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A short guide to date varieties

May 20, 2018
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Four types of date on a plate

I must confess to having food geek tendencies. When in a car, driving to Sharjah with my friend Arva to do one of her food tours, I confessed to her that I had, on a spur of the moment whim, set myself a goal of posting about dates for every day during Ramadan. Instead of telling me what a crazy idea this was she exclaimed “That’s great”, with genuine enthusiasm and started to regale me with some of the fascinating details about this fruit that has played such a central part in so many cultures. If I’m a food nerd, she’s a food geek crossed with a brain that functions as an encyclopedia. She even told me the origin of the name and rattled off the Latin – it’s Phoenix Dactylifera by the way.

This tale of the name is a long and complicated one so I’ll save it for another day. Arva also suggested you should use different types of dates for different recipes which led onto the topic of the stages of ripeness (see below).

We got to Sharjah in the shimmering late afternoon. The deep waters of the creek reflected the grand domed buildings on the opposite side. Abras (small ferry boats) and dhows (larger wooden boats) bobbed lazily in their moorings. The shadows were long and all was very peaceful; a gentle, calming prelude to the end of another day of fasting during Ramadan.

Everyone gathered and the tour started, taking in the historic, old Heart of Sharjah, the large mosque dating from the 1800s and the souqs (markets). More about this anon.

We were sitting drinking gahwa – the local coffee which the mother of our Emirati guide Fatima, had ground the beans (from Sri Lanka) by hand for us. While we sipped the refreshing, slightly fruity, hot drink from little paper cups, Arva ambushed us with a pop quiz about dates.  If you are going on her tour you might not want to read the following (unless you want to cheat and get full marks that is). We tasted…

dates on a plate with their names

Three varieties of dates

  • Medjool rutab – one of the most famous dates and this is unsurprising. The ones we tasted were plump, soft and juicy, with a luxurious, melt in your mouth texture. There’s a brightness about the taste which offsets the sweetness so they’re not cloying. And they are absolutely huge.
  • Ajwa – a small, dark, almost black date with a smooth skin. It gives an intense, deep treacle-like flavour as soon as you pop it in your mouth. Very smooth in taste and texture.
  • Sukkary rutab – very sweet, juicy and yielding. Sukkary dates are the very sweetest – and indeed sukkary means ‘the sweet one’. The distinctive yellowish skin of this acorn-shaped date is very creased, and because of the crystallised sugars they contain can be slightly crunchy.
  • Sukkary dried – we also tasted a dried or tamer sukkary date to compare the difference. They were chewier and some crunchiness was very apparent especially near the stem. The concentration due to being dried meant they were even sweeter.

The Khalas (or Khlas) variety is very popular in the UAE, with a soft, sticky texture and caramel flavour, many consider it to be best; other varieties include Nghal, Barhi, Khnaizi, Loulou, Yabri, Bu ma’an, Shaishi, Bucheebal (there are hundreds of varieties and they are often known by different names depending on the country). This is why it’s called a short guide; the full version would be a life’s work.

The stages of ripeness in dates

  • Hababawk – when the date is really tiny*
  • Khalal (or khalaal) – the green unripe stage, and some people like to eat them, especially the older generation of Emiratis, but it’s an acquired taste
  • Besr – this is when the date is just starting to ripen on the tree, it changes colour and is still crunchy
  • Rutab (ratab) – the fresh date is fully ripe in taste and colour; lusciously soft and juicy within a papery thin skin.  They are only available for a few short weeks in the summer months
  • Tamr (or tamar) – is the dried date that we are most used to. Some of the moisture has evaporated so the dates can be stored. There are very many textures of dried dates.

*Arwa, an Emirati friend, gave me this term

Date quiz

Here are the questions – as dates are such a huge topic the answers and the discussion that followed is abbreviated but you get the gist.

A question of sex

Avra asked us whether if dates palms are male or female? There are both types and some varieties are bisexual so to speak. The male palms don’t bear fruit and one male tree can fertilise around fifty female trees. Dates can be planted from a seed but then the origin and sex of the tree can’t be predicted, so they are usually grown from cuttings that grow from the base of the plant. Emiratis plant date palms wherever they have space, on grass verges and small patches of land outside their houses. Early one morning you might spot a man hauling himself up the trunk of a tree by a kind of long belt; as the fruit-bearing females are most desirable, dates are usually pollinated by hand using the efflorescence from the male tree.

Not a cheap date

The Ajwa dates are the most expensive, even more than the prized Medjool. This is because they are from Medina in Saudi Arabic and were the favourite of the Prophet Muhammed. The name means to wean off as dates were often used to wean children off their mother’s milk. There is a lot of religious symbolism too as palm trees gave fruit to Mary the mother of Jesus.

Blame the parents

Where does the name Medjool come from? As the palm tree can originate from a seed, and through cross-pollination of different trees, lead to new varieties (very like the grapevine), no one really knows where it first came from. However this uniquely delicious date was named ‘prized orphans’ due to its unknown lineage.

A thorny subject

Yes, dates do have thorns which grow around the central bud or heart at the very top of the tree. If the heart is removed or damaged the tree will die.

How would you have fared in the quiz?

Three types of dates on a plate

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We left Sharjah for Dubai, the main roads unusually quiet as people had returned to their homes and families to eat and congregate. Arva fetched some date samples from the fridge in her house (fresh, rutab dates must be kept cool to preserve them) to send me home with. I also clutched a slender, volume under my arm, called Dates-A Global History by Nawal Nasrallah. There is so much still to learn about this plant that has sustained people over centuries. On awakening I read two chapters and on my dog walk with Hazel I was peering at date flowers and inspecting the green fruit very carefully.

Next time I’ll get top marks in the date quiz – I hope.

Two dressings for salad: Citrus date and balsamic date

May 19, 2018

chopping board with jug of salad dressing and cucumbers

If you type ‘date recipes’ into the search bar in Pinterest you’ll be inundated with energy balls, no bake bars, raw brownies, shakes, smoothies and masses of paleo stuff (also a few for date night). It’s all very sweet – perhaps unsurprisingly as dates are. However, if you know me at all, the absence of a sweet tooth means that I’m looking for some savoury options. Apart from bacon wrapped dates (which, although delicious, are not very appropriate during Ramadan) the non-dessert recipes using dates are a bit thin on the ground.

Historically, there were no division of courses and sweet dishes were served throughout the meal. Many foods were a mixture of sweet and savoury. In Tudor times many new foods and spices were being discovered and imported, such as nutmeg and sugar from the New World. Henry the Eighth’s banqueting table would have been filled with things like loin of veal adorned with sugar plums and pomegranate seeds, sweet potatoes with rose and orange syrup, and veal “chawettys” – a meat pie made with minced veal, dates and raisins.

My thoughts turned to salad dressings; after all, honey and mustard dressing is one of the most popular so why not use dates as the sweetener? I tinkered with a few versions in my kitchen but couldn’t get it quite right. Then I found a video on YouTube for a recipe so simple, I didn’t believe it would be that great, but was proved wrong. I’m ambivalent about it being oil-free, but you might like this. It packs a citrussy zing that’s fresh and bright poured over greens like lettuce or cucumber. Salads with carrots or parsley (or both) will benefit too as the orange pairs perfectly.

You don’t have to stick with orange and lemon either. Pink grapefruit, or even yuzu if you can get it, would work well.

A dressing that stands up to some stronger salad ingredients like shredded cabbage or radishes is one based on balsamic vinegar. This is from Anna Jones’ book A Modern Way to Eat which is one of the most well-used cookery books in my kitchen. She uses it to coat a crunchy salad based on pad thai but without the noodles. You could leave out the chilli if you want to make it more all-purpose.

Both dressings don’t do well hanging around so best to use immediately.

Citrus date salad dressing

  • Servings: 3-4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A fresh, light, zingy, oil-free dressing to pour over salad leaves.

Chopping the dates up a bit first is important. You’ll need a high-powered blender to whizz it until smooth but, because of the small quantity, it can easily heat up in a Vitamix so don’t try putting them in whole.

Ingredients

  • 2 oranges, juiced
  • 2 lemons, juiced
  • 4 dates, pitted
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

Directions

  1. Add the juice of the lemon and oranges (or whichever citrus juice you use) to your blender. You should have about 250ml of liquid.
  2. Remove the stones from the dates and chop quite finely (see notes).
  3. Put the dates and salt into the blender (it’s important that the liquid goes in first for machines like a Vitamix).
  4. Blend until combined (but don’t whizz for too long in case the dressing starts to heat). This is not a thick dressing as there is no oil to emulsify it.
  5. Use immediately. Really good with soft salad leaves like lettuce or watercress.

A jug of citrus salad dressing

And here’s a good all-rounder especially for crunchy salads.

Spicy balsamic date dressing

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
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A robust and moreish dressing which is delicious poured over chopped cabbage, carrot, radishes and other crunchy salads.

You’ll need a high-powered blender to whizz it smoothly. In theory you could pound the dates and chop everything finely by hand if you can be bothered.

Ingredients

  • 2 ripe, plump dates, stones removed and coarsely chopped
  • 100g cashew nuts, soaked overnight in water
  • a small knob of fresh ginger (about 2cm) peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 fresh red chilli, seeds removed and finely chopped
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 150ml water

Directions

  1. Put all the ingredients into a blender and whizz until smooth. It should be loose enough to pour but thick enough to coat your salad veg. Add a little more water if needed.
  2. Use immediately

chopping board with jug of salad dressing and cucumbers

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Sources:  A Tudor Banquet, Anna Jones

This is my second post for my 30 days of dates challenge. Please feel free to join in and share your date recipes here or on Instagram. Have you used dates in a salad dressing? Are you a sweet or savoury person?

Date and vanilla lassi

May 18, 2018
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glass of date lassi and plate of biscuits

Date and vanilla lassi

We had a box of dates, once a year at Christmas, when I was growing up. They came in a long, thin, lidded, cardboard case with rounded corners, and were arranged along the sides of a plastic stem which doubled-up as a two-pronged fork to save your fingers from stickiness. They were always from Tunisia; I’m not sure who ate them.

As I wander along the aisle of my local supermarket now, the date section is mind-bogglingly with choice; shelves laden with a huge array of different types, shapes, sizes, descriptions and prices. There are more than 1,500 varieties of dates worldwide, and about 42 million date palms in the U.A.E. I’m writing this as steamy dusk falls (it’s 32 C) and the first Iftar of Ramadan is about to begin. It’s impossible to imagine how people survived here, before air conditioning, with just the breezes caught by tall vents made of palm fronds, called wind towers, to cool them. Resources were precious with dates, camel milk and coffee at the heart of life.

It’s traditional for Muslims to break their fast by eating three dates, as the Prophet Muhammed did.  Dates are offered at communal Iftars, given as Ramadan gifts and as an ingredient of different pastries and sweets, which is why they abound on the supermarket shelves.

People who have grown up with dates (not just at Christmas) have a different attitude to them. They eat them at all stages of their growth: green and under-ripe, while still crunchy and fresh, ripened and juicy, and dried and sticky. Which country the best dates come from is hotly contested.

three glasses of date lassi on a trayI’ve had a big tub of dates from Saudi Arabia in my kitchen, left over from a photography session, and they’ve started to creep into my cooking and food preparation – not just as a mid-afternoon snack. It got me thinking of how many ways to use them and perhaps a series of date recipes. Can I do thirty days of dates? Let’s see. It would be a challenge, and I respond to a challenge. Are you up for it?

My first recipe is a simple one, a cooling lassi to temper the heat of food and climate. The alchemy of the ingredients is magic though – like smooth caramel, vanilla ice cream in a glass.

It’s based on the Punjabi style lassi without the addition of water. I’ve used a mixture of milk and yoghurt but also tried it with 100% laban (a drinking yoghurt that’s readily available here). You could use plant-based milk products as well.

The level of sweetness depends on you. Indian sweets are tooth-achingly so – and some lassi recipes call for an amount of sugar, honey or dates which is way too sickly for my tastes. If you are pouring over ice you can get away with it being a little sweeter though. You need a powerful blender to make it (I use a Vitamix). Pour a little boiling water over the dates and leave them to soften overnight if your machine is a little on the wimpish side.

Please don’t use vanilla essence or flavouring; the taste will put a synthetic dampener on the whole thing. You can make your own vanilla extract (it’s not sold in supermarkets here in Dubai due to the alcohol base). Local Dubai kitchenware shop Tavola sells a real version which is alcohol-free.

A pinch of sea salt wouldn’t go amiss here either, for a salted caramel vibe.

Date and vanilla lassi

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

A cooling drink with a deep, caramel flavour. It's more of a dessert-style drink than a regular smoothie. Frothy, creamy and good served over lots of ice.

You’ll need a high-powered blender to whizz it smoothly.

Ingredients

  • 250ml Greek yoghurt (or plant-based alternative)
  • 250ml milk (use full-fat regular milk or another of your choice e.g. almond milk)
  • 7-10 dates (depending on how sweet the dates are and your taste)
  • 1 teaspoon real vanilla extract (or seeds from a vanilla pod)
  • Generous pinch of sea salt (optional)

Directions

  1. Measure the yoghurt and milk (or 500ml laban) into your blender.
  2. Remove the stones from the dates. This is easy (if sticky) to do with your hands – just pull the dates apart to reveal the stone, pick it out and discard.  Put the dates into the blender (it’s important that the liquid goes in first for machines like a Vitamix).
  3. Add the vanilla extract (or seeds) and salt if using.
  4. Blend really well until the lassi is really smooth and frothy.
  5. Pour into 2 or 3 glasses over lots of ice. Drink immediately.

Three glasses of frothy date and vanilla lassi

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I used a very low aperture (blurry backgrounds) on these images and a Kim Klassen preset which is quite desaturated and moody. I really like the look but interested to know what you think.

Are you with me for the date marathon? Is a whole month of daily posts possible (or even desirable?!). Do you remember the date boxes (do they still exist?).

How to work with influencers more effectively

May 13, 2018

a scrabble board

Brands are clamouring for influencers to help spread their message. Marketing budgets are fragmented to include digital content across a range of platforms. PRs have a tough job targeting traditional media and then this new group of opinion-formers comes along in a competitive landscape which shifts like sand.

When I started my blog eight years ago there was no such thing as an ‘influencer’.  But over time, as brand collaborations became a way of generating income for content creators (and a new generation of influencers entered the sphere with this as their end goal).  As a result, there’s a lot of advice directed at influencers on how to contact PRs and brands that result in a working relationship. But I’ve found less information from an influencer perspective.

So how do brands and PRs connect and collaborate with online influencers in a way that benefits both parties and leads to all end goals being met? This is my personal experience from a food and travel angle, plus I’ve asked some top content creators in the UAE what they think.

I’d love to hear from PRs, brands and influencers alike. Please share your perspective (in the comments) and add to the conversation.

If you came here for food and travel, I hope you’ll enjoy this window into an ever-changing new industry.

Scrabble letters, a cup of tea and a notepad

So how do you nurture a loyal band of collaborators who reply to every email, share content in a meaningful way and come to events with enthusiasm? Here are a few ideas…

9 ways to work with influencers more effectively:

1. Research

Take time (and it does take time) to look at what the person posts. By really getting to know them you can determine which influencers you should be working with.
Look at their engagement (not just the number of followers), read the comments, inspect their content. Is there is a repetitive list of the same followers with three word comments just saying how wonderful everything is, or are there real, invested conversations?

And look beyond the number of followers. Audience does not equal influence.

2. Build a relationship

PRs may talk to journalists, but influencers live in a digital world. Foster a relationship there. I don’t think a PR has ever left a comment on my blog and only one or two interact with me on Instagram.

Take time look at what they post. Engage with them on Twitter or Instagram build a relationship. Work for the long term, so when you do get in touch with a request they will already know you and are more likely to respond favourably.

Factor in the changing nature of the industry and approach influencers in a very different way to journalists…

3. Tailor

There are two strands to this one. Ask the influencer what they would like from the experience or collaboration. Contact your potential partners and find out what it is they’d really like in an ideal world. Target with things they actually want to do (for a better take up). If it’s too much you can meet somewhere in the middle.

To quote Kate Baxter of Be More Hive from a recent episode on the Blogtacular podcast, who often sees sign off on quite traditional PR strategy approaches that don’t work on an influencer level:

..something that is adapted from an approach that they might traditionally have used with print press which is not really the approach that you can take with influencers. Each influencer, whether that be a blogger, a vlogger, or someone who purely has an Instagram account with 100s of thousands of followers, they are their own person who retains complete editorial control over absolutely everything they do and so they are the person who makes the decision on every single aspect of the content they are creating and that also putting their own personal viewpoint across in that content in a way that traditional print media doesn’t.

The second aspect is that at events or on media trips there is often one amazing set up, view or experience – but you then get the same identical coverage from all the people there. By finding out what the influencer (and therefore their audience) would like you can tailor elements so they have bespoke, unique and more impactful content.

4. Personalise

No matter how enticing the offer or interesting the proposition, being addressed as ‘Dear Blogger’ is so off-putting and causes the hackles to rise. I’d rather someone just said Hello than get lumped into one homogenous influencer morass! (I’m sure the ‘Dear Editor’ press releases get short shrift across the board too).

I received a parcel the other day with my name handwritten on the outside, a mock-up of a passport containing stamps to all the countries I’ve visited in the last two years and a postcard with an image of me on it (yes they’d stalked me on Instagram). Not everyone has the time or budget to personalise an invite to this degree, but it definitely made me feel very special and almost duty bound to attend the event when it’s announced.

5. Don’t send press releases

Even for journalists, according to Janet Murray, press releases are generally ineffective. Even less so for influencers – most of whom share things from a personal perspective (and if the release is just reproduced online, I’d question the value to, or engagement of, any target audience). My inbox is inundated with so many emailed releases that I created a rule which puts them straight into one folder so I can scan the headlines and delete quickly. Sometimes they do contain something which I want to share but it’s in a format that makes it too time consuming and difficult so….

6. Send shareable content

Everyone wants useful, information, entertaining shareable content for their platforms. Often a press release will highlight something that my audience would be interested in. Two pages of detailed information in a release and a high res image that I have to download usually gets put straight into trash.  To make it shareable I suggest one or two lines communicating the main point (less than the 250 characters that Twitter demands ideally), a lo res image that is in a format for social (in size and content – no line ups of executives in suits please) plus a link to the rest of the info so people can to find out more. Social tags and relevant hashtags would also help the client gain exposure. If I want to know more I’ll reply to the email.

7. Use one method of communication

You receive an invitation by email, check your Instagram messages*  and there it is in duplicate, then the phone rings about the same event. Responding or even deleting takes time. It’s worth finding out the preferred method of communication from your list of influencers (you could do a quick survey and store in your database).

*For instance, I include my email in my Instagram profile as Instagram messages are time-consuming to manage (you can’t bulk delete and have to respond on your phone) – I presume influencers with a huge following have a VA to assist with this.

8. Interact

Likes and comments are the currency of the digital world. Brands, in the main, assume that the influencers will do all the work and completely miss the point of amplified reach through sharing user-generated content. It’s staggering the amount of times that a brand fails to respond to being tagged or using a hashtag (that they have asked you to use). Whether an official collaboration or not, you put out a post and it’s tumbleweed.  Brands will benefit from being seen to be commenting on feeds, and joining the conversation. There’s a reason why it’s called ‘social’ media.

9. Manage expectations

Both parties should agree in writing everything that is expected before the initiative. A request after the event ‘can you just post this on your Instagram feed’ when this was not part of the agreement undervalues the time, effort and effectiveness of the influencer’s work. Again it’s about understanding what goes into the content creation. If unsolicited freebies are sent to an influencer, it is up to them whether they post anything (or nothing). If goods, trips, experiences are received with assent then a realistic amount of coverage should be agreed.

Scrabble game, cup of tea and phone

Three content creators share their personal viewpoint

I asked “What are the areas that frustrate you or could be much more effective when PRs approach you (and ultimately achieve a tangible benefit for the client)?” Here are the replies (unedited).

Samantha Wood, founder of impartial restaurant review website www.foodiva.net and curator of dine around experiences

“The list is endless but here are my top three pointers:

  1. The first golden rule of any type of media engagement is for the PR to understand the social media platforms of the person they are engaging with. Having been a PR for 17 years I know the value in building relationships. Read my website including pages that explain my editorial policy and advertising/ partnership activations – and review my social media channels. I get very frustrated when PRs pitch to me yet have no idea that my business is digital only, let alone having read it. For instance, a PR might invite me to review a new restaurant – yet not having read my site, they are unaware of my no freebies anon policy.
  2. Pitch suggestions in line with the type of content/ different sections of my website. Personally I prefer email correspondence and perhaps Twitter for short and sweet ideas. I don’t like being pitched on IG or FB – or even worse WhatsApp. If I have a good relationship with the PR, I am happy to take a phone call to discuss the pitch.
  3. Do NOT send me press releases or download links unless I have requested hi-res photos – PRs are wasting their time and mine. My inbox is flooded every day with PR requests, which I don’t have the time to read. A menu, plus two or three bullet points of the restaurant/ food concept’s USPs in the body of the email is all that I need – plus some good low-res images to help paint a picture.”
lady in a restaurant

Samantha Wood

Rupal Bhatikar of Foodie n Fabulous food and travel blog

“My biggest pet peeve with PRs has always been the lack of research into the bloggers niche. It hugely benefits brands to work with people who would add value to a campaign if their audience/content is relevant to the brand. Being a food (recipe) & travel blogger, I get ridiculous number of restaurant/spa/lifestyle invites that are completely irrelevant to what I do. It is not enough to send a blanket email to anyone and everyone, due diligence is critical. It is also as important for them to expect transparency from the influencer side – sharing stats critical to study if campaigns have actually been effective. Similarly, using #sponsored and disclosures should be a given considering how much time and money is at stake and PR’s should be working only with legitimate influencers who actually follow these ethics/conduct. That is the only way going forward this industry can be regulated and work better for all parties involved.”

Lady in restaurant

Rupal Bhatikar

Naomi D’Souza – Leading Instagrammer and blogger

“I personally think the first step is, empathy. PRs must know it takes a lot of time to blog – managing a website plus creating quality content, editing pictures after a review and most importantly being able to come up with a creative tactic to promote a specific brand every single time.

I understand it’s mostly the client and not the PR who come up with deadlines and requests, but I do feel it’s the PR’s responsibility to spread knowledge on what bloggers go through just to create one piece of content. If things are rushed up the quality gets compromised that further ruins the bloggers personal brand, this even ends up ruining future potential collaborations.

There are a few PR agencies that understand the effort taken by bloggers but I believe it must be talked about more.”

magazine page

Naomi D’Souza

What’s next for PR and influencers?

My aim in writing this is as a constructive way to achieve greater results in a partnership together; I do not underestimate the hard work that goes into PR especially in a competitive and ever-changing business landscape (especially as, with a career in marketing communications, I see both sides of the fence). I’m sure that some PR and brands are shouting at the screen right now saying “but you have no idea about x”.

Recommend giving the Blogtacular podcast a listen. It’s about finding good examples, learning how to do it right and setting some industry standards.

How do we move closer together in collaboration to achieve the aims of both sides? Maybe we should have a huge meet-up where we all get together regardless of who or what company we work for. Let me know in the comments.

Scrabble board, cup of tea, phone

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Found this useful? You might like 10 things learned from 5 years of food blogging, What is Blogtacular and why you should attend and How a photography challenge could improve your Instagram

What makes a good Hot Cross Bun and where to find one

April 1, 2018

hot cross buns on a board with a cup of tea

The French are very good at seasonal baking and cakes, with things like Galette des Rois and La Chandeleur. Apart from Christmas, the English staples seem to have fallen by the wayside, except for the Hot Cross Bun. In the UK they can be found all year round now apparently, but here in Dubai they make an appearance the week before Easter then disappear. This is just as it should be in my book!

Why are they called Hot Cross Buns? They used to be served warm from the oven on Good Friday and they have a cross on them.

The origin of Hot Cross Buns is shrouded in a bit of mystery and varying tales, but while they have been given Christian meaning in more recent times they are thought to have a pagan origin or even have roots with the Romans. Their popularity gained in the 1600s as sugar and spices transported from across the world became cheaper and more abundant.  Crosses are now made of pastry but were probably just a mark made with a knife in olden days. Their consumption was regulated by Queen Elizabeth I who decreed that they could only be eaten on Good Friday and at burials or for Christmas. If you were caught baking them on any other day you had to donate the lot to the poor.

lots of hot cross buns a cup of tea and a teapot

Marks and Spencer hot cross buns

There are various superstitions attributed to these spiced baked spheres too. From warding off evil spirit to keeping bread fresh and free from mould throughout the year if hung from the rafters of your kitchen. This was taken to extremes in some cases and there some Hot Cross Buns exist which are over 100 years old and have been passed down through generations.

So what makes a good Hot Cross Bun?

These are eaten on Good Friday as they mark the end of Lent where eggs, butter and sugar, have been given up as fast for forty days (or at least used to be). All of these things are packed into these spiced, fruited buns.  A traditional Hot Cross bun should be topped with a slightly sticky glaze to make them glorious shiny and a cross. Some people pipe the cross, others roll out a little pastry to make a slightly thicker, neater one. It should be plain though, just flour and water (we will tackle the thorny problem of novelty shortly). The texture of the bun should be light, reasonably fluffy and rich from the egg and milk but plain enough not to be sickly when combined with fruit. Any added sweetness to the dough must be barely noticeable.  Plump raisins and soft, tangy candied peel must be dotted through the bun evenly.

How to eat a Hot Cross Bun

When fresh from the oven, within a couple of hours, the buns should be soft enough to prise apart, spread with butter and eat plain. Any older than they are best toasted before anointing with your best butter – whether salted or unsalted is up to you but I favour the former. Traditionally additions like jam or marmalade should not be necessary, and I think the bun is sweet enough not to need it. Naturally, you should always accompany one with a cup of tea.

hot cross buns and a cup of tea plus cookbook

Baker and Spice hot cross buns

Three methods of making a Hot Cross Bun

Why do Hot Cross Buns differ in texture and taste? There are several bread making techniques (and these are a risen bready bun).

Slow-rise

This involves taking a starter made of dried yeast or natural yeasts from the atmosphere combined flour and water that froths into a ‘sponge’. The dough itself is left overnight in a cool place to slowly rise and let the gluten develop. It typically uses much less yeast in proportion to flour.

Yeasted

I have called this yeasted for want of a better term. These are the type of bun you are most likely to make in your home kitchen. You add yeast to the other ingredients, knead and leave to prove at room temperature for an hour or two, then you knead again, shape and leave for a second prove before baking.

Quick rise, Chorleywood process or activated dough development’ (ADD)

In the 1960s, a method was invented in the UK which enabled large units to manufacture cheap, fluffy bread, with little or no proving, using additives and enzymes. This how the buns, sold in packs, in the supermarkets are made. ‘The Shocking Truth about bread’ is an article with a good explanation.

Hot Cross Bun variations

No surprise here. I’m a traditionalist and like a classic bun made by hand with care and to the specifications described earlier on what makes a good one. Invention is not necessarily a bad thing if it improves on the original. This year I’ve seen replacements for the dried fruit, flavoured glazes, savoury buns with bacon crosses, additions of Marmite and seeds, and even some made in the shape of Miffy the rabbit.  My friend Miss Foodwise adds a little grated carrot to the dough for a lighter crumb. The recipe I use is further down the page.

hot cross buns with letters spelling out hot cross buns

Lafayette Gourmet hot cross buns

The best Hot Cross bun in Dubai

This taste test all started when Marks and Spencer sent me a parcel of buns out of the blue. I decided to get my hands on as many as possible to see which I like best. Baker & Spice and Jones the Grocer sent some and Russell Impiazzi from Lafayette Gourmet delivered his personally on Good Friday. I bought some from Spinneys and Lime Tree Cafe.

Quick rise

Marks & Spencer

I was given five varieties of bun and was very intrigued by the flavours.  The Luxury traditional were my favourite, not too sweet with a good proportion of sultanas, currants, orange and lemon peel. The cranberry and orange also worked well as the cranberries added a tangy sharpness. Surprisingly the dark chocolate and salted caramel fudge was not bad in flavour – a sort of riff on pain au chocolate. The blueberry buns were far too sweet with a strange cooked taste to the fruit, and the Bramley apple were like bottled apple sauce in a bun – just wrong. The texture of all was soft, light and a bit pappy as the production method dictates. They were much better toasted but not that satisfying. The glaze had soaked into the bun so none were shiny.

Spinneys

These are the Fine Fare brand made by Spinneys in the UAE. They had kept their shape and were reasonably shiny with the glaze. The texture was similar to the M&S ones, they had a nice smattering of plump fruit and a subtle spice. For my tastes, the dough was far too sweet and I struggled to finish one, even tempered with butter. They were the most economical of all tasted.

Yeasted

Lafayette Gourmet

Chef Russell Impiazzi delivered these himself having just finished a children’s Easter cookery class which he’d baked these for. He apologised that there was no peel and chocolate chips instead of fruit due to the demands of his children. The appearance was the best of all the buns I tested; regular in shape, neat crosses and a wonderful, glistening glaze on top. I took a quick picture and wolfed one down immediately. They were nicely spiced, the dough unsweetened (I think) giving a nice foil to the dark chocolate.

Lime Tree Cafe

These buns were part of the array of decorated Easter goods spread over tables in Lime Tree. They looked the part but were the most expensive of all the buns I tested as even take away comes with butter and jam (I declined but the price did not adjust). The texture was fluffy, open and soft enough to pull apart, but the spicing level way too intense – the dough itself looked light brown due to the amount used – the cinnamon and clove left a bitter aftertaste.

Jones the Grocer

Gleaming with a very sticky almost jammy glaze, these were a generous size with a very homemade looking cross (not a bad thing!). The texture was good – needed slightly more time to prove I think as the crumb was not as open as the LG ones. The spice was very subtle, more of a warm after taste. Sultanas and soft pink peel dotted through for tanginess rather than sweetness. On the edges some of the crosses had gone hard and chewy – but overall a good bun.

Slow rise

Baker & Spice

This was a much denser bun, fresh from the oven really excellent with just butter, and by the end of the day better toasted. The spice was spot on and the sweetness provided by the glaze not the dough. There was a really good sharp tang and soft citrus bits from chunky homemade orange jam that’s used instead of peel. I had another taste of these with the Dubai Eye team on radio where we sampled a chocolate version too. The traditional Hot Cross Bun met with enthusiastic approval but the chocolate bread studded with chocolate was thought not to be chocolatey enough. I think these would be nice with a sweetened cream, cinnamon butter or dunked in hot chocolate – all not really HCB territory.

hot cross buns on a cake stand

Home made hot cross buns

Make your own Hot Cross Buns

As the name says, these are really best with the warmth of the oven still a memory. They are not difficult to bake and very satisfying when you pull them apart.

Traditional Hot Cross Buns

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A seasonal bun enjoyed just before Easter, which is best homemade

Ingredients

Ingredients

  • 250g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 250g plain white flour
  • 125ml warm water
  • 125ml warm milk
  • 5g fast-action dried yeast
  • 10g salt
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 medium free-range egg
  • 50g butter
  • 100g sultanas and currants (or a mixture of dried fruit)
  • 1 dried apricot, cut into small pieces or 1 tsp homemade mixed peel
  • finely grated zest of half an orange
  • 1 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • pinch allspice

For the crosses:

  • 50g strong plain white flour
  • 1tbsp sunflower oil
  • 2-3tbsp water (or enough to make the dough into piping consistency)

To finish:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 50ml orange juice

Directions

  1. You can do this by hand but the dough is sticky so I recommend using a food processor or free-standing mixer with a dough hook.  Warm the water, milk and butter together very gently until the butter melts and when it has cooled to blood temperature (i.e. feels barely warm when you stick your finger in it) mix in the yeast and leave for 5 minutes.  Combine the flours, milk and yeast mixture, salt and sugar in the bowl of your mixer and fit with the dough hook. Add the egg and mix to a sticky dough. Now add the dried fruit, orange zest and spice and knead on a low-speed until silky and smooth.
  2. Cover the dough in the bowl with a tea cloth or cling film and leave to rise for about an hour, or until doubled in size.
  3. Knock back the dough and divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape into rounds and dust with flour. Place on a floured board and leave to prove, covered with a linen tea towel (or in a large plastic bag) for about 30 minutes until doubled in size. Transfer carefully to a floured baking tray.
  4. Preheat the oven to 200°C and make the paste for the crosses by beating the water and oil into the flour until smooth . Transfer the paste into a piping bag with a small nozzle.  Beat the egg and milk together.
  5. Make a cross with a sharp knife across the top of the buns.  Brush with the egg wash (the beaten egg and milk) and then pipe crosses onto the indentation. Bake for 15–20 minutes.
  6. Transfer to a wire rack.  Dissolve the sugar in the orange juice (or water) in a small saucepan and bring to the boil.  Brush the glaze over the buns.  Cool to room temperature before pulling apart and eating plain or halved with butter.

hot cross buns on a bread board

Are you a traditionalist like me or do you fall on these different twists and flavours with gusto? Have you even eaten a Hot Cross Bun? Are there any different seasonal treats you like to make or eat? Let me know in the comments below.

Disclosure: As mentioned above, some of the bakers were kind enough to supply me with samples for testing. I know Chef Aaliya of B&S and Chef Russell of LG well – however this did not influence my appraisal and these are my honest opinions.

Two days in Riga – exploring the Latvian capital

March 27, 2018
Riga cathedral at twilight

Riga cathedral at twilight

Our wind-buffered taxi scuttles over the bridge across the gleaming Daugava river that divides Riga in two; the city stretches out enticingly along its bank. We press our noses to the rain-spattered windows catching glimpses of elegant buildings through the branches of trees which are still just clinging onto the last of their leaves.  Alighting in the heart of the city, I run across the square to take a picture of a golden, stone building, topped with a curlicue, then dash inside to be welcomed with a glass of Prosecco, slightly dazzled by brilliant chandelier. As one of the first guests of the Kempinski, there is a whiff of new plaster under the signature scent and we crane our necks to admire the historic reliefs of the old town high up near the ceiling, preserved after four years of renovation.

I long to sink into the huge bed with crisp white pillows but our tour bus is waiting, and as we huddle under smart hotel umbrellas, our delightful guide Gita gives us a rapid introduction to Riga and the Latvian people. There’s a general perception that Latvia is still part of Russian (it was behind the Iron Curtain but now a member of the EU for well over a decade), but although just a little pocket handkerchief of a country (of only 2 million inhabitants) it has its own distinct language, heritage and more in common with the Finns at a stretch.

Scurrying along cobbled streets juggling umbrella, gloves and hat…. plus my jaw on the pavement, I try to capture the organic lines carved into buildings, weathered wood and lowering skies while the muscular wind stretches my face and freezes my fingers. Despite the weather, this leafy Baltic city with a UNESCO world heritage historic centre, elegant Art Nouveau and centuries-old wooden architecture, has already wrapped me in its charm.

View over the city of Riga to the river

The view from St Peter’s church spire

 

Nativity of Christ Cathedral against a deep blue sky

Orthodox Cathedral

What to see and do in Riga

I leave my room to go down for breakfast but change my mind after taking a peak behind a curtain at the end of the corridor. Golden sunlight is catching the top of the curlicues and flooding the architectural details with light and shadow. In my excitement to get out on the streets I drop my glasses twice and almost leave my scarf behind. It’s needed as I emerge into the frosty morning, where rather cross looking women are sweeping leaves in the park. The small river through the park dances with fallen foliage drifting in the rays peeping round the corner of the Opera House.

Riga is a walker’s city, the old town a mass of intriguing alleyways that open out into squares lined with a jumble of historic architecture. Equipped with fake fur hat, warm coat and sturdy boots – blending seamlessly in with the locals – the short stroll beneath the underpass to Riga Central market is a doddle. The cobbles give way to parks in great swathes of the city and getting to the main art gallery and Art Nouveau area is around 25 minutes from our hotel, mainly via tree-lined paths (Bastion Hill or Bastejkalns and Kronvalda), taking in the gleaming gold domes of The Nativity of Christ Cathedral, the largest Russian orthodox church in the Baltics, en route.

Domed buildings of the central market in Riga

Domed pavilions of the central market in Riga (old zeppelin hangars)

Riga Central market

The domes of these former Zeppelin hangers can be glimpsed from any elevated position and this UNESCO world heritage site lures me, and my travelling companion T, there twice in as many days due to the edible treasures inside. Each hanger is dedicated to a theme and, after admiring piles of jewel-like cranberries on the stalls outside we dive into the meat area. Vegetarians or the slightly squeamish beware, the volume and variety of flesh is quite astounding. The cuts are arranged neatly in refrigerated cabinets on each sparklingly clean stall or in larger hunks from hooks. That Latvians are very keen on pork is evident, with nose to tail eating demonstrated by the produce available from conventional cuts to pig’s noses, livers and windpipes. The reaction to our cameras is very mixed with one man miming what he’ll do to us with a knife when we train our lenses on  a pile of chops. It’s disconcerting but made up for by the friendliness of some other stall holders.

The dairy section is predominantly chiller cabinets of plastic wrapped cheeses but with a bit of searching we discover a more artisanal stall. We’re after the famous Latvian fresh cheese with caraway which used to be made specially for Jāņi, the summer solstice celebrations, but is now available all year round. There’s little hard cheese, but an abundance of pillowy yellow curd cheese, kefir and sour cream.

We inhale lungfuls of dill when walking into the pickle hanger while our eyes adjust to jar upon jar of colours and shapes suspended in brine or vinegar. The most prevalent are green knobbly cucumbers in all sizes, garlic – slightly pink and ghostly, substantial funghi and piles of sauerkraut, but the ingenious Latvian will pickle anything it seems.

We leave the fish hanger until last, with slight trepidation about what it might smell like, but this is foundless and instead we marvel at acres of roe, herring and a lot of river fish as well as those from the nearby sea including alarmingly spiky black sturgeon.

In the outside corridors the fruit and veg stalls are a joy to behold with rich pickings for people who love admiring very, fresh produce (both hands up here).   Most of the goods are local or from the immediate region and cranberries, pomegranates and persimmons are all in abundance. There is so much that tempts me especially the foraged mushrooms and some interesting red berries that we later discover are hawthorn (or buckthorn). I have no room in my bag due to the 1 1/2 kilo loaf of rye bread I’m lugging with me, bought from a friendly stall holder in an apron who is immediately christened ‘bread man’.

There are warnings on the official website for the market to ‘beware of cut-purses’ and there have been darker days in the history of the place (including rats, which are very much long gone). The attitude to us as tourists is fairly disinterested. Many people are jovial, welcoming and offer us tastes of their produce. Others are astonishingly rude – which adds spice to our market going adventure.

Domed market with man in a red coat walking in front of it

Central market

Spikeri Art District, Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum, and Stalin’s birthday cake

We wander on from the market, lured by some attractive brick buildings. The old warehouses in the Spikeri district have been restored with the help of a generous EU grant to foster the artistic community. Unfortunately artisanal businesses are thin on the ground, we spot a cafe and a theatre (closed in the morning) among the other rather random commercial concerns (hairdresser furniture supplies).

The Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust museum is sited at the far end. Free to enter (donations encouraged) it documents the part that Riga played in the journey to the concentration camps while the city was under occupation by Nazi Germany. Synagogues were burned, and Jews from Latvia were forced by the occupiers into the ghetto, to be joined by transported Jews from other lands.

The focus in the courtyard is a single black railway truck, some photographs of the inhabitants and a vast wall of names (plus indoor exhibits such as a reconstructed flat from that period of history). We leave, sombre, at the enormity of man’s cruelty to man.

Wooden building with peeling paint

A passer by was astonished that we found this beautiful enough to photograph

A short walk round the corner, past some aesthetically distressed old wooden buildings with carved shutters, is the Latvian Academy of Sciences. Built in the 1950’s under the infamous former dictator, adorned with hammers and sickles and intended to empower the farming community he claimed to champion, it is nicknamed Stalin’s birthday cake. You can take a lift to the top to an observation deck for an alternative panoramic view – but unfortunately we have run out of Euros and they don’t take cards.

Street scene at night looking tow

A view across the river to ‘The Castle of Light’ the national library

Large building with lights reflected in windows

Latvijas Radio – the national radio station of Latvia in Riga

St Peters Church

The spire of St Peters church is a constant as our navigation point when winding through the streets of old Riga. Ducking inside and dwarfed by the towering atrium, we pass one of the six roosters that have been used as weather vanes over the centuries since the first construction in the 1500s. All have been blown down by high winds (there’s a clue here).  Steps give way to a creaky old lift as the way to the top. The lift lady sits in her cosy cubby hole reading her book as we huddle around for our ascent. The cold wind, as we are disgorged onto the cage platform, is as breathtaking as the view over the river, sea and beyond. One of the meanings attributed to the name Riga is ‘river with curves and bends’. For most of its history Riga was on only one side of the river with the other bank used for summer homes and agriculture.  The more modern side of the city is established there now and the focal point is the central library, a really beautiful triangular-shaped contemporary building, the Castle of Light,  designed by Gunnar Birkerts.  The former press centre, a derelict, asbestos-riddled concrete tower block is a blot on the landscape towards the sea and port; due to be torn down, some rare seagull nests prevent its demolition.

The Latvian National Museum of Art

The Latvian National Museum of Art

Latvian National Museum of Art

This neo-classical building is elegant and imposing on the edge of the park and well worth a visit for the light filled atrium alone. There’s a group of school children, with their kindly looking teacher, filling in sheets of paper with enthusiasm as they explore the airy rooms, their feet soft on the floorboards. I take the lift to the top and make my way down.

The national collection was plundered and standardised during Soviet times, but the Latvians have reclaimed their own artistic integrity. Rather brilliantly curated, it tells the story of art under conflict and oppression, including some impressive post-Modernism, artists reinterpreting the brutal Soviet style after independence and experimental installations. My paths keep crossing with an old gentleman holding onto the hand of a very small girl dressed in red who I take to be his granddaughter.

The classical lines of the building are complimented by imaginative renovations – transparent floors, a bronze staircase and a polished concrete basement which treats the art storage area as an artwork in itself. I look up through the glass roof to see Grandfather and child peering down.

Curved Regency style windows and a balcony inside the second floor of the art gallery

Upstairs in the beautiful entrance hall of the gallery

Art Nouveau area

As our first introduction was rather tornado-like, in all senses, we set off once more for the Art Nouveau district around Elizabetes iela (street) for a more leisurely look at structures adorned with romanticised women, mythical creatures and carvings inspired by natural forms. The concentration of more than 800 buildings in this style is due to an economic boom which coincided with the popularity of this school of design. There’s a coherent look which adds the beauty as about half of the buildings were designed by Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. The Riga Art Nouveau Museum is housed in an imposing corner property, encrusted with reliefs, topped with a terracotta tower and designed by Konstantīns Pēkšēns, a Latvian architect who was also a driving force (and lived there for a time).

The elegance and ingenuity of the designs lead to a crick in the neck and full camera. It transpires that late Autumn is the best time to visit as the full splendour of the facades are revealed through tree branches bare of their leaves. I challenge even the most staunch defender of modern architecture not to be a little nostalgic wandering these streets.  If you only have time for one then Alberta iela is the most rewarding in a labyrinth of treasures.

blue and white art nouveau building in riga

On Elizabetes street. Designed by Eisenstein and then finished by Konstantīns Pēkšens

blue and white art nouveau building in riga latvia

building designed by Mikhail Eisenstein

Freedom monument

Although statues and sculptures abound in this small city (640,000 inhabitants), the one we pass most often is The Freedom monument at its heart. The sheer scale of this slender structure draws the eye (at 42 metres high), plus the way it catches the light and changes mood, but also for its poignancy. It depicts many aspects of Latvian history and is topped with a copper figure of Liberty, her arms stretched above her head holding three gilded stars. Unveiled in 1935 as a memorial to the soldiers killed during the Latvian war of Independence, the symbolism was re-appropriated under Soviet rule and somehow escaped planned demolition.   Reverence, such as the laying of flowers, was strictly forbidden during this time but it was a gathering point for national rallies which eventually led to national independence in 1990. Flowers are once more laid in the square.

We were unable to see Riga’s striking ‘House of the Black Heads‘ due to extensive renovations where scaffolding shrouded the exterior. Its history dates from 1344, it was completely demolished by the Soviets in the 1940s, and a replica built in the 1990s. Visitors have been admitted recently.

Eating and drinking in Riga

When we ask our guide about Latvian food she is a bit vague. Traditional carb and meat-heavy peasant food still gets the locals through the cold of the winter. Many of their dishes are common to the Baltics and a distinct food culture is hard to pin down. Added to this is the impressive way Latvians have embraced the new, and finding really excellent restaurants that would be at home in any European capital is a breeze.

Vegetarians might struggle in the traditional restaurants as the Latvians love their meat including bison, venison and, particularly, pork – served in satisfying stews and fashioned into meatballs. Don’t be put off by the name ‘grey peas‘. We pass up the opportunity to try this dish of slowly cooked pulses with bacon and herbs until our last night and enjoy every savoury, salty, comforting forkful.

Local beers are taken very seriously, and the colours of blond and dark ales gleam like jewels in a glass, brewed without commercial preservatives in nearby micro-breweries. Choose the ones on draft as natural brewing methods mean they won’t survive in a bottle for long.

Balsam (or Balzam) is a local, herbal spirit which has been endowed with miraculous restorative properties ever since Empress Catherine the Great of Russia was cured from illness after drinking it on a trip to Latvia. We step into a small shop dedicated to the stuff, but the recipe, which involves steeping scores of herbs, plants and natural ingredients in vodka housed in oak barrels, is a closely guarded secret. The popularity might be down to the warming effect produced after sipping it (I couldn’t take more than a small mouthful). Riga Black Balsam cherry is a new variety.

Deliciously dense rye bread with the flavour of caraway seeds is served at every meal we went to. It’s so delicious that my suitcase home contains a brick of a loaf from ‘bread man’ in the central market. At our hotel, Sklandrausis is offered at breakfast; a rye pastry tart filled with cooked carrot, honey and sour cream, it was given ‘Traditional Speciality Guaranteed’ status by the European Union.

As mentioned above, Kimenu siers, a soft cheese with caraway seeds is traditional at summer solstice and dairy produce a big part of the diet due to the abundant lush countryside.  Keffir-making (kvass or fermented milk) is very much part of the culture. The Latvians are pickling mad and I brought back some fiery horseradish from a frankly mind-boggling range. Herring was part of our breakfast buffet every day. Fresh and cured fish from its coastline on the Baltic is a common staple as is fresh water fish from the 1200 rivers and 6000 lakes in Latvia. Local honey is prized, as are strawberries in season.

Village tea is a collection of herbs which varies according to the location. Often with chamomile or raspberry leaves, it’s calming and refreshing. I’m rationing the single packet I brought back wishing I had more.

Where to eat in Riga

Rocket Bean Coffee House – Seriously good coffee and a laid back (dare I say hipster) vibe with local, organic roots (there was veg for sale by the counter). Our lunch would not have been out of place in a much smarter place but served casually in a relaxed environment. Between us we had carrot, ginger and coconut soup with toasted black rice and mushroom purée with IBP beef ribs celery and carrot (there was parsnip too). This was my introduction to Latvian village tea – mix of herbs from rural villages – some of the most complex and refreshing herbal tea I’ve tasted, which I loved.

Amber Way Wild Game and Fish restaurant -Taverna pie Sena Dzintara Cela – this is a quirky little place down in a basement where a fish theme is taken to extremes. The waiting staff are dressed as sailors, there is a live goldfish in a bowl on each table and the bill is presented in the jaws of large fish head skeleton. It all sounds a bit Disney but it’s haphazard and rustic enough to feel comfortable not cartoon-like. The service was excellent, the food down to earth and tasty.

Black Magic – Chilly temperatures and a facade that looked straight out of Harry Potter led us into this wood panelled cafe for a drink prior to lunch. The hot chocolate is legendary so that’s what we ordered. Hot milk in a glass accompanied by real chocolate on a stick for stirring into it. Worth a visit for the interiors alone (and to buy Balsam).

Muusu – Proof that Riga has a sophisticated and contemporary dining scene.  Diffused light glowed from the conservatory style windows into the modern, chic interior. I could have stuck a pin in the menu as everything was appealing but eventually ordered salad, duck breast, and a perfect pear tart for a long, relaxing lunch. The service was excellent; good wine served by the glass too.  I’d return to eat at this light, airy restaurant at the drop of a hat.

Folkkluba ala pagrabs – Our last evening before heading home so we wandered along a few streets to one of the places famed for Latvian ale. Descending to the basement, the scene greeting us was a bit overwhelming with every table full and a crowd around the bar. “Just find a space” said the waiter, so spotting a bench at a table opposite a couple, all three of us sat side by side across from strangers. We all fancied the meatballs and at the last minute I ordered the traditional but unappealingly named “grey peas”. A type of pulse cooked with bacon, they were the star of the show. Reluctantly we tore ourselves away from the convivial atmosphere to go to the airport.

Bergs – We probably didn’t do the many courses of fine dining justice on our first night in Riga as we were all rather tired by then due to the time difference. If you like a more formal setting and beautifully plated food with fine wines this is for you. Impeccable service and a chef enthusiastically dedicated to his art. For my tastes, some of the flavour combinations were a little experimental. The restaurant is inside a boutique hotel based in an historic building which was home to Bergs Bazaar.

Staying in Riga

We stayed at The Kempinski which is ideally placed for forays around the old town. It’s the only 5 star hotel right in the centre and is adjacent to the splendid opera house. There’s an old world glamour, despite many reincarnations and its recent facelift.  Think marble bathrooms, white fluffy bath robes, old-fashioned writing desks (with discreet power points), the most attentive, friendly staff and you get the picture. After a day pounding the cobbled streets we punch the brass fittings in the lift and descend to the basement to be restored by the spa.  I alternate between a sauna (there are three), rain forest shower (I choose summer mist but the four seasons version is dramatic, complete with thunder and lightning) and the pool. There are heated beds, hammam and steam room, and a cascade of ice to dip your hands into for brisk refreshment.

Front of hotel with green car outside

Kempinski Riga Latvia

Double bed with brown cushions and music notes on walls

My bedroom – Kempinski Riga Latvia

Hotel lobby with chandeliers

The Kempinski Riga Latvia

Travelling to Riga

When I was invited to a ribbon cutting ceremony for the inaugural Air Baltic flight to Riga from Abu Dhabi my head was filled with the vision of a gleaming new plane wrapped in a huge ribbon. It would be severed by gigantic scissors with smiling air crew in serried rows (a bit of La la Land choreography creeps in here), so we could sashay into the cabin.

The reality was a ceremony inside the airport where the H.E. Astra Kurme, Latvian Ambassador to the UAE, and the UAE Ambassador to the Republic of Latvia, H.E. Hanan al Aleeli cut a somewhat smaller symbolic ribbon. It was no less exciting, and an honour, to be boarding the first direct Air Baltic flight to Riga and we were soon settled into our seats and airborne for the 6 hour 15 minute flight.

Air Baltic is a low-cost airline and even business class doesn’t have screens or sockets for charging phones etc. The staff are charming and the flight time just at the limit of what I’d consider for a short break. We stay for two nights and given the contrast with the still steamy temperatures in the UAE, it’s really restorative.

Useful links: Enjoy Latvia, Live Riga (ask for excellent guide Gita Vigule), Kempinski Riga, Air Baltic, Bergs restaurant, Black Magic, Rocket Bean Coffee House, Amber Way Wild Game and Fish restaurant, Muusu, Folkkluba ala pagrabs, Latvian National Museum of Art, Latvian National Costumes, guide to Latvian beer.

Reasons to visit Riga

In a nutshell Riga is a delightful city with lots of history and tradition, beautiful green spaces, clean streets and a wealth of excellent restaurants from hearty traditional to contemporary. It has embraced its place in Europe and, once the initial influx of stag party tourists moved on, transitioned to a welcoming place for visitors who like culture and comfort.  It’s worth going for the Art Nouveau architecture alone. Visiting at the beginning of winter was a refreshing change from the temperatures of the UAE – it was fun to wrap up warm and see the buildings bathed in gentle, golden sunlight. The turbulent past seems to weigh less heavily than some other former Soviet Union states (like Bucharest) and, apart from the odd very grumpy market traders, the Latvians we met were very genial.  It’s a walker’s city, compact enough to explore most places on foot and stroll pleasantly through the many parks. In addition, there are many beautiful places in the countryside that you can drive to on a longer visit.  I’d love to return when the weather is balmy and taste their famous summer strawberries.

Blue and red houses in Riga, Latvia

I travelled to Riga at the end of October 2017 as a guest of Air Baltic in partnership with Riga and the Kempinski.

My eight year blog anniversary, popular posts and what’s next

February 3, 2018

a jug of custard

My blog posts are like buses these days; you wait for ever and then two come at once.  And the thing I hear ALL the time about the key to a successful blog is consistency. To keep turning up.

So I’m going to forgive myself for being a bit haphazard in my posting schedule and pat myself on the back for creating and publishing in this little space for eight whole years today. Eight years I kept turning up (if sometimes a bit erratically).

And to say thank you to you. For turning up too.

How it started

Eight years ago I was at a crossroads, between jobs, reassessing my career, and training for a charity challenge, blogging about it, loving it. On a whim, inspired by other food blogs I was reading, I hurriedly set up another wordpress.com blog and My Custard Pie winged its way into the blogosphere.

Rewind even further, my first venture online was to create a ‘family website’ on the, now defunct, Yahoo Geocities (circa 2003?). There were some the girls’ paintings (I was a proud Mum), some travel stories and a few recipes. I had to learn html in those days and resizing images was a real faff. I posted a gif of a cracking egg thinking I was so cool. When I shared the link with friends and family, one person’s response was “Sally, you need to get a life”!

Little did I know that this would become such a key part of my life and the journey I’ve followed due to my adventures online was something I could never have imagined.

And back then, I entered the world of blogging to share my passions to a few people somewhere out there in the ether. No Facebook pages, no Instagram, no Pinterest, no monetisation, no sponsorship, no distractions! The new bloggers of today have the promise of so much potential it must feel daunting at the same time, it’s a privilege to have started in such simple times.

Surprising things about truffles with Georgio Locatelli. Read more on mycustardpie.com

With Georgio – always a great chat about food provenance

How this blog has changed my life

Community: You! I’ve met some incredible people all over the world both online and off – and the friends I’ve made in Dubai have changed how I view and live in this city irrevocably.

The food and drink I’ve tasted: from a vile worm that lives in bark in the Philippines, sheep’s brains, the finest caviar, a £300 cocktail, raviolo filled with a soft egg yolk, incredible sushi, phenomenal feasts (Georgian supras being the pinnacle) and so much more. My taste buds have been blown and my food knowledge expanded (to the same degree as my waistline).

Exploring the world: I’ve been called an enthusiastic traveller on more than one occasion and this blog has enabled me to be just that.  It started my love affair with Georgia too…

Meeting the famous: while this isn’t something I ever wished for or sought out, I seem to have met (and sometimes cooked with) a rather long list of well-known chefs including Nobu, Jason Atherton, Tom Aikens, Gary Rhodes, Ed Bains, Madhur Jaffrey, Athul Kochar and Thomas Keller to name a few. Diana Henry, the acclaimed food writer and Georgio Locatelli are the ones I value most for their integrity, charm and skill as well as their wonderful food, of course.

Learning from the best: I’ve honed the craft of writing and photography (and I’m still on that journey) with workshops from people at the pinnacle of their game including Dianne Jacob, Ellen Silverman and Matt Armendariz to name just a few.

My career: while I don’t earn an income from this blog or my social media channels, it’s acted as my shop window. It demonstrates that I understand the strategy and implementation of digital in a way that my  marketing communications CV couldn’t achieve alone, giving my clients confidence that I can advise and create content for their platforms. It’s also opened the door to writing for other sites and publications. Keeping updated on the ever-changing online world benefits my blog, my clients and my own personal development.

Boat ride on Lac Leman

The next step for My Custard Pie

So what next? Blogging and all the things that go with it takes a huge commitment in terms of time and energy, especially that hungry monster Instagram. Over the last year, I feel that I’ve not spent enough time here, connecting with you my precious audience.  I’d like to shake things up and share the gazillions of ideas, recipes, stories, images, experiences and learnings that are in my head (and unpublished in my drafts) especially on topics you have particularly requested or responded to.

What would you like?

I’d love to know where to put my energies in the coming year and appreciate your feedback. Would you spare 3 minutes of your time to fill in a survey?

Fill in the mycustardpie blog survey here.

The comments section is also a great place to have a conversation with too if you’d like to raise something.

Mocha stout muffins on mycustardpie.com

A regular serving of custard

I still subscribe to a whole range of newsletters and email updates even though my inbox is a bit (OK a lot) overwhelmed. There’s some wonderful information, writing, tips, stories and inspiration out there and an email makes sure I don’t miss it. I’d love to do the same for you with a regular update in your inbox.

Based on my ideas and your feedback they’ll be some things I only send to my email list that are a bit special which I think you’ll enjoy.

Subscribe here (and unsubscribe at any point).  Sign up for a slice of my custard pie.

Note: you will continue to receive every blog post in your inbox if you already do so via WordPress.

Most popular posts

These are consistently the top most visited posts. If I followed a lot of blog advice, I’d niche down and become a ‘guide to Dubai’ blog. However, there’s no chance of that with so many other interesting things in the world!

Where to take visitors to eat in Dubai – on a budget

Buying booze in the UAE

Visiting the Sulphur Baths in Tbilisi

Visiting Dubai? Top tips on what to do before you travel

Food Photography

My most popular recipe is:

Tomato, lentil and spinach lasagne

Thank you

And that’s it really. A diving board back into these uncharted waters that change constantly. A journey of life and the internet; I’m so glad to have you with me.

Here’s to 2018 and beyond.