Category: England

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

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

image

Phil and I love our brunch, and today I am posting live from The Forte Cafe in Winchester using only my basic Galaxy phone.

image

The quality of the photos are pretty good for a cheapish android phone. Don’t you just love the decor here?

image

But back to brunch.

image

I uploaded some photos to Instagram and played around with the Gallery options. Always photos of food on Instagram.

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.

Conversations at the corner cafe – Xenos my friend

The stranger

As I entered the corner café, a stranger said hello.

Saying hello to strangers is not what the British do.

I said hello back and we fell into conversation.

We discovered we had at least one person in common.

And that we both loved Greece.

We talked about other cafes in the area, how another café had told him about the corner café. The best Greek food, and where to get it, the best tapas and SE Asian food. And how Moussaka from the corner cafe had won me a day with James Martin.

We talked about afternoon tea.  How a local café turned a poor review on TripAdvisor, due to them handling it professionally, into a success and brought more customers to the café.

He recommended two places for afternoon tea, one in Edinburgh another in Bournemouth, in the Echo building. Where Bill Bryson used to work I said. Yes, that would be right, he said.

I had been thinking of following the trail of Little Dribbling as a holiday idea before I go on the next big trip. And here I am getting café recommendations. How did he know?

We agreed that Tilt needed sofas.

Our conversation – it was as if we were speaking in code. A language no one else knew or could understand. We were not intentionally excluding anyone, yet this conversation of shared experiences,  no one else in the cafe that day understood.

I told him my story of the church in Santorini. He never questioned that I was led to the spot by my mom, she chose where I was to scatter her ashes. People with faith who know the story tell me God was guiding me. I think that connections with people you love don’t end at death. I think he thought that, too.

We talked about great places to eat, how he visited islands in Greece where no one speaks English. That this was the best Stifado he had eaten outside Greece.

He needed to take his own advice and book his trip to Greece he said. Make it happen instead of talking about it.

Two hours we talked. Two strangers.

I don’t believe in coincidences.coincidence

Later that day I sat down to start working through the Life Purpose Alchemy workbook that Lisa Cherry Beaumont asked me to review.

And I thought about my conversation with the stranger.

Because when he got up to go he asked if he could give me his card. I recognised the name, he is a life coach.

The person we both know is a life coach. I told him about Lisa, my life coach and how much I had changed since being coached.

He wants to live in Greece, as do I. I thought that we may end up working together in Crete combining our talents and skills. Not knowing how.

Today in the workbook I have been working on the section where Lisa asks you to

free-write some ideas about what you could do to earn a living. Play with ideas, without restriction. Don’t worry if it sounds crazy or too “way out” – put all your ideas down and don’t limit or edit what you write. Use more paper if you need to

and I thought about that conversation with the life coach in the cafe.

How comfortable we were sharing information with each other. How defined our goals were. How we believed that anything was possible. How open we were to possibilities. How positive our language was. How we said what we thought. How we went with the flow.

It struck me that this can make some people uncomfortable. We have been conditioned to limit our self belief. From childhood. The day you sing for your teacher and don’t get chosen for the choir you stop singing, perhaps forever. You fail a test and label yourself a failure. If you are not in the ‘gifted and talented’ stream at school, you believe that you will never be gifted or talented at anything.

Two strangers, not limited by can’t. People who don’t wait for someday. Who have dreams and make plans. And put a date on it. This scares people because they like the comfort of limited self belief.

That way they can’t fail.

If there is only one bus a day, I will get it. The first ferry of the season that will get me back just in time for my flight, could be cancelled if the weather is poor, book me on it. Get on the wrong bus, fate will intervene. Telling me I can’t do something is merely laying down a challenge.

The stranger too found himself on islands with one bus a day with no one who spoke English. He discovered he could speak Greek better than he thought.

I guess that if you get on the wrong bus in Corfu, a bus full of locals with goats and chickens and not tourists with sunburn, and two minutes later the bus that gets stopped by the police as it is unsafe, you realise that it has happened for a reason. And when there just happens to be an English girl on this bus (she is teaching English in a remote village) who directs you to the right bus, you just know that things have a way of working themselves out.

Yet somewhere along the way, in between being a carefree student, and becoming a mom and getting a mortgage and jumping on the work, watch, spend treadmill, I forgot this. Instead I opted for safe choices, because that is what I believed I was supposed to do. Get a job, get a house, get married, have kids, get into debt, watch the news and get depressed. Be normal.

Don’t talk to strangers.

In Greek the word for stranger is the same as for friend.

Xenos (Greek: ξένος, xénos, plural xenoi) is a word used in the Greek language from Homer onwards. The most standard definition is “stranger”. However, the word, itself, can be interpreted to mean different things based upon context, author and period of writing/speaking, signifying such divergent concepts as “enemy” or “stranger”, a particular hostile interpretation, all the way to “guest friend”‘ one of the most hallowed concepts in the cultural rules of Greek hospitality.

In my workbook I wrote:

A social media language café, where people can learn Greek and English, life coaching, I could coach people to declutter, fulfilling my need to socialise and help people clear their lives of whatever is holding them back.

I told Lisa that going through the workbook was like playing pass the parcel and unravelling the layers to get to the prize.  The prize? A map of my life. Yet the map is a jigsaw, that still needs to be assembled. I haven’t completed all the exercises yet, I’ve unraveled the layers, found the jigsaw, now I have to build the map.

What I have discovered is that everything that I have done and everything good that has happened to me, the lovely people I have met, the crappy things and the horrid people, has made me who I am now. I needed to unravel those layers. To find my purpose. The map is a jigsaw and I can’t find my way until I put the pieces together. When I am uncomfortable it is because I have forced the wrong piece in the wrong place, as if my shoes are on the wrong feet. Sometimes pieces are missing and we have to go find them.

Or they find us.

The conversation in the corner café was a the missing piece I needed to place in the jigsaw to discover what my authentic life looks like. It is pretty much how it looked at age 23 as I got off the bus full of chickens and goats in Corfu and thanked a stranger.

I asked the life coach if I could write about our conversation.

He said yes, but only if I didn’t say he wolfed down Stifado like a wild animal. I don’t think he will mind.

Addendum 3/6/16

Recently, while in Winchester, I met a Greek bar man and talked about the word Xenos. He told me the word I was looking for was this.

Hospitality, the official English translation of ‘philoxenia‘, doesn’t do justice to the concept as it does not encompass its main element, which is generosity of spirit. The Greek noun ‘xenos’ initially meant ‘guest’, acquitting the meaning of ‘foreigner/stranger’ at a later stage.

I have recently returned from a week on Skiathos. Yes, Greece still feels like home. Never a stranger there, always a guest.

 

 

 

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Waiter! There’s a bug in my brunch

And it was meant to be there.

I was at a special brunch at Nomad organised by The Birmingham Breakfast Club. The last one I attended was at Simpsons, which was superb. This time I took my husband Phil as a treat for our upcoming wedding anniversary.

I had checked out the website and I knew they offered food that was not the run of the mill fare. I read seasonal, foraged, but I must have missed the bug bit.

It was only when Laura aka Full to the Brum asked if there were any insects in the cereal boxes and the waitress declined to answer that I thought I would investigate.

Phil had already started to enthusiastically tuck in to the fourth course of caramelised milk mousse and tipped the contents of the cereal packet and had not noticed the bugs. I decided to tell him. I thought it was only fair.

It seems odd to start a post about a breakfast with the final course. However you do need to know that Nomads does bugs.

It also does bloody good food and drink.

So as Maria says, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Do-Re-Mi.

Coffee and tea on arrival and a cocktail of English mead wine, forest garden honey and Spanish Cava. A little bit of fizz is always a good way to start brunch.

Then as an appetiser, eggy bread with tansy, an edible flower, reindeer moss, forest garden honey, reindeer moss, bacon, eggs and baked coffee and sea buckthorn. In a little pot there was homemade fresh yoghurt.

Small but perfectly formed, this was a lovely start to a brunch. I love yoghurt and honey and bacon and egg and eggy bread and here they were all on one plate, with reindeer moss. I like reindeer moss now. Together the individual flavours complemented each other beautifully.

This was followed by a plate of pearl barley and spelt kedgeree with sea buckthorn and poached eggs. The sauce had a hint of cumin to it.

The pearl barley evoked memories of family suppers our parents or grandparents cooked. We reminisced about hunting for the pearls on our plates and the comfort of good old fashioned, home cooked food. To serve a kedgeree replacing rice with spelt, with the twist of the old school pearl barley, was a very clever use of ingredients. If the plan was to get us to recall memories of food from our childhood, this did the trick.

The egg was perfectly poached, the sauce beautifully spiced and for a brunch, just the right balance of breakfast and lunch.

Between courses we were served a mimosa and fresh apple juice.  Cleansed the palate marvelously.

And now back to that Caramelised Mousse with a crunchy topping. And toys. A course that got people talking.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The mouse was light and cream. The crunchy cereal was honeycomb coated. As were the bugs. It was lovely, and it was fun to include some toys in the packets. It was as if the team behind Nomad were saying, ‘we take our food seriously here, but not too seriously, go ahead have some fun’.  And we did.

Brunch is my favourite meal. Sharing food with like minded people, who love food and writing about food and being actively encouraged to take photos of food. What’s not to like?

I already knew award winning blogger Full to the Brum, and it was lovely to meet James and Ellen aka Eat with Ellen and Ryan aka  Brummie Gourmand. In addition to eating great food we also talked about food and blogging and learning how to use proper cameras and the pros and cons of the iPhone to take photos of food. It was a very social brunch.

This was my first time to Nomad and I thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company. The menu changes constantly, and with advance notice, Nomad can cater for pescatarian, vegetarian and gluten-free diets.

Disclaimer

The bugs were crickets and had been added to the crunchy honey concoction that is a Nomad secret recipe. Probably. You will not find them in any cereal packet you buy at the supermarket. The boxes used by Nomad are for serving purposes only. Although I have heard of infestations of moth pupae in porridge oats. But not at Nomad.

I ate them, Phil pulled his to the side of the plate. They were dead, crunchy and sweet. I still would not eat live insects, although I may have once accidentally swallowed a small fly. I have never pulled wings off anything.

I paid for the brunch and was not asked to write about it or say good things about it. But it was good, otherwise I wouldn’t say it was. And I like writing about food, meeting other bloggers and eating.

Addendum

Nomad is no more. It is now The Wilderness. Apparently there is another place called Nomad something in America and they didn’t want to share their name. So the Birmingham Nomad changed theirs.

 

 

Luxury in Ludlow – Hopton House B&B

Phil, the DH, and I needed a weekend away. It was May, he had a long weekend off work as it was the Bank Holiday weekend and of course everywhere I wanted to stay at was booked. Despairing of not finding a bolthole to escape to, I trawled all the Facebook pages of B&B I had liked for inspiration.

Hopton House had  a last minute cancellation and I clicked and booked before anyone else had a chance.

Karen, the proprietor, runs a B&B Academy for those thinking about setting up their own B&B. I knew I had managed to secure a gem of a place to stay.

Located in a rural setting just a short drive from Ludlow, it was  near enough from Birmingham to drive there on the Friday night so that we could enjoy two full days unwinding.

Weekend destinations, in my opinion, need to be near enough to get to in under 90 minutes, but far enough to know that you have escaped the city. The journey to Ludlow is an enjoyable drive, especially over Clee Hill where you are treated to stunning views.

There are a number of evening dining options nearby however we chose to pre book a ploughman’s supper so that once we got there we could completely relax in our room.

Indeed the next evening we decided to have another picnic supper to savour the best that the Ludlow Food Centre could give and Karen thoughtfully provided butter, plates and cutlery.

The thoughtful extras at Hopton House,such as home baked shortbread and lemon drizzle cake, in your room with a selection of teas on offer and a silent fridge to keep your wine and cheese in, is what makes this B&B special.

Hopton House is possibly the best B&B I have ever stayed at. The quality of the finish of the rooms, the comfort of the beds, the amazing breakfast with home baked bread, freshly made hollandaise sauce and perfect poached eggs from the chooks roaming the garden, all contributed to a relaxing break.

The location is perfect too. Very peaceful yet within easy reach of Ludlow and a number of National Trust properties.

On Saturday,  our original plan had been to visit  Powis Castle as Karen had said this was her favourite place to visit. Due to a road closure, we couldn’t get there without a huge detour,  so we made a U turn and headed into Ludlow.

Ludlow is a traditional market town that to a large extent remains unchanged from when it was built. Yes the big supermarkets have infringed on the outskirts but Ludlow fought back with the Ludlow Food Centre, showcasing the best of locally produced food. We called on a day of a food festival and the place was incredibly busy. It also goes to show that despite the Tesconisation of the country town, quality, locally produced food is still very much in demand.

In the town there are plenty of cafes, at all price points, bakeries, gift shops, and  in a back alleyway we found a music shop selling vinyl.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There is also the best hardware store in the world.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Four Candles anyone?

We then visited Croft Castle a short drive from Ludlow and spent most of our visit debating whether we had been there before. We decided we had but possibly over 30 years ago which is why we had the debate. Not only have we been to bed since then we have had two children, moved house six times and had over twenty jobs and five redundancies between us.

Despite the senior moments, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

We also managed to squeeze in a visit to Hopton Castle just a few miles up the road from Hopton House.

After a long and enjoyable day exploring, we dived into the food loveliness from Ludlow.

After another beautiful, filling breakfast on Sunday morning we headed toward Clun and The Green Man Festival. Our friends from Birmingham were dancing there.

Clun is a place we used to stop off at on the way to family holidays in Wales. It is perhaps 45 years since I was last there. I remembered the river, the bridge and not much else although the public toilets looked familiar. I can see why my aunt chose Clun to break a journey. Toilets and a place to stretch our legs, the essential sanity break.

Our family holidays were epic in that there would be at least three generations, a minimum of eight children and five dogs all piled into mini buses and Land Rovers. My aunt would hire huge houses in Tenby or three caravans at Poppit Sands.  Wales sighed  a relief and put back up the vacancy signs when they heard that the Goughs and the Johnsons were going to Devon instead.

Clun is tiny, one road in and one road out, and those roads are narrow. We climbed up above the town to the castle.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Old shops selling vintage, new shops selling high end crafts, pub, some closed up and others thriving, it is rather a lovely place to linger awhile.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As the stall holders began to set up the village was buzzing.

The animal man was possibly the biggest hit of the day, with children and adults alike.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although we were there to support our friends who dance with the Jockey Men’s Morris.

Shropshire and the Welsh Borders are so close to Birmingham, both are easily a day trip away. However, if you can make it a weekend break, do and stay if you can at Hopton House.

Disclosure: I paid full price to stay at Hopton House and have not been paid or asked to write this post.

 

 

.

 

 

Thing to do in Birmingham – Two Towers, tall buildings and a reservoir

These are the two towers that Tolkien could see from his Birmingham school window. These photos were taken at Edgbaston Reservoir, an oasis of calm at the edge of a beautiful city.

The building with the gold crown on the left is The Library of Birmingham, in the centre is the Rotunda and to the left is Alpha Tower a Grade 2 listed office tower.

The Library of Birmingham has replaced the old Central Library. As stunning as the new library is, many of us will miss the Brutalist architecture of the old library. Having today discovered that Alpha Tower is a listed building, I struggle with why the old library wasn’t listed. It is now being demolished to make way for Paradise. I kid you not. Perhaps it wasn’t tall enough?

We like our tall buildings in Birmingham. Birmingham has an impressive skyline.  Although much has changed since the 1970’s the Rotunda is still the structure most people identify with the city.

Brum 70's

Although once the wrong skyline was once used. In 2008 leaflets produced for the city council were printed with the skyline of Birmingham Alabama . Oops!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These are just a few of the beautiful buildings dotted around the city centre that have managed to avoid the developers  bulldozers or the WW2 bombs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As you wander around the city there is almost always something going on.  Food festivals and Morris Men in Victoria Square, colourful markets, art installations, Chelsea Flower Show winning entries to name but a few attractions you may find.  And then stop at one of the great indie coffee shops for refreshments or catch some rays on a deck chair.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Then return to the reservoir and soak up the nature.

More information about Perrott’s Folly here.

 

 

Things to do in Birmingham – history on my doorstep

England is well known for its stately homes. Producers of period dramas such as Downton Abbey and adaptations of Austen novels are spoilt for choice when choosing locations.

Lacock Abbey and Alnwick Castle were used in the Harry Potter films. In the West Midlands where I live there are dozens of National Trust properties to visit, including Hanbury Hall and Charlecote Park, and many are less than an hours drive from the city centre.

We expect to see such grand homes in the countryside where the landed gentry had their estates.  Not in city centres. Yet Birmingham, before the industrial revolution, was rural. My grandfather, who was born in Smethwick, worked as a farm hand as a young boy.

So it should be no surprise that there were many grand houses and heritage buildings in Birmingham, dating back to  the Jacobean period. There are two houses that I would recommend both tourists and residents of Birmingham visit.

Both are owned and managed by Birmingham Museums and there is usually an entry fee. I visited both properties on a Heritage Open Day so on these occasion the visits were free.

Aston Hall

Aston Hall, built in the Jacobean style, is a stone’s throw away from the Aston Villa football ground. This 17th century red brick mansion is situated in a public park and King Charles 1 visited the then owner, Sir Thomas Holte, in 1642 and in 1643 the hall was attacked by Parliamentarian forces.  The hole you can see in the staircase was made by a cannonball when the house was under siege. Incidentally the Holte End at Villa Park was named after Sir Thomas.

The gardens are lovely.

I have not yet been but I have been told that Aston Hall by Candlelight is an experience not to be missed. You can also get married here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The guided tour was extremely informative and engaging, and I found out so more about my city’s history. There is also a shop and a cafe. A visit to Aston Hall is an excellent day out for all the family.

Blakesley Hall

Blakesley Hall is one of the oldest buildings in Birmingham. Built in 1590, this Elizabethan house is a fine example of Tudor architecture. Built by Richard Smalbroke, it was designed to show off his wealth and status. It is amazing that it survived the developers bulldozers as it is in the centre of a 60’s housing development. Birmingham has a history of destroying its heritage. This is why the National Trust and similar organisations are so important to preserving our heritage.

While I knew about Aston Hall, and realised that it was amiss of me not to have visited before, I didn’t know anything about Blakesley Hall. It was a wet and windy Sunday and we wanted to go out somewhere, but not too far, and then I saw that there was another Heritage Open Day here.

Modest compared to Aston Hall, the house is still impressive. The gardens were stunning.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The cake in the café delicious.

Some of the rooms had been made up as they may have been when the family were living there, with much of the original wallpaper still intact.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was perfect Sunday afternoon out.

Even on free Heritage days both of these properties were relatively quiet. I asked at Blakesley Hall if people living in the close by houses visited the hall. It seems not despite BMAG trying to involve the community in activities and events.

We will drive hundreds of miles to visit the castles in Northumberland and Wales (or in my case National Trust properties in Melbourne) yet ignore the heritage on our doorstep. And that is a shame.

If you live in Birmingham, or are visiting the city, make time to visit these two properties. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Winchester – the walkable city

Winchester was once the capital of England. As a regular visitor to this small city, I have walked almost every where there is to walk in Winchester. The beauty of it is that one moment you are on a bustling high street and the next walking through the calm water meadows. If you are feeling energetic climb to the top of St Giles Hill for magnificent views of the city and beyond.

Royal connections

Winchester is steeped in history. Henry VII had a castle here where his first son, Arthur, was born. Yes that Arthur, he of the knights of the round table Arthur. The Castle is at the top of the town. At the the bottom of the town, near to the Almshouses and the park is a statue of King Alfred who in 871 AD was crowned King of Wessex and established Winchester as his capital.

Dedicated to God and the public service

Winchester College was established in the fourteenth century by self made man, William of Wykeham. I am not sure how many Bishops or politicians they educate now, but that was his vision at the time. As you walk around the city on the weekend, you will see the groups of handsome rich young men dressed like Harry and Wills. The younger boys will be at a pizza joint with visiting parents. At over 35k per annum to board at this school, I guess pizza is all you can afford.

Literary connections

Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral. The house she lived in on College Street is not open to the public. You can however visit her house in Chawton just 17 miles from the city.

Keats wrote Ode to Autumn whilst in Winchester. There are also Sherlock Holmes connections.

Winchester Discovery Centre  is worth a visit. It houses the library, a gallery with regular exhibitions and a café and shop, where you can buy the book, Look Up Winchester.

Look Up Winchester

The book Look Up Winchester is the perfect book to take with you on a walking tour of Winchester. Available from the Library or the Winchester Cathedral shop for £6.99 this is how they describe the book.

A fascinating book taking you on a tour of Winchester’s historic High Street – from an unusual perspective…

Authors Rodney Graham and Christopher Newberry thought it a great shame that some wonderful architectural details are missed, simply by people never looking up! Above the High Street shops is a wealth of wonderful history; and as well as looking at the features of the buildings, the book also tells the captivating stories behind the facades.

The book comes in a handily-sized small format, perfect for carrying with you as you stroll down the High Street – looking up

Nothing to add. It survived my book cull. That is a good enough reason to buy it.

The French Connection

Every time I go to Winchester I hear people speaking French. Over lunch in the pub on my last visit I met two girls from Paris. You will come across market traders over from France for the day. Many of the waiting staff in the many gastro pubs are French.

The French love Winchester. It is a day trip for the French as much as the English in the south may pop to Dieppe on a day trip. This is because the city is easy to navigate in a day, there are lots of good places to eat and the markets are so very good.

Which neatly brings me to –

The Markets

I think Winchester has some of the best Market Days in the country. The local council have worked with local and some not so local traders to build these markets and they are now a very popular with local people  and visitors to he city.

The Council provide the gazebos, and the pitches are of a reasonable rate. The arguments I have heard from some councils (Sandwell I am looking at you) is that market traders take the custom from the regular shop keepers on the high street. As the occupancy rates of shops is high in Winchester, as is the number of independent stores and coffee shops, this does not seem to be the case. It also makes the shops up their game to be honest. There is no room for complacency when customers have a choice.

Gets off soapbox and continues writing…

The Farmers’ Market is held on the second and final Sunday of each month. It is one of the biggest, if not the biggest farmers market in the UK with between 80 and 95 stalls. Go early and have breakfast, get your provisions and then have brunch. Some days they have cookery demonstrations. All traders are from Hampshire and the quality is very high, organic meat, game, beautiful heritage vegetables and homemade bread and cakes. There are no plastic bowls of cheap veg here.

You can however get bowls of veg (cheap but of the highest quality) from the store in front of Marks and Spencer. This stall is one of the many that you can find at the General Street Market. This runs along the high street, with food stalls and local coffee shops to stop by for breakfast, brunch or lunch.

The Art and Design Market is held on the third Sunday of each month between March and December. Lots of Vintage and Bric a Brac, great for browsing and buying unusual items, such as old cameras and typewriters.

There is also a Christmas Market held in the grounds of the cathedral. It is not as big as the many German Markets in England, yet its location is second to none.

Shopping

I am not a shopper. I try not to buy stuff. Winchester however, has enough quirky independent shops to keep my browsing habit happy. The staff at Mistral are simply the best. Friendly, helpful, not pushy and the music is good. It is the only place that I actually enjoy clothes shopping. If you like the big chains, they are here, including Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Primark. However, I urge you to check out the smaller retailers both in the shops and on the markets. Many of these are not on the main high street in the centre, so you do need to leave the main shopping area. If you like Vintage and Retro this is the city for you. More information about shopping can be found here.

The best way to find these is to wander off the main street and explore the city. Who knows what else you will find? There is a particularly good book shop in the Kingsgate area of the city, near to the college.

Leave the city behind

Step off Bridge Street for a moment and you are on the bank of the River Itchen. Winchester City Mill owned by The National Trust sits atop of it, using the power of the river to turn the millstones to grind the flour.

Or you can walk along the river by taking the steps next to The Bishop on the Bridge. This route takes you past The Almshouses, toward The Bishop’s House and then over the water meadows at the rear of the college sports ground. After a 20 minutes peaceful river walk you will arrive at The Hospital of St Cross, a group of Grade 1 listed buildings, dating from 1132. I have walked to almost everywhere in Winchester, yet, despite walking along the river many times I have never been here. That is something I will put right on my next visit.

Food and Drink

I have my favourites in Winchester. For breakfast or brunch it is always Black White Red, opposite the library. They understand brunch. The eggs are perfectly poached, the avocado is smashed and the bacon is free range. Offering healthy juices and granola, pancakes with maple syrup, and the full English, they have breakfast covered. They are open all day, but I have only ever been there in the morning, but if the wine and food in the evening are as good as their coffee and eggs in the morning, you are in for a treat. I am particularly fond of this place as this is where I met a lovely gentleman who inspired me to write this about loneliness.

Addendum January 2017 – Black White Red has now changed – my new favourite brunch venue is Forte Kitchen. Perfectly poached eggs.

There are a number of pubs in Winchester as you would expect. My two favourite are locally run No. 5, part of The Ideal Collection, and a Fuller’s pub The Bishop on the Bridge. The food at the Bishop is hearty pub food, while the food at No. 5 is possibly less pubby, concentrating on locally sourced, seasonal produce. I would drink beer at the Bishop and wine at No.5. Both have good outdoor space.

After dining at either you can cross the road to The Black Bottle for some wine tasting.

The Black Bottle: where new and familiar red, white and rosé wines are available by the glass. A selection of 32 of our 140 strong bottle cellar are dispensed through our Enomatic dispensers. Each of  our four machines hold 8 bottles with machines dedicated exclusively to red and white varieties. This means that at any one time we have a wide range of red, white and rosé to sample by the glass.  Our machines are individually  programmed to serve our specific varieties of wine at their optimum temperature: an ambient room temperature for reds and a gentle chill for whites and rose, allowing all of our wines to express their flavours fully.

A quirky place, with 5 rooms over 2 floors, you load up your token and choose your wine from the Enomatic dispenser. You can also buy wine by the bottle but the dispenser is much more fun.

My most recent discovery is El Sabio a Spanish restaurant that has been in Winchester since 2008. The tapas were excellent as was the organic wine. I will definitely be returning.

Other good places to eat are the recently refurbished Ghandi for Indian food, although I have only ever had take out, and the relatively new Palm Pan Asia which was recommended to me by people I shared a table with at The Black Bottle. There is also The Black Boy a traditional British pub, decorated with an eclectic mix of art, clutter and taxidermy.

Where to stay?

I used to get to stay in The Grade II listed Tudor House  when family lived there, and only recently have had to stay in hotels in the city.  I have stayed at No.5  which is comfortable and city centre based so while handy for the shops and dining options, there is some traffic noise and it is a very lively pub on Saturday evenings. There is also The Black Hole which looks every bit as quirky as The Black Bottle. For other places to stay, the Visit Winchester website has lots of suggestions. From caravan sites, B&B and Hotel Du Vin, there are plenty of options.

Addendum January 2017 – Most recently I have chosen to stay at The Premier Inn. Although slightly out of town, has plenty of free parking and you can still walk to the centre of Winchester from the hotel. Soundproofed rooms and very comfortable. 

It does quirky

I hope this has been useful for anyone thinking of visiting Winchester. I love the city. I find something new on each visit. Yet it is so compact, you could cover a lot of ground in one day. And you can’t help loving a city that does this. Even the street furniture is pretty.

One Mans Trash….

AKA the recycling centre. Regular readers will know that I have spent a fair bit of time in the past few weeks, recycling my stuff. I heard the centre in Winchester ‘rescues’ good quality items and has a little shop. On this visit they had a perfectly good piano, doors, a toy car and some interesting furniture.  The only other place I have seen this is at Brecon, where I picked up some Wedgwood China. And the bits they can’t sell they use to decorate the garden. One mans trash is another mans treasure. A great place to pick up some vintage items at rock bottom prices.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.