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Three fall into adventure in Oman

September 3, 2016
An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

The view down to Bilad Sayt and beyond

As the boat nears the shallow sandy shore my hands unclench and my shoulders relax. For the past forty minutes I’ve been watching every wave and how noticing how perilously close to the top of our shallow boat the water is. We have no life jackets. Ever practical, R has a plan ready for if we capsize – we all need to hold onto a towel so the three of us don’t get separated which increases our chance of rescue.  The past few hours have been worthy of the most poetic description of any travel brochure for idyllic desert islands; snorkeling through glittering shoals of fish over expansive coral in warm, crystal clear waters with a picnic lunch on an empty white sand beach in the bay of one of the Daymaniyat islands. The rumoured tropical storm looked unlikely then, but all too real and threatening now. Refuelling in open water from a can plus the captain’s continually moving of people’s position in the boat to balance it are not reassuring. Most of the party seem oblivious.

Daymaniyat Islands

So what brings us to this perilous situation? Two friends and I have joined a weekend trip away with a group from Dubai organised via the ‘Meet Up’ app, lured by the mountain ranges and broad coastline of Oman over a long weekend.  It takes us about five hours to drive from Dubai to Al Sawadi Beach resort including the border crossing. We’re up super early for breakfast the next day as instructed by our group leader. Too bad the boat driver isn’t and the delay in setting off coupled with the inadequate size and power of the vessel has pushed us into the imminent bad weather.

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Snorkeling past the Daymaniyat islands

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Stopping on a secluded beach

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Thankfully safely back to shore with storm approaching

Up to the Hajar mountains

Thankfully we do eventually reach dry land unscathed, nails bitten to the quick. Our next destination is Al Hamra up in the Hajar mountains, about two and half hours drive away, and we are eager to get there especially because of the storm.  Indecision from the leader of the group means we set off late and into the maelstrom.  Eight hours later, through torrents of water from the sky and burst rivers we’ve had to ford, we finally arrive – exhausted. We pass a car washed away in a river unaware that the deluge we’ve braved has swept at least six to their deaths. R is spent, having kept her nerve behind the wheel throughout the whole demanding journey. The water heater has not been switched on in our room so we crawl into our beds coated in sea salt and sand.

Bilad Sayt

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Tea drinking and watching the sun come up

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Shorfet Al-Alamin

Next day, my companions slumber while my internal dog-walking alarm clock rouses me just after 6am. I creep out to gaze at the misty valleys below me from my mountain top, to the soundtrack of birds. I wander to higher ground and meet some other members of the group. The drivers for our next journey seem to have the same alarm clock as the boat owner so we wander around watching the sun come up, our perils of the previous day fading like the mist. A group of local guys who are brewing tea in a kettle on a fire offer to share some with us. It’s milky and infused with wild za’atar and ‘spice’ which we can’t find a common word for. It’s similar to karak chai but less sweet and, with the slightly medicinal flavour of the herbs, refreshing and addictive.

An hour later, with the sun streaming down into the valley our driver Zaher is navigating the rough road winding down at the edge of a precipitous drop. Although usually a nervous passenger, I feel so safe with his confident careful approach to the journey and we chat in pidgin English about his day job in Muscat and family here in the rural village. R is a geographer and explains how the rocks were formed, the striations and colours so clear and dramatic, literally showing the creation of the world. The swathes of rough green schist are particularly eye-catching. At the bottom of the path, three small boys are making the most of the recent rainfall taking turns to slide down a brilliant natural smooth helter skelter, running and giggling. It emphasises the simplicity of life that still hangs on a knife-edge in Oman.

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The long winding path down to Bilad Sayt carved from the side of the mountains

Four of us decide to walk to the village. It looks as though the path leads to a mountain side but as we get nearer to a small oasis of palm trees the fissure through the rock is clear and we wind our way through, feeling dwarfed by the towering sides and cool depths. There is water to negotiate, unsurprising after last night storms and one deep puddle that we cannot find a way round so our feet get a dunking. After a while we are aware of a shadow following a little behind. A young local boy is taking the same path but stays at a distance. Finally he sits comfortably at the top of a rock, the perfect quiet spot to contemplate his mobile phone undisturbed, his dishdasha completely immaculate. His local knowledge has guided him better than us; his feet are dry.

The village of Balid Sayt is enclosed by mountains with fields and palm trees at its centre. There must be a way in by road but it’s not obvious. Everything is shimmeringly tranquil. Negotiating the narrow back streets, darkly shielded from the beating rays, some little girls see us, giggle and run inside. The whole place looks deserted under the mid-day sun from the vantage point of the old fort. We meet up with other members of our group under an ancient ghaf tree in the centre of the village. It’s a much better place for people watching and to escape the sun. Open backed trucks drive up and villagers lop off the odd branch or twigs for feeding to animals. We all decline the option of walking straight back up the mountain that was on our itinerary for early morning. All of us except one. C heads off at pace with the guide, who has already been up this vertical ascent once today. “See you at the top” we say, in admiration, with no regrets for taking the easy option back to base by road.

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Bilad Sayt in an oasis at the foot of the mountains

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Bilad Sayt fields

Al Hamra

The path from our hotel across the top of the mountain is waymarked on the flat, fissured stones which are like beautiful paving slabs. The views are mesmerizing and vertiginous. R and I get into some meaty topics with new friend A, adding extra energy to our walk. Large rain drops dot the cream coloured rock but it comes to nothing, however we can see lightning storms flashing in the distance.  A small wooden sign appears to point down a sheer drop to a village. You’d have to be barking mad to contemplate it. Would C appear? Then suddenly she does, striding across the plateau, hardly breaking a sweat after a two-hour hike straight up. She receives a hero’s welcome. We are tempted by our guides’ offers to go somewhere licensed for the evening (Oman is not dry but alcohol is usually only available in 5 star hotels), but not tempted enough for an hour’s drive.

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Would C appear?

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Post storm sunset

Snake Gorge

On the next day, our drivers are bang on time. They are professional men who have good jobs in the city during the week; they’ve been friendly and genuinely welcoming.  Back down the winding route into the valley and beyond into even more dramatic and slightly foreboding rocky scenery, we finally meet up with our canyoning leaders at the start of Snake Gorge. They are trained professionals in outdoor pursuits and the tone, leadership and organisation goes up a notch or two (or a hundred). We don helmets and buoyancy vests, our footwear is double checked, we are given safety instructions and warnings. It’s not alarmist – people enter these canyons unprepared and have lost their lives.

Cheap waterproof camera. Images not taken on a GoPro!

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

View from the top. We’re going in there

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Inside Snake Canyon. Mysterious, beautiful – and yes the water was warm!

For the next couple of hours we are guided down smooth rocky slides, clamber from one canyon to another, swim through pools – some in caves – and even see a couple of small, elegant snakes that give the canyon its name. They are constrictors too small to be of danger to anything but very small mammals. The whole group leap off a rocky promontory into a deep pool below one by one; most with a degree of trepidation, especially me. I freeze with fear, blub uncontrollably then give silent assent to be pushed off. Apart from this blip, the whole hike is otherworldly, beautiful and exhilarating.

Zaher meets us at the end with a home-cooked lunch and we sit under the palm trees sharing chicken and rice mansaf cooked by his mother and sisters. It’s one of the most deliciously simple meals ever. Chatting over lunch is a better way to get to know some of our group – breaking bread together. Earlier, under duress, and inexperienced leadership, mostly we haven’t bonded which is is shame; perhaps under different circumstances….

We drive back by a different, faster and less populated route, the mountains flanking our right hand side most of the way. The border crossing takes a while but we zig zag back through leafy Al Ain and in no time the high-rise of Dubai’s skyline appears. Our Omani drivers Whatsapp emojis, friend us on Facebook and entreat us “When are you coming again?”, eager to show us more of their fascinating land. When indeed?

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Lunch eaten under palm trees, cooked by a local family – we were starving

More information

Tips for planning your own adventure trip in Oman

  • Check the weather forecast. Even the sunniest day can bely extreme conditions on the way.
  • Make sure that you check the credentials of your trip leader, especially if doing any extreme or challenging activities. If in any doubt use professionals to arrange and guide your trip.
  • Use a robust four-wheel drive vehicle and ensure the driver has experience in off-roading.

Click on an image to see full size

 

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Driving back to Dubai

I’d love to hear about your adventures. What have you done that took you to a place out of your comfort zone or took your breath away?

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Country Garden Bitter Sorbet – a cool twist on a Negroni

August 28, 2016

Is it Negroni o’clock where you are? I’m back in Dubai and although happy to be home, the pale skies and the steamy temperatures are a stark contrast to beautiful English countryside, dramatic clouds and a fresh breeze. I was pounding the pavements last night with Hazel panting beside me (my Border Terrier in case you’re wondering) with headphones in ears listening to the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme podcast. Diana Henry‘s very lyrical Irish tones were lulling me into a reverie about the rise of the l’aperitif or l’aperitivo trend in the UK. She looked back to her first taste at the age of fifteen on an exchange in France. The words Lillet, Suze and Dubbonet were incredibly exotic. Like me, she was brought up in a time when alcohol was advertised on TV with little regulation and thought the life that the Martini and Cinzano ads portrayed was just real life as a grown up. Turns out we were both impossible day dreamers then. Hands up anyone else who can sing along to ‘any time, any place, anywhere, there’s a wonderful world you can share‘.

Diana lays down two rules for the perfect l’aperitif – nothing too strong and nothing too sweet. To get the taste buds in peak anticipation, Professor Charles Spence recommends the classic combination of something sour or citrus, some carbonation (i.e. bubbles) and something aromatic to stimulate the appetite.

My three very favourite aperitif are a gin and tonic (no surprise there), a French 75 (gin, Champagne, lemon juice and sugar) and a Negroni, which just happens to be ultra-fashionable right now and deliciously bitter.

So coming back to the house at dusk, rather warm and a bit peckish, after being seduced for half an hour about the allure of pre-dinner cocktails  you can guess what I was craving. Denzel’s special cocktail recipe for August fitted the bill as it’s a twist on the Negroni but slightly more elaborate.

Denzel Heath (of the MMI Bar Academy) uses Bloom gin here as it’s infused with botanicals such as chamomile, honeysuckle and pomelo capturing the essence of a country garden. Created by head distiller, Joanne Moore (still one of the few female master distillers in the world) soda is recommended as a partner for Bloom gin to set off the light, feminine flavours. The juniper is still an important element and in a gin and tonic Bloom suggests a strawberry as a garnish. St Germain is liqueur flavoured with elderflowers and is simply divine. Lillet is a refreshing citrus flavoured fortified wine which is lovely on its own over ice as an aperitif. If you really can’t find it try some bianco vermouth (sweet white) and maybe add a touch of Cointreau and Angostura orange bitters.

Country Garden Bitter Sorbet

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 30ml Bloom gin (or your gin of choice)
  • 30ml Campari (Aperol will also do)
  • 30ml Lillet Blanc
  • 30ml strawberry purée*
  • 60ml St Germain
  • 30ml fresh pineapple juice
  • 30ml egg white
  • Sprinkles (optional)

Equipment

  • Cocktail shaker
  • Old fashioned glass or something more frivolous (like an ice cream container)
  • Ice

How to mix

  1. Add the Bloom gin, Campari, Lillet and strawberry purée into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously until completely chilled. Strain the chilled liquid out of the shaker into an old-fashioned glass over fresh ice (discard the used ice from the shaker and wash it up).
  2. Make some St Germaine Foam: Fill a clean cocktail shaker with 60ml of St Germaine, 30ml of egg white and 30ml of pineapple juice. First shake these ingredients thoroughly without ice (this is known as a dry shake and is used to agitate the liquid and proteins).  Add ice to the mixture and shake for a second time.
  3. Strain 30ml of the foam on top of the ‘negroni mix (use the rest for another cocktail).

*Strawberry puree is simply 4 parts fresh, hulled strawberries with 1 part caster sugar blitzed in a blender until very smooth. You’ll probably find it easier to make a larger amount than needed in the recipe.

While this is probably involves a few more processes than your usual homemade cocktail, just imagine serving it at a summer garden party with some summery nibbly things. Divine.
Emiko Davies explains more about Italian aperitivi here and find out why I adore Diana Henry’s writing here.

What’s your favourite l’aperitif or l’aperitivo?

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Good food and street art. What to eat, drink and see on a day out in Bristol

August 26, 2016
Mud Dock - Where to eat in Bristol - on mycustardpie.com

Mud Dock

Have you ever planned a day out around a meal? After seeing a friend’s Instagram pics from a restaurant, I knew that I had to eat there and planned to visit Bristol centred round it. Was it worth the journey? It turns out that Bristol is thriving hub of food and varied culture. Here’s how to get a taste in one day…

Mud Dock

As I lifted my phone to take a picture inside Mud Dock cafe the waiter asked if I was playing Pokemon. Completely mystified I asked elder teen who filled me in – the new Pokemon Go app had launched that day. It explained the group of four young guys who were just behind us on our walk in from Bristol Temple Meads railway station. I’d assumed were all using Google maps to guide their way and couldn’t work out why they were all enjoying it so much.

I worked in Bristol during the early 1990s. Mud Dock has been around for years but I first heard of it much later in a Sophie Grigson cookbook when she published one of their recipes. It’s part of an edgier side of the city which was expressed in music back then (Portishead, Massive Attack, Shara Nelson) rather than food. You climb up some wrought iron stairs past a bike shop to get to the top of the building and cafe. We sat on the outside terrace with immediate views of freight and a car park below but it also looks out on the wider dock area. It’s a splendid, quirky space. Strong winds and a violent rain shower sent us scurrying inside for our second excellent coffee. The day’s lunch menu was being written on the board with much to tempt but we reluctantly tore ourselves away to the M Shed.

On the Banksy trail

Needing to do something to entertain mind, body and soul in between eating trips, we decided to find a few Banksy artworks which are dotted around the city. You can book a guided tour or try to find them yourself – we did the latter using this as a guide.

First stop, after dodging the rain drops over the footbridge to the other side of the harbour, was M Shed. Among its eclectic display dedicated to Bristol is a very famous Banksy, The Grim Reaper, removed from the side of a boat for preservation. To be honest it’s in a strange place for viewing, in a hallway and behind glass. I nearly asked a couple of museum curators where it was – they were standing in front of it!

Strolling up along the harbour was very pleasant. We turned away from the water once we reached the SS Great Britain, ducked down the first alleyway on the right, turned right again and were soon outside the gates of Bristol Marina – very much a working place for boat repairs. A bit puzzled we turned round, spotted a burger van and then, tucked into a recess in the building, was Girl with the pierced eardrum. Under the gaze of the workmen munching fast food at picnic tables by the van, we took selfies with this witty take on a renowned masterpiece, under cloudy skies, beneath a fire escape!

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Grim Reaper – Banksy

The Olive Shed

Retracing our steps along the harbour, a decision for lunch was in order. The Olive Shed is really pretty from the outside, but I had a twinge of regret as we were led past a dark, rather ramshackle, open kitchen and up the stairs to a slight shabby room painted in ochre. The service was good however, and the simple, seasonal tapas-based menu served well. A bowl of excellent moules with frites and a glass of wine for me and x for F. The only disappointment was the rather fluffy bread inaccurately described as ciabatta with our olives and balsamic. We polished it off though. The brilliant view over the harbour and city beyond was unexpectedly interrupted when a huge naval ship, complete with armed officers, moored right in front of the restaurant causing much excitement down on the quay.

Bristol Harbour - A day out in Bristol on mycustardpie.com

Bristol Harbour

Shopping and Zerodegrees microbrewery

We hopped on a bus to get to the city centre for some retail distraction (Loot Vintage shop and the main central Cabot Circus shopping mall).  The sun came out and we strolled back to the Christmas steps, a picturesque collection of little shops, including Weber & Tring’s an intriguing family-run independent wines and spirits retailer, Twentieth Century Flicks DVD rental shop (great podcast about them on the BBC Radio 4 Film Show) and a specialist woodwind dealer Trevor Jones (veggie teen’s clarinet bought there about 10 years ago). At the top we were gasping for refreshment so climbed a few more steps and sat on the balcony of Zerodegrees microbrewery with a brilliant view of the steps and surrounding streets. This is an enormous place and I’m not implying you should make a special journey. There seemed to be just one poor barman in the whole building, but it was a great place to sit and watch the world go by.

A day out in Bristol on mycustardpie.com

View from the balcony at Zerodegrees

More Banksy

The next Banksy was about five minutes walk away on the side of a house. It’s interesting that we were the only people taking the time to stop and look at this dramatic artwork Well Hung Lover at the side of a busy street. Bristolians are inured to them now it seems. After that we walked to the top of Park Street and stopping for a few more vintage shops on the way was our downfall. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery had just closed for the day and it was impossible to see inside the lobby where Paint-Pot Angel is situated. Ah well. The outside of the nearby Bristol University Will Memorial Building is magnificent especially bathed in the gold of the evening light. A taxi stand was a few metres up and we hopped in one to Southville.

Birch

Southville is full of narrow streets of neat, terraced houses painted in pastel colours. We arrived a bit too early so strolled round the block counting the number little china sunflowers for the Bristol garden award. On first glance from outside, this could be an art gallery – white walls, huge bare windows, screenprints on the wall. Or a Scandinavian homeware shop given the name. The plain formica tables and a tiny Harlequin bar at the back give its restaurant status away. When we round the corner a few minutes after opening time, the sun is streaming through the windows with some tables already occupied. This former Victorian corner shop (with several reincarnations including an Indian) has been transformed into a modest but comfortable space for a few lucky diners, I guess 25 people max. Birch was set up by a couple of friends who cut their teeth by running supper clubs in Bristol, went on to hone their catering skills, worked in some notable Bristol restaurants before clocking up more experience in London, including St John which is famed for the provenance of its produce. The latter is key to Birch which issues a daily menu of a few courses based on what’s in season. The produce is local, some grown and gathered by Sam Leach and Beccy Massey from their own allotment. The wine list is eclectic and all organic. I want to eat and drink everything.

A silky, daisy-fresh Portland pearl oyster piqued cleverly with a fresh rhubarb dressing put a big smile on my face. Crusty sour dough with hand churned butter celebrates just how perfect simple food can be. Tender, tiny, bright green broad beans, only achievable if you grow your own, are scattered with soft tangy goats curd, fresh cherries and hazelnuts. A swirl of rich pigeon sausage with chard, split peas and the warm tang of mustard is comfort food for a summer’s evening. Beet tops are braised with barley, and steeped with blackcurrants and malty Old Ford stout. Yellow courgette is draped over the tender, pink saddle of kid like a savoury veil.

I order sorbet – this is unprecedented – it’s gooseberry and mint; fresh, gleaming loganberry jelly and mousse with a cylinder of brandy snap is like all your childhood favourites dressed up for the night. Blackcurrants, picked that morning, with a whey caramel, whipped yoghurt and almond cake takes me in a time capsule to tastes from the garden and my spoon keeps scraping across the dish long after there is anything remaining.

A taxi whisked us back to the sweeping arches of Brunel’s striking Bristol Temple Meads station in a little happy bubble. KP will tell you that I have not stopped talking about this food all summer. Sam and Beccy clearly take the greatest pleasure in finding and combining the very best produce. It leaves you with the feeling of going round a summer veg patch, tasting leaves, roots and fruits, combined with elegance and joy.

A day out in Bristol on mycustardpie.com

Bristol Temple Meads

Useful info

Click on the images to enlarge

What to eat, drink and see on a day out in Bristol on mycustardpie.com

The old and the new in Bristol Harbour

This was just one day out in Bristol. There’s a vibrant food and art scene. I definitely returning again next time I’m in the UK. Let me know your highlights and recommendations.

Walking the South West Coast path – Hartland Quay to Bude

August 9, 2016

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpieStrapping on our boots and ‘can-do’ attitude my sister and set off just before 9am down the crumbling earth steps to the cliff path swathed in a heavy sea fog. We were still in shock, having discovered the night before, over a plate of fish and chips in the pub, that our second day’s hike of 15.2 miles (24.5 km) was “the toughest part of the entire South West Coast Path and involves a long hard day of walking, with some very relentless and tiring ascents and descents”. Buoyed up by an excellent breakfast, we descended to the start of the rocky coastline with black corrugated spines of rock forming dramatic lines up the beach, inspiring awe even through the mistiness of the day.

The reason for the arduous yet splendid nature of the path are the river valleys that carve they way through the cliffs. We didn’t see a soul – excepting various breeds of sheep – as we trod carefully down steps in the crags, crossed the rivers on little wooden bridges and then paced doggedly up the other side.

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Remote and other worldly, this is far from the image of gentle rolling countryside that thoughts of Devon usually inspire. An elegant waterfall at Spekes Mill Mouth, a long streak of teaming water thundering down black cliffs, caused us to stop to admire and catch a breath for a minute before forging on.

At one point we could look back and see right along the coast to Hartland Point but mostly concentrated on the winding path along the headland and tip toeing down the valleys and then puffing back up the other side. My strategy for tackling the hills was to do 50 steps at a time and then take a breather. This doesn’t sound like a lot but the gradient and distance was pretty tough.

Near the top of one steep-sided valley we found a hut with a welcome sign to enter. It was where the playwright and poet Ronald Duncan used to write and there were some pens and paper on a small table in case you were so inspired.  It was still a bit misty but thankfully no rain as we crossed a little stream over yet another wooden footbridge at Marshland Mouth and crossed  from Devon into Cornwall.

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

The wild flowers throughout the walk were a joy and wild thyme scented our journey as our boots crushed the leaves under foot. My sister, who had an ornithology book fixation as a child, identified a little bird in the hedgerow as a stone chat. Super impressed – I had never even heard of one. We marvelled constantly at the rock formations; the movement of the earth in prehistoric times and layers of rock evident in spectacular zigzag folds.

Vicarage cliff was another steep climb and we could see across to Morwenstow at the top, home of a fabled tea rooms. There was no time for us to stop though so we carried onto another little hut, made of driftwood,  just off the path looking out over the Atlantic. Hawker’s Hut is the smallest property to be owned by the National Trust and the place where local vicar the Reverend Robert Hawker would write poetry under the influence of opium in the 1800s. Under the influence of big floury baps with ham, cheese and homemade runner bean chutney for our lunch (made by B&B landlady Anna) and the breeze on our feet, liberated from their booted confines, we were very soon restored and set off again at around 2.30pm.

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

We were not liberated from the hills and valleys however, some steep some a little more gentle, and needed to keep our spirits up. A flatter respite took us past the wire fence and huge dishes of a satellite tracking centre where the path was covered in little flowers.  There were a few more people on this section of the track as it can be reached from inland paths to make circular walks. We stopped to chat to a young chap walking his way round the whole of the UK.

A winding very steep path to Duckpool beach had my sister’s heart palpitating as she hates precipitous views. We got to the bottom and I was very pleased to see… public toilets; a luxury as the first we had seen on our two days of walking on this remote and beautiful coastline.  Another couple of steep up and downs brought us to Sandymouth where we just caught the cafe for a cup of tea as it was closing.

 

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

After making our way back up to the top of the cliffs we strolled along the wide path with expansive views over to Bude which got nearer and nearer. The multi-coloured beach huts offered the jolliest welcome and it was a real effort to move my feet onto pavements and into Bude to find our Bed and Breakfast. If I could have hailed a taxi then, I would have thrown myself in front of it. We cheered as, when given a friendly welcome by Joanne at Teeside (opposite Bude golf course), she told us that our room was on the first floor. No more stairs to climb – hooray – and a really excellent hot shower.

Supper was at the Olive Tree sitting overlooking the canal. The inside dining room was fully booked but you can pitch up and order for the bar area and outside tables, and after looking inside we thought the latter was by far the best option. The menu was good, food delicious but, apart from one sweet waitress, the service was disinterested to the point of rude. However, this didn’t spoil our evening watching people drift past by water and on foot. We topped off with a cocktail in North Coast Wine Co as we called it a night and shored ourselves up for the next day walking from Bude to Crackington Haven. We were absolutely exhausted, aching all over, exhilarated from having conquered such a challenging leg of the journey and rather worried that our battered feet and legs would make the next day’s route. Did I mention it contains the steepest and longest descent and ascent of the entire path?

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Bude

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Bude

Hartland Quay to Bude on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Our view from the restaurant of the canal in Bude

Useful info

Click on the images in the gallery below to enlarge

Our next (third) day’s hike was Bude to Crackington Haven (having hiked from Clovelly to Hartland Quay the previous day).

What’s the most spectacular coastline you’ve ever visited?

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Hotter than July – a cooling St James’s Swizzle

July 30, 2016

Can you imagine living somewhere that you never look at the weather forecast? You open your wardrobe and decide what you want to wear that day based on your mood or the occasion but never with a range of climatic changes in mind. That’s my life in Dubai and when I return to the UK getting to grips with the weather excites and slightly challenges me. I enjoy wrapping up warm and even whipping out my umbrella. We had a few days last week that made me feel right at home with temperatures soaring over 30 C (although I wouldn’t be in crazy Dubai’s summer temperatures of over 50 C right now).  

My bartending mentor Denzel Heath created a cocktail just right for beating the heat. It’s perfect to sip on my Mum’s patio overlooking her beautiful flower border, listening to her complain about how hot it is and how all the plants are dying!

A few things we did on sunny days during July… (click on a pic to see the full image):

Inspired by The Queen’s Park Swizzle which was named after the Trinidadian hotel where it was first concocted in the 1920s, this is The St James’s Swizzle as, instead of the original rum, it uses No 3 gin. This is one of my favourite gins made by Berry Brothers and Rudd, a wine merchant which can trace the foundations of its family business back to a shop in No 3 James’s Street in London opened in 1698 and has been there ever since. Simple to make; long, cool and green – just like the bottle. Here’s to more beautiful English summer days – and good weather wherever you are.

How to make a St James's Swizzle gin cocktail on mycustardpie.com

St James's Swizzle

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Equipment

  • Long glass such as a highball
  • Swizzle or bar spoon

Ingredients

  • fresh mint sprigs
  • 60ml No. 3
  • 15ml green Chartreuse * optional
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 30ml fresh lime juice
  • crushed ice
  • 2 drops Bittermen’s Orchard Street Celery Shrub**
  • 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters**
  • 2 dash Angostura Orange Bitters**
  • Garnish: mint leaves, celery stick

How to mix

  1. Place torn mint leaves in the bottom of a glass and muddle gently (i.e bruise the leaves to release the aromatic oils – I use the end of a wooden spoon).
  2. Add the gin, Chartreuse, sugar cube and lime juice. Top up with crushed ice, and swizzle vigorously until the glass frosts (about 15 to 20 seconds).
  3. Add additional fresh crushed ice to mound the glass, and dash the bitters on top liberally.

*for depth and dimension

**if you don’t have the celery bitters you can substitute with 10ml of celery juice, for the 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters & 2 dash Angostura Orange Bitters – substitute with 4 dashes of either instead of both.

 

Read more about swizzling and swizzle sticks or watch a video by Jim Meehan famous founder of PDT New York on how to swizzle. Don’t worry – a bar spoon works fine too.

Of course as I press publish on this post, the English weather has gone back to its usual varied self. I’ll have to pour myself one of these and dream. How’s your summer going?

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Walking the South West Coast Path – Clovelly to Hartland Quay

July 28, 2016

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpieAs the rain started to spatter the windscreen, I regretted leaving my waterproof trousers behind. This was not what the weather forecast predicted for mid July. A ‘mizzle’ (a sort of misty drizzle) hung over the sky as we reached the visitor’s centre in Clovelly and we hurried inside. The lady on the desk was not a mine of information and didn’t really know where the start of the South West Coast path was. My sister and I had planned to walk just over 25 miles of the 630 mile path which is continuous round the coast of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. This was the first of three days of glorious hiking, we hoped.

We had a cup of tea in the centre and looked around for maps and information. The books were designed for people sitting on the couch reading about the coastline rather than those wishing to walk. There were an awful lot of knick-knacks and an enormous amount of fudge. Clovelly is a private village and you have to pay to enter.

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Clovelly harbour

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Boats on the shingle at Clovelly

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

After weaving our way past a large party of German pensioners we soon stood at the top of the steep main High street made of pebbles. Even under an overcast sky it is chocolate box pretty and must be heaving during peak season. There was quite a bit of renovation going on and the workmen were pulling their materials up on sledges as the village is car-free. The alternative is by donkey although I think they are for petting not toil these days; we didn’t see any.

Clovelly had been yarn-bombed and crafty ingenuity ranged from a whole knitted beach-hut to a field of woollen pom-pom flowers. The high street leads down into a pretty harbour where you can buy some legendary hot smoked mackerel rolls. We plumped for a pasty for later and, after a fascinating chat to a lady with an owl, made our way up to the coast path.

A large sign on a gate showed up we were in the right place and from then on the whole path was meticulously signposted with little acorn markers (derived from the National Trust emblem). We could have done without the map but it did help us to gauge how well we were doing. With ten miles ahead of us we strode off through woodlands and onto a path bordered by shrubs and trees with glimpses of the sea below, stopping only for a short pasty-eating break.

We soon came to a wooden carved shelter known as Angel’s Wings, built in the 19th century by Sir James Hamlyn Williams, a former owner of Clovelly. He sited it here so that he could look across Bideford Bay to where his daughter, Lady Chichester, lived at Youlston. The name comes from the carvings of angels and angels’ wings supporting the roof.

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

 

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Angels’ wings

Our walk was fairly gentle until we reached some steep and narrow winding paths going up through woods. Once at the top there were a series of open fields climbing upwards. It started to rain and the wind made it heavy going. Eventually we saw glimpses of the Sonar ‘mushroom’ and the promontory of Hartland point. The coastline started to become more dramatic which buoyed our dipping energy levels. Then we spotted something down below in a car park and my sister ran down the hill in excitement.

The Point at Hartland is a fantastic little tea cabin with a range of homemade refreshments. We were super impressed that they even stocked Compeed plasters – take heed Clovelly visitors centre! The steaming mug of tea restored us while we had a nice chat to the owners and a lady who was celebrating her birthday.

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

The Point at Hartland Point car park

Rounding Hartland point and starting to walk along the Atlantic coastline we had around 3 miles to go. These were really tough with steep descents and ascents through dramatic river valleys – a taste of things to come for the next day. Eventually we reached the level higher ground, hiking past the remains of a folly and turned inland to Stoke across a path through a field. It was a short walk to 1 Coastguard Cottages and Anna the owner welcomed us warmly in every sense. She whisked our damp boots and belongings onto the Aga and supplied us with a brimming bone china teapot full of hot tea.

There is only one place for an evening meal here – at the Wrecker’s Retreat – although I believe you can arrange something with Anna too.

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Boots back on, our weary feet made their way back towards the coast and down a steep narrow path. The Wrecker’s Retreat is in the Hartland Quay hotel and has a phenomenal view of craggy granite carved bays. It was once a thriving port in ancient times and the hotel is in converted warehouses and custom houses. The Wrecker’s pub is in an old stable block. There is a small museum which tells the story of four centuries of shipwrecks and heroic life saving services on this beautiful but treacherous coastline.

We entered the packed, warm, lively pub and were dismayed to find no tables available. However, after a short while we bagged one and tucked into fish and chips. The menu is unpretentious pub food, well cooked to order. Our fellow diners were a good mixture of foreign hotel guests, well-heeled British visitors, and locals. While sipping local ale (I recommend Legend from Dartmoor Brewery) you can view some relics of wrecks, including the ‘Green Ranger’ of 1962, that are part of the interior.

It was while enjoying our rest and evening meal we read that our next day’s 15 mile hike was the most challenging and strenuous of the entire 630 mile coast path. Eek!

With trepidation we climbed back up the path stopping every so often to look at the stunning sunset over the Atlantic. There was only one thing for it. We put in our order for a full English breakfast complete with homemade sausages and bacon from Anna’s pigs and eggs from her hens. Tomorrow would be quite a challenge but our spirits would feel brighter after a good night’s sleep.

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Useful info

I’d emailed ahead for the long-term parking arrangements and handed over 12 GBP for three days. Mrs Unhelpful at the Visitor’s centre advised me not to display the ticket in my car so I think I could have easily parked for free. The fee to enter Clovelly includes parking for the day so I ended up paying double for the first day too. Lesson learned.

 

Clovelly to Hartland Quay on the South West Coast path on mycustardpie

Looking back toward the the Sonar just before Hartland Point

Click on the images in the gallery below to enlarge

Our next hike was Hartland Quay to Bude, followed by Bude to Crackington Haven on day three.

Have you done any kind of hiking route or some of the South West Coast Path? What were your biggest challenges?

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Which garlic is safe to eat? How to grow it, and how to make vegan aioli

July 25, 2016

Garlicaioli-8102Have you stood behind me in the grocery weighing section?

Me: “Have you got any garlic that isn’t from China?”

Shop assistant: “Let me look for you Mam.” Goes off, returns. “Sorry Mam. Only from China.”

Me: Leaves shop without garlic looking peeved.

So what’s wrong with the bright, white abundant cheap garlic that most of us consume without thinking? Firstly it’s the taste – bland and un-aromatic, but with nothing to compare it to, we’ve become used to that. But more importantly, the Chinese garlic is treated with chemicals – some are highly toxic. Here in Dubai the authorities are pretty stringent about testing things but there may be residues of treatments that are used in China but banned in other countries. At the very least the garlic is white because it has been bleached by using chlorine dioxide or a mixture of sulphur and wood ash. Whitening is a long-used ploy to attract customers, see bleached flour (now banned in UK). Growth inhibitors to stop garlic from sprouting are also used routinely and can be made from hormones or chemicals. These same substances, together with gamma irradiation, extend the shelf life but do you want them in your food?

Why Chinese garlic could be dangerous plus vegan garlic aioli recipe on mycustardpie.com

Wet garlic from The Farmers’ Market on the Terrace

I try to buy European garlic (usually from Spain) but if I had the choice I would buy local. At the end of the Farmers’ Market there was very young or wet garlic; it looked like a small leek as the cloves hadn’t started to form and had a mild garlic aroma and flavour (good lightly roasted).

In Dubai you can find European garlic in Spinneys and Waitrose most of the time and at Lafayette Gourmet in the Lootah Premium Foods section. The Spanish garlic I got from Waitrose was sprouting when I bought it – this is a good thing. Organic garlic from China is available but aspersions have been cast as to the validity, plus it’s still gleaming white i.e. bleached. Spinneys assures me that their Spanish garlic is white because of the variety i.e. no bleaching. Their buyers travel with Taste of Spain several times a year and visit the farms of their producers.  They are looking at getting organic garlic from this supplier too. It’s good to know they are a member of GLOBAL G.A.P. which promotes sustainable sourcing policies across the globe.

Laura from Slow Food Dubai recommends organic garlic from Organic Foods and Cafe. I asked her, a keen home gardener, if it was possible to grow garlic.

She has tried to grow it many times with very varying success. Garlic cloves need cold weather during their infancy to grow properly into bigger bulbs later. She’s trying to source a few heirloom hot weather varieties and doing some trials in the rooftop garden.

Tips for growing garlic in Dubai or warm climates

  1. Buy some organic garlic around end the of September.
  2. Separate the cloves and select the largest ones; put them in a paper bag in the refrigerator, with the date marked on it.
  3. After 4-6 weeks at temperature below 4°C (but not too cold, so don’t use the freezer) take them out for planting. Soak them in water for a few days until you see them sprout a green shoot. They might have sprouted already in the fridge, if so just soak in water overnight.
  4. Plant out during mid to end of November in a mixture of sand and soil with lots of nitrogen and organic compost.
  5. Don’t over water.

Aioli or allioli is a great use for good garlic, but what to do when you have a vegan in the house or people who are coming round who can’t eat raw egg (pregnant women for instance)? Thanks to Kellie for enlightening me to the magic properties of aquafaba – nothing other than the liquid from chickpeas (or some other beans). It really does whisk up in the same way as egg yolks with oil to form a thick unctuous dippable substance. Depending on the ingredients you use, the chickpea flavour is there in the background but it’s seriously addictive stuff. I’ve been dipping into this by the spoonful. Slightly less creamy than regular aioli but no compromise. I love the fact it uses something that would normally go down the sink too.

Why Chinese garlic could be dangerous plus vegan garlic aioli recipe on mycustardpie.com

Easy vegan garlic mayo or Aquafaba aioli (for true garlic lovers)

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon fresh juice lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (or to taste)
  • 45ml liquid from a can of chickpeas
  • 1 medium clove garlic, chopped finely
  • 180ml vegetable oil (I used cold-pressed rapeseed oil)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

Place all the ingredients except the oil and seasoning  in a jug or beaker and blitz until combined with a stick (immersion) blender. Keep the blender running and add the oil fairly slowly until the mixture turns thick and glossy like mayonnaise.  Taste and stir in salt and pepper as required.

It really does transform into thick mayo before your eyes, quite magically. The rapeseed oil in mine gives it a beautiful yellow colour. This packs quite a punch so halve the garlic if you are planning on doing anything intimate (or make sure you both eat it).

I’d love to hear about other types of garlic. It’s become one of those monoculture crops that we only see the same type of. Surely there must be a whole range of varieties somewhere. And have you ever tried growing it? Do let me know….

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