams, Birmingham. As I could take a plus one I dragged my husband along. There was food – he was not so reluctant tbh even early on a Sunday morning.

While I didn’t get on with SE Asia on my travels, I did get on with the food. The fusion of Malaysian cuisine particularly impressed me, with so many influences, from Indian to Chinese. The hot curries in Little India, KL and the delicious steamboat in the Cameron Highlands are particularly memorable.

When this invite to the masterclass popped into my inbox I was delighted. While I love SE Asian food I am not very confident when cooking it nor familiar with the ingredients or the techniques. And now I was going to learn from a MasterChef. How brilliant is that?

And that is why on a sunny Sunday morning I was meeting Ping in Chi Kitchen, Birmingham, desperately trying to hide my excitement at meeting an actual MasterChef winner. I am an avid watcher of TV cooking shows and I was a little bit star struck.

Ping was delightful. She warmly welcomed me and my husband Phil and she recalled that I had tweeted about the event. She remembered everybody’s names, which is a great skill.

We all had a welcome card, with details of the food we would be making during the masterclass.

The staff at Chi Kitchen were friendly and attentive. Water was brought out straight away, tea offered while we waited for the other guests and nothing was too much trouble for them.

Meanwhile Ping was securing a couple of glasses of bucks fizz for us.

The Executive Chef was already making Roti Canai for us to snack on.  Ping told us that we would be making it later on.

Never I thought, could we produce this in one lesson.

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We did. Well Phil did, he made the dough comprising of flour, water, condensed milk and sugar and did a decent job for a first attempt.

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I thought making the Money bags would be easy.

I have seen women making these in the food malls in Melbourne, they produce hundreds in a matter of minutes,  it took me 5 minutes to make one. Not going to be getting a job in a food mall in Melbourne anytime soon.

Then it was on to the Nyonya Salad with King Prawns.

Lots of individual ingredients, rice noodles, bean sprouts, tomatoes, cucumber, onions all into one bowl and massaged.

Add the chilli sauce and massage some more, and you are left with a salad that zings. Beats the limp lettuce and tasteless tomato salads that I was brought up on.

Once we had finished cooking, more food was brought to us. Everything was delicious.  Fresh, clean, spicy, a riot of flavours, yet delicate on the palate.

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To be able to eat food of this quality, in a department store, demonstrated just how the food scene in Birmingham is improving. As a child, my Grandmother used to take me to Lewis’s restaurant as a treat. This was when we had waitresses in black dresses and white aprons serve us. Proper posh.  Then department stores restaurants adopted the canteen style of cafes, offering chicken nuggets, congealed lasagne and chips.

Debenhams has realised that this no longer good enough for the discerning diner. The food offer in department stores needs to be more than a refueling stop for shoppers, in store restaurants need to be a destination to meet friends over lunch or after work. They have also realised that Birmingham is the place that this can work. We Brummies are foodies and we want great food.

Over the past few years I have observed Birmingham’s food scene getting better and better. While the councils PR and Marketing will always mention the Balti Triangle and how Birmingham has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other British city outside London in every press release, as will any London based journo who writes about Birmingham, there is a middle ground for us foodies. And I am not talking Mr Egg.

The Birmingham street food scene brought us Digbeth Diner. This showcases the best street food in Birmingham, including The Original Patty Men (which I have yet to experience) Meatshack dirty burgers and Andy’s Low and Slow, to name but a few of the many wonderful purveyors of amazing food

Indies started to fight back and it became easier to avoid chains selling identikit mextex when Bodega and Habeneros came on the scene. Urban and Six Eight gave Brummies decent coffee. Jake popped up in his telephone box, opposite Starbucks, selling great coffee, amazing sausage rolls and cake. Jake also gave us Tfor2, a way for his customers to pay it forward and buy a suspended coffee for rough sleepers.

A food scene was slowly and surely being established in Brum. Hoo flippin ray and about time too.

And all of a sudden it exploded, in a good way.

Birmingham has some excellent Tapas restaurants, the aforementioned dirty burgers from Meat Shack, innovative burgers at The Original Patty Men in Digbeth, great bread from Peel and Stone and Loaf. And then there is the innovative The Wilderness. Add to that the Michelin starred Adams, Purnell’s and Simpsons and the Birmingham Breakfast Club, Birmingham we have got food covered. Almost. There is still a shortage of mid priced good food that is not Beef Eater but I am sure we will get them soon.

With the opening of Grand Central, Brummies who may not have braved Digbeth for street food, Chinatown for SE Asian food, or tried tapas in Spain, are stepping out of their comfort zone of fast food and are experimenting with new food experiences. This is a good thing. Having tasted pho and lush pork belly tapas, in Grand Central I hope they will want to explore the street food scene, visit the Birmingham Foodies Festival or the Colmore Food Festival, showcasing the best food Birmingham has to offer.

The choice of food at Grand Central is staggering. Yes, they are chains, some small chains, some family run. Yet this is food we used to only be able to get in London. My personal favourites are Pho, Tapas Revolutions and Leon. There are eateries to meet the requirements for almost everyone in a safe environment, restaurants without doors in a shopping mall. It is a food court, a good food court, above a railway station. There are no toilets (if there are I’ve not found them yet) which for family dining is a nightmare. They are all busy, which is good for the retailers, yet one often has to wait in line to eat at Tapas Revolution and Pho.

Well now you don’t need to. Leave Grand Central, take a short walk to the Bullring and visit Chi Kitchen in Debenhams.

Attentive staff, authentic food, good music, open kitchen, uncrowded with a big picture window, clean toilets and no queues. Yet.

Disclaimer

I was a guest of Chi Kitchen. I was not asked to write about the experience, I chose to. I was not asked to say only lovely things  when I told them I would be writing about them. Ping is genuinely lovely. She told me to say that.

I am that easy to read am I? I just wanna have fun and want the same for my guests 🙂

All the photos were taken by Phil and me. Please don’t steal them.

And we got a goodie bag.