Home and away, I love to travel. Posts from trips in the UK and overseas including hotel and restaurant reviews and visits to specialist producers.

 

When it comes to tourism in Belgium, Brussels gets a bad rap.

Go to Bruges, they say, for the picturesque canals and mediaeval centre.
Go to Antwerp, they say, for world class art and hipster fashion.
Go to Ghent, they say, for more of the same plus cycling too.
Go to Ypres, they say, for WW1 history.

But Brussels? Brussels is often dismissed as little more than a hub for politicians and lobbyists.

Of course, there’s much more to Brussels than politics! Yes, Brussels is the home of the European Union, NATO and the United Nation’s European office…

…but it is also the capital of a country of two halves – the Dutch-speaking Flemish region of Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia in the South. Multicultural Brussels, the third region of the country, is bilingual though French is now more prevalent than Dutch. These days English is widely spoken as well as many other languages, indeed it’s said that as much as half the population speak neither French nor Dutch as their native tongue.

As a Londoner, one of the things I find most appealing about Brussels is this sense of multiculturalism. Although the issue of language is still a hot potato for many Belgians, especially when it comes to education and cultural identity, Brussels is a city that is very open to the world.  Indeed, we chat to Pierre from the local tourist board who tells us that the people of Brussels refer to themselves as zinneke (bastard dogs), wearing their mongrel heritage with pride. Pierre is himself the perfect example – his mother is gipsy, his father Walloon and Flemish, his wife Brazilian and his sisters are married to a German, a Frenchman and a Czech, respectively!

Brussels is a vibrant city with a historic heart and a modern outlook. And the Eurostar service takes you from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi-Zuid in less than two and a half hours!

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When it comes to sightseeing, you still can’t beat a good old-fashioned guide book, or the website equivalent. I won’t try to recreate that here but suggest that as well as the popular Gothic and baroque buildings of the Grand Place and surrounding narrow cobbled streets, the shiny Atomium housing a variety of exhibitions and the incomprehensibly mobbed corner where the Mannekin Pis resides you might want to look up Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – the squatting female and doggie equivalents of Mannekin, the Belgian Comic Strip Centre (and the Comic Strip walk that takes you past comics painted on the walls of a number of buildings), an amazing array of grand buildings such as the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, the Bourse (stock exchange), the Royal Palace, the Basilique du Sacré Coeur and the architecture of art nouveau architect Victor Horta. Lovers of literature, art, history and even cars, will also appreciate several excellent museums in Brussels.

Instead, I’m going to share my tips for some great places to eat, drink, shop and sleep.

 

Chocolates and Patisserie

Brussels is awash with shops selling chocolate, but much of what’s on sale is cheap, bulk-manufactured products that are hardly worth wasting suitcase space for. Here are the ones that are worth seeking out.

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Laurent Gerbaud is one of Belgium’s rising chocolatiers and is fighting an uphill battle to move Belgians on from the idea of “Belgian chocolate” to an understanding of the actual origins and varieties available.

Like several chocolatiers I’ve met, Laurent was a chef first; he came to chocolate via chocolate sculpture with an artist friend, and that lead, eventually, to his current career. As a child, he developed an interest in China, perhaps because of several friendships he had with Chinese and Taiwanese families. He worked in Chinese restaurants, took courses in Chinese and, after a university degree in history, finally moved to China for a couple of years. There, he discovered that the Chinese don’t have as sweet a tooth as Europeans and he lost his taste for high sugar sweets. When he came back to Belgium, he had the obvious thought of bringing his experiences in China into his chocolate making but realised he wasn’t inspired by fusion flavours. Instead, he focused on quality ingredients, including some sourced from Asia.

Today, the Chinese influences is perhaps most evident in his logo which is an artistic interpretation of the Chinese hanzi characters for “chocolate” and his name.

Laurent is keen to make chocolate that people love to eat; he says “one of my purposes is to make junk food – you eat one and you want another because it’s really good”. Judging by the chocolates we tasted, he’s nailed it – I could have eaten a whole box of the chocolates made with dried figs from Turkey and candied oranges from Italy. His shop on Rue Ravenstein is also a boutique tea room, with plans to extend the service to offer a savoury menu too.

Tip: Of course, you can visit his shop just to buy some of his excellent chocolate, but for a more personal experience, book a chocolate tasting or chocolate making workshop.

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Pierre Marcolini is one of the few Belgian chocolatiers to make chocolate from bar to bean, before then using it to make a range of chocolates. His chocolate shop at 2 Rue de Minimes is certainly full of temptation but what I recommend above the chocolate is a visit to the address around the corner at 39 Grote Zavel, where his spectacular patisserie is sold. I found the macarons surprisingly disappointing but a glossy strawberry patisserie was a winner.

Other famous chocolate brands in Brussels include Wittamer (a long standing bakery and chocolate business) and Frederic Blondeel (a chef turned chocolatier who also makes chocolate from bean to bar).

 

Speculoos Biscuits

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Speculoos, hailing from Belgium and The Netherlands, are spiced shortcrust biscuits that were originally associated with the feast of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in early December. Made from flour, brown sugar and butter with a spice mix that usually includes cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper, these days they are popular and available all year round.

Maison Dandoy, established in 1829, makes a range of sweet bakery products but is best known for its traditional speculoos and gingerbread biscuits. These days, it has a handful of shops in Brussels, but its worth making a trip to its oldest remaining store at 31 Rue au Beurre, to admire the beautiful wooden biscuit moulds lining the shelves. The Tea Room on Rue Charles Buls (also known as Karel Bulsstraat) is larger, offering the opportunity to enjoy a wide range of biscuits, pastries and drinks inside. There are an additional four shops in Brussels, plus one in nearby Waterloo.

Having tried several supermarket brands of speculoos biscuit, I was surprised to discover that it’s not just a case of fancy shops and branding – the Maison Dandoy speculoos biscuits are definitely superior!

We also tried Dandoy’s pain à la Grecque, a crunchy bread-cum-biscuit coated with pearled sugar crystals. I was more fascinated by the origins of the name than the biscuit itself – over two centuries ago, the monks of a local Augustine abbey used to support the city’s destitute by giving them bread. The abbey was located near a place known as Wolvengracht (Wolves Ditch); the gracht pronounced grecht in local dialect. Over time, pain a la grecht morphed into pain à la Grecque, confusing generations of shoppers with its erroneous suggestion of a Greek origin.

Tip: If you’re as huge a fan of speculoos biscuits as we are, make a quick visit to a supermarket to pick up a couple of extra large packs of mass-produced biscuits as well. There’s a mini supermarket in Brussels Midi Station.

 

Cuberdons

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I first fell for cuberdons over two decades ago, and if anything, I love them even more today. A purply-dark red colour and conical in shape, the cuberdon is a raspberry-flavoured gummy sweet, firm on the outside with an oozing interior. In Dutch, it’s known as a neus (nose), in French it’s called a chapeau-de-curé or chapeau-de-prêtre (priest’s hat).

You can find cuberdons in quite a few sweet shops in Brussels, several of which sell multiple colours and flavours, a relatively recent phenomenon. But we’ve found that the best prices for regular raspberry cuberdons is from the Cric-Crac sweet shop inside Brussels Midi station, which sells by weight.

Tip: These sweets are best eaten within a couple of weeks of purchase, as the liquid centre can crystallise and harden if left for too long.

 

Waffles

Belgian Waffles fall into two types.

Firm, rich and chewy Gaufre de Liège (Liège Waffle) are made from an adapted brioche-dough and work well both hot and cold. These are usually oval in shape and have a slightly crunchy exterior from the crystallised sugar that has caramelised against the waffle iron. They’re great for eating on the hoof as they’re traditionally eaten plain (though you can buy them with toppings too if you prefer).

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Rectangular Brussels Waffles are made with a leavened batter, resulting in a much lighter and airier texture and are definitely at their best enjoyed hot, fresh from the waffle iron. Traditionally, Brussels waffles are served with a dusting of icing sugar but these days you can choose from a wide selection of toppings including ice cream, chocolate sauce and fruits. But I suggest you ignore all of those and ask for your waffle with a generous dollop of speculoos paste. With a texture much like smooth peanut butter, this sweet spread is the same flavour as the famous biscuit and melts wonderfully into the indentations of a freshly-cooked hot waffle.

Tip: You’ll find waffles on sale all over Brussels, often from hole-in-the wall vendors, but if you want to sit down and eat, try Maison Dandoy’s Tearoom.

 

Beer & Bars

Belgium is world famous for its beers and rightly so, with a rich tradition that goes back many, many centuries. The range of beers produced by Belgian breweries is impressive, including pale, golden, amber, red and dark ales, dubbels and tripels, Flemish sour brown, Champagne beers (which receive a second fermentation using the method now most strongly associated with Champagne), wheat beers and lambics (spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts that are native to the brewery, as opposed to the addition of cultivated yeasts).

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Both Pete and I absolutely love what owner Jean Hummler is offering at his two bars, Moeder Lambic and Moeder Lambic Fontainas, located at 68 rue de Savoie and 8 place Fontainas, respectively. He started the first bar less than five years ago, after a career working for industrial food businesses in France.

He starts off by telling us why he wanted to do something different; “most places are not very selective, they sell coca cola and junk food” and their beer selection is not very inspiring either. He is committed to selling only quality produce and that applies to the beers, the food and even the soft drinks. He has two key criteria, the way a product is made and how it tastes. “Making money and brewing great beer are often not the same job”, he laughs. He looks for products that are made by hand, adding that he doesn’t want “industrial anything”. For a beer to be selected it must be made with craft and it must pass the taste test – it must taste good! Right now, he has approximately 150 beers on the menu of which 46 are on tap. These include beers from around the world, including a number from the UK.

The same principles apply to his sourcing of cheeses and charcuterie (which form the main thrust of the simple menu) and the non-beer drinks menu (which includes some delicious farmhouse apple juice, for those less interested in the beers).

The cheese selection (€12.5) is utterly wonderful; all are raw milk cheeses and range from soft and mild to fantastically pungent, each one a genuine delight. In the centre of the serving board is a bowl of pottekees – a blend of fresh white cheese, onion, pepper and lambic beer. Just as excellent is the meat selection (€12.5) which includes garlic sausage, French sausage, paté made with geuze beer, hâte levée – pork cooked slowly in bouillon with garlic and spices, Tierenteyn mustard, Belgian pickles (which are a lot like piccalilli). Both plates are served with a basket of bread and a superb raw milk butter.

As he introduces each item on the plates, his enthusiasm for the producers and their products is self-evident; “The idea is to offer another selection, another quality, another explanation that most people don’t know exists”.

Two other key policies for Hummler are ensuring that all his staff know and love the product range, and establishing strong relationships with each supplier – and one (of many) ways he furthers both is the Moeder Fucker series of beers brewed by Le Paradis microbrewery not far from Nancy, in France. For each beer he sends two of his staff to the brewery to help make it; they decide which style of beer to make and work with the brewery team to create their vision. During our visit, Moeder Fucker IV was on tap.

As we talked, Pete tried five beers, guided by Hummler through the staggering range available. He drank Taras Boulba by local Brasserie de la Senne (Belgium), Moeder Fucker IV by Le Paradis (France), Mozaic Black by Mont Saleve (France), Cuvée De Ranke by Ranke (Belgium) and Fièvre de Cacao by Thiriez (France).

In the end, Hummler is a man after my own heart. “We all have to decide. Each citizen has to decide what they want to do with their life. I decided for myself that I wanted to eat very good food. I eat less and less meat, maybe once a week but what I eat is very good, like the chicken that is aged 120 days on a small farm. Taste is very important to me.

Tip: Ask staff for guidance in selecting beers for your own beer flight.

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Small and traditional pub La Fleur en Papier Doré was the perfect place to meet local friends for an evening drink. At 55 Rue des Alexiens, it was very close to our bed and breakfast, and also easy to reach by local bus. The menu shares a little of the history of the bar, housed in a small maisonette that dates from the mid 18th century. In the past it housed a convent, which moved to a new home in the middle of the 20th century. As a pub, it became the favoured meeting place of the Surrealist cultural movement with regulars including René Magritte; a few decades later it was a focus point for the Cobra (avant-garde) movement, creators of experimental art and philosophy. Mementos of both remain on the well-worn walls of the cosy pub, protected (along with the façade, the ground floor rooms and some of the furniture) by the local government which has decreed them of historical value.

Stop for a few beers (and some charcuterie) or for a simple meal.

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The Cantillon Brewery welcomes visitors for brewery tours (7 Euros including a beer) or to buy beer. You can buy to drink in or takeaway; lovers of lambic will particularly enjoy a visit. The address at 56 Rue Gheude is only a short walk from the central tourist district.

 

Lunch Stops

My first recommendation for a light lunch is the cheese plate and charcuterie selection at Moeder Lambic, above. Super quality, and each provides a generous portion for the price.

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Another great option is recently opened Peck 47 (amusingly named for its address at 47 Rue Marche Aux Poulets). This all day cafe offers a short menu of home made sandwiches, salads, soups, cakes, fresh juices, smoothies and a small selection of local beers. For just €8, my poached eggs on sourdough with smoked salmon and homemade relish was far more generous than I expected and all the items were of excellent quality. The eggs were perfectly poached, the salad nicely dressed and the home made relish very good indeed. Pete’s sandwich – roast chicken, rocket, lemon and basil mayo and slow roasted tomatoes – also impressed, for €5.

Tip: A particularly nice touch is that the free tap water is stored in the drinks fridge in large bottles stuffed with mint. Ask for some!

 

A Traditional Dinner

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I have to say from the off – don’t go to Restobieres if you’re looking for great service. The three staff on duty ranged from friendly but incompetent through utterly disinterested to downright sullen. That usually stops me from recommending a place but Restobieres is a good option if you’re keen to try traditional Belgian dishes alongside a range of Belgian beers.

Herve Cheese Croquets (€10) were a tasty comfort food, served hot and freshly fried. Homemade paté with Rochefort and foie gras  (€12) was a generous slab; light on the foie gras but tasty nonetheless. My calf’s liver with shallots and Chouffe  (€20) was decent; I really liked the beer and shallot sauce. Pete had satisfactory steak and chips with another good sauce and a generous well-dressed salad. The star of the mains was our friend’s bloempanch blood pudding (€12) which was both tasty and generously portioned for the price.

The only duff note (with the exception of the service) was a scoop of speculoos biscuit ice cream (€4) which we decided could only possibly have been made by a chef who’d never tasted speculoos (and not bothered to look up a recipe for the spices usually used). The texture was unpleasantly gritty too.

Located at 9 rue des Renards, not far from the Jeu de Balle flea market.

 

Brussel’s Modern Dining Scene

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I already explained how much we liked the multicultural vibe in Brussels. This goes equally for the food scene, which has some great restaurants to explore. One such place launched just a few weeks before our visit; located along very trendy Rue de Flandre in the Sainte Catherine district, Gramm is a restaurant offering bold, inventive and modern food. It’s headed up by Chef Erwan Kenzo Nakata, who grew up in Brittany to a French father and Japanese mother, thus explaining some of the eclectic Japanese touches to otherwise modern French cooking.

The evening offering is a fixed tasting menu, 6 courses for €38. Although the courses are individually quite small, we felt very satisfied at the end of our meal, having enjoyed the array of tastes, textures and colours in Nakata’s self-assured dishes.

While I felt the food was good value, I was less impressed with the drinks pricing, for wines, beers and soft drinks (which were served in shockingly tiny glasses) so if you’re on a fixed budget, keep an eye on your drinks orders to avoid a shock at the end of the evening. Also, do set aside plenty of time. Service is very warm and friendly but the wait between courses, even in a nearly empty restaurant, is a little longer than ideal.

Tip: Don’t be shy about asking for more of the excellent bread and butter, by the way, it’s great for mopping up some of the juices and sauces!

 

The Marolles Flea Market

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Usually, I’m not much of a shopper but offer me the chance to browse a car boot sale or flea market and I’m instantly excited, so I was very keen to return to the famous Marolles Flea Market held daily in the Place du Jeu de Balle. On sale is a charming mix of cheap tat and more expensive “antiques”; it’s definitely a case of one man’s rubbish being another man’s treasure. With my love of retro kitchenware, I was in heaven as there’s plenty of it here, at very bargainous prices. It’s actually a miracle I came away with only a couple of ornate old teaspoons and two Nestle branded cups and saucers in amber glass – there was, I think, a complete set of six in the box but most were too chicken-shit-and-feather covered to assess very well, so I just bought the two cleanest ones for a whopping €1!

The market runs every day of the year. Official start times state that it starts at 6 am and finishes at 2pm on weekdays, 3pm on weekends.

Tip: Take lots of small change with you and of course, be prepared to haggle!

Brussels has many more markets to visit including markets for art, food, flowers and vintage clothes.

 

An Elegant Pillow

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X2B Brussels is a family run luxury bed and breakfast in the heart of Brussels, just a few minutes walk from the Grand Place. The three guest bedrooms are each on a different floor – we booked the first floor double and were delighted to discover a vast room with soaringly high ceilings, simple and elegant furnishings and a very generous en-suite bathroom. Do note that none of the rooms have step-free access and, as you’d expect in a private home, there is no lift. Guests are welcomed either by owner Xavier or his mother Monique, who sit down with guests on arrival to share tips for visiting Brussels, personalised to their guests’ interests. Breakfast is excellent: a basket of fresh bread and pastries with an enormous selection of jams and spreads, cheese and cold hams, yoghurt, eggs however you’d like them, rounded off by coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. The hot freshly made raisin bread pain perdu is a lovely touch. Free wifi is also a boon, for those of us who like to stay connected. From £160 a night including breakfast.

Tip: make sure you jot down the house number as well as the street name; there’s no obvious sign on the outside so we walked up and down the same stretch of road several times, eventually identifying the B&B only by peering at the tiny labels for individual doorbells.

 

Getting Around

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In terms of getting around, the key sites in Brussels are within a fairly small area and its certainly possible to walk. But you can also make use of the metro and tram network, as well as local buses. The Brussels Card gives unlimited use of public transport, free entry into some attractions, discounted entry into many more and discounts in shops and restaurants too. You will also be given a free city map. Available for 24, 48 or 72 hours for 24€, 36€ or 43€.

 

With thanks to Eurostar for the complimentary return tickets between London and Brussels and thanks to the Brussels Tourist Board for their assistance in planning some of our sightseeing highlights and their insight into historic and modern Brussels.

 

Call myself a foodie* and never been to the home of the pork pie? Shame on me!

Luckily, an invitation to attend the Artisan Cheese Fair in Melton Mowbray gave me the chance to fix this oversight and Pete and I made our way North on the first Saturday in May.

Held in the Cattle Market, which itself is in the heart of this ancient market town, the Artisan Cheese Fair is now in its fourth year and bigger and better than ever. We spoke to organiser Matthew O’Callaghan about how he came to create the event.

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Unlike other cheese festivals we’ve attended, entrance is just £1 and there are no hidden costs to worry about. Free on site car parking is available and the various talks and musical entertainment don’t require additional payment.

The majority of the stalls were given over to cheese, as you’d expect, though of course, the famous local pork pie was represented by a couple of producers, as was locally produced beer. There were also a few non-cheese stalls selling fudge, cakes, bread and other bakery goods, a variety of alcoholic and soft drinks, ice cream, jam and samosas (though, surprisingly, no paneer-filled ones!)

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Hunt Cake and Pork Pies at Dickinson & Morris aka Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe – I can recommend both!

As Matthew said, over 50 British cheese makers were represented, most of them showcasing multiple cheeses. We spent a few hours at the Fair so I was able to sample at least one cheese from nearly all of them. Here are my top picks.

Kavey’s Favourites From The 2014 Artisan Cheese Fair

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Quickes Oak Smoked Cheddar & Goat Cheddar

Smoked with oak chips from their own woodland and made with milk from their own dairy, the Quickes oak smoked cheddar had a beautifully natural smoke flavour which was perfectly balanced with the cheese itself – in so many smoked cheeses, the only flavour is the smoke itself. The texture of the cheese was lovely with a pleasing creaminess from the fat content and I liked the level of salty sharpness.

The Goat Cheddar was also fantastic, indeed it’s one of three cheeses I purchased to bring home.

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Cote Hill Blue

Mary Davenport’s family have been dairy farmers in Lincolnshire for 40 years, but turned to making cheese 9 years ago when the falling price of milk made running the business solely as a dairy less viable.

I loved Cote Hill’s soft mild blue cheese made in particular; though the cheese is mild, the blue flavour comes through clearly and the rind is lovely. The Cote Hill Reserve was also delicious – a semi-hard washed-rind cheese which uses Tom Wood Beers’ Bomber County to add flavour to the rind.

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Cheesemakers of Canterbury’s Canterbury Cobble

This stand had a wider range of cheeses on display than most exhibitors, as well as butter and biscuits. It was their Canterbury Cobble that appealed the most. Cheesemaker Jane Bowyer explained that it is made like a brie but then matured into a hard cheese. It was creamy but sharp, with a lovely hint of lemony citrus.

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Belvoir Ridge Rutland Slipcote

Jane and Alan Hewson from Belvoir Ridge Creamery were showcasing a new soft curd cheese called Colwick, having recently revived an old 17th century recipe. It was perfectly pleasant but it was the oozing Rutland Slipcote that stole my attention, and was another cheese I purchased to bring home. Slipcote is a white mould-ripened cheese and is delightfully pungent and gooey when ripe. The Hewsons make their cheeses with milk from their rare breed Red Poll & Blue Albion cattle.

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Hafod Welsh Organic Cheddar

As she cut me a sample, Rachel Holden explained that her father Patrick (who was busy cutting and wrapping cheese) looks after the family dairy while she and brother Sam make cheese. The milk from their brown and white Ayshire cows produces a creamy nutty cheddar with a distinct brassica flavour. It’s the kind of cheese you could accidentally eat far too much of!

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Thimble Little Anne & Dorothy

I confess I ended up spending ages chatting to cheese maker Paul Thomas and his wife Hannah Roche. The couple have been in the cheese industry for many years and Paul is also the head cheese maker for Lyburn Farmhouse Cheesemakers. Their own cheese making business is in its first year and currently has just two adorable little cheeses called Little Anne and Dorothy. Little Anne is a fresh lactic cheese and Dorothy is a soft washed-rind cheese; both are made from unpasteurised raw cow’s milk.

Paul also teaches cheese making classes at the The School of Artisan Food.

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Hampshire Cheeses Tunworth

I almost didn’t stop at the HC stall, as I’m already so familiar with Tunworth – it’s a cheese a buy nearly every time I visit Neal’s Yard Dairy. But I saw a window of opportunity when the stall was miraculously free of fellow visitors and took the chance to chat with cheese maker Stacey Hedges.

Of course, the Tunworth was delicious as always, but I was particularly excited by Stacey’s news that they started making a new cheese last year. Called Winslade, the new cheese is wrapped in a band of spruce bark, which adds flavour to the rind. It’s currently produced in limited volume, but she told me to look out for it in Neal’s Yard Dairy.

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Whitelake’s Goddess

I didn’t mean to make cheese maker Peter Humphries blush when I asked if one of his cheeses was named for someone in particular but his embarrassed expression as he said “yes” was utterly charming. As too was his cheese. It was the oozing yellow centre making a break for it that drew me to the stall – the cheese is (commercially) known as Goddess and is produced (for musician-cum-cheeseman Alex James). Made from Guernsey milk, this is a delicious mild and creamy soft cheese.

Ticklemore Harbourne Blue (no photo)

Ticklemore had three cheeses on sale – Devon Blue (made from cow’s milk), Beenliegh Blue (made from sheep’s milk) and Harbourne Blue (made from goat’s milk). The Devon was a bit plain and the Beenliegh too acidic but the Harbourne Blue was a wonderfully tasty cheese. The balance between sweet, salty and blue was delicious and the rich full fat creaminess was a real delight. This was another of the cheeses I bought to bring home.

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Sparkenhoe Red Leicester

I wasn’t able to chat to anyone at this busy stall as they were busy selling cheese but did taste both their hand made Red Leicester and a mild and chalky blue cheese.

 

Talks & Entertainment

Luckily, we learned a lot about the history of Red Leicester (and exactly how anatto came to be used to give it that distinctive bright colour) by attending one of the free talks, An Unusual History of Cheese. In this entertaining and hugely informative talk, Matthew O’Callaghan shared a light-hearted history of cheese that was perfectly pitched to convey lots of information in a very engaging way. His abiding love for cheese itself and for local and national history was self evident!

Outside, visitors were entertained by the Melstrum Ukulele Band and the New St Georges Morris Dancers.

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I was drawn to a recreation of an old milking parlour, set up in an open-sided trailer.

 

The Melton Cheeseboard

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A special thank you to Tim Brown of The Melton Cheeseboard, a local shop specialising in a wide range of British cheeses and local specialities, for his very warm welcome and the generous selection of cheeses and local products he gave us. His shop is located in the heart of Melton Mowbray at 8 Windsor Street and is open 6 days a week.

 

* Actually, I’m more likely to refer to myself as a greedy glutton than a foodie, but you catch my drift…

Kavey Eats was a guest of the Artisan Cheese Fair. Thanks to Matthew, Lin, Rachel and Tim.

 

Although we always chose Japanese breakfasts when our morning meals were included in our ryokan or hotel stays, our Kyoto accommodation was room only, so we headed out for breakfast every day.

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On the first morning, we headed out to Toji Temple (for the monthly flea market) and decided to find breakfast once we reached Toji Station. Just as I was starting to despair of finding anywhere, we came across a lovely little coffee shop called Kissa Ippongi. We were warmly welcomed and took two seats at the large communal table to one side. We noticed most of the Japanese customers eating a Western breakfast set and followed suit. This was our first encounter with the fabulously light and thick-cut Japanese sliced bread and we both really liked it. We also appreciated the crunchy dressed cabbage salad and the fresh oranges that came as part of the plate. The bill, including coffees, was just ¥880.

We enjoyed our coffee shop breakfast so much that we sought out other Kyoto cafes for more egg and toast breakfasts throughout the week. Don’t worry – we made sure to eat lots and lots and lots of wonderful Japanese food during our trip!

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Coffee Smart on Teramachi Dori clearly belongs to a true coffee lover, judging from the careful attention given to roasting beans using an impressive Probat roasting machine just inside the entrance. I couldn’t help but be charmed by its retro interior and I suspect it’s original rather than a modern-day replica. For breakfast, Pete ordered toast and egg, which turned out to be a very generously stuffed omelette sandwich. My French Toast, made with that same thick-cut fluffy sliced bread, was superbly light and served with a pot of maple syrup. A little more pricey than our Toji breakfast, the bill came to ¥2000.

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Between the nearest bus stop and Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) we stopped at this “Morning Cafe Evening Bar” called Bear. Indeed, there were a number of soft bears inside including a large one perched on a bar stool wearing a Halloween outfit, who was our only fellow customer. Breakfast was ok but the coffee was too bitter for us here. The bill was ¥960.

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It was the resident cat that first drew us to Shiroi Hana (“white flower”), a coffee shop we passed several times during our stay, walking back and forth along Aneyakoji Dori as we made our way to and from Teramachi Dori (and its neighbouring covered shopping streets). Inside, we were charmed by the bright, polished interior and the row of fancy glass coffee syphons at the counter. Breakfast, with a particularly fine iced coffee for me, came to ¥1000.

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As we were leaving Shiroi Hana the waitress saw me taking a photo of the exterior and came running out to take our photo in front of the entrance; just another example of the proactive kindness we encountered so often in Japan.

We also tried similar Western sets in a couple of coffee chains, but they were not worthy of sharing.

 

You can read more about this and our previous Japan trip under my Japan tag. More to come soon!

Thanks to Michael for help identifying the names of a couple of these coffee shops and to Ish and Chloe for the coffee syphon know-how.

Feb 272014
 

A random set of images from Japan:

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A friend of bread is a friend of mine

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Cupola Sanjo, the covered segment of Sanjo Dori (and its delightful chicken logo)

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Waiting at a tram stop, Osaka

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Details, Pontocho, Kyoto

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Children’s book, Kyoto Coffee Shop – rather surreal to try and understand it from the pictures alone

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Osaka Marathon support crew; Peeking into an Osaka games parlour

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Takoyaki stall octopus dressed for Halloween, Osaka

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Ice cream twins, Kyoto

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Fortune slips and berries, Kyoto

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My sweet and malty near-namesake

Feb 242014
 

More images from our last trip to Japan – these ones have a shopping theme.

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Cat and dog purses

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Trouser mannequins; Hello Kitty Pez dispenser

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Giant wasp or bee in honey; Mentaiko

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Kumamon charms; Maneki-neko (beckoning cat) ornaments

Feb 152014
 

A few more images from Japan:

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Cats of Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

 

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Pampered Dogs, Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto

 

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Model of a biting dog outside a restaurant in Gion, Kyoto

 

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Cat in a hat, Sumiyoshitaisha Shrine, Osaka

 

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Cuddly Dominion, Kyushu

 

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A photo album of Pete and I enjoying Japan.

 

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Pete loved his vending machine coffee and got antsy if he couldn’t find his favourite brands; Pete buying ramen

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Pete feasting on gyoza, katsu don, beef don and yakinuku

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Us enjoying okonimiyaki in Kyoto

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Us, feasting again

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Pete with coffee and beer

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Pete on the bus, local train, tram and shinkansen

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Pete enjoying ice cream; Pete buying doughnuts

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Kavey in the tower; Kavey with Kumamoto Castle

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Kavey with Hello Kitty, zebra and giraffe, Tanuki-san, Snoopy, Daruma-san and as a Samurai

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Pete as a Samurai (with amused schoolboys) at Kumamoto Castle; Pete with tiger bag, in a Tokyo shop

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Pete with Kumamon, with his hand up a pink sheep, behind a stone pagoda and with another Kumamon

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Pete trying (and failing) to win chocolate in an arcade; Pete in front of street art shutters

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Pete at various temples and shrines

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Pete placing a stone on a torii, throwing a coin and admiring lilies at Umi Jigoku

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Us at Umi Jigoku

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Pete ringing the large bell at a temple in Usuki; Pete admiring Takachiho Gorge

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Views of Kyushu, as Pete drives

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Pete outside the entrance and Kavey in our private outdoor onsen at Sanga ryokan

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Us at Mount Aso

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Pete being a chicken, Us outside a Kyoto coffee shop

Feb 112014
 

I was really happy with our Kyoto hotel choice for last October’s stay. The previous year, we’d split our 5 nights in Kyoto between the gorgeous Shiraume ryokan in Gion and Hotel Granvia, located in the large and modern Kyoto Station building. That worked wonderfully for our first visit to Kyoto.

This time, I wanted a location near Nishiki Market, Teramachi Dori, Shijo Dori, Pontocho… I booked us into the Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa, near the corner of Kawaramachi and Oike, chuffed to nab a rate of less than ¥ 10,000 per night for a clean, comfortable and spacious double room. We didn’t take any meals in the hotel – instead we enjoyed breakfast in several different nearby coffee shops, lunch at whatever site we were near during the day and dinner at a variety of restaurants in the vicinity of the hotel.

This little ramen-ya (ramen shop) was very close to our hotel and we stopped in twice during our 6 night stay. Friends have helped me identify the restaurant from my photos – it’s part of a chain called Kairikiya Ramen and this is the Kitashirakawa branch, located on the corner of Ebisucho and Kawaramachi.

The menu includes English translations, one member of the staff had (limited) English and I had a translator app on my S4 so ordering was very simple.

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Across our two visits we ordered soya ramen, chicken kaarage (fried chicken), gyoza, cheese crisps and fried rice. (The dishes we had the first time were so tasty, we chose mostly the same ones on our second visit).

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For one visit, we got the last table. The other time it seemed quiet as we entered but the seats filled up within minutes. The majority of diners were eating alone but we never felt rushed. That said, we didn’t linger for ages, as it’s clear that this kind of business relies on a fast turnaround.

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Prices can be even lower than the menus above show, as there is also a page of Sets combining a bowl of ramen with one or more of the side dishes, for a discounted total.

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It so hard to beat a steaming bowl of rich broth, tangled noodles, soft fatty chashu pork, brightly oozing ni-tamago egg and crunchy menma fermented bamboo shoot. When you add in hot, freshly fried chicken, steamed and fried gyoza, intensely savoury fried rice and those marvellous deep fried cheese crisps, it’s virtually impossible to resist; it was only my determination to also enjoy sushi, tonkatsu, yakiniku … that stopped us visiting another few times… more of which coming soon!

More posts on Japan.

 

Suizenji Joju-en Park

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Suizenji Joju-en is a beautiful park in Kumamoto. When we visited at the end of October last year, it was still lush and green; the autumn colours still to descend.

Daimyo (feudal lord) Hosokawa Tadatoshi originally built a temple, Suizenji, on the site in 1632 but just four years later he replaced it with a tea house, designating the new surrounding gardens a tea retreat; he believed the natural spring-fed water (from nearby Mount Aso) made excellent tea. Tadatoshi named the garden Joju-en for a character in a poem by 4th century Chinese poet Tao Yuanming. Both titles form part of the full name of the park today.

The garden took subsequent generations of the family a further 80 years to develop and represents, in miniature form, the 53 post stations of Tokaido, the road that connected Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo Period. The largest of the many rounded tsukiyama (artificial hills) represents Mount Fuji.

It is typical of the Momoyama period of garden design – a central lake is bordered by artfully arranged boulders and pebbles and there are stepping stones within. Paths wind through the gardens, showcasing landscapes designed to be admired from a distance; they are connected by low stone bridges over the lake.

The Izumi (Inari) Shinto Shrine was built in 1878 as a memorial to the Hosokawa rulers and the garden became a public park in 1879. The impressively thatched tea room, Kokin-Denju-no-Ma, was originally in Kyoto’s Imperial Palace but was moved to the park in 1912.

With the sun shining, we took our time to walk around, pausing to admire the view along the route and resting on benches beneath the trees. I was particularly mesmerised by the park gardeners, mowing the tsukiyama in ever-ascending circles, around and around and around…

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Inside the park, there were also a few souvenir and produce shops, including one selling “Kumamoto Banpeiyu” fruit. As far as I can tell, it’s a Japanese cross between a yellow-fleshed pomelo and a red-fleshed grapefruit.

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Sweet Potato Dumplings

Sweet potatoes – both yellow and purple varieties – are very popular in Japan. In Kumamoto, the purple kind feature in a variety of local sweets.

One type, is imokoi; imo means potato and koi can mean either love or a dark colour, so it’s either “dark colour potato” or “potato love”, I’m not sure which! And I love that the local name is ikinari dango which means “all of a sudden sweet round dumpling”, so-called because it’s said to be a treat one can make very quickly for unexpected visitors. Inside a glutinous rice wrapper is a layer of sweet potato and another of sweet azuki (red bean) paste.

Another plainer dumpling contains a sweet potato filling within a glutinous rice wrapper.

This stall outside the entrance to Suizenji Joju-en Park was selling the simpler dumplings for just ¥ 85 (56 pence) each. There were also whole sweet potatoes available, but no ikinari dango on sale, though they were shown on a laminated picture list of products. When I asked if I could take some photographs, the owner nodded, pointing out the large poster portraits hanging behind her and her colleagues; I gather her shop had been featured in a documentary or magazine.

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Entrance to Suizenji Joju-en Park is ¥ 400.

Want to read more about Japan?

 

Japanese consumers love limited editions so there was a lot of advertising and press interest when Burger King announced their Kuro (Black) Ninja burger in October. And this special edition was given its own mascot in the form of a cute cartoon ninja complete with black outfit and… a tongue stuck cheekily out! (No, I don’t know why, either…)

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I love BK Whoppers so when I learned that the Kuro Ninja was being launched during our recent holiday in Japan, I really wanted to seek it out.

On a day of eating that a hobbit would be proud of (during which we stopped for multiple breakfasts, multiple lunches and an enormous dinner), we finally tracked it down in Osaka.

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Most striking, of course, is the black bun, coloured with bamboo charcoal. It’s impressively black and with no discernible oddness of taste that we could detect.

Inside is a whopper patty, a round hash brown and a ridiculously long slab of thick bacon that lolls lewdly out from two sides. The regular lettuce, onions and sauce are complemented by Chaliapin sauce – this onion and garlic sauce is named for Russian opera singer Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin; during a visit to Tokyo in 1936, a steak and sauce dish was created for him by a hotel chef and has been named in his honour ever since.

Apparently, various of these elements have been seen before in some of Burger King’s earlier limited edition specials – the black bun also featured in 2012’s Kuro Burger, essentially a regular whopper but served with black ketchup (flavoured and coloured with garlic and squid ink); the bacon “tongue” was at the heart of Big Bacon Whopper, just a month or two before Kuro Ninja was available; and the Chaliapin sauce was a key component of the XT Steakhouse, a 2011 creation.

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What did we think? We liked it!

The balance of flavours and textures worked well enough. I found the hash brown made the burger a touch too big to eat easily; Pete had no such problem. The bacon tongue we folded inside, though that made the burger even bigger. Personally, I’d still choose a regular whopper over the Kuro Ninja… but I would really like to try the Kuro Whopper (no longer available) with its garlic and squid ink ketchup!

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Although the Kuro Ninja was advertised as ¥ 680 (burger only) / ¥ 830 (burger, fries and drink) the branch we went to in Osaka had increased the meal deal price to ¥ 1040 (about £7). But hey, we did get cute Kuro Ninja stickers for that too!

Read more of my Japan content, here.

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