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.

 

Outside of Reykjavik, Iceland is sparsely populated with individual farmsteads and small communities dotted across a rural landscape. Farming and fishing are still key industries but the last decade has seen huge growth in software, biotechnology, finance and service industries and a significant increase in tourism.

Sauðárkrókur – Hólar – Akureyri

After an inland detour to visit Hólar, we took the coastal route around to Akureyri (and on to Myvatn) via a stop at the Bruggsmiðjan Brewery.

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Having set off early in the morning, we approached Hólar – nestled within the Hjaltadalur valley – in the golden morning sun. First to come into view was the tall tower of Hólar Church, with the red and white block of Hólar University College behind it.

The church and college were beautiful but what had drawn us to Hólar was the Nýibær turf house, next to the college building. Built in 1860, it is a typical medium-sized turf house in the North-Icelandic style, distinguished by forward-facing gables along the front and rear buildings arranged at right angles.

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The coastal roads offered stunning views, though occasionally a little hair-raising for those of us that are scared of heights!

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Our visit to the Bruggsmiðjan Brewery was organised in advance, but they do their best to welcome drop-in visitors too.

The brewery is only a decade old, established in 2005 by local couple Agnes Anna and Olafur Trostur, who were keen to forge a new business in the local area. Both their sons are now working in the business, and one of them related the brewery’s story and showed us round, offering tastings of several of the beers currently in production. We were joined by a few others who arrived during our visit.

Agnes and Olafur had never brewed beer before, but were inspired by a TV news report they happened to watch, talking about the rising popularity of small breweries in Denmark. Just one week later, they visited Denmark to visit a few small breweries and came home determined to achieve something similar in Iceland.

We were surprised to learn that beer had been prohibited in Iceland until 1989! In 1908 Icelanders voted in a ban on all alcoholic drinks, which went into effect in 1915. However, the ban was partially lifted in 1921 when Spain refused to allow the import of Icelandic fish unless Iceland legalised the import into Iceland of Spanish wine. In 1935, spirits were also legalised after another national referendum. However, the temperance lobby successfully argued to retain the prohibition on beer (which covered any beer stronger than 2.25%). Icelanders regularly raised bills calling for the legalisation of beer. They finally gained more momentum after a new rule was imposed by a teetotaller Minister of Justice in 1985, banning pubs from adding legal spirits to non-alcoholic beer to create an imitation strong beer. Parliament finally voted to end beer prohibition and the ban was lifted on 1 March 1989, a date still celebrated as “Beer Day”.

Bruggsmiðjan’s Kaldi brand includes pale and dark Czech-style beers, summer and winter seasonal beers plus limited editions such as a beer featuring local herbs as flavouring. All the beers are made with natural fresh water from the immediate area and the core range are available in bars and shops all round Iceland.

 

See my other Iceland postcards.

 

I’m conscious that it’s now several months since our summer visit to Iceland and that I stalled after sharing just two ‘postcards’. I’ve been processing more of the images from the trip and decided to resume the series; better late than never!

We didn’t have time on this trip to include the Western Fjords that jut up and out of the island’s North West corner. Instead we loosely followed the main ring road in a clockwise loop. After a little city break in Reykjavik our first port of call was Stykkishólmur, for the Viking Sushi Boat Excursion. From there we continued Westwards, choosing the most scenic roads wherever possible.

Stykkishólmur – Grundarfjörður – Sauðárkrókur

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I loved this artwork on a seafood processing factory in Sauðárkrókur.

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Grundarfjörður was the least attractive stop of our itinerary, indeed it was really just a handy overnight between Stykkishólmur and Sauðárkrókur. I can’t recommend it.

In Sauðárkrókur we stayed at Hótel Tindastóll which claims to be Iceland’s oldest hotel, dating from 1884. It’s also one if Iceland’s oldest timber houses and has been sympathetically renovated. We stayed in one of the large rooms in the original building, which are quite charming if a little gloomy on the lighting front.

There’s not much to see in Sauðárkrókur but we enjoyed a short walk around the harbour area and into town. There are a couple of nice restaurants, a decent cafe bakery and a good bar in which to end an evening.

 

See my other Iceland postcards.

May 092015
 

I had so much fun with last month’s In My Kitchen – a romp through a busy month by way of Instagram – that I thought I’d rinse and repeat!

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My little baby nephew was born and I couldn’t wait to meet him. The first time he was 10 days old, and the second, he was a month old that day. Isn’t he gorgeous?

 

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For a while we had glorious sunshine. For a while…

 

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Allotment leeks in a delicious blue cheese and leek risotto.

 

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Deliciously sweet oranges and some apple and guava juice, both bought from Waitrose during my lunch break. Pain au chocolat from a local bakery and wagyu burgers from Aldi, not the highest quality wagyu but decent beef burgers for the price.

 

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We enjoyed a really lovely stay at Glazebrook House Hotel in Devon.

 

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And we attended an excellent Italian cookery class at Manna from Devon – we covered so much during the day – making pasta from scratch, some of which became tagliatelle and the rest ravioli, carpaccio of beef, bruschetta with red peppers and broccoli, lemon polenta cake, a crab risotto, a fish stew. Everything was delicious and the location itself is just beautiful.

 

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Driving in Devon is always a joy, especially when the sun is shining and the views of the coast are so beautiful!

 

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During our weekend in the Dartmouth area, we popped into local seafood restaurant Rockfish for a super fresh and delicious fish dinner. Check out the giant onion rings!

 

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After visiting London’s Piada Bar in Soho, I was given a packet of three piada flatbreads. We made some very quick and very tasty flatbread pizzas with them using ready-made pizza sauce, pre-grated mozzarella and a variety of charcuterie languishing in the fridge. So, so good!

 

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Our friends at The Bull in Highgate invited Pete and I to attend their Northern Line beer and food matching event. We enjoyed the evening immensely, and there were some very interesting matches too. Do keep an eye out on their Events page for future dinners.

 

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We took friends to the lovely Warda Lebanese restaurant in Southgate. I still think this is the best Lebanese food outside Lebanon!

 

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Two visits to Korean restaurants in New Malden for a sit down meal, the first Yami (top row) which did a fantastic modum namal including yellowbeansprouts as well as regular beansprouts, and their marinated short rib was excellen and Palace (bottom row) which was a little disappointing on the bbq front but did a decent tteokbokki (rice cake, fish cake, chilli dish).

 

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Pete pulled the last of our leeks from the allotment and combined them with a few leftover rashers of bacon, some wild garlic from the back garden and a little cream for a very tasty pasta sauce. Weirdly, this seems to be the most popular instagram I’ve shared thus far, no idea why!

 

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I loved visiting Wing Yip when I was a kid and it’s no less exciting now, several decades later. I took a Friday off to make a long weekend longer, and we took advantage to enjoy a dim sum lunch at Wing Yip’s Wing Thai restaurant, without the weekend crowds. A quick stop in the cafe bakery next door afterwards for a custard tart, a jin doy and some banana cake.

 

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We enjoyed a delicious ‘Chinese Spagbol’ recipe from Lizzie Mabbott’s ChinaTown Kitchen, a great recipe that we’ll make again and we have lots more bookmarked to try soon.

 

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We visited new local Japanese restaurant, Sushi Mania. Service is poor and when we visited, the place was overrun by really loud families, but the food we tried was all very good. At lunch time the a la carte is half price – that’s what I’d recommend; the full prices are too steep.

 

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We used to go to this local pizzeria a lot under previous management, but hadn’t been since it changed hands. Pizzas are just as good as ever, though a touch more pricy than the competition. Tasty, though!

 

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A few weeks of glorious sunshine have mostly been swept away by overcast skies and hard showers. This rose leaf in our front garden glistened after one such downpour.

 

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Our first dish from Diana Henry’s A Bird In The Hand was this very delicious and simple chicken, butternut squash and cream bake. Definitely one to make again!

 

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Two of my favourite fruits –  Asian mangoes and pears, the mangoes from a local grocery store and the Nashi pears from Wing Yip.

 

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Bank holiday Monday lunch at our local (Bohemia), roast dinner, shared with friends. Lovely end to a long weekend.

 

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Friends shared some of the Japanese kit kat stash with me, which they brought back with them from their recent trip. Wasabi and citrus gold blend were as good as I remember from my 2012 Japanese kit kat tasting. Strawberry cheesecake was vastly better, the balance of flavour completely different and far more pleasant. I’d never had the chilli variety before, so that was great fun to try – at first it seemed mild and then the chilli heat came through!

 

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With half a butternut squash leftover from the Diana Henry recipe, I found a gnocchi recipe online, which Pete made for a weeknight dinner. Served with mini fresh mozarella balls, grated parmesan-a-like and deep fried sage leaves (from the rampant bush in the back garden).

 

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We’ve been munching far too many sugary sweets since the start of our three month Scoff subscription. You can win a three month subscription of your own, here.

 

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I’ve been at  my new contract in New Malden for 5-6 weeks now and loving the lunch options in the vicinity of my office. My favourite is Ohaio – a hole-in-the-wall place at the entrance to the rail station, which sells a wide range of Korean, Japanese and Thai dishes, made hot and all fantastic value. Most lunch deals are £4.50 or £4.90 and include the main plus miso soup and some mini spring rolls.

 

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We took some friends to our local Korean, Yijo, for another delicious feast. Above you can see Japchae, Kimchi mandu (dumplings), tteokbokki (a dish of chewy rice cake worms and fish cake slices in a hot sauce), a beef, tofu and vegetable hot pot and some meat on the table barbeque, a proper charcoal one. The portion of meat for the price has dropped significantly but everything else is still tasty and great value.

 

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Pussy Galoaf, our sourdough starter (and daughter of Priscilla) is going strong. For loaf 10, Pete upped the ratio of starter to give more sourdough flavour and baked the loaf in a silicon loaf tin inside a large lidded casserole dish. It was good!

 

This is my entry into the wonderful Celia’s In My Kitchen event.

 

If you were to write a wish list for the perfect, modern country house hotel, what might you include?

For me I’d be looking for a beautiful rural setting with plenty of varied attractions in the vicinity, easy to get to but still with that feeling of getting away from it all, sumptuous and spacious bedrooms with modern comfort and lots of personality, glamorous bathrooms with deep bathtubs and walk-in showers, appealing public spaces with comfy seating, an inviting bar and a delicious restaurant, all with modern decor throughout that is playful, quirky and fun to discover. Generosity of hospitality and genuine warmth in the welcome would also feature highly.

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Glazebrook House Hotel sits at the southern edge of Dartmoor National Park and is a very easy drive from London – less than four hours on the day we visited.

And it scores pretty damn highly against my wish list.

Collage Glazebrook outside (c) Kavita and Pete Favelle

After decades as a traditional, fairly uninspiring but perfectly decent hotel, it was purchased and completely remodelled by Pieter and Fran Hamman. They commissioned interior designer Timothy Oulton to create a stunning and eclectic luxury boutique hotel with just eight rooms, a bar and restaurant plus conference room and attractive gardens. The new Glazebrook opened last May and, as it comes towards the end of it’s first year in business, we were invited to visit on a glorious spring weekend.

Owner Pieter tells us that the Georgian house was built in 1865, the same year that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Accordingly, there’s a subtle Alice in Wonderland theme in play, though it’s not overdone or pushed to kitsch; the room names draw from the story and just behind reception there’s an unusual display of magnifying glasses hung on a wall over correspondingly-shaped holes through which little passages from the book can be seen – magnified, of course!

At the heart of the styling is Timothy Oulton’s range of furniture – beds, headboards, sofas, tables, storage trunks, wardrobes – a modern take on traditional styles with lots of leather and shiny metal. In the main part, the decor owes more to the sensibilities of an eBay and car boot sale addict, with displays of everything from road signs to bowler hats, trumpets to drum kits, old cine cameras to dolls houses, china plates to tarnished silver serving platters – all of it vintage, assiduously sourced by Oulton’s team and turned into artful knick-knacks. As a life-long collector, I absolutely love it!

Collage Glazebrook interiors (c) Kavita and Pete Favelle

The lobby is a rather fabulous space with grand chandeliers, a huge British flag draped behind the reception desk – large and silver with matching silver bulldog atop it, a taxidermy flamingo, an emu skeleton and many more fascinating details, plus some very comfortable sofas to sink into. From this central space you can take the grand staircase to the first floor, where seven of eight rooms are located, and there are also doors to the restaurant, the bar and a whisky and wine room.

Collage Glazebrook Mad Hatter Room (c) Kavita and Pete Favelle

I can’t wait to see our room and I’m not disappointed. Mad Hatter features a king size bed with large leather headboard above which are three vintage dolls houses suspended on the wall – lying on the bed, it’s a little discombobulating at first to look up into their interiors, but you quickly forget about the oddness. A huge marble desk sits below a flatscreen TV mounted on the wall within a frame of blue and white plates. Old hats and hat forms are mounted on another wall. Glass domes show off a tumble of tiny green glass bottles and tea cups and saucers with an illustrated page from Alice in Wonderland. The bathroom is huge, with a deep white tub, double marble sinks and a walk-in shower and gorgeous black and white Q*bert-esque tile floor.

A nice touch is that the wardrobe contains a fridge containing a nice selection of beer, wine and soft drinks plus tea and coffee making facilities and a basket of chocolate, sweets and snacks. All of these are complimentary, we are told when being shown to our room; such a welcome change from price-gauging mini bar charges. Later, sitting in the bath with a sparkling glass of Luscombe Damascene rose and a packet of fruit pastilles, this is even more appreciated – I’d much rather the room rate be an extra £10 or £20 a night with such extras rolled in than having to negotiate ludicrously marked up charges for wi-fi, bottled drinks, coffee and an occasional bar of chocolate.

The bed is supremely comfortable but both of us hate this style of feather pillow – the kind that squishes completely flat where your head lies, to create two enormous cushions trapping your head and providing no support at all. The only other gripe is the shower; you can flip the water between a detachable, wall-mounted shower and the overhead monsoon head but the wall-mounted one is barely high enough for me (and I’m only 5 foot 6 inches) and Pete can really only use the monsoon head, which is mounted just a few inches above his head.

But these are minor niggles and we love our room.

Collage Glazebrook other rooms (c) Kavita and Pete Favelle

The other rooms are just as beautiful. White Rabbit, with it’s giant sheepskin bedframe and playing cards is often sold as the bridal suite and has a white tub and walk-in shower like ours. Chesire Cat is the third luxury double (along with White Rabbit and our room) and I’m very taken by the purple colour scheme. The room is huge and has a pretty chaise longue but note that the bathroom doesn’t include a tub and both windows look out onto slate tile roofs and trees, quite a restricted if appealingly private view. Jabberwocky is a superior double, a little smaller than the luxury doubles and with shower only once again. Tweedle Deez is another superior room and the only twin, with two stunning metal four poster beds and a shower-only bathroom. Gryphon is the hotel’s only single room, the bedframe made with recycled metal from a Spitfire plane, so we’re told. Caterpillar, a standard double, is the smallest room in the house, although still with the lovely design touches of all the other rooms. Last is Bread and Butterflies, a wheelchair accessible room on the ground floor.

Collage Glazebrook dining room dinner (c) Kavita and Pete Favelle

The in-house restaurant is very popular with locals so do make sure to book a table when you make your room reservation, if you want to be sure of a eating in.

Benefitting from enormous floor-to-ceiling windows, the room has plenty of light during the day and lots of light from chandeliers and candle sconces during the evening. Walls are decorated with collections of vintage china and silver serving platters, with wooden flooring and comfortable leather chairs.

Cooking is solid, based on good quality ingredients, though some dishes wow more than others. Winners are the Ticklemore goat’s cheese fritters and gingerbread whipped mousse starter – light, crisp, delicately flavoured – and a phenomenal whole lemon sole with samphire, lemon butter and jersey royal potatoes – the fish is so perfectly cooked and the lemon butter dressing just right.

The chicken liver parfait with tomato chutney and brioche is decent but let down by a slimy chicken thigh terrine which tastes of very little and contributes nothing to the plate. My west country pork belly, seared loin, cream potato, apple and cauliflower is a strong combination but the loin is very dry and the pork belly could do with even longer cooking to make the fat more soft and melting. It’s decent but not excellent.

The main let down of the meal is a chocolate torte with espresso jelly and tia maria cream – the espresso jelly layer, tia maria cream and tempered chocolate triangle on top are all fine but the main torte is very grainy, like seized chocolate and the texture is too off-putting for me. I am kindly offered a switch and enjoy a scoop of thunder and lightning ice cream served with an excellent light and crisp chocolate chip cookie.

The cheese selection is a really good choice featuring west country cheeses Yarg, Cornish Blue, Sharpham Cremet, Sweet Charlotte Cheddar and Quirk’s Mature Cheddar, served with quince jelly, grapes and a nice plate of crackers; the Sharpham Cremet goats cheese is utterly fantastic, a perfectly ripe, incredibly creamy goat’s cheese in the Brie style.

Collage Glazebrook dining room breakfast (c) Kavita and Pete Favelle

Breakfast is served in the same lovely dining room, this time with wooden tables unadorned with white linen and pots of fresh herbs as centre pieces. Juices, fresh fruit and patisseries are excellent as is Pete’s cheese and ham omelette. My full breakfast is alright – the single tiny sausage is a little overcooked, the black pudding and bacon are OK. There is little to make my heart leap – close but no cigar. I would rate both dinner and breakfast as enjoyable meals, but with some room for improvement.

Current room rates are £159 for the single, £179 for the standard double, £189-£199 for the superior twin and doubles and £239 for the three luxury doubles – that’s for bed and breakfast, with bar drinks and dinner charged a la carte. We think that’s a real steal for a relaxing afternoon, evening and morning in this lovely property.

Pete and I fell pretty hard for Glazebrook and I know we’ll definitely be back. We talked about family celebrations we might hold here, to share the delights of Glazebrook with our nearest and dearest, but I suspect we’ll err on the side of selfishness and keep it as a romantic retreat to savour on our own.

Kavey Eats were guests of Glazebrook House Hotel.

 

You can take the girl out of Luton…

Smack in the middle of the eighties – which I still hold to be the best decade, musically and fashion-wise (though I admit to harbouring some bias on this) – I did a German Language Exchange Trip through my secondary school. Luton and Hamburg were an odd pairing; the kids of that rather attractive northern German river port city must surely have been a tad disappointed when they discovered that the attractions of Luton amounted to little more than a biscuit-shaped pincushion in the local museum and a pink flamingos fountain in the Arndale shopping centre.

The (frankly marvellous) pink flamingos have long since gone, which is a huge shame as they were one of Luton’s best (if not only) attractions.

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Worried I might be imagining the biscuit-shaped pincushion (though my little sister remembers it too), I made a call to the museum last week and was delighted to hear back from one of their specialist curators that they do indeed have a biscuit-shaped pincushion in their collection (though it’s not currently on display). It dates from around 1870 and was produced as an advertising product by Huntley, Albert & Palmers. I should add at this point that the museum did, of course, have a great deal more on display than the biscuit-shaped pincushion, including no-doubt-excellent exhibits about the local hat- and lace-making industries for which Luton was, once upon a time, quite famous. It’s just that, as a teenager, little of this captured my attention; I’d probably appreciate it much more today!

And, by the way, did you know that the expression ‘mad as a hatter’ originated in Luton?

Anyway, back to Germany…

I’d actually already dropped German from my curriculum by the time the trip came around. We signed up for the exchange in our second year but travelled in our third by which time, having mastered only ‘ich liebe dich’ and ‘du bist eine dumme ganz’, I decided to focus on French, which I found immeasurably easier. I added one more phrase to my German knowledge some years later, by the way; even today I still like to point at random plants and declare ‘das is kein gummebaum’ (that is not a rubber plant) – a very useful phrase, I’m sure you’ll agree?

Luckily, the majority of people I met in Germany spoke superb English, so I got along just fine.

My host family showed me around Hamburg, of course. It’s an attractive city and the views from the revolving restaurant up in the Heinrich-Hertz-Turm comms tower were beautiful. I also spent a few days visiting German Schleswig – a school trip within a school trip – with my exchange partner’s class.

One of the days I remember most fondly was a family outing to nearby Lübeck, just an hour’s drive away or 45 minutes by train.

Situated on the River Trave, Lübeck is the second-largest city in Schleswig-Holstein, and a major port in the area. For several centuries it was the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a commercial confederation of merchant guilds and market downs that dominated trade in Northern Europe, stretching along the coast from the Baltic to the North Sea. The Old Town, on an island enclosed by the Trave, is famous for its extensive brick gothic architecture and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Images of Lubeck from Shutterstock.com

Niederegger Marzipan

It was not just the beauty of Lübeck that won my heart, oh no! Lübeck is also famous for its marzipan. And I really, really love marzipan!

A local legend suggests that marzipan was first made in the city in response to either a military siege or a local famine. The story goes that the town ran out of all foodstuffs except stored almonds and sugar, and these were combined to make loaves of marzipan “bread”.

In reality, marzipan is believed to have been invented far earlier, most likely in Persia though historians are undecided between a Persian and an Iberian origin.

Niederegger have been making marzipan in Lübeck for over two centuries, and relate the story from the perspective of founder Johann Georg Niederegger.

Our marzipan was invented far away, where almonds and sugar are grown. Rhazes, a Persian doctor who lived from 850 to 923, wrote a book in which he praised the curative qualities of almond and sugar paste. When the crusaders returned from the Orient, they brought with them a host of spices and Oriental secrets. In 13th century Venice, Naples and Sicily, spices and confectionery were generally traded  in tiny boxes. The enchanting word “Mataban” (box) gradually came to be used for the contents of the box:  Mazapane (Italian), Massepain (French) and Marzipan (German). Did you know that even back in the 13th century, the renowned philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas reflected upon the indulgence of eating Marzipan? In his doctrinal teaching, he reassures enquiring and anxious clerics: “Marzipan does not break the fast.” In his stories, the great novelist Boccaccio clearly describes the correlation between passion and marzipan. In those days, marzipan was topped with gold leaf to crown the sweet temptation. Great Hanseatic merchant boats brought spices and other prized ingredients to the North. Initially, however, only apothecaries were allowed to trade sugar and spices. Not until confectionary became a trade in its own right were so-called ‘canditors’ allowed to produce marzipan. The first Europeans to indulge in marzipan were kings and rich people. It has been reported that Queen Elizabeth I of England, who lived from 1533 to 1603, was addicted to all things sweet.  The saying ‘regal enjoyment’ was coined. Later, at the French ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV’s sumptuous feasts, huge tables laden with marzipan were the order of the day. Marzipan reproductions of all sorts of fruits, poultry and game were created – anything you desired could be made. In the first half of  the general population were now able to sample the almond delicacy to their heart’s content in coffee houses. Now that sugar could be extracted from sugar beet, the costly luxury became slightly more affordable. Marzipan was also particularly popular and prized in Lübeck. I would now like to tell you something about my life: as a young man, I left my home town of Ulm to become apprenticed to a confectioner, Maret, in Lübeck. In 1806 I was able to open up my own shop. I supplied my wares to kings and tsars. From then on, my reputation grew thanks to excellent quality. My recipe for marzipan – as many almonds as possible, as little sugar as necessary – is secret, and has been passed on from generation to generation since my death. That way, Niederegger Marzipan remains what it has always been: a delicious speciality made from the very best almonds. New York, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, a sweetmeat goes on tour … Niederegger stands for “marzipan of world renown”.

The quality of Niederegger marzipan is certainly renowned, as is that of slightly younger Lübeck marzipan manufacturer Carstens (founded in 1845, 39 years after Niederegger).

At its core, marzipan consists of nothing more than ground almonds mixed with either sugar or honey. These days, a wide range of marzipan is available; many commercial versions contain a comparatively low volume of almonds; instead they contain more sugar with the flavour boosted by almond oils and extracts or even cheaper synthetic almond flavourings. They are often sickly sweet.

Niederegger marzipan is the very good stuff. With a high ratio of almonds to sugar, the flavour is subtle and natural and the sweetness is not overwhelming.

Germany grades marzipan according to the following ratios:

  • Marzipanrohmasse (raw marzipan) contains 65% ground almonds and 35% sugar. When you see a label of 100:0 or 100%, it means 100% raw marzipan with no additional sugar added, not that there is no sugar at all.
  • Niederegger Marzipan is raw marzipan, made to the 65:35 almond to sugar ration and labelled as 100:0 (100% raw marzipan).
  • Lübecker Edelmarzipan (Lübeck fine marzipan) is described as 90:10. That means it’s 90% raw marzipan mixed with an extra 10% sugar. Don’t forget, that 90% is not 90% almonds but a mix of almonds and sugar. More sugar is added to that raw marzipan paste. That means the ratio of almond to sugar falls to around 58:42 (58% almonds, 42% sugar).
    Lübeck marzipan has a PDO (protected designation of origin) and the label can only be used for marzipan manufactured in the region to the 90:10 ratio.
  • Gütemarzipan (quality marzipan) must be 80:20. It’s made of 80% raw marzipan and 20% sugar. Almond makes up 62% of the total and sugar the other 28%.
  • Edelmarzipan (fine marzipan) is described as 70:30. It’s made of 70% raw marzipan and 30% sugar. The almond now makes up only 45% of the total and sugar the other 55%.
  • Gewöhnliches marzipan  (ordinary or consumer marzipan) is described as 50:50, so is half raw marzipan and half sugar. That means only a third of the total content is almond and two thirds is sugar.
  • There are also other designations such as Königsberger marzipan, which is no longer associated with place of manufacture but describes a style of marzipan that usually contains almonds, sugar, egg white and lemon juice and has a distinctive golden brown colour.

For anyone looking for high quality marzipan, you can buy Niederegger here in the UK – I’ve seen different products from their range on sale in John Lewis, Waitrose and Tesco and of course, you can buy online (from the same stores plus Chocolatesdirect.co.uk, Ocado and Amazon, to name a few).

Probably the most common Niederegger product  is marzipan coated in dark-chocolate, which is always wrapped in red foil. Blue foil denotes a milk chocolate coating and other colours of foil indicate flavoured marzipans such as apple, caramel, espresso, orange and pistachio – the latter being one of my personal favourites. There is also a liqueur range available.

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GIVEAWAY

It’s my pleasure to join  with Niederegger in giving away two hampers worth £25 each to readers of Kavey Eats!

Each hamper contains:-

  • 1 x Milk chocolate marzipan bar
  • 1 x Dark chocolate marzipan bar
  • 1 x 125g Marzipan loaf
  • 1 x 200g 16 Piece mini loaves assortment
  • 1 x 100g 8 Piece mini loaves classic
  • 1 x 40g Marzipan stick
  • 6 x Mini Loaves
  • 1 x Gift hamper box
  • Free delivery within the UK

HOW TO ENTER

You can enter the giveaway in 2 ways – entering both ways increases your chances of winning:

Entry 1 – Blog Comment
Leave a comment sharing a memory of language lessons at school, when you were a kid.

Entry 2 – Twitter
Follow @Kavey on Twitter. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter! Then tweet the exact sentence (shown in italics) below.
I’d love to win a marzipan hamper from @niederegger_uk and Kavey Eats! http://bit.ly/KaveyEatsMarzipan #KaveyEatsMarzipan
(Do not add my twitter handle or any other twitter handle at the beginning of the tweet and please don’t leave a blog comment about your tweet either; I track twitter entries using the competition hash tag.)

RULES & DETAILS
  • The deadline for entries is midnight GMT Friday 1st May 2015.
  • The 2 winners will be selected from all valid entries (across blog, twitter and instagram) using a random number generator.
  • Entry instructions form part of the terms and conditions.
  • Where prizes are to be provided by a third party, Kavey Eats accepts no responsibility for the acts or defaults of that third party.
  • Each prize is a hamper of Niederegger produts, as detailed above and includes delivery within the UK.
  • The prizes cannot be redeemed for a cash value.
  • The prizes are offered and provided by Niederegger .
  • One blog entry per person only. One Twitter entry per person only. You may enter all three ways but you do not have to do so for each individual entry to be valid.
  • For Twitter entries, winners must be following @Kavey at the time of notification. Blog comment entries must provide a valid email address for contacting the winner.
  • The winners will be notified by email or Twitter so please make sure you check your accounts for the notification message. If no response is received from a winner within 10 days of notification, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

Kavey Eats received sample products from Niederegger.

 

Just before Christmas I was invited on a trip to visit Vilnius, Lithuania. As a country I’ve long wanted to visit, and with the added allure of December Christmas markets, I didn’t hesitate to accept. I spent a wonderful few days exploring the city (and nearby Trakai) with incredibly knowledgeable, not to mention helpful, patient and enthusiastic, guide Edvinas Pundys.

Would that I could give you even a tenth of the rich insight into Lithuanian culture, history and modern-day life that Edvinas packed into our time together. Instead I shall share some images and impressions, and encourage you to visit for yourself.

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My favourite place, which we crossed several times during our walks around the city, and which I also visited on my own for a little gift shopping, was Cathedral Square and the small but charming Christmas Market. The cathedral and bell tower are both impressive, the bell tower a standalone structure that was likely once part of the mediaeval city walls; the lower part of it being from that era, the upper part and neo-classical finish added in the late 19th century, during reconstruction work on the cathedral itself. Next door to the cathedral is the newly constructed National Museum, built on the site of the Palace of the Grand Dukes; in the basement you’ll find archaeological ruins from many centuries past.

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Although lots of the food treats looked tempting, I focused on things I could bring home – some amber jewellery (for which Lithuania is well known) and a couple of jars of local honey.

I also stopped in a local supermarket for local cheeses, cured meats and chocolates.

Of course, there was plenty more to see around Vilnius, much of it rich in history and architecturally beautiful to boot. We also popped into the Money Museum, which I had expected to be a little dull but actually really liked, not least because of the clever technology used to provide the display; coins in columns that could be moved up and down by the touch of a button, as could the associated magnifying lens in front and drawers full of international currencies with a wall display about each one that could be called up from a central console.

The local tourist booklet, Vilnius in your pocket, has not only a full list of all the attractions, it also provides a detailed restaurant listing and a surprisingly comprehensive condensed history of Lithuania. Definitely pick this up on arrival, so you can refer to it during your visit. Better still, a Pocket Edvinas is strongly recommended!

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Many of the buildings in the Old Town are worth a visit. We explored just a small part of Vilnius University’s Old Campus (there are other locations around the city too). The campus is formed of many buildings of different styles and ages, arranged around 13 courtyards. To enter the campus as a visitor, you’ll need to buy a ticket, it’s not expensive. I was particularly taken with the mural-painted arched ceilings of Littera, the university bookshop. There’s also a first floor hall featuring murals in red, blue and gold that is quite impressive. This is a modern artwork showing the seasons of the year, as they were once experienced by rural Lithuanians. Via the Grand Courtyard, we also visited St John’s Church. Such visits were made so much richer by Edvinas’ running commentary about the origins of the church, about how it survived the nazi occupation and the long period during which Lithuania was part of the USSR; religious activity being anathema to soviet secularity.

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A short drive out of Vilnius is Trakai, a very popular local holiday destination. Unspoiled, with many attractive lakes, it’s also the home of Trakai Castle, a 14th century castle that was heavily restored in the late 20th century. Trakai was one of the main centres of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and as such, the castle held significant strategic importance.

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Without fail during my visit, we ate well and prices seemed very reasonable. My main regret is that most of the meals organised for us didn’t showcase traditional Lithuanian cuisine as much as I’d hoped; rather the restaurants were selected on providing a tasty meal; the kind of places locals enjoy and recommend.  But I did try a few local dishes that have whetted my appetite for a return trip, so that I can experience more traditional fare.

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Dinner on the first night wasn’t included, so two of us took a walk to The Old Green House, a cosy restaurant a few minutes walk from our hotel. A bar snack starter of baked bread with smoked pigs ears and cheese was far bigger than I expected (for just 3.19 Euros) and one of my favourite dishes of the trip; smokey pork, gooey cheese and crunchy dark rye bread. I also had a main of pork ribs, and the stroganoff my friend chose looked very good too.

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The underground setting of La Boheme was very attractive. My favourite of the dishes we had there was a cheese soup with shrimp; rich and simple. My pork main was a little dry, and not very interesting.

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At Leiciai restaurant, a salad featuring local fresh cheese, apples and walnuts was delicious but I particularly enjoyed the duck served with a baked bacon-wrapped pear stuffed with cheese. The others enjoyed beers brewed by the restaurant’s own microbrewery. As a non-beer-drinker I paused on the way home  to buy a selection of beers from local and regional breweries, at the excellent beer shop also owned by the same business; hopefully Pete will review some of these soon. Dessert, a huge banana on a puddle of sour (unsweetened) kiwi puree was a disappointment.

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My favourite meal, and one which definitely gave us an insight into one of the local cuisines, was at Kybynlar restaurant in Trakai, a popular holiday destination about 30 km from Vilnius. We visited Trakai not only to see the impressive castle and lakes but to try Karaite cooking; Trakai is the home of the Lithuanian Karaite community, an ethnic and religious group derived from Turkic-speaking adherents of Karaism. The religion has much in common with aspects of Judaism, from which historians believe Karaism originated. Certainly one of the most interesting aspects of the Lithuanian history that Edvinas related to us was the tolerance Lithuania afforded to immigrants and their different religions, during times when this was certainly not universal.

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A salad plate included a very Turkish imam bayaldi, packed with flavour. Then a traditional beef kybyn, served with a clear chicken broth, reminded me of a Cornish pasty. The main dish was chicken čanach – chicken and vegetables in cooked and served in a pastry-covered pot, with sour cream. Both of these dishes were very plain – no herbs or spices – but tasty. A simple apple pastry finished the meal. We were also given a shot of a liqueur made of herbs, rhizomes and spices to a traditional recipe – too bitter for me, though!

Throughout our time in Lithuania, I noticed the warmth and friendliness of Lithuanians; indeed on one afternoon when two of us got lost on the way home from a visit to the Christmas market, a kind stranger, unable to give us instructions in a language we understood, walked twenty minutes out of his way to lead us back to our hotel, before continuing his journey home. So kind!

In terms of arranging a visit, Vilnius is a perfect destination for a long weekend, or even a week if you like. There’s plenty more to see than the highlights we took in, and eating out is affordable and tasty.

For British travellers, there are low cost flights from the UK via multiple budget airlines; I flew on Wizz Air; the usual no frills service – fine for a short flight.

We were hosted by the Artis Centrum Hotel; it boasts a very handy location in the Old Town and attractive, large and comfortable rooms, but I did experience a few problems: a bedroom door that didn’t shut properly, such that I returned to my room one afternoon to find it wide open and was told “the doors do that sometimes”, leading me to feel somewhat insecure thereafter; plus some minor issues related to in-room safes, higher-than-acceptable charges for bottled water and some confusion over charges for coffee at breakfast. A decent hotel but with some niggles to be addressed.

On January 1 2015, just 12 days after I returned home, Lithuania gave up their national currency, the Lita, and joined the Euro. Sad for those of us who have a soft spot for using unfamiliar currencies, but hopefully it will be a positive move for the country, from an economic perspective. Perhaps it will also result in an increase in tourism; certainly this gorgeous capital is deserving of more visitors.

Kavey Eats travelled to Vilnius as a guest of the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism.

 

There’s something very indulgent about taking a mini city break in your own city of residence.

Holidays at home (or staycations, in the American vernacular) usually involve heading out of town; a shorter journey than heading abroad, perhaps, but further afield than the place you live. On the rare occasions we allocate leisure time to our local area, we tend to day trip, returning home to our own beds overnight. But booking a night in a hotel in your own city transforms a couple of day trips into what feels more like a proper holiday. It’s so much fun! Added bonuses: the travel is easy, and you don’t need to take much luggage.

Pete and I recently spent a night in the Citizen M Bankside hotel, within easy reach of Borough Market and Maltby Street Market, as well as other local attractions.

Read on for my personal guide to the area, plus a review of the hotel.

Borough Market

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Borough Market needs little introduction from me; a food market much loved by locals and tourists alike.

I love to come and shop here; browsing through the huge array of fresh produce – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables – and a vast selection of other food items; bread, cakes, biscuits and doughnuts, charcuterie, cheese (oh my, such wonderful cheese), honey, truffles, coffee and tea, fresh filled pasta, beers and wines…

Borough Market Collage 2

Some of my favourite stops include:

  • Neal’s Yard Dairy is an Aladdin’s cave of cheese – all kinds and all in perfect condition – served by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff who are happy to guide you and give a few tasters as you make your choices; I always buy some delicious Coolea plus an oozer and a goats cheese as well and often a piece of Stichelton.

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Neal’s Yard Dairy

  • Jumi is the outlet of a small and young cheese producer from Switzerland, I recommend their marvellously pungent Murgu (blue) and the creamy soft La Bouse – don’t be put off by the cowdung translation!
  • Cheese lovers will also love The French Comte stall, selling not only the cheese but other items from La Franche-Comté. And there are many more cheese vendors besides these.
  • Utobeer has a fantastic selection of bottled beers, making it a great place to buy gifts for beer lovers.
  • Turnips is one of the larger stalls at Borough, almost a mini-section of the market on its own and has a fabulous range of produce. I often find the fruit and vegetables a little pricy but I do make a beeline for their mushroom stall; there’s a fabulous selection, in very good condition and fairly priced. I can recommend the king oyster mushrooms in particular, but have bought many different mushrooms over the years.
  • Visit The Tomato Stall for full-of-flavour tomatoes and juices from Arreton Valley, on the Isle of Wight.
  • Bread Ahead Bakery has created quite a stir, most notably for their doughnuts, the creation of baker Justin Gellatly. I’ve been unlucky the previous two visits to their stall, once I was too late and the doughnuts had run out and the next visit was over Easter, and they had replaced them with hot cross buns. When I finally got to try them on this visit, I loved them so much I went back for more the very next morning! Of course, do try their other baked products as well.
  • I first discovered Caroline’s Free From Bakehouse after I met her through blogging and social media. She’s won many awards for her gluten-free range and also offers some dairy free and sugar free items in her range.
  • Tartufaia Truffles sell fresh truffles as well as truffle-infused products, including a very tasty truffle honey.
  • If you love charcuterie, you’ll be spoiled by Borough Market, as there are many stalls and shops to choose from, offering British and European charcuterie of different types. I don’t have a single favourite, but have enjoyed items from several stalls over the years.
  • Although you can sometimes now find Chegworth Valley fruit juices in supermarkets and farm shops, you’ll find an impressively wide range here, plus fruit from their farm too.
  • For fish lovers, there are several fresh fish mongers (Furness and Shellseekers are two from whom I’ve bought good quality seafood), I’d suggest checking all of them to see what appeals on the day. You’ll also often find high quality smoked fish and eel on sale; House of Sverre and Muirenn Smokehouse are two such vendors.
  • Meat is readily available too. I’ve loved the game birds and venison I’ve bought from Furness, and the bacon, sausages and various cuts of met from the Ginger Pig. There are also several butchers selling meat directly from the farm, including Rhug Farm, Sillfield Farm, Northfield Farm, Hillhead Farm Wild Beef, Wyndham House Poultry and many others. For those looking for camel, ostrich, zebra, crocodile and various antelope, try The Exotic Meat Company.
  • There are a number of stalls selling products from France, so do explore. I tend to head to Le Marché du Quartier as my first port of call.
  • Indeed, it’s not just France that’s represented at Borough Market; there are stalls selling produce from Argentina, Croatia, Grenada, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Turkey… a lovely way to travel the world without leaving London!
  • I’ve only recently discovered Spice Mountain, but want to explore further, as based on my brief initial visit, they offer a really wide range of spices, including a selection of spice blends.

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There are also an ever-increasing number of street food vendors, selling hot and cold food to eat there and then. I’m not a huge fan of eating on the hoof, so I’ve not paid much attention to these, but there are plenty to choose from.

For more information on traders and opening times, visit the Borough Market website.

 

Cheers!

I’ve already mentioned Utobeer within the market (and there are a number of wine vendors too).

Take a very short detour out of the market proper to Laithwaite’s Wine, at the north end of Stoney Street. It’s a great shop in its own right, with a wide range of wine and helpful staff. But in the Favelle household, it’s better known as the easiest way to reach The Whisky Exchange (the other way in being through Vinopolis); a small shop space housing a truly impressive selection of whiskies from around the world.

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The Whisky Exchange

Back to beer lovers, there are several breweries to visit in the area around Borough, Maltby Street and Bermondsey Street. Look up Anspach & Hobday, Brew by Numbers, Bullfinch, Four Pure, Hiver, Kernel, Southwark Brewing Company, Partizan

Local pubs include The Rake, a favourite with lovers of real ale but frustratingly tiny inside, so best visited during warmer months or very quiet times of the day.

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Umbrella art installation just outside; Brew Wharf

Another great place to stop for a pint or two is Brew Wharf, within the larger Vinopolis complex, which offers a range of beers from London, the rest of the UK and international breweries. They also brew on site in their own microbrewery.

Wine Wharf, just in front, is the wine lovers option; another lovely space in which to enjoy a drink is Bedales Wine Bar and Shop, within the market area.

 

A Warming Pit Stop

I love to stop regularly for coffee or hot chocolate, especially during the colder months, but let’s be honest, I find excuses in the summer too.

The Rabot 1745 cafe sells a tasty selection of hot chocolates; their salted caramel is my current favourite.

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Monmouth Coffee is the best known caffeine option, but I’ve only once been able to find an inside space to sit in all the many visits I’ve made to Borough Market over the years; I’m not one for drinking on the go, nor do the benches outside appeal. The coffee is, of course, super.

Round the corner, Gelateria 3Bis offers coffee, ice cream and hot chocolate and has the advantage that there’s usually a couple of spaces free at the tables and staff are friendly.

For those who don’t mind drinking and walking, there are also a number of takeway coffee vendors within the market.

 

Maltby Street Market

About twenty minutes walk from Borough Market is the much smaller but altogether funkier Maltby Street Ropewalk Market. You might think it’s not worth the walk, since Borough is so much bigger, but you’d be missing out. The small selection of stalls, tucked under the arches or along the narrow alley are charming, and most are not duplicated over at Borough. I don’t think the vendors list on the website is up to date, but there is always a good range of high quality produce, some to buy and take home and some to enjoy on site.

My picks include African Volcano for the best peri peri sauce and delicious hot food made with the same (the sauce itself is a must-buy ingredient but save space to order Grant’s pulled pork in a bun, peri peri prawns or peri peri burger are), Monty’s Deli for pastrami and salt beef sandwiches, Hansen & Lydersen for smoked salmon, St John’s Bakery for doughnuts. There are usually also a range of beer, wine and cocktails on sale from various of the stalls and arches such as Bar Tozino, which also sells fantastic jamón and other tasty Spanish snacks. Next time I visit, I’m keen to try Gosnell’s London Mead.

Open on weekends only, and do check dates as can vary during winter.

If you enjoy rooting through architectural salvage, a rummage in LASSCO is in order, at 41 Maltby Street.

 

Bermondsey Street

Bermondsey Street is the trendy hub of a local community that clearly values good food, a relaxed vibe and quirkiness. Where once it might be have been described as up and coming, it’s now firmly “upped and comed”; gentrified but still rather hip. Deserving of a post in its own right, I’ll simply point you towards Pizzaro (and older sibling Jose) and Zucca and suggest you explore this neighbourhood on your own. Do share your favourite finds with me, though!

 

Tourist Attractions

Southwark Cathedral is an Anglican cathedral, dating mainly from 1220 and 1420, although the nave is a late 19th-century reconstruction. All are welcome to attend services. Visitors may also enter to admire the cathedral, unless it is closed for an event. Do be mindful not to disturb those at worship.

HMS Belfast is a floating naval museum within a warship permanently moored alongside Tower Bridge. Adult entry is £15.50.

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I can’t believe I’ve not yet been inside The Shard, though I’d love to enjoy the views from the higher floors and I’m keen to try Hutong and Lang for high end Chinese and afternoon tea, respectively. You can buy tickets to access the Viewing Gallery online, though be warned, it’s £24.95 for an adult ticket.
 

Eating Out

If I offered a list of every good restaurant within the area, this would soon turn into a book!

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Breakfast at Rabot 1745

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Elliot’s Cafe

Favourites in 2014 include two meals at Rabot 1745 (which offers a great breakfast menu, as well as their regular lunch and dinner offerings), some delicious dishes at Elliot’s Cafe (I did feel a few dishes were much pricier than justified; then again they’re always full!), a simple, tasty and reasonably priced menu at Hixter Bankside (but we had some frustrating issues with service which were eventually resolved by managers but not reflected in the bill), and I’ve always enjoyed Brindisa for a snack or light meal.

 

Hotel Citizen M Bankside

My first encounter with a Citizen M hotel was up in Glasgow; it was the perfect option for an overnight stop en route to Islay and had vastly more positive online reviews than other budget chains I considered. The Bankside property offers much the same and is less than a 10 minute walk from Borough Market.

The immediate vicinity is the focus of a lot of recent development, with several new restaurant and cafe openings along the short stretch between the Blue Fin Building and Citizen M.

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Exterior and internal garden area, images courtesy of CitizenM

Check in is meant to be self-service, with a bank of check in computers provided just by the entrance. It’s very straightforward, so we find it a little disconcerting that there are always at least two members of staff to assist, and they tend to step forward immediately, rather than allow guests to self-service first. It’s friendly, but somewhat negates the point of self-service over a traditional check in desk.

Lifts to residential floors can only be operated by those with a room key card, which is good as the open-plan ground-floor lobby is enormously busy throughout the day and evening.

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Rooms are small but have been very cleverly designed to maximise space, and a lot of thought has been given to convenience and comfort; these are too often overlooked in favour of funky design. Beds are huge and very comfortable (though rather high off the ground, and it’s a bit of a clamber for whoever gets the window side). Storage is minimal but sufficient for a one or two night stay. Keeping the sink outside of the bathroom cubicle makes both seem more generous; the shower is much larger than the cruise-ship-style pods often used by budget chains. Much appreciated touches include a large TV with a good selection of films available on demand (and without extra charge), power sockets that cater for various international plugs, a USB charging point and a funky lighting system that allows you to set mood with coloured lighting; I particularly appreciated the ability to keep an unobtrusive red light on in the bathroom pod overnight. Despite the small size, I find the Citizen M rooms more comfortable and appealing than many poorly designed larger rooms I’ve stayed in over the years.

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Another thing I enjoy about Citizen M hotels is the very bright, colourful and quirky design. The public spaces are a sensory overload of funky lighting and Vitra furniture, and all kinds of artwork and random objects to add interest. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it, and very much enjoyed wandering around peering at all the things.

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Ground floor spaces

The lobby is cleverly divided into areas for lounging around reading or chatting, for working (power sockets provided), for eating breakfast, for relaxing. The only slight issue is that, as it’s open to non-residents too, it can be hard to find space during busier times.

You may decide not to eat at the hotel, surrounded as you are by so many fantastic food options, but the hotel does provide breakfast and dinner. The former is in the form of a breakfast buffet; you can either include it when you book or pay on the day, as you prefer. The quality is better than I’ve experienced at far more expensive hotels, the pain au chocolat was superb, and the sausages and bacon good quality. For dinner there are just a handful of choices, but again, what I tried was tasty and decent value too. You are also permitted to bring food in from outside, so go ahead and buy yourself a picnic from Borough Market or order a takeaway from a local restaurant.

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Top row, breakfast; bottom row, dinner

In another nice change from other budget chains I’ve stayed in (and indeed, higher end places in the UK too), service is friendly and helpful to everyone, something we noticed at the Glasgow property as well.

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View into the internal atrium area from the corridor to our room

I’ve also now signed up for the free-to-join Citizen M club which gives me 15% off the best available rate when booking future rooms at any of the Citizen M hotels.

 

Kavey Eats were guests of Citizen M Bankside hotel.

 

A few weeks ago, I was invited to Almeria and Murcia, two neighbouring regions in Southern Spain, to learn more about their agricultural practices and produce.

1 Agrobio – Biological Pollination & Pest Control

We started with a fascinating visit to Agrobio, a company that produces and sells bumblebees for pollination and a wide range of insects for biological pest control. Before a tour of the bee production facilities, we learned more about the use of bees for pollination from researchers Isabel Mendizábal and David Morales.

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Isabel and David at Agrobio

Tomato crops were used as an example; tomato flowers are not naturally very attractive to pollinating insects, so farmers need to intervene. In the past, farmers have employed a variety of techniques to pollinate their tomatoes; the use of hormones (which cheat the flower into thinking they are pollinated but result in poor quality seeds, poor setting of fruit and also need human intervention every few days to spray) or the use of blowers and vibrators (intended to release pollen by blowing or shaking it loose from the flowers, but expensive and not very effective).

But bees have proved to be more effective and cheaper and they result in perfect fruit setting.

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Hive bees won’t pollinate tomatoes as there is no nectar in the flowers; once the first few bees from a hive visit the field, they’ll pass on information to the rest of their hive that there’s no nectar in that location. But bumblebees don’t communicate in this way, so each bee will merrily visit any tomato flower it encounters. Additionally, bumblebees don’t store food, so they will leave the colony box to find flowers every day.

Once farmers switch to using bees for pollination, they usually switch to biological pest control too; chemical pesticides often cause bees to die, not to mention the residues of chemicals that remain in the produce. To make matters worse, pests develop resistance to widely used chemicals over time, meaning that farmers must use ever increasing amounts to protect their crops from the same pests.

Indeed, Almeria’s farming community suffered a catastrophic blow in 2006, when Greenpeace published a report about its discovery (in German supermarkets) of unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues in produce from the region, including pesticides not permitted to be used in the EU. The supermarkets in question quickly switched to non-Spanish producers, but the scandal grew as more European vendors tested for and detected the same residues and stopped buying from Almeria. Brussels placed the offending chemical on its blacklist and with that, Almeria could no longer sell affected produce within the EU. The blow to the economy was severe and resulted in unusually rapid and wholesale changes to the industry; in 2005 just 300 hectares in the region used biological pest control, now 27,000 hectares in the region do so.  The use of chemicals dropped drastically; indeed Almeria has become a global showcase for farming with minimal use of chemicals. The regional public administration also support the change, keen to ensure the problem does not arise again; they provide subsidies, training and other resources to support the agricultural community.

Said Isabel of the change; “We passed from an example of what you must not do in agriculture to an example of what you must do.

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The process of growing bees is utterly fascinating. Agrobio selectively breed different species of bumblebees for different regions around the world. For example, the UK bumblebee is a different subspecies to the ones found elsewhere in Europe. If Agrobio were to sell UK farmers the European subspecies, it would breed with our native bumblebees and our unique subspecies would be lost. For this reason, Agrobio produce a number of difference species and subspecies of bumblebees for their various farmers around the world.

By clever use of a series of temperature and light controlled rooms, Agrobio are able to mimic the various lifecycle stages of the bumblebee and produce the bees all year round. We explore the various rooms, blinking in bright lights as huge bumblebees buzz around us, a row of workers gently picking individuals and placing them into boxes; we squint in dark red lit rooms in which bees are in a state of hibernation, and even see a tray of dozing ones transferred from one very cold room to another. In the last room, boxes of bees are carefully packaged, along with a feeder of nectar, ready for transport to the customer.

Agrobio provide bumblebee colonies in two types of boxes suitable for use in a greenhouse or outdoors; the indoor boxes have more ventilation to allow the heat to dissipate; outdoor boxes are better protected against the weather.

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As with the bees, breeding insects for biological pest control isn’t straightforward; agrobio perform extensive research to determine which insects are the best natural predators for the various pests that plague farmers, with the choice depending on crop varieties, climate and geographical location. They then produce and sell the relevant insects in large quantities. Although they do a lot of research to improve the efficacy of their biological pest control species, they are keen to point out that there is no genetic manipulation involved, just careful use of selective breeding to favour natural characteristics. With some insects, it’s a case of breeding them in large numbers, packing them in suitable bottles, tubes and boxes and shipping them to farmers for release. With some insects, particularly parasitoids, the pregnant females don’t travel well so instead they will allow the parasitoids to impregnate some of the pest species, send those out to the farmers, and once released into the greenhouses, the parasitoids hatch and breed, and lay their next generation of eggs within the pests of the greenhouse.

 

2 Clisol – The Future of Farming

Lola Gómez Ferrón is a fruit and vegetable grower who embraced biological, sustainable farming long before the rest of the region were forced to follow suit. It’s a family business which she inherited from her parents, and she and her husband now employ just 6 staff to help them look after 2.2 hectares of land. The average figure, she explains, is around 3 people per hectare, but of course it depends on what you’re growing and how you are growing it. Tomatoes, for example, need much more effort than melons!

The first thing that most visitors to the region notice, even before they land, is that the vast majority of agricultural land is covered in greenhouses. Looking down, as your flight comes in or takes off, you cannot fail to notice the extensive coverage of green and white plastic tunnels across the landscape.

Lola explains the history of local greenhouses:

The Almeria region has a unique semi-desert climate which is warm enough for many fruit and vegetables to be grown outdoors. However, the region suffers from blasting winds, often 100 days of the year or more, which destroy crops and made farming very difficult. Around 50 years ago, farmers in the region began to put up traditional greenhouses – the regular structures used elsewhere, with plastic coverings. These succeeded in protecting crops from the wind but also conferred an additional benefit – Almerian farmers discovered they could now grow produce throughout the winter, when the rest of Europe could not. Year round produce became central to the economic success of the region’s agriculture.

The original greenhouses were flat, but rainwater collected on top and often caused the structure to collapse; that lead to a change in the shape of the greenhouses, most of which now have a 10-12% gradient roof angle to allow for water to run off without weighing down or damaging them.

The extra heat provided by the plastic coverings was a boon in winter, but in summer, the heat was too intense. Rather than remove the plastic coverings from such vast areas of land, local farmers developed a system of whitewashing the plastic during the summer to reflect away much of the heat, and then washing the plastic back to green for the winter. Many of the greenhouses are quite low in height, which makes it easier for the farmers to clamber on top to paint or clean.

Other changes include improved ventilation; earlier greenhouses required manual opening and closing of vents but the newest models are fully automated and computer controls open and close vents on different sides of the structure according to sensors monitoring temperatures within the greenhouse and wind direction outside. (Plants being such efficient producers of oxygen, need ventilation to blow out excess oxygen and bring in fresh carbon dioxide).

Greenhouse coverings now make use of photo-selective plastics which reflect light in such a way that some pests such as aphids and whitefly are less likely to enter.

We also learn why Lola has moved away from traditional soil-based agriculture to hydroponics:

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Lola has one greenhouse still using the traditional system, which allows her to show visitors the differences between this and her newer hydroponic systems.

The soil in this region is poor. Traditionally, farmers used to add a 50 cm layer of fertile soil imported from elsewhere, on top of the local orange soil. Then they would add 2-3 cm of manure and then 12-15 cm of protective sand above that. To plant the crops, the sand was moved aside, the seedling planted into the soil below, and the sand moved back into place. But after 5 or 6 years, all the goodness in that imported soil was depleted and the farmers faced the enormous task of removing the top layer of sand and replacing the soil once again. It was an arduous and expensive cycle.

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Lola grows both tomatoes and peppers using her closed-system hydroponics techniques

Lola has instigated closed-water system hydroponics in several of her newer greenhouses. She uses coconut husk purchased from India, where it’s a discarded by product of coconut farming. All the nutrients required are added to the water, which circulates within the closed system. Nothing leaches into the soil; nothing enters the water table. Again, specialist sensors detect when plants need more water, and allow controlling computers to direct the flow as required. When the plants are young, they are fed by clean fresh water. That water is recycled through the closed system repeatedly. By the time the plants are older, the water has been recycled numerous times, but the older plants are able to handle that. Lola is convinced that in the future, most if not all farming will use closed-water hydroponics systems – no contamination of the land or water table and very efficient use of water – an increasingly limited resource.

Lola uses biological pollination and pest control, and is pleased that the price has dropped as more and more farmers adopt the approach, and companies like Agrobio (she uses a competitor) are able to increase volumes and reduce prices. Things are constantly evolving as more research leads to greater understanding; where once the sticky insect traps – placed on greenhouse walls to attract and trap pests – were bright blue, they are now a much paler blue. Why? Because recent spectrum research has discovered that the brighter blue attracts both pests and pest control insects but the paler blue attracts only the unwanted pests.

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Lola smiles as she tells us that she loves her plants as she loves her children; “a plant lives, grows, thinks, moves – it’s the same, not less, than people”.

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After teaching us so much about the history, current practices and future of farming in the region, Lola also shares some of her personal tips for tomato growing, several of which could readily be implemented by a home grower. I’ll be sharing those with you next year, as I’m eager to give them a try myself. Lastly, we enjoy a fine feast of farm fresh produce served with local olive oil and honey.

You may enjoy this short BBC Video filmed in Almeria last year, which features Lola and showcases her hydroponic tomato greenhouses.

 

3 Agromark – Traceability of Produce

Agromark in Murcia is a successful fruit and vegetable farming business owned and run by three brothers. One of the brothers, Carlos Doménech Llopis, gives us a tour of one of their broccoli farms, telling us that an impressive 80% of the broccoli consumed in Europe during late autumn and winter is grown right here in Murcia.

Like Almeria, Murcia boasts a microclimate that allows them to grow crops throughout the winter. Unlike Almeria, it doesn’t have ferocious winds to deal with, indeed Carlos tells us a little more wind would be very welcome when it comes to ventilating their greenhouses!

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Before visiting the greenhouses, we learn how seeds are processed by the rather grand Urbinati potting machine; I find it utterly mesmerising. Soil is imported from Estonia (and on occasion from Scotland) and fed into the machine which breaks it up, fills it into the seed trays and pushes a small hole into each pot. Today, Agromark are using seeds purchased from Malaysia; a variety called Calabrese Broccoli F1 Hybrid Parthenon. The bright blue coating protects the seeds and also makes it easy to identify the source; each seed company uses a different colour coating for their seeds. A vacuum system sucks individual seeds onto a rotating cylinder and releases them into the seed trays below. These are then covered with vermiculite, a mineral-rich rock that expands when heated, providing a superlight covering for the seeds that locks in moisture and leaches beneficial minerals.

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After potting, the seed trays are transferred into a climate-controlled room for 48 hours, during which time they germinate. Once germinated, the seedlings spend 35-55 days in the greenhouses before being transplanted to the fields outside. The consistency of temperatures in the germination room and greenhouses ensures a 99% success rate for germination; much higher than can be achieved outside.

In the greenhouse, we are shown seedlings at various stages. Each seedbed is meticulously labelled to show the variety, the date they were sown, any feeds or chemicals applied and so on. This commitment to traceability fulfils stringent requirements from customers including Sainsbury’s and Waitrose in the UK and other supermarkets and distributors across Europe.

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When it comes to the other end of the process, Agromark are keen to pick, package and distribute the produce as quickly as possible. To this end they’ve developed a process whereby workers walk through the field, cutting only the heads of broccoli that are fully grown and in good condition; these are dropped onto a conveyor belt that carries them into a mobile packing shed where they are cut, wrapped, labelled and packed into crates within minutes.

 

Coming soon, a round up of traditional food in the two regions.

Kavey Eats travelled to Almeria and Murcia on behalf of the We Care You Enjoy campaign, funded by Hortyfruta and ProExport.

 

I visited Colombia about thirty years ago on a family holiday that also took us to Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Though I still have memories of Bogotá – I remember the statue of Simon Bolivar in Plaza de Bolivar, the flamboyant Iglesia del Carmen and being driven around the old town areas – there’s a gap when it comes to remembering the food.

Luckily, Proexport Colombia recently invited me to attend a Colombian Cooking Masterclass in the Ambassador’s beautiful residence in Chester Square.

We spent a happy hour in the small basement kitchen, where renowned Colombian chefs Juanita Umaña and Diana García talked to us about ingredients and demonstrated several dishes, inviting us to touch, smell, taste and to get involved. We ate Colombian specialities straight out of the fryer and scribbled down tips and tricks before taking our seats in the ambassador’s dining room for a multi-course feast.

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The snacks we made with Juanita and Diana both featured yuca (manioc) flour. Pasteles de yuca croquettes stuffed with a spicy beef and egg mixture. Arepas (corn cakes) were double-fried – dough was rolled out, cut into discs, fried for a few minutes, then a slit carefully so that an egg could be dropped inside before being fried again. Arepas are most commonly made quite large, but Juanita and Diana made individual ones using quails eggs before creating a larger one with a hen egg.

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For lunch we were served a variety of dishes, all traditional favourites in Colombia. My fellow diners were particularly taken with the Ajiaco Santafereño (chicken and potato soup) but my favourites were the mixed seafood en leche de coco (in coconut milk), the Posta Negra Cartagenera (Cartagena braised beef), the dulce de leche crème brûlée and the sandwich of Oblea wafers and dulce de leche.

Recipe: Posta Negra Cartagenera (Cartagena Braised Beef)

Serves 6

Ingredients
Posta

1 tail of rump or rump tip of 3lb with its fat
1.5 teaspoon salt
0.5 teaspoon pepper
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon vinegar or 2 tablespoons bitter orange juice
Braising Liquid
3 tablespoons oil
4 sweet chili peppers, seeded and chopped
3 white onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tomatoes, chopped
Salt to taste

Method

  • Place the meat in a bowl or pan and marinate with salt, pepper, garlic and vinegar or bitter orange juice. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours.
  • Remove the meat from the refrigerator. Heat the oil in a pot over high heat and brown the meat on all sides, starting with the fat, until obtaining a dark caramel colour all over.
  • Add sweet chili peppers, onion, and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes.
  • Add tomatoes and pour in enough hot water to cover a third of the meat.
  • Braise for 45 minutes over medium heat to medium doneness. If you want it done more, place in a 350° F (180 °C) oven for 40 minutes more, or depending on your preference.
  • Remove the meat from the pot and let sit for some minutes.
  • Cut it in thin slices.
  • Adjust seasoning. If the sauce formed in the pot has dried out, add some hot water and reduce a bit, for all the flavours to integrate and obtain a nice gravy.
  • Serve the meat with its gravy, fried coconut rice and salad on the side.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Proexport Colombia. The recipe for Cartagena Braised Beef, published with permission, is from Colombia Cocina de Regiones, edited and published by MNR Comunicaciones y Ediciones, an authoritative book on the recipes of Colombia, with contributions from Juanita Umaña and Diana García.

 

Do you like sightseeing excursions by boat? Yep, I do.

Do you like bird watching? Yep, I do.

Do you fancy eating raw scallops and sea urchins only seconds after they’re pulled out of the sea? OH MY GOD YES, WHERE DO I SIGN UP?

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Seatours run what they call Viking Sushi excursions out of Stykkisholmur harbour in North West Iceland throughout the summer months. The standard and short versions are much the same; a difference of an extra half an hour out on the water; both take you out to the same local islands to view birdlife and unusual geological formations (with fascinating local mythology to explain them) before treating you to the “sushi” experience.

Our itinerary meant we could only make the shorter one, which turned out to be perfect. Any longer, and the cold winds out on the sea might have become more of an endurance test; as it was the sights followed by the sushi kept our minds off the chill factor.

Although the sun was shining, the air was cold. As we gathered speed, a scurry for gloves and scarves was accompanied by muttered regrets about not wearing warmer clothing. Chatting to other guests, we huddled on benches around the open front deck, admiring the coastal landscape as we headed out to sea.

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The first island we approached was a nesting site for black-legged kittiwakes – adults have yellow beaks and black only at the end of their tail feathers; juveniles have black beaks and additional black markings around their eyes, on the back of their necks and along their wings as well as the tail tips. They made their nests in the natural hollows and on the ledges around the cliff edges. Moving around the island, a geological fascination of sweeping upright striations in the rock drew our attention.

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The next island was the focus of a local myth. Lodged into a natural crack in the island was an immense boulder, said to have been hurled by an angry mountain troll in protest at being disturbed by local church bells. The clincher to the tale, so our guide insisted, was that the boulder has since been tested and is not of the same rock as the rest of the island.

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Moving on again, we found a colony of shags on a series of rocks jutting out of the water.

Finally, it was time to lower the net plough to the ocean bed. A few moments later, the crew winched it back up, opened it and let the contents spill out onto the metal counters below.

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There were about 20 of us on the excursion and we crowded around as two crew members quickly started opening the scallop shells and offering plump raw scallops on the half shell. A little wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger were provided, though they quickly ran out. Most of the other tourists politely tried a scallop or two, but seemed nonplussed by the raw seafood and wandered away again. Only a few were willing to try the sea urchin roe, though I did persuade a few more to give it a go, and they enjoyed it.

I was in absolute heaven and said to the younger female crew member that I’d happily carry on eating both as long as she carried on opening them and she seemed very happy to do so. I must have eaten at least 20 enormous plump scallops, so deliciously sweet and fresher than I’ve ever had before. I probably had the roe of five little sea urchins too!

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Oh, I did miss a sighting of a white-tailed eagle that Pete (not a fan of scallop or sea urchin roe) enjoyed while I was gorging on the sashimi feast. I was far too happy to feel any regret!

Our Viking Sushi Short tour cost us 5,025 kr per person (about £25) and was one of my highlights of the trip.

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