Category Archives: Europe

“The longest marathon in the world”, wait, the what?!

Well ok marathon distance is 42.195km or 26.2miles, BUT this particular one will probably feel like the longest in the world as is goes through 59 of the world’s most famous Chateaux and private vineyards around Bordeaux, France, 19 wine stops…and oysters stops…and entrecotes stops (what really?)…yes and all that in 6.5 hours!!

ah did I mention that fancy dress is mandatory?

I can’t wait – It’s gonna be a blast!!!

If anyone has done it I would take tips and tricks on how to get to the finish line in 6h and 29 minutes!!! I promise I’m taking the Go-Pro for this one 🙂

For anyone interested, incriptions just opened. Sign up on this page (click on the image below), first in first served basis, and don’t forget to let me know of course!

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Now off to the gym… (or wine tasting maybe?)

Travelling in my kitchen to…the Italian Alps with a fennel flavoured rye bread “la Puccia”

Just back from the Italian Dolomites Alps where snow was pretty scarce, but nevertheless 4 days of sun, good company and gorgeous food made up for it! Cortina D’Ampezzo is located in the Trentino-Alto Adige region, about a couple hours away from Venice and about 4h from Milan making it a resort of choice for Northern Italians looking to parade a fluffy fur. The village has that atmospheric old-fashioned chic to it, but it’s actually their fennel flavoured bread that I will dedicate this post to.

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The “Puccia” bread is a brown, fennel and cumin seeds flavoured bread from Trentino Alto Adige (it seems there are also other versions of it in the south). In local dialect, “puccia” means that it “came badly”, i.e., it didn’t raise much, describing that flattish shape.

 

puccia bread out of the oven

Ingredients for 2 loafs of 500gr each:

– 500gr rye flour
– 200gr refreshed white manitoba 50:50 leaven
– 300gr tepid water
– 2 spoons of malt sugar
– 8gr of salt
– 1-3 tbs of fennel seeds
– 1 tbs of cumin seeds

Instructions: 

Take 200gr of refreshed starter leaven and stir it lightly with 100gr of tepid water. Put the rye flour in a large bowl, in a “volcano” shape and pour the diluted leaven, water and malt sugar little by little, while mixing at hand (or at slow speed in the bread mixer). Rest for 15min.

Add the salt and seeds and knead for another 5-10min and until well mixed. Let it rest in its covered bowl for another hour or couple of hours (depending on how active your leaven is, and the temperature of your room).

At this stage I actually retarded mine overnight in the fridge.

Shape in 2 round flat loafs and let rest another little bit while pre-heating the oven at maximum temperature; and when ready, turn down the temperature to 220 and bake for 25min, then turn it down again to 200 degrees and bake for another 25min.

puccia bread wild yeast

 

It’s delicious with a soup, I tried the earthy mountain version of the Zuppa d’orzo (barley soup), yum!

A well deserved grappa with wild berries after a heavy mountain meal...
A well deserved grappa with wild berries after a heavy mountain meal…cheers!

 

other recipes in Italian, but I couldn’t find any using wild yeast:

http://laforchettarossa.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/pane-di-segale-con-semi-di-finocchio-e.html

http://terradeltipico.blogspot.it/2013/01/veneto-puccia-di-cortina.html

[Travelling in my kitchen] to…Alsatian Christmas markets, lots of mulled wine and a “pain d’épices” recipe

kaysersberg village alsace christmas market

We came back from Myanmar 2 weeks ago and stepping into a full blow Christmassy London right back from the beach slightly startled me! It’s only this weekend when we travelled to Alsace, the French border region with Germany, that the true Christmas spirit hit us. I came back home with lots of baking ideas, and in particular I was keen to improve my “pain d’épice” recipe. (scroll down for the ultimate recipe)

riquewihr christmas market
The Riquewihr Christmas market, kids (and adults’) paradise!

Alsace is a culturaly quite peculiar French region. First, it benefits from a central European position and Strasbourg, its capital, currently host the European parliament. But also because during centuries of history, Alsace has bounced back between several national allegiances; most recently in the 20th century, Alsace moved from French to German and back again a couple of times between the 3 main pan European wars. As a result maybe, the local culture is very strong, with French, German, Austrian, Swiss influences (but not only), that can be witnessed today in the architecture, literature, and the cuisine of course!

The Christmas markets (“Christkindelsmärik”) are traditional in the region and if big cities like Strasbourg offer large markets, we were expertly guided toward smaller but super cute villages. In particular, village of Riquewihr, nested in the vineyards, hosts a seasonal market where we sampled (very) large quantities of regional food in random order until we could not walk anymore. Ohhh you need to try some choucroute! oh and my dear you can’t leave without trying this kouglof, surely.. how about that Munster super smelly cheese? a piece of Flàmmeküeche maybe? oh and the smell of roasted chesnuts

The “pain d’épice” is a cake that was introduced in Eastern France in 1596 according to the legend but I personally doubt that spices like cinnamon, ginger or vanilla could have been available at that time so I guess it was more like a strongly honey flavoured cake.

Last year I used Anne-Sophie’s recipe from her amazing Fashion Cooking blog, which was really good. But with all that extensive tasting this weekend, and talking to local producers, I wanted to step up the game, revisit my proportions, add candied orange peel and maybe ginger too.

vin chaud mulled wine kaysersberg village alsace christmas market
Hot mulled wine with Mirabelle liquor…mmm and I didn’t feel cold anymore!!
riquewhir village alsace christmas market
The little village of Riquewihr, nested in the vineyards (notoriously producing top quality Riesling wine), features a truly beautiful market with lots of regional products

One obvious but important note is that up to 40% of the pain d’épice is made of honey, depending on the baker and the recipe. The quality of the input is crucial as it’s what gives most of the taste. So off I was to A.Gold, my favourite honey provider in London. Especially because those guys sell the postcode urban honey which is not only delicious but also helps our city’s green life. One day I’ll have my own hive I promise, but this will be for another post 😉

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* Ingredients:

The base of any of those cakes should be made of flour (about 40-45%), a mix of honey and sugar (same, 40-45%) and the rest made of the “liquids” (milk or water and eggs). Butter is optional but adds softness. And then the complements, nuts, candied oranges, spices etc.

– 175gr honey (choose one with a strong taste you like)
– 250gr flour: mixed 50/50 white flour and wholemeal or rye
– 25gr full fat milk
– 2 eggs
– 50gr butter
– 75gr brown sugar
– 10gr baker’s yeast + 1 ts baking powder
– spices: 2 ts of cinnamon, 1 star anise, 1 ts ginger, a few cloves, cardamom, grated nutmeg, a vanilla pod (or vanilla extract)
– a grated orange peel
– 75gr candied orange / lemon peels and / or candied ginger
– pearl sugar for topping

 * Instructions

Heat gently the milk, sugar, butter and spices, cast aside for a while. The longer it will infuse the stronger the spice taste will be (30min minimum recommended). Add the honey and stir on the hob at minimum heat (we’re not making caramel here!).  Take off the star anis, cloves, cardamon seeds and vanilla pod if needed. Make sure it’s not too hot and stir the yeast in.

Pre-heat the oven at 180.

In a large pot, add the flour in a little well shape and pour the liquid and start mixing in. Incorporate the dried fruits and the eggs and mix well again.

Pour in a cake tin and sprinkle with pearl sugar.  Bake for 1h at 175 degrees.

I wanted to complement my Christmas hampers so had to use individual paper cups (I recycled the individual panettone ones that I had never used). On the market a baker recommended to serve it slightly warm, with a scoop of home-made vanilla ice-cream….got us mouthwatering.

Note that for individual tins I had to reduce the cooking time to 40min.

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Next year I will try to steal my friend’s Kouglof / Gugelhupf recipe and try this little beauty at home. It’s a sort of fruity brioche baked in a hollow ceramic mould…yuummm

kaysersberg village alsace christmas market

Milan, Italy, a love and hate story

The first time I travelled to Milan, I was in for a huge disappointment, and it was partly my fault: no, going mid-August is not a good idea, as for ferragosto the Milanese just shoot off to the lakes or the sea, leaving a drained, hot and dusty city behind them. Also I had in mind a great romantic impressive city….if that’s what you want go to Rome, to Florence, to Venice…you name it. But not to Milan.

So this year I decided I was going to start our relationship from scratch again, and spend a full week there, with the right kind of expectations.

Milan is a social, fashionable city.

With a total GDP of €114,784m, Milan produces 7.3% of the whole country wealth. Easily the wealthiest city in the country (€36,000 per capita), but far behind on tourists go-to lists. I think it is a great city to experience when one has “something to do” there. It is also a city that’s better appreciated with a few friends; it’s a busy social place.

Some of the MUST do things, pick and choose to make your dream combination:

Sightseeing: it doesn’t take that long but you will at least want to see the magnificent Duomo and get to the rooftop if you can. Don’t forget there’s a strict no bare knee or shoulder policy in place.
Culture, museums and exhibitions: plenty of choice there, the Museo del NovecentoPinacoteca Brera (website is only in Italian: closed Mondays, open 8.30 to 19.15, longer on Fridays) and the Triennale, focused on Italian design. Booking to see the Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci, is a bit of an achievement in itself. It takes lots of advance planning, but I eventually made it, and it’s worth it.
* Take on some activitylearn Italian, take a cooking course, a fashion design course….they’re good way to meet people and experience the city rather than visit it.
Shopping and wandering around: this seem to be the most praised activity in Milan. I was hugely frustrated as I went a week before the sales period would start and missed all the bargains!! For your records, Winter Sales Season in Milan usually starts the first Saturday of January until mid-February; and Summer Sales Season usually starts the first Saturday of July until August. In term of good neighbourhoods, try Brera and Porta Ticcinese, both lovely areas with lots of cafés and a good mix of chains and independent shops. For a more thorough list, check Alexi’s blog there
* have an Aperol Spritz aperitivo on the navigli and panzerotti (deep fried mozzarella) at Luinni’s (via Santa Radegonda).
* Indulge on a bigger-than-life ice-cream at Cioccolati Italiani. Their cones are outright impossible to eat without smudging your make up, but who cares?  eat like no one’s looking. The other delicious alternative is Grom.
* going to the Scalla Opera to enjoy an opera or a ballet
* going out clubbing al fresco: Just Cavalli (Saturday night recommended) or the Byblos are good options. Or party like Bob Sinclar and Andy Warhol, wear your most glamorous outfit, be ready to wait and go to Plastic.
* having pizza for breakfast at Princi on your way back when the sun rises, and in clubbing outfit.

However I would avoid…:
* going in August, it’s empty, suffocating and full of mosquitoes
* I’m a huge fan of going jogging to discover an area but really Milan isn’t the greatest place. I took part in the Milan half marathon this year and…disappointing, it doesn’t go through the centre as much as I would have liked it (starts from the Castillo and ends in the arena, via the peripheral ring road; nothing to fret about). And the jogging track is a mere 3.5k in the Parco Sempione, dogging tourists and old ladies’ dogs, not ideal.
– taking the overground tramway if you don’t have a “Man vs. Wild” type of sense of direction. It’s pretty and looks vintage, but you’ll need a local to get around – or at least I did. On the other hand, the tube is AC’ed and the easiest thing in the world!!

A Rich history and present

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A recently sprayed graffiti depicting Milan’s rich history caught my attention. Not only because it’s a beautiful way to illustrate it, but also it was made on request of the parish of the very central Basilica St Lorenzo Maggiore. How unusual!? The piece is also highly interesting because the symbols it represents, understanding those few figures pretty much already gives the main keys to understand the city. The open-air story board starts at the time of the Romans, when Milan was called Mediolanum, for it was located in the middle of the plains. If the Roman heritage is great all over Italy, Milan has few obvious visible traces. I carries on with Sant’Ambrogio who worked for the city to become an episcopate; followed by the Attila the Hun and the barbarian invasions in the 5th century, the fall of the Black King in the  15th century, Ludovico Sforza or The Moor, youngest son of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan; Napoleon, Verdi, Alessandro Manzoni, Visconti and Sforza with the Snake and the Eagle….and many more, keep the history book at hand!

To read in the plane:

Milan is great scene of crime it seems, or at least that is what the litterary scene suggests!? Mani gialli or “yellow books” (crime novels) are set in Milan, I was particularly recommended this one:

Un delitto molto milanese giallo

Un Delitto Molto Milanese by Antonio Steffenoni. Beyond the criminal story, what I was really after was the description of the city, and the atmosphere … a catching thriller but not exactly a kind & warm description of the working environment in Milan!!

Other resources to prepare your trip:

I was given for my birthday a really handy guide: 101 things to do in Milan (101 cose da fare a Milano). It’s full of charming places and urban legends  and describes another way to approach a city that doesnt have a fame for being especially welcoming. Marco translated most of them on his blog.

cose-da-fare-a-milano-almeno-una-volta-nella-vita

Select Italy blog and website

Vivi Milano on the Corriere

Venice, the magic marathon

One marathon a year has been my target for the past few years; and last weekend was Venice marathon turn. The scenic run easily makes it to the most beautiful in my ranking. A memorable way to see Venice, a unique experience, however not one for great times, mostly due to the 14 bridges at the end, and if you are anything like me, the “OMG this is unreal” moment on Piazza San Marco will make you loose another few seconds, just gazing in disbelief!!! Continue reading Venice, the magic marathon

Where should I go for a short winter-sun break?

You can hear the rain pounding on the window and if you’re anything like me, your next thought is: when do I get to see the sun again? I could tell you to jet-off to Hawaii for the weekend, it would spare me a post but eyyy… maybe next year.

So were to go for a winter-sun quick fix? Continue reading Where should I go for a short winter-sun break?

Sun, love and other delights, in Taormina, Sicily

Sicily is one of those places that just tick all the “romantic weekend” boxes in my book: the perfect weather, the abundant food, the powerful wines, the awe-inspiring views, the crystal clear water…

I’m just back from an otherworldly weekend to celebrate friends’ wedding, and as the excellent Italian blog Memorie di una Vagina puts it: “last weekend I went to a wedding in Sicily where I understood that Sicily is just like an excellent lover: as soon as you leave it, you want to go back and make love”

“Lo scorso weekend sono stata a un matrimonio in Sicilia e ho capito che la Sicilia è come un amante eccellente: appena se n’è andato hai voglia di rivederlo e di rifarci all’amore.” (translation is mine)

She’s absolutely right. When are we back again?

Sea side photos are mostly taken from the Capotaormina Atahotel where we had a fantastic relaxing time. Views are mixed, as a sea person, I just really enjoyed the view and multiple beach accesses, the sunset in the overflow swimming pool…that being said, some prefer being up the hills in the village to grasp more of the local atmosphere. (The Metropole was highly recommended by friends)

Views from the Greek theatre are spectacular, it can be either visited in the daylight, or rather, to see it alive, check performances organised in the evening during the summer season. From up there one has a wonderful view on the bay, the town and the volcano; a friend even managed to attend a performance where the opera music was “accessorizing” a stunning sunset and a lava eruption in the background…

With a car, it’s also possible to drive up to Castelmola and watch the bay from even higher up. The little village is smaller and less touristy but nevertheless fantastically picturesque.

Next time? (yes because there will be) other friends decided to cut the beach time short and go hiking up the Etna volcano, which sounds quite tough but worth it; although it would depend on the level of activity of the volcano as well I guess.

Now let’s get back to diet after the rather insane amount of food we just feast on if you please…

Chillin’ in Oslo, the place to be?

Oooh Norwegians… they’re lovely, blond, tall, spend their free-time running uphill and their holidays in wood cabins, they don’t drink, don’t smoke, they have the best-managed oil fund in the world, split kids nursing between father and mother in a more balanced way than anywhere else in the world, and to sum it all…they’re even one of the happiest people in the world…right, let’s stop, this is getting frustrating.

Continue reading Chillin’ in Oslo, the place to be?

[Souvenirs and tokens of Travels from…] Helsinki…in a global world

I love travelling of course, collecting experiences, memories, but also organising those memories in the form of this blog, photos, and other small tokens of travels.

Bringing back home small objects (and lots of food) is a way for me to extend the travel experience: last week we had fresh mozzarella for dinner, and it felt like we still had one little toe over there in Amalfi. And the rose water I use to soothe my eyes every morning is truly a piece of Morocco in a bottle.

I often forget though, that we live in a global world where (pretty much) anything can be bought in London. So last night when coming back home from Helsinki, Finland, after a fabulous sunny weekend, and proudly parading a lovely Marimekko wodden bangle, I felt pretty dumb to realise a Marimekko shop opened at the box park…literally a minute away from home!

ahhh cherished souvenirs, and shallow aspirations to have a unique collections of accessories…boooh silly me!!!

marimekko bangle helsinki phaidon city guide
Instagram photo taken from the Kiasma museum where the “Together” exhibition is currently taking place, organised jointly by Kiasma and Marimekko. Coffee in the sun, checking the Wallpaper and enjoying my colour-block bangle, one to add to the collection…

 

[Souvenirs and tokens of Travels from…] Guadeloupe

There’s always the stuff that you expect to bring back, that you almost go on a hunt for. And then there’s the small thing, the unexpected sweet, funny object, item of clothing that caught your attention…

From Guadeloupe of course we came back with some amazing degustation rum, traditionally made, 11yr of age…delicious
but it’s when buying it at the distillerie that I asked the lady what she was munching on, and she offered one of those amazing candied coconut…fragrance of coconut, dark cane sugar, local vanilla…mmm so naughty but so good.

rum reimonenq and candied coconut

candy coco coffee
coffee and digestive time pleasures…

In random order, I came back with, well, mostly food and drinks: Rhum, cane sugar that smells delicious, jams and preserves, graines a roussir to make chicken Colombo, very strong sunscreen and kite-surfing sunglasses….I would have looooooved to bring that baby frrrrrrrog in my suitcase but my other half stopped me, the horrible monster. Oh well, next time? 😉

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Colombo spices, banana and passion preserve, 11 yr aged rum and the very strong cane sugar…watching the kite surfing videos and contemplating the pouring rain out of the window…
tandakayou grenouille
can I take you home pleaaaaase?

Fêtes de Genève, fireworks and Gruyere cheese, Switzerland

Les Fêtes de Genève

For almost a month during the summer, the placid Geneva turns into a mix of public amusement fair and chic beach bars, becoming the scene to one of the world’s grandest fireworks display. This year’s cost chf 700,000 and was no exception (that’s £460k).. No wonder why Les Fetes de Geneve attracts up to 2m visitors each year.

A friend of ours threw a roof party on Saturday where the average guest could speak 4 languages and was holding 2 passports…I wondered if it was an extraordinary sample or …?

From the  Council of Europe website I learned that “Geneva is the second-most-populous city in Switzerland (after Zurich) and is the largest in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Whilst the municipality itself (Ville de Genève) has a population of 191,415, the canton of Geneva (République et Canton de Genève, which includes the city) has 463,919 residents. (…)

The majority ethnic group, Swiss, makes up 60.83% of the canton’s inhabitants and 39.2% of Geneva’s population are non-nationals (and  up to 48% in 2013 according to the Office Cantonal de la Statistique). The most significant ethnic groups are: Portuguese-7.40%;
French-5.5%; Italians-4.85% and Spanish-2.95%. Of non-EU/EFTA migrants, the largest groups are, in this order, from the USA, Russia, Brazil, Kosovo,Turkey, former Yugoslavia, India and Morocco. 44.6% of the canton’s working age population are non-nationals and 54% hold at least one foreign passport. At the end of 2010, the unemployment rate was 6% in Geneva, or twice the Swiss level”

As a reference, London’s non-UK born population was around 37%  in 2011 according to the Oxford Observatory at the last census, and a large share of those actually hold a UK passport…

The pristine canton of Gruyere

And Switzerland would not be a human size chocolate-box without villages like this one: the medieval town of Gruyere, home if the infamous cheese, where we hopped by to reload the batteries.

Mont Saint Michel, an odd jewel in the Normand countryside, France

I was born in Normandy, and many years after having left the homeland for overseas pastures, it’s easy to forget how beautiful it all is. I enjoyed re-discovering the magical Mont St Michel, and sharing the experience.

Fun facts and history

The Mont is first and foremost known for its sacred and religious aspect, and the spectacular Abbey crowning it. As history puts it, in 709 the Archangel Michael appeared to a bishop and ordered him to build a sanctuary on the Mont.

With a thousand years of history, many legends, stories and poems have been writen about the Mont. Here is one, written by my absolute favourite Normand author, Guy de Maupassant; his legend of the quarrel between the devil and St Michel, is a delight:

Saint Michael watches over Lower Normandy, Saint Michael, the radiant and victorious angel, the sword-carrier, the hero of Heaven, the victorious, the conqueror of Satan.

But this is how the Lower Normandy peasant, cunning, deceitful and tricky, understands and tells of the struggle between the great saint and the devil.

(read the full legend in English here).

I saw a lot of journalist and blogs getting this wrong: the Mont St Michel is in Normandy, and it’s always been. When the Archangel alledgedly appeared in 709, under Charlemagne, the Mont was already belonging to the diocese of Avranche, Normandy. And more importantly, the Abbey was consequently built by Normand Benedictine monks in 966, at the request of the Duke of Normandy, and has been run by them ever since!

heula mont st michel

A couple more for the pub quiz:

– In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.

– Repeatedly assaulted by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, the mount always resisted thanks to its state-of-the-art fortifications. The small island prospered as a pilgrimage destination until the 16th century.

– During the French revolution in 1792, when the church properties got seized, the Abbey was transformed into a prison.

– the Mont currently counts 43 inhabitants, mostly monks!

Do’s and don’ts
  • The best season to travel there is surely late spring or summer, but even then, the weather can be very variable throughout the day so do dress in layers and pack a trench or waterproof rain coat.
  • you’ll walk a lot and climb many stairs, that being said, it’s all on roads / path, so flats or light trainers are a safe choice
  • The car park is a bit of a tourist trap and I had been well advised to avoid it, that’s how we stayed in a modest and lovely b&b where we could park (for free) and walk over to the Mont in 10min. This one next door also looked just as good, maybe more suited for longer stays.
  • Remember that hotels on the Mont are expensive and don’t actually enjoy the view…
  • Nothing has changed much since Victor Hugo was there either: I would still recommend to go for a nice meal on the mainland for the island is rather touristy and you might find “rotten fish in the middle of the sea” as he described.
  • be aware that restaurants will close early in the evening (last order 9.30pm in most places). We stayed until sunset and pretty much had to skip dinner…
  • do cross the bay, walking or on horseback…it’s recommended to do it with a guide as it can get dangerous
  • do visit the Abbey, for the first time I had the chance to follow the evening path, lit for the summer…around 8/9pm is ideal as the sunset falls on the cloister…magical. Info here and there
For the foodies…

The Mont sits at the border between Brittany and Normandy and as a result you will find a lot of regional delicacies from both sides of the river.

I have previously confessed on this blog my love for cider (the sparkling alcoholic apple based beverage), and this time I even brought back home some Pommeau (aperitif based on cider and Calvados liquor). Enjoyed best with a caramel crêpe….yum

But the true local delicacy is the salt march lamb, called in French “agneau de pré-salés”. Because the area enjoys some of the strongest tides in the world, pastures sometimes get covered and soaked in sea water. The little lambs therefore graze in high salt content environment, giving the meat a distinctive (but not salty) flavour. It is a very refined dish that you may only find in high end restaurants, and normally only from end of June until Christmas.

 

 Victor Hugo to his daughter Adele:
“J’étais hier au Mont-Saint-Michel. Ici, il faudrait entasser les superlatifs d’admiration, comme les hommes ont entassé les édifices sur les rochers et comme la nature a entassé les rochers sur les édifices. Mais j’aime mieux commencer platement par te dire, mon Adèle, que j’y ai fait un affreux déjeuner. Une vieille aubergiste bistre a trouvé moyen de me faire manger du poisson pourri au milieu de la mer. Et puis, comme on est sur la lisière de la Bretagne et de la Normandie, la malpropreté y est horrible, composée qu’elle est de la crasse normande et de la saleté bretonne qui se superposent à ce précieux point d’intersection.”

Around and away

We came from London via the ferry boat and my friend drafted the following itinerary for us with her favourite beaches and areas on the coast. Feel free to use it:Lower Normandy road Map

Another way to do it would be to start from Caen (accessible by train from Paris or by ferry boat) and combine your visit with the D-Day beaches and the WW2 memorial museum. For convenience I do recommend to rent a car from Caen or Cherbourg onward.

Note that FlyBe has also opened a London Southend / Caen line a few months ago.

Other resources and useful links:

Normandy Tourism website – well done and in English

virtual tour

Video on the Unesco website

 

Mousse au Chocolat with an Amaretto twist

The traditional French dessert with a crunchy and nutty Italian twist.

To celebrate my new (amazing) hand mixer I cooked some pretty tasty mousses last week. The word “mousse” is a French word that literally means “froth” or “foam.” This applies to the dessert’s light, airy texture.

mixer

Fun fact: if mousses became an easier option sincethe 1930’s when hand mixers made their way into more and more of our grandmas’ kitchens so they could fluff their egg whites easily; the dessert was made famous by chef Michel Fitoussi, based in NY, who in 1977 had a huge success with his innovative White Chocolate mousse.

And what about the Amaretto liquor? I find the Almond flavoured liquor even more delicious now tha I know it’s a love potion!!!

Legends of the Lazzaroni family of Saronno, says that the liquor was created by a widow who posed for Renaissance painter Bernardino Luini in 1525. The widow fell in love with the painter and made her Amaretto potion for him. Her original recipe has purportedly been handed down from generation to generation without change and is currently marketed as Disaronno Originale Liqueur.

Recipe for 6 cups

Heads up!! it needs to be in the fridge for a good 3h before serving, but avoid making it the day before as it may lose its oomph!

Ingredients:Affiche_chocolat_Menier

– 250gr dark chocolate – I normally buy some French Meunier one, by habit and because it does not need any added sugar and has great quality cocoa
– (optional 20gr of caster sugar)
– 6 eggs, at room temperature
– a pinch of salt / a pinch of cream of tartar
– a spoonful of Amaretto liquor (or two)
– 6 to 12 Amaretti biscuits
– 10cl full fat cream

 

Directions:

– separate the egg whites from the egg yolks in 2 different bowls. You can either save 3 yolks or the full 6 ones, depends on how rich you like your mousse.

– melt your chocolate in a bain-marie; do not add water to the chocolate directly, if you need a spoonful of liquid to stir it, add orange juice or some milk.

– beat the egg yolks, optional sugar (depends on how bitter your chocolate is and how much you like the taste of chocolate, I personally don’t add anything), add a spoonful or 2 of Amaretto liquor and mix in well. Add to the melted chocolate, keeping the mixture quite liquid.

Amaretti biscuits and Amaretto liquor

– whisk your eggs whites in a small deep bowl, with an electric mixer and a pinch of either salt or cream of tartar (some also use a dash of lemon juice) until obtaining a very firm mousse.

– whip the 10cl cream into a light fluffy mixture.

– fold the whipped egg whites into the chocolate mixture with a very soft hand, little by little. Finally add the cream.

– crunch some Amaretti biscuits at the bottom of your individual ramekins or martini glasses, then gently add the chocolate mousse and let sit in the fridge for a good 2 to 3 hours.

– decorate with chocolate shavings, Amaretti biscuits, crushed almonds, whipped cream, strawberries…enjoy

IMG_7829

(happily) get a few more wrinkles in Ibiza

It may sound paradoxical, but a short stay in Ibiza is the surest way to get a few more wrinkles and feel 10 years younger.
For sure, it’s a guilty pleasure, a battery reset, it’s the “so bad it’s good” extravaganza. It’s the time to forget the diet, the good resolutions, and just enjoy.

F_Me_im_Famousopenig

There’s surely a million different ways to enjoy Ibiza, but one thing is certain, it needs to be a bit loco.

One way to enjoy it? I plan a short stay, 3/4days, and allocate it 1 week budget. Gather a big group of friends, rent a villa, pack your flashiest craziest outfits, and try roasting on the beach in the early afternoon, stay there until you get hungry or can’t take any more mojitos, go for dinner, try clubbing again until you drop, and repeat. A glance at the party planning before leaving should help, especially if you’re a large group.

Flights need to be booked well in advance, as they quickly sky-rocket, especially around bank holidays. You will also need to rent a car, try and get a convertible, and apply more sun-cream than I did. I quite like the end of May / beginning of June as it’s tine for the crazy opening parties, this year Ushuaia was pretty awesome I have to say. The  infamous(insane) hotel just off Platja D’em Bossa hosts traditionally some of the most amazing open-air pool parties.

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It’s Spain, so arriving and leaving late isn’t a problem, you’ll still have time for dinner and clubbing even if you land past midnight. Rent a car, especially if your villa is outside the centre. And unless you’re over 12 Brits stags, avoid Platja San Antoni.

Some friends tell me they go for “relaxing” holidays, just to chill on the beach and enjoy the beautiful island. I wouldn’t advise that. It’s true the island is beautiful, but missing the party aspect of it would be too much of a shame. For a cheaper price, I would favour the Canarias, Spanish but on the Atlantic side; or the Italian Isola D’Elba for great Mediterranean food, or even Sicily…
Last weekend I’ve even seen pregnant women…got me wonder: why on earth would you do that? must be so tempting. I mean the greatest thing about Ibiza is to slurp mojito in a tiny bikini, and shake your booty on the the absolute best sound…but then who knows, maybe if I was in that case and all my friends were going, I would follow nevertheless? maybe, who knows after all.

Blue Marlin Sundays

British have traditionally represented a large share of the flow into Ibiza, with a slight drop in numbers in 2009. I know the tourism official in Spain would like Brits to come and visit Ibiza for its “churches and birdwatching”….unlikely. Not that I’m giving my stamp of approval to the type of excesses often coming together with rowdy clubbers (the drop in inflow of tourism from the UK in 2009 is also correlated to a drop in sexual crimes for example…no comment) but I still think that Spanish clubbing and in particular Ibiza partying experience is really quite fab and unique….

That being said, next time I promise I’ll go upper north roast on the beach, they do look quite fab.

Postcard English countryside, Bath, Oxford and the Costwolds villages

Less than 2h away from London, this itinerary is the promise of a romantic countryside weekend, in SO British fashion; Prince Charles’ secluded lifestyle, glorious British architecture and scenic bike rides, on your doorstep. “Visit England ” is an advertisement you’re likely to have encountered if you commute in London; a serious push has recently been given to tourism in England and I can only emphasise their message after a picturesque weekend on the road navigating between Alice in Wonderland’s manor house, tea with Mr Darcy and magic tricks in New College cloister – I’ll break the suspense, I have not succeeded in changing my friends into a ferret – yet.

The May Day bank holiday weekend provided us with the perfect occasion, 3 / 4 days is ideal for a relaxing weekend away from the city. Be ready to step into a tale, you may find yourself taking notes or sketching houses!
It’s not one to plan on a shoestring though, England remains expensive and the cosy feeling of those places calls for boutique hotels and nice B&B. I would recommend renting a convertible car, packing fluffy jumpers and fine lingerie and heading out for a romantic escape.

Bath

If Bath has that strangely familiar feeling to it, it must be due to the amount of costume movies filmed there!  Actually it’s quite fun to follow the tourism office’s movie map around town. 

Bath Film-The Duchess-RoyalCrescent
Keira Knightley is Georgianna Cavendish, in the Duchess

 

The city was built by the Romans around three natural hot mineral springs, that were the basis for the infamous therms. Bath’s status as a World Heritage Site was bestowed in recognition of its magnificent Georgian architecture.

The spa is a new built but the rooftop swimming pool nicely overlooks the old town and its green surrounding. The water springs out at 44 degrees and is then cooled down to 33, for comfort. We happily bubbled in for a good part of the  afternoon until twilight. They accept no booking on Saturdays and I was told the queue can get a bit long (although we only waited for 15min), also last thing, take your flip flops. 

bath spa rooftop
The Spa rooftop pool, naturally warm

I was longing for the high Tea in Jane Austen’s tea room but how disappointed  was I when I got declined access for I had not booked…grrr. Next time.

We followed the Lonely Planet recommendation and went for dinner to The Circus and were not disappointed – book in advance, it’s busy.

Cotswolds Villages

Whether you want to walk, cycle or ride across this string of charming villages, it’s an ideal countryside postcard-perfect day amongst lambs, strolling from one charming pub to the next inviting inn.downtown abbey bampton village

Downton Abbey fans can hop by Bampton, I hear the Manor is even available for visit on certain days of the year but that should be planned well in advance.

Or followers of the Royals can move towards Tetbury, pay respect to Charles & Camilla‘s cottage in Highgrove.

My favourite village of all was probably Upper and Lower Slaughter with its mellow-stone manor houses from another time, undulating woods, formal gardens and parkland overlooking lake and sheep-grazed fields by a peaceful and unspoilt village, away from main roads…fab. 

Sone gem hotels can be found along the way such as the Lord of the Manor with its Michelin-star restaurant…to celebrate an occasion or just stop for a beer.

 

for bicycle-riders, the Guardian published this useful little map, inspired by the escape route book: ” My favourite bike ride – the Cotswolds

Blenheim Palace

By now you must be sick of me saying “it’s such a fantastic place”, reminding me of films, books and oozing of royalty and history figures but really..but look at that. Churchill wasn’t born there for no reason.

sunny-blenheim-palace-1024x682

Our visit was short and the enchanting gardens are huge! The good news is that day passes are convertible into annual passes for free so I’ll probably be back on sunny weekends this summer.

Oxford

I don’t think I need to introduce Oxford. It actually seem I was the only Londoner left to visit the student-packed city. With over 22 thousands students from over a hundred different countries, split over 38 colleges….a quarter of its population are students!

We stayed at the Four Pillars and although I have nothing bad to say about it at all, but there’s such a large choice of nice and quirky accommodations in Oxford … way too enticing:

the refurbished cells of the Malmaison prison, ok the gardens are beautiful but  personally I didn’t quite get the attraction though.

during the holidays, one can rent a dorm room and pretend they’re Harry Potter for the night (careful some can actually get expensive!)

but probably the gem boutique hotel is the Old parsonage, I realised how cute it was when dining at the Gee’s, their bar & restaurant

alice-in-wonderland-on-a-stained-glass-window-in-christ-church-colleges-great-hall

 

Ok I won’t go on and on about fantastic secluded college courtyards, but if it was to do again, I’d go for the Mad Hatter high tea in Christ Church College, sitting in the Great Hall next to the dedicated stained glass window must be just unbelievable…and yum. (only available on certain Tuesdays….)

Films & books 

The Duchess – or Keira Knighley in the role of the 18th Century socialite, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, partly filmed in Bath and the surroundings. Sadly still modern.

Northanger Abbey – Jane Austin’s first book.  I got my hand on a nice and free audiobook version but really I was after a version read by local actors, that would screams Oxfordshire, let me know!!  (like this version of Alice in Wonderland for example)

 

I used a the new version of google map to plan my trip that I then amended once back; click on the  thumbnail below to use it.

map

 

and now tell me, is it just me who feels like the Countess of Dowager is going to come out of one of those little churches anytime?

Easter Colomba, baking adventures, part 2

ok by now your friends have started worrying for you: last night you went out for drinks, and after 2hours 45min precisely you asked for the  bill, promptly paid and mumbled something about urgently going home to take care of Pasquale. “Hun, you have a new boyfriend, how do I NOT know that?”…”nanah, he’s not my bf, Pasquale’s more like family”…”I see, so your relatives are visiting for Easter? but you told me you were going away…?” …. drop it…they’ll never understand you are bringing up an Italian leaven “a WHAT??”….right let’s go back to the kitchen…

[continued from Day 1]

Day 2 – What do we need for today?

make sure you have everything at hand before we start the day and avoid a million trip down to Tesco:

– about 500gr of Manitoba flour
– 180gr soft butter (not melted or hot)
– about 250gr suger
– 6 eggs
– clean dish towels
– a vanilla pod and / or vanilla fragrance
– 15gr honey
– couple of pinches of salt
– 200 to 300gr candied orange peels
– orange zest
– 30 gr hazelnuts (can be replaced by more almonds)
– 75gr almonds
– unpeeled almonds for decoration
– sugar nibs
– icing sugar
– 2 clean linen cloths
– your dove shaped paper tin, 750gr or 1kg

First dough…in the thick of it!!

some people are morning people, especially bakers. So if you can wake up presto and start the process with a bang, it’d be ideal honestly. If like me you start the morning at noon with a headache, you’ll have to adjust later (read the little compromises below)

levain natural yeast
After a super boot-camp, Pasquale is strong as ever

 

First dough – what we need

– 135 gr sourdough
– 150 gr warm water
– 105 gr sugar
– 390 gr manitoba, strong Canadian flour
– 3 yolks (make sure you keep at least 2 of the egg whites in your fridge for later)
– 155 gr very soft butter

Get started

Melt the 105gr sugar in 150gr water and bathe 135gr of Pasquale into the solution. Dream of a lifetime, tepid water and sugar ….yummmmm

colomba baking first step

Throw the 3 egg yolks into the mix, one at a time and stir well; then add the flour a tablespoon at a time. And knead, knead a lot …. your shoulders are screaming, your elbows are aching but it doesn’t matter:
you’re a hard core baker and stubbornly refusing to use a kitchen aid, officially to combine baking and upper body work out, but secretly because it’s a socially acceptable way to stick your hands in food for a good 20min at a time, so go on.

colomba baking first step butter

Finally rub the butter in little by little, when the previous bit is well amalgamated.

colomba baking whisking

Leave to rise 8 to 12 hours covered with a plastic bag on top in a warm place (on heating tubes, in warmed oven), the dough should triple.

colomba baking dough raising

colomba baking dough raised
9 hours later…..

 

Round 2 – we’re not done until we get there

After about 8-12h, Pasquale should be a strong teenager, well grown up now.

Second dough – what we need

– initial mix (close to 1kg)
– 30 gr warm water
– 30 gr sugar
– 3 yolks
– 85gr Manitoba, strong Canadian flour
– 15 gr honey
– 30 gr very soft butter
– 4gr salt
– vanilla flavour and / or a vanilla pod

Get started

Take our well swollen dough and add 30gr of water diluted with 30gr of sugar; slowly and one by one, add the 3 egg yolks, 85gr of Manitoba flour, 15 gr of honey and knead. Knead again. Knead more. Yes, until your shoulders are screaming, yes, again.

Rest for 20min (finally!!!) and let the mix autolyse in its pot.

Knead again and when the dough is a tough ball with well developed gluten, add the butter. It should be very soft but not melted or hot. Incorporate it in little by little, and finally add 4 gr. of salt and the vanilla fragrance or the seeds of a vanilla pod.

colomba baking sourdough candied orange

Then when is all mixed add candied oranges in 10 to 20gr of water (they just need to be moist to be sticky enough), little handfuls after another like on the photo. KNEAD more until you get a smooth mix  (do I still need to say it?).

colomba sourdough orange peel
make sure the candied peel are evenly incorporated

Let it rest in warm place covered for an hour.  Use that time to massage your shoulders and cheer up….impatient, hungry and slightly frustrated, at this stage I normally start taking short-cuts, DO NOT. It’s a patience game, it’s the slow food by excellence.

So let’s get back to our dough and split tit in 2 pieces, one will be the body, and one for the wings (use your imagination!!). Arrange it in the tin and leave to rise just quite to the edges. 

colomba paper tin

Little compromises: if like me you end up starting round 2 after the evening film at round midnight, you’ll have to find a little compromise with Pasquale and maybe leave him alone overnight, in a cooler place (up to 6/7hours).

If however you’ve started early in the morning, then you’ll want to accelerate round 2, by now you should know how Pasquale has been behaving and how fast he’s been growing. Leave the tin in a warm place, or a slightly heated oven (30 degrees) for a couple of hours until it reaches circa 1cm to the edge.

Round 3 – The pretty step

We’re almost there, this is the easiest step, don’t give up and watch out  the cooking.

Sugar coating – what we need

– 1/2 egg whites + salt or cream of tartar if needed to beat them
– 120 gr sugar
– 30 gr. hazelnuts 
– 55 gr. blanched almonds
– 20gr. unpeeled almods
– 2 spoonfuls of bitter almond taste or amaretto
– some sugar nibs and for sprinkling

Pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees and during that time, beat your egg white to a smooth cream, ad the sugar in, still beating. Then I use my hand soup blender to roughly crunch the almonds / hazelnuts and gently incorporate them in the cream.

With a spoon, gently spread the white stuff onto our beautifully risen Pasquale, starting with the edges and avoiding to put too much weight in the middle. 

colomba sourdough sugar coating colomba baking sugar coating colomba baking frosting

colomba sourdough final step decoration
let’s not putting too much in the middle, it would prevent Paquale from flying lightly

colomba sourdough pre-baking

Once ready, set your oven at 190 and put the Colomba in at half height. If your oven’s got more hot flashes than Samantha Jones, you may need to manually move it around once at mid-cooking.

I cooked mine close to 1 hour but tested it several times with a knife as the crust colour can be misleading and not reflect the state of the dough. 
easter sourdough colomba post-baking

In theory you’re supposed to wait for a day to eat it as it gets stronger in taste but here we’ve had trouble waiting….

Now just enjoy, be proud, and disregard weird looks and comments such as “daaaaarling, you spent 3 days baking a brioche? but I can cook one for you in only a couple of hours, you should have asked!?”

Right, let them eat baking soda, you and Pasquale know it’s not worth arguing….

sourdough colomba texture

 

What was all that about already?

If some say that a sweet bread has been eaten in Lombardia for Easter since the VIth century; reality is that the Colomba as we know it today was invented by Motta in the 1930’s to make use of the Panettone facilities outside of the Christmas period as the technique is similar. However, there’s still a number of legends around the origins of the cake and I always find those rather entertaining.

One of the legend I read about is the one of San Colombanus.

The Irish missionary arrived in Milan in 612, during the fasting period preceding Easter. He was warmly greeted by King Agilulf and Queen Theodelinda of the Lombards to the city and offered a heavy meal of meat and other too rich dishes, that he could only decline in that period of the year. Queen Theodolina, did not understand his refusal and asked him in audience, slightly outraged and dumbfounded to be turned down. San Colombanus to ease the upset Queen, offered to have the supper, but only after having blessed the food. This is when the miracle happened and a whole table worth of food turned into a simple white bread Colomba, or Dove, symbol of modesty and peace.

Happy Easter & Happy baking!!

colomba motta

Easter Colomba baking adventures: sending Pasquale the Italian leaven to a 3 days boot-camp [1st Steps]

Last year the Italian Cultural Institute of London organised a conference on Milanese Christmas traditions, and in particular, the delicious Panettone, this extremely rich and yummy brioch-ey cake. Rita Monastero did a passionate speech about the importance of a naturally leavened dough…picked my curiosity and subsequently got most of my December free time VERY busy!! Panettone isn’t quite a simple brioche: It’s a full-on 4 days adventure. And when I say 4 days I assume you already have an active natural leaven, and all the necessary ingredients available in your pantry…. I was indeed way too eager with my initial version and got a flat rich cake, not quite the fabulous fluffy and sweet thing I was expecting. But a few more tries and I was almost there, but after Christmas, my Italian testers all went on (much needed) detox, when I voiced the idea of baking one last one for Epiphany, my boyfriend just frowned and gave me the warning look. Ok my cases will go back to the cupboard. But I couldn’t let Easter go without a tasty and fluffy Colomba.

The Colomba is that – allegedly- dove-shaped little sister of the Panettone. Traditional Easter dessert if any, it’s overall slightly easier than the Chrsitmas version so I’d probably recommend starting there. If you want your Colomba ready for next weekend, I would recommend starting refreshing your leaven this weekend, maybe take the opportunity to bake some bread to use up the quantities. Give your baby a name, mine’s usually called Robert, and he’s Franco-British, but for the Colomba, you’ll need to create his much stronger Italian cousin, we called him Pasquale and sent him to this 2/3 days boot camp first. I’ve adapted the timings for working home-bakers as most of what I found on the internet or the guide I got  from Rita Monastero, are just not realistic. So I started creating Pasquale on a Thursday night and plan on baking the final product on the Saturday, if you’re doing it on the bank holiday weekend, even easier as it does take some time.

Fun facts: ALL Italian recipes call for the sacred “Manitoba flour from Molino”, and I jumped through a number of hoops to import / store 10kg of the d@mned thing in my kitchen…when I realised sheepishly that Manitoba was a Canadian province and all it actually was, is a strong  flour (i.e. very high protein rates, in and around 15gr protein per 100gr of flour) coming from Canada. In other word, what our supermarkets here call “strong Canadian flour” easily found at Tesco, Waitrose and the likes! yay, one problem sorted.

Before we start:

you will need a leaven starter, Manitoba or strong Canadian flour, 00 or all purpose flour. In term of equipment I would recommend a set of glass transparent dishes (to monitor the leaven) , a simple soft scrapper, a couple of of proofing linen cloths.

Step 1 : Thursday evening – toughen up IMG_7224 take 50gr of your usual leaven, steer it with 50gr tepid water and add 100gr of manitoba flour. Robert has left place to Pasquale, it’s starting to take an Italian accent, and it should feel much tougher, thicker, to the point where you can knead it a little bit. Do so for a minute or so.

Cover your pot with a linen, and go out for dinner, or indulge with a spritz and watch La Grande Belleza. You have 3/4 hours ahead of you (depends on the temperature, I personally leave it 3h in the very warm boiler room). In the end it should look smoother, and be 1.5x to twice bigger.

Step 2 : Thursday night– Pasquale rolls with the punches

take 100gr of your now tough Italian leaven and take it to the next stage: shred it in little pieces, add 50gr of lukewarm water and stir. Add 100gr of Manitoba flour and knead for one or 2 min. At this stage I also add a little drop of honey or liquid malt. If we’re sending Pasquale to a boot camp, he’s taking a sweet in his pocket!

now roll it very tight in a sturdy dry and clean cloth, slightly floured and tie it very tight for the night. I used a shoes lace but a present wrap that can be cut off may be a better option.  Place it in a small pan or pot for the night, in a warm place. Good night Pasquale! you’re back to the boiler room for 8 hours in your pyjamas. IMG_7226 Personally I didn’t understand the point of this step the first time, but then realised it was important as it strengthen the leaven and also is a good visual test. In the morning, Pasquale is well grown and trying to escape the bowl…

IMG_7228 Step 3 – a touch of softness in a tough world

After such a night, Pasquale is rather tired, let’s give him a bit of love. Discard any dried bit and use the middle soft part to carry on. IMG_7234To 50gr of the sourdough, again shredded in small pieces add in 50gr tepid water and soak it for a few seconds. Then knead it with 100gr of 00 flour (i.e. all purpose flour).

IMG_7236  Step 4 & 5 : flex your muscle!!

repeat step 3 twice, at at least 3h interval, either on Friday afternoon if you’re using Good Friday to nurse Pasquale, or on Friday evening for those who have a life!! Get a good night rest, there’s a day of kneading coming up!!

IMG_7237
step 3 / 4 / 5 : knead 50gr of leaven with 50gr of water and 100gr of 00 flour for a couple of minutes.
IMG_7242
after 3/4hours (or up to 8hours if needed), it should have doubled in size.

While you’re  nursing Pasquale like a hen hatching her eggs, you can also make sure that you have all the required equipment for the next stage. I got most of what I was missing at Bakery Bits, in particular the cases, the pearl sugar and the candied orange, the delivery should take up to 3 days so plan it ahead.

for the next steps you will need:

– 475 gr. Manitoba flour (i.e. Canadian strong flour)
– 185 gr. soft butter
– 135 gr. cast sugar
– 200 gr. tepid water
– 6 egg yolk
– 15gr honey
– 4gr salt
– 1 vanilla pod
– 1 orange peel
– 300gr of candied orange peel

columba pasquale paper tin 1kg
Bakery bits Colomba tins

 

End of the adventure now published there 

How to spot an Italian ski resort?

How to recognise an Italian ski resort and differentiate it from its neighbours from France or Switzerland at first glance?

First things first, look at women’s blow-dry. If ladies look like they’re coming straight out of the hairdresser no matter how much snow and wind there is through out the day: no doubt, you’re in Italy.

vacanze_di_natale_jerry_cal_carlo_vanzina_008_jpg_gnwevacanze_di_natale_jerry_cal_carlo_vanzina_007_jpg_jiwu

Last summer when coming back from 2 weeks in Tuscany I was stunned by how pretty, and above all stylish, Italian grand mothers were (see the article “fashion lessons learnt from Italian grannies“). Guess what? it applies on the slopes more than ever.

Second clue? are people throwing their skis and poles on the floor nonchalantly, creating an ocean of eclectic boards, Prada shoes, Gucci goggles, gloves and so forth outside of bars and restaurants? if yes, you’re in Italy. (note: if they’re meticulously organised, you’re in Switzerland)

Extra clue: if people around you can telephone while skiing AND gesticulating….where else? Italian skills will never cease to amaze travellers….

Continue reading How to spot an Italian ski resort?

A Weekend in London, UK [wintertime]

 

London's sometimes a little bit hidden, go and look out for it
London’s sometimes a little bit hidden, go and look out for it. Photo taken by the Metropolitan Police on a foggy day.

hurrah we passed Valentines’s time and its lot of heart-shape Krispy creme and 50-stomething bearded men holding balloons (dear please please no), but fact is, London is rather romantic, ALL YEAR ROUND!! a couple of ideas for a long weekend

this article is a follow up on the summer version of this post

# 1 : Brunch, Afternoon High-Tea and GastroPub dinner – indulge with comfort food

When the weather goes chilly a cosy warm up is de rigueur, my favourite afternoon tea award goes to the Sketch : a very stylish, Michelin-star place, with a large collection of flavoured teas and lovely finger food….what else do you need?

Alternative options: recover from any hangover after a long and boozy night out with The breakfast club brunch, that now counts 5 locations, the Smith of Smithfield (and their Spitalfield sister that will reopen in March) , or the Hawksmoor full English breakfast where you can easily feed a young elephant .

There’s quite a few fabulous chimney warmed cosy gastro-pubs in London where you can watch the snowfall (or the rain poor but it sounds less glam), Time Out is always there to help.

Afternoon tea at the Sketch

#2: Culture, Music and other things to do
For guaranteed brownie points with a girl, you could check out what’s on at the Royal Albert hall or the  the Royal Opera; with a little bit of organisation and advance-booking you could bag a  top quality performance at relatively affordable prices. Tip: for best value, pick any of the amphitheatre seats, they all have quality views.

Alternative options: Jazz night & dinner at Rooney Scotts in Soho, ballet at the English National Opera, modern dance at the Sadler’s Well in Angel

Ice-skating in a  magical location is slightly cliché but still, a rather cool date, you’ll fall, laugh, and warm up with a hot-chocolate after-wile. From November to January, pre-book at the styli Sommerset house (central) , the classic Tower of London (East) or the west-based Natural History Museum, and avoid the crowds of the Winter Wonderland fair. 

London is simply beautiful by itself and in the winter, when sunset comes early you could take advantage of a dry day if any, to go walking around. From Sloane square to South Bank for example, watching the sunset on Embankment bridge.

#3 : No romantic weekend without some cuddling

My favourite cinema in the whole world goes to the Aubin, THE Shoreditch based maxi-hipster cuddly place. Faaaaaaaa-bulous Sundays.

Alternative options:  The Electric cinema  – get the front row double beds. Or for a different kind of cinema experience, pretty unique to London, you could check what’s on at the Future Cinema, even though I think they’re recently become way too steep.

 #4: Do things together will bring you closer

Fine, Sauna and Spa are a little bit cheesy as a romantic time for two, but yet it’s a marvellous. Always check out what’s on offers before you book. I recently tried those 2 and it was fantastic. at the Chelsea Club, ask for a  Japanese bath.  The St Pancras hotel spa has luxurious”journeys to …”, I don’t know if I came out of there “firm, purified, enlivened, from the nape of the neck to the tips of my toes” but  definitely came out of there with  numb  legs.

Why not learn something new? like how to make a cocktail, a.k.a. a socially acceptable way to have cocktails on a Saturday mid-afternoon. I have no problem with that. The London Cocktail club have a good beginner overview course, but that lacks a little bit of hand-on practise. Someone’s whispering to my ear that Harvey Nicholls’ bar actually has great master-classes.

#5: the WOW factor

London Royal Observatory

how could would it be to go Start gazing at the Royal Observatory, on the  meridian zero? get on their mailing list or keep checking the website for new event

For other good views of the city you can try the National Portrait gallery Restaurant with a view after, you could plan it following an exhibition, after the Thursdays / Fridays late opening.

and the 2nd part of the evening? I would favour a speakeasy type of place over a club. You two can chat over a delicious Manhattan (sorry! meant London dry gin!). The Savoy’s Beaufort Bar has basically invented London cocktails, with their signature over-the-top impeccable service; however my favourite remains the Calloh Callay at the heart of Shoreditch for their unbeatable friendly atmosphere (booking essential Thursday-Saturday).

Fresh winter run along regents canal with a friend!!!

Bake your way through the festive season

Coming from a bakers family, the only food I was truly missing in London was great bread, available daily and conveniently.
During the course of 2013, I started baking my own sourdough bread at home and I’m pretty proud of my regular no-knead loaf, super easy and hassle-free. (thanks loads to the guys from the E5 bakery for having set me up on the right direction!)

About a month ago I hosted my parents for a weekend at home and had baked Dan Lepard’s raisin and rye crown bread for breakfast; they liked it so much that mom set me on a mission to bake a good fruit loaf to toast her home made foie-gras on Christmas eve. I wanted something spicy and fruity that would keep a real sourdough bread texture and taste. Our foie gras being already layered with candied cranberry, I didn’t want to bake something overly sweet. Also, most recipes call in for the addition of nuts but mom though it would add a “crunchy” distraction and preferred a fruit-only loaf.

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After having tested a few options at home, I crossed the channel with my (4kg) Dutch oven and 2 types of sourdough starters; and off I was, in for a good backing lesson on the field. For a start, I just could NOT find the same flour as in London easily available. Bread is made of almost only flour and water, and ingredients are absolutely essential to the taste and texture. If the internet is global and gives is the impression we can follow any recipe from any and all blogs across the planet, reality sometimes makes a humble check-in. Products are not only different, but also, the water tastes different, the bacteria present in the air is different, the humidity is different, and my parents’ big countryside house is much cooler than our central London apartment, messing up all proofing times.

I ended up abandoning the idea of a rye bread for I couldn’t find the right supply on time for Christmas; and remixed several inspirations I took from my go-to baking blogs. I started with a test-run and made the raisin loaf from you can do it at home blog. Tasty enough! (under the dog’s surveillance) so I braced myself up, and started scratching my head in search for a fig adaptation.

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Ingredients:

– Starter 135gr (100% hydration)
– White flour 85% – 216gr – the white flour I found at the supermarket did not contain enough gluten so I had to increase the whole wheat % to avoid ending up with an unmanageably wet dough. Any unbleached white flour should do, ideally with as close as you can get to 12-13% proteins.
– Whole wheat flour 15% – 38gr plus dusting
– Water 67% – 171gr
– Salt – 7gr
– Cinnamon – a teaspoon
– Mixed spices (cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg mix)
–  Chopped dried figs 33% – 85gr

Directions:

Add the lukewarm water to the starter and dilute for a few seconds
Add both flours, mix well and knead until the gluten develops. you should now be handling a relatively wet ball of dough.
Let it autolyse for 15/30min.

Add the salt + figs and spices, and again knead until the fruit is well incorporated.

Let it rest for 1/2h in a greased bowl (adapt the timing depending on your temperature)
fold gently and let proof in the banetton overnight.

In the morning, slash it the way you like and pre-heat the oven at 225C or maximum temperature. Bake it for 40 minutes in a Dutch oven, take off the lid and bake it for another 10min at 200C.

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